BECTU History Project Interview with Philip Donnellan – documentary, writer, producer
Interview Date(s): 28 & 29 June 1991
Interview number: 206
Interviewer: Colin Moffat
Colin Moffat: The copyright of this recording is vested in the ACTT History Project. Philip Donnellan: television documentary producer, director. Recording starting on the 28 June1991.
Colin Moffat: Right, Philip your name is quite clearly Irish but I suspect in fact if I didn't already know that you are a product socially and geographically of southern England, could you could you begin with that thought and talk about your upbringing and whence you came?
Philip Donnellan: Yes the Irish dimension was completely unknown to us, us I mean my sister I until pretty late on. In 1962 I think it was when we were living in, not my sister and I, when I was married and living in London for a couple of years and one night there was a knock on the front door and when I opened the door there was an oldish man there who turned out to be an uncle from Vancouver and he had tracked us down to this house in London. We course pulled him in and he was stone deaf but we managed to shout a lot of questions because by that time 1962 I was very interested in the Irish dimension that I'd been excluded from throughout my life and I wanted to know more and there was no means of finding out anymore and suddenly this old man appears out of the dark and um and he is a product of the same family. So we roared questions at him and he was only able to answer very few of them but it transpired that my father Thomas Donnellan was born in Ahascragh, East Galway in 1847 the second year of the famine and in 1849 as a baby he was brought over to England, wrapped in a sack I suppose something like that like most Irish immigrants at that time, and Uncle James thought that he had been taken to Sheffield and he'd grown up in Sheffield. But we have no means of knowing and I haven't been through the census forms of that time, to do it in Sheffield would be a big job and I've never done it. In the, in the 1870s he appears to have moved down into Staffordshire.
Staffordshire had always been a significantly Catholic County the remnants of the old religion were, were still there and Thomas may have moved down in order to join a harvesting gang of some sort. And the 1871 census finds him in in Whittington, Staffordshire where he settled, married a local woman, had six children of whom the youngest was my father, another Thomas, and Thomas in turn married a woman from North Devon during the war. In fact this woman who was my mother was a was obsessively middle class, the eighth daughter of a high falutin timber merchant and she lived in Holsworthy, North Devon and my father I think was stationed in Tavistock in the 10th Battalion the South Staffordshire Regiment in 1915 before going out to Gallipoli. And they met and they had an understanding and he came back and was on leave from from the Somme in 1916, I ought to say that he was by that time a Second Lieutenant in the South Staffs, and they married.
Now soon after they got married she discovered two things: one was that he was an Irishman and two that he came from a working class family in Staffordshire neither of which facts had evidently obtruded themselves before in their brief courtship. 1916 wasn't a good year to marry Irishmen unexpectedly and it produced a profound alienation in my mother which was never really very manifest to us except that we were never allowed to know about the Irish dimension and it's become overwhelmingly important to me since, possibly partly because of that embargo which demonstrates how very important it is to not to make your biases too clear in all forms of life. But basically when I was in the army from 1942 to 1947 lots of people said, “Oh but that's an Irish name” and I didn't know it was an Irish name but they did.
Colin Moffat: Are you saying that all of what you've said so far you didn't find out until the early 1960s? All this?
Philip Donnellan: Well I had a standard southern English accent. Indeed that's why I joined the BBC I was brought into the BBC as an announcer because I had an impeccable standard southern English accent and that was the accent I remember in my father who by becoming an officer in the First World War had adopted the conventional Officer's Mess accent. Now if I look back on it and think how that it would have been advisable given my political and social inclinations since then it would have been advisable for me to retain a Staffordshire or Irish accent I've often realised how misguided that thought was because a standard southern English or managerial class or ruling class accent has been of immense importance to me in surviving in the BBC and in working in the areas that I've worked in, which is mostly with industrial working class people. Because it's very valuable to be able to, to talk to managements in a voice that they recognise as having the stamp of authority and to working people who resist that they are perfectly capable I've always found of coming to their own conclusions about whether your worth talking to or whether they want to establish a relationship with you or not. And I've usually managed to convince them that it was OK talking to me because my terms of reference, my personal terms of reference, have always or generally appealed to them. I've had hellish arguments in the fronts of shop fronts while doing industrial films in one city or another but it is generally resolved with an amicable understanding that I'm on their side, which I think I am. I hope so.
Colin Moffat: What is the, what in fact is the origin of this voice?
Philip Donnellan: Well as I say my father would have been brought up in a conventional Catholic Irish family in a small village in Staffordshire would have of talked a sort of northern Birmingham I imagine, Staffordshire rural accent at the time. But, well that takes one into all sorts of social complexities because in 1910 Staffordshire was in the absolute sloughs in terms of educational opportunity for working people: only 5 out of 100 children at state schools in Staffordshire went on to secondary education in 1910. But in that year a new Director of Education was appointed in Staffordshire, who was a Scotsman and he very quickly latched the County onto the opportunities offered by new thinking in terms of County Scholarships and my father got a County Scholarship in 1911 by which time he was a Protestant. For various reasons, which are, which I have hypothesized about I've got no information but I can assume were reasonably cogent reasons he was by that time a Protestant. He got a County Scholarship to Saltley College, which was the Church of England Teachers Training College in Birmingham. Now that was a sort of, well it was an institution in which, in which people moved out of their own class and became part of that clerkly class who became if you like parsons, teachers and other slightly authority figures of that sort. I don't suppose for a moment that made any difference to his accent at that point but it certainly made a difference to his understanding of himself and where he was going, he wanted to be a teacher he’d always wanted to be a teacher. But at the same time at Saltley every student, unless he was a Jew and that was very unlikely of course in a Church of England Teachers Training College, had to belong to a Corps, the teacher the, the military, the Officer's Training Corps. I don't know whether it was called Officers Training Corps but it certainly was called the Corps, and they all therefore enlisted in the in B Company of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. And when I remember one of the few things that my father ever told me about that period, apart from his devotion to Saltley, was that he wore a red coat in the Army and I couldn't think how before the First World War he would have worn a red coat, the army was in khaki from 1900 or thereabouts onwards. But the red coat was clearly because the teachers training college corps wore red because there wasn't enough khaki for them. Anyway when the war started and he was called up into the 8th Battalion of the Royal Warwicks on the 28th of July 1914 and sent to Clacton it was obvious that he was officer material because he had gone through that teachers, that training college military course and the whole sense at the time, the ambience of the time I get from reading the Saltley College Chronicle now is of a period of fairly ardent militarism.
So after he was called up in July 1914 by early 1915 he was a Second Lieutenant and the accent came with the job. I've talked to young officers in the north of Ireland in the last ten years and every time I've asked them they all have accents like me which is a very old-fashioned, curiously out of date sort of accent for most people. And I've said to them, “Why do you speak like this you can't have come from that background did you?” And they've said, “No we didn't but if you're an officer this is the way you talk and so we've adopted the accent” and that's what my father did, and I inherited my accent from him. I always remember he used to talk differently on the phone to people and once when I was about six he came out of a telephone box and I said, “Daddy why do you why do you talk in a different voice when you are on the telephone?” And he said, “Oh do I?” And you know it's that sort of thing that you notice in your parents early on I think.
