‘FOLLOW that,” Simon Bates could have said when he quit the breakfast show on Smooth Radio.
“Follow Our Tune, which of course I brought with me from Radio 1 and will be taking away along with my control-desk gonks – they called the segment gloopy and creepy but they all listened. Follow my despatches from Afghanistan with Our Brave Boys. Follow my dedications for the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo – tasteful tracks to encourage mating because Tian Tian and Yang Guang, don’t you know, were regular listeners.” Bates could have said all of this and more when he handed over to Andrew Castle – “But he simply wished me luck and told me to give it three weeks and I’d be fine.” From one smoothie to another, that was enough.
So now that’s two of broadcasting’s great redoubtables whose mics have passed to Castle. Batesy and Maskelly, not that we ever thought of the Voice of Tennis as anything other than The Hon. Mr Dan Maskell Esq. Lead commentator at Wimbledon is Castle’s gig and last year that meant finding the right words to describe Andy Murray’s triumph. I ask him for his best words from that afternoon and he thinks for a moment. This isn’t a Maskelly pause for sure – these were long and legendary – but then he does say: “It’s a bit naughty to even suggest you liked something you said but we were all watching a fantastic match, weren’t we? No, not quite [a fantastic] match but right at the end there was a fantastic game. In the commentary box there was no one – not Boris [Becker] or Tim [Henman] or myself – who was thinking anything other than an Andy victory. Andy was going to win Wimbledon, which was fabulous – but suddenly Novak Djokovic was looking like if he’d won that game he could conceivably go on and snatch the title. When he had advantage on Andy’s serve for the umpteenth time there was this deathly quiet moment and I said: ‘Sporting immortality doesn’t come easy.’”
We’re conducting this conversation in two instalments. The second will be between matches at Wimbledon in a room full of tennis superstars with Roger Federer passing Castle as he tells me about his turn on Strictly Come Dancing, the “bumgate” controversy over his stuck-out bahookie and the revelation – which came from his wife Sophia but which I don’t think he was too unhappy about – that he’d jump out of bed in the middle of the night to practise his tango lunges in the scud. Then Rafa Nadal ambles by as our man discusses the use of white phosphorus in warfare. But let’s begin with Castle signing off for the morning at Smooth to the joyous clatter of Martha and the Vandellas, and after nipping back to his London home to give the Polish scaffolders next door the use of his patio, he’s ready to talk.
“Ask me anything you want,” the 50-year-old says and we start with some pit-pat about the art of broadcasting and how he feels sorry for much-slagged-off football summariser Phil Neville. “To Phil’s great credit he came right out and said he didn’t think commentating was going to be so difficult. Even though I was a pretty experienced broadcaster by the time of my first Wimbledon final my executive producer said to me: ‘This isn’t a tennis match, it’s an event.’ No one needs me to get technical about string patterns and hopefully there’s always enough great drama so I’ll never have to.”
We continue our warm-up over music radio, how he inherited his taste in rock (Pink Floyd, Genesis, Deep Purple) from his three older brothers and how he used to follow the Radio 1 Roadshow round England’s West Country on the back of a pal’s motorbike, believing implicitly in the “jocks” in their too-tight satin-look shorts. But after recent revelations isn’t that memory tainted? “Yes, it is and I’m very sad. The damage done to the girls involved is the main concern but it’s undermining for someone like me who grew up with these guys and disturbing that what some of them did went unchecked.”
We think of sportsmen being wired into their favourite sounds, pre-competition, as a modern phenomenon but did he use music as motivation before games? “Well, it was Sony Walkmans in my day. Mikael Pernfors of Sweden had the first one I ever saw. Light-blue metallic, an amazing piece of kit. I was deeply envious but they cost 150 bucks. Eventually I saved up for a cheaper version. Don Henley from the Eagles had a great song called Boys of Summer – remember that one? I had it on repeat when I wasn’t listening to Genesis’ double-album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and believe me – 35 weeks on the road, and not playing the nice places you’d find Andy Murray – I needed my music.”
The doyen of TV critics, Clive James, loved Wimbledon for the unintentional comedy the BBC’s coverage provided. He never missed a Harry Carpenter “rain commentary”, when the anchor’s filling-in powers were stretched like the protective covers on the courts. This was while Cliff Richard was still bothering the hit parade and so didn’t need to self-promotingly lead a Centre Court singsong to while away the longeurs. James described the 1980 Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe final as the greatest tennis match since Maskell vs Henry VIII. And the critic always noted how quickly Britain’s hopefuls would end up in the commentary box after the traditional early exits from the tournament. Back then – the 1970s – there was Mark Cox. Then came John Lloyd. And by the time Henman turned up in the box, Castle was already in place. Our chat is bouncing along quite nicely with Castle displaying the easy banter he can utilise for game shows and game points, but I manage to offend him when I describe his playing career as “brief”. What I mean, I think, is that the fluttery expectation about him was short-lived, but he points out: “Mate, I had a good eight years. Do you know how long you get at the game on average? One year. And yet players who’ve only been around for a year talk in terms of their ‘career’. Good luck to them.”
I had the wrong impression about Castle and I think I know why: it’s the hair. Those thick locks arranged in a high bouffant found on the pop stars more usually admired by a teenager of the 1980s (though credit to his brothers for passing down their good taste). A professional-looking barnet of the kind you see on the walls of barber’s shops, albeit ones which haven’t changed their photos for a few years. The kind of hairstyle which was perfect for GMTV right to the end (and Castle presented the last-ever edition). But in a tennis sense, at least to me, it said: nice middle-class boy with a nice court in his parents’ garden.
