Interview: Dougie Donnelly on modern-day football coverage, giving the ‘Big Yin’ his first £100 gig and compering Miss Scotland
COVID-19 has ripped a giant hole in his life and work. There’s been nothing like the pandemic, of course, but when were the occasions, in more than four decades of being the genial TV frontman, that he had absolutely no sport to deliver to our living-rooms?
“There were a few strikes when Sportscene was off the air in the 1980s,” says Donnelly. “The technicians had that power. This is the age of the video-journalist but if I was going up to Aberdeen to talk to Fergie I required, by the rules, a cameraman, an assistant cameraman, an electrician even if the interview was at noon in high summer and there would be no need for lights – and a props man to make sure a spent coffee cup didn’t stray into shot.”
And how did Dougie find Sir Alex Ferguson on those trips north to check on the progress of the New Firm revolution? “Oh, much as you might imagine. Plenty of teasing at the expense of the young presenter. He’d take me into the dressing room to see Willie Miller and Alex McLeish and go: ‘Here he is, boys – the Glasgow media, back to patronise us again.’ Then he’d say: ‘Come on, let’s have a bowl of soup and you can tell me what’s happening at Ibrox, at Celtic Park.’ I’m pleased to say we became good friends.”
Donnelly, 66, who currently broadcasts to 80 countries on the Golf Channel, has the time to reminisce right now and, as a BBC Scotland producer’s son, I knew I would enjoy his yarns from Queen Margaret Drive, the former Glasgow HQ of tartan-trimmed telly. Hopefully you will, too, when you find out that DD will take us right round the world and, yes, even to Tillicoultry, which as every gogglebox-addicted Scot of a certain age knows is “near Stirling”. He will reel off the usual suspects including Fergie and Denis Law and Graeme Souness; Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance and Paul Lawrie. Then there will be the unusual suspects: Billy Connolly, glam rockers Mud, a bevvy of Miss Scotlands… and Fiona Richmond.
“You won’t know her, will you, Aidan?” he says. Oh yes, I say. The bold Fiona got Malcolm Allison sacked from Crystal Palace. He invited her down to the stadium for a photo-shoot and she jumped into the communal bath in the scud with the players. Richmond was a guest on DD’s chat show, Friday Night with Dougie Donnelly, and I’m intrigued how he introduced her. Men Only star columnist? Insatiable sexual adventuress? “Er, I can’t honestly remember,” he stammers.
“There was high anxiety beforehand over what she might be wearing but she was adamant that her game wasn’t porn. I probably queried whether what she did – however she’d describe it – was a fitting aspiration for young women but she argued her corner well.” No clips remain but I’m betting that Donnelly blushed, as indeed would I.
In a study containing towers of VHSs of more illustrious moments our man reflects on his great good fortune. “I really have been the luckiest guy,” he says. “Maybe luckiest of all in meeting Linda – we celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this year – which I think is pretty amazing given all that swanning off, the foreign assignments, chasing the little white pebble everywhere. But lucky too to have been around when our football team qualified for World Cups with great regularity, when our rugby team won Grand Slams, when we had world champions in Allan Wells, Jim Watt and Stephen Hendry – especially when I thought I’d only be doing this job for a couple of years before it came to a natural end then it would be back to being a lawyer.”
At Strathclyde University, the student legal eagle was social secretary and booker of bands. “I remember a London manager phoned up trying to get me to take Mud, who were more poppy than our usual groups, but eventually I agreed. Two nights before the gig they were No 1 on Top of the Pops with Tiger Feet and on the Saturday night they played our Union, so that proved to be excellent judgment.
“Then there was the Big Yin. Billy Connolly wasn’t yet massive, to be honest, although he had a good local following and I knew he’d go down well at our Sunday folk night. He’d just split up with Gerry Rafferty [the two formed the Humblebums] and I can still see him on the wee stage of our mezzanine disco, staring forlornly at the ceiling and going: ‘So here we are: Strathclyde University effin’ Union. Rafferty’s just gone Top Ten in America and I’m stuck here!’ But it was only a short time later that he went on [nationwide TV chat show] Parkinson and exploded.
