PHILIP BARKER pays tribute to the late BBC commentator Peter Jones, who died when covering the University Boat Race 20 years ago this weekend
The past 12 months has witnessed a record number of journalists around the world dying while doing their jobs. Mercifully, though, the death of a sports reporter in action is a very rare thing. But 20 years ago this very weekend, Boat Race Day was struck with tragedy when the BBC Radio commentator, Peter Jones, collapsed and died.
The 1990 race had fallen on an unusually warm spring day. Jones, as was usual, was on the commentary launch with Robert Treharne Jones and Dan Topolski. Jones was 60, and was expected again to lead the BBC radio commentaries at that summer’s World Cup for the new Radio 5.
Sports broadcasting has changed almost beyond recognition in the last two decades, but for some Peter Jones, regarded as “the master commentator” has never truly been replaced. When, last year, the Daily Mail selected their top 10 sports commentators, Jones was the only radio man in the top five and only Peter Alliss, David Coleman, Bill McClaren and Richie Benaud were ahead of him.
In his heyday, the Radio Sports Unit was arguably the finest sports news operation in the land. It boasted such luminaries as Jim Rosenthal, Des Lynam, Alan Parry, Bryon Butler and John Arlott. And Jones.
Jones’s commentaries had a great sense of drama. “The best seat in the house signifies, among other things, theatre and that sums it up for me,” Jones said.
He occupied the aforementioned best seat for every FA Cup final from 1968 to 1989 and he only missed the 1982 replay because he was on duty for the Papal visit. His voice was always described as “mellifluous” and when he was paired, rather incongruously, with Lorraine Chase to commentate on a Royal Wedding, his skill somehow made it work.
A Welshman who became a schoolmaster after Cambridge, it was thanks to a chance meeting with senior BBC radio commentator Maurice Edelston that Jones drifted into radio, where his sense of style was such that he presented the 40th anniversary edition of Sports Report in dinner jacket, just as the old time radio announcers would have done.
Jones’s commentaries from the opening ceremony of the Olympics have never been bettered, and his brilliance was such that he could bring swimming to life on the radio, where he formed a memorable duo with Anita Lonsbrough.
The first time listeners heard him at the World Cup was in 1966 covering the North Koreans. By the time the 1970 World Cup came around, he was an established part of the BBC commentary team alongside Edelston. Jones manfully kept going in the semi-final between Italy and West Germany during the never-to-be-forgotten extra-time period, when the Italians prevailed 4-3, even after an Italian fan had grabbed the co-commentators microphone.
His own elegant description of the final which followed was typical of the man. “Brazil spun rainbows that day.”
Jones’s description of Ricardo Villa’s wonder goal for Tottenham to win the 1981 Cup final replay was beautifully measured and drew on his memories from three years earlier, at the World Cup in Argentina.
“I’ve seen Villa being acclaimed in Argentina,” Jones said. “I’ve seen the blue and white confetti coming down in Buenos Aires. I have never seen such acclamation for the Argentine Villa… as that moment.”
A decent amateur himself, he wasn’t a bad judge of a player. At Hampden when Argentina beat Scotland in 1979, he described a fabulous goal by the visiting team’s No10 concluding, “This boy Maradona is a star.”
For most of his time at the microphone, coverage of live matches was restricted to radio. Football League rules allowed only second-half commentary and it was forbidden to reveal the location of the day’s featured match until after kick off. As the senior commentator, Jones invariably took the last 22 and a half minutes.
It was two despatches from scenes of tragedy which underlined Jones’s journalistic credentials. He was in the commentary box at the Heysel disaster in 1985 and at Hillsborough four years later. On both occasions he found the right words when finding any at all was difficult.
When he died, then BBC radio boss David Hatch said that Jones “could make a poor match bearable, and a good match almost unbearable”.
More recently, former colleague John Rawling has said, “Peter was an old school charmer and an inspirational colleague for all aspiring broadcasters such as I was when I joined BBC Radio Sport in 1984. In my opinion, nobody before or since has ever broadcast with greater descriptive brilliance that Peter did on the day of the Hillsborough disaster. He was absolutely exceptional, and is still missed 20 years after his death.”
And 20 years on, they’ve yet to find another commentator quite like Peter Jones.
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