Norris McWhirter

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Journalist and politician


12 August, 1925, in London

Died: 20 April, 2004, in Wiltshire, aged 78

NORRIS McWhirter was one of the best-known faces on the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s: he was an important member of the BBC sports unit and fronted the popular children’s show Record Breakers. However, he was probably best known for founding, with his twin brother, Ross, the Guinness Book of Records in 1954. It became a publishing phenomenon, with sales of more than 100 million copies in 100 countries and 37 languages, and he oversaw all new entries with a demon eye.

But perhaps the moment that gave him most pleasure was in Oxford on May 6, 1954, when he acted as official time keeper for a one-mile race. When the race was completed, McWhirter announced, in stentorian tones over a crackly loud speaker: "The winner is RG Bannister of Exeter and Merton College, and the time, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English Native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record of three minutes ...." At that point, whatever else McWhirter had planned to announce was lost in loud and wild cheers, and everyone went to congratulate an exhausted Roger Bannister.

Norris Dewar McWhirter was the elder twin and son of a newspaper director. He attended Marlborough College and Trinity College, Oxford and spent the last years of the war in the navy, serving with minesweepers in the Atlantic. At school and university, he had been an accomplished athlete and a promising wing three-quarter. He was to go on to be a regular member of the Saracens XV, but it was on the track that he found sporting fame. He ran for Oxford University and was a member of a distinguished team that won the Amateur Athletic Association’s 4x110 yards relay in 1950. He represented Scotland in the 100 and 220 yards from 1950 to 1952.

He slowly retired from active athletics and was soon asked by the Observer to write a weekly column. This proved hugely popular and his informed opinions became vital Sunday reading for almost two decades. This, in turn, led to McWhirter becoming one of the BBC’s most acknowledged athletics’ commentators and pundits. His trenchant views were heard at the Olympics from 1956 and ended with the dramatic events at Munich in 1972.

It was a reflection on this most active man that, while he was with the BBC sports team and editing the Guinness Book of Records, he also found time to further a political career. In the early 1960s, he was an active Conservative who failed to regain Orpington in 1964 after it was lost to the Liberals two years earlier. His right-wing views were often at odds with those of his Tory colleagues, never mind the electorate. He spoke out in unforgiving terms about Rhodesia, the EEC, immigration and Northern Ireland. A particular bee in the McWhirter bonnet was the closed shop. He repeated often that "tougher policies" were required.

In 1975, he and his brother founded the Freedom Association, which aimed to raise funds to fight causes dear to their hearts. One such was to lead to the arrest that year of some IRA suspects: a week later, Ross was assassinated by the IRA. The blow was felt severely by Norris: their lives and careers had been as one all their lives, and he wrote a poignant book, Ross: the Story of a Shared Life. Norris’s spirit was, however, undeterred and he continued to support right-wing causes. His most recent high-profile case was in 1998 when he started a fighting fund to help the disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton sue (unsuccessfully) Mohamed Fayed.

An altogether lighter aspect was witnessed by generations of children who watched Record Breakers. He and the late Roy Castle joyously explained how records were measured, gained and maintained.

McWhirter retired from editing the book of records in 1985, but he kept an eye on it and proved his ability still to publish a best-seller in 1999 with the Book of the Millennium. That and some political books - especially Treason at Maastricht, an acerbic commentary on the EU - kept him active, delivering his forthright opinions to the end.

McWhirter was made a CBE in 1980 and remained a devoted sportsman all his days. It was typical that he had a heart attack while on a tennis court.

Among his non-sporting interests was a passion for the remote islands round the coast of Britain - especially the Outer Hebrides and Skye - and he claimed to have visited 1,049 of them: he loved the challenge of sailing to them and exploring.

McWhirter married Carole Eckert in 1957: she died in 1987. He is survived by his second wife, Tessa, and a son and daughter by the first marriage.