Des Lynam

On the seventh floor of the Café Royale in central London, in a room unheated despite the wintry night air outside, a door creaks open. A callow youth in overalls stands hesitantly, framed in the doorway, chair in hand. He takes in the long mahogany table and the tape recorder that rests upon it. He looks at the back of Des Lynam’s head, at the silvery collar-length hair, then at me. The BBC’s sports anchor turns in his chair and gives him a quizzical arch of his eyebrow.

‘I. Chairs. Move. Told to,’ the youth says, suddenly tongue-tied. Lynam raises the neatly trimmed eyebrow another notch, no more than an eighth of an inch. The youth looks helpless and uncertain. When Lynam gives him another 16th, he backs out. ‘Later. Sorry. I. Come back.’

Des Lynam is the coolest person in the world. Fact. His producer on Match of the Day could be singing, ‘I’m the firestarter, twisted firestarter’ into his earphone while an escaped ostrich skitters unhindered around the studio, and not a flicker of emotion would cross the man’s face. He can wear a cravat, advertise Miracle-Gro on television, model sports casuals for the Freeman mail-order catalogue and still seem cool. He can even make a moustache look cool.

The only thing about which Des Lynam, 56, is not cool is his privacy. He hates being photographed. Loathes talking about himself. Indeed, according to his agent, this is only the third feature-length newspaper interview he’s given in his long career, and the first for which he hasn’t had proper copy approval, or at least a chance to correct errors and spellings. (Not that he didn’t request it. But, hey, when you’ve got an album of poetry readings to plug in time for the Christmas market, sometimes you have to take chances.)

His twitchiness is understandable. In September the News of the World ran a front-page story under the headline DIRTY DES! It concerned the kiss-and-tell confessions of ‘jilted Laura Ewing’, a 48-year-old widow who lived in Chiswick next door to ‘six-times-a-night Des’. Errant politicians could learn much from the calm and dignified way in which Lynam handled the situation. He issued a short statement in which he admitted cheating on Rosemary Diamond, his partner of 17 years, and added that he had made an error of judgement. The story fizzled out like a mildewed firework.

Traditionally, when there is an awkward subject about which a celebrity expects to be asked, the best policy is to get it out of the way as soon as possible and then everyone can relax. After we have been talking for perhaps ten minutes another tactic suggests itself: be a coward and don’t ask it at all. This approach doesn’t work. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Lynam feels the need to allude to the story himself, several times. So embarrassing. We are talking about war, death and patriotism, and I say I can’t imagine him panicking under fire, what with his relaxed demeanour in the studio. I mean, if he was at Rorke’s Drift he would be the sergeant gently reprimanding the terrified private for not having his top button done up as the Zulu hordes charged: ‘Remember you’re in the British Harmy, lad.’ Lynam is not so sure. Although he can understand that his on-screen composure might give this impression, he says that this is only because no one really knows his private persona, ‘Except when it’s paraded across the gutter press.’

Aggh! ‘But we’re not here to talk about that,’ I say too quickly. ‘Ha ha ha, we’re here to talk about the poems.’ Up to this point Lynam has been sitting rather stiffly, arms folded, sizing me up through narrowed eyes. He has seemed monochrome. Not cosy. He removes his glasses, folds them and slips them under his grey tweed jacket, feeling several times for a breast pocket on his button-collar shirt which is not there. He places them on the table, stretches out in his chair and props his head up on one hand, his elbow resting on the next chair along. The change of mood is palpable. The temperature in the room even seems to rise a little.

Another convention of the interview is that the plug – for the new novel, film, record, whatever – should be dispensed with quickly so that the celebrity can get on with talking revealingly about him or herself. In this instance, though, it would mean leaving a rich seam of self-revelation untapped. Lynam is, he says, very, very shy. Always has been. Doesn’t like to talk about himself. But he loves talking about poetry.

