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A storm in a tea-cup

During the BBC’s television coverage of the 2015 Open – by the way in my view a terrific tournament, one of the best in years – veteran commentator Peter Alliss supposedly made two sexist and/or politically incorrect on-air gaffes which (I am reliable informed) resulted in a social media storm and then the BBC subsequently issuing a public apology for his temporary ‘inappropriateness’. [I say ‘am reliably informed’ above because I am not a Twitterer or Facebooker myself].

Let us rehash the charge sheet as a starter:

On the Saturday night, when the young Irish amateur Paul Dunne, then leader of the field after the third round, came off the course to be hugged by his mother, Alliss had commented into his microphone “Ah, that must be mum. Perhaps he likes older women. I don’t know, but I hope I got the right one …

Later, as the eventual winner Zach Johnson was lining up his putt to win the claret jug, his wife was shown watching intently and Alliss quipped “She is probably thinking – ‘if this goes in, I get a new kitchen …’”

Leaving aside the issue of whether the BBC was right to issue an apology at all for the present purposes – and I have views on that – today I want to pen a word or two in defence of Mr Alliss.

It is a fact of life that, career-wise, we all have a sell-by date and for those in the glare of public gaze this is all too evident. Further, nobody has a permanent right to work forever.

Take the acting profession. If you happen to be an actor or actress and by chance beautiful, you may rise to prominence because of it. Nothing wrong with that. But as time passes and youthful looks fade there’s an inevitability that at some point you will either move on to character and/or age-appropriate roles, or else risk edging towards a downwards slope.

aniston DiazActresses such as Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston spring to mind here – if your ‘genre’ is playing hip kooky young things, the ‘sell by’ date issue comes into play when you’re trying to maintain the image at or past your fortieth birthday.

Talent has something to do with it, of course – the best actors and actresses can move on to ‘meatier’ roles, albeit perhaps with the odd hiccup/disaster or two along the way, relatively seamlessly.

A while back there was a media story suggesting that one day soon the technical brilliance of CGI will allow long-deceased actors and actresses to be ‘brought back to life’ by being ‘captured’ as they were in their prime and manipulated to appear in endless movie projects going forward.

Taking the proposition a stage further, one day not too far off current ‘bright young things’ might be able undergo a similar process (i.e. create a ‘brand image’) and thereafter just sit at home – or, if that is their choice, feature regularly in gossip magazines for decades afterwards on permanent holidays – whilst their computerised ‘alter egos’ star in the regulation three movies per year, raking in millions of ‘unearned’ dollars from around the world.

It’s at least possible – and therefore, one day, probably will happen.

Henry Longhurst

Henry Longhurst

With sports commentators a similar situation may one day apply. Let us suggest that on average such animals may have a ‘thirty year’ heyday in front of the mike.

Let us then imagine (this a date plucked from the air for the example) that it is 2030, by when the technology has advanced far enough so that, as I sit down in front of my television to watch Open, I can view proceedings accompanied by either a commentary from the latest broadcaster of the moment or – at my election, and selection from a list of ‘availables’ via my zapper – alternatively by (e.g.) Peter Alliss, Henry Longhurst, or indeed anyone else from the past that you might be prepared to nominate, ostensibly operating at the height of their commentating powers. Which would you choose … and what would be so wrong, or indeed bad, about having the choice anyway?

I watched a large chunk of this year’s Open over the course of its elongated five days and therefore listened to a fair whack of the 2015 vintage Peter Alliss. Yes, he’s now 84 and sounds it, but I thoroughly enjoyed his faux-bumbling gossipy (old world), but still incisive, style.

I call in evidence one contender – the name escapes me – who on Saturday suddenly yanked a shot wide left, off the fairway and into the crowd. There was a short silent pause before Alliss commented, almost in shock, “That’s an awful shot …” – a phrase that not only summed up what every viewer at home was thinking but was all that needed to be said.

Part of the Open’s appeal to the mass audience is the sense of history that it engenders in its onlookers – and indeed, on the evidence of this year as much as any other, its participants. Having a commentator on board who can recall things that happened sixty years ago adds immeasurably to the experience in my view. Yes, as a commentator Peter Alliss – like everyone who ever lived – has a ‘sell by’ date, and he may be nearing it, but as the broadcaster it was and is the BBC’s responsibility to decide when that is. Nobody wants to hear a favourite public figure make a fool of him (or her) self on air. But once you have decided to let someone ‘do’ another year, you should support him, not publicly excuse/humiliate him if he happens to make a mistake or inadvertently go off-message in today’s Nanny Stated world.

We’ve all done it. Some two decades and more ago now – when I was under forty – I was conducting a well-attended management meeting at the company I then worked for. One of my junior colleagues, from what we then called the Personnel department but would probably today be called Human Resources, was black.

[Here I must risk being damned rather in the style of people who begin a contribution to a conversation with “No offence, but …” just before they about to be offensive, by mentioning that I do not consider myself to be at all racial prejudiced].

Nevertheless, in mid-flow whilst summing up the options before us regarding a tricky employment-related situation, I suddenly found myself uttering the phrase “The nigger in the woodpile on this issue is that …”

After the meeting was over, said lady popped into my office and – to give her great credit – firmly but without undue emotion tore me off a strip about it, saying that she had been deeply offended. I was absolutely mortified. I hadn’t meant to be offensive. I’d go so far as to suggest that – because I regarded her as just as a valuable colleague as anyone else in the room and we had been working closely together for at least eighteen months at the time – I hadn’t even thought at all. My error perhaps, my fault. The phrase, which had probably been familiar in my family and in books and/or television broadcasts for thirty years by then, had just slipped out of my mouth. My resulting apology was grovelling, abject and genuine. The lady accepted it and the matter was forgotten. Or at least I hope it was (I guess there’s at least a chance that she still resents me for it even to this day).

My point is, the remarks Peter Alliss made which have caused such derision were borne of his background life experience and age. In his day, men went out to work and women stayed at home as housewives and mothers – that’s how things were then. Plus, for probably 50% of the television audience (those over fifty?) they were unremarkable because they could recall from their own experience that this was exactly how things were back in their own youth.

If Alliss had been Jeremy Clarkson, the remarks would have laced with irony and deliberate … and also, of course, fans of Clarkson’s lack of political correctness would have loved them. Alliss made them because of who he is and without any intent.

They amount to maybe thirty seconds of perhaps thirty hours or more of broadcasting work he undertook over the tournament.

whiteIt’s a bit like when The Beatles’ White Album was issued.

It was a brilliant double album packed with a mind-boggling array of different musical styles and yet there was a lasting furore over the fact that, in a montage of photographs on the inner loose-leaf sleeve there was a single, tiny black-and-white shot of Paul McCartney larking about in his home bathroom behind a pillar … in which a tuft of public hair was visible.

In other words, people who take offence at such things, set in context of the majesty of the enormous achievement the entire work represented, should (I believe in the modern parlance) ‘get a life’ …
















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About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts