How a lord of the turf made the running against Nazi Germany
New archive reveals how Sir Peter, the voice of racing, rallied against Nazi Germany, writes Patrick Sawyer
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
He was known as the voice of horse racing for his commentaries on BBC television. But new papers to go on display for the first time reveal what a varied - and well documented - life Sir Peter O'Sullevan led.
The exhibition reveals his love of dogs and shows he was a highly successful punter at the racetrack. Among the hundreds of items are paintings and sculptures by some of the world's most respected equestrian artists.
But more surprisingly it also documents how he was an anti-Nazi agitator who had planned to stoke an uprising of workers against Hitler with a leaflet addressed as a "message to the German people from British workers".
Peter O'Sullevan, who died last summer at the age of 97, had planned to smuggle hundreds of copies of the leaflet into Germany by hiding them in a secret compartment in his 'sealing wax' red Morris coupe and distributing them clandestinely.
It urged German workers not to take up arms against their UK counterparts in the event of war - and also asks that readers pass the leaflet on to a friend when they have finished with it.
The Labour Party, to whom the then 21-year-old wrote to for advice, warned him the leafleting operation would be one of "very grave risk to you" and that he would solely be responsible for his own safety.
But in the end the audacious plan had to be abandoned, after travel restrictions between Britain and Nazi Germany came into force.
O'Sullevan's friend and fellow racing journalist, Sean Magee, to whom he entrusted the archive before his death, said: "The plan was really the mark of a very idealistic young man.
"Although Sir Peter became very much an establishment figure in later years - associated with the Royal family - this idea of distributing anti-Nazi leaflets shows him to have had an active political conscience during those tumultuous years."
The leaflet, along with many of the items in the archive, including a series of paintings from North Africa, are to be exhibited at a London gallery, before being donated to the Cox Library of racing books for preservation.
Also among the papers catalogued by Mr Magee is a letter from the chef Albert Roux, declaring O'Sullevan's beloved miniature poodle, Topolina, "a welcome visitor of Le Gavroche and all other Roux enterprises where she is renowned for her impeccable conduct".
Sir Peter's love of betting - and his skill and luck at it - are illustrated by the sheaves of old betting vouchers he amassed over the years.
With them is a letter from William Wood Turf accountants closing his account, because they simply could not afford to keep taking his bets.
The letter stated: "After three years during which you have won consistently, we shall have to give you best and ask you to bet elsewhere. You are too good for us!"
His style as a commentator was matchless in its laid-back delivery and understatement, combined with an ability to convey what he liked to call "a bit of drama".
The archive also includes 51 scrapbooks in which he collected everything he had written during his long career as a racing journalist, along with dozens of meticulously prepared commentary cards and race meeting notes - including one for Nijinsky's Derby win in 1970 and Red Rum's landmark second Grand National victory in 1974.
There is also a copy of the script for Sir Peter's appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Show, which confirmed his position (if confirmation were needed) as a once-off, and a musical greeting specially composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to mark the commentator's retirement.
Mr Magee said Sir Peter, who was brought up by his maternal grandparents, Sir John and Lady Henry, at Gatton Park, near Reigate in Surrey, had been conscious of his own image from a very early age and amassed papers, documents and objects as a means of chronicling his life.
"He was his own archivist. As an example, he learnt to drive at the age of nine, rather incredibly, and went on to keep meticulous details of all his car journeys, noting where he went and how much he spent on petrol."
The exhibition of Sir Peter O'Sullevan's paintings, sculptures and ephemera is being held at the Osborne Studio Gallery, in Knightsbridge, from March 9 until April 1.