Interview: Bill Johnstone on his life behind the microphone

Retired BBC Radio Scotland rugby commentator Bill Johnstone outside Jedburgh Abbey. Picture: John Devlin

Retired BBC Radio Scotland rugby commentator Bill Johnstone outside Jedburgh Abbey. Picture: John Devlin

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The tape recorder has just been activated to capture what turns into a fabulously entertaining hour in the company of freshly retired Radio Scotland rugby commentator Bill Johnstone when, right on cue, a visual trip down memory lane appears on the table to kick off the chat, or “blether” as he would say, perfectly.

We meet up in a coffee shop in the shadow of the majestic ruins of Jedburgh Abbey and just as we are about to go “on air” so to speak, Janice emerges from behind the scone and cake laden counter clutching a black and white photograph. “Now I must show you this, Bill,” she says.

It turns out to be a rugby team shot of Jed Grammar from around the start of Johnstone’s career as an itinerant PE teacher based in the town he has called home since 1964.

Interestingly, the photo had been dropped in to the Toll House cafe a couple of days previously by Ian Davidson, the former Glasgow Labour MP who grew up in Jedburgh and Galashiels and is currently campaigning for the local Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency. He appears in the front row of the picture.

A 15-minute process of identifying every other face with Janice, who was of the same era and herself a former pupil of Johnstone, unfolds and acts as a perfect warm up for a conversation that spans the decades from a happy childhood in the bustling post-war Hawick of the textile industry’s heyday right up until last weekend when Johnstone’s mic was hung up after 32 years of service.

Last Saturday’s European Champions Cup final at BT Murrayfield between Saracens and Clermont Auvergne was the 73-year-old’s last hurrah at the same stadium, albeit much changed, where his first big radio gig took place in 1985 with the inter-city Edinburgh v Glasgow game. Fittingly, his final domestic commentary featured the same two sides at Scotstoun the 
previous week.

“I was fine after, so long as nobody came up to me to say something I was able to keep it together,” said Johnstone of last Saturday’s finale. “The next day was quite emotional though.”

Last Sunday saw Johnstone’s Beeb leaving bash in Glasgow and plonked on our cafe table is the weighty and eyecatching silver enscripted microphone he received as a parting gift. He is only the third man to receive such an accolade from Radio Scotland’s sports department, joining luminaries David Begg and Alastair Alexander in what is a very elite club.

The keynote speech was given by his great friend and wine gum-snaffling
co-commentator colleague Peter Wright, with whom he has formed such a warm and entertaining rapport over the last years of his broadcasting career.

The pair complemented each other perfectly – Johnstone the safe pair of hands and former Scotland prop Wright the maverick pundit firing off opinions with forthright fearlessness.

“It was a wonderful speech from Peter, he’s a great, very kind hearted guy. He said he had bought me a bag of wine gums to make up for all the ones he has hoovered up over the years and then produced from his packet an empty bag, head bowed, and said he’d inadvertently ate them all on the drive over. He had gone to a garage and got a fresh bag though so I did finally get some wine gums off him!

“I was in floods of tears by the end, a very touching send off. Do you know, it’s not really the broadcasting I’m going to miss, it’s the people. The engineers and the people at the BBC you speak with on the phone every week and see at the games and it was all those kind of people were there on Sunday. It was great to be with them.”

The Borders is a part of the world that does dynasties well, although Johnstone would blanche at such a grand term. In Jedburgh the name that springs to mind is Laidlaw and Bill taught both Roy and his nephew, Greig, the current Scotland skipper and upcoming Lions tourist, as well as Gary Armstrong – all three of that great triumvirate of Jed scrum-halves.

Johnstone, who retired from teaching in 2003, is, famously, the nephew of the late, great “Voice of Rugby” Bill McLaren and any conversation about the former’s life and career is peppered with the towering influence of the 
legendary latter.

McLaren was the brother of Johnstone’s mother and the first memory is of visiting him at the TB sanatorium in East Fortune, where the nephew was not allowed into the ward and could only wave at at his uncle through a window.

“WP McLaren” as Johnstone often refers to him was the first to throw him a rugby ball in Primary School and he would go on to follow his uncle into the field of teaching, studying at 
Jordanhill.

The intention was to into primary teaching on a path that would lead to head teacher, when McLaren intervened to tip the young Bill off about the itinerant PE job going at Jed.

“I thought to myself that sounded 
better than paperwork and ordering crayons so I went for it.”

From the age of 21, Jedburgh has been home where he and his wife Helen brought up three children, which led to seven grandchildren. He remains proud of his Hawick roots, though. “Cut me open and I would bleed both green and blue,” he says with a smile.

Johnstone captained Hawick High School but never really pursued a senior career in rugby, moving instead into teaching and coaching. His entry into the world of reporting on the game he loves with an enduring and, if anything, increasing passion, again has McLaren at its heart.

At this point, Johnstone pauses and says: “I think it’s important to make clear that when it comes to the biggest influences on my life that would undoubtedly be my parents. They were wonderful, provided me with everything I needed and gave me the opportunities to do well in life. But, yes, when it comes to rugby, Bill was a huge 
figure for me.

“I can still vividly remember him visiting us at our house in Hawick when I was just a wee boy. He would blow in like a North Sea gale, a force of nature and oozing charisma. And he was the funniest man you’d ever meet. Any time spent in his company was a hoot from start to finish.”

