Rugby League Heroes: Eddie Hemmings (Part 1)

The voice of Super League

The voice of Super League until 2019, Eddie Hemmings must have commentated on the best part of 2,000 games down the years.

He cut his teeth in football with BBC Radio before producing and commentating on Radio 2’s coverage of Rugby League.

A move to British Satellite Broadcasting, who soon merged with Sky, in 1990 saw his relationship with Mike Stephenson develop. This is the first of a two-part interview.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

There are so many! Getting the job at Sky was a major step forward for me. My first Challenge Cup Final was for BBC Radio 2 in 1985 when I commentated with David Watkins. The first Super League game in Paris was fantastic when we thought Maurice Lindsay’s promises of Barcelona and Rome would come true. There’s the Melbourne Test with the record score and Stevo’s line for Martin Offiah’s try: “The ball was forward, but who cares?” The first ever Grand Final, too. Blimey, the list goes on and on, and there’s obviously Wide to West. I’ve been very lucky!

Who were your favourite sporting commentators?

On radio there was Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and Maurice Edelston, who all had fantastic vocabulary. I worked on an FA Cup match at Anfield in 1985 with Peter. I commentated on the first half and then handed over to him. It was 5-0 when I handed over to him in the second half, and I thought, “Good luck!” But he still produced the most wonderful commentary. It finished 7-0 and he said, “Whisper it quietly, but Liverpool are in the next round.”
David Coleman was always one of my favourites on television and I’m big pals with Alan Parry and Martin Tyler. Martin is still going strong in his mid-70s. As for Rugby League, Eddie Waring wasn’t quite a Peter Jones-like wordsmith, but what a man he was and look what he did for the game. And Frenchy is the most delightful of men. He said to me once, “If 50% of the public like you and 50% hate you, you’ve done a good job.”

You mainly covered Liverpool in those days. Were you at Heysel or Hillsborough?

I wasn’t at Hillsborough in 1989, but I went the year before as a fan when the same teams played and there was no hint of what could go wrong.
I did go to Heysel with Alan Parry. We weren’t working – we went as supporters. We got the ferry on the morning of the game and drove to Brussels. What was a glorious day it was. We had a lovely lunch, but when we got to the ground, we couldn’t understand what was happening. Phil Neal, the Liverpool captain, came on the tannoy to appeal for calm, but we just watched the mayhem in front of our eyes. They had to play the game to stop any further trouble, although no one seemed to know that people had died. So we watched the match, and we protested the penalty decision that cost Liverpool the trophy. We had planned a night out in Brussels, but we came out of the stadium and there were police and army all over the shop. We realised something had gone drastically wrong, so we just drove to Calais. We slept in the car and got the ferry in the morning. I still can’t believe that one club could suffer two tragic events like that.

Hooliganism peaked in soccer in 1985. Was it a reason for you moving to a different sport?

Not really because we’d already broken new ground with Rugby League on Radio 2. In 1982 when the Kangaroos came over, Radio 2 did the Test series. Peter Ward and Keith Macklin were the commentators back then and then Harry Gration shortly after.
Harry then moved to a presenting role in Grandstand. He came to me in 1984 after the John Player Final and said he was leaving, so I was stuck for a commentator. He encouraged me to do it myself and 1985 was my first Wembley. We did 70 minutes that day, which was unheard of for Radio 2, and they and they stuck with us with minimal interruptions because it was such an incredible game.
David Watkins was my colleague, and he remains one of my dearest friends. One day in 1985 he got stuck in the snow and we were due to commentate at Headingley. Radio 2 told me I’d have to just get on with it because most of the day’s soccer programme fell victim to the snow. I was panicking at the thought of having to commentate on my own when I bumped into David Howes, the sport’s public-relations officer, in the bar and persuaded him to join me. Ever the PR guy, David proceeded to wedge in mentions for all of the game’s sponsors like Slalom Lager and John Player cigarettes, but I didn’t care – I was just happy not to be doing the game on my own!

When did you meet Stevo?

