InterviewJohn McCririck

Remembering John McCririck: 'All I ever was is a journalist - the rest of it was just frippery'

When Peter Thomas met the ex-Channel 4 Racing presenter and Sporting Life reporter

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Senior features writer
John McCririck in the betting ring Newbury 29.12.12 Pic: Edward Whitaker
John McCririck: loud and stormy relationship with the armchair punters of BritainCredit: Edward Whitaker

On the fifth anniversary of the death of journalist, betting expert and broadcaster John McCririck, we remember one of racing's most recognisable public figures in an interview first published in the Racing Post on June 29, 2014.

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In the low, thick light of the rainforest, the portly man sits, surrounded by a forest of green bamboo. He is large and indistinct. As eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, the figure becomes clearer, side whiskers sprouting from a floppy beige sunhat, hairless legs protruding below three-quarter-length navy blue trousers. Birds flit among the foliage and a helicopter thrums overhead.

Perched on a reclining garden chair that may have come from Homebase, the large man has the unnerving look of Colonel Kurtz starring in a remake of Carry On Camping, but the bottle of late-morning champagne and the smoked salmon sandwiches give him away, as does the NW1 postcode on the sign at the end of the road and the memorabilia that adorns every spare inch of space (and a few more inches that aren't spare) in the living room next door.

There are pictures of John McCririck with Margaret Thatcher, John McCririck with Prince Khalid Abdullah, mementoes of John McCririck's appearances on the Jay Leno Show and countless portraits of John McCririck that either flatter or condemn, depending on your point of view.

This is, indeed, John McCririck's house, in the sub-tropical environs of Regent's Park, where jungle vegetation thrives in the hot breeze that floats up from Camden Town tube and three hungry Labradors roam the patio garden in search of abandoned crusts.

The large figure sits up in his chair and breaks the silence, even though it might be better if he didn't.

"This place is a shrine to me," he orates, with a theatrical sweep of the hand toward the cluttered walls and shelves. "It has me all over it. Sometimes I walk through the front door and think 'What kind of wonderful person lives in a house like this', and then I remember that it's me."

He takes another sip of champagne, removes the oily pink fish from another sandwich, leaves the bread behind on the plate, and warms to his subject, as his inexplicably cheerful wife Jenny (aka The Booby) brings in cups of coffee and a plate of homemade Bakewell tart.

John and Jenny McCririckRoyal Ascot 20.6.14 Pic: Edward Whitaker
John McCririck at Royal Ascot in 2014 with his long-suffering wife Jenny, aka The BoobyCredit: Edward Whitaker

"The Booby has many portfolios in this government," he explains. "She's Minister of Cooking [he likes to eat], Minister of Transport [he doesn't drive], Chancellor of the Exchequer, although there's no money in there, and she's very proud to hold these portfolios, but although it's a team effort here, every team has to have a captain and the three dogs and two cats have elected me, so I lead the team.

"Booby, go and get him a copy of my book, will you."

"He can get one for 50p on eBay," comes the reply, which seems rather more insubordinate than you might expect from a woman as downtrodden as the Booby is reputed to be.

'Big Mac' ignores the barb, orders more coffee and guts another sandwich. If he is to be believed, this is what passes for normality in the McCririck household, but to the casual observer their relationship (his whole life, for that matter) is like the light in a refrigerator: you want to know what happens to it when you close the door and walk away.

If the Booby is truly the multi-tasking Minister of Serfdom in the McCririck household, then her life will have been even more unbearable than usual this past year or so, given that hubby was very publicly and noisily axed from his principal role as the most recognisable face of British racing on Channel 4.

A tribunal ruling that he had not been the victim of age discrimination effectively ended 30 years of chauvinism, antagonism, bombast and bawdy vaudeville entertainment from the betting rings of Britain, with the arch entertainer leaving behind him many of the characters – Lord Snooty, the Pouting Heiress, the Female et al – he had created and adorned with nicknames that stuck.

Some viewers had been appalled by his presence on their screens and crowed at his departure; others had loved to hate him, revelled in the impropriety and were sad to see the back of a character who was not so much politically incorrect as politically beyond help.

