When the light goes out
Launching our new series of guest diaries by people in the news is BBC Radio 4's chief announcer, Peter Donaldson. For 30 years his gracefully modulated tones have informed and reassured the nation. Now he reveals how he's managed to maintain continuity in a cut-throat world.
I suppose you think it's easy, being a Radio 4 announcer. You probably assume we just sit there in our dinner jackets, sneaking cheese toasties from the Woman's Hour Baby Belling and swigging Bloody Marys in between shipping forecasts. But believe me, it's a tough assignment being the voice of a network. We're the ones who get it in the neck if we crash the pips leading up to the news, and you should just see the mailbag if you dare to mispronounce a name. Many's the time I've seen strong men weep when they've mastered Srebrenica and glided over Aung San Suu Kyi, only to stumble over something perfectly facile like Chelsea.
My training took place in Cyprus, with the British Forces Broadcasting Service, but it was hardly Sandhurst - I just had to trail after fellow announcer, Pat Doody, until I felt confident enough to 'fly solo'.
On the Saturday at the end of the first week I was browsing through a folder of letters for the weekly request programme when Pat's voice boomed over the talk-back: " I fell over and broke my wrist at a party - you're on your own tonight!"
So I did what any highly trained trooper would do: gulped, threw up and charged in. There was a bit of a hairy moment when I played the Everly Brothers at the wrong speed. But I think I got away with it all right. Pinky and Perky were very popular in those days. And apologies to the listener who requested any Stones record for his darling wife on their first anniversary. I can see now that (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction may not have been the ideal choice.
BFBS was the ideal preparation for the BBC, where the announcers lounge was just an eccentric version of an officers' mess. There was Roger Moffat, for example, who was rumoured to have royal blood in his veins. He once played a record "for a very distinguished lady in King Edward VII Hospital for Officers", wishing her a speedy recovery and adding that matron would appreciate it if she stopped polishing her coronet on the bed-sheets. One of the Queen Mother's Ladies-in-Waiting wrote to thank him on her behalf. Roger eventually brought about his own downfall by talking about a 'Gale Force 13', there is no such thing, and by commenting on a news item - which for an announcer is akin to a vicar giving out racing tips during the sermon.
The report on Harold Wilson's memoirs revealed how Wilson used to have a drink with Harold Macmillan - and remarked how impossible it would be to imagine anyone drinking with Ted Heath. Up pipes Roger at the end of the summary: "Pssst, if you're listening Ted, I'll come and have a drink with you any day!"
The current lot are no better. You may think that Charlotte Green sounds like an angel, but she's a merciless brute during our midnight sessions at the Craps table, thrashing us all to the strains of 'Sailing By'. And as for that Brian Perkins - he sounds like a perfect gentleman but I'm still waiting for him to return that packet of Hobnobs he filched from the coffee hub.
If Radio 4 comes over as sensible, decent and reliable that's down to us announcers: runners in a never-ending relay race, picking up the baton, doing our lap and handing it on. But believe me, it's a jungle out there. I still don't know how I survived this long.
The first time they nearly fired me was in 1976 when a wierd little filler was introduced to interrupt the early morning Today Programme and take the listener Up to the Hour. I introduced the first one: "Good-morning, this is Donald Peterson, to take you up to the hour, drive you out to work or send you round the dial to Radio 3 - no, don't bother, they're not on the air yet, try Radio 2. If you're going, have a good day, if you're staying you're very brave and welcome to Up to the Hour!" Controller Ian McIntyre was not amused.
The most memorable of many near dismissals was issued by Controller James Boyle who summoned me into his office to discuss my attitude to his new Radio 4 schedule. Apparently at a party the night before I'd been a bit sarcastic about some of the more absurd proposals - an hour for You and Yours? An afternoon of back-to-back chat shows? Non-stop Melvyn Bragg? At least, that's what I think I must have said. I honestly couldn't remember, as I'd been somewhat 'tired and emotional'. So I just looked blank and regretful, just like I always had in the headmaster's study at school, and miraculously I was reprieved.
Now, though, my number's up and it's the brand new Radio 4 Controller, Mark Damazer, who's finally succeeded in getting rid of me. Except all he had to do was discover when my birthday was. I'm about to be 60, so it's time for me to shut my fader, switch off the red light and perhaps start saying what I really think.