A cancer battle has failed to dent racing broadcaster Derek Thompson’s zest for life and work
The man at Waverley asks what is taking me all the way to Norfolk. An interview, I tell him. A racing commentator: Derek Thompson. “Oh, Tommo,” he says, breaking into a smile.
Four trains and eight hours later. Different man, same conversation. “Tommo!” And again the smile.
And then once more, this morning, at Great Yarmouth racecourse. “We all love Tommo here,” the woman in the office says. “He’s done so much for racing.”
Random conversations. They might have made negative remarks, or merely bitten their tongues. Instead, they volunteer their affection for the man who is best known for his work with Channel 4, but has also seen service with the BBC and ITV, and has travelled the world as a horse-racing pundit and presenter. And they all call him Tommo, not Derek Thompson.
When I meet Thompson himself, in the press room underneath the grandstand, right next to the bar as if journalists were known to like a drink or something, it’s easy to see where that affection comes from. We have never met before, and communicated only by text to set up this meeting, but he is warm and welcoming, identifying me straight off, and asking how the journey was from Scotland. These flatlands of eastern England are enjoying an Indian summer, but Tommo’s disposition is invariably sunny anyway, and his enthusiasm is instantly infectious.
How did he know which one was me? Process of elimination. He knows everyone else on this racecourse, it soon transpires, from the jockeys and stewards to the people running the snack bars. And they all know him.
Born in Stockton-on Tees, he is now 63 and in his fifth decade in the business, having joined the BBC in 1972 and become the youngest ever commentator on the Grand National a year later (That was the famous race in which Red Rum overhauled Crisp at the death, and Peter Bromley’s commentary on the run-in is seen by Thompson as an unsurpassable example of its art).
He loves what he does, still can’t believe his luck at getting paid to watch and talk about sport, and has no intention of quitting any time soon. Last week he was in Los Angeles, at the weekend he was in Sweden, this is his second of three days at Yarmouth, and on the day this interview is published he will be in Scotland for the Ayr Gold Cup. Then it’s on to Hamilton on Monday, where, as at Ayr, he will be signing copies of his book.
A busy, busy man. In fact, as that newly-published autobiography has it, he is Tommo: Too Busy To Die.
It’s the perfect title, summing up in five words three major themes of the book. In it he talks a lot about Tommo, the character we see on TV, and the difference between that character and Derek, the name he is called only by close family and his lifelong friend Bob Champion. He talks about his enthusiasm for work, for being part of an event and helping create an atmosphere around it, be it one of the great races or just the opening of another bookies. And he talks about his illness.
Last year Thompson was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. A lengthy operation took place, then there was the chemotherapy, and a particularly scary episode when his body almost shut down after rejecting the drugs he had been given. Through it all, he saw his planned return to work as not just something to look forward to, but as an event that would almost drag him into the future, calling him back to health.
“Last year when I was ill, a mate of mine came round – he’d had cancer three years earlier, and recovered - and he said you can work through it,” Thompson tells me. “He was doing a couple of days a week, and I thought well if he can work two, I’ll do the whole lot. Go for it.
“And I had my work to look forward to. When I was in the hospital, with my drips attached, I was filling in the diary for 2013. And it gave me that incentive to do it.”
When he started back, he admits: “I was absolutely wiped out. At some places where I was commentating, I would get to the end of the second race, and I would switch the microphone off and feel absolutely wiped out.
“But I went for my first jog in 15 months last week. I try and jog most mornings, but I haven’t been strong enough. I got to the paper shop and back, and it nearly finished me.
“I’m getting there. But it’s taking time. Whether I did too much I don’t know.”
Tommo is unflinching in its analysis of the man’s character, and discusses many serious and moving episodes of his life. But it also shows off his lively, at times ribald, sense of humour, never more so than when he claims that his major worry before the operation was the prospect of having to wear a colostomy bag. Here’s a flavour, taking up after surgeon has just told patient that he needs to pass wind within six days of the op, or face having a bag for life.
“I told him that would not be a problem,” Thompson writes. “I’ve always been a really good farter so I couldn’t see how producing a single trump over the space of six days was going to be difficult. But could I fart? Fart I could not. Not for ages.
“In fact it was well into the sixth day that I managed one. It was only a little one, but I had done it. Fart number two followed quickly behind. This time a massive one. All the guys in the ward cheered.
“‘I’ve farted, guys!,’ I exclaimed, genuine delight in my voice. Then I rang Julie and said, ‘Darling, I farted, I farted’, and she was delighted as well.”
Julie is his third wife, with whom he has two children, India and Hugo. His first marriage, to Jenny, was a mistake and they both knew it, he says. His second was to Janie McLaren, daughter of rugby commentator Bill, and it is in his discussion of this marriage and its breakdown that he is at its most self-critical.
Alex and James, his and Janie’s sons, were young when he left their mother for Julie. He knows he is to blame for that separation, which became official with divorce in 1992, and he also accepts that the stress caused by his behaviour could have contributed to Janie’s death from cancer eight years later. Not to mention the sunbed he bought her one Christmas.
“She’s been gone a long time,” he says. “I still miss her and think about her, and I still go and put flowers on her grave in Edinburgh. I’ll never, ever forget her.
“She’s the mother of two great guys. Incredible, after losing their mum in their teens, their father was down here and they were brought up by their auntie and uncle, they’ve done incredibly well.
“And they both do a lot for other people. They seem to be very caring human beings and I’m very proud of them.
