James Alexander Gordon has read the Saturday football results on BBC radio for decades.
JAMES ALEXANDER GORDON – now there’s a real football icon. Those of us of a certain age will remember bakelite radios delivering his warm chocolate tones, clipped and competent, with never a hint of hesitation as he read the news the nation was waiting for – the football results.
It was the same every Saturday afternoon shortly after 5 o’clock, following the garish intro music and the breathless opening announcement of the afternoon’s highlights.
These were the days when Boots ran libraries and needles for the gramophone came in small round tins.
Football was a sport which generated plenty of local interest – there was even a special football issue of the local newspaper (the "Green ‘Un" or the "Pink ‘Un"), published late on a Saturday afternoon, complete with a full set of results plus match reports.
The real importance of the results from James Alexander Gordon was for the millions of punters, grubby pencils poised, waiting with their pools coupons. Was this to be the Saturday afternoon that would change their lives forever? The league fate of Burnley, Brighton or Birmingham was of little interest to most listeners.
And as for those of us south of the Border, the Scottish results, featuring some pretty unpronounceable place names, might just as well have come from another planet.
No – the only thing that mattered was how many points did the games produce.
It’s funny that other radio presenters, whose names we can still remember – Jimmy Young, Alan Freeman, David Jacobs – have retired more or less gracefully. Isn’t it a bit strange that James Alexander Gordon lives forever: Or does he?
Back in those days, the only one source of information about BBC programmes was the Radio Times. The BBC had some curious monopoly stranglehold on the information and you had to buy it if you wanted to know what was on. Despite this enviable position, editors did try to brighten up the publication with articles and pictures – about places, people and programmes – but even in those days I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of James Alexander Gordon.
He was there for me in the 50's, when I had a school-related affiliation with Leeds United (John Charles was playing for them). He was still there in the 70's, when I took off to spend a year on VSO in the Sudan, living 200 miles north of Khartoum.
Sitting under a palm tree on the Nile, listening to him on a Saturday afternoon, when it was a cold wet February day in England, was special. He was still there throughout the season just ended, whenever I switched to Sport on Five at 5 o’clock to catch the results.
The same voice, the same intonations, the same guesswork – can you figure whether the away team won, drew or lost simply by his intonation?
Then it struck me – there’s something wrong here.
He’s got to be 100 years old by now, but his voice hasn’t changed one jot since I was a teenage Leeds fan.
It seems like he’s never missed a Saturday afternoon – not through illness, over-indulgent lunches, family tragedies, or even mundane traffic hold-ups.
You have to admit, it’s a bit uncanny.
We know that Alistair Cooke is in his 90's, but references to current events in his Letter from America lead me to believe he’s still alive – if only just.
But how do they do the James Alexander Gordon trick?
After all, he’s reading the most current news imaginable – this afternoon’s football results.
I think I’ve got it.
It’s the same technology as the speaking clock.
They pre-record all the options.
The (human) speaking clock voice has recorded every number from one to 59: they just splice the numbers together in every possible combination – 11.36, 5.49, 2.10.
With James Alexander Gordon the same thing has been done. He recorded all the names of the clubs in the football league, plus a few hundred others – in case needed when promoted to the league or whose results in the Diadora, FA Vase, minor Welsh leagues or other spurious competitions just might feature on pools coupons.
All these names would have been recorded with three different intonations – the home win, the away win and the draw.
Then he recorded a set of numbers, from one to probably 100 (just to be on the safe side).
So now, as the results come in to Broadcasting House, the computer simply selects the right recorded bits from the databank and lo and behold we have the football results "read by James Alexander Gordon".
What I want to know is how, and why, they persuaded him to do it.
Maybe he was suffering a debilitating illness that threatened his voice chords.
Maybe they just wanted to save on his weekly fee.
Did they threaten him with the sack – or pay him a large sum up front, plus loyalties in perpetuity?
And what of James himself?
Is he alive or dead?
Locked up in a cell in Broadcasting House or a free man?
He’s never seen on Have I Got News For You?, or heard on Just A Minute.
He never has to speak players’ names – or the names of foreign clubs. Does he know about the influx of overseas talent in the football league?
Has he heard of the Champions League? Have any readers met him?
I’ll not rest easy ‘til I’ve seen him at a local book signing.
James Alexander Gordon still reads the classified football results on Sports Report on Radio Five Live on Saturday afternoons during the football season. He read the football results on Sports Report on Radio 2 before it moved to Radio Five Live. James worked in music publishing before joining the BBC in 1972. He is also as a freelance broadcaster, recording voice-overs aswell as commentary for company videos.
John Collins has lived in St Albans since 1995 and has visited the city on business since the 60's. He has been a Leeds United fan since spending his early teens in that city. John is a freelance writer who also works in management.