Obituary: Sheila Tracy, newsreader

Sheila Tracy. Picture: Getty/Hulton Archive
Sheila Tracy. Picture: Getty/Hulton Archive
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BORN: 10 January, 1934 in Cornwall. Died: 30 September, 2014 in Esher, Surrey. Aged 80

In 1974 Sheila Tracy made broadcasting history. She was the first woman to read the news, on Radio 4, and although it was the late night news, the event made quite a splash.

Looking back on that late night broadcast, Tracy recalled that it had been anything but straightforward. “They had to make an excuse,” she remembered. “The presentation editor pretended that [newsreader] Bryan Martin was ill and I had to read the late night news. I’d been agitating for months.”

The next day the items she had covered – such as the Watergate scandal – were of minor importance compared to her breakthrough on the newsdesk. Needless to say, there was much coverage about the red trouser suit she had worn.

In fact, Tracy was an established voice on British radio. She had studied music and played in the Ivy Benson All Girls Band and had begun her career with the BBC presenting the weekly Big Band Special and live concerts.

Born Sheila Luggs, she attended Truro High School for Girls and then studied the trombone, violin and piano at the Royal Academy of Music. In the early 1950s she joined the Ivy Benson All Girl Orchestra as a trombonist. In 1962 she auditioned for the job as a continuity announcer with the BBC.

In the 1960s, she co-hosted, with Michael Aspel, A Spoonful of Sugar on BBC 1 which visited hospitals and, with her distinctive voice and excellent enunciation, became one of the best recognised voices on radio and television. She also joined Aspel as the commentator for the Miss England competition.

Tracy continued playing in bands and formed the Tracy Sisters with a fellow trombonist, Phyl Brown. They toured variety halls and appeared on popular shows such as Workers Playtime and The Black and White Minstrel Show.

In 1979 Tracy was asked to host Big Band Special on Radio 2 and it proved an excellent choice. Not only did she have the musical knowledge and an excellent microphone voice, but she was a born enthusiast.

She presented the show for over 20 years and toured widely with the BBC Big Band. On an extensive tour of America in 1992 the band had as its special guest George Shearing. He and Tracy became friends – Shearing wrote the introduction to one of her books.

As a spin-off, the BBC inaugurated Truckers Hour, which was an hour-long phone-in programme from 1am aimed at long-distance lorry drivers. The response from HGV drivers was huge.

The CB radio language was always colourful and innocently repeated by Tracy on air. The real problem was that many messages were in truckers’ slang which Tracy passed on without a thought. It caused consternation at the BBC and Tracy was carpeted. After a year, Truckers Hour was axed.

But it was her love of Big Band music that made Tracy so popular amongst musicians. She always dressed impeccably for a concert, wrote her own script – which she then memorised – and rehearsed the introductions thoroughly.

Her producer on Big Band Special, Bob McDowall, spoke of the many years they worked together. “Treading the boards of various theatres up and down the country was in Sheila’s blood and that wonderful voice held your attention. Having Sheila as the presenter made my job infinitely easier.”

After leaving the BBC, Tracy appeared on Primetime Radio, Pure Jazz Radio in the US and for Age UK. She regularly compered the national brass band championship gala concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Edinburgh’s Mainstream Books published her autobiography, Bands, Booze and Broads, in 1996. It compiled many interviews she had conducted with the greats of the swing era, including Artie Shaw and Billy May. Later she published Talking Swing, which covered the top British bands over the past half-century.

A decade ago Tracy visited her old school in Truro to explain her philosophy of life. “Take it easy, let things happen,” she said in her typically straightforward manner. “Don’t want to become famous but, instead, do what you enjoy. If you don’t know what you enjoy, just do your best because things have a way of working out.”

In 1997 Tracy was made a Freeman of the City of London and in 2002 was awarded the Alan Dell Trophy for Services to Music.

Her devotion to the Big Band sound was reflected in her support for the local Kingswood Band in Surrey. A member recalled that she, “somewhat reluctantly” played fourth trombone.

Tracy married the actor John Arnatt in 1962. He died in 1999 and she is survived by their son.