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He knew his audience, knew what they wanted and knew how to give it to them

Lee Mottershead on the life of one of the most recognisable faces in horseracing

John McCririck: former Channel 4 TV pundit has died aged 79
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Large and loud, he was for many the improbable face and voice of horseracing. 

He was the one the public recognised, liked, loathed and stood alongside for a picture while he made a funny face. He was the one television, radio and newspaper folk turned to when a quote or interview was needed. John McCririck undoubtedly made his presence felt.

He called himself a failed bookmaker, a failed punter and a failed journalist. He may have been the first two but he was certainly not the third. 

Long before he became a figure known to millions, McCririck was a hugely respected award-winning journalist. He was brave and fearless, traits he carried into his television career, together with a not inconsiderable portion of intentional silliness. He largely knew what he was doing, and he did it supremely well.

McCririck was also many things you might not have expected him to be, not least somewhat insecure when away from the cameras, a person who would avoid gatherings and parties if he felt there would be nobody present with whom he felt comfortable. Those who knew him best have lost a man who was kind, thoughtful and exceptionally generous. The right-wing Tory views he espoused were sincerely held, yet many in his inner circle, past and present, lived at the other end of the political spectrum. They liked him enormously. Once you got to know him, he was easy to like. He was a man who was better for knowing.

John McCririck was born in Surbiton on April 17, 1940. He might not have been keen to confirm that, however, for McCririck never spoke about his age and despised birthdays, particularly his own. He also said little about his childhood, but it was unconventional, perhaps setting a trend for the person who lived it.

An only child, he spent much of his early life in Jersey, although there were regular visits to see two aunts in Chichester, from where he made trips to Goodwood. His mother, a lady with a penchant for a fur coat, planned that her son would attend prep school and Harrow before entering the diplomatic corps. McCririck was not a huge loss to international diplomacy, but he did attend prep school and Harrow, leaving the latter with three O-Levels and a friendship with the BBC's future racing correspondent Julian Wilson.

Indeed, it was at Harrow that McCririck began to dabble in bookmaking, enduring one particularly bad day when laying Wilson £5 at 1-2 about the school's athletics captain winning the spring term cross-country race. He won.

From Harrow, McCririck went to The Dorchester, which would have delighted his mother, except for the fact his time there was largely spent in the kitchens. "That catering training was totally wasted as I can't boil an egg," he would say later. "My father never ever went in the kitchen. That was my mother's place. It's the same with the Booby. She's a great cook. I always say there's more of me now than when the Booby married me. That's her fault."

John McCririck meets former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher at Royal Ascot in 2008

McCririck was never heard in public to call his wife of 48 years anything other than Booby, a nickname he gave Jenny due to what he believed were her similarities to a species of sea bird. He claimed he first saw her while she was out walking her dog. "The only reason the Booby got hold of me was through a labrador called Simon," he said. "I had never had a dog but always wanted one. It infuriated her mother that on the wedding invitation we wrote the wedding would be hosted by Simon the Dog." 

The mother in question did not immediately warm to her son-in-law, although the feelings of hostility were initially reciprocated. Once, on returning to the couple's then Bolsover Street flat, McCririck was met by his mother-in-law. She took one look at her daughter's beau and said: "You had no idea I was here, did you?" Quick as a flash, McCririck replied: "Oh yes I did. There's a green slime all the way up the stairs." Despite that, they were reconciled.

Before the Booby and Simon the Dog there was Wingy the Bookie. After a spell working for Boots on London's Edgware Road, McCririck became involved with a one-armed street bookmaker he described as smelly and nasty. Among McCririck's roles was to guard Wingy's preferred telephone box. That paid the bills for a while, but as soon as betting shops first opened in May, 1961, McCririck fell into their thrall and began working in them.

From 1965 to 1970 he was employed as a private handicapper for tipping services, while on Derby day in 1971 he took punters' money during a short and unsuccessful stint as a racecourse bookmaker. McCririck had yet to find his calling.

It turned out he had two callings. Both were soon to call him. 

His entry into mainstream journalism came when he secured a job with The Sporting Life, for which he gained his first big break thanks to the publication's hare coursing correspondent taking his last breath during the Barbican Cup meeting. Editor Ossie Fletcher needed to find a replacement at short notice and duly dispatched McCririck to the event with a first-class rail ticket and a bicycle. From that lowest rung his star soared, principally because of his brilliance as an investigative journalist.

In 1978 he was named specialist writer of the year at the British Press Awards, blessed with a portfolio of pieces that included coverage of the Rochester greyhound coup – which would have bagged those behind it £350,000 had bookmakers paid out – and a scandal linked to betting office commentary provider Extel, whose policy to give off times by the minute not the second meant criminals were able to back dogs after races had started if the commentaries were slightly delayed.

John McCririck and Sir Alex Ferguson are deep in conversation at Ascot in 2008

One year later McCririck was named campaigning journalist of the year, this time after persistence paid off and he proved the Tote was authorising bets following the off in order to reduce dividends. As a result of 'Totegate', home secretary Willie Whitelaw set up an independent inquiry that came close to forcing chairman Woodrow Wyatt – almost as famous a cigar chomper as McCririck – to quit the organisation.

By now McCririck's outward demeanour was well established. He was noisy, flashy, arrogant and prone to make sexist, vulgar, outlandish statements. He was therefore perfectly suited to television. 

That first came through ten years behind the scenes as a sub editor on the BBC's iconic Saturday afternoon sports programme Grandstand. McCririck landed the position through what he called 'the old school tie', in his case a recommendation from Wilson. He adored Frank Bough but detested David Coleman.

