By the nature of their profession, radio announcers come across as one-dimensional. We have nothing but their voice to judge them by. Peter Donaldson once received a letter from a listener asking: “What do you look like? You sound as though you're fat, 50 and balding.” In fact, his smooth, reassuring tones and precise pronunciation, as he read the news and shipping forecast, or announced forthcoming Radio 4 programmes, were in marked contrast with his generally windswept appearance and a convivial and rambunctious – if often prickly – off-air persona. He survived many rows with BBC management until retiring after reading his final bulletin on New Year's Eve, 2012.
Donaldson's most celebrated confrontation with authority came in 1977 when he was a reluctant presenter of Up to the Hour, an early-morning programme newly conceived to lead into Today. The freshly appointed controller of Radio 4, Ian McIntyre, had decided to split Today in half, starting at 7am and 8am, with the new programme, lighter in tone, preceding both segments. The change was unpopular with many of the presenters and producers, who preferred things as they had been and resented what they saw as gratuitous tinkering by the new controller.
Donaldson, prominent among the disgruntled, one morning decided on an act of sabotage. Libby Purves, a former colleague, described his mutiny thus: “Instead of saying 'This is Peter Donaldson' and announcing [the programme], he said 'This is Donald Peterson' and then he ran through everything that was on all the other networks and then said, sadly, 'Still, if you're stuck with Radio 4, then I'm afraid it's Up to The Hour... There was a very strong feeling he was going to be sacked for this and a great many of us on the Today programme made it very clear that we were going too – that if anything bad happened to Peter, we were off. It was a turnaround moment; it was one of the very few successful rebellions of the people ever to have taken place in the BBC and Peter led it. He was our icon. We loved him.” Not long afterwards Up to the Hour was cancelled.
Born in Cairo in 1945, Donaldson moved with his family to Cyprus in 1952. When he was 14 he was sent to board at Woolverstone Hall in Suffolk, a state-run grammar school where fellow pupils included the novelist Ian McEwan.
He left at 16 and, having decided to try for a career in the theatre, took a backstage job at Sadler's Wells. Soon he was taking on small acting roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the New Shakespeare Company at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. But he was never offered a major part and in 1968 he applied to be an announcer with the British Forces Broadcasting Service, for whom he worked from military bases in Aden, Cyprus, Libya and Malta.
In 1970 he joined the BBC, working first for Radio 2 and then Radio 4. In 1974 he flirted briefly with commercial radio, joining the newly enfranchised Radio Hallam in Sheffield. He left after a few weeks, though, and returned to the bosom of the Beeb, where in 1988 he was appointed chief announcer, a position he held for 15 years. As well as the news and shipping forecast, he enjoyed reading suggestive snippets from newspapers on The News Quiz and played the part of a butler in the Radio 4 comedy Ectoplasm.
In the 1980s his calm and authoritative voice prompted the Central Office of Information to engage him to record instructions that would be broadcast in the event of nuclear war: “This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons... Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away... Water must not be used for flushing lavatories: until you are told that lavatories may be used again, other toilet arrangements must be made... If you go outside, you will bring danger to your family and you may die.” (Those who knew of this assignment dubbed him “the voice of doom”.)
He maintained his rebellious streak throughout his career. In 2002 Greg Dyke, the BBC's director-general, launched a campaign to curb some of the Corporation's excessively bureaucratic procedures. He issued yellow cards to staff reading “Cut the crap – make it happen”. Donaldson cut his card in half, threw it away and sent a message to Dyke saying: “I have taken your advice”.
He gave up his staff job at Broadcasting House in 2005 but continued working as a freelance announcer, often taking on unpopular news-reading slots over Christmas and other holiday periods. He lived his final years in Pulborough, west Sussex, where he enjoyed gardening and walking to his local pub for one or two stiff drinks, but where he was also diagnosed with the cancer that killed him.
Interviewed in 2009, Donaldson said that clarity was the prime requirement of an announcer who wanted to communicate with as many people as possible: “And you need a sense of warmth, because you're forming part of a person's life.” On the Today programme yesterday, his fellow veteran John Humphrys said: “Technically he was pretty flawless, although his timekeeping left a little to be desired... And he was fearless if he thought his bosses weren't up to the job. When he challenged them it was the other guys who blinked.”
Peter Ian Donaldson, broadcaster: born Cairo 23 August 1945; died 3 November 2015.
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