Interview: John Beattie on why he prefers broadcasting to rugby

Here are today's headlines: when BBC Scotland's new TV channel goes on air early next year the strapping fellow in the air-force blue suit sauntering through the canteen will be the Friday night anchor on the hour-long news programme. To paraphrase the words of Bill McLaren: 'What a media career John Beattie's having!'

John Beattie, at BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow, is to become a news anchor on the broadcaster's new channel. Picture: John Devlin

McLaren once exclaimed “What a game John Beattie’s having!” and the old back-row marauder will always treasure the approbation of rugby’s oracle. But he’s moved on from the business of sticking his head between a couple of muddied backsides – just a bit he has. We meet after he’s wrapped up the top-rated daytime radio programme which cements him as one of the stars of the Beeb’s Pacific Quay and gets his face, complete with cauliflower ear, blown up big-style in the foyer of the Glasgow studios.

Beattie jokes that he’s too ugly to make the leap from wireless to small screen five nights a week – Martin Geissler and Rebecca Curran will be in charge Monday through Thursday – but this is still a big deal. The channel has been hotly-debated and with it the proposal for 60 minutes of tartan-trimmed news. The sceptical casually inquire: “Who will want to watch this well-intentioned stuff at 9pm when there’s, say, a glossy wife-swapping drama on the 
other side?”

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Well, to paraphrase McLaren again: “They’ll be loving it down Borneo way.” This was where Beattie was born, where he lived until he was 11 and where he first encountered crocodiles and cobras. After that, England’s ambling pack of the 1980s caused him little trouble. Beattie was one of the heroes of our biggest-ever smashing of the Auld Enemy – 33-6 in ’86 – and three years before that Scotland’s last victory at Twickenham.

Ah, but how would his old corner of the country receive this invitation to celebrate him as there was no TV when his father was manager of a rubber plantation there and on a recent roots trip with his own kids, including rugby-playing Johnnie and footballer Jenny, it was still lights out at 8pm? Still, Big John fronting the news is quite something – especially, as he will tell me often today, for a “total misfit” like him.

In the canteen overlooking the Clyde he’s got good stories, like the teenaged Interrailing adventure when he and a pal decided to sleep under the stars on a Corfu beach only to be chased by Blue Peter grande dame Valerie Singleton, but we start by discussing Fiji, today’s visitors to Murrayfield in the Autumn Tests. Beattie played in the South Sea Islanders’ very first sojourn to Scotland in 1982, the Dark Blues winning 32-12, and, even though caps weren’t awarded he remembers the game well. “I was a bit wary of Fiji,” he says. “When I was a lad my dad told me how the plantation workers in Borneo had once challenged the crew of a Fijian naval vessel to a game. The Fijians obliterated the planters and I think if our match had been sevens we would probably have lost because they could really throw the ball around. But they couldn’t scrummage and I did think the game was unfair. Their No 8 was a guy called [Esala] Teleni who went on to become something big in the Fijian armed forces. I scored a try but really I just fell over the line. One of the most pathetic tries Murrayfield has ever seen!”

Teleni, in fact, was something big in a Fijian military coup in 2006, seizing a shipment of seven tons of ammunition. So you could say he’s had an interesting life post-rugby, just like his opposite number. Ah, but can Capt Teleni play the seven tons of guitar riffing that’s the intro to Status Quo’s 1973 hit Caroline? Our man can.

“Orkney Bluesfest, Stranraer Parkfest, Arran Rockfest… ” That’s Beattie running through the itinerary for his band Ruckstars. An earlier vehicle for his musical indulgences on the Fender Telecaster was called MLC – Mid-Life Crisis – and featured Taggart actor James MacPherson and newsreader Jackie Bird. “Jackie sang backing vocals for Echo and the Bunnymen, you know. I’ve tried to persuade her that we should record an album but she keeps saying no.”

