After four decades in the same job — however engaging — most people would be forgiven for feeling a teeny bit jaded.
Particularly if it involved getting up at 3.10am every weekday and rushing into a radio studio, only to have your racing tips rubbished by your co-presenters, your fashion sense — in particular, one very bright yellow pullover — criticised on air and your occasional gaffes trending on Twitter.
But not Garry Richardson, aka ‘Mr Sport’ from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme who, with 4,500 editions under his belt is celebrating 40 years on the show — its longest-serving presenter.
I have never met a chap so full of wonder, so overflowing with the joy and privilege of his job, as Garry.
Then again, not many people have been thumped by Nelson Mandela, ‘kidnapped’ by Robert Maxwell, stalked by a lovesick Liz Taylor, ‘mothered’ by Brian Clough or thrashed at Trivial Pursuit by George Best — all in the course of their employment.
Garry Richardson, in the radio studio, during a broadcast of Today, the flagship programme on BBC Radio Four
‘Oh my goodness, [George] was such an intelligent man,’ he says. ‘He could name 27 U.S. Presidents. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge!’ says Garry.
I’d always assumed sports reporting involved a lot of standing on the sidelines in the rain and discussing the future of British rugby, football or cricket. But Garry, 64, has often found himself in extraordinary situations.
In his early days, he got caught up in two IRA bombings in London in 1980. His then BBC sports editor said: ‘Son, I know you’re keen to make an impression, but two bombs in four weeks. People are asking: ‘Are you planting them?’ ‘I just happened to be the first on the scene. Both times!’ says Garry.
Over the years, his reports have developed a cult following, not just for his distinctive interview style and the occasional clumsy question or slip-up (which some insist were the inspiration for Steve Coogan’s hapless presenter, Alan Partridge), but also for his bouncy informality.
During a particularly bad snowstorm back in 2009, he broadcast from the cupboard under his stairs next to the vacuum cleaner, telling listeners he felt just like Harry Potter.
And after an interview with Gordon Brown ran late and delayed his sports slot, he said the then Prime Minister was going to make him miss his train home. ‘People were asking me which train I caught for weeks afterwards!’
Not that he’s often stopped in the street — unless he’s talking, that is, because everyone recognises his voice.
Garry Richardson and Serena Williams. I have never met a chap so full of wonder, so overflowing with the joy and privilege of his job, as Garry
He once slipped a humorous note to Michael Palin in the Today studio while John Humphrys and Tony Blair were ‘going at it hammer and tongs’ across the table. ‘It was a major punch-up!’ he says. ‘But to make Michael smile was a high point of my life.’
But not everybody finds him funny. Anna Kournikova, for one.
Back in 2002, after a shock defeat in Wimbledon’s first round, the Russian player threatened to leave when Garry asked if she’d lost her confidence. ‘She really bristled! She was not in the mood for it.’
He’s more sheepish about his infamous Andy Murray ‘mess-up’ — a rambling, three-part question back in 2015 that upset the tennis ace and his fans.
‘Sir Alex Ferguson was in the Royal Box today watching you,’ Garry began, ‘and he has been known to go into the dressing room after matches and give his players a bit of the hairdryer treatment. Will Lendl [Ivan Lendl, Murray’s coach] say some things to you, Andy, to sort of gee you up — or do you not need that? Or do you know it all yourself?’
‘Arghh! My worst question ever!’ he says. ‘I felt terrible afterwards and waited around for ages to apologise.’ On that occasion, Garry’s family waded in. His son said: ‘Dad, that really, really wasn’t great,’ while, the next day, one of his two daughters told him he’d been trending on Twitter.
But, Garry says, ‘there are mistakes. There’s a lot of pressure in the studio and I’m probably at the age where you do forget things!’
In 2013, it was co-presenter Sarah Montague’s name. They’d worked together for 11 years…
‘Yes! Sometime your mind goes completely blank!’
For all his occasional harmless blunders, he rails strongly against any comparison with Partridge, saying ‘every sports presenter’ could be the inspiration: ‘Why me?’
But underneath that jolly exterior he’s fantastically driven. In his early career at the BBC, he often worked seven days a week. For 20 years (until 2019), he hosted Sportsweek on Radio 5 live every Sunday — on top of his Today role — and roared across the country in his old green Granada, entertaining the crowds in working men’s clubs before getting up at dawn for the day job.
Later this year, he’s touring theatres with radio stalwarts including Alistair McGowan and Rev Richard Coles.
