‘Every sport needs a voice’ – Why vintage JV is the very best of British
The news that John Virgo, one of Britain’s most celebrated sports commentators, will continue to be heard on the BBC beyond the 47th World Championship in Sheffield is a welcome tonic for fans of the sport. Desmond Kane explains why the iconic ‘JV’, renowned for delivering his fabled line ‘Where’s the cue ball going?’ with soothing gusto, has preserved the great Ted Lowe’s golden TV legacy over the past four decades…
The art of less being more in the synoptic yet stirring world of sports commentary is never truer than in the gloriously hushed environs of snooker.
As a sport seemingly built for the small screen in the late 1960s via the formidable BBC programme Pot Black, and certainly well before its colossal colour explosion in the 1980s on terrestrial TVs up and down the land, the balls have always done the talking on the green baize better than any individual clutching a microphone.
In snooker, the sound of silence remains golden in providing joyous slices of refuge for viewers marooned between tiffin and teatime drinks, momentary solace from what can feel like a triumphantly reverberating era of empty vessels making the most noise.
Snooker offers sporting escapism like no other, a bulwark against banality, but the wonderful sound of letting a match breathe without words remains blissfully rare in any sporting sphere.
When James ‘The Thai-phoon’ Wattana reached 80 in a rapid 147 against Tony Drago in February 1992 at the British Open in Derby on his way to compiling the 11th maximum of over 185 and counting in modern times, Dennis Taylor, the engrossed 1985 world champion, told viewers: “I’m not going to say any more and just let him get on with it.”
“Yes, I’m with you Dennis,” concurred the late John Pulman, the eight-time world champion between 1957 and 1967 just before a potting period in time when snooker players became as famous as the country’s footballers.
“It’s what we call the kiss of death from the commentary box. As soon as we start talking about these things, a player misses an easy shot. We’ll shut up and let you watch.”
We have delved deep into the ITV Sport Archive for a classic @Fouldsy147 Frame.
James Wattana's 147 against Tony Drago from the 1992 British Open. #FouldsysFrame #ITVSnooker pic.twitter.com/XcgzCRjN3B
— ITV Sport (@ITVSport) April 28, 2020
Wattana proceeded to clear the rest of the table without any further interjection from the commentators. Nor did they need to.
It was clear what was happening without the need for irrelevant or annoying soundbites. Pulman and Taylor knew what worked best.
The very finest commentators are as proficient in analysing the mood music of the room as much as a player’s temperament.
It is why old Ted Lowe will be forever revered in folklore. ‘Whispering Ted’ seemed to be sitting in your living room during the 1980s boom, fixated on the action without interfering with your own reflective pause, a solid cup of Yorkshire and the value of a pristine Steve Davis percentage shot on ‘The Nugget’s’ decade-long sojourn to six world gongs.
Snooker fans like to formulate their own thoughts when studying the narrative of a match without suffering an assault on the senses. Frame of mind matters as much to the viewer as a player’s frame.
Stats are fine, but do not matter in the moment. Lowe was light on words, but heavy on significance. When he spoke, his comments carried more weight on the undulating development of a contest. On a few occasions, lancing the air with uproarious humour.
“For those of you (watching) in black and white, it’s the green over the bottom pocket he is looking at,” said Ted as if he was scrutinising the very meaning of life.
While Lowe is irreplaceable for the magic he brought to the commentary box, his legacy has been carried superbly by his colleague John Virgo, the bearded 1979 UK champion (he lifted the trophy with a 14-13 win over Terry Griffiths at the Guild Hall in Preston), who turned a sprightly 77 in March.
Much like his friend Joe Johnson, the 1986 world champion, who provides authentic and informative analysis on Eurosport, Virgo’s working-class roots, inimitable gravelly tones and sense of theatre has stood the test of time from a bygone era.
He has moved with the times to make watching snooker a majestic experience in days when attention spans are rapidly dwindling.
It is no coincidence that Virgo has cited old Ted as his mentor and inspiration. He described Lowe as a character who showered the ancient game with “class” from the commentary box, but his own outstanding contribution to the sport is similarly bewitching.
Amid fears he might be prematurely retired after the 47th World Championship, the news that Virgo will remain as part of the national broadcaster’s snooker coverage beyond the Crucible this year is terrifically reassuring for fans of the sport across the UK and beyond.
Like the absence of Ted, the Crucible without ‘JV’ in the commentary box would not be the same. Continuity is cherished as much as familiarity at such junctures.
“How I felt about it when I first heard that it could be our last year?” said Virgo. “It’s like a sabbatical for us. We go there, Thursday morning’s no play we play golf; myself, Dennis, Steve, Stephen Hendry, Alan McManus, John Parrott, Ken Doherty.
“I’d have missed that terribly you know. Just going there. So for the foreseeable future, now whether that’s this year, next year and that’ll be it? So that was great.
“That’s what was said to me at the UK Championship in York and I was absolutely delighted to hear it, and however long it goes on for I don’t mind, but it was good news. It was music to my ears.”
Born in Salford in 1946, people warm to Virgo because he is believable, likeable and brings originality to coverage. “Where’s the cue ball going?” has become a standard refrain which is part of the taut toing and froing, especially amid the mental maelstrom of surviving the Crucible, with ‘JV’ bellowing “Ton Up!” when the latest century is pocketed by one of its regal cue artists.
When Ronnie O’Sullivan equalled Stephen Hendry’s 775th century at the 2015 Masters at the Alexandra Palace in London, on the same day as the Scotsman’s 46th birthday, Virgo’s reaction was masterful in its delivery.
“There are six pockets on a table, there are six you know,” shouts Virgo before O’Sullivan flukes the final yellow to maintain the break.
“Happy birthday, Stephen!” Virgo then blurts out as the century-clinching blue disappears with Hendry perched alongside him in the commentary box. It was appropriate, memorable and highly amusing.
"Happy Birthday, Stephen!"
If you know, you know 🤣
Watch @ronnieo147's record-equalling 775th century break from the 2015 Masters 👌 pic.twitter.com/uvEiLsHAFe
— World Snooker Tour (@WeAreWST) January 7, 2021
When Virgo was forced to apologise after being caught going rogue on a live mic during the epic World Championship semi-final between Mark Selby and Marco Fu in 2016, finally won 17-15 by Selby, he also spoke for millions of snooker onlookers beyond the bubble after a frame ran for a gruelling 76 minutes, at the time the longest in Crucible history.
“I wanted to watch a bit of racing this afternoon. At this rate, I’ll be lucky to watch Match of the Day,” he said, with a tad more colourful language.
Judd Trump, the 2019 world champion, realises that ‘JV’ brings an unrivalled presence to potting that transcends his vocation. Commentators do not reinvent the wheel, but there is a genuine talent to such timing.
“He gets everything across, his voice, it’s amazing, it can’t be taught, you’ve either got it or you haven’t, and he has something special,” he commented.
Such is Virgo’s ongoing popularity with the potting public, the very notion of him being banished long before his time would have been a Werbeniuk-sized body blow to enchanted followers of the great game.
“Every sport needs a voice,” said Virgo after the sad death of Ted on the day of the 2011 world final between Trump and John Higgins. “Cricket had its John Arlott, Wimbledon had its Dan Maskell and we had Ted Lowe. It just gives you such a presence.”
Snooker cannot afford to lose such figures. For such a unique approach to his calling in life, Virgo’s engaging style of delivery is without compare. In terms of effective sports commentary, he remains the very best of British.