Colin Moffat: How did he talk at home?
Philip Donnellan: Oh as far as I know just like I talk now [LAUGHTER].
Colin Moffat: Oh, you're suggesting that in fact your own manner of speech is really traceable to this? What about your own education? What you got from that wasn’t that part of it?
Philip Donnellan: Well this is a period, this is a matter of some resentment to me I suppose, although in a way I enjoyed it greatly and my, my education, such as it was. My mother having decided that the Irish part of the family had to be ruled out of our young experience as children, the natural concomitant of that was that we should be educated in line with her pretensions and I suppose his because in order to keep some sort of peace in the family I imagine he went along. He was a very un-Irishman in the sense that he was devoted to books. He loved books and he was, there was nothing better that he would have liked than to be left alone to read. But my mother was a woman of enormous energy and, as well as aspiration and so my, this poor man was harried from pillar to post if he wasn't washing up he was digging the garden or making furniture or something because he mustn't be left idle over these books. She never opened a book in her life, she was an uneducated peasant but one of great artistic character and tremendous toughness. I've forgotten what the question was now, what didn’t I answer?
Colin Moffat: Your I was, I was wondering …
Philip Donnellan: Oh, education. Yes.
Colin Moffat: Well first of all when you arrived where were your parents living?
Philip Donnellan: They were living in a in a house in Reigate, in Surrey. My father was teaching in Reigate after the First World War and in 1919 he landed up in the 5th Brigade in Galway. He was education officer to 5 Brigade in Galway at the start of the War of Independence and he was stationed in all the parts of Ireland that I now know very well indeed and in some cases no particular people, long dead now, whom he knew in towns that we have since become very familiar with. It's a strange rather Barbara Cartland like story because my sister married an Irishman in the early ‘50s who was the latest, the last, no not the last because his son inherited the title. They were planted in East Galway in 1689 to hold a huge estate in East Galway for God and a Protestant king and the, my sister when accidentally she met this man and they got married she went back as the Lady of the big house to the same village where my grandfather, a penniless peasant child, had been born in 1847. So when I refer to Barbara Cartland I mean what would be almost believable in a Barbara Cartland novel is very strange when it actually happens. And it dramatises to an extent that’s impossible to overestimate the sense of history that I have about the relations between England and Ireland because it's so astonishingly dramatised in my own life.
Colin Moffat: Now all this information about Ireland didn't come to you until after your, was your father dead by the time this man called, you mentioned earlier, in 1962? So none of this came through direct, your father didn't tell you all this did he?
Philip Donnellan: No.
Colin Moffat: He told you virtually nothing, is that what you are saying?
Philip Donnellan: He told me nothing. I went once with him when I was four, tied on behind him on a motorbike, to go and visit Whittington where his mother still lived. And I remember the little shop that she had, my grandfather Thomas died in 1900 and in 1924, 1928/29 when I went to Whittington with him she had a little shop there and I remember the smells of it and I remember this, this old lady, well she seemed old I suppose she was old, in a long black dress and so on, but that was the only contact we ever had with them and my sister never met her. Both my grandparents are buried in the churchyard at Whittington although he was a Catholic and she was a Protestant. No, none of that information came to me through him.
Colin Moffat: Did you never ask him about that side of the family?
Philip Donnellan: No but we didn't know there was another side of the family it was excluded. He died in 1948, three weeks after I had gone into the BBC and in a way that too was rather mystical because after I'd been in the BBC, invited to become a staff member of that remarkable institution as an announcer, three weeks after I'd been there I was put in by the person in charge of announcers or nominally in charge of them, a woman called MacLeod, Fanny McLeod a formidable woman one of the first of the BBCs formidable women that I met but not the last. I was put in for a job in Birmingham and there was a vacancy for an announcer in Birmingham. I wasn't asked if I wanted to go to Birmingham or if they'd asked me I would have gone anywhere I mean I'd just been round the world since I was 18 and was enormously excited by the prospect of seeing new places even if they were in England and in Birmingham in particular.
So I was put into this job and I had a board early in February 1948 and an hour before the board I was told that my father had died of a heart attack in a train going to his school in Surrey. And, and I, the board was very sympathetic as BBC boards often are, and that was that. But I got the job in Birmingham as you might say the day he died which is strange because the whole of his early life had been lived in that ambience, that Midland ambience the very day he died I went back to it. And that's always seemed to me one of those curious twists that seem to characterise the life of this particular family.
Colin Moffat: And you knew nothing about this? Nothing about your Staffordshire background did you?
Philip Donnellan: Nothing at all. I knew from his notebooks, I knew from his notebooks one or two people he'd known and I called on them and he had a dear friend who, who lived in a remote Staffordshire village and I bicycled up to see him from Birmingham and that sort of thing. No I knew nothing about that and because I was such an impeccable young middle class bloke nobody ever mentioned it you see. I mean his friend of pre-first war still living there never mentioned it to me. They didn't say at Saltley for example he was known as Paddy for obvious reasons. So none of this emerged at all. And of course it gave particular emphasis when one did know it to the latter years of my work in broadcasting because of that acute sense of tension generated by the events in the north of Ireland and the acute tension which resulted between England and Ireland and it was suddenly brought up to one over the years, suddenly at first I mean but then over the years the sense of questioning about where one's loyalties and identity lay. My father had had fought for England through two wars because he was in the second war as well and in France in 1940. And I had fought for five years or I hadn't fought very much I mean no soldier in the second war fought very much but I'd served for five and a half years and then suddenly one had to ask oneself ‘Where do I belong?’ Now obviously in a certain sense I belonged absolutely to England but at the same time many of the things I felt important I saw in the history of the relationship between the two countries and that was both stimulating but also deeply frustrating.
Colin Moffat: Before we get too far into your BBC career can we go back? Your parents moved from the Midlands to Surrey yes?
Philip Donnellan: No. What happened was that I diverged to mention the, his service in Ireland at the end of the war. He taught, when he was discharged he was de-mobbed in Belfast in 1920 in April or May 1920. And he taught in Belfast for some weeks and in a very bad novel that I've written about his life, which is all hypothetical I have postulated that he applied or could have applied for a job in Belfast. In which case I might have been born in Belfast in 1924 instead of Reigate and whether I would have preferred that I'm not quite sure.
Colin Moffat: The reason you were born in Reigate was that your father simply got a job there, in the ordinary course of looking for a job it happened to be in Surrey?
Philip Donnellan: Exactly. And he worked for the Surrey Education Committee from 1921 or ‘22 right through until his death in 1948.
Colin Moffat: I take it you were educated in what is called the Independent Sector nowadays?
Philip Donnellan: [LAUGHTER] Yes that's right.
Colin Moffat: Can you say a bit about that?
Philip Donnellan: Yes. My father was a head teacher, he got a head teachership in a little village school at a village, at a place called Merrow just outside Guildford where we lived from 1929 to 1932. And because I had a very bad squint early on in life I had an operation and I could, no I didn't have an operation till later, I had drops in my eyes at certain points of this and the only way I could carry on with my education was to live at home and to go to the school, the village school.
Colin Moffat: Your father's school?
