Eddie Butler, who has died at the age of 65. Pic: Premier Sports.

Eddie Butler . . . The Poet Of Pontypool Who Lived Life Through A Dozen Different Voices

By Graham Thomas

The 2023 Six Nations is still 20 weeks away, but we know already it will be very different this season.

Eddie Butler won’t be there.

That voice, so sturdy, comfortable and familiar, won’t be around to guide and reassure. That ability to add to and embellish the picture, without ever obscuring it, will be missing.

The shock and disbelief over the past few days at his passing is still palpable. How could a figure so full of life and warmth and energy fall still and silent in a single breath on the other side of the world?

It’s only a few weeks since that voice was echoing around Parc y Scarlets from the large screens as they played his beautiful, poetic tribute to Phil Bennett at the funeral of another national treasure taken too soon.

It didn’t matter whether it was the sadness of a funeral, the frantic chaos of a Wales-England game, or a documentary explaining the genius of the Newport Transporter Bridge, it always sounded better under his supervision.

How did he do it? Easily. Certainly, as easily as the best playing talents in any sport seem to have an instinctive ability to perform the exceptional.

He always admitted his quality as a player – which took him to the top of the club game with Pontypool in the 1980s and captaincy of his country – was built on a foundation of hard effort, sweat and discipline.

He may have sweated and swotted long into the night before all those brilliant commentaries, or perspired heavily in a broadcast dubbing studio as he conjured the scripts for all the trademark montages that have gone viral again online in recent days. But if he did, he hid it well.

 

Unlike most commentators, with their notebooks and tightly-written flashcards, Ed famously travelled light. A couple of scraps of paper, maybe. But mostly, he liked to pick up the mic, look around him and wait for the right words to fall from his lips.

At the final whistle, he’d put the mic down and stroll into the media room where he’d write a thousand crafted words for The Observer, to a deadline that was already looming.

Once, before a Six Nations tournament a few years ago, I went to his house to interview him, along with a producer and cameraman.

It was for a Scrum V preview programme, featuring all the regular pundits and commentators. Most of them had laid out notes in front of them, or even complicated flow charts, where multi-coloured pens depicted arrows, labelled with the various strengths and weaknesses of each team.

It was a midweek afternoon when we arrived at Ed’s place. He was sat in his gardening clothes, watching some obscure black-and-white film he’d never got around to seeing. Earlier on, he’d been chopping wood.

He changed his shirt and then gave us the most detailed and evocative description of each of the six teams, all done to the required seconds-perfect duration to make for easy editing.

As we were leaving, he put the film back on.

He was a multi-layered character, as interested in old films or old novels as he was in old tries. It meant that when a new season came around, or the weekend’s fixtures, he approached it with a freshness since his mind and his attention had regularly been elsewhere.

 

The same variety and breadth of his ability applied to his work in journalism and broadcasting.

Whether he was working as a reporter, feature writer, pundit, presenter or commentator, he could do the lot – often at the same time.

The soothing tones that in recent years carried the lyricism and poetry of his scripts over TV pictures, could also be sharpened to good effect as a pundit – never more so than when the game in Wales cobbled together the mishmash of regional rugby or when they botched the appointment or removal of a national coach.

In those days, when a reactionary Welsh Rugby Union used to bombard BBC Wales with complaints, it was a demand to hear less of Ed’s voice rather than more.

It was the same fearlessness he had shown as a player with Pontypool, pitching up as a Cambridge University student to play for the toughest team in Welsh rugby at the time.

They nicknamed him “Bamber” after former University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne but they later called him Skipper when they made him captain and he went on to play for them for 14 seasons.

Eddie Butler in action for Wales against England in 1984. Pic: Getty Images.

Clips of a young E. Butler, being interviewed having been made captain, have also been circulating in recent days and whilst it’s noticeable that the voice deepened over the years, the droll self-deprecating humour was there in his mid-20s.

All those adventures at a Valleys rugby club, all that humour and affection for the people, were put to good use years later in the first of Ed’s three published novels, The Head of Gonzo Davies, about which he gave a captivating performance on stage at the Hay Festival.

Anyone, though, who wants an insight into his more recent areas of interest would do worse than to check out a long interview he gave to the Irish sports website, Off The Ball, earlier this year.

It’s all there: the mellifluous voice, the breadth of his knowledge on so many subjects, the anecdotes and the vibrant enthusiasm for the Yes Cymru movement which Ed had developed in recent years.

But shining through it all is the modesty, decency and charm of a truly wonderful man.

 

Ed went out at the very top of his game, as arguably the nation’s best-loved sports broadcaster. But towards the end of the interview, he suggests that his time as the voice of rugby on the BBC won’t last forever.

Tastes change along with technology, contracts switch hands, but that’s okay, he says, because there are new and interesting things to move onto. “Onwards and upwards.” That was always his reaction to any setback, sporting or otherwise.

Sadly, those new interests – like the striving for Welsh independence – have been cruelly cut short, but we should all be grateful for so much that he did provide, which was far, far more than most people can pack into one lifetime.

Goodbye, Ed. Onwards and upwards.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.