Date of Birth: 26 April 1926, Alderley Edge, Sheshire, UK
Birth Name: David Robert Coleman
Nicknames: David Coleman
The death of David Coleman at the age of 87 signs off an already distant era when television broadcasts of Britain's national sporting events the so-called "crown jewels" were almost the sole and exclusive preserve of the BBC. Coleman was the very embodiment of that pre-eminence. As the corporation's champion sports presenter through much of the second half of the 20th century, he had an enthusiastic, knowing, taut professional style and a crisp, classless delivery that seemed all-pervading. In addition, he was the pathfinding master of ceremonies for such long-running regulars as Grandstand, Sportsnight and A Question of Sport.
In all, Coleman led the BBC's coverage at 16 Olympic games (summer and winter), five World Cup football tournaments and many FA Cup finals and Grand National steeplechases. He realised that the knack of successful television commentary required both passion and brevity, as well as, for the most important passages, bestowing a significantly precise top and tail to frame the occasion for posterity as in: "This then, the start of the 200 metres of the 1976 Olympic games…" to "Oh, what a run, what a run, truly magnificent!"
Following his final Olympiad at Sydney in 2000, and only months from his 75th birthday, at a ceremony at the International Olympic Committee's base in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, pinned to Coleman's lapel the rare Olympic Order medal. The television man was touchingly moved. He was the first broadcaster or journalist ever to be so honoured, joining such lustrous performers on the plinth as Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek.
Throughout his broadcasting career, he saw himself as the hard-nosed, everyman-journalist. He was no celebrity presenter, and could be scathingly dismissive about more starry, chummy screen performers chosen more for winsome looks and winning smiles.
Rivals were never comfortable with Coleman. In the mid-1960s when ITV hired the popular, amiable Eamonn Andrews to launch its Saturday afternoon World of Sport magazine programme to take on the BBC's Grandstand, Coleman dismissively told Andrews: "I'll blow you out of the water!" To all intents, that was, mercilessly, what he did.
Similarly, at the end of that decade, when ITV attempted to challenge BBC's football monopoly, Coleman would refuse, before cup finals at Wembley, even to shake the hand when proffered with a "good luck for a good commentary" from the commercial channel's comradely Brian Moore. The two remained distanced rivals for almost 30 years. Moore recalled: "All round the world, David offered no real friendship. He was so spiky. If he even said 'hello', it was more with a sneer than a smile. But while his temper was short, his standards were immensely high. His hard edge made him as formidable a journalist as he was an opponent. He knew he was the best and professionally, all said and done, we knew he had set the standard and there was simply nothing we could do but admire and respect his talent."
When the fledgling BBC television service resumed after the second world war, it was still very much the corporation's junior service, available only in parts of the south-east, with its performers recruited occasionally from radio, though more usually, it seemed, from the officers' mess or the old boy network. Certainly, up in Cheshire, young Coleman had never seen television as a boy. His route was to be journalism's traditional one.
He was born in Alderley Edge, into a family that hailed from County Cork, and he went to a local grammar school. An introduction as a trainee on his local Stockport Express gave him an entree, followed by call-up for two years of national service in 1946, into the army's newspaper unit, where he had postings in West Germany and east Africa.
On demobilisation, he joined Kemsley newspapers in Manchester before becoming a youthful editor of the weekly Cheshire County Press. He was a gifted amateur runner and in 1949 won the annual Manchester Mile, at the time, he would insist, the only non-international ever to have done so. After injuries prevented him from entering trials for the 1952 British Olympic team, he wrote to the BBC.
By 1953, Coleman was putting in regular scriptwriting shifts in the BBC northern region's Manchester newsroom, and the following year joined its staff in Birmingham, concentrating on sport in the Midlands. At once came the opportunity of which ambitious juniors dream.
On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. While the BBC's sports department in London, led by Peter Dimmock, was scouring the metropolis desperately for the shy hero (who was lying low in Clement Freud's restaurant at the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square), they filled in time with an interview by a fresh-faced newcomer from the Midlands of the popular Argentinian golfer Roberto de Vicenzo.
Thus, Coleman was up and running and soon, as BBC Midlands' new sports editor, he was being accepted by London as the likeliest of bright lads. In 1958 Dimmock launched Grandstand on the national network. He introduced the inaugural programmes himself and then handed over to Coleman, "who's 20 times better at it than me". Coleman's marathon had begun.
A professional perfectionist, he could be a hard man to work with. Coleman could reduce insecure minions to tears, and often did. He liked cold-eyed, no-nonsense journalists around him, not television's regular vaudevilleans. He had always – and with good reason a fine conceit of his own value.
A contract wrangle kept him off the screen for almost 12 months in the mid-1970s. It was less about money and more about editorial control and the number of events he would cover.
In the studio or on location, Coleman's unflappability at taking a producer's direction, in spite of the din either all around him or through his earpiece, was legendary and, however many top-dog stars have since tried, his legend has never been outshone. Masterly, too, was his breathless and awesome command of the live teatime-scores teleprinter "Queen of the South one, Airdrie one, means Airdrie move up three places on goal difference, but Queen of the South slip a place because Brechin won today."
His race-reading of successive Olympic 100 metres finals, from Rome in 1960 to Sydney in 2000, was even more an epic and genius party-piece of splendour spot-on identification of eight men tearing headlong at him in a less than 10-second blur. But his most resplendent journalistic hour or rather hours came with his prolonged and distressingly sombre vigil, working from just one, distant, fixed camera, throughout the dreadful day of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic village in 1972.
"Colemanballs" in Private Eye a fortnightly log of commentators' gaffes and tautologies irritated him to the point of anger, and Coleman denied just about all the entries attributed to him. But the national treasure had mellowed by the time Spitting Image came along in the 1980s, and he could engagingly chortle at himself as a crazed, check-capped puppet, finger in earpeiece, squealing: "Er, reallyquiteremarkable and, er, I'vegonetooearlyand Ithinkit'simpossdibletokeep upthislevelofexcitement withoutmyheadexploding…"
Coleman, who was appointed OBE in 1992, resented retirement in 2000 as a slight, but he had set the standards. When, for all those decades, BBC television ruled the waves, for most of the time he was master-commander and buccaneering captain on the quarterdeck.
After he had fronted Grandstand for a decade, he moved to a midweek slot with Sportsnight (1968-73), though later returned to the Saturday programme. From the early 1970s he was the BBC's senior football commentator, and from the early 80s concentrated on athletics. He brought a businesslike geniality to chairing A Question of Sport (1979-97); the programme's only other two presenters have been David Vine from its start in 1970, and Sue Barker till the present. He was also a co-host of the BBC Sports Review of the Year (1961-83).