The mike and I at Wembley 

6 March 2018

No man works at Wembley for long without learning who Sir Arthur Elvin is — and why.

From “Stewart MacPherson’s The Mike and I”, published by Home & Van Thal in 1948

At first I thought he was just another tough boss who bawled orders and who made everyone on his payroll jump through the hoop. If Sir Arthur sent for anyone on the staff the person literally ran to see him. It was, and is, the way things are done at Wembley and the reason why that wonderful organization operates so smoothly,

I learned that Sir Arthur once sold cigarettes at a kiosk in the old British Exhibition. I learned that he had a vision of creating a vast sports centre that would be a source of pride to Britain. He pursued his dream doggedly and his forcefulness built Wembley Pool. If the people who pass through the turnstiles of that sporting centre to-day could travel the world they would be proud that Wembley belongs to Britain. It has no betters anywhere.

Sir Arthur has always had a loyal staff for the reason that he earns their respect. He is affectionately known among the staff as “Stadium Joe” and most of the hockey players refer to him as “God”. He is thorough in everything and it is a rare occasion when a compliment falls from his lips. He doesn’t believe anyone can do a perfect job. At one time Sir Arthur was so severe in laying down anti-rough tactics in hockey matches that the players had what they called a “sailing list” on the wall of their dressing room. Anyone penalized for what he considered unnecessarily vigorous play was as good as aboard ship en route home. Some of the players were venomous about it for they considered that rough hockey is not necessarily dirty hockey. One man in particular tried, when opportunity presented, to lift the puck into Sir Arthur’s soup as he watched the game while dining at Wembley.

Well dressed, usually wearing a grey sombrero, Sir Arthur handles the controls and produces a variety of attractions with the skill of a high ranking officer committing a corps in battle.

So while I fancied myself as one of the boys trying to get to the top via the hard route, I had a new boss whose climb to success was exciting and brilliant… and from a beginning more humble than mine.

All winter long I slaved for six guineas a week. It was a case of learning how things were done in Britain and Wembley was an excellent school. I was merely another junior as far as Sir Arthur was concerned and he cracked the whip. He was never unfair to any man, within my knowledge, but if a fellow didn’t pull his weight, he was among the missing when pay day came around.

I was happy in this atmosphere. The winter passed and I saved some money. My fiancée and Mother came over in 1938 when I was told I had been taken on the permanent staff. My plans for a home were complete and Emily and I were married at St. Andrews Church, Wembley, on April 27th. We rented a small flat at Empire Court and filled it with hire purchase furniture. We had our health, £11 in the bank and the world looked rosy. By November, 1938, we owned the furniture in the living room and kitchen and we had £50 in the bank.

Then, one day, I came home and Emily told me she had a surprise. She certainly had! Our first baby was on schedule and later on he turned out to be our son, Murray.

The Canadian game of ice hockey was gaining in popularity among British sports followers and I was banking on this fact to provide me with a bigger opportunity somehow. If there is one game I know well it is hockey and the presence of many Canadian hockey players in British leagues was a good luck bonus. If I didn’t know any of them personally, I knew their background.

My blood pressure rose one afternoon when I heard a whisper that the British Broadcasting Corporation was considering the feasibility of broadcasting ice hockey matches. It sounded like opportunity rapping on the door so I scouted around to learn more about it. I was told that a fellow called John Snagge was the man to see so my flaming objective was to meet him and arrange for a try-out.

At that time, John Snagge and his associates were helping to build the BBC as the masons of ancient times constructed Solomon’s Temple. Gradually I found out that he was a very difficult man to see and after several attempts I was sure my informant was dead right.

But I had to have a chat with Mr. Snagge so I went to his office in the great house off Oxford Circus. His secretary informed me blithely that he would be away for the entire day so I took a seat, opened a roll of newspapers and informed her I would wait. “But he will not be here to-day,” she said petulantly. “It doesn’t really matter,” I said to her, “I have all day.” She made me warm that chair for several hours but finally I was seated opposite John Snagge and he didn’t look pleased at all. He was not the head of Outside Broadcasting but the man I had to impress.

John Snagge and I are the best of friends but at that time I didn’t have much admiration for the manner in which he treated me. I was too interested in what I wanted which was bad psychology. He was juggling a dozen enterprises for his boss, S. J. de Lotbiniere, and he had little time for people who crashed the gate.

Snagge was brusque with me. I thought he was stuffy — that he considered he was doing me a great favour by seeing me. I had the opinion that he fancied himself a god for it didn’t enter my mind that his minutes were precious. Little satisfaction emanated from that interview as far as I was concerned but the time was not wasted. Later on, when the aspirants for the job of hockey commentating were chosen, I was among them.

