Peter Jackson: Peerless Morgan, a master of all trades

Cliff MorganTony O’Reilly described Cliff Morgan as “the greatest of them all”,  an accolade based on the ketchup king’s appreciation of his multi- dimensional Welsh contemporary.
The Irishman who ran the Heinz baked-bean conglomerate knew Morgan in his many guises, from “an electric mouse” of a fly-half who got the Lions roaring around South Africa as never before to a household name on radio and television.
Within hours of his passing last Wednesday morning tributes from near and far were flowing like a river in flood, each and every one marking the measure of his unparalleled achievements. No post-War international sportsman can have been as articulate on and off the field.
Perhaps history may yet judge him to be worthy of being spoken in the same breath as CB Fry, capped by England at football, cricket and, very nearly Rugby Union to boot. He, too, embarked on a successful post-playing career as journalist and broadcaster before passing away in 1956 when Morgan had reached his apogee on the rugby field.
What O’Reilly recognised in Morgan beyond his obvious talents was a generosity of spirit which never wavered. So many of his old action photographs had been lent to so many over the years that long before the end he found he had none left.
There was a great deal more to Cliff than an ability to deceive opponents with a sleight of hand or a flick of his feet into over-drive. For a start, there was Morgan the musician
If in later life he expressed the occasional pang of regret at not having tried his hand in Rugby League, his mother’s decision to forbid him signing for Wigan in the early Fifties made the boy from the Rhondda appreciate that every cloud had a silver lining.
“Staying in Union gave me the independence to say to Cardiff every so often, ‘I’m not training on Wednesday night, choir practice, we’re doing Elijah.’
He will forever be unique for so many reasons, not least the fact that he spent more than one Friday night before a home international in the Fifties playing Mozart and Grieg or singing as a second tenor in the Porth and District Choral Society.
Morgan the Pianist had an instinctive flair for public relations which he never used to better effect than upon arrival five hours behind schedule at Johannesburg with the 1955 Lions. As the tour’s musical director, Morgan had drilled them into a reasonably tuneful unit and made them learn the Afrikaans folk song, Sarie Marais.
“Coming down the steps we were amazed at the crowds who had waited so long to greet us,” Morgan wrote in his autobiography. “I turned round and said, ‘okay lads, look at the people’.
“So we all came to a stop and sang practically our full repertoire cheered on by the crowd. Later that week the Rand Daily Mail carried a front-page headline: The Greatest Team Ever To Visit South Africa. And we hadn’t played a match!”
There was Morgan the Joker, never afraid to poke a bit of fun at his compatriots.
“I come from a country where the sun never sets,” he told an enthralled audience at one black-tie dinner. “That’s because God doesn’t trust the buggers in the dark…!
”There was Morgan the Interviewer with a natural flair for wheedling confessional gems from the great and the good, like this one from Richard Burton: “I would rather play for Wales than play Hamlet. Just one match would have been enough…”
There was Morgan the Scoop, a world exclusive obtained during his three years as editor of ITV’s investigative programme, This Week. When Ian Smith declared unilateral independence for what was then Rhodesia in 1967, everyone wanted to talk to him.
Morgan beat them all to it because an old rugby friend, whose grandfather had emigrated to Rhodesia with a pick and a shovel, just happened to be in charge of Smith’s diary, the same old rugby friend whom Morgan always remembered at Christmas with a card while blissfully unaware of what he did for living.
“After I called Dai, he rang back to say he knew a Cliff Morgan and I said, ‘yes, that’s me’. And he said, ‘good God, you must come out straight away!’ We did and I met Smith.”
As a broadcaster, Morgan proved as multi-skilled at television presentation as he had been orchestrating the Welsh backs. He did the lot, from current affairs (This Week), childrens’ programmes to Sport On Four as well as producing Grandstand and Sportsnight.
Then there was Morgan standing toe to toe with Henry Cooper as the inaugural captains for the launch of A Question Of Sport. The teams that opening night featured George Best, Tom Finney, Ray Illingworth and the Olympic 800metre silver medallist, the late Lillian Board.
It would be but a matter of time before Morgan’s talents took him to new frontiers. The boy from Trebanog had so much to offer on a wider scale that he was never going to be constrained within the tramlines of sport.
As head of BBC Outside Broadcasts, the buck stopped with him on state occasions which stopped the nation – most notably Lord Mountbatten’s funeral and the Royal wedding of Charles and Diana.
The position carried a heavy responsibility. That Morgan got there required courage of a rare kind which pulled him through the stroke which almost killed him at the age of 41.
It took him the best part of a year to learn how to walk again and, more significantly, to learn to speak again without the slurring effects of the stroke. It also left him stoney broke, to the point where Nuala, his wife for 45 years until her death in 1999, pawned her engagement ring.
True to form, Morgan timed his return to perfection, sounding as good as new for probably the most listened-to piece of commentary in rugby history.
Morgan’s economy of words made his description of the try of the century, by the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973, an enduring masterpiece. And to think that he had only been called in at the last minute after Bill McLaren had been laid low by flu.
As Gareth Edwards, the scorer of that try, said: “It wouldn’t be the same without Cliff’s wonderful commentary.
”The game is all the poorer for the passing of a man who never forgot his beloved Rhondda. Once his footballing father had turned down a move to Tottenham Hotspur, the valley shaped him as a player and a person.
It gave him an innate skill which could only come from the Rhondda, as explained by another legendary Welsh outside half of earlier vintage, Cliff Jones.
“Why the Rhondda produced players who could side-step and weave was that once you went out of your front door you were on the main road,” he said in Morgan’s autobiography. “You were watching you didn’t get knocked down by a passing bus.
“Then off the main road you were on the railway line with trains shunting coal which meant you had to have your wits about you there. So all your life you had to develop this nervous awareness of what was going on around. And that’s what produces sharp outside-halves.”
Rudyard Kipling would have had someone like Cliff Morgan in mind when he wrote: “If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue or walk with kings nor lose the common touch….”
Cliff mixed with the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal and so many more besides without ever losing the common touch.

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