By now you will have read many words about the death of John McCririck. A larger than life character who could not be missed in the betting ring of racecourses the world over. He has died from lung cancer, aged 79. He led a full and eventful life.
Many of those articles will have been well written. Much better than anything I could scribe here. They’ll have been written by wordsmiths. Professionals who planned ahead, so evident was it for so long that the man nicknamed ‘Bic Mac’ was dying.
Those tributes will be written not only by those paid to do so, but also by people who knew him much better than I. Those who spent sober and drunk days in his company. None more brilliant than Alastair Down who pays tribute here.
Read that and weep at how the Racing Post newspaper thought it was worthwhile saving salaries on experienced staff writers. Alastair could often write better when pissed than most can when sober. There seems little point anyone else writing an obituary to McCririck after that. So I shall simply offer some personal observations.
I’m always struck by how, when people in the public eye die, the tributes are glowing. The graveyards must be full of perfect people. I do try to follow the advice given to Thumper in the original ‘Bambi’ film. ‘If you can’t say something good, don’t say nothing at all.’ It’s not easy in this day and age. Social media prods you with a stick on a daily basis.
John McCririck was no angel. He was not perfect. Who among us is? I despised his pro Trump, pro Farage, right of Genghis Khan politics. But I never found him to be some of the things others accused him of. Accusations levelled at him because he’d say stupid things to provoke outrage. Perhaps he meant them. Maybe he was ‘hiding in plain sight’ so to speak. But those who knew him well say that’s not the case.
Let’s put it this way, during my twenty five years working in television, I’ve dealt with far worse. So had John. People who got to their graves before the truth about their behaviour became public. If it did.
My late mother always told me to: “speak as you find.” While that advice has been found wanting couple of times at least that I know of, I can only speak as I found when it comes to John McCririck.
I booked him for TV shows no more than four times. More importantly, I write as a viewer who watched his career as a friend of the punter speed along, before hitting the buffers.
I’m glad so many people have pointed to the fact that John was, in a former life, a very good journalist. His investigative journalism of the 70’s got lost in the television persona. John was exposing the dirty deeds of some big bookmaking companies long before his face became famous to millions. He deservedly won awards for his well researched investigations. In 1979 he was named campaigning journalist of the year, following his exposé of improper practices at the Tote under the chairmanship of Woodrow Wyatt.
Bic Mac called a spade a shovel and did not hold back from saying what he really thought about people. I only had to utter the name David Coleman and off he went. John was a sub editor on BBC ‘Grandstand.’ For my generation, he was one of those people working behind the presenter. A source of fascination. What were they doing? For many years it was David Coleman who was presenting the day long show on a Saturday.
McCririck did not hold back when talking to me about Coleman. “An utter c**t”… “A horrible man”… “Coleman was arrogant and untrustworthy.” It should be noted that John was not the only person to say a bad word about David Coleman. But he possibly said more than most and did so for decades after they worked together. When it came to the supposed benefit of forgetting and forgiving, he and I were on the same page. We didn’t subscribe.
Despite our evident differences of opinion on some fronts, I always got on with him. He was one of those on screen people you sometimes had to placate. Listen to his complaints, apologise if need be, pacify and move on.
One day in 2003 he spent hours berating me that a taxi I had waiting for him at Nottingham railway station wasn’t there to meet him (it was). He went on and on about it. The only reason I didn’t pick him up myself is that I thought my Peugeot 205 wouldn’t be big enough for him. True, my very tall friend Rick Wakeman had squeezed into the car only the week before. But John was much wider. I thought I was doing him a favour.
Anyway, once Bic Mac had done his “just leave me alone” act, he went into his usual pre-programme trance. He talked to himself. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve been doing so for decades. Whatever show he appeared on, he will have prepared for it. He did his homework. Mentally researched what he was going to say on a discussion show I produced, the topic of which I have long forgotten. He wasn’t a guest who just turned up and busked it.
When the red light went on, so John McCririck went into performance mode. Saying controversial things, some of which he might actually have believed. Although I wouldn’t have put money on it. After the show was recorded, we shared laughs, talked football (his Newcastle versus my Sheffield Wednesday) and we parted company with the usual: “You’re a good lad, Vernon… shame about the taxi!”
Us folk in television were to blame, if that’s the word, for creating outspoken figures like John. He wasn’t like that at home. When my Yorkshire Television colleagues filmed at his lovely cottage in Primrose Hill – ‘The Trap’ – in the era when ‘Through the Keyhole’ was a sensible programme, presented by one of the greatest, and capturing 18 million viewers on a Friday night; Big Mac was all sweetness and light.
Regular TV colleagues have confirmed that he could be difficult. There’s no point pretending otherwise. His middle name might have been cantankerous. But, to be fair, I never witnessed him being the misogynist some have alleged he was. I presume that label hails from some of the dreadful so called reality shows he appeared on. Shows where reality is noticeable by its absence. I didn’t see him on ‘Big Brother.’ I saw photos of him in his underpants. That was enough. A sight we could all have lived without.
In my dealings with him he interacted charmingly with my female colleagues. In an era when social media has most shocked me by revealing the level of misogyny out there in the world, most surprisingly when voiced by the young, I can only express that based on what I saw, McCririck respected the women I worked with. Others are better qualified to comment.
On course bookmaker Julie Williams said:- “When considering the small percentage of female bookmakers to men working on racecourses, John McCririck chose to platform us. It was a clear statement. It was appreciated. His questions never patronising. To the contrary, they were supportive, challenging and forward thinking.”
Gay Kellaway, the first woman to ride a winner at Royal Ascot, tweeted: “So sad John McCririck passing away .. so kind to me when I started out as an apprentice always very supportive to lady jockeys.”
