Johnny’s letter this week is to one of the greatest radio commentators of all time. That’ll be Peter Jones, then.
Why the love?
Peter commentated on football for the radio from 1966 to 1990. He was the BBC’s main man from the 1970 World Cup onwards and was set to be so again in 1990 had he not passed away. He was ever-present as English teams bestrode the European game until they were banned after the awful events of Heysel, which he witnessed. He described victories for English clubs in the European Cup finals of 1968, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1984. It happened so often that, as kids, we totally took it for granted.
His was the voice so many of us heard crackling from distant lands on Radio 2 medium wave, as familiar domestic players put one lot of Johnny Foreigners after another to the sword night after night.
He was also present during football’s darkest day of hooliganism in the 80s.
I’m afraid we must get to the hardcore emotional stuff right away. Peter was on mic duty at Hillsborough. He (and it is often forgotten, Alan Green) broadcasted live as it unfolded, much of which has been archived online if you ever need to hear a man describing death happening before his eyes with a calm dignity, with a clarity and strength of voice, with decency and humanity. I’ll leave you to find it.
Later, still in the stadium, after it was all over, he had to provide his summary of the day’s horrific events. And despite the fact Peter had a wonderfully consistent career and had done so much noble work for so long, it was for this that he will be forever known. He probably knew it too. He must have known his was one of the voices that would be heard time and again as history replayed this most heinous of days. But he is firm and unwavering, despite, we later learned, being torn to shreds inside.
Now, it’s only fair that I give you trigger warning at this point. In documenting Peter’s legacy, I have to put in a link to an example of his eloquence. It is short, and yet it is very upsetting. And I do mean very. So if you’re not feeling strong and don’t need any more upset in your life right now, please don’t play this.
I’m not ashamed to say I have struggled to even write this between many tears as I listen to it one more time and God knows, I’ve heard it many times now. When it happened, because I love radio football, I was listening to it live. And yet even now it feels like the first time, every time. It has lost none of its power to tear the tears from your eyes. That is the power of a great communicator: they can move your soul and make you understand.
This is not just touching and not just moving; it listens and reads like war poetry. The way he refers to the “green Yorkshire hills”, the rise and fall of his lovely velvet voice, the way he repeats “…of Liverpool” three times and then the final line “…and the sun shines now” all evokes the great war poet Wilfred Owen in how it contrasts the detail of the bloody horror which has been witnessed, with the ongoing, everlasting, timeless beauty of nature which plays out, regardless of human tragedy.
His voice had a headmaster-ish quality to it. Crisp and authoritative, he was brilliant at saying a lot by not saying very much. Even in moments of high excitement, he always maintained his cool, his voice, if anything, attaining even more authority. While describing hooliganism, he would speak with the voice of a disappointed, bewildered father, unable to comprehend why these people were behaving in this stupid way.
He had a kind of elevated calm to him, Even when Arsenal won the 1979 Cup final with an 89th-minute strike, after Manchester United had been 2-0 behind with five minutes to go, only to draw level, then lose to Alan Sunderland’s goal, Peter’s simple words captured the astonishment: “And I do not believe it. I swear I do not believe it.”
But he was never dry. He had a great sense of the dramatic. He used repetition to great effect. And he could make a definitive statement.
Very distinctively he would dip and flatten his voice at the end of a sentence after something dramatic had happened and it gave a cadence to his voice which meant that, even if you hadn’t quite made out his words, and on medium wave live from East Germany in 1975, you often couldn’t, you sort of still knew what had happened, in the same way that you knew if it was a home, away win or a draw by the intonation of James Alexander Gordon’s voice.
He had a firm, poetic, almost operatic flourish at moment of high dudgeons and a “they’ve scored a goal” tone of voice which would override the wow and flutter of the night-time static that was a part of all our lives.
It was a time where you had to sit by the radio and keep turning it, as the signal dipped in and out, to try and pick it up again. While today’s sound quality is fantastic, as odd as it sounds, the organic sound of medium wave was warm and comforting. It made you feel like the game was happening somewhere out there in the black velvet night, a thousand miles away in somewhere unimaginably different and foreign. The world is much smaller now, and that feeling is probably impossible to revisit, but thousands of us kids loved to be in our bedrooms, sitting on the bed, holding the radio so we could keep moving it around, literally feeling the vibrations of the commentary as Peter painted pictures of the game for us. It was almost impossibly romantic and it was genuinely mind-expanding. My love of radio stems directly from those days. It made your mind work to conjure the pictures and above all else, it seemed to be broadcast for you and you alone. It was deeply personal and private.
If you want to know what those days were like, listen to all of this with Peter and Alan Parry. Listen to how he sums up Phil Neale’s penalty at the end. “And Rome belongs to the Mersey.” It was this instinctive poetic quality which we so loved him for.
Until I wrote this I had absolutely no idea what he looked like but I always imagined that he did the job in a jacket and tie. And now that I know, he doesn’t look like how I imagined but I still think I was right. Jacket and tie. Crisp shirt. But he lived in a day when it mattered not one jot what you looked like. When there was little or no media profile for a radio commentator and all that was required of you was to turn up and do the job. More simple days. He had that pre-war, carbolic soap, cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness element to him. Born in 1930, living through the war as a youngster gave that generation a tremendous perspective on what was and wasn’t important in life.
What the people say
Obviously, you need to be over 40 to remember Peter and that limited the volume of responses on social media but those who got in touch all fondly remembered their relationship with radio football back in the day, as he talked his way through the formative years of our young lives. Many clearly had their love of radio forged by Peter and others, in those long-gone medium wave nights.
