SUE BARKER: The way the BBC handled my sacking left me wretchedly sad
The way the BBC handled my sacking from A Question Of Sport after 24 years left me wretchedly sad… it was insulting: SUE BARKER reveals her anger at how she was treated by the Beeb
After 24 years in the hotseat, I was sacked as the host of the BBC quiz show A Question Of Sport — and I’m afraid that has left me slightly damaged.
Don’t get me wrong: I had no problem with being replaced. Everyone has their day. Producers must always have the right to refresh a programme and take it in a new direction.
It was the way it was handled. It taught me there is actually no way of leaving a role in a nice, pleasant and helpful manner, with your head held high.
The countdown to the end had begun in October 2016, when A Question Of Sport was one of the first BBC shows to be put out to tender to independent production companies. I was on holiday when a few TV producer friends contacted me.
They’d seen the BBC tender document and couldn’t believe my name wasn’t on it. Apparently the BBC wanted to refresh the show — with more diversity and more appeal to a younger audience.
I was gobsmacked. How did they think I wasn’t going to hear about this?
Thankfully, many of the companies that bid for the show did want me to stay on. At which point the BBC reversed gear and said they didn’t want to change the line-up.
After 24 years in the hotseat, I was sacked as the host of the BBC quiz show A Question Of Sport — and I’m afraid that has left me slightly damaged
Two years later, BBC management told me my contract was being renewed for two years, but that in the final year they’d ask me to take on two new team captains to replace Phil Tufnell and Matt Dawson. I didn’t need to think long about this: I said I’d leave with the boys.
Nothing was decided over that next year so we all got another extension to our contracts.
By the summer of 2020, rumours again began circulating about changing the line-up, though absolutely nothing was mentioned to me, Matt or Phil.
We began to believe we’d get another extension. Then weeks later, during our penultimate block of recording sessions, we were suddenly all called in to separate meetings with management.
With me, there was a bit of ‘We love the show and you’ve been an amazing host, but . . .’ I’d been waiting for that ‘but’.
We were being sacked. I accepted their decision, though I couldn’t help feeling wretchedly sad. The boys were devastated, too.
The show had played an anchoring role in all our lives; it was part of our identity — it’s the first thing any member of the public who stops me for a chat wants to know about.
Matt says that despite being selected for three British and Irish Lions tours and being an England World Cup winner, his mother really only thought he’d made it when he joined A Question Of Sport.
The only thing we asked the BBC was to get statements from us all for when the news broke. But we heard nothing. No email, no letter, no phone call. Silence.
I now find myself, at 66, looking back on a tennis career cut a little short by injury followed by a TV career that has extended beyond my wildest dreams. Since signing with the Beeb in 1993, this year marked my lightest workload. Without A Question Of Sport, I was back where I started — at Wimbledon
Then two weeks before we filmed the final show, BBC management emailed just to say they were sorry not to have been in touch. That’s when anger set in. Not just for how I was being treated but on behalf of the boys.
Naively, I’d expected more after 24 years. We’d all seen John Humphrys move on from Mastermind on his own terms, with a celebratory ushering-in of Clive Myrie a week later.
Three days later, I got a call to say the story of our departure was about to break. I was sent a statement that the BBC wanted me to approve immediately, saying the three of us had decided to step aside. They hadn’t bothered to get a quote from me. Why hadn’t they reacted to our request earlier? Why had we been shown so little respect?
As we hadn’t decided to step aside at all, we point-blank refused to sign the statement.
Why did I try to steal from the Queen?
London 2012 was memorable in so many ways — starting with a pre-Games lunch with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace. It was an intimate lunch with just six guests — what an honour!
I was seated next to the Duke and opposite the Queen, and the atmosphere was very relaxed, with lots of laughter. At the end of the lunch, the chap to my right (David, you know who you are) decided we should have a memento of this special occasion.
I was to sneak two menus into my handbag and he was going to slip our two place cards into his jacket; we’d swap outside. Well, I agreed. We were giggling like children.
As we came down the stairs, we were met by a Palace official who presented us with some gifts . . . which included the beautifully embossed menus.
As he handed them over, he said, ‘You see, you didn’t need to take them after all.
‘Don’t worry,’ he added as we dissolved into nervous laughter, ‘you’re not the first and you won’t be the last.’
Next, I was asked to announce that I was leaving for the good of the show. I was astounded. Was that because I was too old or not good enough? Either way, it was insulting. Did they actually expect me to sack myself?
I told the BBC to own their decision and declare publicly that they wanted to refresh the show; I wasn’t going to lie to make it easier for them.
Unbelievably, they then offered me my job back, but as I couldn’t help but feel they didn’t want me any more, I declined.
The following day, I was again asked to say I was leaving ‘for the good of the show’. What on earth were they thinking?
It wasn’t the ending of an era that stung, but the way it was handled. Matt, Phil and I are former sports professionals. We were brought up in the school of hard knocks.
We’d have been happy if they’d planned ahead and said: ‘This will be your last year, and we’d love you to help look for a suitable new host and new captains.’
A good-humoured evolution would have been in the spirit of the show, and easier for fans as well as for the new quizmaster and captains.
There seemed little understanding of our chemistry and the way we worked together, and little appreciation of all the years we’d put in to make sure each show was as good, if not better, than the last. The whole scenario was confusing and distressing.
The overwhelming feeling I was left with was a determination that this sort of treatment, this lack of care and consideration, was never, ever going to happen to me again.
When the time came, I was going to ‘own’ my retirement from the BBC. I was going to decide how and when I left. I wasn’t going to wait to be chased out of the door. Inevitably, this would mean I’d be leaving earlier than I’d normally have chosen to go.
