Alan Saunders: Broadcaster who left Britain and became much loved in Australia


If Australia had such a thing as National Treasures, Alan Saunders would have been one. For the past 25 years on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation his beautifully modulated baritone voice enlightened, stimulated and engaged listeners to programmes such as the weekly Food Program for the 10 years until 1997, when he began presenting The Comfort Zone; and on ABC Radio National's Screen, the film and TV discussion and its Breakfast Program, to which he contributed film reviews until 2000.

He appeared on its entertaining Livewire broadcasts, presented its architecture and design programme By Design, and worked on its humanities review, Meridian, from 1995-97. At the time of his death he was presenter of The Philosophy Zone, in which he discussed with philosophers subjects ranging from notions of personal identity in the work of Shakespeare to the nature of philosophical argument itself. He wrote for a variety of papers and magazines, varying from writing about food for the "Good Living" supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin to being a record reviewer for New Woman.

His face had become as familiar as his voice, as he presented television Channel 9's The Chopping Block, in which he was filmed in restaurants analysing and criticising the meal. In Australia's "tall poppy" culture, where the flowers that stand above the rest get their heads lopped off first, only Saunders, loved, respected and obviously fair, could have pulled off such an inherently dangerous coup.

Yet this 58-year-old Aussie institution and intellectual all-rounder only migrated to Australia in 1981. The man with the mellifluous voice was born to a London taxi driver and his wife. Saunders, a good-looking young man, showed his excellent brain early on and won a scholarship to William Ellis School, backing on to Parliament Hills Field.

In those days, William Ellis was a voluntary-aided grammar school, one of the best secondary schools in London, run with the traditions and characteristics of a public school, with a house system and gowned prefects, playing rugby, not football, and a six-day timetable. As an adult, Saunders could sing in a strong countertenor voice – perhaps he was a treble in the choir at school? He went on to the University of Leicester, where he took first-class honours in Philosophy, and followed this with a Master's in Logic and Scientific Method from the London School of Economics.

It was at that time he began his association with Australia; he got a scholarship in 1981 to the History of Ideas Unit, Australian National University at Canberra, where he was awarded his PhD in 1989 for a dissertation on Joseph Priestley.

Though he seemed destined for a career in academic philosophy, and Australia was at that time a philosophy hotspot, Saunders joined the ABC science unit in 1987, and within two years was presenting their flagship Food Program. Alison Pilpel, his near-contemporary at Leicester and lifelong friend, told me that there was no indication that the undergraduate Alan was at all interested in food and wine – though by the late '80s he was a recognised authority on both subjects, and in 1992 he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall Prize "in recognition of the distinguished contribution made to the cultural life in Australia as a broadcaster and writer on the subject of food and/or wine."

Never married, Saunders seemed to have had few relationships and almost no family. Following the death of his mother a few years ago, he had not found much happiness in his personal life, and his friends were concerned for his health. He collapsed at work and died shortly after of pneumonia. The acting manager of Radio National, Amanda Armstrong, said he "wrote like an angel, and had a deep knowledge of music among many other areas including philosophy, gastronomy, architecture, design and film."

A broadcast tribute to Alan Saunders on 17 June occasioned some controversy on the website afterwards: a contributor had used the word "suburban" of this most cosmopolitan man.

Alan Saunders, broadcaster and journalist: born London 22 July 1953; died Sydney 15 June 2012.

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