Obituary: Sylvia Peters, BBC continuity announcer

Sylvia Peters, BBC announcer whose career highlight was a ten-hour stint on the Coronation. Picture: Getty Images
Sylvia Peters, BBC announcer whose career highlight was a ten-hour stint on the Coronation. Picture: Getty Images
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Born: 26 September, 1925 in London. Died: 26 July 2016 in London, aged 90.

Sylvia Peters, with her very correct pronunciation and modulated vowels, was the very epitome of a BBC announcer in the post-war years. The Corporation trusted her with the task of introducing the Coronation of the Queen in 1953 and she did it splendidly. The morning began with the peals of Big Ben and then Peters was on screen at 10:15am precisely. Peters (dressed in smart strapless evening gown with a string of pearls) told viewers watching at home on their tiny screens in a brown boxed set of the historic events to follow. “For the first time in history,” Peters said to camera, “through the medium of television the ancient right of a Coronation ceremony will be relayed around the world.”

It was an epic production and Peters was well-rehearsed in what to do if cameras or microphones broke down, or if the commentators made a boob. It was a challenging event and judging by film of her ten-hour stint she was superb: always calm, relaxed and in control.

Neither senior churchmen nor the Establishment were keen for such a solemn service to be relayed to people’s front rooms. The Archbishop of Canterbury also raised objections about cameras being inside Westminster Abbey. But the Queen and prime minister Winston Churchill were in favour of the broadcast, and in the event, millions of TV sets were bought.

The whole event was a challenge for technicians, camera crews and commentators, but the BBC won huge praise for their professionalism and for Peters’s performance, who – without an autocue – had to make every announcement direct to camera from memory. It was a daunting challenge and years later she admitted the broadcast was the highlight of her career. “I didn’t realise it at the time. I was just doing my job.”

Sylvia Lucia Petronzio was born to an Italian father, Romelo Petronzio, a clock maker, while her mother took her daughter to ballet lessons from an early age. Peters was later to appear in some West End revues but in 1947 her mother spotted an advert for a continuity announcer at the BBC. At the interview, Peters’s pronunciation of even the most difficult phrases and foreign words was perfect and she joined the staff of the BBC (on £10 a week) in 1947.

Her first jobs were from the studios of Alexandra Palace and the BBC insisted that Peters wore a shawl over the strapless gowns as, in close up, it might suggest she was nude.

The announcing was a complex affair. Peters would have her script in front of the camera on a chair and in the unlikely event that she forgot her lines she would bend forward, trying to cover her mistake. Her jewellery was borrowed from a Mayfair jeweller and returned the next day.

It was not only her voluminous gowns that the public loved – after the Coronation Peters was pictured on the cover of TV Times. There were also frequent breakdowns in transmission which Peters had to fill in for.

She said: “You just had to cover and carry on, even if the scenery was falling down. During an Agatha Christie drama I was in the studio when one of the characters was killed, but the actor didn’t realise he was in shot so the body got up and walked off. Things like that were happening all the time.”

But it was the Coronation that brought national fame to this most courteous and popular lady. It was a remarkable day and even the steady drizzle did not dampen the nation’s enthusiasm. The news that Mount Everest had been conquered that very morning made the event extra special and the coverage on television proved a milestone in public communication.

Peters was later to advise the Queen over the presentation of her Christmas televised broadcast, principally demonstrating how to speak to camera. A film was made and sent to Balmoral. For the first televised State Opening of Parliament, the BBC’s Peter Dimmock asked Peters to sit on the throne and read an extract from Hansard so he could get the sound balance – Peters’s voice was deemed to be the same pitch as the Queen’s.

Peters also compered Come Dancing with Peter West, and returned to the screens in the 1980s when she presented Channel 4’s Years Ahead for older viewers. In 1986 she made several appearances celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Corporation.

In 1958 she decided to retire from the BBC and in 1963 she opened a shop in Wimbledon called Accent on Youth, which sold children’s and teenagers’ clothes.

Peters met her future husband, Kenneth Milne-­Buckley, a studio manager, on her first day at the BBC.

He predeceased her and Peters is survived by their daughter, Carmella.