Philip Donnellan: My father’s school which was a two room, two class school and actually despite this impaired vision I learned to read there whereas I completely failed to learn to read before then and this may be an indication because I think he ran that school with a bit of a rod of iron. He was quite um, well as an ex-officer he expected a degree of discipline which is understandable after a, after a really ghastly war. And in 1928/29 the First World War, although I was totally unconscious of it in one sense it, had a tremendous effect on all of us, and people with no legs and no arms were a constant sight even I remember in those days and the war hung over us in the form suddenly culturally in terms of books. They were escape books and one of my earliest memories is my father reading these books aloud to my mother and I would lie, presumably wrapped in a blanket, in the corner of a sofa or something and I would hear this comforting voice droning on reading books that I didn't understand but something came through to me so that I got an extremely romantic image of what war meant. Of course I couldn't understand it so I think I'm probably making that up. But I remember the image and right up until the Second World War, which after all was a very short distance which when you are getting old you realise what a very short span of time it was between the first and second wars. And, and this had a tremendous effect on me I was passionately interested in soldiering or in a sort of hazy and romantic notion of soldiering which stayed with me for a very long time and certainly survived the Second World War. Since I wrote radio programs and eventually made films about soldiers and war and so on. But the education thing came from my parents aspirations for us, he obviously didn't trust the school where, or the type of schooling that he represented although I think he was probably a remarkable teacher. He was particularly keen on mathematics which was disastrous because both my sister and I were hopeless at mathematics as so often alas middle class people are, they can never take it seriously they think the arts are the only thing that's worthwhile, which is why you find so many arts people, so many middle class arts people in broadcasting. They ought to be in industrial management not in broadcasting at all, should be working people who are in broadcasting. [LAUGHTER] Sorry.
Colin Moffat: Was it perhaps your mother mainly who was keen that you shouldn’t be educated by the State?
Philip Donnellan: I don't think she would have had much difficulty in persuading my father, he had after all moved from the working class into the notional middle class. And although we were in a paradoxical position in this little village of Merrow where there was still the Lord of the Manor and people who, who knew each other and didn't know the working people who went to my father's school. Some of whom of course in those days had no boots, I remember problems at home of providing kids with boots to come to school. Nonetheless we were placed in a curious position because all the people that my mother and perhaps then my father wanted us to know who were the nice people in the village didn't want to know us, we were just the schoolmasters family whereas the people with whom we were normally associated we didn't want to have anything to do with. So we were in effect very isolated in that village and I think that probably may have had quite an effect on the question of education.
And I wasn't bright enough really to, to do other than go to a nearby Preparatory School which was on the edge of Guildford about four miles from Merrow and I went there in 1932 to 1937. It was a very tough school, tough I mean in terms of its scholastic standards not in terms of the, the other pupils who were a pretty wet lot, I imagine just like I was. But I did learn a lot there I did Latin and Greek from the age of seven and I can still remember all that crap about Ares and stuff but Latin of course enormously valuable. Except I can't speak any European languages [LAUGHTER] as a result it’s all rather dotty isn’t it?
The one brute I remember was an Irishman. He, I should think had been to a Christian Brothers school in Ireland, his name was Malin and he had charming methods of torture which consisted of if you were naughty he either hit you on the knuckles with an ebony ruler or he lifted you by the hair at the side of, just above your ears, your sideboards, if you had sideboards in those days, he had a charming habit of grabbing you by the those and lifting you, it was agonising pain, so there was a fair amount of the usual sort of Dickensian rubbish. And now and again there were other perhaps worse moral peccadilloes, which I won't go into. I was a boarder there a weekly boarder went backwards and forwards on the Green Line bus to where we were living by that time which was Cobham, Street Cobham in Surrey.
Colin Moffat: Where do you where did you, which school did you go to from there?
Philip Donnellan: Then I tried to take a scholarship to … I don’t know why given my memory of them which suggests to me that perhaps my memory of their social inclinations is not absolutely accurate, they they went to a school not, they tried to get me into a school which was not characterised by being particularly cheap, although everywhere was cheap by present day standards then, but was characterised by a very free and easy relationship to the broad perspectives of education in those days public school education and this was Bryanston in Dorset which a lot of ‘30s parents would have thrown up their hands in horror. It was akin to Gordonstoun in a sense but they're not quite so upper crust.
Colin Moffat: Rather open air?
Philip Donnellan: Yes very open air.
Colin Moffat: Mildly progressive.
Philip Donnellan: Yeah exactly. That's a very reasonable description mildly progressive. Well I took a scholarship to go to Bryanston in 1936 and didn't get it. So I didn't go to Bryanston, I went to the cheaper school which was ten miles away Clayesmore and the Bryanston people called us Clayesmorons and they were dead right because we were a pretty moronic lot. It had been established by a guy who became quite famous after the war, a man called Evelyn Mansfield King. It had a checkered establishment history, a man who had once been Minister Plenipotentiary to Montenegro, which has long since disappeared founded the school. He was an eccentric called Devine, Alex Devine. And Evelyn King had taken it over and he was a brisk businessman who took anybody it didn't matter what their intellectual or scholastic standards were if they wanted to come to Clayesmore they came if they could find the money, which was only about £25 a term boarder. So I went to I went to Clayesmore in 1937, September 1937.
Colin Moffat: Was this well within the, the means of your parents? Was it a bit of a struggle?
Philip Donnellan: No it was a struggle. Oh absolutely. My father was earning his maximum salary when he died in 1948 £660 a year, which is not a bad salary in 1948 perhaps for a working man but for a teacher it wasn't exactly opulent. So yes they had grave problems and they deprived themselves of all sorts of things which, this is why I now resent it because all the things that could have added so much to their happiness and the expansion of their modest cultural desires could have been achieved if they hadn't sent my sister and me to private schools and I think we would all have benefited from that and I don't believe in all this nonsense about seeking that sort of status and privilege and all our children have gone through the mill of the state system and they all failed the 11+ and they all went to secondary moderns except the last one who for whom a comprehensive had fortuitously arrived a few miles down the road and so on.
Colin Moffat: What were you like at this stage Philip, were you, were you a fairly conventional middle class boy? I mean were you well integrated. I mean there wasn't any sort of…
Philip Donnellan: The only thing I could do was write. Now the scholastic standards that I'd come from this prep school with were fairly high compared to quite a lot of other boys at the school who were a lovely lot. I mean we got on very well indeed and we had a marvelously happy time, we this was an open-air school par excellence. In fact there's a saying, which I think must have been made up by Evelyn king but it was that Ashburton, Bedales and Clayesmore were the ABC of education. Now I take that with a very large pinch of salt.
But we all wore shirts, open neck shirts and shorts and sandals in the summer all year round and we did all the work on the estate. There was no money for building swimming pools, we built we dug them. So it was, it was a Do It Yourself school.
Colin Moffat: I take it it was an Anglican foundation was it?
Philip Donnellan: I don't think we'd ever heard of God there. I mean there was a chapel because you had to have a chapel to be recognized by the Board of Education.