He has recorded 22 of his favourite poems to orchestral accompaniment on an album, Time To Stand and Stare, released this week on the BBC Music label. The idea for it came from this year’s World Cup. The final item in the BBC’s last programme from Paris was a reading by Lynam of Kipling’s ‘If’, with appropriate footballing highlights cut on film to match the words. The BBC was inundated with requests for it. Most of the poems Lynam has chosen are, frankly, maudlin. ‘Lot of Betjeman and Kipling,’ he says in a low even timbre. ‘Sad. Sure. But I don’t think you buy something like this to cheer yourself up. I hope it’s a bit thought-provoking. Stimulate people’s moods or whatever.’

This is Lynam as he would like to present himself to the world: a serious man, with texture, shading and just a touch of ennui. He never went to university, something he bitterly regrets, and this may have left him feeling frustrated intellectually. He could have gone – he got three A levels: English, French and Art – but he didn’t want to be a financial burden on his parents (his father was a mental health worker, his mother a nurse). Instead he sat his Chartered Insurance Institute exams at Brighton Business College and went to work for Cornhill Insurance. Did that for eight years, had the company car, the preferential mortgage and everything, but gave it all up in 1967 for an insecure freelance job in local radio. He moved to BBC radio two years later and there he remained for almost a decade before sidling into his present role as grand old man of BBC television sports – despite countless offers to move to ITV Sports for more money. Des is a great believer in loyalty.

Now it seems, like Rory Bremner, who longs to play Hamlet, Lynam suffers from gravitas syndrome. This is a condition which can strike popular entertainers quite suddenly. They go to bed feeling at ease with themselves then wake up next morning convinced that it is not enough for them to be brilliant at what they do: they have to be taken seriously as well.

Lynam is having none of this theory. ‘No. I came to this poetry thing by accident. It wasn’t a conscious decision to say, “I’m a bit brighter than they think I am. There’s a bit more depth than people think.”‘ Fair enough. But your favourite poems, Des, they’re so morbid. All about death. ‘Every day I think about dying,’ is one line he reads from a poem by Roger McGough. ‘He looked so wise but now I do not like to think of maggots in his eyes,’ is another, from Betjeman’s ‘On a Portrait of a Deaf Man’. It all points to a gloomy disposition. ‘I guess there is a melancholic side, otherwise I wouldn’t like these poems or be able to read them, but I’m not prone to depression. Not a manic-depressive type at all. Glums. Sure. Like everyone else. Good days and bad. But generally my spirits are sailing high. On an even keel. Emotionally steady.’

The delivery is just as laconic and homely as it is on television: pronouns and definite articles stripped away to make the speaker unobtrusive. He is doing that thing with his eyebrows too. Now I am just waiting for him to say, ‘Tell you what,’ and refer to his being ‘popular with the ladies’.

Rory Bremner, who features a lugubrious Lynam in his repertoire, says that Des is very aware of how to play Des. Lynam was always a good impressionist. In the Seventies he co-wrote a comedy show on Radio 2, How Lunchtime Is it?, in which he impersonated Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. And here today, in this cold room, you sense he is indeed playing Des, this character he steps into when performing.

‘I think I’m the same on as off,’ Lynam protests when asked if this is the case. ‘Pretty much the same sort of animal. I’m not Mr OK here and Mr Ruthless there. But I can be bad-tempered. And I’m not as confident as I seem on television. Actually, I’m shy. My best friends, male friends, would never know my problems. Keep my problems to myself. I talk to the lady in my life about them though. Problems between us even. We’re pretty frank and open with each other. Don’t hide too much…’

Aggh! Change the subject. Although Lynam finds he can sometimes be moved to tears by poetry, he normally keeps his emotions in check when listening to music or watching films. ‘Cinema is usually cold emotion and I keep a little distance from that. Some films, though, give me self-realisation. The Deer Hunter when the boys are being forced to play Russian roulette and are being thrown in the cage with the rats swimming round. I know I would crack. I couldn’t cope. The idea that you could die on a whim.’

Time To Stand and Stare includes a poem, ‘The Silly Isles’, which Lynam himself wrote in 1982. It’s a protest poem about the Falklands War. ‘I wouldn’t want to demean the efforts of the British servicemen,’ Lynam says with typical even-handedness. ‘They did what they considered to be their duty. But I also felt for the Argentinians who were killed. A conscript army.’ He recites: ‘Politicians without their guile,/army hawks without a smile . . .’ I feel more could have been done to avoid that war. I’ve only written a handful of poems. Listen,’ he laughs softly, ‘I haven’t got delusions of adequacy about it, even. It was the idea of the producer to put it in. Am I patriotic? Think I am. Up to a point. A questioning patriot. Wouldn’t be in my nature to just do as I’m told.’

