The Man Who Ate His Hat
The story of Lieutenant Commander Tommy Woodrooffe, the BBC's first football commentator
From Kenneth Wolstenholme's almost uncanny knack for misidentifying players to Peter Drury's Homeric quest for the world's crassest prepared soundbite, via Colemanballs, Keegan's calls, and the one-time visionary Jimmy Hill's Lear-esque descent into myopic whirling-bow-tie madness, football fans have had to put up with an awful lot of tools talking toot on TV over the years. It might be refreshing to know that this grand tradition has been with us pretty much from the off, if only because it means our forefathers will have suffered just like the rest of us.
This is the short, simple, but glorious story of the first-ever football commentary cock-up. The man who made history was the BBC commentator Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe, in only the second-ever live televised football match, and his mistake set the bar high from the get-go. Our hero left a mark that has arguably yet to be bettered, despite the gaggle of clowns who have traipsed pitifully in his wake.
'Tommy' Woodrooffe's rank came from his time in the Royal Navy. While serving, he had edited the magazine for naval personnel, Ditty Box — a charming title, or a downright filthy one; take your pick, sailors — as well as embarking on a career as an author of books and short plays about naval history. His journalistic and creative exploits caught the attention of the BBC, who in the early 1930s gave him the job of commentating on naval displays for their radio service, embellishing the "sound pictures" of ships honking as they set sail with his knowledgeable chat.
With radio fast becoming a mass medium in British society, Woodrooffe emerged as a well-known and greatly loved figure, his style friendly and informal. (At least by the standards of the paternalistic 1930s BBC. By way of illustration, on Sundays they would only transmit church services and sermons, with the infrequent wild addition of a Beethoven string quartet.) Woodrooffe soon became the Beeb's go-to guy for major state occasions and sporting events.
The Dimbleby as well as the Barry Davies of his day, Woodrooffe was one of the commentators at the 1937 coronation of George VI; described Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich in 1938; and was the BBC's representative at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which earned him a commemoration medal from the Nazi government — plus an illuminated document that stated that Hitler had conferred the gong — for his services to the Games. In the realm of sport he was quite the polymath, turning his hand to anything from FA Cup finals, the Boat Race and the Grand National, to a bridge competition between England and Austria, and — flicks through preposterous listings in the Radio Times — "village-green cricket from the Barley Barn Meadow at Little Dunmow". (This reads like some sort of arch satire on upper-middle-class social mores of the Thirties, but the BBC actually did once cover village-green cricket and card games on the radio. It would be nice to think they'll retain enough sporting rights never to have to plumb these depths again in the future, but you wouldn't put too much of your own money on it.)
But Woodrooffe could broaden it out to the masses, too. He was the chatty host of Spelling Bee, the popular radio parlour game. (He would later become the UK's first-ever TV game show host, when this R-A-C-Y concept was transferred to television in 1938.) He also appeared in magazine-style documentaries. There was, for instance, an entire programme devoted to the live closing of a 400-year-old pub, the Turks Head in Wapping (since reopened). On another occasion, he introduced the ancient art of jiu-jitsu to the British public. (Along with fellow reporters Lionel Seccombe and John Snagge, Woodrooffe visited Budokwai, a London jiu-jitsu club, to talk to the chief instructor Koisumi, who immediately served notice that he could quite easily take on all three BBC men at once. Woodrooffe, doing his duty to the listener, snatched the mic to describe how Seccombe and Snagge fared against the instructor as they attempted to take his pocket book from him against his will. Koisumi predicted that "Seccombe's face will be on the ground in a few seconds", and that Snagge would be "helpless almost instantaneously". How they fared is not recorded, but it is safe to say that the wily Woodrooffe did not need to break sweat.)
Sadly, Woodrooffe's easy-going approach to life would land him in big trouble on 20 May 1937. Eight days after the coronation of George VI — when he described the new king's "glorious, scintillating, coruscating coach" travelling up Constitution Hill as being "all lit up with little lamps" — he was dispatched to Spithead to describe a naval review of the king's fleet. It was a major event, inexorably linked to the Coronation, a demonstration of the new king's imperial might. His broadcast would begin at 10.45pm. Woodrooffe spent the whole day necking expensive wines and fine port with old navy buddies.
