Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
26 April 2016
When I attempt to write a tribute about the late New Zealand broadcaster Peter Sellers it is very hard to know where and how to start. Firstly, anyone who is reading this who lives offshore from New Zealand might be saying now, ‘wasn’t Peter Sellers that very funny and talented British actor/comedian of the 1960s? Didn’t he die in 1980?’
Well yes there was that Peter Sellers, but I am writing here about the New Zealander with the same Christian and surnames; the Dunedin-based but always Wellington and New Zealand sports supporter Peter (‘PHJ’) Sellers, the wonderful, eccentric, unique Kiwi sports broadcasting character who died last weekend (April 22, 2016) aged 94.
What a privilege it was for his closest friends who were his mates to the end to have known him so well for so long. And for tens of thousands of other New Zealanders too, via them listening to his radio work.
I first met Peter back in about 1967, so let me start with some facts about him and I’ll see where this goes.
Peter was born in Wellington in June 1921; he was an only child; he lived his early years in Lyall Bay until he went overseas (to Australia that is) as a young man in the late-1940s. He returned to New Zealand in about 1950.
Peter never married so essentially he lived on his own for many years.
But never let it be said he was without company in his life. Peter had a zillion male friends to talk sport and music with and he also had many, many female friends. In fact when a group of us helped him shift not so long ago from his Dunedin apartment to a Retirement Village I retrieved a large envelope stuffed with pictures of Peter at dances and dinner parties with his arms around a number of fine looking young women.
He had, I would venture, a number of serious love affairs, some of them tragic according to his version of them. (A quote of Peter’s to me one time went something like this; ‘Gee Keith, I seem to have had a lot of Margaret’s in my life!’)
Peter went to Rongotai College in Wellington (as a founder member of the school in the early 1930s) and he never forgot that; he loyally wore his school badge on his jacket lapel pretty well every day thereafter.
He never learned to drive and he had a deep fear of flying. He also hated those who dared to work in any ‘Head Office’ situation. He generally loathed any of NZ Broadcasting’s people in authority. He had words of derision that he alone used a lot. If Peter said someone was ‘starchy’ or a ‘clown’ or even a 'fool' then that signalled that he had no time for that person or for what that person stood for.
But let’s also forget all that for the moment; for those of us who understood his uniqueness he was a wonderful and faithful friend.
Peter lived every day of his life for all the sports and games he could cram into talking and thinking about them over each 24 hours. Sports became the driving force of his whole being. Some sports more than others. He loved rugby, rugby league, cricket and boxing. Horse-racing and motor sport not so much.
Peter had a vast and extraordinary memory for people, faces, scores and scorers. Quite the best of all time I would say. I would have matched him against anyone.
It was staggering to be in his company and to marvel at the matter-of-fact way he could introduce to a conversation a memory-retrieval from a century ago - or one from last weekend.
Indeed, just a week before he died the sports-writer Joseph Romanos, one of five mates who were closest to Peter and who he eventually named to look after his legal affairs, went from Wellington to visit him in the Dunedin rest home where he lived. In an attempt to prolong a conversation with the fast-fading Peter, Joseph said to him, ‘I’ve been reading lately about the 1948 Australian cricket team which toured England; do you remember them?’ Peter then reeled off all the names of the whole of Sir Donald Bradman’s touring squad.
No problems with his memory right to the end.
The same thing had happened when I flew down from Wellington in what turned out to be my final visit with him. It was after my flight home from Vancouver from the World Sevens rugby tournament there. But he was understandably hardly intrigued in my news of that ‘modern’ sports event. But then I showed him a photo I had found at home of the Springbok captain Danie Craven and the All Black Jack Sullivan diving together for a loose ball in a test match in the 1937 rugby season in New Zealand. Peter looked at the photo briefly and then looking up he handed it back to me.
‘Why did they move Sullivan to the wing for that final test Keith?’ he said.
As a self-appointed authority about old rugby stories I immediately thought such a switch of playing positions had not ever happened in Jack Sullivan’s playing career. He had always been a centre three-quarter. I thought perhaps Peter had finally ‘lost it.’
But later, at the airport about to fly home, on checking with ‘Mr Google’ on my laptop it was Peter who was proved correct. Sullivan had been shifted. He had instantly recalled the change from 59 years earlier.
And I was shamefacedly wrong.
Another time I rang him to wish Peter well. It was on the occasion of his 88th birthday. Our conversation ended with me saying something like ‘well, Peter, 88 is a good innings; I suppose you know someone who made that score in a cricket test?’
