Peter Williams: Unobtrusively yours

By Greg Bruce

After 37 years on our screens, broadcaster Peter Williams has outlasted them all. Greg Bruce meets the mild-mannered icon.
Peter Williams, New Zealand television presenter has been on our screens for 37 years. Photo / Greg Bowker
Peter Williams, New Zealand television presenter has been on our screens for 37 years. Photo / Greg Bowker

As the studio clock hit midday, Peter Williams looked down the barrel of the camera and said the same words he says to the nation's television viewers every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at midday: "It's midday."

For the next half hour, he first stood, then sat, unbelievably still, pre-preparing his facial expressions perfectly, just a second or two before the camera cut to him. His only discernible movements were the occasional lifting and lowering of his chin for emphasis and the slight jitterbugging of his fingers on the back of his iPad Mini, which he held unobtrusively at waist level.

Peter Williams in 1992 and 2002.
Peter Williams in 1992 and 2002.

When the bulletin ended at 12.30pm, he had finished for the week. He has Thursday and Friday off before returning to present the 6pm bulletins on Saturday and Sunday. Helen, the autocue operator, said, "Yeah but the weekend's like bloody nothing, anyway," and Williams laughed and said, "Don't give away trade secrets!"

He collected his things and headed to the dressing room. He went to one of a row of white cupboards lining the side wall and opened the door marked "Peter Williams - presenter", sandwiched tightly between "Scotty Morrison" and "Sam Wallace".

The top deck of his wardrobe contained between seven and 10 dark suits, and a collection of bold, unfussy ties. The bottom deck contained between 30 and 40 shirts, responsibly organised into three colour bands: white, blue and pink.

He took off his suit jacket, shirt and pants. His chest was hairy and his Icebreaker underpants were blue, with occasional bold, pink stripes. He kept them on. His body was trim and his musculature surprisingly well defined for a man of 62. Idly, one might have imagined him doing the news in just his Icebreaker undies and socks, his mana and esteem undiminished, maybe even enhanced, by his surprisingly well-maintained masculinity.

He pulled on slim-fit jeans and a close-clinging Asics T-shirt. From the back and also from the front, in certain lights, he could have passed for 40 and maybe even 35. On Breakfast two years ago, he held a plank for 5m 15sec, comprehensively beating the time of the much younger host Rawdon Christie.

"I found out in the last few days that I'm about two or three kilos heavier than I want to be," Williams said in a cafe after the midday bulletin, justifying his choice of a light sandwich. "I like to be about about 84 to 85kg and I found out yesterday I'd fattened out to 87."

It didn't sound like it would be a great fuss for him to drop the k's. He breezily suggested he would just step up his work in the gym. This stuff is no joke to a professional television presenter. Basic appearance is critical. Nothing can be allowed to distract the viewer from what you're trying to tell them. "That's why your grooming and your styling is very important," Williams said. "It's got to be unobtrusive. It's got to be sophisticated, but unobtrusive."

Left: Breakfast announcing in 1976. Right: Peter on Sporting Life in 1980.
Left: Breakfast announcing in 1976. Right: Peter on Sporting Life in 1980.

His desk at TVNZ is an ordinary desk, at the end of a row of ordinary desks, in an open plan area used by hardworking producers and other non-celebrities working on TVNZ's broad suite of news productions.

He doesn't have his name on the door of an office. His desk isn't marked out in any special way from those around him. He has two computer screens, but so does everybody else.

Prior to the midday bulletin that day, one of his two computer screens displayed the TVNZ intranet page. At the top, it read, "Hi Peter", which felt overly familiar toward a man of his standing. At his desk, shorn of the authority of the studio and the autocue, he looked less like the strong and confident statesman of the news we know him to be and more like a grunt reporter in a grey suit.

No one around him paid him much attention. Who knows what things are like for other stars of television, but it's hard to imagine Mike Hosking or Paul Henry by themselves, toiling away on scripts at the end of a nondescript row of desks at 11.30 in the morning.

At TVNZ, Williams is known as a smart dude. Toni Street, the Seven Sharp host who once worked with him on Breakfast describes him as a "wise old owl" and a trusted voice for both the public and his colleagues. She says he has been known to send out group emails when somebody gets their punctuation wrong. She says he's also versatile, adaptable and embracing of the often much younger people he works with.

Peter Williams hosts the Commonwealth Games broadcast in 1982.
Peter Williams hosts the Commonwealth Games broadcast in 1982.

Breakfast producer Claire Watson, who has been a colleague of Williams' for 20 years, says he has a great news brain, is smart, incisive and outspoken. She repeats herself for emphasis on that last point: "He's prepared to speak up." She also says he has mana and that's not something that can be cultivated.

He has been on our screens since 1979: 37 years. We know him now mostly for his gravitas and excellent enunciation on daytime and weekend news bulletins, but until the turn of the century he was known more for his versatility. He was a sports reporter, a news reporter, an anchorman on famed 80s Saturday afternoon sports show One World of Sport, a live cricket commentator on television and radio, a quiz master on the late-80s quiz show A Question of Sport, a field director, a producer, a line-up producer for sports shows, the face of multiple Olympic Games, a fill-in presenter on Breakfast and elsewhere, and is still one of the most well-liked personalities to ever appear on our screens. Starting tomorrow, we will know him as the host of revived television quiz show classic, Mastermind.