As a result of the ruling, McCririck, himself the bit-part star of countless hours of populist TV, now finds himself at 74 reliant upon Jeremy Kyle for company of a morning. The man without whom no show whose title included the word 'Celebrity' was ever complete, who once threw darts underarm with Phil 'The Power' Taylor on Bullseye, went Through the Keyhole, upstaged Richard and Judy, Anne and Nick and Dick and Dom, and succumbed to the advances of Loose Women, is now the reluctant viewer rather than the grateful object of televisual ire and indignation.

And for all his assurances that he won't be banging on about Channel 4 this morning, his irritation gets the better of him before the Bakewell has a chance to intervene, and it's not long before the calamity of the Royal Ascot viewing figures parts the bamboo and launches itself into the conversation.

"I'm not gloating about them," he explains, "because I know how bad it is for racing, and we must never underestimate the seriousness of this. I can't even say things would be better if all the old team came back, and whatever I say, it'll either be sour grapes or I'm trying to crawl back in, so I say nothing, but the theory was that I was so unpopular that I was bringing the ratings down, and look what's happened to them now – the viewers are doing the talking.

"I was sacked after 29 years without a single word, and now I'm an outsider, on the sidelines and without a purpose in life, but my greatest feeling of failure about losing the case is I've let down so many people who will now not be able to bring an age discrimination case.

"The anonymous suits and skirts who control companies will be freer now than ever before to make any excuse up to get rid of anybody that's older and that is my biggest regret."

It's the voice of a man who, for all his proud declaration of himself as a right-wing Tory, has carried through his career a grievous sense of injustice and a burning need to right the wrongs he sees around him. His days as 1978 British Press Awards Campaigning Journalist of the Year at The Sporting Life may have been subsumed by his Morning Line role as self-appointed guardian of punters' rights, but the flame of righteousness still burns bright in his soul.

His much-trumpeted alma mater of Harrow School may have been an unlikely breeding ground for such revolutionary fervour, but much of what emerges about McCririck in the next couple of hours is unlikely, and if it doesn't quite contradict what his agent might have us believe, it certainly has the power to bring us up short and reconsider this out-of-work icon of the showbusiness world.

Born in Surrey, raised in Jersey by parents who thrived in property development, schooled privately in the Channel Islands from the age of six, the young McCririck was, so he says, beaten by the bigger boys to the point where he developed a boarder's sense of grievance and self-preservation.

Michael Tabor and John McCririckLongchamp 13.5.12 Pic:Edward Whitaker
John McCririck in discussion with Michael Tabor at Longchamp in 2012Credit: Edward Whitaker

At Harrow in the 1950s, he floundered academically but as a consequence learned lessons about social prejudice that would inform the mindset of the rest of his life – and he doesn't exempt himself from the harsh judgement that he passes on the system that shaped him.

"My mother had the great ambition for me to go to prep school, Harrow, the Guards and the diplomatic corps," he recalls, sipping once more from his gilt-edged glass. "That was the plan but things started to go wrong quite early.

"You could get into Harrow with no brains and a lot of cramming, so I crawled in and got three O levels, like John Major, but it was the last of the generations that didn't have to work. Life owed you a living, so if you weren't very bright you became a district commissioner in Bechuanaland, looking after the natives, or something. It wasn't done to swot and work.

"They had some state scholars at the school, who of course were absolutely brilliant, first-class athletes and great brains and so the rest of us despised them, because none of us worked and none of us was clever. So we called them the SS, which is bad enough now but back then, just after the war, you can imagine what it was like. It was a horrible moral upbringing and I'm ashamed to tell the story."

Burdened with this sense of shame and inflicted with a lifelong love of Newcastle United FC by an uncle from Geordieland, he carved his niche as school bookmaker (alongside a young Julian Wilson) and emerged from his days of privilege to take his place in the kitchens at the Dorchester Hotel, waiting on Harold Macmillan, failing as a trainee manager and ending up in the mid-1960s as a private handicapper, taking on the might of Timeform with his own Formindex.

