Commentary on commentary: part 3 – Ned Boulting
Part three of our series about the commentary of cycling commentary is an interview with Ned Boulting from ITV. This is the Brit’s 14th year on the Tour de France and he’s part of a major change for for the British cycling broadcaster…
Click the Soundcloud file to listen to Ned Boulting talk to Rob Arnold about cycling commentary and/or read the transcript below…
Interview – Ned Boulting
RIDE: I’m with Ned Boulting who is the voice of ITV (the broadcaster of the Tour in Britain) along with David Millar, taking over the mantle from Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett. It’s a bit like getting rid of a Formula-One commentator or something isn’t it?
Ned Boulting: “The great Murrary Walker, you’re talking about, yeah.
“[Phil and Paul] have been icons in broadcasting history.
“Here’s a name to throw out there: Richie Benaud, the late Richie Benaud. [Or] Murray Walker in Formula-One. Peter Alliss in golf. John Motson in football… the list goes on [and] Liggett’s name, in particular – and Paul Sherwen in his own way – but Phil Liggett’s name is firmly in that category of great broadcasters.
“And so, in other words, taking over from Phil is pretty much as hard as it gets, probably. In a sport that is, I think, the hardest to call as well in many ways.”
One thing I’m curious about and I wonder if you’re interested in the temptation, but I think that every now and again, it seems the commentary of cycling is such that people who are doing it seem to feel the need to fill the void of silence.
“Yeah. Silence in commentary, that’s a very good question.
“It works in cricket, doesn’t it?”
It does, and tennis as well.
“Certainly. Well, the action often obviously speaks for itself in tennis.
“Everyone can see what’s happening in tennis and then the commentary kind of kicks back in after the winning point has been made and it bridges that gap while the next serve goes in. By and large, that’s the kind of rhythm of tennis commentary.
“Cricket is not dissimilar in the sense that you’ve got that three or four seconds of action when the ball is bowled and the run is hit and that, by and large, goes without commentary. Then the commentary kicks back in.
“Cycling is tricky. I’d like to think that you could just allow the pictures to breathe and I’m sure it’s something I’m guilty of – talking slightly too much. It’s something I want to develop as I mature as a commentator but to have the confidence to go, ‘Right, now I’m just going to hand over to the pictures of the race and just allow them to speak for themselves…’ Weirdly, I don’t think it works that often.
“Like today [stage 15 of the Tour in 2016] they were rolling through, nothing was happening in the race, but there were beautiful pictures as they were rolling through these lovely villages. There were crowds, five or six abreast on either side and that’s an opportunity just to shut up and say nothing; just enjoy France… and let the pictures speak for themselves.
“But actually, more often than not, a silence feels like an absence in cycling commentary. And it does actually feel wrong.
“I think if you review it and you saw most of the bike racing and commentators weren’t saying much, I think you’d feel cheated slightly or that low-key interpretation that you need to offer as a cyclist to refresh and remind [viewers] of what’s going on.
“It’s such a complex sport.”
How much of a legacy is it to have the Liggett/Sherwen precedent? People are so accustomed to hearing them tell of the detail that probably we don’t need to know anymore. I mean they started doing it when cycling was an antipodean sport for English-speaking countries so they regularly remind us that the ‘riders have to drink’, or ‘they have to eat’… all of the obvious things that we’re pretty savvy to now. I don’t think you have the need to do that now, do you?
“Well, honestly it’s not for me to say. They are masters of what they do and have been for many years. But I do think that in the English-speaking world, in the UK – and I can only talk for the UK – there is a level of understanding that has really kicked in now.
“When I started working as a reporter on our broadcast 15 years ago, we were broadcasting maybe to 150,000 and now it’s over a million. That’s a big change.
“So the numbers of people who ‘get’ cycling get it and perhaps don’t need someone to tell them why Mark Cavendish isn’t going to win the Tour de France, that’s the classic – for me that’s the litmus test. If you don’t need to explain that anymore, like I used to have to, then something has changed and I think that there is an appetite for a little bit more detail perhaps.”
It’s interesting that you could consider that concept, especially when you come from the discussion about tennis and cricket; everyone understands the personalities and the strengths and weaknesses, who is good with spin bowling or good with the bat… everyone understands that. But now it’s at a point in the UK at least where everyone understands that Froomey has his strengths and weaknesses – or we’re learning about more strengths, in fact: he can sprint, he can time trial, he can descend, he can run… he can do everything.