Mind you, that wasn’t my first sacking. In August 2005, former Today editor Roger Mosey took over as the BBC’s Director of Sport and I realised I was never going to be his cup of tea.
Three years later, I had a phone call out of the blue from a woman in the BBC accounts department, who informed me that there was to be a change in my contract — and that, by the way, I was being let go from athletics and racing.
Extraordinary to be told this by the accounts department!
It seemed obvious that Roger wanted rid of me. Not only was the money offered considerably lower than the value of my previous contract, but under the new terms the BBC could take me off any sport at any time.
So if I was left with just tennis, for example, I’d get paid only for that. It was madness.
I told the lady in accounts that no idiot would accept that offer and no idiot should offer it (I didn’t mean her). And I decided to leave the BBC at the end of the year.
Further down the line, I was asked to announce that I was leaving ‘to explore other opportunities’. I told them I’d compose my own statement, thank you very much.
Later that same day, the director general Mark Thompson asked to see me, wanting to know why I was leaving. I described the way I’d been treated and he seemed shocked.
On the spot, he offered me a new five-year contract organised personally by him, and I accepted.
During the lead-up to London 2012, I was excited beyond words about the prospect of helping present a home Olympics.
As the BBC’s lead general sports presenter, I’d already co-presented the last three summer and winter Games and the Commonwealth Games. But I suspected — correctly — that Roger Mosey would not give me as prominent a role this time.
Don’t get me wrong: I had no problem with being replaced. Everyone has their day. Producers must always have the right to refresh a programme and take it in a new direction. It was the way it was handled
Sure enough, it turned out that he felt the event needed the gravitas of prominent news anchors.
His line was that the Olympics were ‘bigger than sport’.
But he underestimated what sports presenters bring to a multi-sports event in terms of the depth and range of knowledge required, and the technical dexterity to jump from venue to venue.
Huw Edwards was to be commentator for the opening ceremony. It wasn’t clear who the presenters would be, but the rumour was that it would be a line-up from News. That was really gutting.
Fortunately, the fiasco surrounding the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river-pageant broadcast prompted a re-think. Roger himself later admitted that the TV coverage had been ‘very bad indeed’, and the casting of the presenters hadn’t been right.
The upshot? Just ten days before the 2012 Games Gary Lineker and I were told we would be co-presenting the opening and closing ceremonies after all.
I just got on with it. After years of being downgraded, I felt very fortunate to get the opportunity.
But I’m afraid the saga leading up to 2012 made me want to draw back from my commitments at the BBC — which included the London Marathon and Sports Personality Of The Year. From then on, I decided to stick to just A Question Of Sport and the tennis.
I now find myself, at 66, looking back on a tennis career cut a little short by injury followed by a TV career that has extended beyond my wildest dreams.
Since signing with the Beeb in 1993, this year marked my lightest workload. Without A Question Of Sport, I was back where I started — at Wimbledon.
For me, Wimbledon is a case of friends reunited, stretching back 53 years. When I walk through the gate, I know I might bump into someone I played against in a regional Under-14 tournament, as well as my mates from playing tennis professionally for 11 years.
This year, my BBC contract was due to expire the moment Wimbledon came to a close. But it wasn’t till eight weeks beforehand — and only because I’d reminded them the contract was ending — that they came up with a new three-year deal to present Queen’s and Wimbledon.
These things happen, but they never used to happen to me. The lateness of the offer gave me too much time to evaluate my position and think about my future. And once I started to question my role, it was a door that wouldn’t close.
As you get older, you don’t get quicker or smarter and you don’t have more energy. So I said to myself: leave at the top. Don’t drop down the rankings. Don’t start making mistakes and, above all, leave with your head held high.
Better to walk away too early than too late. As the Championships of 2022 were to be my 30th Wimbledon for the BBC, it seemed to be a perfect punctuation point.
I decided to announce my departure just before Queen’s via the Mail’s tennis writer Mike Dickson — because I wanted to stress that this was my decision, and my choice. I wanted all of the fuss out of the way before Wimbledon began.
Little did I know what an emotional rollercoaster it would be. On the evening following the men’s final, I was standing on a platform in the sunshine, with No. 1 Court as backdrop, alongside Billie Jean King, Tim Henman, Mac [John McEnroe], Pat Cash and Clare Balding. For the first time in his life, Tim interrupted me on air, to introduce a BBC video of my time at Wimbledon, both as a player and broadcaster.
It was embarrassing but strangely wonderful, and I’ll treasure it for ever: Billie Jean calling me the GOAT (greatest of all time) of sports broadcasting and Mac calling me the Roger Federer of presenting. It just doesn’t get better than that.
That said, the memory that will linger the longest is the ovation I received on Centre Court during the Parade of Champions. Mac took over the microphone and turned to address me.
He said he was speaking on behalf of the players. ‘We will be lost without you . . .’ I started to laugh, but he pressed on.
‘After 30 years covering this tournament magnificently . . .’
The crowd erupted and I could see row after row of people getting up out of their seats. I no longer heard any of what Mac was saying.
That tribute brought me to tears. It was so unexpected. And it was the most special and the proudest moment of my entire career.
It’s the hardest thing in the world — to stop doing a job you still love while you’re somewhere near the top.
I will miss it terribly when it’s not an annual part of my life. But I have no regrets.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Calling The Shots: My Autobiography by Sue Barker, to be published by Ebury on September 29 at £20. © Sue Barker 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to September 17 2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
Sue will be on tour with Calling The Shots: Live from September 29. For tickets, go to penguin.co.uk/events/sue-barker-live
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