TVNZ judges the performance of its presenters largely on viewer surveys. They won't confirm this, and Williams himself claims not to know, but it's reasonably well-known that his results are consistently the best of any presenter working at TVNZ.

He claims little responsibility for whatever popularity he has: "In terms of so-called popularity," he says, "that's probably as much to do with familiarity as anything else." He says that the key to being a credible and watchable news presenter "is to not be annoying to the viewers".

Peter on end of year sports on Sport 81 in 1981.
Peter on end of year sports on Sport 81 in 1981.

Relative to almost any other job in the world, that is an undemanding key to success. He does not seem especially proud of what he has done over the years. Maybe he is, and he's just really good at projecting the opposite image - of a good, humble, Kiwi bloke who doesn't think he's anything much. Once, in an interview for NZ On Screen, he described himself as a "competent jobbing broadcaster".

He says of his career: "I just looked upon it as a job without looking to indulge myself in all the other nonsense that might sometimes go with it."

He has an improbable chin - a vast expanse of hard flesh and bone stretching down for what seems like forever from his bottom lip, which itself has an intriguing small vertical scar, a humanising blemish on that appealing, avuncular face. His fake smile feels genuine, his enunciation is clear and the rich masculinity of his intonation does not undermine his general air of inoffensiveness.

He has opinions, but few people know them; they are seldom upsetting or divisive. During the flag debate, he appeared on screen proudly waving the silver fern flag from the top of the TVNZ building. Fair enough, taste's a funny thing. He has said undiplomatic things about the enormous ego of former colleague Paul Henry. No big deal, the size of that ego is hardly a matter of opinion anyway.

Peter Williams in 1984 as a sports reporter for Witness News. Right: Peter on The Story of The NZ Cricket Team (Men in White) in 1986.
Peter Williams in 1984 as a sports reporter for Witness News. Right: Peter on The Story of The NZ Cricket Team (Men in White) in 1986.

None of his three weddings have been sold to the women's magazines, although he was offered plenty of money for the last two. His private life has never been public. His current wife is Ports of Tauranga executive Sara Lunam, whom he married after his second marriage to Sarah Sandley ended in divorce. His first wife, Cecile, the mother of his three children, died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 42.

He has a survivor's instinct for what not to say. In a discussion about the liberal political affiliations of Helen, the autocue operator, for example, he was asked if he shared her views. He said, "No comment," because few things could be worse for Williams than alienating any reasonable proportion of the Nielsen electorate. He can't afford to be only as popular as John Key.

He's also charmingly human about his boredom with his job. He's been more or less a straight newsreader since the turn of the century, so he's looking forward to the variety of hosting Mastermind and of being the face of TVNZ's Olympic coverage later this year. "If you're just getting out of bed at 4 o'clock in the morning and then coming in to do the weekend news, it's like any old job, isn't it?" he says. "There's a certain sameness about it."

"The world is neck-deep in people chasing fame with fewer and fewer credentials to earn it," says Andrew Shaw, TVNZ's commissioning boss, and the man who both brought Mastermind back to our screens and brought Williams to Mastermind.

Peter Williams hosts the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony in 1987.
Peter Williams hosts the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony in 1987.

Peter Williams has never chased fame. He's chased more humble goals: "The most successful news presenters," he says, boringly and repetitively, "are always completely neutral and as unobtrusive as possible."

Shaw says of Mastermind that it needed a host, "Who was well-read, who was cultured, who was articulate, who was worldly, and who could speak with a natural authority the audience could respect and would understand, and there wasn't anybody else in the game. When I thought, 'Who do we have in our family that has those natural attributes and skills?' It's Peter Williams."

Those claims are all fine and possibly even true, but more relevant is the fact that Mastermind is a throwback to a simpler time: hard questions in near-darkness and no prizes worth mentioning. The grand final winner gets a chair, a strangely unimpressive trophy and nothing else. It seems strangely out of keeping with the rich, brash, in-your-face modern quiz show format. It needed a host to match.

"He's a humble dude," Shaw says of Williams. "He's a humble guy. He's not a television personality, because that's not how he sees himself. He's a journo, newscaster, broadcaster."

If it appears unlikely that Williams has survived and succeeded in television in large part by trying not to stand out, look at the 37-year-long trail of once-successful personalities who are no longer on television. Nobody has been on our screens more or less continuously for longer than Peter Williams and few on our screens are more beloved.

Peter Williams on A Question of Sport (bottom right, 1988), with Gifford and Quinn in 1989 and in 1990 for One World of Sport.
Peter Williams on A Question of Sport (bottom right, 1988), with Gifford and Quinn in 1989 and in 1990 for One World of Sport.

Williams says that the most outstanding broadcasters of his generation are "the three Hs": Holmes, Hosking and Henry. But their jobs were, and are, not at all the same as his. It is their job, but not his, to have opinions. It is his job to provide facts and information, then get out of their way.

These are not sexy traits. The three Hs have never been concerned with keeping their bodies still while talking, nor with dressing unobtrusively. They would never have described themselves as "competent" or "jobbing" broadcasters. They have all flashed brilliantly in and out of the public eye during their sensational broadcasting lives, while Williams has trudged diligently, competently, onwards, still, and seemingly forever, an inoffensive part of our lives.

- Canvas

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