Interview: BBC's Andrew Cotter on the art of commentating

Andrew Cotter has just come off stage at the Roundhouse, one of the most famous rock venues in London or indeed anywhere. The Doors performed their only British concert in the converted railway shed at Chalk Farm and there was much psychedelic grooviness involving Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.
Andrew Cotter during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Picture: Getty Images for HSBCAndrew Cotter during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Picture: Getty Images for HSBC
Andrew Cotter during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Picture: Getty Images for HSBC

“Yes, I had to follow all of that,” laughs the sports commentator. “The posters on the walls tell the story of the place. Jimi Hendrix played there too, you know – he of the flaming guitar. I thought about setting fire to my notes, but that would have looked silly, wouldn’t it?”

Maybe so, but on-stage pyrotechnics weren’t what the organisers of this corporate event had hired Cotter for. They wanted “that silky burr born of the west coast of Scotland” – the approbation of Des Lynham, no less – and that’s what they got from their host. Now he’s in his hotel room in Camden and at approaching 10pm I’m keeping him from a mad dash for a supermarket supper and feeling bad about that, but he’s happy talk about commentating and indeed there’s much to discuss.

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Cotter is almost a pentathlete of the microphone. Later this summer he’ll be in Rio, dodging the Zika virus, to bring the Olympics to our parlours. He’ll also be providing words to go with the opening ceremony, when the trick will be dodging the Colemanballs which can’t but help tumble from the mouths of commentators when there’s no actual sport happening out on the field. Words – and this might have been David Coleman himself, or maybe Barry Davies – such as: “…and here come the Dutch in their clogs.”

Cotter will be describing the golf at the Open – a special event for him because Troon is his toon but also one tinged with sadness because the BBC, for which he works, lost the rights to all-day coverage and will only provide evening highlights. We thought the Beeb, represented by all of those who followed in the favourite suede brogues of dear old Henry Longhurst, would be broadcasting golf for ever. Ah, but the Corporation is still, for the time being, following every ball at Wimbledon and, from Monday, 
Cotter, following in the favourite suede brogues of dear old Dan Maskell, will be in his booth. So what does Cotter give for the chances of our man on the parched baseline, Andy Murray? “I would love to say he’ll win and I think he’ll be very close again. But there’s this other guy called Novak Djokovic… ”

More on Wimbers later, but first the great big commentating outrage of the moment. Okay, outrage is perhaps a bit strong, but consider these words: “Justice for the England eleven!” Who uttered them? Clive Tyldesley. When? In the England football team’s Euro 2006 game against Russia. Were they spoken or screeched? They threatened to burst the glass screens.

Now, I know football people can sometimes get a bit carried away. Goodness me, I’ve done it. And I know that when Arthur Montford and Archie MacPherson got carried away we Scots immortalised the moments and continue to recite their excitable despatches to this day. But, come on: it wasn’t as if England had been the 
victims of sustained bias and intimidation with good goals chalked off 
every five minutes. They’d been playing well without scoring, and then midway through the second half they did. This was the injustice of the night, 
as the spontaneously combusting Tyldesley saw it.

Surely, though, using such terminology in the year of the Hillsborough campaign’s victory, never mind it being mere days after the inquest into the Birmingham pub bombings was re-opened and the search for some real justice gained traction, wasn’t the smartest move. It wasn’t just chippy Scots who thought this. Across the border there was considerable wincing and cringeing.

Cotter, 43, adopts a diplomatic stance. It’s not that he’s talking in the closed-ranks manner of a shop steward of the unofficial commentators’ union, merely that he knows only too well the perils of live television, the speed 
with which the internet provides judge-and-jury, and the certainty and (usually) condemnatory nature of the outcome.

He says: “I can guarantee you – no, I probably can’t do that, not really knowing what goes on inside another commentator’s head – but I’d be incredibly surprised if he [Tyldesley] intended any connotation with, or reference to, Hillsborough or anything else.

“I think what this shows is how a commentator will say something in the heat of the moment and suddenly it’s pounced upon. Something fairly unimportant in the great scheme of things can gather this apparently huge significance through social media. I mean, I’ve used phrases in the past where I’ve right away thought: ‘How’s that going to be interpreted?’