Every colleague was awarded a nickname by John. The sublime Alice Plunkett was effectionaly labelled “the saucy minx.” She has tweeted: “He was barmy, kind, frustrating, a mentor, fun, infuriating, brilliant, hard working, passionate about his sport, knowledgeable, helpful and larger than life. I have so much to thank you for. RIP Big Mac. Love from The Saucy Minx.”
Personally speaking, I miss the on screen presence and knowledge of Tanya Stevenson. For so many years she worked alongside Big Mac in the betting ring. She said this:- “I was very lucky. I loved him dearly. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without him. I was his runner prior to going in front of camera with him and I was encouraged by him to appear on air.
“His views weren’t necessarily his views. He was being devil’s advocate to incite debate, and make it lively. In doing so that brings racing to a mainstream audience. He diluted the jargon and turned topics into a ‘yes, no’ scenario.
“He spoke the punters’ language and brought the betting industry to account…”It was a privilege to learn alongside someone like that with a journalistic background and it was a bundle of fun.”
Tanya had a long on air association with John. But no woman knew him better than the one who shared so much of his life and their charming home. His patient and devoted wife Jenny would not have hung around as long as she did had he truly hated women. She was his rock. She got him to racecourses, to television studios. She organised his travel, his everything. When I last saw him in the press lounge at a racecourse, it was Jenny who was arranging his movements. He appeared to be a shadow of his former self, which was sad.
It’s Jenny I feel for now. The house that is full of character will seem empty without the biggest character of them all.
What did McCririck do for racing? What did he do for us punters? How long have you got?
At a time when populists are in vogue for all the wrong reasons, John McCririck was a populist. He brought the fun of betting into the lives of many now established punters. Myself included.
John stood up to and took on the big bookmakers on behalf of us punters. He was our voice, often rallying against their malpractice. When they tried to move the goalposts on us so that the odds were in their favour, he yelled at them. But he likely also taught you a thing or two about betting on horse racing. He may have explained the odds to you in a way you could understand. He still displayed the ancient art of ‘tic tac.’ A commonplace sight at racecourses when I was a nipper but one left standing in the stalls by the march of technology. Sadly.
At his best he was the reason many tuned in to watch ITV racing and, thereafter, Channel 4 racing.
Most weeks, when on fire, John entertained and informed me while I sat on the sofa. That’s what someone in that role should do. His manner of dress was a gimmick and telling those spectators making faces to camera to “grow up” became part of the act. The character he created was made for pantomime.
It was, however, a much more enjoyable and informative one than the current loudmouth ITV Racing have employed in the betting ring. A man who makes me not watch the output between the racing.
Age got to John McCririck. In the latter years of his appearances when Channel 4 racing was produced by Highflyer Productions, he was stumbling over his words both on ‘The Morning Line’ and from the racecourse. Live television is bloody difficult to present for the youngest and for the best. Viewers don’t appreciate how high pressured it is to speak to camera, trying to put your point across while some numpty such as I is speaking in your ear, telling you to hurry up because we’re late for a commercial break.
When he was at his best, he could handle all that with aplomb. But, to be honest, those skills were flagging in the last couple of years on television. Highflyer Executive Producer Andrew Franklin kept the faith in the legend that was John McCririck.
Andrew remembers fondly the man he produced for several years. “He was a terrific champion of the punter. He also had a marvellous populist touch allied with a razor-sharp editorial mind.
“I found him a joy to work with, not least because he was excellent at taking instruction. He was very forceful in his views but, as with his time on newspapers, he knew the final say rested with the editor or producer. He would jump up and down for something he passionately believed in, but if it was at odds with the views of the producer he would accept that the boss was the boss and did as he had been asked.
“Among those of us who worked on Channel 4 Racing he was supremely well liked – and for all his chauvinistic bluster the girls on the team adored him.”
End of an era
How it all ended for McCririck, when Highflyer lost their long held contract to produce racing for Channel 4 to IMG, was sad. Not for a moment, however, do I blame those at IMG or Executive Producer Carl Hicks for dropping Big Mac. Having watched his faculties failing from the comfort of my own home, it was the right decision. One I would have made myself had it been my responsibility. With regret, for sure, and I would have done my utmost to ensure he and others not being kept on were told the news sooner than was the case. Although that’s not easy when secrecy surrounds such television production contracts.
A fully with it John McCririck would have been kept on. He wasn’t ditched by Channel 4 for the sake of it. The truth – as unacceptable to John as it inevitably was – is that he had lost it. The magic. The ability to string together a speech, rant or sometimes just a sentence in which the words came out in the right order.
I watched on from home wishing someone would tap him on the shoulder and say: “Enough, John.” I’ve witnessed this sight before. An established live television presenter no longer performing as well as they once did and nobody in authority having the balls to suggest it was time to make way. That deed often falls to a new broom. Someone who everyone can blame.
That John took his demise badly did not come as a surprise. Nonetheless, it was a shame how bitter it all became. Taking Channel 4 to an employment tribunal citing ageism as the reason for his removal kept him in the limelight a while longer. But it was a futile and ultimately very costly move. Someone should have persuaded him out of it. I expect Jenny tried. But that would have been easier said than done. He lost. Lawyers won.
From 1980, the year I moved from Fleet Street to become sports researcher at Yorkshire Television, working at York races each May and August, I would see John broadcasting from the betting ring. For years after, I watched him in action. At the peak of his powers he was brilliant.
One thing is for certain. Racing coverage has not been the same without him.
We punters, including subscribers to my betting tips service, will not see his like again.