Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling review – Tour de France stalwart meanders off route

Here is a documentary of pretty niche interest, it has to be said: the life and times of Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett, who was a ubiquitous fixture on TV coverage of the event in English-speaking countries for years. Well, Liggett appears to be an interesting character, if John Craven looked a bit like Terence Stamp and held forth with a touch of Alan Partridge, but with a runtime of a shade under two hours, this is pushing it a bit.

Born on the Wirral, and currently residing with his wife Trish in a game reserve in South Africa where he helps with efforts to protect rhinos from poachers, Liggett is one of those old-school sports broadcasters – like John Motson or Clive Everton – whose natural communication skills and unswerving celebration of their discipline have inserted themselves into the minds of generations of TV audiences though sheer familiarity. This profile is at its most entertaining when describing Liggett’s early journey from highly rated amateur racer into sports journalism, and then to TV commentary in the mid-70s – Liggett says he was so unnerved by a phone call from legendary silver-fox World of Sport presenter Dickie Davies that he forgot to start commenting on his first live transmission.

Rather generously, this film gives Liggett space to hold court at some length on his rhino-conservation activities – perhaps as a counterweight to the one major blot on Liggett’s CV: his fulsome support of disgraced racer Lance Armstrong, even as everyone else had concluded that Armstrong had cheated. Directors Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe don’t avert their eyes, even including Liggett’s ill-advised rant against US anti-doping agency Usada, but it’s not allowed to interrupt the celebratory mood for too long. We end up going down quite a few byways – such as Liggett phlegmatically waiting in his car while Trish, a former Olympic level speed skater, gets in a bit of competitive ballroom dancing – which perhaps are not entirely necessary. Still, this film (and Liggett) is likable and charming enough.

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