Down the phone Peter was slightly dismissive of my attempt at birthday humour.
‘No, no,’ he said, before adding,’ ‘unless it was Stan McCabe in the 1st test at Nottingham in 1934.’ And he then nicely hung up.
Well, you will have guessed by now the end of this story; the record books of the Ashes in that year show ‘Stan McCabe; caught Hammond bowled Farnes 88’ – exactly as Peter recorded it in his astonishing memory.
There are many other stories like those ones.
In the clean-up of his apartment we also found thousands of newspaper clippings and letters from every event he had thought about or watched over the years. Boxes and boxes of them neatly stacked; headlines from the past mixed with full stories which probably no one these days would be interested in.
But Peter Sellers always was. He read and re-read them over the years, as he did with his other loves; his hundreds of books on American jazz, Hollywood films (in the genre’s golden years), and heavyweight boxing (until it got too complicated for him in recent times).
Among the many gems I found in the apartment; There is one full-sized newspaper banner from the Auckland Star newspaper from 1945, which simply contains two words ‘HITLER DEAD!’ Peter also kept hundreds of programmes from All Black test matches dating back to 1905 (they were all numbered in order in pencil); there were also stories, books and clippings about his all time hero, the Aussie cricket star Sir Donald Bradman; there are personal letters to him from the boxing greats, people like Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney and there’s a much-prized studio photograph of the English actor Peter Sellers with the hand-written caption ‘To Peter Sellers, With All Good Wishes from Peter Sellers, London, November 1950.’
That last letter actually pre-dates Peter’s arrival into radio broadcasting in New Zealand which was in January 1952. He stayed in the job until his retirement in 1986.
Peter was not a sports commentator as such. He was mostly a ‘ ‘Storian’ ‘ (which I think is a great word. It was invented by Peter FitzSimons to describe someone who could recall a story, research it, get it factually correct and then put it out onto the air delivered in the manner of utmost authority and colour.)
New Zealand’s Peter was also an in-depth interviewer of any sports personality who passed through town. His interviews in their time were hugely enjoyed by the public and he gained a very solid reputation and public following. You must remember radio was ‘King’ in the 50s through to the 1970s. And that was when Peter Sellers was at his best.
He knew everyone in those pre-war years; firstly from meeting many of them with his ‘Dad and Uncle Charlie’ who took him everywhere in his youth. (Peter never missed a home rugby test from 1930 through to 1990.)
If Peter knew a famous person was coming to New Zealand he would write to that person and courteously arrange a meeting, no matter what town he or she was visiting. Then usually at his own expense he would book his train travel (remember he never flew) and if the interview subject was to arrive, say, in Auckland that would be nearly a week’s travel back and forth from Dunedin to achieve his goal.
Back in the early 1970s the annual Halberg Awards Dinner (then called the Sportsman of the Year Awards) announced that Sir Donald Bradman would be the main guest speaker that year at its function in Christchurch. I was then a young reporter in Auckland and I arranged to interview Sir Donald as he passed through our city on the way to the South Island. It was for ten minutes only for a local TV show.
I rang Peter in Dunedin and he was beside himself with excitement at ‘The Don’s’ impending arrival. Christchurch was just one two or three hour train ride away and he could have probably arranged to interview Bradman in that city.
But that wasn’t enough for Peter. He booked his train to Christchurch, (always in the same seat!) then he added the overnight Ferryboat to Wellington (in the same cabin of course); then he took another train ride (a full day trip this one) before reaching Auckland. There he linked up with me and together we went out to the interview location.
My piece with the great Don seemed to go well enough. Peter was there too and when given the chance of an introduction he was in, in a flash. He shook Bradman’s hand, and asked him if he had received Peter’s letter. And was it still OK for the radio interview in three days time in Christchurch? Bradman said simply ‘yes, it was’ – and then Peter stood back in awe.
After the TV part of the day was over Peter insisted he and I had a couple of quiet beers together before he got back on the overnight train to Wellington and reversing his trip as far as Christchurch. His week ended by interviewing Bradman there and attending the dinner afterwards.
When he finally made it home to Dunedin, as he always did, he wrote a letter to Sir Don, to his Adelaide address. The letter thanked him for the interview. When the equally- considerate Bradman also replied, a regular exchange of hand-written letters started which Peter treasured. He lovingly kept them in a file within arm’s reach in his apartment. The two wrote to each other three or four times a year until Sir Donald’s death in 2001.
