Thursday, 29 March 2012

Starting out in commentary - my story

I am often asked how I got into commentary in the first place, and it is a tale I have told, in varying degrees of detail, on many occasions. As I explained a while ago, (here) I first went to a motor race when I was ten years old, with my parents. As I grew up and became more independent, I began to take myself along: at first on public transport, which was a nightmare, with Sunday bus and train schedules and the remoteness of most circuits making visits to anywhere except Crystal Palace a near-impossibility. I did make it to Brands Hatch a couple of times, but once I was old enough and more importantly, able to drive, then having my own car opened up a world of possibilities.

Through the late seventies then, I drove all over the country to watch Formula 3, Formula 2, Touring Cars, Sports cars, and of course, Formula 1 - I would attend not only the British Grand Prix, but also any other F1 race that might take place within these shores. By the time the British Grand Prix came around in 1980, I had been to Silverstone, Mallory Park, Thruxton, Oulton Park and Donington; as well as Monaco, Monza and the Österreichring.

As far as possible, I would always position myself as close to a loudspeaker as I could - and I would always keep a lap chart, in order to keep on top of what was going on. I nearly always attended race meetings on my own - so the commentator came to be my friend. One of the first things that I would do on buying the programme would be to look to find out who the commentator was. So if I did not know the faces of Brian Jones, Norman Greenway, Neville Hay or Peter Scott-Russell, I certainly knew their voices. The presence of Anthony Marsh meant that it was a major meeting, and if Jean-Charles Laurens was there, to inform the “French-speaking spectators”, then of course that added a very exotic, foreign flavour and you knew you were at a truly International Event.

So it came that at the British Grand Prix (at Brands Hatch) in 1980, I became increasingly irritated with Brian Jones as he failed to provide the information that I wanted. So irritated did I become, that I decided to put pen to paper and write to him. (On a whim, I also sent a copy to Motoring News, which published it in the week following the Grand Prix.)

All credit to Brian, then, as he replied within a week or so to my letter - defending himself in some areas, and admitting fault in others - and trying to explain the complexity and pressure of his job. He also invited me to see him, in the commentary box, at some point when next I would be at Brands.

As things turned out, I didn’t go back to Brands for the rest of 1980, but in May 1981, I phoned up in order to try and organise a corporate event at the Motor Racing Stables skid pan. In those days, Brian’s day job was taken up running Motor Racing Stables, and I of course instantly recognised his voice as we talked about how and when we might be able to organise something. We agreed that he would send me some information, and he asked for my name and address.

“Paul Truswell,” I said.

“Paul…, wait a minute,” Brian replied and in my mind’s eye I could see his pen pause in mid-air. “Weren’t you the chap who wrote me that snotty letter after the Grand Prix last year?”

“Yes, that was me,” I replied.

“And I sent you a reply, didn’t I?” Brian went on.

“You did,” I said.

“I invited you to come and see me in the commentary box, didn’t I?” Brian said.

“Yes, I know,” I said, “but there just hasn’t been the opportunity since.”

“Well, what are you doing this weekend?” asked Brian.

“Coming to Brands Hatch?” I suggested. Before the deal was fully done, I had to undertake to make myself useful, doing lap charts, helping sort out paperwork and so on, and as a result, Brian organised that passes be sent to me, and graciously allowed me to spend the whole day in the commentary box with him. We got on extremely well - having spent the better part of ten years listening to him commentate, I knew instinctively what he was about to say, and tried to provide him with the appropriate piece of paper at the appropriate time, in order that he might not be left with an unfinished sentence. For more than a year, I helped out with lap charts and so on, without having any ambition to pick up the microphone myself.

However, the layout of the box at Brands Hatch meant that the commentator had to descend a ladder, walk through the timekeepers’ box, and then go down a further two flights of stairs, to interview the winners after each race. Brian thought it would be a good idea if I could “fill in” for him, while he was out of the box, by reading out the result of the previous race, or reading out the grid positions for the next race. As the absence of any such information being read out over the PA had been one of the reasons for my letter the previous year, I was happy to do so, on the understanding that by the time the next race started, Brian would have got his breath back and be ready to talk again.

Brian had other ideas though, and encouraged me to keep the headset on and commentate on a race on my own. Gradually I began to do more: either he and I would share a meeting between us, commentating on alternate races; or I would go out to Westfield Bend and commentate from there when the Grand Prix circuit was in use. But at the bigger meetings, when a more experienced commentator went out to Westfield, then I would return to lap-charting duties. As my circle of contacts increased, so I found myself more work, and started doing lap charts at Silverstone, for Ian Titchmarsh.

I must admit, I was inspired to a certain degree by Jeremy Shaw, who proved to me that it was possible to do a “block” lap chart at a long-distance race, provided there was someone else helping by doing a “running” chart. In the days before electronic timing, and computer screens providing the positions in real-time, an up-to-date lap chart was the only chance for the commentator to be able to follow what was going on in the six hour, 1000km races - even into the mid-1980’s.

When Jeremy emigrated to the USA, I was one of very few who was prepared to take on the challenge of a long-distance lap-chart, and I even managed to ‘sell’ a couple of them to Quentin Spurring, to assist him in writing his race report for Autosport.

Ian and Brian are very different types of commentator, with very different ways of working, but I learnt a lot from both of them, and received a huge amount of help and encouragement too. After Keith Douglas retired from commentating, I took over at Stowe Corner for Silverstone Grand Prix circuit meetings. I also worked a lot with Robin Bradford, who at that time was organising a good deal of motor racing commentary in the UK.

When Radio Le Mans started looking for experienced voices to cover the twenty-four hours, it was a logical choice to use Ian Titchmarsh and me as a double-act - by that stage we would cover nearly all the endurance sportscar races in the UK - Ian with volumes of paper and reference books to complement his encyclopaedic knowledge, and me with my stop-watch, exercise book and lap charts.

So thanks, then to all those I have named above - for encouragement, advice and inspiration. It was never an ambition for me to do what I do - rather I just stepped in, listened and did what I felt needed doing. I think it was all worthwhile - and I hope you agree!

Postscript - on the subject of thanks, there are two others who deserve mention: firstly John Hindhaugh, who has continued to invite me to participate in Radio Le Mans broadcasts; and secondly my wife, who has allowed me to continue to indulge in my hobby despite the increased responsibilities brought about by household and family!


  1. It should have been worth it! And with Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta deep in pay-TV territory or just politely ignored over here, it's great to have Radio Le Mans available to be able to follow and understand what's happening at the race.

  2. This is a very familliar tale, I have become very familliar with the voice of Paul and the RLM team over many years visiting the great race. So when finally, a twist of fate and familly ties meant that I had the pleasure of actually meeting with Paul, it was a very strange to actually talk to someone whose voice and even personality I felt I already know so well!

  3. I certainly do agree that is worthwhile. As a recent returnee to attending Motor Racing (2011 was my first Le Mans since 1989) it is most reassuring that there is at least one constant. That is the voice and words of Paul Truswell. Also, after listening to you on the RLM coverage of Sebring, I was interested to hear your comments about safety compared to what is seen in Quinten Spurring's 1950's book. I too am reading through that volume, I think the picture at the top of page 200 sums up the different era's completely.

  4. Thanks for the comments - very kind. I look forward to speaking with you again soon!

  5. it was possible to do a “block” lap chart at a long-distance race, provided there was someone else helping by doing a “running” chart

    Paul, can you explain the differance between 'block' and 'running', please.