Michele Hewitson Interview: Keith Quinn

By Michele Hewitson

The face, and voice, of rugby commentary doesn't project the celebrity status enjoyed by 'Quinny', who insists notoriety has been thrust on him. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The face, and voice, of rugby commentary doesn't project the celebrity status enjoyed by 'Quinny', who insists notoriety has been thrust on him. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Forty years in a blokey, sometimes unkind profession hasn't left a dent in the genial exterior of rugby's 'old bear.'

Keith Quinn turned 65 on Thursday and I hope he had a very happy birthday because he really is a dear old bear. He said there had been some mutterings about a celebration, but he wasn't much fussed. I think he secretly wouldn't mind a small to medium-sized fuss being made, and why not? He's earned one.

He'll be doing some Rugby World Cup commentary for Maori TV, and Radio NZ wants him to be available, but a plan to broadcast games, and Quinn, in cinemas and arenas in 3D has been shelved.

It's a shame, because, blimey, imagine Quinn in 3D! How would that've been? "They've got big screens. I think I would've been okay. I was quite excited."

He was at great pains to tell me he wasn't the main commentating bloke on Maori TV.

He might mind, a bit, I thought, not being the main commentating bloke, or even the minor one, on a bigger, more mainstream channel. "No! No, of course not. I'm just pleased to be involved in some way." Did he mind being asked if he minded? "Not at all."

So there you are, he's really chuffed to be on the telly at all and, after starting in 1971 with the NZBC and being "stood down twice in the 1980s", from TVNZ, he's long ago given up getting the huff about such things as profile. When he was 45, he was told "I was past my use-by date". The fellow who told him this must be a rotter, I said, but of course he would never say any such thing, and besides, it wasn't his fault: he was only doing what he was told, by the real rotters upstairs.

He never felt TVNZ gave him much encouragement. You'd think they'd have made him a star, but they never really seemed to like him. "I don't know ... I applied a bit of rugby logic. Sometimes a guy gets dropped from the first test and he carries on training ... in the hope that if they don't pick him, they'll change the selectors ... I'm now 65 and the phone's ringing off the wall!"

So boo sucks to the rotters, then? "I wouldn't say that." Oh, why not? "Because, well, I'm a bit genial."

A bit genial! "Any bitterness I might have had at the time has disappeared. Now, at a kind of reflective part of my career, imagine how boring it would've been if I'd been in the number one slot all the way through! Would I have got complacent? I don't know."

I couldn't decide whether or not to be amazed that he's only 65. He seems to have been around forever, but his enthusiasm for sporting things is that of the 25-year-old who burst into tears at his first Olympic games: in Munich in 1972.

He's always taken not being excitable while commentating very seriously, with limited success, I reckon. You could always tell he was jumping up and down on the inside. You can still imagine him bursting into tears at an Olympic games.

He's been around such a long time that he invokes nostalgia, perhaps. He manages to make The Beatles, a band he's inordinately fond of, sound like the very latest new-fangled thing. He uses expressions you don't hear too often these days. He says: "too right!" He expresses old-fashioned sporting sentiments. He said, of the Rugby World Cup: "I hope we can enjoy it fully - in a noble sense".

He knows a bit about noble sensibilities. His father died when he was 8, leaving his mother to raise five boys (he's the middle son.) He never heard his mother complain and only saw her cry once: the day she went to the pension office and was told the widow's pension was going up, by half a crown a week. It wasn't enough, she said, and wept. He's really lovely about his parents. "I often think, to that corny question about which people you'd invite to dinner, I'd like to have him there, so I could get to know him, and see what he thought of me."

The one thing I don't think anyone would think of him is that he's particularly blokey. He is, of course, known as Quinny. "But I don't like the name Quinny. So I don't use it about myself, but others use it." I wondered if he disliked it because of not being particularly blokey. "Oh," he said, horrified, "I'm blokey all right, I hope!" He obviously thinks that to be described as whatever the opposite of blokey is, is unthinkable.

He said, "Well, I'm an average Kiwi. It means I like sports games, a couple of beers, relaxing, working hard, doing my bit for my country, and that sounds a bit corny. I'm just ordinary. Notoriety has by and large been thrust upon me".

Notoriety? Was he joking? It's hard to tell. He doesn't really make jokes although he was pulling my leg, presumably, when he said he'd like to meet for breakfast, at some place where the glitterati have breakfast. The Langham very kindly let us have breakfast in their club lounge but not even they could rustle up glitterati at 8.30 in the morning. He'd have to provide the glittering element, I said, but he rightly ignored that, as he did most of my teasing.

