The best-known faces of the early 50s on British television belonged to the BBC programme announcers: McDonald Hobley, Mary Malcolm and Sylvia Peters. The trio first appeared in 1946 and quickly became immensely popular with viewers.
‘Mac’, Mary and Sylvia introduced shows like Muffin The Mule, Café Continental, Rooftop Rendezvous with Jack Jackson, The Charlie Chester Show, Terry Thomas in How Do You View? and – not to be forgotten – For The Housewife, an afternoon programme which instructed the lady of the house on such matters as how to renovate a chest of drawers, how to cook whale meat and how to cure home-grown tobacco.
The late ‘Mac’ Hobley was naturally calm and debonair, but even he was ruffled when, before a 1951 political broadcast, he introduced Sir Stafford Cripps by announcing, “and now the moment you have been waiting for – the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stifford Crapps”.
Mary Malcolm, a granddaughter of Lily Langtry (the beautiful actress who was the toast of the town when Queen Victoria was on the throne), had been a wartime radio announcer. Then a friend asked Mary to model some clothes for a television programme about dress design. She was remembered for that and offered the announcer’s job.
The BBC stated, ‘In the main, an evening gown is suitable for many evenings, especially as it can be simple or elaborate according to whether the programmes are straightforward or of especially grand moment. But there are special occasions which require a quiet dignity of dress, just as there are others needing an announcer to look as glamorous and as scintillating as she can.
It would not be the thing to have a woman announcer introducing a Sunday religious programme in a ravishing gown nor would it do to have a gala variety show introduced by a woman wearing a skirt and jumper”.
Mary was famed for occasional slips of the tongue, particularly when reading the weather. Among her forecasts were ‘drain and rizzle’, ‘frog and fost’ and ‘shattered scowers’. She also famously announced when closing down for the evening, “That’s the end of television for today, and in a few moments, you’ll hear the nine service home o’clock news”.
On another occasion, while testing the sound channel before the start of the programme Mainly For Women, she jokingly said: “Good afternoon, here is a programme mainly for morons”. Alas, it was accidentally broadcast . . .
She had to cope with many of the disastrous breakdowns that were common in the early days of television. She once appeared on the screen eight times in one evening to apologise for technical difficulties. On another occasion, she read out the wrong address and 24,000 letters went astray.
Mary left her £1,500 a year job to go freelance in 1956, stating that she never wanted to do announcing again. In the early sixties, she made a series of light-hearted documentaries about Britain for German television but eventually retired to what she called “an ordinary life”.
Mary Malcolm passed away on 13 October 2010, aged 92.
Former singer and dancer Sylvia Peters was only 20 when she joined the BBC staff as a television announcer. She got the job with an impromptu recitation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to her interview board who later described her as ‘winsome’.
She was also a great sport. “Everybody in the studio used to make me laugh. One of them used to throw nuts at me, trying to get one down my cleavage just as I said, “Good evening”. Sometimes he succeeded, and I’m sure that’s why I always looked so jolly”.
Her genteel glamour epitomised the 50s style of broadcasting and made her a television star, covering the fashions at Ascot. She often got more press than the programmes she introduced.
Sylvia also presented Come Dancing, introduced Dancing Club with Victor Sylvester and appeared in the annual BBC pantomime, always playing the principal girl.
Sylvia retired from the BBC in 1958 and ran a dress shop in Wimbledon for many years. She passed away on 26 July 2016, aged 90.