I only met John Arlott three times. The last time was forty-three years ago but I still remember him as one of the most outstanding persons I have had the pleasure of knowing.
In April 1964, as soon as I saw the programme for a study course on Basingstoke’s history which Eric Stokes, chairman of Basingstoke WEA had prepared I saw the possibility of writing the story, recording it and then broadcasting it and illustrating it by accompanying slides. I knew this had to be done before the buildings to illustrate it were demolished. I also knew that its success would depend on the quality of the narrator. John Arlott was the obvious person.
All the members of the study group were surprised and delighted by the charming letter I received from John Arlott, written on the 14th April. He wrote, ‘In principle, I should like to help,’ and went to explain that as it was the start of the summer season for cricket, he would find it difficult to fit it in.
He also asked if I intended to film or ‘is it a voice background to slides? The latter method is one I do not like – it so often-indeed, usually, fails. But do tell me what you think.’ Fortunately I found there was equipment for sale which changed the slides as the tape ran through it. Also there was a member of the team which I had gathered together who could mark the changes on the tape.
Some time in the early autumn I drove to New Alresford to meet John at the ‘The Old Sun’, the former pub which John and his second wife, Valerie, had bought three years earlier and converted into a home where they could entertain and have room for his valuable collection of books and a cellar for 5,000 bottles of wine. Although I had heard it so often on the wireless I was still amazed to hear him speak with that unforgettable Hampshire brogue, ‘the voice of summer’. How many people are there still in our county with that wonderful voice?
John made it clear he would not record any statement he did not agree with. I sent him the script as soon as I had finished it. It came back with some words altered and others re-arranged; all changes I could see improved it. Later even when reading it before the microphone he changed words as he spoke.
On 23rd October 1964 John came to our home in Basingstoke where I had attempted to improve acoustic conditions in a back bedroom by hanging curtains over the windows. John had offered to do the recording in a BBC studio in Southampton. Of course, if I had even dreamed that ‘the story of Basingstoke’ would be available fifty years later, in a new form as a DVD, I would have accepted his offer. He recorded the commentary at one sitting, smoking cheroots the whole time. It was, he said, the longest session at one sitting he had ever done.
By early November, only seven months since I suggested the idea to Eric Stokes, the ‘Story’ was ready. Eric booked the hall of what was then Queen Mary’s Grammar School for the 11th November. We put notices up in different parts of the town with the largest letters reserved for John Arlott’s name. That evening people came walking from all directions towards the school until the hall was full. The equipment worked perfectly. The audience laughed at the humorous references in the story. When it stopped there was a moment’s silence. Then everybody was clapping. I wrote to John and had an immediate reply. ‘Many thanks – and congratulations – so glad all went well.’
Three years later I met John Arlott again. Alderman John Peat, former Mayor of Basingstoke, asked me to make a similar audio visual on the work being done for the elderly by the Basingstoke Old People’s Welfare Committee. This took longer to make. This time David Hobman, then Information Officer of the National Council of Social Service, recorded the commentary. When it was shown on the 5th April 1967, John Arlott was the guest of honour.
Afterwards he was asked to speak. I had sent John a copy of the script but he had not seen the pictures. He started by telling us of the various characters he knew when he was a boy in Basingstoke and ended with a plea that we should always care for those in our community who were lonely, a problem we still have today. John held our attention in a way only a few speakers I have heard could.
John had retired to Alderney when I offered to send him a copy of the ‘Story of Basingstoke’ in its new format as a video. In his reply he wrote ‘Many thanks for your thoughtful suggestion – which I gladly accept – of a copy of the video of Basingstoke – still home as far as I am concerned.’
John Arlott was not the first broadcaster to commentate on cricket. E.W.Swanton had done that in 1938, but I doubt whether any other has had John’s gift for words, written poetry and 93 books and been the Guardian correspondent on wine. John was not only born in Basingstoke. It was at May’s cricket ground where John first acquired his love for cricket. Basingstoke should be proud to celebrate John’s centenary this February.