I shouldn't have teased him and I'm sorry I did. He's no fun to tease because he gets all hurt and looks like a big bear with a sore paw; sore because you've stood on it, on purpose. And then he gets wildly defensive and says silly, pompous-sounding things. He has his dignity, of course, and has put up with people saying a lot of rude things about him over the years, so he's pretty good-natured, considering. If he has (and he has) come across as a bit thin-skinned over the years, well, he's a sensitive, if appropriately blokey, soul.

He was wriggly about being teased about the "Lomu, Lomu, oh, oh, oh" moment which even I know about. I asked if he thought the Lomu line would lead his obit and he said: "You're the first person that's asked me about it ... today."

What really happened was that he'd written a line about Lomu, to be used in the event that Lomu scored a try against England in the 1995 World Cup semifinal in South Africa. The line was to be: "Lomu: He plays with all muscle and pump." Five minutes before the end, with Lomu about to score, he dropped the bit of paper he'd written the line on - hence the "oh, oh, oh".

"Now, that's absolutely the truth, but people don't believe it because they think I was aghast about Lomu bursting past."

The part of that story I'm aghast about (or pretending to be) is that he filched the line, describing a basketball player, from a South African magazine. "Fine", he said, sounding slightly less than a bit genial. But he'd told the story! He should never have admitted to pinching the ill-fated line in the first place. And what I now really wanted to know was whether he prepared all his lines in advance.

He had a number of long-winded explanations for this; each more bonkers than the last. There was the one about visualisation which ended in a story about Martin Crowe's wife once finding him sobbing.

"And she said, 'what's wrong?' And he said, 'I've just made a century at Lords'." That's a very good story but not quite an answer, is it? "Well, it's called thinking ahead! Neil Armstrong didn't think 'one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind' as he was coming down the ladder, did he?"

This is another reason not to tease him - he'll wear you out by explaining, at great length, his reasons for doing whatever it is you're teasing him about. He, some time later, decided that I was accusing him of plagiarism. I suppose if you were going to be absolutely literal, I might have been. But it honestly never occurred to me.

He's also used to telling us what's happening on a rugby pitch. He's not used to us answering back. He likes the last word which is presumably why, the daft bugger, he decided to return to the subject of the stolen Lomu line because he wanted to tell me that he once quoted Shakespeare at the end of a game against Australia.

"I said: 'New Zealand rugby fans, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now.' Was that different? Or was that okay? Is that plagiarism?"

Once, at a literary event, he recited, from memory, the soliloquy from Richard III. But why? "I wanted to make a point. That there's more to being a sports commentator than just a bozo bloke who only knows about scrums and lineouts."

He admires people who know about things. He told me about a chap who wrote him a 42-page typed letter on some obscure point of Taranaki's forward play. Forty-two pages, he pointed out, was a third of a book. Forty-two pages, I pointed out, was patently barking. "Well, I admired Mr Walter of Dunedin."

He confided that he'd recently had a "very bad experience" involving throwing things out. "Because we shifted from the suburbs to an apartment. I had to cull."

This was evidently traumatic. Until then, he'd kept everything: every review, nice or nasty; every letter, including Mr Walter's of Dunedin, and the many that began: Dear Blubber Face (later, Dear B F, such was the familiarity between writer and recipient). A complete set of Beatles monthly fan club mags for the 1960s.

"Forty years, I tell a lie, 39 years of Rugby News. I gave them to the Rugby Museum and the day before they picked up the collection, I sorted them into order and I was wild. There was one edition missing, from July 14th, 1992. I was furious!"Aside from the Rugby News, he doesn't seem to have culled anything, I said. He insists he got rid of hundreds of books. He still has the Dear BF letters.

He says he's not obsessive and the proof is this: "I haven't got rooms full of old newspapers." He has them all tidily stacked in boxes. What about his Beatles obsession? "What about it?" Is that an obsession? "It's a collection." He has the Woman's Weekly from June 1964: "When the Beatles were on the front cover."

After seeing me he was off to give a talk to the Age Concern conference. And on Thursday, he turned 65. If he's ever forced to retire he has a plan: To "go back to the start of the rugby world cup and write a little piece about every game!" He'll do it too. But not in an obsessive way, obviously.

- NZ Herald

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