Colin Moffat: I mean it was Church of England?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes, yes, yes. I mean we're actually, before that my parents had discovered Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. So by 1937 I was what is known or was known in the Army as an O.D., Other Denomination. I was a Christian Scientist I mean that was a bore …
Colin Moffat: Was that a token thing? I mean were you literally sincerely or you were just …
Philip Donnellan: Well I was dragged to the Sunday school, the Christian Science Sunday school, Kingston-on-Thames every Sunday and it was murder because it was all a lot of bollocks to me. I mean I could understand the concept of God because that had been dinned into to me for years by then and we used to trottle down to some local church and sing hymns and I knew the Anglican ritual by heart from my prep school. But Mary Baker Eddy, which was a lot of intellectually pretentious nonsense, was completely unintelligible to me. I mean the scientific statement of being which I remember to this day but I wont bore you with. I mean but of course the thing about Christian Science is that it's marvellous if a) you’re rich and b) you're very fit. Now Christian Science served me very well because though I was never rich I was always very fit. So Christian Science’s main interest to cure you of appendix or rheumatism or coughs or whatever mainly because they don't exist in reality served me very well indeed because I never had these things, never have had. And so Christian Science lingered on until after the war I had a Catholic girlfriend and I didn't know then that we'd once been a Catholic family, you see through my father, didn't know that but she got me reading comparative religion and I realized it all took its place in that shifting and dubious intellectual perspective which regards religion as a crucial area of religion.
Colin Moffat: Did you ever argue with your parents about Christian Scientists?
Philip Donnellan: No, no. There was there was no analysis or argument in our household, none at all. There was scarcely any noticeable thought although there must have been just to conduct a life. But I do think my parents were modestly estranged, when I say modestly I mean they would never have separated, but I do think that that there was a real separation; my mother felt strongly and probably from the beginning that she had married beneath her.
Colin Moffat: You really said that this is what what was called inter-class marriage originally and did this impinge continually in time and went on, this was a factor was it?
Philip Donnellan: No.
Colin Moffat: In how they behaved?
Philip Donnellan: It may have been but I couldn't see the signs and it was never mentioned because it was the, it was the classic or sort of what I would now call lower-middle class cultural image of not-in-front-of-the-children. So at all costs any of the real vivid bitter facts of life were kept from us. In consequence I remained both naive and immature for a very long time because the protected situation, protected in the quite distinct ways that the BBC offered for example, kept me insulated from areas of reality for a very long time after I would nominally have been a perfectly mature and intelligent person. In an artistic sense I am not sorry about that because clearly I've outgrown that now [LAUGHTER] but in an artistic sense I do believe that slow maturing is very important if you're going to do important artistic work because to retain, as so many painters demonstrate, quite apart from many other art forms, the childlike view of the simplicities and complexities of the world is enormously important I think in trying to establish um a certain sort of truth – generally a subjective truth and therefore not necessarily a truth at all – about the world that you are seeing. It's part of the equipment of a primitive artist and while I recognize that a filmmaker or radio writer or producer is not a primitive artist nonetheless I've never really regretted that slow maturing process which I sense, only sense as I've got no external evidence to suggest that, but there was never any argument, there was never any way of thinking, there was never any discussion.
I remember the political events of my youth quite clearly from external imagery. For instance I remember the day that Mussolini marched into Abyssinia. It was I believe Easter 1935, although I maybe have got the date wrong, I was sitting on the beach, on the pebble ridge at Dymchurch with my aunt and there was a newspaper on the beach and I read the headline of it and whatever it said I don't remember. But I said, “What does that mean?” and she told me what it meant. And of course all the events of the Spanish Civil War were very vivid to me because it was my first faltering recognition towards a Republican instinct, which must have been just frivolous and infantile. But in 1937, by that time I was at this public school, we almost destroyed a number of classrooms with tremendous battles, which consisted of smashing desks and throwing ink at each other and writing large paper posters which became very popular during the Cultural Revolution in China. Writing large paper posters which we liberally decorated our classrooms with which said, ‘not putsch, purge or pogrom but peace’ and we had a sort of embryonic peace movement and I was carried along by that both then and in 1937, although I didn't really comprehend any of the issues seriously. I was enormously moved by the Spanish situation and that when six years later I found myself stationed in Gibraltar during the war. That was the start of a passionate interest in the political and military strategies of Spain, which has continued right up to today. Now of course I've got a son who is married to a Spanish girl and living in Spain. So these things crept into one's consciousness not because of debate or argument in the home but because the sheer power of the events surrounding us mediated nearly always by not by broadcasting but by newspapers had such a powerful effect on young imaginations which couldn't discern really what was what. But it was fun and it was and it was part of an element of tension in our lives, which was missing from this country club school I was at, which was all sunshine days. Wonderful.
Colin Moffat: This presumably made you notice what one would have to call the deficiencies at home, the lack of discussion, the flow of ideas and so on school sounds a rather better place to be from your point of view. Did you …
Philip Donnellan: Well yes that's it, it sounds an awful thing to say but of course that's quite true because one of the terrible things and I really use that word advisedly, advisedly, is that in sending their children to private schools people/parents resign their chance of bending the twig. I only saw my parents at holiday time and while they obviously weren't strangers to me in a sense they were almost less real than the world that I had just come from. And that was the tragedy because from 1932 until 1937 I'd been a boarder at my prep school and from 1937 until 1940 I was a boarder at this other school, my public school and in 1939 my father left home to rejoin the army and he's he was … He stayed in the army until 1942 in May when he was discharged for being too old, by 1942 he was 53 which now seems positively young to me. I could fight a war any time but I had gone into the Army in April 1942 and I came back from the Army in July 1947 and he died in February 1948. So I never knew my father and to me that's a tragedy because all the things that I would now want to say: you know when you were in Belfast why didn't you stay? What about your Irish identity? All these myriads of questions that in a small and neurotic way do bedevil me a bit nowadays, at least make me questioning. None of them became even possible because we didn't know each other and I suspect that maybe in his later years my mother never had any doubt if she'd decided to do something she was absolutely sure that that was right. So she couldn't have any second thoughts about it that would be admitting that somehow she was wrong. So she was never wrong I’m a bit like her unfortunately.
Colin Moffat: Which side do you think your writing came from?
Philip Donnellan: Well certainly not from her although she was a wonderful letter writer. No, I'm being unjust I’m very biased about my mother who was a remarkable person but really a pain in the arse and a pain in the arse to my wife too. I mean like so many people of that generation, but not progressive middle class people I think at that time, she was terribly concerned about sex. Now she never knew what the answers, I mean she was very interested poor thing in what men do to each other you see in certain circumstances and homosexual conditions about which she'd heard. It was only when I got married that she could talk to another woman about this and the other woman was my poor wife who had to answer my 60 year old mother's questions about sex. And ‘what do they do to each other dear?’ You know and so on. Which was, which was rather curious in a way the profound inhibition of the family were and you know when Edmund Leach in his Reith Lectures spoke about the cramping isolation of the family or the petty secrets of the family I always think of my own family like that. It was, it was tragically inadequate and it set an absolute standard for what we should never descend to in our own family and we have tried always to play fair with our kids and if our, if we had experience we expected them to share the experience which is why we've always refused to give them the status and privilege of a separate education. If we were, if we were impoverished which luckily we never were really impoverished or even half-impoverished really they would share that and, and if there were experiences to be had they shared that. But that didn't happen in my family. So we were grossly under-uncultured to coin a phrase and this of course had enormous effects later on when the only options offered to me at school were journalism or the army.