He turned up at my office one day with a letter for someone from Australia – he was over to see his kids. I told him there was no one around, but he insisted on hanging around and suggested we go for lunch. When he left, he gave me his number in case I ever went to Australia, although I didn’t think there was much chance of that. But in 1988, I persuaded the BBC to let me go over to cover the Ashes series. I even went with a supporters’ tour called Rugby Travel from Twickenham, of all places, just to keep costs down. When I got there, I remembered Stevo and called him to see if he would commentate with me.
We met on the morning of the first Test, and we just clicked. We went to the official reception after the third Test, which Great Britain won with Mike Gregory’s incredible try, and it was wonderful. You’d have thought we’d won the Ashes. I remember Stevo and Malcolm Reilly arm wrestling near the Harbour Bridge. “How good is this?” I thought. My family had come out to join me. Anyway, off Stevo went. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, and I did the Kiwi leg of the tour with Graeme West.
When I left the BBC to join BSB (which later merged with Sky), David Watkins didn’t want the co-commentator job. We also considered Neil Holding, Bill Ashurst, Gary Hetherington and Terry Flanagan. One day I was reading Big League, the magazine from Australia, and I saw Stevo’s ugly mug. He was advertising a supporters’ tour for the 1990 series in the UK. I phoned him up and asked if he’d do all the games with us – we had rights to all the tour matches and secondary rights to the Tests. He said yes. It was a six-week gig and he stayed for 30 years!

Did it ever feel like you were married to him?

[laughs] It did! But it was a love-love relationship. We had some cross words, but never about rugby. We’ve never fallen out. I love him to bits. We still do a podcast now. He’s a gregarious, outrageous character. He was unique. He came over with no agenda. He had no mates in the game in this country. He just called it how he saw it.
I don’t like to blow smoke up our own backsides, but we took the game to new levels because we were a dedicated sports’ channel. When I see the retro stuff now, he was so good. We didn’t rubbish the game or any players.

Tell us about the ostrich.

Boots ‘n’ All was great – we did whatever it took to make good telly. We took the mickey out of ourselves. Bill Arthur and Angela Powers did some wonderful features. The ostrich biting Stevo at Knowsley Safari Park was hilarious, and we use the clip to present the podcast we do today. I giggle every time I hear it. He was wearing a maroon scarf, and an ostrich started pecking the scarf. He took it off and gave it to John Murphy, the cameraman. We started the link again and I could see another ostrich coming. It went snap on his ear. There was blood everywhere and I couldn’t move for laughter. “It’s bleeding,” I shouted. “I know it’s f***ing bleeding! It’s bit my ear off – what do you expect?” We had to bleep out his language. He nearly got trampled by elephants earlier in the day. I was laughing so much I dented my car reversing out of the place, and that cheered Stevo up enormously.

Were any guests particularly difficult?

Not really. Everyone seemed keen to come on and we’d go for a bite to eat afterwards. We got Garry Schofield in every week when he was the Great Britain captain in 1992 and I remember Leeds were going through a rocky patch. Stevo told him he was going to suggest there was a problem in the camp and they’d have a discussion. “I’ll have a go, you can defend them, and it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit feisty,” Stevo said. Garry agreed. So the cameras rolled and Stevo started on Leeds. Garry just nodded and said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and that killed off any discussion we had planned. I can still see Stevo’s face dropping now!

Did you rehearse?

Never. Stevo would just come in and say, “What are you going to come at me with today?” “No idea,” I would say. We just winged it. We were a brand, but our success was more to do with him and his personality. We were accused of hyping things because we never talked things down, but why would we? On game day, our attitude was we were up against Coronation Street and EastEnders, so we knew we were the pick of the TV that night – even if it was a bad game.
Neville Smith provided superb pictures and Ian Proctor, the brains of Rugby League, provided all the stats. Those two made our jobs easy.

How did you prepare for a match?

I’d ring up the coaches the day before. Most were great. They would share the team, so we knew that key players were missing before anyone else. I never shared it with the opposition because the trust would then be gone. Ian would then send me a match preview and pen pics of everyone in the squad – facts, figures, milestones etc, and that helped me produce a huge card with all the names on in blue, numbers in red and biogs in black. I pinched that idea from Alan Parry. So that was always in front of me.
On the day of the game, I’d get there a few hours before kick-off, sometimes as early as 4pm for a night match. We’d have bite to eat with the crew. We’d argue or joke with each other, get made up and then do the job. It was a labour of love. I’d have hated to have a proper job.

In part two, Eddie discusses the early Super League years, Wide to West, the day Leon Walker died and his battle with prostate cancer in 2013.

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