Words on Voices: From World Class Athlete to World Class Broadcaster - How Sue Barker Served up a Masterclass in Etiquette
‘The camera never lies’ has been proven to be false on so many occasions that it’s easy to forget just how truthful a television can be. Sometimes, broadcasters try to affect a warmth and kindness on air that they simply don’t have when the red light is off. It might work, too, but it’s a house of cards that’s waiting for a gentle breeze. If a viewer has a nagging feeling in their gut that a broadcaster isn’t actually a nice person, they’re often right. That’s a problem because, ultimately, a TV viewer wants to believe that they’d enjoy sitting down for a cup of tea with the person they’re listening to; after all, they’ve already let this stranger come in to their living room. And there is perhaps no one that you’d rather pop the kettle on for than Sue Barker.
As a colleague once put it, ‘Sue Barker doesn’t do tennis – Sue Barker is tennis.’ To host Wimbledon on the BBC is to be the face of both of the two major British religions at the same time. The British don’t watch Wimbledon so much as devour it like a bowl of strawberries and cream; presenting it is a high-pressure job. Since making her debut for the Beeb in 1993, Barker has also fronted virtually every major sporting event there is, from the World Athletics Championships to Sports Personality of the Year. Her elevation to broadcasting stateswoman was cemented by her work on the royal wedding of the Wessexes in 1999, making her one of very few sports presenters to cross over in to mainstream entertainment.
At the heart of Sue Barker’s success is a warmth that you believe in: a kindness and respect for all athletes mixed with an unshakable excitement that tennis is about to begin. In the clip below, she and Chris Evert are discussing how many shocks there have been in this year’s Ladies’ Singles competition at Wimbledon. It takes a couple of viewings to realise that they are both being judiciously critical of several players, so good-natured is the discussion; it’s a terrific example of how to have integrity as a journalist without being cruel, yet how to be pleasant without being saccharin.
Holding Court: Sue Barker Hosts Wimbledon
In a BBC tennis studio, every expert guest performs well; Sue Barker is the doubles partner who elevates the broadcasting level of their teammate. She asks the right questions and keeps the conversation flowing, maintaining reliable conversational baseline rallies but never feeling the need to approach the net and play the applause-generating volley herself – the guest is always the star. If you’re a presenter with no sporting background then that’s easy to do, but Barker’s truest talent is her modesty. A former world number three, and the French Open winner in 1976, Sue Barker remains the most-recent British woman to win a Grand Slam on foreign soil. Hiding in open sight and seldom discussed on air, her sporting credentials are perhaps only really evident by the esteem in which she is held by her peers.
Holding Serve: Sue Barker Wins the French Open
If Paris was the zenith of her playing career, the highlight in broadcasting terms came in the city that narrowly beat it to hosting the 2012 Olympics – London. Sue Barker’s anchoring of the BBC’s coverage was the once-in-a-lifetime culmination of a career spent earning the trust of the public. Her to-camera links in the review of the Games, a BBC DVD box set that rivals even Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, showcased a lesser-known ability to craft and deliver poetic language as she began by noting that, “Autumn is the time for fruitful reflection.”
Like so many great British sporting moments, and perhaps like her own oft-forgotten French Open win in 1976 (where she returned to the UK and realised she’d lost the winner’s medal and had no photographs of the day), it’s only much later that one realises the role that Sue Barker played. Her post-match courtside interviews at Wimbledon have become an integral part of the trophy presentation – perhaps the most memorable of all was after Andy Murray lost in the final to Roger Federer in 2012. As Murray was overcome by tears, the public misconception of him as stony-hearted was once and for all put to bed and a nation changed its mind. As Barker herself put it, “It would have been very easy for me to say, ‘Andy we’ll do it later’ but I kept the microphone there because I could see that he wanted to talk and I knew that the people wanted to share it with him. I think he knew that as well.” A month later, roared on by probably the loudest and most partisan crowd the All-England Club had ever seen, Murray overwhelmed Federer to win Olympic gold on the very same court. A year later, he became the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936.
Holding Back Tears: Sue Barker Interviews Andy Murray at Wimbledon 2012
The more high-profile a broadcaster becomes, the more likely they are to acquire detractors. Some, however, remain beyond reproach. Perhaps the most quirkily British manifestation of the universal reverence in which Sue Barker is held was on the grounds of London’s Queen’s Club after an infamous men’s singles final that saw David Nalbandian disqualified after lashing out on court and drawing blood from a line judge. Much of the crowd didn’t see the offence, and didn’t know why a match that they had paid good money to see had been brought to a close – they began to boo and jeer during the post-match presentation. Glancing towards the crowd, Barker issued a quiet but firm ‘shhh’ and 6,000 people instantly fell silent to conclude the most short-lived rebellion ever seen on an immaculate West London lawn. To be told off is embarrassing, but to be told off by Sue Barker is shameful; if you’re going to invite her in for a cup of tea, it better be a good one.