“There’s a lot that we didn’t know about Chris Froome that we’re learning. But you know, even if we do understand who Chris Froome is now it’s important to take the next step and understand who Lars Bak is, and what role Lars Bak performs for Lotto-Soudal.
“[Or], who is Thomas De Gendt? Why is he in the polka-dot jersey? That sort of thing.
“Once you start to really get to the roots of that, then you are a cycling nation and you’re broadcasting to a cycling nation.
“We’ve started on a long journey to get the right thing.”
For me it’s awkward to report on the Tour de France because there are so many sub-stories. When I’m putting it together for the magazine, I always feel like I’ve robbed the audience that I have of some of the experience that you get on the Tour de France…
“You have to shrink it down and you’re losing so much.”
Yes, and you have to concertina in a vast amount of information into a couple of pages. But when you’ve got hours and hours of airtime, you do get to tell the sub-stories. What are the ones that you have enjoyed telling with David this year?
“Oh, he’s just an endless mind. Often we can’t broadcast, unfortunately. But I know exactly what you’re getting at.
“What would spring to mind? I think the continuing enjoyment of watching the renaissance of French cycling has been a fascination over the last few years. And just it’s inability to ignite.
“Thibaut Pinot, for example, who came in with such high hopes having transformed himself as a racer. And Warren Barguil who everyone talks about as potentially better than either [Romain] Bardet or Pinot… and where are they?! Why aren’t they doing what Adam Yates is doing?
“It must be just maddening beyond belief for the French sporting public. This is where this race happens, they are the architects of this great event, and they are the true working-class heart of the support for the sport.
“I mean, we’re looking at Thibaut Pinot right now… oh no, that’s Jérémy Roy, his team-mate – Pinot has obviously abandoned, and I should know that for heaven’s sake…
“But that’s an interesting subplot isn’t it?
“And I like watching a cluster of riders who maybe aren’t household names in their own right. They are some of my favourites.
“I love watching – and this is a country with a renaissance going on – I love watching German cycling come back with a whole new fresh generation of young talent. Emmanuel Buchmann, I think he’s a great rider with promise. I even like their minor characters: Paul Vos is a very interesting guy. For example, and this is a good story, he has engaged himself in one thing and one thing only: he wants to be the King of the Breakaways in Paris. That’s what he wants to do so his Tour de France is almost invisible, you won’t find that reported on the pages of L’Equipe but that’s him: one of 198 riders, he’s fixed his mind on that goal and that’s his target. He’s in about third place in the standings at the moment and I wish him all the best.
“That’s a fascinating little subplot isn’t it?
“You could carry on for ages: 198 different biographies.”
Exactly. That’s right isn’t it? I think there’s a wealth of guys… like I talk about Raimundas Navardauskas earlier today: if we knew the real story of him it would be fantastic but instead we’re standing here watching Mark Cavendish go through [his interviews]…
“Navardauskas is, to my mind, the only Cannondale rider – which used to be a great WorldTour team – who is doing anything, or is capable of doing anything at the moment.
“So it’s not just what’s going on with one individual, it’s what’s going on with the team and the ethos of the team?
“Orica-BikeExchange, for example: such a new team that’s achieved so much in such a small space of time but they’re going through a transformation now. They’re no longer looking for opportunist little bits and pieces and notable little fires at the beginning of stage race. They are becoming a big GC WorldTour team with [Estaban] Chaves and Yates, in particular.
…I think that’s what keeps you talking isn’t it?
“I don’t think, hand on heart, if Matt White would have known that Yates would be looking as a strong contender for the podium and pretty much nail the white jersey. That would have been a bit pie-in-the-sky. So teams and riders discover new things about themselves over the three weeks.
“We discover new things about those riders as they’re discovering it about themselves and teams have to react accordingly. They have to make policy on the hoof – and tactics on the hoof – and that’s obviously sometimes dictated by injury and accidents, illness in Thibaut Pinot’s case… sometimes it’s just a thing that emerges and a dynamic that takes hold of a race.
“So the detail is infinite, isn’t it?”
We can talk about the riders but the idea was to discuss commentary and what we’ve just done now is prove that you can go off on many tangents and cycling is so accessible.
“Here’s a frustration, right, about commentating and it relates to the conversation we were just having and your frustrations that you’re having with your magazine. By far our biggest audience watches the evening highlights show, they don’t watch the live coverage.
“It must be even more extreme down under when the live race is happening in the middle of the night.
“But nonetheless, in the UK people are at work by and large when the race is finishing so they watch the evening highlights show.
