Peter Bills: Bill McLaren - great commentator, great human being
Bill McLaren died this week and the world of rugby lost one of its greatest men.
The great man of Hawick, who passed away at the age of 86, had declined in recent years under the grim influence of dementia. In the end, he could tell you intricate details of what had gone on 66 years earlier on the slopes of Monte Cassino, Italy, where he had helped fight the German menace. But he wasn’t too sure about who he was and what he’d done for a living.
That, alas, is a classic trait of dementia. But we shouldn’t dwell on the end or the sad loss of his memory, even though it had been so sharp and impressive throughout his working years.
Instead, focus on a great and glorious career, one in which he created a fantasy in his youth and then remarkably brought it to reality in his working life. Sitting on the fence near his home in the Scottish borders, a young Bill McLaren’s favourite form of relaxation was watching his pals playing an impromptu game of rugby or football . . . whilst he commentated upon it.
Of course, he never dreamed he would make it his living, although he was also, of course, a much respected schoolteacher. But a couple of chance meetings, a hastily arranged interview and trial with the BBC in Scotland and, hey presto, a legend was born. This was the beginning of a man who was to enchant listeners and television viewers the world over with his unique brand of commentating.
During the time we were working together on his autobiography, I once asked him why he’d first come up with some of those unique phrases — such as ‘he’s like a slippery eel in the bag’ or ‘he’s like a weasel up a pair of trousers’. Then there was the famous one, ‘they’ll be celebrating in the streets of Hawick/Edinburgh/Pontypool/Cardiff (delete as appropriate) tonight’ . . .
For a moment, he looked nonplussed. “Well I suppose they just sort of formed in my mind and came out through watching these players,” he said. It was a good enough explanation.
Of course, as he became increasingly famous, the world and his wife wanted a slice of Bill McLaren. He’d be inundated with requests to open fetes, give speeches, attend dinners and be the star guest. And 99.9 per cent of them he turned down mainly for two reasons — he was born and remained a quiet, shy man and, secondly, he hated being away from his beloved wife Bette, even for a single day or night.
The rugby world may have made a growing fuss of him, turning a humble Scotsman into something more resembling a folk hero. But that was the rugby world’s decision — Bill didn’t see why he should join such a daft crusade. He was always happiest at home, with Bette, pottering about, preparing for the next match. He didn’t ask for a lot out of life and didn’t expect all the fuss and adulation that came his way.
And, supreme irony of all ironies, the greatest love of his life was not rugby football (although for sure he was very keen on it). No, Bette, the young woman who had helped nurse him back towards life when he thought he was sure to die of tuberculosis in the years just after the war, was Bill McLaren’s greatest love. He adored her and she him. They made the most wonderful couple, perfectly complementing each other and understanding the other’s needs and traits.
There was always a smile, a ready quip on Bill’s lips. And those famous phrases were never far away, either. When I rang him up and said we’d had a good offer for his autobiography which I was to write with him, he expressed amazement that anyone would want to see another book about him.
Then he hesitated, as if not sure whether he should ask the next question. ‘Can I ask you if it would be worth much at all,’ he said, almost coughing in embarrassment. When I told him the offer, he said “Goodness me, you could buy half a submarine for that amount.” Where that one came from, I have not the slightest idea . . .
As we worked on the book, I think I came to understand just why this man had become so hugely popular in the game. It wasn’t just his unique turn of phrases or that wonderful Scottish burr that made him so widely revered and admired — I think it was because he was such a marvellously humble human being. There wasn’t an ounce of conceit or stuffiness about him, as you detect among so many people who work in TV these days.
The last time I saw him, I drove down to Hawick to share coffee with him and Bette on the morning of a Scottish international in Edinburgh. Already, the signs were there that his memory was failing.
Yet he remained the great warm, whole hearted human being he always was, enquiring and concerned about others, far more than himself. “But why have you come all this way,” he asked me.
“To see you and Bette,” I replied.
He shook his head in amazement. But then, such a self effacing attitude had been one of the hallmarks of his entire life.
Rest in Peace, Bill, and thank you just for being the person you were. We’ll never forget.