The Heartbreak Kid
Peter Jones was a broadcasting icon who had the knack of being in the right place with his mastery of words. I remember a man whose life was cruelly cut short.
Peter Jones had been here before. As he described on BBC Radio 2 the mayhem unfolding at Hillsborough, Sheffield during the FA Cup football semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, in which 97 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on 15 April 1989, he reflected on another tragedy he’d experienced firsthand four years earlier at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
“I don’t necessarily want to reflect on Heysel, but I was there that night broadcasting with Emlyn Hughes (ex-Liverpool player) and he was sitting behind me this afternoon. And after half an hour of watching stretchers going out, and oxygen cylinders being brought in and ambulance sirens screaming, he touched me on the shoulder and he said ‘I can’t take it anymore’ and Emlyn Hughes left.”
Due to overcrowding in the central pens at the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough football ground, 97 Liverpool fans died and hundreds were injured. It was the worst tragedy in British sports history. For those who lost loved ones on the sundrenched Yorkshire terraces, the tragedy remains unimaginable. Today I’ll explore the lasting impact of Peter Jones’ pitch perfect broadcasting career.
Setting The Standard At the Heysel stadium in Brussels in 1985, rioting by Liverpool supporters led to 39 Italian and Belgian deaths in a decaying tomb of a stadium. Peter Jones summed up the horror of the occasion, reflecting: “Who would have thought this match would have been edged with black, the black of death.”
He was exemplary in his dispatches from Heysel and Hillsborough. He never resorted to platitudes such as ‘‘thoughts and prayers’, which we might be accustomed to today. He spoke from the heart and drew upon all his experience broadcasting on major sporting and state occasions. In his calm, restrained manner Peter Jones described only what he could see, with a dollop of light and shade as he called it. He used sensitive words to steer listeners through the unfolding tragedies.
Of Hillsborough he said: “Some of the people at the back (of the terrace) through sheer fear are trying to make their way to the upper deck. They’ve been ripping up some advertising boards (on the pitch) because they’ve run out of stretchers. A nurse has for the last ten minutes been giving a kiss of life to one young fan. Looks like a battlefield more than anything else. We hoped to be describing a classic (football match). It’s far from it. It looks very serious.”
John Inverdale, presenting Sports Report on BBC Radio the afternoon of Hillsborough, recalled Peter Jones’ contribution: “Now and then I media train students and I play them Peter’s pieces. I tell them that’s the standard they should be aiming for. Peter was remarkable at Hillsborough.”
Jones was part of a BBC team at Hillsborough consisting of Pat Murphy, Jimmy Armfield and Alan Green, that stayed on the air that afternoon broadcasting through the end of Sports Report up to six o’clock. The reporting and eyewitness accounts were first rate but in truth they all saw too much.
For 25 Years His Was The Word
Born in Swansea, Wales, and educated in Cambridge, Peter Jones worked first as a teacher before moving to the BBC at 35.
As an all round broadcaster, he was untouched. Simplicity and clarity were at his fingertips, befitting the lover of great literature that he was. He had the ability to make you feel like you were sitting alongside him at a World Cup final or witnessing the Household Cavalry glide past. As his dear friend and BBC colleague Cliff Morgan said:“For 25 years his was the word. He had the feel as well as the facts.” Another giant of BBC Sport Des Lynam described Jones as the best radio broadcaster of his time.
His colleague Mike Ingham came up with the nickname The Heartbreak Kid after seeing Peter Jones cry tears of joy describing lines from the film with the same name. In truth, his nickname applied as much to some of the harrowing sporting scenes he commentated on, as much as his favorite film featuring Cybill Shepherd.
The Welshman in him loved repetition of words. One magic was never enough when something superlative warranted saying it three times. And he loved to anticipate the unfolding action and bring his audience to the bench beside him as these examples show:
“And Daglish will find Rush…and Rush will score!”
“And (Olympic gold swimmer) David Wilkie touches….now.”
“What a goal. Anyone who loves football will have loved that. This man Maradona is a STAR.”
On the BBC broadcast of the 1981 Royal Wedding, he was paired with the actress Lorraine Chase, an Eastender. It was an unlikely fit, but Jones made it work. Chase is fondly remembered for one particular on-air line. Upon sighting the Household Cavalry in all their regalia she blurted out: “‘ERE, LOOK AT THEM GEYSERS IN RED!”
Peter Jones after Neville Southall made another superb save at the 1989 FA Cup Final: “Oh, Jim. What about this goalkeeper?” Jimmy Armfield: “Not bad for a Welshmen, Peter.”
Peter Jones died doing what he did best at the age of 60, broadcasting from a BBC launch boat on the River Thames on the scene of the 1990 University Boat Race, featuring a young Matthew Pinsent. Devastatingly, he collapsed on the BBC launch boat and never regained consciousness. It was a black day for everyone associated with BBC Sport. According to his son, Stuart Jones, he never recovered from the heartbreak of Hillsborough and was unable to sleep properly after it. The scars of two tragedies, just as they did for Emlyn Hughes, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish and countless others ran deep.
After his death, the UK underwent a broadcasting revolution with the advent of Sky Sports and BBC Radio 5. To a large extent, the era of restraint and understatement was replaced by one featuring more airtime for sport and increasingly 24-hour driven. Friends and colleagues maintain Jones would have adapted and been an integral part of it.
And Nothing Else Out There on The Enclosure As a child, my father introduced me to BBC Radio and it became a formative part of my life. Mike Ingham and Alan Green dominated the airwaves in my bedroom while I was in primary school. While I’m a bit young to have listened to Peter Jones live, I do vividly remember where I was on the day of Hillsborough.
I spent that sunny Saturday afternoon as a six year old on the sparsely attended terraces in Lansdowne Road, Dublin at a rugby match involving my local club Skerries. I remember the silence in my parents car driving home as the updates from Hillsborough came in over the radio - just as they did for millions of people that afternoon - and as we drove past Whitehall Church on the M1 motorway I broke down in tears.
In his final BBC Radio 2 dispatch from Hillsborough, which will go down in radio broadcasting history, Peter Jones simply did his job and captured the enormity of the tragedy with compassion:
“Two items I think of just as I sit here in the sunshine that still remind me of Heysel.
The gymnasium here, at Hillsborough, is being used as a mortuary for the dead, And at this moment stewards have got little paper bags, And they're gathering up the personal belongings of the spectators.
Some of whom died, some of whom are now seriously injured in nearby hospitals.
And there are red and white scarves of Liverpool, And red and white bobble hats of Liverpool, And red and white rosettes of Liverpool, And nothing else out there on the enclosure where all the deaths occurred. And the sun shines now.”