“To my money, those are my least satisfying pieces of commentary, the bits that go out with the highlights because they’re just focussed, for example, on the last 20km of today – that’s pretty much all you’re going to see.
“Whereas, in fact, all the expansive stuff that we were able to talk about earlier on was way more interesting and detailed, for my money, and ultimately in the final kilometre of a bunch sprint I’m just shouting names. I hope I’m shouting the right names in the right order but that’s it. And there’s not much nuance to that, that’s just a technical thing.”
It’s wonderful for you to have a guy like Dave Millar next to you. He’s articulate, he’s engaging, and he knows the riders and so much detail…
“It’s fresh in his memory still. Also, and he wouldn’t mind me saying this: he doped and he served a two-year suspension. So as and when we have to talk about that, he is The Man to talk about it.
“He’s quite willing to talk. He’s happy – well, ‘happy’ is probably not the right word – but he’s willing and prepared and expecting to talk about it now and again.
“We’ve done that on this Tour de France and I tell you, there are not many…
“Well, I’ll say it this way: there are lot of ex-dopers working in the broadcast media. I’m not going to name any times but there are lots… but to my knowledge there’s only one who is prepared routinely to front up to his own shortcomings and we’ve got him.”
And he can offer insight because he can understand the difference of racing with EPO and without.
“Correct. That’s information.”
Aside from that, what’s the thing that’s going to make Ned Bolting and Dave Millar the glue that sort of… ah, tears apart the Liggett/Sherwen tandem?
“Oh that’s not something I want to do and it’s not something I want to suggest I’ll do.
“I am where I am. I’m enjoying it. I’m loving it.
“I’m a friend with David… we want to be doing it for many years to come and for [our commentary] to mature because I don’t want to stand still.
“You never stand still and this shows with Liggett and Sherwen for example: if you were to go back and listen to their commentaries from 20 years ago, they would sound completely different. It evolves and you develop, in their case, a telepathic, deep understanding of each other and how they work. That takes a long time.
“I’m just on the start of a long journey.”
I looked in at their booth today and noticed that they were partitioned, so they don’t look at each other during the commentary. I assume that you and David are looking at each other.
“Sometimes we just end up in a conversation, we forget that there’s a bike race going on. So you have to remember to look at the tellie.”
This is part of a much larger conversation and I look forward to watching the evolution of your tandem go through and it will be interesting to see what the reaction from your audience is. Do you have any feedback at this early stage?
“Well, you can’t operate in 2016 without getting instant feedback. You know what I mean: Twitter.”
Is it vitriolic or is it supportive?
“We knew we were in for a rough ride. We’ve commentated on a number of bike races together before coming to the Tour de France. But suddenly it’s a four-fold increase in the audience size and those are the people who watch bike races – well, only one in the year: the Tour de France.”
To summarise: you can practice on the Dauphiné but you’ve only got the hardcore enthusiast, when you come to the Tour it’s a broader audience.
“Yeah. It was a big shock to a lot of people that they weren’t hearing Phil and Paul this year and I totally get that. I would have been exactly the same sitting at home going, ‘Where’s Murray Walker?! Where’s Liggett?!’ So we knew we were in for a rough ride from those folk and they’re absolutely entitled to their opinion and I share their sentiments.
“They let us know in no uncertain terms… for 48 hours. But it was around 48 hours and then they calmed down. Since then a couple of the big cycling websites have run opinion pieces and invited comments and I didn’t look at them because: why would you? It’s like opening the gates of hell. But someone thrust them in front of me and said, ‘Look at this…’ and I was delighted to find the vast majority of people supporting us. And they were pleased with the change so I take a lot of heart from that actually.”
It’s interesting to watch your evolution. I know I’ve been at the Tour for every one that you have done and I know that you’re passionate about it.
“I love it. I do love it.”
You research your topic well and I wish you all the best.
“It’s a long apprenticeship isn’t it? Fourteen years it’s taken me to turn myself into a commentator. But in cycling I think that’s the apprenticeship you need to serve. It’s got to be that long.”
Just to quickly summarise: how did you get to cycling?
“Totally by accident. Football journalist, ITV. The broadcaster I was contracted to at the time ended up owning the rights to the Tour de France and didn’t have enough bodies on the ground so they threw me into the middle of the 2003 prologue which, funnily enough, David Millar should have won – but his chain fell off.
“So he was there on my first ever day on a bike race and now I’m alongside him however many years later, commentating.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold