Nick Heath: “The early years were like a dream come true frankly, every single time I picked up the microphone.”

Read part one of my interview with Nick Heath talking about going viral with life commentaries, when to come out and the creation of the Cue Commentator podcast here.

Nick Heath’s journey into rugby commentary took a slightly roundabout route. Upon leaving school, he did look into studying broadcast journalism but his grades were not good enough, so after a short stint at the University of Central Lancashire he joined the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London.

He always enjoyed performing, but rather than treading the theatrical boards after graduating he took up various performance-related jobs. He hosted corporate pub quizzes, DJ-ed, and did bits and pieces for events companies and promotional agencies. All of that helped to scratch the performing itch, but even though there was no clear cut plan at that stage to move into sports broadcasting, it laid an important foundation for Heath’s eventual career.

“I don’t know that I had crystallised that plan, as I don’t think many 18-year-olds have,” he admitted.

“I think I had just grown up always loving sports presentation, and the noise of sport, the music, the voices, everything like that. I’m quite an audio-based person in terms of sense stimulation. I always loved that side of it, but I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do. I loved seeing live presenters in an environment where I had seen enough behind the scenes that there were 10 different voices in their ear, but they were the serene swan on top of the water and you couldn’t see the working parts.

“I loved watching behind the scenes programmes of stuff growing up, I don’t know what it was but something about the smell of the grease paint, whatever it is, I was always interested in that. I think I thought let’s try and go down that route, but I don’t think it was a crystallised view.

“That said, there’s a hilarious picture from my drama school bedroom that exists somewhere, while I’m in a rented house in Tooting. I have magazines posters up on the wall, various things as any good student would have, but within all the pictures on the wall of various pop icons is a picture of Bill McLaren, the Scottish rugby commentator. There was obviously something in me at that stage that still held him in high regard, and perhaps as an idol. You can join the dots from my conscious and sub-conscious that it was all part of the journey from there to now.

“If there’s a microphone, you’re going to struggle to keep me off it. That’s probably the running thread. I was bought a Fisher-Price radio and microphone thing when I was about seven or eight, and it was never not by my side probably for the next 10 years. Even when I started doing a bit of commentating, friends of the family were saying I was always destined for that because I used to commentate on them playing tennis when I was 12 years old. These are sketchy memories for me, I was just doing what I did, but there is clearly a thread of something.

“I’m really interested in the voice and voice-work, and it was an area of my drama school training that I thoroughly enjoyed. Enjoying all of that means that I’ve always enjoyed being able to try and express myself well and speak well. I think that comes through all elements of performance from being on stage to being in front of a camera or being on a radio mic.”

Going back to his days at drama school, voice-work has always been of interest to Heath.

Since breaking into rugby coverage, England touch international Heath has worked on events across the board in both the men’s and women’s game. World Cups, Six Nations, the Premiership – he has pretty much done it all.

He is proud to have been a patron of the women’s game, and reflecting on his time behind the microphone he has learned valuable lessons, but that does not mean he takes anything in his career for granted.

“The early years were like a dream come true frankly, every single time I picked up the microphone,” Heath enthused.

“There’s a big element of that I still feel, it’s a privilege to be sitting in the seat you’re sitting in. I’ve got to a point where people believe in me, believe in what I’m saying and are happy for me to say it. It’s an absolute treat. I felt a lot of pressure because I had listened to so many voices. I was desperate to be good enough for myself.

“I would give myself a seriously hard time if I misidentified someone. I was doing commentaries off a TV screens for the first year or two, maybe even longer, on the Premiership when I got gigs with them. It might be that you haven’t quite seen the number on the back of the jersey, you’re not in the stadium to see where the other bloke who looks the same as the number six is, so you’ve called the wrong player. If it’s in the build-up to a try, you’ve got to go back to it.

“Do you apologise? There were times I did say ‘oh actually, I’ve got that wrong there, it was actually so and so’, and then listening back to it, it sounded even worse that I was apologising for it. You do hear commentators making mistakes every now and then, and the best thing you can do is to be more accurate a moment later rather than remind everyone that you just made a mistake and you’re now going to apologise for it. I learned those techniques, but it still meant that if I made a mistake on minute seven – and I noticed this a few times when I listened back – you could tell that I’m then suddenly thinking about it because I’m not saying much for the next four or five seconds.

“It might only be that, and in a rugby commentary sometimes that’s a perfectly acceptable amount of time to not be saying much, but in the middle of live action I could hear that my mind was now fixated on the mistake that I had made. Then you slowly hear me start to start talking again, and I knew exactly what had gone on. I had to really train myself to park any errors very quickly and just let them go so that I could carry on. I was searching for the perfect commentary, and as many people have said – you can’t make the perfect commentary.

“I was very interested in the women’s game, my sister played, my cousin played, my dad refereed for 25 years and also refereed women’s games, and I watched him and helped on the sidelines. I was very game and keen to be involved in the women’s game. I resented the idea that they might look for a commentator that would begrudgingly do the game while he waited for a better offer to come along. I was keen to be an ally of the game, which I’m very proud to be now still.

Heath has made a point of championing the women’s game in his career as he never thought it should be seen as a consolation prize or stepping stone to men’s rugby.