A senior BBC executive who defected to ITV then asked McCririck – also a devoted follower of greyhound racing – to work on the London region's Friday evening sports programme. He now had a foothold in front of camera, but his time with The Sporting Life, which he viewed as the happiest of his life, was about to come to an end, linked to rumours he owed money to bookmakers.

By 1984, when the Daily Star printed a front-page story linked to his alleged gambling debts, McCririck was already an integral part of television racing coverage. His TV bosses stood by him. McCririck was way too valuable to lose.

The betting ring would be his home, first for ITV and then Channel 4, which assumed full control of racing output on commercial television in 1985. Once hired by Andrew Franklin, the man who became his boss for more than three decades, McCririck enjoyed his first high-profile gig when part of the ITV team for Shergar's Derby in 1981. More than one star was born that Wednesday afternoon.

John McCririck in the betting ring at Doncaster in 2002

Nobody had ever done what McCririck did – and he did it brilliantly. Not only did he possess a masterful understanding of his subject, he was a natural performer. His updates from the ring were accompanied by flamboyant tic-tac gesticulation and references like "Burlington Bertie, 100-30".

He would shout at punters who waved while he was broadcasting, bringing a sense of fun to the programmes. That was enhanced by him bestowing pet names upon his Channel 4 Racing team members. John Oaksey was The Noble Lord and John Francome became The Greatest Jockey. In later years Alice Plunkett and Emma Spencer were known as Saucy Minx and Pouting Heiress. They appeared not to mind, for although McCririck could seem disparaging towards women, addressing the ladies who worked in the Channel 4 gallery as "Girlies", all those ladies loved him. They could see behind the act.

John McCririck with John Francome, who he labelled 'The Greatest Jockey'

But it wasn't all knockabout humour. McCririck spent hours preparing for programmes, creating thick handwritten books filled with notes, facts and results of races compiled over decades. He placed the punter and viewer central to everything he did. When he was the first on screen after a commercial break, he would often say: "It's great to have you back with us." There was strong emphasis on the word "you". McCririck was also the one selected when someone was needed to carry out a heavyweight interview, especially with a politician. Given he was a political junkie who once sat down with Margaret Thatcher for the Daily Mail, that played perfectly to his strengths.

McCririck's celebrity status grew and grew, even in his beloved America, where he often popped up on television during his annual holiday to the Breeders' Cup. They called him 'Mutton Chops' because of his wild whiskers. They probably also loved his colossal rings, flamboyant outfits and many hats. The monster cries of "Howay the Lads" – he was a massive Newcastle United fan – may have been lost on them.

Aside from the time McCririck's hat was blown off by the wind one racing afternoon, nobody ever saw the top of his head, with the possible exception of the Booby. That was until McCririck – who by now had formed a betting ring double act with Tanya Stevenson, who he dubbed The Female – became a housemate in Channel 4's 2005 series of Celebrity Big Brother. The millions watching saw not only McCririck's head but also his baggy white underpants. He was wearing nothing else at the time. McCririck unashamedly said he took the job for the money. He took more money when hired for Celebrity Wife Swap, during which he was required to live with Edwina Currie. The pair did not bond particularly well.

John McCririck attends the Central London Employment Tribunal for his case against Channel 4 in 2013

Come 2012 those programmes were in the mind of TV executives putting together the new-look Channel 4 Racing team. Having for years been paid to cover racing, Channel 4, motivated by bookmaker advertising, flashed the cash and gained an exclusive mainstream deal, forcing the BBC out of televised racing. Also forced out was Highflyer, the company that had produced Channel 4's coverage to that point. Among those dropped was McCririck. His appearances had already been reduced by Channel 4 sport boss Andrew Thompson and his successor Jamie Aitchison. The latter, together with the IMG team that replaced Highflyer, decided that from January 1, 2013, McCririck was not wanted at all.

The man who had been Channel 4 Racing's most famous employee was incensed. He launched a £3 million age discrimination case against Channel 4. Had he simply sought to prove unfair dismissal he might conceivably have won. Instead he lost, the tribunal panel noting in its judgement: "All the evidence is that Mr McCririck's pantomime persona, as demonstrated on the celebrity television appearances, and his persona when appearing on Channel 4 Racing, together with his self-described bigoted and male chauvinist views, were clearly unpalatable to a wider audience." 

At his side that day, and all days, was his wife. John and Jenny McCririck were the tightest of units. Quite how he wooed her in their courtship days one can only imagine, but it worked. He adored her. He also could not have lived without her. She organised his life, cooked for him, drove him everywhere and defended him to the hilt. They were inseparable.

John and Jenny McCririck at Royal Ascot in 2014

She knew all his faults but also all his qualities, many of which were seen only by those in his inner circle. Her husband was fiercely loyal to his friends and unfailingly generous. He was kind, helpful and supportive. He also abhorred anything he considered to be the mistreatment of horses and campaigned to have the whip banned. 

McCririck was educated at Harrow, dined regularly at The Ivy, quaffed Dom Perignon champagne, lived in a plush Primrose Hill home and spoke with horror at the mere thought of flying in what he referred to as "cattle class". He was not a man of the people, yet few racing broadcasters have been so blessed with the common touch. He knew his audience, he knew what they wanted and he knew how to give it to them.

John McCririck achieved much in his life but to most people he was the large, loud, eccentric man who talked about racing on the telly. He was probably very pleased about that.


Read about other racing eccentrics

David Ashforth's interview with John Manners

David Ashforth on the colourful riding career of the Duke of Alburquerque

David Ashforth on Tim Forster


 

 

Nobody had ever done what McCririck did - and he did it brilliantly
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