A rugby commentator in the United Kingdom for 10 years, Nick Heath suddenly found himself with no matches to announce as the novel coronavirus spread.
Bored silly, he began to walk the streets of Tooting, the district in Southwest London where he lives a few kilometres from Wimbledon.
As he stumbled across people engaged in mundane activities in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, he started to take videos with his phone: a dog playing fetch in a park; an ample chap pedalling his bicycle up a lane; a gent pulling a wagon around the block; a fellow gazing off into trees; a guy combing through racks of clothes in a discount shop; people in a dash across a busy street, others waiting for a bus.
He never saw it for the phenomenon that it has fast become: an escape for folks in need of a smile.
“In a way, it sounds like there was a plan,” Heath says during a video call. “There wasn’t. It was in reality about entertaining myself at a time where my work dried up.
“It helps me feel creative and helps me to stay sharp."
There is genius in what he does with those 20- to 30-second snippets. He narrates each as if working extra time in the Rugby World Cup final, then posts on social media. In a matter of a few weeks, he gained more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram @nickheathsport. He uses the hashtags #LifeCommentary and #LiveCommentary.
“It is very much a commentary on the banal made to seem sporting,” Heath says. “I didn’t think there would be anywhere near this much interest, if any at all."
He is 41 and has covered the Rugby World Cup and done play-by-play for DAZN, Sky Sports and the BBC, among others. The last bit of rugby he covered was a telecast of a Wales-France match in Cardiff in February at the 2020 Women’s Six Nations Championship.
With a worldwide cancellation of sports, life screeched to a halt – until he came up with the farcical schtick that would make the Monty Python gang beam. The people he features are strangers, and he is careful not to show their face.
“It is not to make them the butt of a joke,” he says. “It is the time that we are in.”
The scenes he describes are every day but his take is anything but. With rapid patter bordering on hysterical, he chronicles pigeons meandering outside a church – he calls it Pigeon Dressage – a dog running down a ball, and people grocery shopping.
“You are joining me live here at Middle Class Arena. Ollie and Sally O’Connell, trolley and basket, champions last year but work to do! And this is Andy and Allison Davis! They have got some beef! Probably best we cut away. Now then, Sue Wilson here, such a tricky event this, the crudites conundrum. Going with a slab of paté here, that’s a safe choice, but so many hummuses in the modern game. I think we’re going to see a refusal!"
“I don’t use that voice when I am commentating,” Heath says. “It is a parody, a poke at the sorts of voices that you would have maybe heard here used by sports announcers in the 1980s. My slight concern is that when I go back to covering games, that voice will creep in.”
He posted his first videos on March 17, and the collection has grown rapidly since.
This week, he heard from one of his subjects for the first time – the woman playing catch with her pooch in Spaniel Speedway. She took it in good humour, even as he described her as “striding with the confidence of someone who owns a Volvo.”
She contacted him after the video was viewed by one of her friends. That day in the park was the first time she had been out in three weeks after becoming ill with a suspected case of COVID-19.
“Your video made me belly laugh for the first time in weeks,” she wrote. "Lady the dog is a big fan of her debut into the social media arena also.”
Over the past three weeks, he has received thousands of video clips from people who hope he will do a voice-over for them.
“It is unexpected and very pleasing to get messages,” Heath says. “I have the literal meaning of a captive audience. People are looking for entertainment online and perhaps this is my moment to shine.
“There have been times when I have wondered if there is any point to put another out. And then I do, and have hundreds of people say, ‘I needed this.’ Because of that, I have almost developed a sense of responsibility."
He has been featured on BBC radio broadcasts multiple times now and has been interviewed by The New York Times, USA Today, the New Zealand Herald, Fox Sports Australia, The Associated Press, ABC News, CNN International and MSNBC Tonight. A guy who is usually on the other end of a camera has done roughly 80 in all.
He is creative and funny, he has tapped into something needed by many.
“I hear from health-care workers who have told me they need a laugh at the end of the day," Heath says. "It is pretty humbling.”