‘At a time of little TV football, Jones painted the picture for a fan reliant on radio. In the ’80s his voice often the calm amid the storm.’
‘When I analyse it, I think he is the reason I still prefer radio commentary to television. I tried to imagine everything he described.’
‘Brilliant choice. The voice of football of my youth. Never ever matched, the best.’
‘…gave an absolute masterclass in conveying the horrors of Hillsboro. Sensitive, authoritative and incredibly articulate. First rate.’
‘On those cold winter midweek European nights his far-off crackly voice on medium wave brought unheard of places into my bedroom. Legend.’
‘As a young boy I was convinced that hardly anyone else would bother trying to pick up such poor reception. It was just him and me.’
‘Peter Jones seemed to anticipate the unfolding action: “And Dalglish will find Rush……and Rush will score !”‘
‘I also felt, as a boy listening to his coverage of Scotland’s 78 qualifying campaign, that of all English commentators he loved us the most.’
‘I remember as a kid, he was the voice that did the football on radio 2 mw long before 5live was dreamt up. I can still hear his voice and “the sun shines now” is without doubt the most chilling yet poetic way to end his Hillsborough report. It will never leave me.’
‘The word “doyen” was invented for him.’
‘Jones was, undoubtedly, a master. It’s not just the beautiful tone and pitch but the delivery. Iconic.’
‘Radio commentators were the absolute masters of their arts.’
‘I’m too young to remember him but a wonderful commentator. I think he basically “invented the goal clip” – the art of doing the goal, then then summing it up and ending on the score – the perfect clip for headlines or the end of the show. Had not been done before apparently but I might be wrong – like so many simple but effective bits of football commentary, it seems obvious to us now!’
‘THE voice of football for me growing up. Authoritative yet poetic. Summing up from Hillsboro post-disaster still brings a tear to the eye.’
‘Though obvious to say this, Hillsborough reportage a monumental standalone in radio commentary. Measured, respectful, honest and poignant.’
‘His perfect but completely classless diction and economic but vivid use of English marks him out as John Arlott’s equal.’
‘He also commentated on the wedding of Charles and Di, bizarrely alongside Lorraine Chase as his co-commentator.’
‘A voice from another age. Simply the best. He died commenting on the 1990 Boat Race, which I can vividly remember listening to.’
‘Fondly remember listening to him alongside Bryon Butler & Maurice Edelston on my first radio as a young boy. Golden era for radio commentary.’
‘Listening to him describe another Bryan Robson goal against a “crack” Eastern European outfit was like listening to milk being warmed up.’
‘The perfect voice for radio. His sign off after Hillsborough is legendary (see YT) and an amazing piece of broadcasting.’
‘His words on April 15th 1989 are still heartbreakingly beautiful. So respectfully understated. “And the sun shines now.”‘
‘Too young to have heard him regularly. Yet his Hillsborough ‘sun shines now’ eulogy was delivered with profound class, dignity and feeling.’
‘The crackly European commentaries. Why football should always be on medium wave, DAB too crisp – bizarrely nostalgic.’
‘As Cliff Morgan eloquently puts in this eulogy to him: “he had both the feel and the facts”.’
‘Play the heartbreakingly brilliant Hillsborough report of course but there was so much more to his career than that.’
‘Hillsborough. As tough a job as one can imagine for a broadcaster and (at least as far as history shows) he got it exactly right.’
‘Beautiful Welsh lyricism, voice clear but suffused with emotion, for me he was the greatest. His final Hillsborough piece was pitch perfect.’
‘The voice of football for me in my teenage years. Authoritative, warm, informative. One of the best.’
‘Quite simply he was THE voice of football.’
‘He made me cry over his Hillsborough reporting, and still does when I hear it replayed.’
‘I associate him with Liverpool’s dominance in Europe; remember listening to him (& Ron Jones) on crackly MW from somewhere in eastern Europe.’
‘Melliflous delivery, accuracy and summation, never hyped but always a sense of perspective, a clear joy for the game.’
‘Wednesday evening companion on many a European night. Drew pictures with his voice and elevated football into the sphere of art it belongs.’
At the young age of just 60, Peter died in the saddle, commentating on the Boat Race. Many have said he had been profoundly affected by what he witnessed at Hillsborough, which is understandable.
We are living in a golden age of radio football commentary with many, many wonderful and distinctive performers, from John Murray to Ian Dennis, Conor McNamara, Darren Fletcher and so many more, but I’m sure all of them would acknowledge the influence of and greatness of Peter Jones. Murray got in touch to say this about Peter:
“I’m not sure there’s ever been a better radio sports broadcaster. He combined a brilliant ability to paint pictures with a wonderful turn of phrase combined with a touch of the theatrical.
“Sadly, I never had the chance to meet him but am told he was rarely seen without a novel in his hand and could charm the birds off the trees.
“Very much one of the last of the Golden Age of radio broadcasters.”
The fact that when one searches for his name now, all that comes up is the bloke off Dragons Den, makes the heart sink for the victory of mammon’s ego over modest soul. But for some of us, there’ll only ever be one Peter Jones.
I will leave you with this rare glimpse of the great man in action on the 40th anniversary of Sports Report. And as a bonus, you get a little bit of the great Des and James Alexander Gordon. I’m sure, if you’re of a certain age, it will leave you with the feeling that these were glory days and lord knows where the time has gone between then and now.