Garry Richardson (left) speaks with Sir Clive Woodward OBE in front of an audience at Wigmore Hall in central London as the BBC Radio 4 Today programme celebrates its 60th anniversary
As a boy growing up in Newbury, Garry — who was named after the city of Gary in the U.S. state of Indiana, but says no one knows why they spelt his name with two Rs — was obsessed with football, radio… and big-band show tunes.
‘By the age of ten, I knew every lyric to every Frank Sinatra song by heart,’ he says. ‘I was not cool.’ His footballing dreams ended after a disastrous trial for First division Southampton — ‘I gave away a penalty after ten minutes’ — and a few desultory training sessions with Third division Reading.
When he wasn’t kicking a ball about, he’d be in his bedroom recording show tune programmes, complete with jingles.
Faced with a future in the family building business, he peppered the BBC with applications until he got a job as a file clerk and tea boy, aged 17.
From there he moved to local radio, where one of his first big breaks was a live broadcast from the top of one of the Didcot Power Station towers. There was no safety equipment, a bracing wind, a spattering of rain and, from the top, Garry conducted a telephone interview with local resident Joan Dowdes, who could see him from her kitchen window.
‘It was terrifying. I was 650ft up and perched on the edge and she was chatting away,’ he says.
But from there, he was flying.
There was a stint at BBC Nottingham where, sensing Garry’s nerves before an interview, legendary Forest manager Brian Clough insisted on sourcing tea and biscuits to calm him down.
‘Suddenly he said: ‘I’ve forgotten the sugar. Do you take sugar?’ So obviously I lied and pretended I didn’t and he took one look at me and said: ‘Yes you f*****g do!’ and marched off to get some.’
He joined the BBC sports room in 1980 and the following year helped cover the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana — along with actor Richard Burton, brother of the news editor, Graham Jenkins.
‘The great Richard Burton! I couldn’t believe it! I told Graham that Where Eagles Dare was my favourite film and when Richard arrived for rehearsals, he came straight over and said the famous line: ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy! Pleased to meet you Garry!’
The day after the wedding, the sports room spent the day fielding a succession of calls from a lovesick Liz Taylor, desperate to get hold of Burton (the pair were not married to each other at the time).
‘Hello, Sport. Who’s calling?’
‘It’s Elizabeth Taylor!’
‘She was very, very upset. But nobody knew where he was!’
Back then, things were different. Everyone just picked up the phone. Particularly Garry. ‘We had wonderful access. You could just call someone — George Best, Denis Law — and they picked up or rang you back,’ he says.
It must have helped that Garry is so likeable in his eager, slightly nerdy way. He puts it down to tenacity. ‘It’s the oldest cliché, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ he says. ‘You have to ask, just do it nicely.’
Like at Wimbledon in 2001, when he asked Bill Clinton’s security team for an interview and got an immediate ‘yes’.
‘There was no time to be nervous!’ he says — just enough time to tell his family to video it before Bill stuck his hand out and said: ‘Hi Garry, pleased to meet you.’
‘And I thought: ‘Bloody hell, he’s listened to me on Radio 4 of a morning! Oh my God! How does he know my name? ‘
‘He was the most charismatic person I’d ever met, my best friend for 15 minutes,’ says Garry. Of course, not every experience was brilliant. There was the time in Kosovo when he and Frank Bruno — ‘a lovely man’ — were on a three-day trip to boost the troops’ morale. ‘I’d never been in a helicopter before! It was like being in Top Gun or Rambo, doors open, machine gunners ready. So exciting!’
Until the alarm bells went off and rockets started flying, leaving Garry thinking they were all doomed… but it was just the chopper’s heat-seeking flare detectors, set off by burning crops.
One of the strangest interviews he ever did was with the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, who insisted on conducting the 20-minute chat in the back of his Rolls-Royce — before the driver was told to take Garry home.
The stories are endless, all told with a boyish wonder that is a little unexpected coming from a 64-year-old man.
How he commandeered an open-top car and drove on to the track after Nigel Mansell won the Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1988.
How Nelson Mandela showed off his boxing prowess during an interview by repeatedly thumping him in the shoulder.
The day he got David Cameron to read the racing tips on Today.
How ‘the great Judi Dench’ once called him ‘Garry, 7.25’.
Until, finally, I get a word in edgeways and ask if he ever pinches himself that it worked out so well. And suddenly he gets pink and teary. ‘I’ve been so lucky… I just really, really love it… I’ve been in the right place at the right time.’
But most of all, he’s done it so well with such joy, good humour — and the odd gaffe, or six.
Oh Garry, please stay on for another 40 years.