Producer Kevan Moore remembers Peter Sinclair as "a chameleon, because he could change his coat depending on the circumstances". His colleague Max Cryer says he was "a first class host", someone "capable of doing rock and roll announcing like nobody else could, could also handle Shakespeare, French authors, Wordsworth..nothing was beyond him." Sinclair was equally capable of presenting pop music, a classical concert, a funeral or a news broadcast.
He was the consummate presenter: the ice cool host of C’mon and the face of swinging 60s pop on New Zealand television, until he walked away from that role — and the medium — in the early 70s. When he returned, several years later, it was as the unflappable quizmaster of Mastermind and University Challenge. In the late 90s, he reinvented himself once more, as an internet columnist and commentator.
Sinclair was born in Sydney in 1938, but moved to New Zealand with his mother when he was two. He was educated at Christ’s College, and at the University of Canterbury where he studied English, Philosophy, Psychology and Greek, but didn’t finish his degree.
In May 1957, he was living in a tree in Hagley Park as a stunt to promote the University Revue. A passing Radio New Zealand announcer interviewed him and suggested he had a good voice for radio. With no particular career path in mind, Sinclair became a trainee with 3YA and 3YC, but resigned after a posting to Greymouth which he hated.
Stints as a contract announcer in Sydney followed but his health suffered and he took a newsreader’s job in Wellington in 1962. A year later he took over The Sunset Show on 2ZB (New Zealand radio’s prototype drive show). RNZ’s management had done its best to discourage their announcers from becoming celebrities, but times were changing and an outside broadcast in Porirua saw an unwitting Sinclair mobbed by fans.
Music was also changing. The Swinging 60s and Beatlemania had arrived, and television wanted a piece of the action. In 1964 producer Kevan Moore chose Sinclair to present his new music show Let’s Go. It was the beginning of an association between the two that would last for the next decade. C’mon followed in 1967 — and the unflappable Sinclair was an oasis of effortless cool (with never a hair out of place) fronting the frenetic show for the next three years (despite the fact that he had little interest in rock’n’roll).
By late 1969, it was becoming increasingly difficult to shoehorn the rock music of the day into a family friendly pop show. C’mon was replaced with the unapologetically middle of the road Happen Inn, again with Sinclair as presenter.
In 1973 he quit the show — and television — claiming he was “in the trance of boredom”. “My brain churned into cottage cheese”, he told the Listener, “Yet another show with yet another pop group. Every permutation of every question I could ask had been asked. I had done it all and again and again”.
He also felt trapped — pigeonholed as a pop presenter where previously he might have worked on everything from Royal tours to classical programmes; and he wanted his privacy back — to be able to go on public transport or to a restaurant in peace and quiet.
Instead, he established pottery stores at Muriwai and in Ponsonby, becoming the country’s biggest retailer of pots. He also pursued an interest in Epiphyllum cacti — becoming an authority with one of the best collections in Australasia.
Television didn’t forget about him; and, with a degree of financial independence, Sinclair could now afford to look at less lucrative but more serious roles than the better paid entertainment shows he had rejected. Des Monaghan lured him back in front of the cameras to become the consummate quiz show host of University Challenge and Mastermind (including this international special from the Christchurch Town Hall).
Working with producer Max Cryer, Sinclair hosted Mastermind for the next 17 years — and he read extensively to ensure a working knowledge of the show’s many and varied specialist subjects. However, he had no interest in reversing the Mastermind roles, telling the NZ Women’s Weekly in 1985, “I have a healthy respect for the chair. Nothing on God’s earth would get me sitting in it”. University Challenge, on the other hand, saw a more relaxed Sinclair — much more one of the gang with the contestants than the inquisitor of Mastermind.
Sinclair also fronted major events from Telethons to beauty pageants and the arts show Master of Arts. In 1992, he revealed another side of himself when he published a satirical novel — The Front Man — about a telethon host.
Changing times in television in the 90s saw the demise of telethons and Mastermind. Sinclair had settled back into radio - as host of Classic Hits’ Love Songs ‘Til Midnight – and he discovered a new passion in the internet. Initially resistant to its charms, he began writing a regular column for the Herald.
In April, 2001 Sinclair was diagnosed with leukaemia. He announced it in a Herald column which he finished “Thanks life, it’s been a pleasure”. Far from signing off, he continued to write about his illness each week until his death in August, at the age of 63.
Profile written by Michael Higgins; updated on 8 October 2020
'Max Cryer - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 8 December 2019
Helen Bain, ‘It's Been a Pleasure’ (Obituary) – The Dominion, 9 August 2001, page 6
Chris Barton, ‘Man of Many Gifts Who Found His Home on Web’ - The NZ Herald, 14 August, 2001
Toni McRae, ‘Peter Sinclair, It’s Time to be Rolling’ - The Auckland Star, 8 November 1985, page B1
Diana Wichtel, ‘Passion for Life was Peter Sinclair's Hallmark’ (Obituary) - The NZ Herald, 11 August 2001
Anna Williams, 'Terror on a Grey Velvet Chair' (Interview) - The New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 20 September 1985, page 7