The Godfather

David English, exuberant ‘godfather of English cricket’, actor and music executive whose Bunbury Festival became a nursery of top talent – obituary

‘Cricket is the most wonderful bonding sport of all,’ English said. ‘[It] teaches you that the team is more important than the individual’

David English at home in north London: joke-cracking ,eccentric and larger-than-life
David English at home in north London: joke-cracking, eccentric and larger-than-life CREDIT: John Nguyen/JNVisuals

David English, who has died aged 76, was once described by The Daily Telegraph as the “godfather of English cricket”; he was that and much more, including actor, children’s author, record company executive and charity fundraiser. His many claims to fame included teaching Robert Redford the intricacies of cricket while filming A Bridge Too Far, and guiding five singles in a single week into the American Billboard Top 10 chart.

English, a jive-talking, joke-cracking jester, was an eccentric and larger-than-life character. He was known to Ian Botham (best man at his wedding) as Loon, to George Harrison as Lord Bunbury, and to Elton John as Wing Commander. “I’ve always known that I can’t play guitar like Eric Clapton, I can’t sing like Barry Gibb and I can’t play cricket like Ian, but I can help people achieve their dreams and aspirations, that’s what I’m good at,” he explained.

For more than 30 years he ran the annual Bunbury Festival, a week-long whackathon of uninhibited and joyous cricket that brings together the 56 best boy players in the country. His involvement began in 1987 when Ben Brocklehurst, a former Somerset captain who owned The Cricketer magazine, asked if English would fund the festival, which was then in its death throes.

He published Mad Dogs & the Englishman: Confessions of a Loon in 2002
He published Mad Dogs & the Englishman: Confessions of a Loon in 2002

English had recently written a series of children’s books called the Bunbury Tails, about cricket-playing rabbits: “My only condition,” he recalled, “was that we would call it the Bunbury English Schools Under-15 Festival.”

For aspiring young cricketers the road to Bunbury begins at school and is followed by county and regional trials. The best players are then selected for the tournament. The only qualification is an ability with bat and ball. “It’s for everyone – if you’re good enough, you’re going to get into the Bunbury Festival by hook or by crook,” said English, who frequently called for every school in the land to be equipped with cricket facilities.

In 2005, 10 of the Ashes-winning side that beat Australia in one of the most thrilling series in living memory, including Andrew “Freddie Flintoff”, came through the Bunbury Festival.

English witnessed the development of many future cricketing stars. He told how Ben Stokes, for whom the pitch was “his stage to perform on”, was “gruff and in your face”; Joe Root was “angelic – he timed the ball beautifully”; Jos Buttler was “quite quiet but terrific”; and Marcus Trescothick was “very outstanding”. Adil Rashid won every award up for grabs in his age-group, though David English remembered him falling down the stairs of the pavilion, adding with a laugh: “I had to fish him out of the rhododendrons.”

About 100 “old Bunbarians” have gone on to represent England, while more than 1,000 have played in the first-class game. “I teach them to relax, have a lot of fun along the way but watch closely how they form friendships, because they will go on to play with and against each other at the very highest level,” English explained. “Cricket is the most wonderful bonding sport of all. It’s almost like being a regiment in a war. You are with each other in the good times and the bad times. Cricket teaches you that the team is more important than the individual.”

David English (right) with former England cricketer David Gower, 2002
English (right) with former England cricketer David Gower, 2002 CREDIT: Andy Butterton/PA Wire

The Bunbury Festival also included charity matches, featuring celebrities and players past and present, and in its first 30 years raised more than £17 million for varied good causes. It attracted not only cricketers, but also stars from other sporting fields.

On one occasion the boxer Audley Harrison slipped out of the Olympics training camp to play a festival match. “[He] was throwing himself around in the covers and took five wickets, and then went and won the gold medal in Sydney,” English said.

English was known to nearly everyone in cricket. He joined “Beefy” Botham on his leukaemia charity walks, hosted the renowned Botham and Viv Richards roadshows, and, combining his musical and cricketing interests, once persuaded Bill Wyman, cigarette still in hand, to bat against the bowling of Gary Lineker while Phil Collins kept wicket.

On another occasion he spent a day with Botham on a boat, feeling decidedly seasick. When finally allowed back on dry land, English “staggered back to the hotel, only to find Beefy had installed a waterbed in my room”.

