Not that he in any way belittled the stature, or genuineness, of the game. The effect of his technique, if you could call it technique – because his style was somehow lighter than any football commentary that’s been performed since – was to magnify the occasion. With his voice almost buried under the Phil Spector-style wall of crowd-effects that Channel Seven, under Alf Potter’s direction, seemed to generate in those days, Williamson made the sound of 1960s and ‘70s football something else.
No one, in my experience as a listener, has emulated it. Unusually, for a broadcaster who was so ubiquitous and so successful, Williamson wasn’t ‘aped’ by up-and-comers. I suspect this was because you just knew he was a one-off. He wasn’t a so-called «commentators’ commentator». He was simply Mike Williamson who called the footy with a unique mix of the showman, the fan in the outer, and the old-style ‘ham’.
His most famous moment, ‘Jesaulenko, you beauty…’ delivered with an unusual double-s sound on the Carlton champion’s name – Jessalenko – speaks of all that. It was simple. It was unpretentious. And it was so effective it cut through decades of archives such as to be immediately recognisable today, almost fifty years later.
Everyone of us who has ever called the game would like to have had one moment we could say achieved that.
And Williamson had more than one. Four years before that, St Kilda’s solitary flag win was made for him. And he for it. For the raging drama Mike, ‘Butch’, and guest finals’ commentator, Ted Whitten, created was such that the telecast of that game took the contest, and St Kilda’s win, to a place in the game’s recorded history that is unrivalled and can never be duplicated.
With scores level late in the last quarter, his ‘I tipped this’ – reminding us in three short words that he’d predicted a draw – somehow defined his style better than hours of broadcasting, or any long-winded treatise thereof, could ever have done. It was theatre, it was gentle piss-take, and it was all done with an unashamed sense of self-promotion you couldn’t help but enjoy. How St Kilda fans must have appreciated, must still appreciate, the unfiltered excitement Williamson and company brought to that coverage. Among televised football matches it is perhaps THE epic.
It’s hard to know whether Williamson was simply of his time, or whether he made it his time. The arrival of TV in Australia had instantly uncorked the comic genius of Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, and it would appear to have stimulated a significant generation of big performers. Williamson crossed the divide between entertainment and football and was clearly a part of this explosion of talent.
Yet he didn’t ever ‘jump the shark’ in his amplification of football’s drama, excitement and humour. The one line which mightn’t pass muster now was, when an obvious free-kick was missed by the umpire: ‘Ah Butch, Jack Hill the blind miner could’ve seen that!’ Today’s PC Police might take exception, but, otherwise, it was a kid’s game too and that was recognised. Williamson was a part of football’s culture and its people and his work was ever-respectful of the game.
Certainly, in those black-and-white television days, when six matches between twelve Victorian teams were played on Saturday afternoons and replayed that night on TV, footy created tremendous excitement. Far from being old-news by the time it went to air, the coverage on the box oozed energy and freshness. Such was the magnetism of Mike Williamson and his schtick.
His death cannot but arouse nostalgia for a glorious era. So much was different then. Although colour was yet to come to Australian screens – indeed Williamson departed the stage soon after it arrived – it abounded via the footy replays. The crowds were voluminous in every sense. At the MCG on the biggest days they filled every available space and then some. And they brought with them the huge hero-worshipping banners that hung over the barriers of the old southern stand and the streamers and floggers that created such a treacherous, ankle-deep sea of paper for full-backs to negotiate at either end of the ground.
The game was less developed as a team sport which meant the stars stood out, and what stars they were. And, as though great mates with all of them, conducting the show from the Channel Seven commentary position was Mike Williamson.
The Australian game was already well developed when he arrived, but – like the on-field greats – he took it to a new level. The only pity is that his inevitable induction to football’s Hall of Fame will be posthumous.
Tim Lane is a columnist for the Sunday Age.