In the words of Francis Ford Coppola, live television is a high wire act. And without an autocue, it’s even riskier. It makes Gary Imlach’s smart one-liners, usually delivered at the end of his and Chris Boardman’s insightful post-race analysis, all the more impressive. He spends a long time writing scripts, going over research notes and crossing his fingers.
“I just stare at them till I think I’ve got it memorised,” he says. “It’s funny, you do a stand-up for the highlights show that you know is being recorded and you have five or six bad takes before you get it right. The sheer terror of doing it live means that something you haven’t memorised any better just has to come out. I don’t know what neurological processes are at work.”
A thinking man in a world of beige sport presenter-automatons, Imlach has high standards. When Rouleur watches him at work during the 2017 Tour de France, he berates himself off-mic for two minor mispronunciations.
Imlach’s first Tour was the 1990 edition. The head of sport at Channel 4 had wanted someone to do the kind of quirky city travelogues that Imlach himself had been delivering on their American football show from the likes of Chicago and Green Bay.
They took him literally: “Knowing nothing about cycling, I was wheeled in to irritate people with five-minute cultural features when they’re thinking ‘for Christ’s sake, we’ve only got half an hour of highlights, get back to the racing.’ And then I gradually got sucked in, as everyone does, and ended up here.”
With his wry wit and verbal dexterity, Imlach’s colour reports quickly became a cult part of British Tour de France coverage. He has done everything from interviewing Eddy Merckx to following American tourists on a Bordeaux wine-tasting cycling tour and ending up on a pedalo in the middle of a lake.
However, his own favourite piece to camera was out of the side of a giant religious statue in Le-Puy-en-Velay in 1996. “They’ve got these mad, cartoonish volcanic outcrops, like something out of a George Herriman cartoon. And at the top of one of them, there is a cast iron statue of the Virgin Mary made out of 213 melted down cannons from the Crimean War.
“And it’s on the way to Santiago de Compostela, so it’s a stopping post for pilgrims except for, strangely and slightly sacrilegiously, the Virgin Mary is hollow. I had real difficulty in phrasing the script at the time but you can sort of enter the Virgin Mary… there’s a spiral staircase inside her, and I went halfway up and stuck my head out of her hip,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Simpler times. “If I wanted to do a voiceover [back then] where I wasn’t completely deafened by helicopters or the sound of Daniel Mangeas on the PA, I had to shut myself in our crew car, a Renault Espace, and cover myself with pillows,” he recalls. “You’d get in there with your coat over your head and do a voiceover, then come out sweating 90 seconds later because it was so bloody hot. It feels like hard work now, but it was hard work then.”
Imlach possesses the healthy ability to put the sporting madness just witnessed in the race quickly into a wider context. How does his time on Planet Tour compare to his other work?
“The Tour is a singular event. Almost beyond being a bike race. I’m probably talking myself out of future livelihood here, but I’ve never been hugely ambitious to be a full-time cycling journalist. And I still think of myself as an outsider. Probably people who’ve been watching me for donkey’s years think I’m the ultimate insider; we have plenty of proper insiders already here. I do my research and due diligence, but I like to arrive at this incredible phenomenon as a bit of an outsider still.”
So, Imlach heads towards 30 Tours – that’s a lot of natty polo shirts and clever quips – with his love for the race intact. “It’s a kind of odd compulsion,” he says. “I think everybody moans about the long days and stopping at motorway service stations at ten o’clock at night when everyone [else] has been through and there’s nothing left, but you can’t really moan about the annoyances of the job when the job is the Tour de France.”
A version of this article was first published in Rouleur 18.5
The Tour on the Telly
Part 1: How ITV capture a moving circus
Part 2: Ealing, we have a problem
Part 3: The man in the director’s chair