“And when Bill McLaren died a few years ago, I was very proud to be there at his funeral. I think I was in the third of the three family cars with my two sons, and we went down the High Street in Hawick, and I think the people were about five deep, all the way along. That’s the love they had for him.
“I was lucky enough to marry his daughter, who was an absolute stunning lady. Sadly it went wrong for us. That’s life, we can’t do anything about that.
“She was a very special person. Would I have done exactly the same life again? Of course. I learned so much from her, and she was a wonderful girl.”
James Thompson is better known in rugby circles as Jim, and after several years with Edinburgh now plays for London Scottish. He has also just become a father, to his own dad’s delight.
“I’m a grandfather of a beautiful grand-daughter, who hopefully will run for Scotland or do something for Scotland one day,” Tommo says. “She’s lovely, and she’s named after Janie.
“It was quite emotional when I heard they were going to call her Janie. I was actually in LA when she was born, and came back a day early, partly to be home before I went to Sweden, but mainly to see my grand-daughter before I rushed off. She’s an absolute stunner, just like her mother and her grandmother.
“I saw James play rugby on Saturday for London Scottish, their first league match of the season, and they won by about 30 points. So the sleepless nights didn’t seem to interfere.”
Whatever he does between now and his eventual retirement, Thompson will always be chiefly associated, in many eyes, with the Channel 4 programme The Morning Line. He presented it from the off in the mid-1980s, working with a team that included John McCririck and John Francome, and he kept working for the channel until last year. Then a different company bought the franchise for Channel 4 Racing, and they brought a new commentary team in, headed by Clare Balding.
Thompson is convinced the current line-up is not working, and admits that if he had the chance to choose one job between now and his retirement, it would be a resurrected Morning Line. “I’d love, just once, to get us all back on The Morning Line. Me, big Mac, Francome. All the guys they sacked from Channel 4 – I think that would be fantastic.
“McCririck is one of the best broadcasters of all time, without a doubt. Now he has his own personal issues – that’s up to him – but as a broadcaster on TV with me, if ever I was in trouble I’d put the ball straight to McCririck because I know he’d hit it back over the net.
“The viewing figures are way down; they’re 50 per cent down from when we were doing it. The facts speak for themselves.
“I’m not having a go at the guys who do it now: they’re all really good, top-class pros. But I do believe the way the programme is produced is quite strange, and everyone I meet at the racecourse says they don’t watch it any more.”
The end of his long association with Channel 4 may have lessened Thompson’s exposure to a nationwide TV audience, but if anything it has allowed him to increase the range of his own activities. At Ayr today, for example, his duties will include presenting some long-service awards on behalf of sponsors, William Hill. He also hopes to see a home win for favourite Jack Dexter, having been there the last time a Scottish-trained horse took the cup – Roman Warrior back in 1975.
And, not today but at a number of courses throughout the UK, he gets out and about among the punters with his on-course channel, Tommo TV. Hamilton is one of the tracks where it operates, but it all began, he says, across the country in Musselburgh, a course for which he has a lot of praise.
“They were the people who basically started it. The people who run Musselburgh – Bill Farnsworth, Robert Hogarth and the clerk of the course Harriet Graham – have come up with so many brand-new ideas for promoting meetings. I travel the world following racing, and Musselburgh is one of the most forward-thinking racecourses in the world, not just in the UK.”
As we’ve been talking, the press room has begun to fill up, and he has exchanged a bit of banter with every newcomer. It has been said of Bill Clinton that, no matter what other qualities he had as a president, the key to his popularity was being able to pay attention to others, and letting them know that, if only for the 30 seconds or so that they were chatting, he was genuinely interested in what they were saying. And this, you sense, explains Tommo too.
He’s good at making people feel good about themselves. Doesn’t matter what they do, with a few words and a smile he lets them know it’s important. If he ever grows tired of racing, he could hire himself out to offices where morale is low: they’d be transformed in a morning.
He’s not like that every waking moment, of course. Like everyone else, he values some peace and quiet and privacy. Or at least he does when he’s Derek Thompson.
But when he’s Tommo – which means when he’s on duty, in public, and above all when he has a microphone in his hand – he’s Tommo to the max. And although people may think of Tommo as an act, a persona, for him it’s a genuine part of his personality.
“Tommo’s definitely a real person, because I love doing what I do,” he says. “I’m very lucky: I get paid for it, and that’s why I work hard, so I can get my kids through school.
“From a financial point of view I’m not that worried. I don’t buy expensive stuff. People will say I’m a bit careful, and that is completely untrue.
“When I’m Tommo it makes me feel good. When I was ill I got over 1,000 tweets when I came out of hospital: the majority said Tommo. I was almost in tears – I didn’t know those people. It’s incredible, and it made me think how important Tommo is.
“I’d like to think Derek Thompson and Tommo are one and the same person. But give me a microphone, I’ll walk anywhere. I’d walk up to Her Majesty The Queen and say ‘Excuse me, ma’am’.”
But he’d just as readily walk up to a complete stranger, camera in tow so they can show it on a big screen for everyone around the course, and inquire about their day, or their thoughts on who’s going to win the next race. And he loves that just as much, because he is really interested in people and all the more so when they’re talking about racing.
But he really has to stop talking to me now and get round to doing his colour-coded charts for the day’s races, because he prides himself on his meticulous preparation. Yet no matter how much time and effort he expends, it never feels a thankless, laborious task.
“I just go racing every day,” he says, getting out his pack of felt-tip pens. “There’s people out there who work hard: all I do is go racing.”
• Tommo: Too Busy To Die by Derek Thompson is published by Racing Post Books, priced £20.