John Gray

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
11 Apr 1994
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs

Interview notes


[Transcribed from very abbreviated handwritten notes by Ian Duff. DS]


Antecedents; education; entry into employment (GPO Film Unit); films worked on, colleagues, experiences. 22 Soho Square; Blackheath (studio), editing “visatone” [photographic] sound recording; films about ASDIC [Anti-Submarine Detection System Information Committee]; security! Contrived shooting to ease “post-synch”; other experiences.


Richard Massingham’s hospital; further experiences; BBC Radio and television (EMI), recording in broadcasting; Blattnerphone [A playback system DS]; Phillips mechanical variable area; acetate disc;  “news” coverage [?]; wartime editing techniques, response to emergency trade unions in 1940. Broadcasting “as live” of theatre; shift to pre-production; postproduction; television like film.


Visit to Pathé Studios, France. Advice from von Stroheim; technicalities; stage management at Woolwich, Bath Theatre Royal, 1937, weekly rep. Radio listening 1935. 30-line television received in Aberdeen! Scophony[a mechanical television system. DS] BBC needed to go to recorded programmes – wartime moves to Maida Vale, then Bush House; news service in Scotland.


[There is a focus on union activities on this side. DS]

Bush House. American radio programmes under lease-lend [scheme], and removing advertising; London only speech programmes and music; improvisation; news in Scotland. In Stage management (Equity); in GPO Film Unit (ACT); on ACT Executive. Known names, slightly London centred (1940); ACT interest in BBC ? ; BBC Staff Association; In overseas and monitoring services as practice in Europe; registered a trade union; amalgamation contemplated in 1954 but none achieved; collaboration and 1949 conference; Rules [?] but followed by legal challenge, working together particular in television led to creation of BETA; merging in spirit took two years. Then final amalgamation in 1991. Disappointment with adopted rules resulting from compromises; need to be forward-looking in a changing industry.  


born July 5 1918; died December 21 2006. In 1960 John Gray,  directed West Highland for the BBC. The film brought together his 1930s career, when he worked alongside the great documentary maker John Grierson, what became his lifelong involvement in the culture and life of Scotland, and his technological insight, precision and sensitivity. All were to be features of his career in the nearly four decades he spent with the BBC, and later in his role as "grandfather" of community radio.

West Highland was an impression of a day on a railway between Mallaig and Glasgow in the last days of steam. More than two decades earlier Grierson had produced Night Mail, with words by WH Auden and music by Benjamin Britten, for the renowned GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit. Featuring music from the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the work by Gray - always passionate about railways - was something of an homage to the earlier film, but a classic in its own right.

Working for BBC radio from 1940 until 1978, Gray became a war correspondent, then a London-based senior sub-editor for the European news service. He moved to BBC Scotland in the late 1950s, later assuming responsibility for radio arts and features. One project he took on in the 1970s was the ground-breaking live arts magazine programme 12 Noon. In 1976, he co-founded the Edinburgh TV Festival and four years later, the Radio Academy Festival.

Born in London, the son of the distinguished economics professor Sir Alexander Gray, John was brought up in Aberdeen. Academia might have beckoned - except for John's early love of technology and the arts. A naturally gifted technician, as a teenager he manufactured his own crystal wireless radio sets. In 1937 he took up work as an assistant sound recordist with the GPO Film Unit.

In his long retirement John promoted community radio, trained volunteers and became president of the Scottish Association of Small Scale Broadcasters. He influenced media education at home and abroad, helping to create courses in radio production - always advocating the gap be closed between what was taught in schools and colleges and the requirements of the real world.

A liberal Tory, he was a trade union member throughout his working life. During the 1970s and 80s John was on the board of the board of Scottish Ballet, becoming its secretary and chairman. He was also a leading light in the Scottish arts lobby Salvo.

he latterly became very frail. Indeed, he said he was just hanging on until mid-December when he was presented with an honorary doctorate by Edinburgh's Napier University.