The best Fettes College story of the week? If you saw it, you probably thought the yarn about Elvis Presley being in possession of a blazer in the famous Edinburgh school’s colours couldn’t possibly be topped. But Ian Robertson, the voice of rugby on the radio for almost half a century, might have a better one and it involves Ricky Nelson.
Of course Elvis wasn’t a pupil at Fettes, which makes the discovery of the brown and magenta striped jacket among his rhinestone onesies all the more remarkable. Neither was Robertson although he did teach there. His Nelson isn’t Presley’s rival in the 1950s pop idol stakes, rather “Honest” Ricky Nelson, a turf accountant in the capital’s Stockbridge. If you’re still with me, well done, for now we can properly begin…
Robertson lived on campus, in one of the school’s grand towers which must have inspired award-winning confectioners and prog-rock album sleeve illustrators alike, and much as he loved his four years in gown and mortar board he needed the odd break from teaching English and History to pupils such as Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the future prime minister, and the betting shop a quick hop on his “Yellow Peril” scooter provided it.
The boys, too, needed a break from the masters but on this afternoon Robertson bumped into a lad whose parents surely didn’t have excursions to the bookie’s in mind when they stumped up the hefty school fees. Or so he thought.
“I adopted a severe tone,” recalls Robertson with a chortle, “and told him that betting offices were completely out of bounds.
“ ‘What’s your name, boy?’
“‘Wragg, sir. Phillip Wragg’.
“ ‘If I ever see you in here again… by the way, how do you spell Wragg?’
“ ‘W-r-a-g-g, sir’.
“ ‘As in Harry Wragg, the great horseman?’
“ ‘Yes, sir’.
“ ‘Any relation?’
“ ‘He’s my grandfather, sir.’
“It was Phillip’s birthday. He showed me the card sent him by Harry with a £10 note inside and a tip. There was detailed info on the form of this horse which the bookies rated no higher than 50-1. On no account was Phillip to place an each-way bet. The horse would win ‘by any distance it likes’, the message from on high assured.”
It duly romped home, although by then Master Phillip had been despatched back to school at an even greater lick. “ ‘If I ever catch you in here again, Wragg’, I said, ‘then it won’t be the housemaster you’ll be quaking before but the headmaster. However, if you receive any further intimations of this kind and you’d like to come at first break, 11 o’clock, to my room, then I’ll see that your bets are registered’. We had a nice little arrangement. Harry would send through his ‘Bet of the Month’ and together Phillip and I enjoyed some handsome wins. The money kept me in beer and petrol for my phut-phut because a teacher’s wage at that time was pretty modest. I looked after Phillip’s winnings and presented him with them at the end of the academic year.”
What a wizard wheeze. What a cracking tale. And Robertson has plenty more where that one came from. They can dominate a chat with the man because he is not the sort to glory in his greatest days at the microphone any more than those as a Scotland stand-off. He’s much more likely to describe the calamitous, career-imperilling days in the company of Oliver Reed as co-commentator. But we should not lose sight of the fact that today will be the 47th and last time he will relay the excitement of the Calcutta Cup via BBC soundwaves to those not at BT Murrayfield or in front of the TV, as well as those who crave the extra drama and danger of not being able to see with their own eyes whether potential try-scorers are really that close to reaching the line, crazy gamblers one and all.
Recently turned 73, London-based Robertson consulted the cricketing oracle Henry Blofeld about the retirement issue. “He told me, ‘When it’s time to go, you’ll know’, and I do.” He’s thrilled to every minute of being at the microphone and considers himself jolly lucky to have been allowed to carry on for so long. What will he do with all that time on his hands? “Well, I worry about people who retire but don’t play golf. How do they fill 12 hours of every day? I can do that simply looking for lost balls.” Before then, though, he hopes to be talking us through one last Scotland triumph.
He commentated on the victories over the Auld Enemy on the way to Scotland’s 1984 and 1990 Grand Slams, also Wales’ defeat of England which confirmed the Dark Blues as winners of the last-ever Five Nations – a blast of haggis-flavoured hyperbole which, if it happened now amid all the Beeb’s knicker-wetting over balance and the dreaded inclusivity, might result in a full-scale inquiry. For The Saturday Interview, Robbo recreates it: “I think it went something like this: ‘Scott Gibbs takes the ball on the burst… he smashes through two tackles and sprints for the line… he scores! This try, if it’s converted, will mean that Scotland will be Five Nations champions for this season, for 1999 and FOR EVERMORE!’ As far as I know, the clip still gets re-run in bloopers compilations at BBC Sport, as an example of how not to commentate!”
