While spaceflight and space insurance has its fair share of colourful characters, they pale when it comes to some others involved in measuring risk. As such, we are sad to reveal that the world of horse racing and betting has just said goodbye to one of its biggest characters: Big Mac – more formally known as the presenter and journalist John McCririck. He died at the age of 79 on 5 July after a long period of debilitating illness as he sequentially fought sepsis, flu and finally lung cancer.

John McCririck in his legendary deer stalker hat. Courtesy: Twitter

Known for his outlandish attire, especially his hats with which he covered up his bald head, and for his entertaining loud-mouthed attitude, which sometimes erred into opinionated rants, nevertheless, McCririck’s pantomime act front disguised a talented writer and commentator. Before the cigar-smoking McCririck’s stint on Channel 4 he had been an award winning sports writer.

McCririck’s horse racing pundit career began at the Harrow public school, where he ran the school “book” on horse racing and also on the school cross country run, actually losing money on it to the late BBC racing commentator Julian Wilson (then still a schoolboy himself) in doing so. After doing poorly academically (he left with three “O” levels) McCririck failed in his initial careers as a cook, then as a bookmaker and tipster, before he finally entered journalism via the television route, becoming a subeditor on the BBC Sport Grandstand programme.  He later left to become a successful writer and investigative journalist on the main horse racing newspaper at the time, The Sporting Life, winning two major awards for revealing an illegal betting coup, and for disclosing fraudulent betting malpractice at the Tote.

After falling out with the hierarchy at the paper, McCririck took a job in front of the TV cameras as a racing pundit, initially on ITV in 1981, before moving to Channel 4 when the whole coverage team moved to the station. There he became the most famous character in British racing since the tipster Prince Monolulu, mainly by shouting the odds of the bookmakers in the betting ring: “Burlington Bertie…100 to 30″…and all that. By expertly providing betting notes, early prices (odds) and racing gossip on screen – including on the early morning tipping programme The Morning Line – in effect, this tic-tac hand signalling and racing jargon specialist became the punters’ friend – one who even criticised the bookmakers when he sensed any unfair practices.

While broadcasting was his main role, McCririck kept his writing hand in, having a share in authoring he Channel Four Racing Guide to Form and Betting in the late 1990s, and previously by writing John McCririck’s World of Racing in 1992. This latter well-written and entertaining book is recommended for those interested in the gambling aspects of the sport of Kings. It includes a full explanation of how a “book” of runners’ odds can be unfairly “over-round” in terms of percentage chance, and how the mysterious “Rule 4” deduction of winnings works in the case of non-runners.

Milking his fame for money in the late 2000s, McCririck was paid significant sums to appear on some celebrity “reality” TV shows such as Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Wife Swap – although these did not add to his reputation as his chauvinism and self-righteousness were there for all to see, but without his compensatory good points on show which were usually more obvious when he did his racing role.

In fact, these ill-advised reality show appearances probably triggered his downfall. As it is prone to, basically well-meaning and morally right political correctness can often show its own fascist-like intolerance towards those who are non-compliant. And so the writing was very much on the wall when the very politically correct Channel 4 high command began to reduce McCririck’s TV racing appearances.

Finally the station, via its newly subcontracted production company IMG Media, fired John McCririck from his job altogether in late 2012, along with several other – mainly older male – Channel 4 racing presenters including Derek Thompson, Jim McGrath and Alastair Down (John Francome left voluntarily) as well as Leslie Graham. The purge of the “old guard” was done under the official guise of “freshening up” its racing team and to make it more “diverse”, albeit with the unwritten aim of also removing the amusing, but no longer politically acceptable, schoolboy-like banter between these “old guard” mainly male presenters.

Given that most of these presenters had faithfully served Channel 4 Racing for over 24 years, Big Mac and his  friends gained much sympathy over their sackings which had more than a whiff of ageism (later denied) about them, perhaps with a little bit of inverse racism and inverse sexism mixed in. Unfortunately, this sympathy encouraged a very bitter McCririck to take legal action via an employment tribunal against IMG Media for unfair dismissal due to age discrimination. Had Big Mac secured the agreement of other fired older presenters to fight a group action on this basis, he might have stood a better chance. However, in the event, he lost his lone employment tribunal case and lost a lot of his own money as a result.

Despite some evidence in his support (Leslie Graham also suggested that her hours had been cut due to her age before she was fired) the employment tribunal found that rather than being unfairly fired over his age – he was 73 years old at the time – McCririck had actually been sacked on the grounds that his outdated “bigoted” and “male chauvinist” views were unlikely to be attractive to a modern audience going forward. Given that Channel 4 (and ITV before that) and its audience had clearly found these acceptable for over three decades beforehand, one suspects here that this might have been a better line of attack for him.

While his old-school sexist and right-wing views were clearly not palatable to some – especially female viewers – nevertheless, at the time of his firing, John McCririck was still very popular with most racing fans, mainly because of his blunt honest speaking, but also due to his good sense of humour and sense of fun.

Channel 4 later realised that it had made a mistake in moving away from the “fun” formula which had previously been so successful. For, having outbid the BBC’s for its remaining share of the UK’s major horse racing events which should have given it more success, Channel 4’s racing coverage became noticeably blander and all too serious as it soldiered on without Big Mac and his forcibly departed colleagues.

In the end, after four more years of falling audiences, to Big Mac’s satisfaction Channel 4 finally gave up covering racing altogether, a TV sport which ITV gleefully – and successfully – took back into its fold. The award-winning ITV Racing has wisely reintroduced the fun factor back into its coverage, with the excellent Matt Chapman taking over McCririck’s old role as the “punters’ friend”, having previously learned from the master.