Off the pitch, English was an enthusiastic curator of his own mythology. He told how as a teenager he landed up in St Tropez nightclub where he ran into Brigitte Bardot, who was almost 12 years his senior, wearing a tight pair of leopard-skin slacks and an angora sweater. “I went up to her,” he said, “and in my best O-level French asked her to dance, introducing myself as David Anglais. I danced her out of the club and we started kissing.

“It was going very well until her husband came out and I had to hide behind the dustbins.”

There were also tales from his career as a music promoter, including one occasion when he was peering over the balcony of the Georges V hotel in Paris with the Bee Gees, his neighbours from north London.

“I decided to circle along a ledge and, one by one, Barry, Maurice and Robin followed,” he recalled. “When we came to the next suite we looked in and saw a couple making love. The woman looked up and, with a look of total disbelief, saw a madman followed by three Bee Gees inch past, 500 ft above Paris. We saw her the next day and Barry told her how nice it was to see her with her clothes on.”

David Stuart English was born in Brentford, Middlesex, on March 4 1946, the son of Kenneth English and his wife Joyce (née Scoffin). He recalled a traumatic childhood in which his father walked out when he was 16. Shortly afterwards, David was hit by a lorry and almost killed.

Joe Root, second from left, at the age of 15, with David English
Joe Root, second from left, at the age of 15, with David English CREDIT: John Nguyen/JNVisuals

He got his first taste of cricket at Bell Lane Primary School in Hendon, where Denis Compton, the school’s most famous old boy, became his idol. He moved on to Whitefield School in Cricklewood, where fellow pupils included Tony Currie, who later played football for England, and Dave Bedford, who became the 10,000 m world record holder.

Leaving school with a never-to-be-fulfilled ambition to play cricket for England, David attached himself to the MCC Young Cricketers at Lord’s (about 20 youngsters hoping to make the grade), though aged 18 he went off to blag his way around Europe.

Back in Britain he played cricket for MCC and Cross Arrows, on one occasion scoring a century at Lord’s. On another occasion he clean-bowled the West Indian star Viv Richards. He became a showbiz reporter on the Daily Mail before joining Decca Records as a press officer, handling publicity for artists including the Rolling Stones and Tom Jones.

English first met Eric Clapton on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1968, when he marched past security to become a roadie. “I strolled through the artists’ entrance, dressed in a tracksuit and holding a towel,” he explained. A career in the music industry followed when Robert Stigwood founded RSO records in 1973 and asked English to run the company.

His many signings included the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton, who insisted on calling him “Arfur” after the comedian Arthur English. On one occasion Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love? and More Than a Woman by the Bee Gees and Lay Down Sally by Clapton were all in the US Top 10 at the same time.

By the late 1970s English had turned to acting, speaking two lines as a German soldier before being killed in Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). His co-stars included Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Hopkins, whom he tormented with terrible jokes. He was also a corpse in Z Cars, a doctor in Casualty and a man with very clean hair in a Head and Shoulders advert that ran for five years and paid for a large house in Hampstead. sDl8SIAv5eI

Mill Hill was his cricketing home and it was there he once spotted a rabbit running near the boundary. This gave him the idea for the Bunbury Tails, giving children a “bunnified” introduction to cricket and featuring Viv Radish and Ian Buntham.

Meanwhile, his home was like a museum of music and cricket, festooned with memorabilia including pictures of himself with prominent England players from the past four decades as well as books, posters, bats and guitars from Clapton and Barry Gibb.

English was appointed MBE in 2003, advanced to CBE in 2010.

His first autobiography, Mad Dogs And the Englishman: Confessions of a Loon, was published in 2003; it was followed in 2006 by Confessions of a Dedicated Englishman, with forewords by Stephen Fry and Piers Morgan. The England and Wales Cricket Board took over the running of the Bunbury Festival in 2018, renaming it the ECB David English Bunbury Festival in his honour.

The England team which won the T20 World Cup final in Melbourne today wore black armbands in his honour.

David English married, in 1992, Robyn Dunckley; the marriage was dissolved in 1996. He is survived by a son and a daughter and by Lia Lanaja, his partner of the past 10 years.

David English, born March 4 1946, died November 12 2022

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