Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes: Sketches from Memory
Last Updated: 14/01/19 7:29pm
Remembered as one of the most controversial playing names during the dying days of the English amateur era and now regarded as one of the shrewdest and most perceptive observers in the media - both on television and in print - Stuart Barnes has spent over 40 years of his life immersed in rugby.
In Sketches from Memory, he combines autobiography with an objective and off-beat study of the sport, taking us on a meandering journey from his childhood in the 1970s, through to the height of his playing career in the 1980s and 1990s, and right up to the present day as he studies the contemporary game with the astute eye of a master analyst.
Eschewing the more traditional structure of a sports book, Barnes abandons chronology to allow past and present to mingle, presenting his memoirs as an alphabetical soup with the letters of the alphabet and not the numbers, dates and years of his life leading the narrative.
It is a refreshing, beguiling and absorbing approach that allows the dedicated reader to complete the book in sequence, or the bed-side reader to flick from one letter to the next without losing the thread.
Honest, insightful, funny and wise, Sketches from Memory is a fascinating study of the game of rugby union, exploring its myriad enchantments, controversies and world-famous characters in a way that no other book has done before.
Read more exclusive extracts from Stuart Barnes' memoir, Sketches from Memory...
Never trust a television natural… any man or woman not unnerved by having to smile and talk directly into the camera at the first time of asking has rather too much regard for their own selves.
'Treat the camera as if it is a friend,' was an early piece of advice. Who of my friends has the silent capacity to demand you reveal all your imperfections, the warts and all, like a TV camera?
We non-naturals begin our television days thinking of the blemishes our new friend cruelly highlights, magnifies… one thing I quickly learned after joining Sky television in 1994. Be nice to the make-up department.
The Barnes family sat down to see the beginning of a fledgling career in television… there I was, smiling, the smile false as the Joker's, still, I could work on that... what about the Richard Burton-like delivery of the autocue?
'Hello - and welcome to Sky - Sports - coverage of rugby union'. An assassin's smile and a pause long enough to slip into the Moonlight Sonata. I - am - Stuart Barnes… and I am bringing you [emphasis here] LIVE COVERAGE [oh, but how furrowed the brows] of the English club scene,'… enough, flick the off switch.
The silence of the sitting room. The shrill tone of the phone breaks the silence. The executive producer; 'Hi, Stuart, I guess you will have seen the screen test by now. I just wanted to tell you not to be too upset, there is plenty of potential…'
I interrupted, 'That is kind of you, Piers, but I am used to disappointment. I am a big boy and have been dropped enough times by England to take some negative news. It's good of you to call though'.
How does the two-handed commentary work? The lead commentator and the summariser? Miles Harrison gives the viewer the who and the what. I try to explain the how and the why.
Miles takes you through the wood, I explain the journey. He talks over the live action - most of the time - I talk over the replays. If he talks too long into the replay there's the chance I will bleed into the restart and the live action.
If I talk too long over replays, he's likely to be talking at the next stoppage when I might have a tactical point to make. Little overruns break the flow. But for any new broadcast teams in any sport, it's a good enough rule to keep you on the right path.
My voice got a little gravelly in 2013, not quite like sand and glue but too strained for my taste. Constant coughing, soreness, complete loss of voice when pushing the cords.
Eventually inevitably, paranoia. A device down the throat. Searching for the Big C. Found nothing but wear and tear.
The ears, nose and throat consultant suggested I contact a voice coach. She worked with The Royal Shakespeare Company. For a long time with an outstanding actor by the name of Jonathan Slinger. Good enough for me.
A lifetime of inappropriate technique was the problem. Commentating from the chest, throwing the voice.
Some find my commentary tone harsh. 'Didn't you ever make a mistake?' is a question I have often been asked. No, I didn't... scratch that... a joke - thousands, of course. I have written about a few of the whoppers. Wandering around the maze.
But my many mistakes are nothing to do with my words. It isn't about comparing. It is saying as you see. The 18-year-old kid who drops a pass, I'll not ignore it but hopefully the audience is reminded he's an 18-year-old kid.
It's the superstars who receive the tongue-lash. There is a need of correction, the big names sometimes get away with a mountain of mistakes because of who they are.
The first years as a rookie in television are not always easy. The same criteria as becoming a writer. I criticised former team-mates, berated friends, lost a few of those friendships along the way. I had to be - or appear to be - cold.
I hope the next generation still need that critical edge but I wonder. Is sport entering an age where it is little more than another branch of light entertainment? Where criticism cannot be accepted in our totalitarian spirit of fun. 'It is only a game.'
It is, but the trick of sport is to pretend otherwise... in the broader reality it does not matter. In the eighty minutes of the game, it is everything. Television has to tread carefully between these two differing realities.
Sketches from Memory: A Rugby Memoir, will be published on 7 February 2019 by Polaris Publishing.