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“Here’s an example: covering the Boat Race the other day I was very, very careful with the words I used. We’d had the women’s race, also both reserve races. Then I said something like: ‘And this is the one that 
matters for these crews.’

“But I got a bit of criticism. ‘Look, Andrew Cotter says the men’s race is the really important one.’ Then it got picked up by Everyday Sexism [the project cataloging women’s experiences of male prejudice]. It was all such absolute nonsense. But these days we live by social media and die by it.”

This is an interesting juncture in Cotter’s career. In 2011, when Lynham gushed about his burr, and a commentary style which was “sometimes bordering on the poetic”, the veteran anchorman stated: “One of the BBC’s top executives told me this week that he fully expects Cotter to become 
the No 1 voice of television sport within five years.”

Well, here we are in 2016, is he calling himself numero uno? There’s a loud chortle down the phone. “It’s amazing how nobody gets the future right, isn’t it? Now I love Des, a great broadcaster and in sports presenting he was almost without peer, and it was very flattering when that was said about me. But 
televised sport has changed a lot since the days when Peter Alliss was the voice of golf and Bill McLaren was the voice of rugby. Now there are lots of channels covering lots of sports and therefore many voices. There cannot be another Bill or Peter and there certainly cannot be another voice of many sports like David Coleman. That’s a pretty 
grandiose title anyway, although he wore it pretty well. All I think I can aspire to being is a nice accompaniment to an afternoon in front of the box, where folk will say ‘I won’t mind his company for the next couple of hours’ rather than making a desperate lunge for the off button.”

Cotter didn’t always want to be a commentator; that, he thinks, would have been a geeky aspiration as a kid. “I didn’t ever pretend to be one, assembling my own kit, Blue Peter-fashion. I didn’t want to be describing the winning putt at the Open, I wanted to be holing it.” Golf was his great passion as a youngster and he got pretty good, competing in the Scottish Boys’ Championship, although skewing his drive off the 18th at North Berwick and smashing the windscreen on a national team selector’s Rover convinced him to lower his sporting sights.

He did, though, love sports broadcasting almost without realising it. “My childhood was the late 1970s/early 1980s when Scotland used to qualify for World Cups and Allan Wells was winning gold medals but when technically the coverage wasn’t so good. These days, thanks to the high digital quality, a sports event on the other side of the world can sound like it’s coming from the room next door. Back then it essentially travelled down a phone line but that made the transmissions quite exotic. The commentator’s voice was crackly, anxious, mildly desperate. And if you took a transistor to bed you thought a football match in Bulgaria or somewhere was a dangerous 
mission and you hoped our boys would get out alive. Without being overly-nostalgic, something of that excitement has been lost since the world had shrunk so much.”

Broadcasting was in the family. His father Tom was a TV director on shows like Casualty, The Bill and Ballykissangel, although Cotter insists that 
nepotism played no part in him getting into the business. After university he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life and – he’s not the first to arrive in this profession so vaguely – chose journalism. That he ended up in such a fantastic job can, he hopes, be an encouragement to equally clueless graduates everywhere.

His degree is in French and Philosophy. Ever used them in commentary? “Never. Heidegger, Habermas and Gadamer would make for a formidable rugby front-row, but no. I might have hoped these German dudes made me appear deep and meaningful to girls although I failed miserably at that.” Cotter’s other half, Caroline Short, 
is a sports producer with Radio Five and they live in Cheshire with their 
labrador Olive.

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As a rookie reporter with the Scot FM radio station despatched to Murrayfield, he got close to the benign master of that arena, the great McLaren, hoping to learn something. “I introduced myself to Bill, told him I was a huge fan and had all his albums, that kind of thing, and he said: ‘You wouldn’t be related to Jimmy Cotter, would you?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The Rev J.L. Cotter of Hillhead, capped twice at stand-off in the 1930s?’ He was my grandfather, the only ordained minister to play for Scotland. I was thrilled that Bill knew about him and that taught me about the importance of good research, although already knew that was the great man’s forte.”