“Back in Glasgow on one of his big tours Linda and I took our three girls backstage to meet him. The room was busy but he came over and put his arm round me and said: ‘This is the guy who gave me my first 100 quid cheque.’ I didn’t know that. Billy hadn’t wanted to do any more student gigs. ‘They’re too drunk and rowdy and don’t listen to my stories,’ he told his manager, Frank Lynch. The usual fee would have been £40 so I upped it and was able to persuade him. He’s the funniest man in the world but I’m not claiming any credit for that.”
We’ve still not got to Sportscene yet, for we can’t forget about DD the DJ as it was his stint behind the decks where he found his voice. When no bands were organised the Union ran discos and one night the regular man phoned to say he’d been involved in a car accident. Had his traffic-lights rig – classic jock kit – caused confusion on the roads, perhaps? Anyway, someone had to step up and that would be Donnelly. “I enjoyed it, not least because instead of having to go on to the dancefloor and try to talk to girls, they would come to the podium and speak to me.” Radio Clyde took to the airwaves on Hogmanay 1973. Donnelly’s pals suggested he send the station a tape of his patter. Emboldened by a night on cheap student lager, he did. “Amazingly, Andy Park, programming genius, listened to my cassette. ‘What makes you think you’re Emperor Rosko?’ he said. ‘Stop being a mid-Atlantic t**t. You’re a Glaswegian, you’re a bright guy – sound like one.’ To be honest, that was probably the best bit of advice I ever received.”
Donnelly’s father was appalled. “I left uni with 12/13ths of a law degree after flunking conveyancing – he thought I was being an idiot.” The qualification was, however, completed later. And Clyde taught him how to wing it – a valuable skill when Sportscene gremlins were at large. “There were no scripts at Clyde, not even a running order. You simply grabbed a bunch of albums from the record library and dashed to the studio.” His first football match, for the Saturday teatime results round-up, was Airdrie v Dundee at Broomfield in March, 1978. “I learned a lesson that day. To get back to Queen Margaret Drive in time I had to leave the game early and at two-nil to Airdrie I thought it was done so wrote my report to that effect during the car journey. I was pretty pleased with it, only to then find out Dundee had scored two late goals to draw.”
But his promotion was rapid and, eight months later, he was helming Sportscene for the first time. Archie Macpherson, who’d previously presented as well as commentated, was only performing the latter function. In his inimitable style, of course, but how did the great man view the young buck? “As a threat, I guess, which I suppose I was. We didn’t become inseparable friends but we had a good working relationship. There was an unspoken acknowledgement of how things were. Maybe Arthur Montford on STV was, understandably, more encouraging to the new boy but I always had great respect for Archie. We still speak – he phoned me up the other day for help with a book he’s writing on the Old Firm. In his commentaries he was articulate, educated and would throw in literary references which probably went over most punters’ heads but I always enjoyed them. He was a unique talent. He was Archie, and there will only ever be one of them.”
So if Arthur yelling “Watch your back!” to a dawdling Gordon McQueen was the fan taking over – and if Archie trying to maintain equilibrium while a producer screaming in his ear when the big match disappeared was proof of the perils of live TV – what were DD’s contributions to the Christmas-party bloopers tape? He remembers telling the Sportscene massive they were in for a six-goal treat as Manchester United romped a cup-tie, only the highlights must have been edited for Scottish consumption by the guy from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre because the scoring came in the wrong order. “There was the time I had to ‘fill’ between frames at a snooker tournament, maybe the Regal Masters at Motherwell. Two and a half minutes was a very long time that night and when play finally resumed the entire crew applauded. I got out unscathed on that occasion but didn’t always. I was thrown different sports not knowing very much about them. BBC Scotland had ambitious producers at the time and the budget to grow its coverage. With the chat show I could be on the box Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the following Wednesday – folk must have been sick of the sight of me. Then I got the chance to front Grandstand and must admit that hearing the famous tune just before going on air almost caused me to lose it. My whole career was live and seat-of-the-pants and wonderful. I’ve always loved the buzz; that’s why I still do it.”
