Eddie Butler

Languages and rugby – an interview with Eddie Butler

Being sent back to school, the death of a Spanish dictator, lonely in Madrid before stumbling upon an escape, and an enduring rugby and journalism career – it is worthy of a montage and Eddie Butler voiceover in itself.

It is autobiographical for Eddie (MML 1976), the BBC sports commentator whose deep tones and Welsh lilt are heard frequently at this time of year, during the Six Nations Championship, and whose voiceovers at major events and during the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show are well renowned.

Eddie attended Monmouth School in south Wales, just like Tony Jorden (Land Economy 1967), another who went on to achieve international honours, playing full-back for England.

Eddie was successful with his Fitzwilliam interview and offered a place, but needed to add Spanish to his already proficient French. So he did as instructed and returned to school to complete an O-Level before taking a year out in Madrid.

Eddie tells “General Franco was still in charge and he died while I was out there. It was one of those strange years, a turning point in Spain’s history. They used to say ‘Europe stops at the Pyrenees’, and I was there when it cast off its very long shadow of Franco and started life anew.

“I got a job at the Briam Institute, teaching English. I should look back on it with huge fondness, but for the first couple of months I was so lonely, plonked in a foreign city with just an O-Level to my name. It was a real struggle.

“I was walking up a street one day and went into a bar and there were rugby team photos on the wall. I asked about it and was told: ‘This is the headquarters of the Industrial Engineers of Madrid’. I was told they were a rugby team and that they trained in a park on Sunday mornings. 

“I went along and that was my turning point. I went from being the lost little Welshman in Madrid to suddenly having this rugby family looking after me. I had an absolute ball!”

When Eddie returned to Britain to start his University of Cambridge education at Fitzwilliam, he negotiated the Spanish oral examination with ease, but, having not spoken French for a year, that proved trickier. Adjusting to College life was straightforward.

He adds: “Having been abroad I found it had given me a wealth of experience and stood me in such good stead. I didn’t feel like a child anymore. I felt as if I could cope with most things.”

His rugby reputation had grown, too. Returning to south Wales, Eddie started training with Pontypool and was thrust straight into the first team following an August trial match. By the time he traversed the country to Cambridge to matriculate in October 1976, the number eight had played eight or nine games for one of Wales’ top clubs and he was immediately selected in the University first XV.

“There I was, going from being a gangly 18-year-old playing regional third division rugby in Madrid, to playing for Pontypool and the Blues team. That was very special,” he says.

Eddie would play University rugby in the Michaelmas term – including in the Varsity matches of 1976, 1977 and 1978 – for Fitzwilliam and Pontypool in Lent, and cricket in Easter term. A team-mate in both sports was Alastair Hignell (History 1974), who captained Cambridge at rugby and cricket.

He adds: “When you think how people are rationed now to 20 games a season, we were playing about 45 and loved every one of them. Throw in Cuppers as well and we played almost every day!”

Eddie’s one regret about his time at Fitzwilliam was that he did not take a year abroad. He was already in the international reckoning with Wales and was encouraged to stay to play rugby. 

He says: “That was my big mistake. I should’ve played in the ’77 Varsity Match and then gone back to Spain for nine months. If you’re a languages student you should spend as much time as possible abroad.”

Following graduation, he combined his rugby, which was amateur until the mid-1990s, with work as a French teacher at Cheltenham College, and then work as the BBC Radio Wales Press and Publicity Officer. That gave him a foot in the door to journalism, but Eddie had to stop playing rugby to pursue a sports journalism career, initially as a producer. He had captained Wales and was a late call-up to the 1983 Lions tour to New Zealand.

That first stint with the BBC was short lived, but Eddie moved into newspapers. He combined his role as The Observer’s rugby correspondent with his position as a BBC commentator and presenter for 24 years.

The Lions tours, Rugby World Cups and Olympics have been highlights. He has worked on five Olympics for the BBC – Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

He says: “Of them all, I know London should be the obvious highlight, but to be out in Beijing for the Olympics, staying out there for the two-week gap, and then the Paralympics... 

“I loved China and the Chinese people, who were fascinating and welcoming. Being a languages student, you had to go back to the absolute basics of not having one word in common with people, having a conversation with photographs and pens and paper.”

As for the montages and the voiceovers, Eddie was initially put off, but he was undeterred and enjoys writing and delivering them. 

He says: “In the early days, the BBC head of sport said ‘we don’t think you’ve got the voice for it’. For years I wasn’t entirely confident, but the breakthrough came through on the Olympics.

“The holes you have to fill with voiceover are very short, so you have to strip away an awful lot of things like verbs! It has its own little craft.”

Thankfully, Eddie’s voice continues to be the soundtrack for many memorable sporting moments.

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