Channel 4 itself went on to make the strategic mistake of deciding to cover live Formula One motor racing instead, but soon lost out on this as well, this time to the very well-financed subscription-based Sky TV service, leaving it, the British Grand Prix excepted, with just a barely-watched Grand Prix race highlights show.

Back to John McCririck. In an effort to initially replenish his own funds, McCririck continued to make guest TV appearances on other TV stations and, for a time, had a role on the At The Races online/satellite TV service. For the next few years he could often be seen at major race meetings – he still loved racing – however he was usually there just as a punter rather than as a paid TV presenter. And, like catching a glimpse of a longed-for, but now sadly-estranged loved one, Channel 4 Racing’s own TV cameras sometimes inadvertently picked out Big Mac in the betting crowd.

As McCirick’s health began to fail, he latterly went back to writing about racing again in a newspaper column. In the last few years of his life, McCririck lost his stout figure, becoming very thin and gaunt as his illnesses ravaged on. Last year he correctly predicted that he would not last another year.

While Big Mac probably was the unreconstructed male chauvinist and sexist that he liked to portray himself as (although he would deny that he was ever a misogynist), he was reportedly very kind, generous, and very well liked by his colleagues and friends, many of whom were women, and to whom he often awarded fun nicknames (“My Noble Lord” for the late Lord John Oaksey, “Greatest Jockey” for John Francome, “The Female” for Tanya Stevenson etc).

And while it has to be admitted that he was not apt to accept the views of others, McCririck’s right-wing bigotry was never racist or mean-spirited. In fact, he had the disgraced Pakistani umpire Asad Rauf as his best man at his wedding in 1971, and had close friends among left wing politicians who shared an interest racing and sports – the late Robin Cook being just one example. It is a mark of the man that so many tributes have been written about McCirick since his death.

John McCirick was, of course, very much loved by his wife Jenny (dubbed the Booby by him) who stuck by him and served him faithfully as his assistant and driver through thick and thin (no pun intended but actually so) for over 48 years of their marriage. To her, and to the rest of his friends and family (he had no children), we give our sympathy and condolences. As we give our final salute to Big Mac, we note that his last wish is to have his ashes  spread over the site of the old Alexandra Palace (“Ally Pally”) racetrack.  We hope that this happens.

Post Script: John McCririck would have enjoyed the fact that his passing’s headline “Big Mac Dead” subsequently caused a Twitter panic in some youngsters who thought that it was the end of the McDonald’s fast food chain’s hamburger offering under this name.

By the way, you can always learn from a master. Taking his cue from John McCririck, in his student days this writer once ran a “book” on the exam results for the Astronautics and Space Engineering Masters course at Cranfield. Mind you, this was less of a money making scheme (actually it lost money) than a market intelligence ruse which allowed him ask his fellow students about their past degree and A-level exam results. The plan was devised so he could make friends with the cleverest kids on the course.

It is a sad goodbye to Christopher Booker

We also say goodbye to the right wing writer, satirist and columnist, Christopher Booker, who has passed away at the age of 81.  He was the founding editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, continuing as a contributor for most of his career.  However, Booker’s main bread and butter came from serving as columnist on The Daily Telegraph and then on The Sunday Telegraph for which he wrote for for over fifty seven years until his retirement due to ill health in March. In his later years, he held no truck with global warming and became a leading climate change denier – both over its fact and its causes. Although his arguments on this issue became increasingly untenable as more and more evidence against them became available, Booker did manage to make a much more convincing series of attacks on the European Union, mainly over its wastage and over its lack of democracy, and on political correctness, for being a new kind of totalitarianism.

Just because Booker was right wing, this did not mean that he did not have a heart. Christopher Booker became a very effective campaigning journalist as he tried to force much more humanity and openness onto the UK family court system, shedding light on a series of serious errors and injustices caused by it.  Because of this, and for his other contributions, we give our salute to Christopher Booker and our condolences to his family and friends.

…and to veteran actor Freddie Jones

The veteran character actor Freddie Jones has also sadly passed away this month at the age of 91, who, after originally being a lab technician, had a long film and television acting career. While Freddie Jones was not world famous as an acting name, some of his roles remain memorable.  Looking older than his real age for a long stretch of his career, for a time he specialised in playing irascible or evil character older roles – his malevolent freak show owner in the award winning The Elephant Man (1980) being just one example. Jones’ filmography is too long to list here but aerospace fans will note that he excellently played the intelligence expert Kenneth Aubrey in the long-winded, but recommended, fast jet Cold War thriller Firefox (1982), and also appeared as a master of assassins in the science fiction adventure Dune (1984).

Freddie Jones also memorably played an embittered terrorist bomber bent on using bombs on ocean liner for extortion in Juggernaut (1974). Thus film fans will especially remember that if they ever have to defuse bomb, not to take a terrorist’s advice on which colour wire (red or blue) to cut.

Freddie Jones as intelligence expert Kenneth Aubrey in the cold war thriller Firefox (1982). Courtesy: Warner Bros

Late in his life, by this time his age having caught up with his roles, Jones had a long-standing part in the British Yorkshire-based TV soap opera Emmerdale as he played the Sandy Thomas, the elderly father of the vicar. Freddie Jones played this until last year.

Freddie Jones is survived by his wife and three sons, one of who is the accomplished actor Toby Jones. We give our salute to Freddie Jones and our condolences to his family and friends.