Woodrooffe's commentary position had been described as being "aloft in the foretop", a phrase that could easily be borrowed to illustrate his state of mind when he finally began broadcasting. Slurring like an eejit, he grasped for the first lyrical phrase that came into his head: the little lamps of the king's Coronation coach, his last broadcast eight days earlier. "The fleet's lit up," he stammered, "and when I say lit up, I mean with fairy lamps." The sentence became the recurring motif of a spectacular four-minute ramble, the cyclical nature of which was only broken by one extended period of silence (after which he apologised as he "had to tell some people to shut up talking") and a whelp of genuine confusion when the HMS Nelson turned 45 degrees, thus rendering the lights temporarily out of view. "It's gone!" he sobbed existentially. "There's nothing between us now and heaven!" The BBC had happily broadcast four minutes of skittered nonsense, but the mere mention of heaven prompted the BBC control room to fade him out. Listeners suddenly found themselves listening to the Carlton Hotel Dance Band instead.
The following day, with hacks and press photographers camped outside his Kings Road flat giving it the big one, Woodrooffe stayed in for the duration with a wet towel on his head. "Lieutenant Commander Woodrooffe is not making any statement, and that's final," a friend finally told the massed throng, who had been taking it in turns to bother the poor commentator's mile-wide head by ringing his phone. (Years later, Woodrooffe would admit to a troubled journey that day into the dark of his soul: "I was so overcome I burst into tears.") A couple of days later, he was hauled before the BBC big cheeses, who were distinctly unimpressed that their man had been so obviously blootered live on air, but were even more testy that a drunken commentator had embarked on a decadent riff about fairyland when it was pretty obvious the country was on the road to war. Woodrooffe would undoubtedly have been sacked had it not been for his immense popularity. Instead he was suspended and back behind the mic soon enough.
By this point — with the phrase "lit up" already common parlance for being paggered on pop — the BBC had launched the new medium of television. Their first adventure into live football came on 16 September 1937 when the London service from Alexandra Palace, transmitting to nearly 100 viewers in the Muswell Hill area, ran the following packed schedule: 3pm Fancy That!; 3.30pm British Movietone News; 3.40pm Football at the Arsenal; 3.55pm Cartoon; 4pm Close. Obviously what everyone really wants to know is exactly what the hell sort of programme Fancy That! was. But we'll concentrate on the football, a 15-minute live display of training at Arsenal. Hmm.
But within months, the BBC had the wherewithal to transmit live games. Their first spectacular was the England-Scotland match from Wembley at the start of 9 April 1938. Woodrooffe was co-commentator with Arsenal manager George Allison, and the whole thing went so swimmingly that the pair were both sent to the Empire Stadium again at the end of the month to embellish the action of the BBC's second live match: the 1938 FA Cup final between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town.
It would not go well for Woodrooffe. The match was an appalling spectacle, a dour defensive struggle, goalless through 90 minutes, plus the first 29 of extra time. With the game less than 60 seconds away from becoming the first-ever goalless draw at Wembley, Woodrooffe chanced his arm with a trademark flourish. "If there's a goal now," he said, "I'll eat my hat." At which point the Preston inside-right George Mutch broke into the Huddersfield area and was upended by Town's captain, Alf Young. Mutch got up and slammed the spot kick onto the underside of the bar and into the net. Huddersfield just about had time to restart before the referee blew for full-time.
As unfortunate predictions go, this one took some topping. But in fairness to Woodrooffe, he was as good as his word. Turning up on BBC Television's popular magazine programme Picture Page the following Friday, Woodrooffe tucked into a large boater-shaped cake. "A lesser man than Mr Woodrooffe would have blenched," reported the Times, "for he could boast no natural aptitude for such a feat as eating his hat. He has not a pie-eating championship to his name, and at school, in the race for the tuck shop, it was invariably a case of Woodrooffe also ran. Nevertheless last night he ate his hat, a boater which some kindly soul, thinking to soften the blow, had decorated with his old school colours. And the hat was eaten before the television cameras.
"It was an impressive performance: the start, perhaps a little weak, for the attack upon the outer rim lacked fire, but once into his stride he resembled nothing so much as a winning boat-race crew, the in-and-out movement of the mouth carrying him with spending power and rhythm through the brim. For a few minutes the cameras left him to dwell upon another item in the programme, and when they returned the hat had nearly gone. Mr Woodrooffe, though visibly tiring, kept to his task. Thus was honour avenged and faith kept. With the last crumb finished, the picture faded out, leaving him in peace to go home to supper."
Hey, here's an idea. Do you think we could get Peter Drury to eat a big plate of something equally symbolic of his commentaries?
Many thanks to Professor Sean Street of Bournemouth University.
This article appeared on Episode Forty Seven of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.