Jim Renwick strums a mean guitar and is part of British Lions mythology for duetting with Born Free crooner Matt Munro in a South African elevator. Renwick – “The funniest guy I know” – was one of Beattie’s team-mates against Fiji and the 60-year-old runs through some more: “David Johnston and me, I’m ashamed to admit now, used to have a fag before and after games. Maybe 30 per cent of the team smoked in those days. He’d come from football and I remember a few of us saying we’d sort him out but he ran rings round us.” Roy Laidlaw? “Could win games all on his own.” John Rutherford? “The best I played with. Not many of us were world-class – not me, certainly – but John was.” Iain Milne? “Another lovely bloke. I came across an old newspaper report from before an England game where he said: ‘We’ll gub them. I’ll have their loose head on toast because he’s rubbish.’ Players aren’t allowed to talk like that now but maybe The Bear still would.”

Beattie keeps in touch with all the bashed-up survivors from his amateur days. Rugby back then was “escaping the daily grind, rushing down to Murrayfield to put on our boots, unbridled joy”. But he has a funny attitude towards the game. Part of this is down to who he is now, a broadcaster, which seems more meaningful, but it’s also to do with who he’s always been, the outsider from the jungle in Borneo.

For radio he tried to teach himself, listening to McLaren, commentating on his club Glasgow Accies’ training sessions, learning how to modulate the voice. “I treated it exactly like my sport: I trained. The harder you work at anything the less chance of cocking up. But, you know, rugby is acting like an idiot, running around and whacking people and broadcasting is not.”

He pits sports broadcasting against current affairs and decides he prefers the latter. “Sport is entertainment. The beauty of it is you don’t know how it’s going to end, unlike a Bond film. But it’s all artifice. Rugby was invented in the English fee-paying school system in the late 1800s, primarily to keep overactive young men preoccupied. But what is it really? I mean, do you know? I’ve spent most of my life wracking my brains to try and work out what a rugby international is: the pipe bands, the anthems, gripping the shirt badges, bashing each other… ”

And a few minutes later he returns to the theme, reflecting on Calcutta Cup clashes and Caledonian passion: “Even when I played I was like: ‘What’s rugby about?’ I’d seen people die of leprosy and suddenly I was required to go: ‘I must beat England! I’m wearing the blue jersey! We hate them!’ I mean, I could play the part. I could do my bit. I could whack anybody. But I didn’t really get it.” He repeats: “Sport is entertainment. News isn’t entertainment. This stuff really affects our lives. I love it.”

Leprosy was Borneo, a beautiful but sometimes brutal backdrop for young Beattie and his two brothers. “I saw men with bits of their faces missing, kids with polio pushing themselves on tyres,” he says. This hardened him. “The stuff that really stresses people and makes them upset doesn’t get to me.” That Fiji game was part of his comeback after splitting a kneecap in two. It got infected and amputation was threatened but even then, he says, he could be philosophical. “I was lucky. There were guys in my ward who were worse off. I was next to a miner who had already lost a leg and he told me he’d eaten a cheese sandwich every day of his life.” That hadn’t been Beattie’s life, nothing like.

“I lived in paradise for 11 years,” he adds. If he grew up quick then he also stayed innocent for longer. “From the age of zero I was climbing trees and chasing snakes. There were always crocodile prints at the bottom of the garden. I didn’t wear shoes until I was eight, didn’t watch TV. All of that made me stronger.”

The school run was a plane hop to Malaysia then a cable-car ride to the top of a mountain. “I shared the flights with a girl called Gillean McLeod. She became one of the world’s top models and we’re still friends. And Uplands School in Penang where I boarded was a magical place: all mathematics and astronomy and music and art and running. Older kids found out about The Beatles and soon I was singing She Loves You in the jungle. The day I left the school I collected everyone’s names in my autograph book and I still have it. The headmaster, Mr Thurley, wrote that I was the roughest wee boy they’d ever had at the school and that I would play rugby for Scotland.”

The family, John Sr, Marie and the three boys, moved to Scotland because the old man suffered a brain haemorrhage and lost his job. Beattie paints a picture of his father: “Dad, from Govan, had been a rogue, a badly-behaved young man, and was already working in Borneo. Back in Glasgow for a holiday he met Mum and whisked her off to Rogano. One minute she was a teller in a bank, the next she was living in a wooden box underneath the plantation manager’s house, crocodiles moseying past.