"My plan was nothing because I had no education and the world owing me a living clearly wasn't working," he says. "I thought it was an easy way of making a living, backing racehorses, swanning around the tracks and going on nice holidays, but it soon became apparent the knowledge and the self-control weren't quite there."

So he became a board man in the newly fledged betting shops of the age, made a book with scant success in the silver ring, reinvented himself as coursing correspondent of The Sporting Life and finally found an outlet for his combustible views as chief reporter.

"I always wanted to lead on a decent story rather than a tip," he explains. "I always had a sense of outrage about things, as a political bias – not to help people along, just to give them the chance to help themselves. I don't believe in equality but I do believe in equality of opportunity.

"My colleagues hated me, of course," he shrugs, "but I've always been a bit of an outsider and it was a two-way thing, so I can't blame them."

John McCririck and Alastair Down on At The RacesRoyal Ascot 19.6.13 Pic: Edward Whitaker
John McCririck with Alastair Down and Sean Boyce (right) on At The Races in 2013Credit: Edward Whitaker

Seizing on an unequal opportunity, McCririck flaunted the old school tie to inveigle his way into the back room of the BBC – where Wilson was already established – and thus began his loud and stormy relationship with the armchair punters of Britain, as he bounced around from the Beeb to ITV and, finally, to his spiritual home on Channel 4 Racing and The Morning Line.

Along the way he fought hard to bring in punter-friendly innovations, slowly developing a reputation as a cussed and belligerent crusader with a streak of eccentricity that entertained and irritated in equal measure.

He would travel to the Life offices from his home by tricycle, quite possibly in the cloak and deerstalker that became his trademark garb, and eventually took his TV-friendly look to the unsuspecting racecourse, pioneering the role he made his own as the flamboyant voice of the betting ring, starting with a seat-of-pants broadcast from Shergar's Derby.

"The best thing was that there was nobody to compare you with," he remembers with relish. "If you're a disc jockey, there are thousands of them and people can compare who's better than you and who's worse. But there's not too many fat people wandering around the betting ring waving their arms about, so it was good. You just made up your own rules.

"My thought was always, if I was sitting at home, what would I like to know now, what bit of information would I most like to have from the racecourse? I had the privilege to be there and it was my guiding principle to share that privilege with the viewer.

"But it developed naturally. I didn't change myself very much. The tricycle was just a practical way to travel across London carrying loads of form books and newspapers – and a bit safer than a bicycle. I always wore a cloak, because if it's warm you can let it loose and if it's cold you can wrap up in it. I always had big pockets for papers, not for money. I always wore a deerstalker because if it's windy you can turn it round and tie it under your chin to stop it flying off.

"It's not an image thing, it's just convenient. I never thought of myself as an eccentric or somebody cultivating an image. It was just me – and I love a cigar, too."

John McCririckRoyal Ascot 20.6.14 Pic: Edward Whitaker
John McCririck: "I love a cigar, too"Credit: Edward Whitaker

Shorn of his TV role and subsisting on Big Brother and its offshoots, the person once voted second-most hated man in Britain, behind only Simon Cowell, evokes something approaching sympathy as he lounges amid a fug of Cuban cigar smoke in the bijou jungle.

His regret at failing the victims of ageism is matched only by bitterness at the treachery he feels was visited on him by former colleagues in a position to save him, and the employment limbo in which he now finds himself.

"I've worked every day of my life, never missed a day for illness, never been late for a job," he says. "My motto is that work comes first, before family, because if you're not working you can't look after your family. Everything else is secondary, but I'm on the fringes now.

"All I ever was is a journalist, and the rest of it – the reality TV and the other stuff – was just frippery that I got paid for. I don't need the oxygen of publicity, I just want to work. I wake up in the morning now with no purpose in life and it's hard to bear when I see what's happening at Channel 4.

"The trouble is too many of the people making the decisions there don't like betting. If they could have racing without betting they'd do it, but the viewers clearly don't agree."

Behind the champagne, the cigar smoke and the cloak of celebrity sits a proper journalist with a lifelong hatred of the unjust and a lingering sense of resentment. The "suits and the skirts" may have silenced him for now, but in the punting jungle something is still stirring.

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