How the BBC planned for the end of the world

The World
Peter Donaldson

When it looked like the world would end in nuclear disaster, Peter Donaldson got the call.

The calm, authoritative BBC news announcer took on some unusual recordings at the height of the Cold War, including the messages to be read in event of nuclear war. "This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons," he read. "Stay in your own house, there's nothing to be gained in trying to get away.”

The messages were even more chilling because of his perfectly neutral delivery.

Donaldson, a BBC radio announcer for more than 40 years, died Tuesday at the age of 70. For many British people, his calm authoritative manner epitomized the BBC and a certain sense of Britishness. John Humphries, a journalist who worked with him for many years, described Donaldson’s voice as "rich and warm and resonant and without a trace of affectation ... when he read the news you trusted him.”

Donaldson was born in Egypt in 1945 and spent much of his childhood in the Middle East. After working as an actor, he joined the British Forces Broadcasting Service — a radio service for the British armed forces — as an announcer. His first work for the BBC was for the music station Radio 2. He later moved to Radio 4, the main talk radio station for British audiences. 

Toward the end of his career, Donaldson publicly wondered whether his style of announcing was beginning to sound outdated. He told the Arena television program that he had come to terms with that idea that there was an "evolution" in broadcasting.

"[It is] leaving me behind," he said. "That is [a move] toward a more informal style. Not that I want to be a stuffed shirt. It's the way the world changes. It's not only on the BBC. Everywhere is changing. And there comes a stage where an old dog doesn't."

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