Peter Jones

BBC Radio and BBC World Service football commentator

Words on Voices: The Eulogy That No Commentator Wants to Give - Peter Jones and the Hillsborough Tragedy

Radio doesn’t sound the way it used to.  Anyone who grew up listening to BBC medium-wave will remember the incessant crackling, the sensation of being underwater, and the patient battling with the dial to find that exact sweet spot where you could suddenly hear the football.  What a glorious feeling it was to finally find half a minute of perfect signal, a signal that would inevitably vanish a few seconds before your team scored.  In today's digital age, radio sounds perfect, as though someone is sitting in the same room as you.  Everyone and everything sounds crystal clear, to the extent that the quality of the voice of the broadcaster almost doesn’t matter anymore.

Just to be clear, I’m 38, and I’m not describing a pre-TV world of handlebar-moustached footballers with names like V.R. Waugh and Bertie Makepeace.  This is what radio sounded like until twenty years ago.  And in the United Kingdom the undisputed king of medium-wave was Peter Jones.  The listeners’ choice from 1966 until 1990, the Welsh broadcaster understood how to master the airwaves like no other.  Jones’ main trick was a simple one – he knew a lot of words.  If that sounds facetious, it isn’t meant to be; sports commentators often only have a lexicon drawn from the sporting world.  That can be easy enough to spot on television, but on radio it’s like a firework in the night sky; phrases are frequently recycled and it’s hard to tell two commentators apart.  Peter Jones was different; a graduate of Modern Languages from Queen’s College, Cambridge, he had spent many years as a teacher before picking up a microphone and was frequently seen with a novel stuffed in the pocket of his coat.  His vocabulary was built by expressing himself clearly to young people, meaning that Jones could find his way through a sentence without using a single word more than necessary.  Peter Jones’ choice of language was certainly part of his greatness, but it was complemented by the quality of his voice; a crisp and lyrical thing that could flit between oboe and sledgehammer depending on the action in front of him.  As the clip below proves, Jones was audible regardless of the quality of signal:

Clarity Amidst Crackling: Peter Jones at the 1977 European Cup Final 

For a true in-depth analysis, listen to Jack Zorab’s Kitchen Island Commentators, where fellow commentator Peter Drury deconstructs Jones’ craft at length.  However, it’s for his handling of one moment – one devastating, tragic moment – that Jones will best be remembered.

 

On April 15th 1989, 94 people were crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium ahead of the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.  The number would eventually rise to 96; it remains the worst disaster in the history of British sport.  Four years earlier, the BBC veteran had been at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium, where 39 lost their lives; the memory of this was clearly in his mind as he attempted to put words to that spring day in Sheffield.  Faced with having to summarise the inconceivable loss of life that he had just witnessed, Peter Jones found words that elevated him from sports commentator to statesman. He told the truth without euphemism, but he did not give way to sentimentality; there were no ‘thoughts and prayers’, only accurate – and impartial – description.  

Clarity Amidst Crackling: Peter Jones at the 1977 European Cup Final 

Many who knew Peter Jones say that he was never the same after witnessing Hillsborough, and less than a year later he died, collapsing with microphone in hand at the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, aged just 60.  The families of the 96 would continue to battle for their own justice and closure, during which time those words of Peter Jones would be replayed again and again; a voice to be trusted, telling a story – like every story he told – that was crystal clear.

© 2018 by Bennett Media

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