Fan moments? Reporting for the whole Beeb network from the Scotland camp at the 1990 World Cup Donnelly referred to the boys in dark blue as “we” and received a ticking-off. Not that Scots have ever heard England addressed as “we” or anything. Another time he signed off from interviewing Ian Woosnam with “Cheers, Woosie”. This wasn’t the BBC way, he was told, although it probably would be now with televised sport turning so banterish. What does he think of the modern coverage, say, of football? “I enjoy most of it but it’s different from my day. My pundits were Gordon Smith, Derek Johnstone, Billy McNeill – guys of huge credibility – but now the trend is for controversialists who probably think to themselves before games: ‘Who can I upset this week?’ That’s what’s expected. A pal of mine was on Match of the Day recently. After the show everyone was having a glass of wine in the Green Room. The producer appeared with what Scots call a torn face: ‘I’ve just looked at Twitter. No reaction at all. We’ve got to do better’.”
Donnelly supports Clyde. His grandfather, a Shawfield turnstile attendant, snuck him into games, big Bully Wee one week, reserves the next. “Then I was ballboy for the season we finished third behind the Old Firm [1966-67] and were denied European football because in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup no city was allowed more than one entrant. We tried everything, found that an old boundary line crossed the Shawfield pitch and claimed we weren’t actually a Glasgow club but Rutherglen!” Sound diddy credentials, then, but still, he must have been suspected of being Celtic-favouring or Rangers-partial just like everyone else in his profession. “Oh yes. Before a league decider at Ibrox I said something like: ‘In all the years I’ve been coming here I’ve never seen the place in such a fervour.’ I meant in a professional capacity of course but Celtic fans were like: ‘Aha!’”
Extra-curricularly, DD was always busy. “I must have been a greedy so-and-so back then. I was offered loads – voice-overs, awards nights, you name it – and the rest of the guys at Queen Margaret Drive were always giving me stick: ‘Another dinner, Donnelly? Couple of grand?’ The BBC looked after me but I was always freelance and so didn’t turn much down. There’s an old ham in me, it has to be said, and I still enjoy getting up and telling a few stories.
“I also compered Miss Scotland a few times. And I hosted Miss Stella Artois and Miss Evening Times.” Was he ever flour-bombed by feminists like Bob Hope during the 1970 Miss World, theme of the new movie Misbehaviour? “Thankfully not. I won’t lie: interviewing an attractive woman in a bikini was more pleasurable than your gags receiving a lukewarm reaction at Auchinleck Miners’ Welfare Club.”
Did any of the contestants promise to promote world peace if they’d won? “I can’t remember. Quite a few wanted to become Tennent’s Can Girls. I’d like to think these contests were tongue-in-cheek and not sleazy but I do remember, back at the day job the morning after one of them, a BBC producer who shall remain nameless asking: ‘Well, Dougie, after the winner was announced did you complete your compere’s duties in the time-honoured fashion and offer to console the runner-up?’ Different times, for sure!”
Now DD must be going; the dog needs walked. Not so fast, I say, we haven’t discussed those furniture ads. If Arthur’s catchphrase was “Stramash!” and Archie’s was “Woof!”, is Dougie going to be remembered for “Tillicoultry, near Stirling”? He contemplates such a carved-in-stone inscription and groans.
“That pay-off line did follow me around. In Stirling once, a traffic warden marched up and said: ‘Can you not say ‘near Alloa’? That would be more accurate and stop strangers after a new three-piece suite who are lost from bothering me.
“But the store, which was very good to me, did give me my funniest moment. It was the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, Scotland were playing the CIS, and I was in the gantry at Norrkoping with Alex McLeish. The Tartan Army were massed below us. Just as I was about to ask Big Eck about the game, they burst into song: “One Tillicoultry, there’s only one Tillicoultry…’”
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