End Side 1
Start Side 2
Colin Moffat: This is Philip Donnellan Side 2. You’ve got a letter there that you want to read out.
Philip Donnellan: Yes I'm reading this because whatever I may say about the country club air of the public school I went to there were certain people there who were extraordinarily individual, perceptive and valuable. I didn't notice them all that much or what they said at the time but I now realize that they had quite an effect on me. This is a letter to my father from my housemaster dated March the 20th 1938: he says, ‘Dear Mr. Donnellan, I'll try to the best of my ability to put down my ideas about Philip and to answer your other questions. My own relations with him have always been most satisfactory. In school I find him attentive and industrious and out of school he's always friendly without being unduly familiar. That he possesses ability is very evident so far as I'm concerned he shows no reluctance to exercise it. He possesses also no small amount of savoir-faire and can make himself charming and companionable without ever going too far presuming too much etc.’ and there's a bit about football.
‘So far I seem to have been singing his praises unreservedly’ this is the bit the BBC would like to hear, ‘but please remember I've only been describing my own personal reactions to him. I'm afraid that his relations with other masters have not always been so happy. Occasionally I’m informed that he's been idle and inattentive, that he's inclined to misbehave and that if he’s bored he doesn't hesitate to show so. He takes such a subject in his stride and doesn't exert himself so that he fidgets and so on.’ I think there's probably some truth in these things. ‘I recollect how a little while ago I drew his attention to the fact that he'd come 19th and 21st in maths for two consecutive fortnights. I expressed my pain and surprise with the gratifying result that the next fortnight order showed him in 11th. Probably the interpretation is that although he'll work hard if he's interested or coerced or if he feels it worthwhile he'll not hesitate to take advantage of a master whose presentation is uninspired and who may perhaps be reluctant to impose the full rigour of the law upon offenders. It may be also that a certain intellectual arrogance possesses him at times so that if he thinks the work beneath him he lets it be seen. I feel at times that there's something rather Irish about his temperament that he is perfectly docile and reasonable when properly handled. I'm convinced from my own experience of him only at times is he too self-assured …’ and so on.
Now then the fact that we never for an instant called ourselves an Irish family it is a very interesting evaluation of that because the qualities that I find most Irish in myself come from my mother not from my father. At least I presume they do because I never knew my father very well. But there it is.
Colin Moffat: What about the your parents political views such as they were or rather such as they revealed to you? Can you see now where they stood politically?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah, they were staunch Tories. My father took the Daily Express every day and the Sunday Express on Sundays and apart from his professional magazines, perhaps a professional association of teachers or whatever, nothing else came into the house apart from that and the radio and …
Colin Moffat: Do you draw any conclusions that it was the Express rather than the Telegraph?
Philip Donnellan: Only that his, his interests may have been … I haven't thought about it really but I suppose the rather more lurid imperialist aspects of the Daily Express may have appealed to him I honestly don't know. I didn't find it surprising at the time but then is one surprised about the things one's parents do? It seems to be part of the given situation in which you exist, you don't, you're not surprised if your parents have arguments or go to the theatre or drink gin regularly at six-thirty. I mean it's just one of those things parents do this. So no, I wasn't surprised by the Daily Express I was appalled later and now, although I've got over it now, and I know that such narrow mindedness is not necessarily emblematic of any real truth. But I I just think if they had had the opportunities that I have had, even more modest I mean obviously working in broadcasting has given one an enormous access to the opportunity to pursue access to areas of knowledge, understanding, research which very few other people have. But even if they'd had a microcosm of that they would have lived different lives, as it was they just had to struggle to make money. My father, my father hawked encyclopedias, no the Children's Encyclopedia around in the evenings in the early ‘30s in a small attaché case. He would go round soliciting subscriptions for the Children's Encyclopedia and we had sets of them in the house and they were infinitely boring. I never read one, never, well I consulted it I suppose – they were books of solid blocks of matter, which I couldn’t conceivably read. And my mother ran a tea shop she was a wonderful cook amongst her other artistic attributes she was a marvelous cook we were always terribly well fed she was a wonderful cake maker and she opened a café and she ran that through the middle part of the ‘30s and then when the war started she took guests in our house in Pirbright.
By this time we lived in Pirbright a very pleasant old house and officers from the guards depot, which was very flattering of course, used to come and stay and she put up people and all that, very hospitable family we were and but with very narrow social parameters. I remember curiously enough the firstcommunist we unknowingly welcomed into our house, we wouldn’t of course welcome a communist if we’d known, it was a knock on the door one Christmas Eve 1940 it must have been and standing on the doorstep was a young man, in fact I think I probably opened the door, 1940 I was sixteen. I probably opened the door and there was this young man it was dark and raining outside and of course I said “Come in” and he said, “I understand you put people up” and we said, “Well we do but not really at Christmas.” And he said, “Oh it's just that I've been sent down from the camp and I've been posted here and just arrived now I've got nowhere to stay.” So by this time my mother had arrived and she said, “Well of course you must come and stay.” And his name was Ormond Uren and an unusual name so it stuck very firmly in my mind but he stayed with us over Christmas and shared our Christmas and we got on very well. He was a Captain and I think could have been the Royal Fusiliers I'm not sure. And within two years after that he was he was sent down for nine years for selling technical secrets to the Communist Party and there was a big thing in the papers at the time and to our horror we realised we'd been harbouring this this bloke.
We used to get circulars from the police because we were a place where people stayed. We used to get circulars from the police about sinister German agents and stuff like that who was supposed to be lurking around, sniffing out the secrets of the guards brigade ha-ha! The secret was of course a straight back and no nothing between the ears, as we now know but still there it is.
Colin Moffat: Did this man cause any political discussion when it was discovered?
Philip Donnellan: Not that I remember but I tell you who did and that was when the war started 1939 and I came home for Christmas from school in December I suppose it would have been December and to find to my delight that my cousin, my Canadian cousin, Reg Bromeley had arrived with a number of his mates. Now Reg was a PhD in America, he'd he'd worked on human behaviour at John Hopkins University in I think it's in Massachusetts and he had a very distinguished impending career as a psychologist. And the moment the war started he rushed back to Canada and signed up in the only regiment that he could get into which was the Royal Montreal Regiment. His family came from Ottawa but and he came over to England in the autumn of 1939 and here in the house were the first ordinary soldiers, well they were pretty extra-ordinary actually, ordinary soldiers that we'd seen and Canadian soldiers. And he brought all his mates from the barrack room and they filled the house endlessly for probably only six months that the RMRs were stationed in in Aldershot, along with the the famous and feared Van Doos, the 22nd Princess Pat's Canadian Light Infantry who were all French Canadians from Montreal in Quebec. And there were tremendous fights between the Anglophone and the Francophone groups up in the camp there was always trouble.