Months later I worked with John Snagge a great deal. I found that bowler-hatted man of solemn visage and dignified manner possessed a remarkable sense of humour, that he could tell a story with finesse. He knew his business and he worked hard. Only history will give him his rightful place in the formative period of the BBC for he is a competent executive and an outstanding broadcasting personality. Even to-day, when he briefs anyone to do a particularly novel programme, one can catch a wistful look on his face. He would like to have the fun of doing the job himself. Snagge has never asked anyone to do a job that he wouldn’t tackle himself.

The BBC finally advised Wembley that it would make a trial recording of a hockey match. Those selected to try commentating were four Englishmen, one South African, one Australian and myself. This was a wonderful chance for I was the only Canadian and any Canadian who doesn’t know what hockey is about is generally sent to live in Baffin Land with the Eskimos until he learns.

To add good fortune to good fortune, the trial recording was to be done at Wembley where I knew the rink and could judge distance with ease. That is an important factor in broadcasting ice hockey matches, especially when play begins to speed up.

My third break lay in the fact that the teams playing were Harringay and Wembley. Each member of both teams had come from Winnipeg. I knew the lot like the back of my right hand. It was a tremendous advantage over my competitors and sheer luck.

Kismet dealt me a wonderful hand that evening for I was the last to do my stuff. I was in a position to see where the others made mistakes and to try to avoid the pitfalls when my turn came.

The commentary box was at ice level unlike those in Canada which are slung from the rafters of a rink. There was a control point higher up in the stadium and I went there to listen in — to analyze what was taking place.

Some of the commentators armed themselves with complicated charts and lists of players’ names. They didn’t realize that the game would be so swift that they wouldn’t have time to consult them. I would have done exactly what they did had the game been cricket.

When I was given the nod to take over the mike, I grasped it firmly and rattled off everything I could see going on in front of me. Names came to me easily and it was natural that I should be able to talk glibly about a game I had known since childhood. I had no notes but felt the best plan was to talk plainly and quickly, describing points that I reasoned might seem strange to a new hockey fan. When it was over, I felt confident I had done a passable job.

Of course all of us who had tried out gathered around the BBC people present for an opinion but there was no comment. Not a soul indicated whether any of us had done well or badly. They said we would be notified within three weeks so we had to be patient and wait.

Stewart MacPherson introduces “Twenty Questions” on the BBC Light Programme in 1950

In three weeks another letter arrived from the BBC and I was all thumbs trying to open it. Another delay! We were invited to visit Broadcasting House to listen to a replay of our work. So to Broadcasting House we went to find John Snagge, Michael Standing and Tom Woodruffe in attendance, also S .J. de Lotbiniere, head of Outside Broadcasting.

They were polite but very official. It was purgatory listening to those records for I felt I hadn’t done nearly as well as I thought on the night of the actual recording. The judges continued to give no indication of their decision and as we filed out of the building, I heard one of my associates reark, “MacPherson ought to know the game. He probably played it in his Mother’s kitchen.” Well, I entertained no hard feelings in the matter I had a feeling I would win out.

Then one night I arrived back at Wembley from Brighton with a bus load of hockey players. It was midnight and we were cold and worn out. I checked into the press office as a matter of routine and there was a letter from the BBC. It said that if the corporation decided to broadcast ice hockey with any regularity I would be invited to do the commentary.

I had made the grade!

So I ran home to Empire Court, coat and scarf flying in the breeze; up the stairs through the front door and bang into the bedroom where Emily was fast asleep. She was startled with all the commotion but thrilled to learn I had been selected. She knew hat it meant to me.

I was not the first Canadian to broadcast ice Dckey in Britain but I was the first to do so on a regular schedule with the BBC. On the night of the first official broadcast, I said too much and while the job wasn’t too bad it was clumsy. I learned that trying to pack too many facts into a few minutes can be confusing for listeners.

That was how I broke into the broadcasting field in Britain.

The morning after the first broadcast, The Daily Express used an article on its sports page about the occasion and asked why this young and new commentator had been kept under cover. My hat began to get too tight for my head but Emily knocked that out of me with her criticisms. The minor success, was, in effect, my first big opportunity on the road to broadcasting success. The BBC paid me five guineas a broadcast and it was up to me to develop the future along that line as best I could.

The following Boxing Day I did two hockey commentaries, one in the morning from Earls Court and one in the evening from Harringay. The BBC short waved them to Canada and the MacPherson household in Winnipeg was a-gog with excitement. It didn’t hurt my pride, either, for I had left home as a ne’er do well and I wanted the folks back there to know that I had finally gotten myself a job — one that was bringing a bit of recognition with it. Although it sounds sentimental, I wanted Mother to have the satisfaction of knowing that I was on the way to accomplishment.