Here’s another one I remember. Sometimes we smiled when Peter’s Kiwi vernacular got in the way in his interviews. Once, the Chairman of ‘The’ Rugby Football Union of England, Sir William Ramsay, a rather stuffy gentleman (according to Peter), came to Wellington. Peter interviewed him and his first question was ‘Tell me Bill where d’ya earn a crust these days?’
Lord Ramsay was slightly startled and taken aback. He was then actually the Chairman of the highly venerable Bank of England!
And then there is the famous (or is it infamous) ‘bloody pie’ story, which those of us who knew Peter best do not actually like recalling.
But recall it here I must I suppose.
Peter was alleged to have asked the caterer at Wellington’s rugby ground Athletic Park on a big test match day in the 1950s, ‘How many pies are going to be sold here today?’
When the caterer replied, ‘oh, about 10, 000,’ Peter is supposed to have reacted on the radio with, ‘wow, that’s a bloody lot of pies!’ Such an utterance was supposedly a shock in those conservative days of broadcasting.
Only thing is; that story grew and grew. I personally have heard many a version of it. One has it happening in just about every rugby ground in New Zealand, another that the total of pies sold had grown and grown to impossible levels of per-person consumption, and finally that Peter’s exclamation of surprise had actually included him uttering the ‘eff-word.’
Frankly I don’t believe most of the what I consider to be now a classic case of urban myth!
While it was true that Peter’s language in male company all of his life was sometimes shockingly ‘salty, I never once heard him swear in the company of women or in any location where a microphone was near.
He valued the career he loved far too much to ever put it at risk.
So I am one who dismisses the notoriety that the ‘Pies’ story has gained in New Zealand. He might well have said the word ‘bloody’ but nothing more. And I have never heard the interview itself. Peter would have kept it hidden somewhere you bet.
[When the All Black Peter Jones told a live national radio audience after a test in 1956 that he was 'absolutely buggered' all replays of the recording of it were banned by Government broadcasting. Peter though, somehow had sneaked the tapes of it into his keeping and they were only replayed in one of his summary programmes after a gap of 30 years!]
The facts are Peter’s full body of work as a broadcaster over more than 30 years ought to have far surpassed the exaggerated pies yarn.
He himself grew tired of hearing about it. He had it thrust down his cheerful exterior day after day, often in the street or in pubs from complete strangers. At every hearing of it he would just shrug and hope that the outsider would go away soon.
A better summary of his career would be to find and read ‘A Sporting Life – The Best of Broadcaster Peter Sellers,’ a book in which Joseph Romanos assembled 50 of Peter’s best interviews. There you will get the true feel of a man with an inquisitive mind just wanting, in his very simple way, to find out what it was that made great sportsmen and women tick throughout their lives.
Finally let’s talk about Peter’s love of a convivial glass of beer. Just beer - never anything more like spirits or wine. Just beer.
In the bars of Dunedin over his beers he fronted up and traded sports stories all his life - of good and bad people, tough and talented sports games, the players who’d played them, those whom he’d interviewed and later stayed in touch with by letter, and what they had said to him. He was great company, always impeccably dressed, but always on the alert for some 'clown' or 'fool' who dared to cut across his flow.
His manners were from another age. He told me once his mother had hammered home to him that when asking for something in life you must ‘always add the simple word ‘please’ to every request.’
‘It will work’ said his Mum.
The last time I saw Peter he was far from well. I had seen him twice on the day I had flown in from Wellington but soon enough I had decided it was time for me to leave his Dunedin hospital bedside.
As soon as that was mentioned to Peter he decided he wanted to see me off at the lift. So he called a nurse to bring his walking frame for assistance. The nurse bustled away to get one and as she departed Peter’s room, she did so with him repeating after her, ‘please...please!’ in the timeless manner of the decency of his whole life.
Peter Henry Joseph (‘PHJ’) Sellers was a good and unique man who made a very significant contribution to the record-keeping of sports in his time in the country of his beloved New Zealand.
He deserves to be remembered for much more than just for the urban myth of an embellished story.
Myself and the broadcasters who he influenced and who he formally asked, late in life, for help; were (the late) Warwick Larkins, Bill Francis, Tony Johnson, John McBeth and Joseph Romanos. We will miss him incredibly.
Peter had no kids of his own; someone said the other day we six were his family.
If that is so I am very proud.
By Keith Quinn
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