Johnstone would attend Scotland internationals and take notes for his uncle’s Monday report for the Glasgow Herald, back in the days when the toilet facilities were a pail in the corner of the Murrayfield press box.

“That gave me a great insight into how the business of reporting games worked and, also quite importantly, it showed me that even these great figures would get nervous.

“Those few minutes before the broadcast started, you could sense the tension and the nervous energy. Even Bill and the likes of Peter West, you could see their hands start to shake in that final 
countdown to going on air.

“I had that myself right up until last weekend, that wee surge of nerves 
and then the adrenaline kicks in.”

Johnstone went on to enjoy his teaching career and says he was “happy as Larry with no thoughts about going into media work whatsoever” when he was asked in the early 1980s if he would like to do a rugby round-up slot for the new BBC satellite radio station based at Selkirk. These attracted the attention of Queen Margaret Drive and led to that inter-city commentary in 1985.

“I had no great ambition in that direction but I was intrigued by the idea and thought I might regret it if I didn’t give it a try so I said yes. But, I tell you, I must have spent the 36 hours before the game going back and forward to the toilet. I was so nervous.”

The broadcast went sufficiently well that come the start of the following year’s Five Nations, Johnstone got his first Scotland radio commentary.

It was a day of a few other firsts as that 18-17 win against France at Murrayfield also saw the debuts in dark blue of Gavin and Scott Hastings, Finlay 
Calder and David Sole. It could be said that the seeds were sown that afternoon for the incomparable Grand Slam triumph over England four years later which remains Johnstone’s favourite rugby memory.

“Even 27 years on I still get a tingle thinking about it,” he recalls with a twinkle in the eye. “England prancing out like horses, a bloody good team, and then that David Sole-led walk. And the winning try, what a move it was! A Kelso man [John Jeffrey], a Jed man [Armstrong], an Edinburgh man [Gavin Hastings] and a Hawick man [Tony Stanger]. Perfect.”

As Johnstone’s commentary career flourished, he followed the McLaren mantra that preparation was the key to success. “Although not quite to the same extent,” he clarifies. “Those big sheets of Bill’s were one of a kind, but I’ve always been quite thorough because, doing live commentary, you need to be armed with that information and have it at your fingertips.

“I always remember that Richard Dimbleby once came to Hawick to do a Down Your Way programme and Bill featured on it. They were talking afterwards and comparing notes on broadcasting and Dimbleby agreed that 100 per cent preparation was vital. You might only use two per cent of the information you have but you need to know that two per cent will be there when you need it.

“I suppose when it comes to advice then Dimbleby and McLaren are two good acts to follow.”

Of course, there is a huge difference between TV and radio commentaries, though McLaren had experience of the latter too and was on-hand to give some last-minute advice before that first Scotland game in 1986, when Scotsman legend Norman Mair (“a wonderful man”) acted as Johnstone’s summariser.

“I remember I was just about to go on and I got the tap on the shoulder from Bill. ‘How are you feeling Willie?’ he asked and I replied I was nervous but excited. ‘Remember to hold a bit of that excitement back for when you really need it,’ was his tip.

“That’s important because you can fall into the trap of starting at fever pitch and have nowhere left to go. With radio commentary it’s all about building things up and getting the listener steadily craning their ear in. Those last five minutes you can really get in full flow. On the TV the viewer can see the score and how much time is left. On the radio you bring that in, describe what the crowd are doing. Sometimes you might exaggerate how exciting things are slightly but I don’t think it’s being dishonest, 
it’s providing entertainment for the listener.”

That is something Johnstone has provided in abundance over more than three decades and he will still be providing the occasional online commentaries for Scottish Rugby TV. With so much emphasis on the professional game now, he is looking forward to re-engaging with the grassroots of the game. “I can’t remember the last time I saw Heriot’s play or Boroughmuir play,” he reveals. “I’m looking forward to getting round to all these places at my leisure and connecting again with the club game.”

Rugby has taken him around the world and a return to holiday in New Zealand next year is planned but, beyond the boundaries of Hawick and Jed, Murrayfield has been his spiritual home and it was fitting that his career came to an end there 
seven days ago.

“I do love the Six Nations away weekends too, though,” he pointed out. “I will miss being tucked away in the corner of a Paris bistro and Peter Wright pontificating away on every subject into the night,” he says with a chuckle. “Rome has become my favourite though. It has a different feel, the wives tend to come on that trip, and what a city. Every corner you turn there is another jaw-dropping piece of history and architecture.”

He then looks out of the window and, with a flourish, points to the nearby Abbey. “It’s just like being in Jedburgh!”

Johnstone may be a proud Borderer and, like many, hold concerns about the game’s future in Scottish rugby’s heartland, but has taken immense pleasure commentating on the rise of Glasgow in recent years to sold-out Scotstouns, Pro12 champions and into the knock-out stages of Europe. A trip to take in a Warriors game with Roy Laidlaw in the autumn is inked in the diary.

As we make to leave with interview concluded, an elderly local lady engages in chat and asks what he’s going to do with his time now. “We’re thinking of walking the West Highland Way, though I found out the other day it’s 96 miles long,” Johnstone explained to his new inquisitor.

“Aye but you dinnae have to walk it in one day, Bill,” is the lady’s reply.

Just the kind of dry humour and grounded Borders wisdom that has infused Johnstone’s commentaries down the years. He will be missed, but well-earned retirement beckons.

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