Anyway Reg with this acute educational background that he had been that he'd been through came into our little family like a whirlwind. I mean he was he would lie in a big chair smoking like a chimney with his mates all with their boots off and so on it was lovely for me at 15 absolutely great. And he would, in a very quiet way he would challenge very subtly my parents preconceptions about the sort of life they were living and what England was and all these things. And he used to roar with laughter and they would never really understand what he was laughing about and he would slap his thigh and roar with laughter and he was a great man. He eventually became, he was captured in Italy put in the bag by the Germans for being hopelessly lost about a mile ahead of the troops and he'd been sent out to find prisoners of war and so on. He was put in the bag for the last few weeks of the Italian war and then he became a civilian. He was a senior adviser on defence to the Canadian government for years after the war and he remained a robust and powerful, um, well what would I say: cultural and political interlocutor after the war on the few times the last that I met him and he died about four or five years ago. a stunning bloke and such a strange man to find in the rough battle dress of a Royal Montreal Regiment Lance Corporal.
He subsequently because he knew all the leaders in the British world of psychology British and Scottish of course world of psychology he dropped in on one of them in Cambridge as a Lance Corporal and was met with astonishment that this was the Reg Bromeley that they'd been corresponding with in Canada. And here he was disguised as a Canadian Lance Corporal and they quickly whipped him out of that turned him into a Major and put him into army psychology. But that that torpedo into the passivity and intellectual nullity of our family home at that time was quite extraordinary. But Reg did the analysis not me [LAUGHTER].
Colin Moffat: Presumably the contact with all these soldiers who arrived and so on was rather to your liking I suppose? You were still interested in the military side of things?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Colin Moffat: Were you, were you in an officer's training corps at school?
Philip Donnellan: Well there was only one, one only started in, at the end of 1938 during the crisis of 1938 to our horror the corps was started I mean the idea of Clayesmore …
Colin Moffat: Why to your horror?
Philip Donnellan: Well because Clayesmore was not given to getting into uniforms and, um I mean the peace move of 1937 did represent a genuine strand in the broad and unspoken culture of the school. We didn't stand for that sort of thing …
Colin Moffat: Are you talking about the boys or the staff?
Philip Donnellan: I'm talking about the boys and the staff. The staff, well my housemaster David Spinney who wrote that letter I just read to you, was actually in the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a tremendously keen naval man and 90% of our history lessons were taken up with describing the tactics of Rodney or Nelson. We learnt very little else, I mean I knew exactly what order that Nelson's ships went into the Battle of Trafalgar and why they took the lee of the Spanish and you know know all the rest of it and so on. So apart from individuals there was a strong element of pacifism in the school as a whole. And now the boys: well we were just boys but um but there was it was not a school for getting into uniforms and so on and we didn't mind guns and that sort of thing but to wear a uniform while handling them was it seemed ridiculous that we did so. There was an ATC for the last probably six or eight months that I was there and it was all rather a knock-about business we were Dad's Army if ever there was one. Well …
Colin Moffat: Were you looking forward by now to going into the army yourself?
Philip Donnellan: Oh you bet …
Colin Moffat: The war was about to start and you had your eye on it by now presumably?
Philip Donnellan: My two best friends were both killed within six months of the start of the war, quite extraordinary. I was very young I was sort of fairly in advance of my age and so I had friends who were rather older and they left and and, and, and, and that was that. But um I forget what I was what I was saying; you asked me whether there was a corps at school, well I joined the Home Guard, when I when I came home. When I left school in the summer term the end of the summer term of 1940 when I was 16 I came home and my father had talked to the Chief Editor or whatever he was called Managing Editor of the Surrey Times Group, the Surrey Advertiser Group in Guildford and they had agreed to take me on as a trainee reporter. But they couldn't accommodate me in any of the Guilford papers but they sent me to the Woking News and Mail in Woking.
Colin Moffat: What age were you then roughly?
Philip Donnellan: I was sixteen, sixteen, sixteen-and-a-half and I joined the Home Guard and so I spent the weekends fixing endless, helping to fix endless miles of barbed wire around this village which would all have been flattened by any Panzer that came within range [LAUGHTER]. But we had a great time and I had a gun and I you know the the commanding officer of, the commanding officer of the Home Guard was the local solicitor whom we knew and it was all pretty dotty but great fun and I would was all set to join the army as soon as I could. But instead I went to the Woking News and Mail from 16 to 18 and the Woking News & Mail had lost both its reporters to the war and all that was left was a man who seemed as though he was 70 to me but was probably only about 45, anyway he was too old to go into the army. He was the editor Mr Gibbons and Mr Gibbons was extremely nice to me. He can't have had anything but a sinking feeling when this terribly well-spoken nice young man, nice young boy in effect came, was sent by Guildford to be his assistant. He had to produce 24 columns of copy a week for the newspaper and within three months I was writing at least six or seven of those columns. I had to, I learnt two things at the Woking News & Mail and the most important, the more important of those two things was to cut out cuttings from the Times with a pin. Most valuable skill in any newspaper is to be able to cut out cuttings with a pin, so you must always have a pin in your lapel. I never managed to learn shorthand, which was a great disability I wish I had but I was hopeless at learning anything that I could write. And he gave me the deaths to do, which was a marvellous potted social education. I would ring up the, I nearly said the auctioneers, I mean the morticians, what do you call them? Undertakers. Monday morning ring all round the three undertakers in Woking, ‘Who's died?’ Get your names and addresses went round and I saw stiffs all over Woking and was invited in to take part in the funeral tea or to see the deceased or to comfort people.
I found it grisly and I didn't know how to cope with it but you had to cope with it and also I did all the bombing and all the shot down aircraft. I would head off on my bicycle via the police to to where there'd been incidents in the night. And I did all cinema criticism only only really, not based on looking at the film, just based on the handouts. But I would write skeptical bits about whether the handouts were right and I did because I was supposed to be cultured and I did all the music criticisms, all the arts criticisms which was ludicrous because I hadn’t got a clue. But I would go to somebody there and say “Look what ought I to say in this article?” and they would say, “Well you say, you know this and this” and I would write it all down in my notebook and write it up. So I kept my end up.
And and by 1942 I was there, I started on ten shillings a week and by 1942 I was earning twenty-five shillings a week and because I lived at home, we, we lived six miles from from Woking and I bicycled there and back and unfortunately I didn't have any girlfriends. Life so far hadn't taught me how to chat-up females which was a terrible disability and so I wasn't, I was used to the discipline of writing to order and loving it. And I never spent any money so by the time I went into the army I had something like seven or eight quid in my Post Office savings bank.
Colin Moffat: Were you actually thinking of journalism as a career? Was this just a bit of an experiment to try yourself out?
Philip Donnellan: No, no, no I was definitely, it was it was a career. The only thing that I really excelled in at school, well there was nothing I never wrote for the school mag or anything like that was that I could I could always write, I could always write things and I I loved letter writing I wrote I read letters but during particularly at the end of the war in China I wrote enormous letters home every other day merely because I wanted to put down what was happening or some of what was happening, not all of it.
But on my about March 3rd, I was 18 on February the 9th 1942 and I thought until I looked at my attestation paper that I had gone in on my birthday on my 18th birthday and joined the Seaforth Highlanders but I find now it was it was two or three weeks after that.