To even things up, he went a bundle on Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning drop-goal for England in 2003, which caused some surprise in his homeland, although he had a ready explanation: “New Zealand were favourites for that tournament and the bookies put England behind South Africa and Australia as well at something like 14-1. I phoned my man at Ladbrokes, asked for odds of 20-1 and got them, putting on a tidy bet. That was why I was so excited when the kick sailed over.”
The son of a Highlands bank manager and sometime footballer for the old Caledonian team in Inverness, Robertson grew up in Edinburgh’s New Town – in your correspondent’s Great King Street, to be precise, and there follows some reminiscing about milk horses and Madame Doubtfire’s second-hand clothes emporium which need not concern you readers.
At George Watson’s College he was a useful cricketer, even squeezing into the sport’s bible: “Down the years I’ve guested on Test Match Special. Geoff Boycott would always wail: ‘Oh no, ’ere he cooms again, Wisden 1962, what a load of bollocks!’ I’m proud of my entry, although I rather think it was an indictment of the standard of Scottish cricket.”
In ’68, Scottish rugby was in a less than perky state and after three defeats Robertson got his chance against England at Murrayfield. The Scotsman’s Norman Mair welcomed the new cap but cautioned: “He has all the component parts of a class stand-off but sometimes the pieces come apart.” “Oh, harsh!” says our man. “But perfectly fair! Norman would have meant my tackling. I remember looking in on Bill McLaren shortly before he passed away. John Frame, my mate from Scotland days, drove me down to Hawick. Bill’s wife Bette said: ‘His memory’s not too good now so don’t be upset if he doesn’t acknowledge you’. But, quick as a flash, he went: ‘I. Robertson – Watsonians, Aberdeen University, Cambridge University, London Scottish, the Barbarians and Scotland. Couldn’t kick, never tackled!’
“You know, stand-offs didn’t tackle very much in that era. At Watsonians I had a chap to do mine for me – Allan McNish. ‘Bravo, Alan! Another super block!’ Although I went on tour with Scotland to Argentina [’69] and when I tried to jump out of the way of a man-mountain by the name of [Alejandro] Travaglini on the charge in the first Test, he veered straight towards me. We collided and somehow I managed to hold on to him. My captain, Jim Telfer, ran past us, shouting: ‘Great tackle! Oh for f***’s sake it’s you!’ ”
That was an eventful expedition. Civil unrest caused one game to be postponed because of the threat of sniper fire – surely a rugby first. At a post-match reception, Robertson was surprised to see the beefiest Argentine props sip delicately from glasses of red wine which had been diluted and decided to knock his back, neat. It was lethal stuff and Telfer, who also acted as coach, was severely dischuffed when his stand-off was groggy and green around the gills at the next day’s training. “After the session he ordered me off the bus, told me to walk the ten miles back to the hotel. But I’d just won on the horses – at 66-1 – thanks to another tip from young Wragg. I stood up and declared: ‘Actually, I’ve just bought this bus and you, Jim, are the one walking back. And you’ll find your suitcase waiting for you in reception because I’ve bought the hotel as well!’ ”
Whizzing bullets, vicious plonk, grumpy skippers – none of this could dampen Robbo’s enjoyment of rugby and playing for his country. He remembers his debut being “very, very exciting”, despite defeat by England. After the Scots had lost at Twickenham the following season, there was a spot of rueful reflection by two stalwarts. “I think it was Gordon [Brown] and [Alastair] McHarg. One said: ‘When we beat England I only need it to be by 50 points of a margin’. The other came back: ‘Not me. I’d like us to win by one point with a try in the corner in the last minute – and afterwards for there to be conclusive proof it was a no-score!’ ” Then, in 1970, Scotland did hoist the Calcutta Cup again. Robertson, who set up Alastair Biggar’s opening try in the 14-5 win, had his best match although a short while later injury would force him to quit the game.