“I pulled on that dark blue shirt for my father. He was a very proud Scot and I knew it would have meant the world to him, although he didn’t say. He was a shy man but very clever, a polymath. He used to play pipe band music in the jungle, sit on the veranda next to the gramophone with his chanter and cry. He was building a boat which he told us would sail us back to Glasgow, although it turned out to be only 6ft long. The voyage was made on a considerably bigger boat. When we turned into the Bay of Biscay I saw steam on my breath for the first time in my life. Then, instead of cobras, orangutans and Nasi goreng it was Giffnock, pie, beans and chips, Glasgow Academy, the belt, the cane!

“I played for Scotland to pay Dad back for what he did for his sons: scrabbling around for extra work while retraining at night school. I’ll never forget a trip to the chip shop when he told me and my brothers to make sure we came back with the change from our suppers. We spent it on juice, though, and when Dad found out he burst into tears. ‘Boys, we need every penny,’ he said. We only got our school fees paid because our granny had died and left us some money.”

Beattie’s old headmaster in Borneo was spot-on: he would play 25 times for Scotland, including the famous 25-all draw with New Zealand and 40 minutes of the 1984 Grand Slam. He also went on two Lions tours but that knee injury would cramp his style. “I remember The Scotsman’s old rugby correspondent, Norman Mair, sidling up to me a year later and saying: ‘You’re not the same player, are you?’ It was true. All the explosion had kind of gone.”

Recently Beattie investigated the effects of concussion on rugby players for TV. He’d already decided that when he dies he’ll donate his brain to neuroscience so doctors can study the effects of a career’s worth of dunts.

Once again today he asks: “What the heck do we play rugby for? It’s wonderful for friendship, fun and glory but we’re also being left with damaged bodies.” Son Johnnie currently plays in France with Bayonne in his dad’s old No 8 position. “He doing very well, as is Jenny at Manchester City. When we’re all together, with my wife Gill and our other daughter Julie, we still hold hands round the kitchen table.” He hopes Johnnie and Jenny didn’t feel pressurised to follow their old man into sport. “Jenny is going to the World Cup with Scotland next summer and I hope to be there. All I want for both of them is to come out the other end unhurt.”

Beattie’s pronounced ambivalence, which probably began the minute the boat from Borneo docked here and he couldn’t spot any crocs, would continue at Glasgow Academy. Surrounded by the sons of lawyers and accountants, and amid much chatter about money and how to make lots of it, he struggled to fit in. But, having originally studied civil engineering at university, enhancing his scrum strength by laying slabs during the building of Glasgow’s SECC, he made a dramatic switch. He became that accountant because, as he says: “I thought I wanted to be rich.” It didn’t take him long to have misgivings. “I was advising people how to save tax and it didn’t seem like the thing I should be doing.”

One of his last conversations with his father convinced him of this. “He was struggling, his lips were blue. He said: ‘Don’t make the same mistake as me – don’t work away your life doing something you don’t enjoy.’” Beattie quit accountancy and, having already penned newspaper columns on rugby, including one for Scotland on Sunday, persuaded the Beeb to let him report on the 1995 World Cup. “I got the world exclusive about the All Blacks being poisoned.”

The game has not been able to hold his attention. That’s maybe not surprising if on your radio show you’ve had the chance to speak to a survivor of the Arab Spring or a suicide attempt – Beattie’s shocked that 680 Scots take their own lives every year. Has he been too hard on rugby today? He hopes not, admitting that Peter Horne reproached him about this recently. “‘The trouble with you,’ he said, ‘is that you’ve forgotten how much fun it is.’” And it was, especially after a famous victory, all of Edinburgh thanking him and buying him drinks in Rose Street. “We felt like the kings of Scotland,” he says.

Although of course, being the complex, contrary but fascinating John Beattie, he qualifies this somewhat: “I’d have to tell myself: ‘I’m actually standing in this pub next to John Rutherford. I’m actually talking to Jim Renwick.’ Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome?…”