Colin Moffat: Did you consult your father about what regiment to go into?
Philip Donnellan: No, they knew I was going to the army and I I wanted to go into a hair raising regiment and the fact that it was the furthest infantry training centre away from home was an important factor to me.
Colin Moffat: Why?
Philip Donnellan: Because I wanted to get as far away as possible merely for the excitement and adventure and because I'd I'd read nothing but John Buchan. Colin Moffat: Where was this?
Philip Donnellan: This was Fort George in Invernesshire, the depot for the Seaforth Highlanders, a fort built in 1748 after the failure of the ‘45 by General Wade a magnificent place. So I joined the Seaforth Highlanders with joy and I went to the army on April 16th 1942 and, and had the whale of a time, I mean I really loved it. I'm talking about the initial training because it was just like school to me except the food was much better – the food was wonderful in the army, absolutely marvelous.
Colin Moffat: Were you a private soldier?
Philip Donnellan: Yes and I wore a Glengarry and a kilt and and I thought myself a hell of a figure. And, and in the barrack made 90% of the, of the soldiers with me in that barrack room, I suppose there were 25 of us in the barrack room, were from from the Gorbals or from Maryhill and the slums of Glasgow. And they'd never been away from home before not for a night and they were terribly homesick. The lad in the, the lad in the bunk above me, I had the best bunk in the room right by the window looking out onto this wonderful panorama of the ramparts and the sea beyond and down, down the the Firth, Inverness in the far distant 16 miles away. And I just loved it and I loved the discipline I was used to it it's what it's what public school is designed to do produce a disciplined person. But they didn't think of their disciplines as being used in that particular context as I'm sure you know.
Colin Moffat: Had you um um, of course this was perhaps the first serious contact with working class people was it?
Philip Donnellan: I felt I'd had quite a lot of contact through the newspaper but that was really pretty vestigial.
Colin Moffat: Any surprise on you side on what you, what you were confronted with?
Philip Donnellan: Yes their inability to survive emotionally on their own. Of course they got over it quite quickly as one does but for me the idea of being alone in a strange place was quite routine and it was a strength and I was the first of our intake to get the stick on the Commanding Officers guard. We were the first, it was the first guard mounting that our intake was allowed to do and I was the smartest soldier on parade and the smartest soldier on parade gets the is excused guard duties. He is the Commanding Officer’s orderly so he gets a stick to put under his arm with a silver knob on it and you run errands there are very few. The the RSM was a formidable Seaforth Highlander I mean you know a man, you never saw a Commanding Officer before but the RSM was the man who you did see and it was God come down to earth and you you you went to see if you got the stick you went in to see the RSM and the RSM wrote your name down in a big book and he said to me, “Donnellan” ‘Yes Sir” He said, “I understand you are a journalist in civil life.” I said, “Yes Sir” he said “I'd be grateful if perhaps you could write your impressions on the fort from the point of view of a recruit.” And it was as though God had handed me one of the tablets and asked me to write my own particular commandments on it. It was something that stuck in my mind every detail of that moment I couldn't believe it. Here was the RSM asking me to write my, my impressions of the fort and …
Colin Moffat: For what purpose?
Philip Donnellan: Well nominally in the interest I suppose of welfare so that he could understand better what it was that young recruits coming into the fort felt about the ambiance. And he was duly grateful when I did that. And but I got into bad books because I led a little mutiny, it wasn't really a mutiny but it in the wonderful spring and summer of that year, and during the during the summer the barrack rooms got very hot and one evening I said “Why don't we” in my effected Scots accent which was noticeable by that time, I said “Why don't we pick up our blankets and get out the front gate and go and sleep on the carse”,
you see, “Go and sleep amongst the gorse and the heather out on the common outside the front gate across, the moat and all this.” You see so two or three said “Oh aye why don't we do that”. And so we picked up our biscuits and our mattresses and blankets and we filed out across cross gate path through the guard. The guard said “Hiya lads” and off and off we went and nobody asked us what we were doing. We went and found a convenient place in the heather and we lay down and dozed off, there was scarcely any darkness. Well half an hour, within half an hour shouts and screams and people doubling through the heather saying “WHAT’S THIS, GET UP, GET UP, GET UP. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? INTO THE GUARDROOM, PUT THEM INTO THE GUARDROOM, IT’S A MUTINTY” You know all this sort of thing well I couldn't believe it! All we’d done was to go there – we had deserted!! Anyway it was all, so I I thought Oh Christ this is the end of me as a PO, potential officer, but no it didn't make any difference.
Colin Moffat: Was the your rather combative personality which emerged later at the BBC at all evident at this stage?
Philip Donnellan: No not really.
Colin Moffat: You took to army discipline quite well it sounds, which is rather odd in a way.
Philip Donnellan: But I wasn't I was never …
Colin Moffat: But you weren’t the same person then, you were rather a different person then?
Philip Donnellan: I don't know I couldn't really analyse that. And besides the Army had a different quality in a sense there was a meaning about the army, which I never found about the BBC management. I mean broadcasting was something that one knew how to do. The army needed discipline in order to do anything. The BBC didn't need discipline for its staff what they needed was was a reasonable degree of skill and acceptance and a process of scheduling. But within the BBC there was a constant nit-picking by people like the bloke you mentioned him of the Scots accent, McQueen – I mean nit-picking idiots. The Army may have been precise and pernickety but what they were doing was quite important, at least I thought it was so and I was years younger and less experienced.
Colin Moffat: Were you and the soldiers there did you talk much about the war and what it was all about and what you were fighting for or preparing to fight for? Did people talk about that sort of thing?
Philip Donnellan: No, not not in my recollection. There was a big Lance Corporal who was who was in charge of the room and his name was Bellington and he was a cinema manager from Croydon and he wasn't a Scot at all. Most of the NCOs were Scots and they were terribly terribly keen about personal cleanliness and I got, I mean our squad Corporal, Corporal Carney every day at dinner time he would strip off and wash thoroughly, body and everything above the waist nothing elaborate. And I couldn't believe this – washing was not a sacred act to me but if you live if you've been brought up in restricted circumstances washing is terribly important.
So no I didn't realise that at the time I started to say minutes ago that the lad in the bunk above me was a young man who was a joiner’s apprentice from Lockerbie so his much gentler border accent I understood well. We got on very well indeed, we were bosom friends his name was Johnston um Andrew. We used to talk but we never talked about serious things it was just that Bren gun class that was difficult or corporal so-and-so or what you're going to do at the weekend or you write a lot of letters home don't you and this sort of thing. I can't recollect that we ever talked about that it was only when it was 1943 by which time I was a platoon officer when I had to take my class in army bureau current affairs discussions every week that I started having to confront those sorts of techniques.
Philip Donnellan: Your earlier interest for a while in pacifism and peace and so on at school had that all passed out of your mind by then? I mean you weren't you weren't in any difficulties morally with being ready to shoot people and so on?
Philip Donnellan: Absolutely not. No absolutely not.
Colin Moffat: Why not?