I. Robertson: the Tony Blair Years have, he feels, been overstated although as such an enthusiastic teller of tales this has partly been his doing. “I only had him for one Christmas term. I helped run the first XV but remember that he wasn’t at all interested in sport.” Did he compose crafty letters excusing himself from physical jerks? “No, but I’m sure he could have done. He was very bright – much cleverer than me.”
Though Fettes was spiffing he was delighted when Cliff Morgan offered him the chance to follow the Wales great into broadcasting. His teacher’s salary had been £684 a year; the Beeb’s offer was £2,400. This was a “total punt” on the part of Morgan who had a hunch Robertson’s refined Edinburgh burr would work well on the wireless. He was spot-on.
McLaren became Robertson’s mentor. “Bill took me under his wing and gently told me everything I needed to know. He said: ‘When a player goes down injured, to keep the viewers interested I’d have the notes to be able to talk about the chap for a full five minutes, no trouble at all. What about you?’ I said: ‘I could probably do five minutes as well, without notes. I’m a good bullshitter!’ Bill said that like a Boy Scout I had to be prepared. He had a thousand stats on a big sheet of paper which on the day he wouldn’t need because they’d been memorised.”
Sound advice, although none of it would be much use when, on one of his early gigs, Robertson was paired with Ollie Reed as a guest pundit. “Ollie loved his rugby, loved Rosslyn Park so much he’d paid for them to have the first floodlights in Britain – but he hadn’t turned up by the time the game had kicked off. ‘The second he does, get him on’ was the producer’s instruction in my ear.” Then the famous actor appeared – swaying behind the deadball line in a full-length mink coat. “I thought: ‘He looks refreshed’. As he climbed up the stand he was bouncing off spectators. He planted a huge kiss on my cheek and roared: ‘F*****g great to meet you!’ Correction: he was rat-arsed. There was no way I could let him on air but the producer could see from the TV that he’d arrived: ‘Get him on or you’re sacked’, he said. I lobbed an innocent line Ollie’s way about the Rosslyn forwards holding up surprisingly well. ‘No f*****g surprise to me’, he boomed. ‘We’ve got a f*****g good pack and we play f*****g great rugby’. Only one of the f**ks was broadcast. Thankfully I kept my job.”
Robertson’s showbiz dalliances didn’t stop there. A workmate at Broadcasting House was Richard Burton’s brother, Graham Jenkins. The youngest of 13 children, the pair were so alike that Jenkins acted as Burton’s body double. Jenkins asked Robertson if he’d like to collaborate on a book of Burton’s sporting heroes but shortly after signing the publishing deal the latter died of a heart attack. A few months later Jenkins had another idea: would Robertson like to write Burton’s biography? “So Graham, his sister Hilda and I were flown out to Hollywood where I met Elizabeth Taylor who was in a neck brace after a fall from her horse but still looked absolutely fantastic. We got on very well. I’m a great dog person and she had hundreds of little stumpy things, I forget the breed.
“There was wonderful art everywhere – Manet, Monet, Van Gogh. Graham and Hilda had photos taken with Elizabeth in front of their painting of choice. Elizabeth said to yours truly: ‘And where would you like me?’ I’m afraid the Dom Perignon had gone to my head because I replied: ‘How about in bed, making love?’ She laughed and said: ‘Give me a few weeks to recover from this injury and I’ll send another plane for you – you won’t be disappointed.’ I said: ‘No, I think you’ll be the one who’s disappointed!’ ”
Now Robbo must be going – he’s got to pack for the big game. There’s time for one last story from a frankly hilarious life and it concerns a previous Scotland assignment when, in search of soundbites, he got lost trying to find the team’s training pitch at Currie. “I flagged down what in the old days was called a Corporation bus. The driver said: ‘You’re the bloke off the radio, aren’t you? Follow me’. He seemed to take me seriously off his route. There was a steady stream of passengers to his cab, presumably for updates on the hijack situation.”
For all those Calcutta Cup clashes, Scottish rugby enthusiasts have been following Ian Robertson, hoping for another marvellous victory. If he gets to describe one today I reckon he might be the most excited he’s ever been. I’m not a betting man like him but I’d put a wee wager on that.