You often hear the phrase “a little piece of my childhood died” with the passing of a person, entertainer or presenter that you watched at a young age. What do you say when the person that has just passed has been with you at every step of you life, from childhood to mature or senior aged adult? Such was the length of his television career that Graham Murray Walker OBE had in my life that he was always there, a friendly face and a recognisable voice, a constant in an ever changing world.
My first recollections start in the 1960s when as a young boy, I would sit in front of the family’s small black and white television with my father on a Saturday afternoon, watching Grandstand for when the scrambling (now renamed moto-cross) was on. Along with the grainy picture would come this enthusiastic voice, proclaiming the names of the stars of the time – Vic Eastwood, Dave Bickers and Bryan Goss amongst them. You learned where they lived, what type of motorcycle they were riding, the style they employed across the bumps and jumps. In short, you suddenly learned a lot about the sport and that knowledge all came from one man – Murray.
That voice then went across to rallycross, especially when it was held as a winter sport at Lydden and was another staple part of the Grandstand repertoire. This was also, for me, the start of picking up the Murray trademark of the "Murrayism", his saying despite a windscreen being covered in mud and with the wiper system not functioning how well the driver was coping with the conditions, only to see the competitor slither off, totally blind to the direction of the course, and Murray having to backtrack on his words. And all done on live TV. But you loved him for being there and doing that.
And then regular Formula One Grand Prix coverage started in the mid 1970s, and he was considered the natural voice from the BBC to cover this. As most races were not covered live, it was the 30 minute highlight programmes you waited for during Sunday evenings, and his was the voice you listened to, balancing teaching those with less knowledge of the sport while not appearing to belittle those who had avidly followed the sport for years.
His “double acts” of working with a retired racer in the second commentator’s seat produced many memorable moments of TV joy, starting with someone who was the complete opposite of his character, James Hunt. While Murray would research every possible detail and angle, James would just appear having apparently spent most of the time going from party to party, but they proved to be compulsive viewing. And so it was with others too, including current F1 commentator Martin Brundle who spent five seasons sitting alongside Murray, and no doubt picked up the tips of the trade that he uses today from that time.
It was a natural fix that when the BBC were taking the highlights of the British Touring Car meetings that Murray once again would provide the soundtrack to the onscreen action. Whilst the footage was recorded and the voiceover done later, it still carried the same level of interest and enthusiasm as if it had been recorded live. And further cemented even more followers of both Murray and the sport, with an ever more youthful audience.
Eventually, the major television work would come to an end, but appearances didn’t stop there. From time to time, he would appear as a senior analyst of the sport, enlightening us with his prophecies and theories about the sport he loved, and sharing these as easily as he would if he was sitting with you down the pub and sharing mate stories on a Friday evening.
I watched him race a motorcycle at Goodwood against Damon Hill, Barry Sheene and others at the first Revival, and I am sure the smile never left his face while doing so. Indeed, I am sure if he could have commentated while riding around the track, he would have done so and in a way that would have left you feeling you were on that bike with him.
We shared hospital time together as on the same weekend that this writer was hospitalised after the major accident in 2000, Murray also spent a night at the same St Richards hospital in Chichester, having fallen and hurt his hip and was kept in overnight for observation. He added a note “From your fellow hospital bedmate” to my autograph book when I met him subsequently, and from here on we would meet up from time to time in pitlanes and paddocks, he checking how my health was and me asking questions about his past, which he always answered fully and methodically before moving onto his next appointment.
In 2005, I was at Kyalami, meeting up to work with friends from the Kyalami Marshals Association at the inaugural GP Masters meeting, and while sat inside race control, Murray suddenly appeared, was delighted to see me there, and went on to exclaim his joy about being with all his old Grand Prix friends again who were racing there, including Nigel Mansell. The commentary he provided that weekend was just as fresh and lively as it had been twenty years earlier, time helping to make him wiser, yet never taking away the “kid in a candy shop” approach he had.
From that time until a couple of years ago, the meetings were less frequent but still remained just as enjoyable as ever, getting him to recount some of his wartime and advertising stories, watching him still preparing some small item as a contribution to a production at Goodwood.
The last time we met up was four years ago, at Silverstone on a media press day, and Murray had come along for a visit. Sadly, I could see that age was catching up with him, needing helpers to get around, but this still had not affected his mind, as he was as sharp and perceptive as ever.
The world of sports fans from around the entire world owe him a huge debt of thanks for everything he did during the whole of his life, something not many people can say they have achieved. Social media went into meltdown from as soon as the announcement was made, showing how he had touched so many lives, either in person, or just as the mate on TV. Few people earn that amount of recognition from the public, showing the measure of the man, and I just feel so lucky to have actually been a tiny piece of his circle of life.
Goodbye my friend, Thank You for the times we shared. You were one of a kind.
Text: Steve Tarrant
Photos: Steve Tarrant & Bruce Grant-Banham