Peter Sledmere has worked for RNZ for almost 50 years in many guises - from commercial DJ to newsreader to Morning Report presenter, to Concert announcer. This week Peter is In the Spotlight to share some highlights of his long career which, as well as broadcasting, include incarnations as William Hobson and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a scooter-riding 'Mod' and a naked rugby player. And it all began when he ran away to sea...
You have an interesting background prior to working at RNZ that involves running away to sea. Can you tell us more about that?
Ever since I was about eight growing up in London (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), I wanted to be a captain of a ship and travel the world. I kept that romantic notion right up to the moment I joined my first ship, at the age of 16. Then I realised that there was not a lot of romance about Glasgow in January in 1960 – cold, wet, dirty – nor about the ancient rust bucket of a ship I was to be an apprentice on for the next few months. But I was signed on for four years to the Shaw, Savill & Albion shipping company, so I had to make the best of it. And of course, a lot of it was actually pretty good; I got to travel the world to some extent, but mostly to New Zealand and Australia – nothing wrong with that. When I passed my Second Mate’s ticket, I decided I’d had my fill of the seafaring life, and tried various drudge jobs in UK. Then I reckoned I’d have much more fun in New Zealand, where I had made a few friends, and where I had always felt at home, so I came here to live in 1967.
When did you first start working for RNZ?
I’d been in New Zealand for a few months, about mid-1967, working in an office, when I heard an ad on 1ZB saying the NZBC needed announcers: “apply to your nearest radio station for an audition”. So I did, and was taken into the Announcers’ Training School in November. I passed muster, and joined 2ZG in Gisborne as a commercial radio announcer on 6th January, 1968.
Since then, you’ve worked for RNZ in many roles and seen many changes. Can you tell us some of the different things you’ve done?
I’ve done pretty-well all the things that NZBC Announcers were expected to do, forty and more years ago: pop music DJ on commercial stations, news reader on commercial and National radio – including a couple of years as co-presenter of Morning Report – television presentation on CHTV3 and later TV1, plus of course, Concert presentation.
You’ve also been known to tread the boards as a professional actor in theatre, film and television? Can you tell us some of the productions you’ve been involved in?
One role I’m very proud of was Governor Hobson at the Re-enactment of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the actual Treaty Ground at Waitangi, on 6th February 1990– as part of the official celebrations of the Sesquicentennial, of fond memory. The Queen was there, but not until after our performance, in keeping with the idea that sovereignty had to be conceded first.
My first professional role was as Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Court Theatre in Christchurch (about 1971), where I also played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. I appeared in several plays at Circa Theatre in Wellington, most notably Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament (1981), which caused a stir because of the nudity in the first act – Patricia Bartlett complained to the police about it, but the Governor-General (Sir David Beattie) came to see it. I have also played Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the founder of Wellington, in two separate TV productions.
Now we want names… names... Can you drop some of the bigger names you’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years?
What, you mean, bigger than mine? Seriously, though, colleagues have included Sharon Crosbie, Paul Holmes and Judy Morrison (later Judy Bailey) in Christchurch, before they were famous. I have had the pleasure of interviewing a huge number of famous people over the years, and I always found very eminent artists, musicians in particular, to be very co-operative interview subjects, modest and forthcoming and helpful for the most part. One particular pianist was the exact opposite, but he is no longer with us, so de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, as the Romans so pithily put it. Actual names of memorable interviewees: Pierre Fournier; Ralph Richardson; Lynn Harrell; Russell Garcia (the man who did arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; he came to live in NZ); Don McLean, who wrote 'American Pie'… and on, but memory fails. But my favourite has to be Harry Secombe. I did a whole hour on 3ZB with him in the early 70s, and he was just amazing; a ball of energy, endlessly obliging, and side-splittingly funny the whole time.
What is one of your single most enjoyable moments in broadcasting? (This could be an achievement, a good working relationship or simply a moment when you got to laugh at someone else’s misfortune)
Here’s something that I’m very proud of: There was a writer called George Theobald - an inveterate traveller, usually on his own, which is remarkable because he has cerebral palsy. It affects the body, but not the brain, and he’s an excellent writer, especially about travel. RNZ National wanted to record some of his stories, but his voice is quite badly affected, so wasn’t suitable for broadcasting. When he was asked whose voice he would like on the recordings, he said mine was the voice he heard in his head, the one he wished was his. The best compliment I’ve ever had, by a country mile.
You will be presenting the NZSO’s 70th birthday concert (Monday night at 7) what do you love (or loathe) about outside broadcasts?
It’s wonderful to be there on the spot, and the excitement of “live” radio, where you have no control over what happens, is always a thrill – anything can go wrong and you have to be well-prepared with lots of stuff to talk about if the piano falls off the stage. And it’s great to be paid to be at a concert, without having to make music myself. I’m very honoured to be presenting the NZSO’s 70th birthday concert, I’m really looking forward to it. What I don’t enjoy so much is having to be in the soundproof box, up, up among the bats and cobwebs, just below the roof of the Michael Fowler Centre and to have to listen on the headphones to the performance. There’s something about the actual atmosphere of the concert-hall that can’t be reproduced on radio, even by the technical geniuses who work for RNZ.
Any great NZSO memories you care to share? Any stand-out concerts?
My very first OB in Christchurch, back in the early seventies, which was attended by the Shah of Iran, on a state visit to New Zealand. I can’t remember the music, or much, except the utter glamour that surrounded the Royal One and his Utterly Regal Wife. And the nerves I had about my first live OB.
Live radio often throws us the unexpected? Can you remember a situation or event that took you by surprise (a significant on-air disaster that you can laugh about now??)
Oh, look, I can remember heaps of moments of my own making that make me squirm years - decades, even - later, and I’d rather not recall them in public. When I first started presenting on Concert, I was a complete classical music novice, brought up almost entirely on pop music, and I must have made so many howlers on air that I wasn’t even aware of. And I still can’t laugh about them now.
Who did I hear last? Impossible to pick one favourite, but Bach always has something to say to me; I love Dvorak for his melodies, Shostakovich for drama, and Mozart because, well he’s Mozart. And I’m a big fan of Paul Simon - and his sister, Carly.
Favourite place in the world?
Todi in Umbria. So far, that is – I haven’t seen it all yet. (The world, I mean)
Most recent trip abroad?
Cuba and Peru – Machu Picchu is astounding. Cuba’s neat, too. If you want more on that, I’ll be here for a week.
Tea or coffee drinker? Or both?
Coffee in the morning, tea the rest of the time. Among other beverages…
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel, I suppose. I love to wander, but it costs so much, so it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Also, I’m very vain for an old man, so I like to splash out occasionally on clothes, especially shirts. Memories of my London days as a scooter-riding Mod, I guess. But I’m also quite close with money, so I don’t really have a very extensive wardrobe. (You: “Huh?”)
When not behind the microphone, what are you usually doing?
I’m a member of a group that gives guided tours of Wellington to tourists, so I’m walking and talking in the “coolest little capital in the world” (Lonely Planet) once a week; I’m doing Spanish at evening classes; I swim 1500 metres three times a week; and I belong to calligraphy group at the local Arts Centre. And I like television.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Easy – the ability to sing. Or fly. The second no less impossible than the first.
Who are your favourite writers?
See “Composers” – who did I read last? But Vikram Seth, Alan Bennett, and Hilary Mantel will always get me opening their books. Maurice Gee, and Fiona Kidman are my favourite NZ authors. Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand is my major source for researching history for the tourist walks.
What is the best thing about working for RNZ Concert these days?
It’s the fabulous people I work with, the lovely audience, and of course, the great and everlasting resource that is classical music.