A Lucky Man
Shoal Bay Press, $44.95,
It is one of life’s idiosyncrasies that the nicer a guy is, the more some people will feel compelled to hate him. Keith Quinn, the doyen of television sports commentators, is one such person. In a lifetime of passionate commitment to his craft, Quinn has been rewarded with a few bouquets and a truckload of brickbats. In spite of all that, there is no question about his status as somebody whose special qualities have projected him well beyond the arena of sports broadcasting, which has been the only profession he has ever practised.
He has entitled his autobiography A Lucky Man and one can understand why – because the private life behind the public façade has been almost dream-like in its positivity and strength. Keith Quinn is lucky not just because he got to do a job that he enjoys – a job that is an extension of his favourite recreation, sport. He is lucky because his family life has been so stable and he is surrounded by family, friends and relatives who have been enormously supportive. His sense of personal luckiness also derives from the fact that he has come through a series of life-threatening health problems relatively unscathed and, like anyone who has been spared by the grim reaper, is exceptionally grateful for the gift of life itself.
Commentating on sport is of course a hazardous business. For many in the business the vocation is a bit like life in a primitive society – nasty, brutish and short. You pit your wits against a large multitude of fanatics who are convinced that their perspective is right. If you happen to broadcast yours then, by the law of averages, you will create a ready band of opponents. This Quinn has done with stoic determination, knowing almost from the outset that objectivity would generate its natural opposite out there among the viewers.
Keith Quinn isn’t a complicated man and his story has no pretensions. Indeed, having been on the receiving end of so much criticism, he is self-deprecating almost to the point of personal character assassination. The reader is constantly reassured that the author is an ordinary bloke, as if to say, please don’t forget that I am just one of the crowd. But Keith Quinn isn’t an ordinary bloke. He has become an exceptional individual surrounded by the imagery of the battler.
And battle he has had to. Having been taken on as a junior office boy in the old Radio New Zealand days with a single object in view – to get behind the microphone – Quinn engaged in a permanent struggle with the grey suits upstairs, first to establish a beachhead in the organisation, then to hang on to each position as he progressed up the ladder. His recollections of events in those days make for fascinating reading. His relations with his colleagues, many of whom he was in direct competition with for the few top commentating jobs, always seem to have been remarkably friendly, largely, one suspects, because of Quinn’s honest and uncomplicated personal style rather than any particular magnanimity on the part of the others.
Broadcasting egos have always suffered from inflation and some of these, notably that of Lance Cross, who was a boss both in sports broadcasting and in athletics administration, strained even the equable Quinn near to breaking point. His description of the debacle that occurred over reporting the tragic events at the Munich Olympics – as a result of Lance Cross’s refusal to be upstaged by a junior reporter – is an absolute classic. Cross also had an irritating habit of suddenly seizing the microphone from the established commentator when a big event like the 1500 metres final was about to be run and invariably making a ghastly mess of the commentary. The tragedy was that nobody ever told Cross that he was an idiot. Understandably so. It was more than their job was worth.
Since he is a Wellingtonian, it is no surprise that Quinn’s idol was Winston McCarthy, the ultimate radio commentator and someone who in the 1950s and 60s was accorded almost divine status by rugby fans. Quinn modelled himself on McCarthy only to find that with the advent of television the McCarthy style, based on some fairly imaginative extemporisation, was suddenly out of date. The commentator now had to talk about exactly what the viewers could see rather than what the commentator wanted them to visualise. Keith Quinn quickly mastered this particular art, adding his own passionate perspective at the same time; and it has been this combination that has made him on the one hand such an effective broadcaster and, on the other, such a ready target for those who see it differently or don’t want to be given an alternative view.
Throughout this eventful career, Keith Quinn appears always to have maintained a remarkable dignity. He has been dumped by the capricious masters of TVNZ on more than one occasion and been brought back because they realised that there was no-one better. He was thrust aside on several occasions on tour in the mistaken belief that outsiders like Bill McLaren, the BBC rugby commentator, were better. They weren’t. They didn’t understand the game anywhere near as profoundly as Keith Quinn. Few people do.
His is a story of unusual dedication to an unusual vocation – and it ain’t over yet.
Chris Laidlaw writes a weekly sports column for the Evening Post.