When voice over artist Pete Smith was growing up, he wasn’t interested in being a firefighter or a police officer — his big dream was to be a radio announcer.
Read his Performer Profile.
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Victorian Seniors Festival Reimagined 2020
Pete Smith - Week 14
Hello, my name is Tristan Meecham, and welcome to the Victorian Seniors Festival reimagined in 2020. This week’s theme is the voice and who better to interview than my next guest? He’s the voice of Channel Nine. In fact, I think he’s one of the voices, the great voices of Australian television. It’s Pete Smith. Pete, how are you?
Hi, Tristan. Very nice to be with you.
Welcome to In the Groove. Now, in your opinion, what makes a great voiceover artist?
I think, for one thing, you have to have a distinctive voice and, back in my day when kids were going to primary school, I think the girls wanted to be nurses, the boys wanted to be firemen or policemen but the likes of myself and Mike Walsh, Phil Brady, we wanted to be radio announcers. There was no television. That was the glamour industry. All we wanted to do was get on there behind that mic and for a kid from St Kilda with no voice training at all, that was a big ask. A lot of people went to radio schools in those days. Most people did before they got on the air and then found themselves way up the bush somewhere on a regional station. For me, I guess I was lucky. I started at the ABC as a messenger boy and over a two or three years delivering the mail around the place, I nagged them to the point where they said, ah, give the kid a go and let me get on the air.
I cut my teeth, as I say, at the ABC with some wonderful people. I grew up in a time amongst, as an 18 year old, amongst all these senior announcers, some of whom had been on the BBC and the ABC in those days was run very much along the lines of the BBC in the evening shift on radio. There was no TV - on radio. The evening shift of announcers wore dinner suits and that went to - largely unseen, of course, except for maybe a studio tour by a local church group or scouts or something but, you know, it just goes to the integrity of the whole thing and the sharpness and the professionalism, if you like.
From radio, you then moved onto the silver screen. What was it like working on the silver screen in those golden early days of Australian television?
It was a unique opportunity back in those days for somebody who didn’t have any theatrical experience at all. The first stars on television back in those days were either imports from overseas or, certainly, people that had stage experience. While I was learning on camera, so who was the audience because who would have thought of pictures coming through the air? Back in those days, people were staring at test patterns, for goodness sake. Such was the novelty of the whole thing.
Pete, you have worked with some television greats across the last 40 years of your career, from Don Lane to Bert Newton. Who have been some television stars that you’ve loved working with?
I’ve loved working with them all, really. 56 years at, what we used to call the Fun Factory down in Richmond, Victoria, GTV 9. Five nights a week live variety, really very rough around the edges, working by the seat of your pants with what was true variety and, by variety, I mean just like in the old days, they took the lead from the - the vaudeville days of the Tivoli or the Theatre Royal, where you had a singer, then you had a juggler, then you had a belly dancing around, then you had a magician and then back another singer. That was true variety, a comedy sketch and, of course, a lot of the comedy sketches we did in those old days with Graham and Bert and Joff Allen had their foundations at the vaudeville theatres and, I say, it was just converted to television and, let’s face it, Graham Kennedy made them his own. I think the thing about Graham and Burt and people like that, was that, as a supporting player that I’ve always been, while you were on with them, they made you feel as though nobody else mattered. You were very special and that’s a that’s a great gift to have.
The great thing about working at Channel 9 in those days, apart from the live variety, was that, as a youngster, I think I was 22 or 23, I was still doing disc jockey work and the station owned a radio station and so I did a Saturday afternoon program called The Penthouse Party. It was wonderful to meet people like Roy Orbison, for instance, and a very rare encounter with him backstage at Festival Hall. Roy Orbison, The Big-O without sunglasses and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of that again. Then there was Cliff Richard and the Shadows. They were lovely people as well and, could you believe on one bill at Festival Hall, there was Del Shannon, Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. They were top 10 artists of the day.
Goodness me, Peter. You’ve certainly met and worked with some amazing people, haven’t you?
And I think, ‘65, The Rolling Stones made their first appearance in Australia and they were only starting out and they were doing what they were told. They agreed to come on my program, out on Port Phillip Bay on a cruiser. Now, that meant that they were stuck out there. They didn’t realize that they’d be stuck out there for the entire afternoon while I did my show. They were special guests and they were absolutely terrific. What a wonderful experience. Something I’ll never forget.
Many of our audience members will know you from the iconic Sale of The Century and I think your voiceover is one of the most memorable things from Australian television. Why do you think Australian audiences loved Sale so very much?
It was a family show. It was the sort of show that everybody could watch. Didn’t matter how young you were, how old you were. It was a family experience. Before they recorded even one episode, they showed me a little piece of videotape and they had the title card Sale of The Century on a card and it was on a turntable and when the thing started up, the turntable turned round to reveal the card full-on with the title. So, they said, okay, let’s record it. So, I said, “welcome to the world’s richest quiz”. So, and the thing hadn’t turned right - I said “I can’t say Sale of The Century”, it hadn’t fully revealed. So, I said, give it to me one more time. So, they said “Okay, off you go”. I said “Welcome to the world’s richest quiz, S-A-L-E of The Century!”. Gary Meadow’s, the first producer, he came in and said, “that’s exactly what we want. That’s what we want. Will you do it?”. Will I do it? 41 years later.
As well as being a voiceover artist, you are actually a comic genius, working on The Late Show and the D generation. You’ve had a long working relationship with Tony Martin and Mick Molloy. What’s it like working with these comedy ratbags?
As much as I enjoyed working with the likes of Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton and so forth, I’ve got to say it was a real highlight for these younger people to ring up an old bloke and say, “will you be involved in our program?”. The first thing I did was a thing called Dude looks like a lady and I had never heard of Aerosmith, let alone the song. That was 32 years since I walked into that ABC studio to do The Late Show. 32 years since I used to do the sporting afternoon hit parade in which - this is a long time before Countdown was invented. There were no such thing as video clips. I would sit there, looking at the cameras, I’m doing right now, introduce Elvis Presley with Blue Hawaii and away we’d go to sporting results on a crawl. You know, like you see at the end of the credits of a film, all the latest sporting results while Elvis sang Blue Hawaii. I tell you what, nobody would put up with that today but, back then, when they were staring at test patterns, my hit parade was gold.
Well, Pete, thank you so much for joining us on In the Groove.
Thank you very much. Well, you’ve been watching and listening to, or have just missed, Pete Smith. Goodbye now.