It isn't often that Test Match Special goes viral. The BBC radio institution, which has broadcast ball-by-ball coverage of almost every England cricket match since 1957, has been a lot of things to a lot of people – but rarely has 'social media sensation' been one of them. Until last week.
During a break on the third day of the fourth test between England and India at Trent Bridge, veteran commentator Jonathan Agnew read out a letter sent in by a listener named Patrick Taylor, reflecting on the life of his father, John. Patrick explained that John was a pharmacist who had worked into his 50s "before unexpected cloud cover descended just as he was looking to break free from the shackles and play with the freedom that retirement would bring."
On the "ever-increasingly sticky wicket" of coming decades, Patrick wrote, his father "faced up and defended against a beamer in the form of leukaemia, the yorker of muscular dystrophy, the googly of Parkinson's, [and] the reverse swing of diabetes," before being "struck down by the vicious bouncer of dementia." Yet through it all, it was cricket that kept him going.
"TMS has been and will continue to be an institution of great importance to generations of our family," Patrick went on, before revealing that his father had been rushed to hospital in early August and given 48 hours to live. With hope all but lost, Patrick had the idea to play TMS at his bedside. John regained consciousness, opened his eyes, acknowledged his family, then listened to the cricket for the next two days. After England's victory in that test, "on 83 [he] finally faced the inevitable, unplayable delivery and left the field of play."
It was an extraordinary tribute, and a video clip of Agnew reading the story went around the world. To date, it has been seen by almost a million people.
Among them was one man who arguably knows the power of TMS better than anyone. Henry Blofeld, known as 'Blowers' to fans, hung up his commentary microphone last year after delighting listeners for half a century.
"It was remarkable, wasn't it?" he says, over a morning coffee in central London. "I think it shows the profundity, the depth and the reach of the programme. And it gives backing to the best description of TMS I ever heard, from Robert Hudson, who was head of outside broadcasts when I joined in 1972. He said 'chaps, one thing we must remember is that Test Match Special is comfortable.' It's absolutely true – it's not a cricket programme, it's so much more."
Resplendent in an outfit composed of various alarming colours – a salmon pink linen shirt, navy blazer, polka-dot cravat, sunshine-yellow chinos and matching yellow socks and loafers – I am pleased to report that Blowers is as sprightly as ever. The voice, once described as a cross between Winston Churchill and Dame Edna Everage, is clear; the catchphrases in tact (we are still his "dear old things"); the wit sharp; and, save for some deafness in his left ear and an apparently dodgy back, he looks in fine fettle.
Blowers called time on his broadcasting career with a 25,000-strong standing ovation at Lord's, but hasn't quite retired. In fact, he has just added another 33 dates to his one-man 78 Retired speaking tour, finished worked on a Silicon Valley app, is presenting for Classic FM and will soon begin another book. Some of these jobs are predictable. One – the app – I doubt anyone saw coming.
Blowers has lent his inimitable voice to a bedtime story for the successful California-based mindfulness and sleep app Calm. Titled A Cure for Insomnia? Cricket Explained to Groucho Marx, it is Blowers reading a self-penned essay in which he attends an imaginary cricket match with the long-dead American humourist – who incidentally did watch cricket in London in the Fifties, remarking that it was "a wonderful cure for insomnia. If you can't sleep here, you really need an analyst."
"It's a strange concept, isn't it?" Blowers says. "And it was strange for me, because I'm used to pronunciation and emphasis, but this was about getting slower and flatter, to send people to sleep. But even at my vast age, I found it amazing how easy it was to adapt."
He doesn't miss TMS, and listens only occasionally. He is a "bit of a one-club man" when it comes to his BBC loyalty, so wouldn't commentate "for Talksport or anything like that." And, as such, he has some thoughts about the state of the corporation's sports broadcasting now.
"I think we live in an age of conformity, whereas when I began, we lived in an age of fierce individuality. And when you live with conformity, there is a danger that everything and everyone sounds the same," he says. "The reason, of course, is political correctness. I'm very anti political correctness, and don't want to sound like I'm on a tirade, but I did hear they're re-writing West Side Story because of political correctness, I mean… Jesus wept.
"When I started on TMS, we were all encouraged to go our own way and try things, take risks. Now, if for example [fellow TMS legends] Brian Johnston and John Arlott were 25 and went to Broadcasting House for an audition, I wonder if we'd even be given one…"
He must be careful in this territory, he says, slapping his own wrist, and resist getting into trouble on a midweek morning. All he means – I think – is that, with the exception of Agnew, it often takes him a few minutes to recognise a voice on the radio these days.
When he isn't hurtling around the country looking for audiences to regale, Blowers can still be seen pottering around Chelsea, where he lives with his wife, Valeria. Not for much longer, mind. West London might have been his home for more than half a century, but at the end of the year the Blofelds will be pulling up the stumps and heading for Menorca.
"I've sort of become a bit bored of Chelsea after 60 years, though I'll be back a lot," he says. "I shan't have a house in London, though. I don't like it any more. I think it's become – not exactly dangerous – but it is horribly violent, isn't it? I had a friend who was knifed from one of those mopeds, and you don't see too many Englishmen where I live. I think London has lost its village atmosphere and charm. Besides, I don't really use it at my age, anyway, so I'd rather not pay through the nose."
Menorca it is, then. "I've been going for years. It suits fine – the climate, the friends, and there's a marvellous little cricket club."
Does that make him a proud Europhile?
"No! Gosh, absolutely not at all. No great affiliation with Europe whatsoever," he says, before saving himself at the boundary again. "Well, actually, I suppose I do in a way, in that I'm married an Italian woman…"
A fine stop. And with that, he's up and off, a chaos of colour. It's not even elevenses yet, but Blowers has more commitments; a fixture list the length of his arm.
"My dear old thing, I've lived on my feet all my life, so every day is an adventure," he says, grinning. "I get awfully bored if I wake up in the morning and I've nothing to do."
There's runs in him yet.