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” he laughs. “If I could sum myself up it would be: ‘Council house, fish-and-chip shop, business goes bust, parents’ marriage fails, thank goodness for tennis.’ If I hadn’t managed to keep my game going then I would have found a whole lot of trouble in life, believe me.”
Dad Frank was a master fishmonger and the family lived above the shop, first in Surrey then Somerset. Aged nine, a pal challenged Castle to a game of tennis. “I can remember everything about that day, from the feel of the ball on the racquet to the sound it made hitting the net. After that I practised like mad on a gravel car-park belonging to the pub next door, knocking balls against our shop wall. “I owe absolutely everything to my family,” he says of a career – for this was what it was – which took him to British No 1 and 80th in the world. “My parents saved their pennies so I could have decent kit and my sister and brothers would man the shop while Mum took me training – then she’d drive me 50 miles to tournaments.”
But Frank’s fish took a battering from the new fast foods – hamburgers – and he was declared bankrupt. He and wife Lyn became taxi drivers. “Money was extremely tight, which was a horrible, permanent feeling of discomfort.” Castle won a tennis scholarship to Somerset’s Millfield School but at 15 his parents separated and he had to leave. Another scholarship sent him to Kansas. “I cried myself to sleep for a year out of loneliness and earned barely enough to eat by giving blood out of my arm to a plasma bank for ten bucks a time. I lived in this old rambling wooden house, occasionally sharing with snakes and Black Widow spiders. And remember we were talking about the Eagles? The place used to be owned by Joe Walsh’s grandmother and he spent summer holidays there as a kid. Funnily enough, he’s playing the O2 this very night. Maybe I should go along and shout: ‘Hey Joe! Were there snakes in your day, too?’”
This sounds like the daft, impulsive thing the young Castle would do. After a £30,000 tournament win in 1988 he went straight out and bought a TVR sports car. “Shaped like a phallus – what an idiot,” he groans. Two years later he was threatening to show up for Wimbledon “on a big motorbike covered in bats and skull-and-crossbones”. But that year a threat was carried through: at the Prudential National Championships he walked on court and plonked a placard by his chair saying “No to Poll Tax”.
“I’ve always been extremely active in the old head,” he says, “and sometimes I’ve wished I thought a little bit less. But to me the poll tax was wrong – it was killing my friends and I hated it. I got s**t for my protest.” The Beeb threatened to pull live transmission, Castle lost his £9000 prize money and was fined a record £2400, hit with a gagging order and suspended from the Davis Cup. The placard had “Hello Mum in Taunton” on the other side; despite that the old dear wasn’t pleased. “‘What a bloody idiot’ was her reaction.” Castle quit tennis in ’91 when Sophia, who’s half-Swedish, fell pregnant. They’d met in a Tokyo hotel lobby when she was an air hostess for Japan Airlines. “After an hour I knew she was the woman I wanted to marry.”
The couple have two daughters with the eldest, Georgia, 21, pursuing a career in singing. “She’s been asked if she wanted to go on The X Factor. I don’t want to sound pompous but she’s just graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama having learned a craft. The X Factor can often just be for Christmas.” Meanwhile, Claudia, 19 and still at uni, is “the family psychologist – she’s owned me since she was born.” Spinning back in the other direction Castle’s family history – he’s been doing the research – is fascinating. His great-great grandmother was Annie Beasant who led the matchgirls’ strike in London’s East End. A fierce campaigner for workers’ rights, she was an early champion of birth control, was attacked by The Times for being “indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene” – but is rated by historian Simon Shama as being ahead of Florence Nightingale the most important woman of the Victorian era.
Castle reckons he shares Annie’s passion but also her tendency to self-destruct. Just as she was troublesome for the Victorians, so was he for the LTA. “I was the most-fined player on the ATP tour. Swearing at umpires and line-judges, chucking my racquet around – big-time rebellion. I railed against authority – I was terribly angry for a lot of my youth. My attitude was: ‘Why should I listen to anybody? No one apart from my family has ever been there for me.’ So I couldn’t have a coach or take advice about diet and getting a good night’s sleep – stuff that would have helped my game. Did I have a chip on my shoulder? You bet, but I thought it was merited. I’d seen my mother in tears from having to beg to the LTA for funding for me. And when I actually did get some it was then taken away and given to someone else who I then beat 6-0, 6-0.”
Now the chat has switched to the All England Club where Castle waits for his next turn at the mic. “I just decided that tennis wasn’t enough for me,” he says. After a stint at sports reporting for Sky he commentated on the Daytona 500. GMTV was a decade-long gig where he interviewed everyone from Miss Peggy to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is where the white phosphorus comes in. “I was told on no account was I to ask about it being dropped in the Gaza Strip so of course that was my first question.” At Wimbledon, he’s done every men’s final since 2003.
He loves the box, his place of work. “This is the best view in all tennis, as close to the players as the umpire.” He loves his commentating buddies, with one legend in Becker having just vacated his perch for another – Jimmy Connors. And Castle would love to see Murray win again.
So what’s all this stuff about him being anti-Scottish? Admittedly the stooshie of a few years back was cranked up by the tartan tabloids but he insists it’s without foundation. “I never called Andy British when he won and Scottish when he lost, which is the usual problem. I called him British from the start until last year when he was ‘Scottish and British’.” Okay, but did he not say that a Henman-Murray match was “Fine red wine versus Alcopops?” He laughs. “I was only describing what was in front of me at that time, skinny-up-top Andy with his nasty sideburns – although I actually loved that look. But what a transformation. The sofa in the Castle house – my wife and daughters – is in absolute awe. When he takes off his tracksuit top he looks like a racehorse – he looks like a rock.”
Good response, very smooth.