Phil Liggett is probably best known in the UK for his commentary work over many years for the Tour de France: first on Channel 4, and latterly on the ITV network. Now around 78 years of age, Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling is a work over two years in development that demonstrates his reach and influence on the sport reaches so much further.
At a shade under 113 minutes, the film begins with Phil and his wife at their holiday home in South Africa. Born in New Brighton on the Wirral, Phil now splits his time between the UK and this big game reserve-set house. Phil is readying himself at this point for the start of the 2019 cycling season, his first without long-time co-commentator, Phil Sherwen, who had died the previous December.
Intercut with various voice-overs and talking heads attesting to Liggett’s influence, longevity, and quality of work, this shows a man whose confidence does appear to be on the wane as he ages, with plenty of musing on the possibility that his time in the sport may be coming to an end, coupled with a fear of going to work without his collaborator and friend. This is matched with a disarming humility at the luck he has had in life, to be able to commentate on – at that time – 32 editions of the Tour de France, and to make a living from his passion.
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When not at races, or on the Western Cape, Phil and his wife, Trish, spend time in Hertfordshire, and enjoy canal holidays. All of these present-day experiences are intercut with a mixture of career retrospective, complete with plenty of on-air footage and off air candid shots, talking heads from career contacts, one-on-one interviews with Phil and Trish, and Phil presenting several talks that illuminate many of his life experiences, and explain the Lance Armstrong controversy (to which we’ll return later). Much of his present day work, away from the peloton is focused on his conservation work. A life-long animal lover, Liggett originally worked as a zookeeper, with ambitions to become a zoologist. Now, he spends much of his time working to preserve Rhinoceros numbers in the wild, working with various bodies to ensure they are hunted as little as possible.
Phil’s story involved him becoming an amateur cyclist in the early 1960s, based in Belgium. With a lack of press coverage of these races, Liggett approached Fleet Street and various cycling publications, offering to provide articles and race reviews, all while taking part in the races. Along with developing his career in print and broadcasting, he became a race director, running the Milk Race for decades, and in 1972 accepted an offer to become vice-president of the Association Internationale Organisateurs des Courses Cyclist.
As expected, much of the focus is on his association with the Tour de France, and fellow commentator Ned Boulting notes that Phil played an enormous role in making the tour a worldwide television event, as his peak years coincided with very human stories, such as the Greg LeMond’s shooting accident, and return to the race. We see examples of the versatility he brought to his work, such as the occasion he commented fluently on events, all while no pictures were available to him.
This film appears to have been in development for some time, as evidenced by a short contribution from the late Paul Sherwen, seemingly weeks before his untimely passing. Phil’s love for his departed friend is clear, and very moving, and gives this work an air of sadness, despite Liggett’s good humour and personable nature. This is man near the end of his career, with most of the best memories behind him. Apart from this, it is an unremarkable film for the most part, aimed only at fans of the man as footage of him eating a meal with his wife on their barge is not exactly thrilling stuff.
Just before the hour mark, the film comes alive a little with its decision to address his terrible judgement regarding Lance Armstrong. Armstrong – whose seven tour wins were stricken from official records in 2012, followed by his public admission of career-long doping – had long been a target for gossip and accusations during his glory years. The Irish Journalist David Walsh (portrayed by Chris O’Dowd in the 2015 film The Program) appears here. Gently, he skewers Liggett for his defence of Armstrong in the face of ever growing evidence in the early and mid-2000s, and questions his rigour as a journalist.
There is footage of Phil calling these accusations out as politically motivated, with the implication that it was little more than a witch-hunt. This is in the same section of the film as Trish Liggett openly talking about her husband’s understanding of his advancing years, and wish to leave a positive legacy. Phil, for his part, openly talks of his regret at the whole incident, and clearly resents the lies and deceit of a man he had come to consider both a friend, and an inspiration for his work in promoting his cancer charity. Despite the endemic nature of doping in the sport of cycling, the widespread abuses that have taken place during Liggett’s career are just skated over. Once Armstrong is mentioned, then the film is surely obligated to examine this – and Phil’s reactions to it – in greater detail.
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In general, it is fair to say the archive footage, and his career retrospective are both interesting and evoking of nostalgia for those who remember his decades in the sport. The modern day talking heads are interesting enough, but much of the modern footage feels like time wasted. We see Phil talking about his love for model trains, and see him working on his set at home. Whilst this is perfectly fine as a hobby, is this anything that anyone sitting to watch a documentary on the voice of cycling would be looking to see? The film is a reasonable use of just under two hours, and Phil is treated with respect, while proving a likeable man. It is a mix, however, of the fascinating, and the frustratingly mundane.
Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling is out in cinemas on 26th July.