It is with huge sadness that I must report that Murray Walker died this morning at the age of 97.
It has been nearly 20 years since Murray attended Formula 1 races on a regular basis, but he remained an enthusiast until the end. Murray’s enthusiasm was what often got him into trouble as a TV commentator and he was famed for his mistakes. He always used to do endless research for his commentary – but then was so excited during the races that he forgot most of it. People called him a British national treasure – and that is absolutely right.
Murray had a remarkable life, but he rarely talked of his adventures which began in 1923 in Hall Green, Birmingham. His father Graham was a celebrated motorcycle racer, after serving as a despatch rider in World War I. Graham Walker was the European 500cc Champion in 1927 and won the 250cc class on the Isle of Man TT in 1931. By then he had become the Competition Director of the Rudge motorcycle firm in Coventry and travelled to races all over Europe. From 1938 onwards he became the editor of Motor Cycling magazine, a job which he held until 1954.
Murray was given a motorcycle when he was 14 and was soon competing in trials, although such activities were restricted by attending Highgate School, in north London. Despite this in the holidays he sometimes travelled with his father and as a result attended the Donington Grand Prix in 1938, watched the famous Silver Arrows in action and was even introduced to Tazio Nuvolari. In the summer of 1939 the family was touring Germany and Austria when it became clear that war was coming and they made a hurried return to the UK before the war began. Highgate School was soon evacuated to Westward Ho! in North Devon and Walker spent the next two years in a very peaceful environment while the war waged elsewhere. In the autumn of 1941 when he reached 18 he volunteered for the Royal Armoured Corps, but he would not be called up for nearly a year, which he spent in Birmingham, working for Dunlop.
Finally he was ordered to Bovington Camp in Dorset, where he underwent basic training before being sent on to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst for the next 18 months. He finally graduated in April 1944 but then underwent further training before being sent to Europe to join the Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment that was equipped with Sherman tanks. He joined the regiment in Holland in the autumn of 1944, just after Operation Market Garden, the airborne assault up to Arnhem. It was then a quiet sector but in the spring of 1945 Walker was in the thick of it, as the Scots Greys fought across northern Germany, liberating Bremen and Lubeck and ending the war in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, where they linked up with the Russian Armies coming from the east. Later he would be sent to the Belsen camp, near Hannover, although by the time he arrived the concentration camp had been demolished and it had been turned into a training facilty for the Royal Armoured Corps.
In 1947 he was sent home and immediately began to involve himself in motorcycle racing. His father was by then a BBC commentator and Murray got his first break at a hillclimb which his father was unable to attend. He would then become the stand-in commentator for motorcycle and motor racing events, replacing his father and Raymond Baxter when necessary. But that was his weekend job because during the week he worked in advertising. He started out at Dunlop but then in 1955 went to work in Asia with Aspro, a kind of aspirin. He then joined McCann Erickson to work on the Esso account. In 1959 he joined a smaller agency called Masius Ferguson, where he would remain until 1982. This would become the second largest advertising firm in Britain, after J Walter Thompson, largely as a result of a successful relationship with Forrest Mars, for whom the agency launched pet food products Kit-E-Kat and Pal. Walker admits that he was responsible for the hugely successful slogan for Trill bird food: “An only budgie is a lonely budgie” which increased sales considerably as many budgie owners bought a second bird and thus sales increased. The success with Mars led to the firm being used to promote Mars Bars, Maltesers and other confectionary. It is a myth that Murray invented the famous “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” but he was the director of that account and he was responsible for another celebrated slogan: “Opal Fruits: Made to make your mouth water”.
After his retirement from advertising, Murray became a fulltime commentator, although the BBC did not send him to all the races until the early 1990s, usually missing the non-European events. He would remain with the BBC until 1996 and then moved to ITV from 1997 to 2001 before finally stepping back at the age of 78.
Murray was a friend as well as a colleague and I worked with him for quite a lot of years when the BBC would not send him to far-flung races. My job was to be a “ghost commentator” for him and James Hunt, providing them with live information from the BBC commentary box, via the producer Mark Wilkin. James hated this situation and always used to say “And I cannot quite see from where I am sitting”, but Murray showed his understanding of the arts of TV directorship by very often pre-empting the shot that the directors would switch to after something had happened. It was astonishing how often he was right…