Desmond Michael Lynam was born at Ennis, County Clare, on 17 September, 1942. His parents had moved to England from Ireland before the war, to look for work, but his mother had gone back there after his father was posted to India to serve in the Army Medical Corps. Desmond was three before he met his father for the first time. He was six when the family left Ireland again and moved to Brighton. ‘I had a very broad West Ireland accent,’ he recalls. ‘When we first lived in Brighton our neighbours couldn’t understand a word I said. It was kind of a laugh.’

He doesn’t think he made a conscious effort to lose his accent – and reinvent himself – just because people laughed at him. ‘But there was one incident where the teacher said, “Draw a line,” and I drew a little creature with four legs and a mane. I must have been stupid. Got a smack on the back of the hand. I suppose in my subconscious I thought I’d better get rid of this accent.’

Lynam’s shyness first became apparent when, as a 14-year-old, he was asked to read out loud in the classroom. ‘They would have to pull it out of me. I had lots of opinions but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by expressing them. There’s still a reluctance to stand up and say a few words off the top of my head. The other day I was asked to do it and it was fine but I felt really nervous about it. Strangely.’

The paradox of a shy person choosing a profession in which he has to perform in public is not lost on him. He doesn’t think the career move was a deliberate attempt to face his fears, though. Nor does he think that if, in a parallel universe somewhere, there is another Des Lynam who remained an insurance salesman, he would be any different from the Des Lynam who became a television personality. ‘I think I’d have done it well. Probably made more money. I was an inspector. Partly sales. Partly doing surveys of buildings and all that thing. Technical stuff. Had to train for it. You know, people say, “Oh, he was a door-to-door salesman.” Well, I certainly wasn’t that. My bit of pride in my past profession comes out there. It was certainly more than that…’

Des Lynam and Rose Diamond, a 50-year-old interior designer, have a second home on the Sussex coast. There is nothing Lynam likes better than to walk along the sand there in winter, early in the morning, when the tide is out, contemplating the crashing waves and the seabirds wheeling and screeching overhead. ‘I am quite happy being alone with my thoughts there. Get some of my better ones.’ Brooding upon his own mortality, no doubt. ‘Yes, I think about death a lot. Horrifying. When you get to my age you find you are losing friends more and more. I’m very conscious about it and about making the most of each day. It’s an abyss.’

Although he was brought up a Roman Catholic and has recently taken to visiting a retired Monsignor to discuss matters spiritual and temporal, Lynam’s faith was badly shaken by the deaths of his parents. He felt disappointed because his prayers were unanswered and now, he says, the only real religious feeling he has left is a sense of Catholic guilt. His mother, Gertrude, died from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 54. ‘It was a sudden thing,’ Lynam says, clicking his fingers. ‘The artery just burst. She didn’t die straight away. Hung on for a month. My father and I went to see her every day and we kept telling each other that she was looking better. We were desperate to believe it. Clinging to it. I thought I shall never worry about anything ever again because nothing can ever be as bad as this. I guess that feeling lasted two weeks. Mundane things come flooding back.’

His father, Edward, died from bowel cancer seven years later, in 1976. ‘We thought it was going to be a pretty straightforward operation. I wasn’t told enough. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get the surgeon up against a wall to tell me everything. I felt alone in the world after he died because I was recently divorced and had no siblings. Well, I had a sister, but she died in infancy from meningitis. Anyway,’ he leans forward and rests his chin on his fist, ‘we mustn’t get too sombre.’