It is rugby which has provided Cotter with his funniest moment at the mic – “Well, funniest for Jonathan Davies at any rate.” The Welsh great was his co-commentator for an international in Rome when after just four minutes Cotter started retching. “Jonathan thought this was hilarious and pretended to be sick into his hat. I was taken into the depths of the Stadio Olimpico and given injections – it was thought I had the Norovirus. Jonathan’s mood changed to cold dread when he had to do the match on his own and couldn’t pronounce the names of half the Italian team.”

I think Cotter is excellent at rugby but what, for instance, do England fans think of him? Search that pesky internet and you’ll find a forum where one supporter voices his dislike – partly because Cotter is a Scot – and announces he’s starting a campaign to have him removed from “Red Rose” games. But scan the rest of the debate and they’re queueing up to sing his praises, one loving the Philosophy connection as he studied it too.

Cotter insists he doesn’t read what’s said about him. While admitting he’s occasionally been tempted to check whether a phrase of which he was proud had gone down well, it was better to ignore all bouquets and all brickbats – “Because the other way madness lies.” But he’s aware his nationality is a problem for some. “As well as getting English people saying I’m too Scottish, though, I also get Scots saying I’m not Scottish enough. I get angry about that because I know just how Scottish I am. But I should take the latter as a compliment, I suppose. If I’m not thought to be cheerleading for Scots, then I must be doing my job. I’m not there to go: ‘Get stuck into them, lads.’”

Whatever he’s achieved thus far in his career has not involved football and that won’t change. “I love it but it’s a world sport and I think to commentate on it you have to be hugely passionate about it, and hugely knowledgeable, and that’s not me.” He’s a fan of the Scotland team but has never supported a club. “One problem I have with football is the huge amount of cheating in it.” Anyway, he has more than enough on his plate.

A hectic summer continues this weekend with athletics and the British Championships in Birmingham. So what’s it like commentating on a 100m race, or worse a 60m one indoors, without the feeling that, as happened to the Coleman puppet on Spitting Image, your head is undergoing wild Exorcist-style gyrations before it explodes? “Well, I reckon it’s even more challenging than in David’s day because so many of the women are double or triple-barrelled. “The nightmare would be a fierce head-to-head between Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Blessing 
Okagbare-Ighoteguonor. I’m afraid they only get given their maiden names by me.” (Memo to Everyday Sexism: no need to take offence).

Then it’s on to Wimbledon for the different challenge of very often keeping shtum. “The art of commentating, if it is an art, is to not smother the pictures and I think in tennis we should say the least.” How easy is that when the current trend generally is to be chatty if not downright verbose? “There is more talk now and I think that’s crossed over from America where there seems to be this fear that you’ll be out of a job if you’re not nattering a lot of the time, but I think Wimbledon would be ruined if we did that. There are great sounds out there anyway: the gasps of the crowd, the grunts of the players, the ballboys and girls scurrying and the umpires adjudicating. It doesn’t really need too much of me.”

Though it obviously pays his wages, Cotter admires the BBC for getting the commentator/ex-pro ratio just right. “Former sportsmen can turn into brilliant broadcasters but there are some where you think: ‘What exactly are you offering?’ You don’t want a studio to be a closed shop of what one wag called ‘the matiest mates who ever mated’, guffawing at private jokes.” But Cotter laments the Corporation losing the Open, reckoning that while Sky will throw more whizz-bang technology at the tournament, the station will really be preaching to the converted of hard-core golf fans – unable to entertain and inspire a wider audience because of its subscription costs.

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Such a communal viewing experience is the Olympics opening ceremony; Cotter will co-host in Rio with Hazel Irvine. “We did the closing ceremony of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games together but closing ceremonies are where the athletes get drunk and dance so, for the 
commentator, they’re Graham 
Nortonesque affairs.”

The curtain-raiser will be different, almost a Richard Dimblebyesque affair, requiring more gravitas. “It will be a challenge for everyone - the choreographers who have to follow London and Danny Boyle and also Hazel and myself. A great communal event which we will try not to ruin. This might sound a bit arsey but it’ll be a tremendous honour.”