“I had the opportunity to commentate on the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2014, I did four or five games in France. Then I was on Rugby World Cup radio for the World Cup in 2015 after that, and that was fantastic. Again, these opportunities can come and go – I didn’t end up getting the call for the World Cup in Ireland in 2017, and I was really disappointed about that. I’ve got no guarantees that I’m going to be in someone’s mind for the Women’s World Cup in 2021 in New Zealand, let’s just hope that goes ahead.

“I will misquote whoever said it originally but I made ‘try and be so good that they can’t look past you’ more of my outlook over the last year particularly. Don’t worry about cosying up to this person or that person, just focus on the job in hand and be so damn good that actually, your work speaks for itself. Interestingly, I was certainly having one of my busiest seasons to date in 2019/20. Focusing on doing the best job you can is ultimately the best thing, there’s no bluffing on that side of it at the end of the day.”

Actors often say that the camera can tell if you do not believe the role you are playing. There has to be a legitimacy behind a portrayal, and the same could be said for a commentator’s investment level in their own performance.

Each individual has their own rhythm and style on air, and if they are excited chances are you will be able to tell, and vice-versa. That was a lesson Heath learned years ago, ironically not from another commentator or a mentor, but from a friend.

“I remember talking to a very close friend of mine – he would have had to be a close friend to get away with saying it – we were on our way somewhere and he asked me something about what I had been up to the night before, or during the week or something,” Heath recalled.

“Because I felt like the story was about people he didn’t know that well, I was telling the story in a fairly quick, cut to the chase kind of way, and so I was telling him the story, and it was about this guy, and then that had happened, and then this thing, and because they did that I had to do this. He stopped me mid-flow, and said ‘Nick, I’m a good friend, I’ve asked you a question because I’m interested in the answer, so could you sound interested in the answer please?’

“That really caught me off guard, but it was really one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever been given. Bless him, he’s not with us anymore, but I thought you know what, it’s true. I could have made that answer really interesting for him when he asked the question whether he knew the people or not. We were on a long car journey, so there was no need to rush the detail.

“Maybe personality-wise I thought he wasn’t going to be that interested in it, and there was a sub-conscious state at play, I don’t know, but that for me was a very useful note.

“In our voices, there are plenty of notes to be used, and whether that’s talking louder or softer, light and shade, or whether that’s using all of the range in the top of our voice right down to the bottom, it’s important to remember that it’s all in there. I love it, there’s a good friend of mine from Wolverhampton and he’d left a voice memo for me the other day. I was listening to it and then immediately afterwards, he messaged me and said ‘oh my god, do I sound like that much of a Midlander’, but I love it, it’s a different sound. It’s really musical, and I think that sort of variety is what makes life interesting.”

The Cue Commentator podcast gives Heath the chance to take on board advice that some commentary greats have to offer. One thing that has clearly struck a chord with Heath is the idea that there is no such thing as the perfect commentary – but as with everyone, there are some people and moments that have stayed with Heath ever since, one of the obvious names being Bill McLaren.

Fortunately for him, he has had the opportunity to have some of those voices on the podcast and talk to them about his favourite lines – in particular as a Liverpool fan the man who commentated on the Champions League final in 2005.

“I love listening to Bill McLaren not do the lines he’s famous for, not ‘he’s like a mad octopus’,” Heath added.

“While those are great, and they came to be his definition, I love all the other stuff he did. Where I take after him is that he was very capable of explaining the game in front of you, without it coming across in any way too obvious or like he would upset ardent fans, or be patronising to new fans.

“That’s something I try to do as subtly as I can in the way that he used to. Sure, my dad was a ref for 25 years, and my mum was an Irish woman who loved watching sporting occasions, but did she know all the ins and outs of the game? I wouldn’t say she did, but Bill could turn round and say ‘now this is going to be when you need to watch the big fella at the back for France, and here he goes’.

“To be able to draw the eye into what’s about to happen as a viewer makes sport so much more enjoyable, and I think that’s really important to tell people what they’re watching and why a skill is so good, and why something that has just happened has been something so excellently put together. That’s probably a general outlook of something I think is really valuable as a commentator to try and remember.

“I fanboyed a bit on the podcast over Clive Tyldesley with the Istanbul moment from 2005, just because I do still think listening to that commentary it sounds like Clive is the only person in the world that knows what’s about to happen. I probably bothered him with a few bits of the commentary I can quote verbatim, and that is magic to me. ‘Hello, hello, here we go!’ when Steven Gerrard gets the first one in, and then they’re away.

“His job ultimately at that point is to tell you not to turn the TV off, because Liverpool are 3–0 down in the second half of the Champions League final, and I know a lot of my mates left the pub we were in watching it thinking it was done. He teased you into going ‘you never know, look what’s happening’, and then of course however many minutes it was later they were back at 3–3. Tyldesley gave you every bit of ingredient to go on that ride with him, and I love that.”

One thought on “Nick Heath: “The early years were like a dream come true frankly, every single time I picked up the microphone.”

  1. Pingback: Nick Heath: “On the whole, people are ready to say it’s whether you’re getting them a beer that they’re worried about, not their sexuality, and I’m happy with that.”

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