His nine-year marriage to Susan Skinner, a beautician, broke up in 1974. The couple are still on good terms and have a son, Patrick, who is now 28. Lynam’s name was romantically linked to a number of other women before he met Rose, but one friendship in particular was to come back to haunt him in 1995. The headline in the Sun read: TV DES BEDDED SEX SWAP BOND GIRL. Caroline Cossey, a former Bond girl also known as Tula, who used to be a man called Barry, claimed she had a two-year affair with the broadcaster. With characteristic insouciance Lynam commented at the time, ‘I found her very attractive. As any man would. But I don’t ever remember making love.’ The raised eyebrow that accompanied this added, ‘And if you had sex with a 6ft transsexual, you would remember it.’

Another poem on Lynam’s CD is Humbert Wolfe’s ‘Over the Fire’ (1930): ‘You cannot hope/to bribe or twist,/thank God! the/British journalist./But, seeing what/the man will do/unbribed, there’s/no occasion to.’ Bloody journalists, eh Des? You must have mixed feelings about us. ‘I have. The broadsheet press has been very kind to me down the years. But the invasion of one’s privacy by the tabloids is hard to bear. I’m not a Cabinet minister. I don’t decide how much tax you should pay. I’m a hack on the television. And apparently that makes me fair game to be plastered all over the papers if there is a hiccup in my private life. It is hurtful and difficult. The recent story was a very private matter involving three people. No one else.’

Lynam believes that the Press Complaints Commission is completely toothless. ‘The piece written about me broke all its guidelines. There’s a difference between public interest and the public being interested.’ He sighs heavily. ‘Clearly I am biased. But what is terribly unfair is that they only give one side of the story. And if someone is paid for their story it’s going to be embellished. Let’s be honest. Then if you give your side it just continues. It runs and runs. Another front page. No way out. The other option is to take it to law. Well, some of it is libellous, a lot if it isn’t, therefore you’ve got no real case and you might end up losing your house. I’m not depressed about it, just a bit fed up. I hope you’re not going to go too heavy on this aspect. I don’t want people to think I’m griping.’

He looks directly at me. It’s a penetrating look which says there is little point in trying to dissemble. It is telling how Lynam seeks to direct the course of this interview. It is consistent with the reputation he enjoys at the BBC of being a bit of a control freak, and, presumably, is why he doesn’t like to confide in his friends about his problems because this would mean compromising the control he attempts to impose on his private life.

In terms of his public persona, seeking to correct the presumption that he was a door-to-door insurance salesman, as well as the stereotype that he must be a sports bore who has no sensitivity toward literature, may be other examples of this need to control. The thing over which we have least control, of course, is death – his favourite subject – which is perhaps why the arbitrariness of Russian roulette is for him the ultimate horror. As for the discomfort he feels at having his private life discussed in the tabloids, this probably has as much to do with shyness as misplaced vanity. Dishy Des, as the tabloids dub him, is a victim of his own ‘popularity with the ladies’.

Mrs Merton called him a Tom Cruise for the menopausal woman. And in My Summer with Des, a television comedy about the Euro 96 tournament, one character says: ‘I’m trying hard not to like Des Lynam. It’s a form of mental exercise.’ Such is the price of being an institution. He admits that he is conscious of the effect he has on women and that he does sometime deploy his roguish eyebrows without quarter. ‘There is a tiny bit of ham in me. I do use it. A bit of a twinkle, or an eyebrow. I know when I’m being a bit naughty.’

He also has a naughty sense of humour. When he and Jimmy Hill were reminiscing about the 1966 World Cup final, Hill said, ‘I was employed even then by the BBC – though in a very minor capacity, of course.’ Without missing a beat Lynam said, ‘You’re still in a minor capacity, Jimmy.’

Yet Lynam is never flippant about football. And, unlike other anchors, he seldom overdramatises or resorts to clichŽ. Rather, in his mulling, deadpan style, he brings a welcome sense of perspective to our national obsession. To him it is simply glorious trivia. It is a source of regret that he was never a professional player himself. But if he could have his time again he would much rather come back as a comedy writer, specifically as John Sullivan, writer of Only Fools and Horses. Lynam used to fiddle about with satire, he says. Always threatened to do more, but was too lazy. What about his poetry reading, though? Wouldn’t he have liked to have been an actor?

‘No. Could never have been one.’

But, be honest, isn’t he acting now, in this cold room on the seventh floor? ‘Bit.’

Des Lynam defected to ITV the following year.