From those early days I didn’t talk money with the BBC until after the recent war. They gave me rises voluntarily. The five guineas a broadcast grew fifteen and, of course, I needed more money for my first child was about to be born.

My wife and I found ourselves in a domestic dilemma. Being a nurse she was cool headed and sorted our troubles without hesitation. The world ice hockey championships were to be played at Prague and the BBC asked me to go to Czechoslovakia to do them. Sir Arthur did not want me to go. He said if I did there would be no pay packet for me for the period I was absent. If I turned the chance down I might not get it again and yet I couldn’t afford to lose the pay. But, as I said, Emily sorted it well.

She said I must go to Prague and lose the Wembley pay and she would look after her responsibilities alone, if necessary. It meant that I might be on the continent at the time she would have to go to hospital. That worried me. But she was firm so the plans were made. I was annoyed with Sir Arthur for his attitude, but I was to learn later that he could be twice as generous as he appeared to be firm in his matter. So I went to Prague with the British hockey team.

That job afforded me prestige that I would not have acquired in Canada for years, if at all. I had to pinch myself to see if it was true. Here I was in Prague on a big job for the BBC, but my enthusiasm was dampened by the thought that Emily was alone in London and might be in hospital at any moment. I was comforted by the thought that she had always looked after herself rather well with or without my assistance.

At that time, my old friend Alec Archer, who had put me on the path to Britain, was playing for Britain. In the immediate past Olympics in Switzerland he did well for Britain. Well, on that trip to Prague an incident occurred that still brings tears of laughter to the eyes of Alec, his wife, my wife and myself.

It all evolved from the incident of my son’s birth. I was very nervous about Emily, more so, in fact, than I was about doing a good job of the hockey broadcasts. Alec knew this and so did all the members of the British team. They kidded me constantly. It was another case of a young father, in his own mind, enduring the suffering.

When I wasn’t busy at the rink, I was pacing the floor of my hotel room waiting for a phone call or telegram. I didn’t go out with the boys for fear might miss the word when it came. I was in my room in this state one evening when the phone rang. A voice said, “Meestair MacFeerson?”

“Yes!” I shouted, “Yes, what is it? A call from London?”

“Eet ees cable, Sor,” continued the voice. “You expeck good noos from your vife?”

“Yes! yes! YES!” I bellowed. “Get on with it! Read it to me!”

“Eet say,” said the calm voice with the heavy cent, “… go tak jomp in de lak.”

I was speechless. I knew roughly what had happened and swore to get even with the boys who, I was certain, were the authors of this practical joke, Alec Archer in particular.

When I came downstairs to the hotel lobby, the members of the British team were reading and chatting nonchalantly. Only Alec had a trace of a grimace on his face.

“Anything wrong, Stew?” he asked with mock interest.

“Nothing at all,” I replied and carried on as though nothing had happened.

Later in the evening, with the game in progress, took a breather at half time. Just as the light flashed for us to go on the air again one of the London men whispered through from Broadcasting House, “Stew, it’s a boy and everyone is fine!”

Just then the light flashed and the mike was alive. Just then, too, I shouted to the boys on the ice, waiting for the whistle, “It’s a boy!”

My message to the players was caught on the Czech network and local announcers were quick to grasp the situation. They explained to the audience and listening public what had happened. The band struck up “Rock-a-bye Baby” and people cheered. I was tickled pink.

After the game some Czech reporters and cameramen approached me and said, “Please, Sor, who is hockey player with new baby?” This was my chance to get even so I pointed to Alec Archer.

Away they rushed taking pictures of him and asking questions. The following morning the papers were filled with photos of Alec and long paragraphs about something or other none of us could read. Alec was bewildered for he had played a rotten game and I held my tongue.

Finally the story was interpreted and poor Alec was beside himself. News agencies carried the story to Britain and Canada. The Daily Express featured the yarn in headlines and Alec’s family, not to mention his fiancée, were horrified to learn that he had suddenly become a father.

To-day, when Emily and Alec meet, he always says, “Hello Emily, how’s our son?”

Stewart Myles MacPherson (1908-1995) was born in Winnepeg in Canada. He emigrated to the UK in the 1930s, working as a shoe salesman on a faked reference before dissembling his way into a job in the press office of the Wembley Pool. From there he became and announcer, presenter, commentator and war correspondent for the BBC. In the 1950s, he returned to North America, joining WCCO in Minneapolis, where he remained until retirement.

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