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I just heard on Radio Four a wonderful tribute to Peter Donaldson -- perfectly timed to lead up to the Six o'clock News. It was a tribute, but it was also a Masterclass in newsreading, diction, pacing, rhythm, tone, pronunciation, and scriptwriting.
Donaldson, after his retirement, went for a voiceover job, but failed to get it because he was "too BBC". At his retirement drink in the Yorkshire Grey, he raised his glass of wine to being "too BBC".
His talent was such that you didn't notice it. He spoke quickly, but his pronunciation was so clear that it didn't seem as if he did. He knew the art of the pause. He emphasized precisely the right words with exactly the right sense of pace. It was an unparalleled talent. He spoke, indeed, as most of us wish we could write, with that fantastic ability to vary the pace and tone and yet not to appear artificial.
It's a cliché, but one could quite easily have listened to him read from the telephone directory and feel that what was being said was incredibly interesting. As one of the commentators in the tribute said (the newsreaders were queueing up to say nice things about him) he had a voice that, even if the Apocalypse was being announced, if Donaldson was reading the news you would feel that it would all be okay really.

Donaldson's death was announced on the same day as that of Colin Welland and Tom Graveney, although Donaldson had the good sense to die at an hour that meant he made the Today programme on his own.

Graveney was a great cricketer to watch; I saw him play Test cricket a few times, including one game when he hit a century against the West Indies )when that collection of countries bred cricketers rather than wannabe basketball players) at which point, like many other 10-year olds, we ran onto the pitch to try to congratulate him. Like Donaldson. Graveney was a stylist in a way that made it all seem rather easy. Languid with a talent that was later echoed in the stroke play of David Gower. And, like Donaldson, he had his run-ins with the powers-that-be, which resulted in him having far fewer England caps than he deserved.

And finally we say goodbye to Colin Welland, a great screenwriter and a competent actor, while also being a bit of a "professional northerner".

With three Englishmen of note dying on the same day, I was reminded of Robin Day's reference to what it was like to grow old. Both Donaldson and Day loved their work, and for people like this, retirement is difficult. Sir Robin, as he later became, described his post-retirement life as like being in the Departure Lounge of a special airport, where the only destination is Death. You aren't quite sure when your plane is going to be called or what particular gate you will be departing from. So you kill time, a bit of reading, some eating, a bit of shopping. You can't leave the airport, and, anyway, you don't really have time to get anything serious done.

That "Departure Lounge For Death" is a tempting metaphor. In a sense we are all in it from the moment we are born. The difference is that the younger you are, the more planes there are going to other places in the meantime. As you get older, there are still planes to other places, but they tend to be short-haul. For me, there's not much point in training to be a watchmaker or a cabinet-maker, or anything that requires 20 years work before you become any good at it. But I am still "young" enough to take some short-haul flights - learning more history, possibly more languages, research, and doodling around in music without trying to be too serious. As the years go on, the number of short-haul flights gets smaller and smaller. And, in any case, catching any of them seems like too much of an effort. Eventually, the departures screen shows several planes, but just a single destination, and you sit quietly in Starbucks, sipping a latté, waiting for the tannoy to announce that your flight has been called.

I saw a couple of clips on You Tube yesterday of Fred Rogers, host of a US public network children's programme called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers appears not to have had a bad bone in his body. When he received his Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy in 1997, you got the feeling that the entire audience had grown up watching him on TV. But Fred Rogers would have no hope of getting such a magnificent educational programme (each edition's budget in the 1960s, $6,000) on the air today. Rogers would be too white, too middle class America, too male, and too insufficiently diverse.

Donaldson too had become a newsreader who would not be employed by the BBC today. Times have changed. But his influence remains. I confess that when Kathy Clugston began reading the news on Radio Four I was in despair, not least because there were instances when I wasn't sure what word she had just said. Thankfully she has tamed her Northern Irish accent (not completely, but sufficiently) for the more extreme NI varations in vowel usage to be brought back to (for me) comprehensibility.
It was this that Donaldson always emphasized. If someone who understands English can't understand what you are saying, it is your fault, not theirs. Asserting the benefits of diversity just won't cut it if the listener hasn't the faintest fucking idea what you are talking about. You can't put subtitles on the radio. Communication is about communicating, and knowing the right word is only about 10% of the battle. You need to understand phonetics, have some actor training (or, ath the very least, some voice coaching), and you need to speak to people other than those who grew up in the same street and went to the same school as you did.

August 2017

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