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NOTICE OF DEATH - MURRAY WALKER OBE (1923 - 2021)

The BRDC has already acknowledged on social media that Murray Walker passed away peacefully on Saturday at the age of 97.What follows are a few more reflections on a unique career.

Murray’s father Graham was a leading motor cycle rider in the 1920s and ‘30s for Norton, Sunbeam and Rudge-Whitworth, for the last of which he won the 250 Lightweight Isle of Man TT in 1931, the 1928 Ulster Grand Prix and many more races besides. After retiring from racing, Walker Senior took on the editorship of Motor Cycling, transforming it from a struggling magazine into the market leader. This in turn led to Graham being invited to commentate for the BBC’s radio and, such as it was in 1938, TV coverage of ‘bike racing. By the 1950s just as Raymond Baxter was the BBC’s voice of four-wheeled motor sport so Graham Walker was his equivalent on two wheels.

During World War 2 Murray saw service with the Royal Scots Greys tank regiment, rising to the rank of Captain. In the latter months of his service, after peace had been declared, Murray re-kindled his involvement in the world of motor cycle racing whilst at the same time securing a scholarship with the Dunlop Rubber Company just down the road from the parental home in Birmingham. In 1947 he became assistant to the company’s advertising manager in the tyre division and the course of his future career was set. Parallel with the day job, Murray took the opportunity to ‘try his hand’ at commentating when offered the chance through his father to provide the PA commentary at a 1948 Shelsley Walsh hillclimb. As Murray would describe it later, his ‘non-stop barrage of facts, figures, hysteria and opinion’ were heard by and impressed a BBC sports producer. After a successful audition, Murray was asked to cover the 1949 British Grand Prix as number 2 to Max Robertson who was better known for his tennis commentaries. It was literally a baptism of fire when John Bolster’s ERA crashed heavily, rolled over and caught fire at Stowe Corner directly in front of Murray’s ‘box. John was badly injured but recovered; he retired from racing and went on to become the BBC’s charismatic pit lane commentator for many years.

Over the next 10 years or so, as his career in advertising flourished, Murray’s motor sport involvement very much revolved around two wheels both as a competitor and as an increasingly busy broadcaster. Murray won a gold medal and was a member of the team which won the 1949 International Six Days’ Trial and also earned a first class award in the Scottish Six Days’ Trial. He also raced motor cycles at Brands Hatch and Cadwell Park but without any notable success. However, motor cycling commentary opportunities continued to crop up through the 1950s, Graham and Murray Walker becoming the best double act in the business on both radio and television.

Raymond Baxter continued to be the BBC’s leading voice of four-wheeled motor sport through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s while Murray sought every opportunity he could to be available and become the specialist in the TV coverage of motocross, rallycross, Formula 3, truck racing and offshore powerboat racing. Whatever type of ‘sport with engines’ it might be, Murray’s commentaries would benefit from his prodigious capacity for preparatory ‘homework’, speaking with as many of those involved in whatever branch of motor sport it might be before infusing his commentaries with an exceptional enthusiasm.

On the day that James Hunt won the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship in the dramatic Japanese Grand Prix, Simon Taylor’s BBC radio broadcast was the only live coverage available in the UK. The BBC then realised that there was a serious gap in its treatment of Formula 1 and plans were made to cover from 1978 every Formula 1 World Championship race. Initially the coverage was on an edited highlights package basis for most races and Murray was asked to provide the voiceover commentary. For the first couple of years, he worked alone but in 1980 the BBC proposed that he should be joined by the recently-retired James Hunt. Murray was unconvinced that this was a good idea, and the challenge was exacerbated initially by the fact that they had to share a single microphone to avoid the risk of talking over or interrupting each other – as if! However, the Murray and James double act, which lasted until James’s premature death in 1993, set a standard both for information and entertainment which has rarely if ever been matched since.

Alongside his F1 commentaries, Murray covered the British Touring Car Championship for BBC Grandstand from 1988, when the Group A Ford Sierra RS500s dominated, and then through the 2-litre Super Touring era of the 1990s. As with the early days of F1 coverage in 1978, so the BTCC was packaged into a highlights programme with Murray seamlessly ‘joining the dots’ with a typically frenetic commentary.

Although Murray’s commentaries were renowned for their hyperbolic excitement, when the occasion demanded a different tone, he was well able to come up with the right words, no more so than at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola when Murray and Jonathan Palmer, who had succeeded James Hunt, had to cope with the pictures showing the immediate aftermath of Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident.

In 1997 the contract for coverage of Formula 1 was lost by the BBC to ITV. So highly was Murray regarded by the decision-makers that he was one of the few from the BBC team to be asked to join ITV where he was paired with Martin Brundle. Murray’s last Grand Prix as commentator was the 2001 United States Grand Prix held at Indianapolis just 19 days after the horrific events of 9/11. Not far short of his 78th birthday, Murray called it a day but remained as enthusiastically interested in and excited by not just Formula 1 but motor racing generally, the gossip, the changes to the cars and the rising stars. He remained much in demand for guest appearances at numerous events many of which were not directly related to motor sport.

Just as Murray had the ability to make a dull race interesting so he invariably saw the best in people. He was friendly towards everyone and ruffled no feathers. Everyone in the Formula 1 paddock would give Murray the time of day. He became a proud Associate Member of the BRDC in 1985 and took a keen interest in the Club’s affairs although saddened by the attitude of some Members towards their fellow Members whom he held in the highest regard as racing drivers. In 1996 Murray was made an OBE. Two years later he received Honorary Degrees from De Montfort University (Doctor of Letters) and the University of Bournemouth (Doctor of Arts). In 2001 he was awarded the BRDC’s Gold Medal having received the BARC’s Gold Medal in 1996. There were Lifetime Achievement Awards from BAFTA (2001), the Royal Television Society (2000) and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (2001), a Television and Radio Industries Club Special Award in 1997 and the Autosport Gregor Grant Award in 1993.

Murray will always be remembered by those who had the pleasure of hearing his commentaries as the voice of Formula 1 whose enthusiasm never dimmed. If this enthusiasm sometimes caused the words to tumble out in the wrong order like the notes in Eric Morecambe’s piano, then that was part of the fun and Murray could usually see the funny side. He underplayed the demands of his job which he loved so much and which he once likened to ‘standing in the living room excitedly describing what you can see out of the window while your wife gives you a furious earful about coming home drunk with a pair of knickers in your pocket’.

Any reflection on Murray Walker’s commentary career would be incomplete without at least a couple of ‘Murrayisms’. Everyone will have their own favourites but how about: ‘Prost can see Mansell in his earphones’ or ‘I’ve just stopped my startwatch’? Whatever the mistakes, it could never be questioned that Murray had put in the hours doing his homework, talking to people and assembling the facts.

To Elizabeth, Murray’s wife whom he married in 1959, and to his many friends and fans within and outside the motor racing world, the BRDC offers its deepest condolences.

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