John and BFBS

Charly Lowndes writes:

When John became head of BBC Radio Training, an entertaining sideline was to provide courses to the British Forces Broadcasting Service, and to dispatch instructors to the curious mix of Cold War and colonial locations where BFBS entertained, informed(with BBC News) and occasionally educated military communities, expats, and in Germany, some millions of young people who liked the music and learnt the language.

Going on a producers’ course was an enormous treat for us. Exercises included being given two hours of uncut audio gathered by a foreign correspondent, to cut down to a five-minute future. The really brutal part was having this judged by the foreign correspondent himself.

John was the kindly headmaster of this eclectic school, encouraging the staff and above all the pupils, always looking out for our enthusiasms and ways in which we could exploit these on air. BFBS courses would end with a dinner, sometimes under the portrait of Lord Reith in the BBC council chamber.

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BFBS Station Controllers Conference 1987. Taken in the Reith Room at Grafton House, separated from John’s office by folding doors. Participants include Charly Lowndes, Marc Tyley, Richard Nankivell, Bryan Hamilton, Alan Grace, Charles Foster, Chris Russell, Mike Robinson, Caroline Rodway-Jones, and Bill Bebb, then Director of Broadcasting.

After he left the BBC, John continued to help train BFBS staff in a series of courses devised by graduates of John’s own instructors’ course (from which two of us were to become University lecturers). The traditional BBC White Network exercise had expanded into a three day simulation of BFBS Angora, that obscure garrison on a remote and occasionally hostile Island in the Indian Ocean. The British High Commissioner, Sir Gregory Tweed, OBE and bar, was overplayed in a revolting ‘white’ suit by John. He took delight in the opportunity to subvert the great traditions of editorial independence through forceful bullying of increasingly harassed trainee station managers.

He also advised BFBS on possible locations for expansion, although the projects did not materialise. Touring corners of Docklands looking for studios, he would fill a morning with asides from his days as HM Inspector of Factories – “we prosecuted the firm there after the second amputation in their machine shop”, or, “no point in looking there: it used to be a compass factory and the ground is badly contaminated by luminous paint.”

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