Philip Donnellan: Well I don't know partly because the business of fighting Germans seemed to be very important and I never questioned that not for a moment. I mean even with the, after all the Canadian cousin who had much more reason to be analytical about his presence here in Britain had never I think mentioned such a thing at least not that I remember. But maybe I would have excluded it from my mind if he had said why are we fighting the Germans? He wouldn't have said that he'd rushed from America to Canada to enlist just as his son years later rushed from Canada to America to enlist to go out to Vietnam. I couldn't believe it by that time. So no there was no sense of incongruity about attitudes to the Spanish Civil War compared with Hitler's war and, none at all. But I have never been an intellectual being and I suspect that many of my attitudes if I'm honest about them might appear deeply inconsistent and I think actually in the past you may have pointed out some inconsistencies in my thinking. I'm not particularly proud of that but I do recognize it as a factor in my mental makeup that I'm not particularly coherent in my in my range of attitudes about crucial things – war, peace, love, nationalism and so on you know.
Colin Moffat: Of course I heard you mention it but because of your very much later large film about the army, the thesis of which might suggest a certain intense dislike at that stage for violence to achieve an end and the killing of innocent people and so on. That's that then you were that you were a different person then all those years later, we shall come to that later.
Philip Donnellan: Yes it's not I think it would only be fair to say since you refer to it that that film no doubt through my own fault has been widely misinterpreted. It was never it was always meant to be a tract against imperialism rather than a tract against war. I am not a pacifist, never have been. And my letter in subsequently in the radio times which spoke about the fact that my family, my father and myself, had both taken part in wars in support of of Britain and I hope that my son would never have to do the same were merely expressions of a quite conventional sense of protection for for our children rather than any widespread sense of pacifism, I was never a pacifist. The one murder threat I got from a loyalist, a signed loyalist after Gun for a Soldier referred to me as a pacifist, which was quite wrong. I'm not a pacifist. I wasn't then of course quite the opposite but not a thinker either. I was carried along just as the young men who joined in 1914 who felt that for some reason or other they had to go, in those days perhaps it was fear of a white feather at home but not in our day. I went I couldn't wait for the day when I would go but I never thought of fighting as realistic it was always a profoundly romantic sense that drove me. I found the actual process exciting very exciting and quite unfearful. I mean I never had an image of myself being wounded or killed.
Colin Moffat: What happened then? Where did you go and what were you involved in?
Philip Donnellan: Like everybody else I spent three years of training and ten minutes of fighting.
Colin Moffat: You went abroad?
Philip Donnellan: Yeah, yeah. I had a I had an extraordinarily fascinatingly various career in the army mainly by doing the same sort of things that I have that I did in broadcasting subsequently. In other words within a tight institutional framework to find ways of maneuvering so you did what you wanted to do. I've only just realized that this moment that there is an absolute coherence between what I did in the army and what I did in the BBC.
But in 1942 in the summer of 1942 after doing my basic training and having a leave I was sent to the War Office Selection board the first War Office Selection Board, which was the new method of choosing officers which was at Edinburgh. I was sent there as a potential officer but I was still 18 and we went through all these extraordinary experiences of initiative and fitness survival and all these sort of new tests which made tremendous demands on you physically and mentally. And I was, the verdict was that I was I wasn't yet, partly through my age partly no doubt for other reasons, I wasn't yet suitable to be an officer and I was a doubtful case and I was I was in consequence sent off to an absolutely unique experience which was called a Leadership Course and it took place at Dunbar. And I've never met anybody else who took part in it. The Commanding Officer was actually I later found out the Headmaster of Rugby who was a muscular Christian called Martin Lloyd. I think he was probably Deputy Headmaster at that time I met him afterwards when I went to announce an organ recital from Rugby school chapel and walking down the aisle came this man and I recognised him as the Commanding Officer of my of this extraordinary leadership course in 1942. Martin Lloyd had got an extraordinary range of of doubtful commissions um at his course ranging from a battle hardened Company Sergeant Major of probably 35 to me who was 18 and wet behind the ears in all the useful skills and craft and we had the most extraordinary months of marching incredible distances, staying awake for incredible lengths of time, swimming across impossible, all the things that I enjoyed doing.
Colin Moffat: Are you actually in the Commandos then?
Philip Donnellan: No no I wasn't then I was in the Seaforth Highlanders. And I passed with flying colours and and and um in November 1942, November, yes November 1942 I was sent to the Isle of Man to the Officer Cadet Training unit at Douglas, Isle of Man. And for four months I was in the Isle of Man and being trained as an officer and grappling with Wrens and WAAFs wherever possible
Colin Moffat: What do you mean grappling?
Philip Donnellan: Grappling on the cliffs at Douglas, fumbling with them, trying to get through those impassive pale blue WAAF knickers and the more elegant black stockings of the Wrens.
End Side 2
Start Side 3
Colin Moffat: Philip Donnellan Side 3. Would you just carry on from where we were Philip?
Philip Donnellan: That was the winter of 1942 and I was commissioned in February 1943 when I was 19 and 10 days. Posted to an infantry battalion sent, to Norfolk. In the summer of 1943 July I was posted to as I thought to North Africa but instead landed in Gibraltar which was a terrible cause for anyone who wanted to see some sort of action and see a result of the training was a terrible disappointment I landed in Gibraltar. But because the Gibraltar Garrison had been very stable over several years and I was posted to a really awful Territorial Army Battalion of the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment and as soon as I'd been there ten days they decided they wanted to get rid of me and I was sent to the Independent Company in Gibraltar which was a quasi commando which was had been set up as the personal bodyguard of the Governor of Gibraltar and we led a highly independent life in a little camp on the north front overlooking the aerodrome. And we I got my first experience at that time about intelligence operations which we were the linked people with within the fortress all that's a fascinating story but hasn't got an awful lot to do with subsequent professional experience except that all these events started to illuminate unexpected areas of life and in consequence the feeling grew that behind the facade of everyday life there was another world altogether not just in wartime but in terms of the people I met. For instance my platoon sergeant in the Independent Company was a gypsy, a man called Stocks from Essex and he was he was a brilliant bloke he was not only extremely bright intelligent but formidable as a soldier and I learnt an awful lot from him.
And in May 1944 when you know the war was slipping away as far as I was concerned I managed to get away from Gibraltar and was posted to England for a battle course in North Wales. Even then though I remember how limited one was in the perception of the everyday world of the United Kingdom. For example I knew Spain by that time I knew a lot about Spain and Spanish people and I knew a fair amount about making war I knew very little about the minority peoples of the United Kingdom. For instance when we I arrived in Llanberis which was the headquarters of our of this course and I was walking down the main street that evening and going to a pub somewhere I think with a couple of blokes and some women were standing at the door of a house and they were talking a strange language and we went past and I said to the chaps who are with me “What were those women talking?” And they said, “Well it was Welsh” I said “Welsh, do people speak Welsh is their a language?” And I felt grossly inadequate that I didn't know but even more since then having thought of this incident which stuck in my mind I realise how incredibly limited one's view was of a world that was quite common property to an awful lot of people. Anyway after that um I did I did quite well on this course which was just guts and blood as far as I was concerned, you know it was really I was very fit I was 20 years old and like a lot of other people could run up mountains carrying a couple of light machine guns or whatever. That was it I loved it but it wasn't getting one any nearer to doing what we were professionally supposed to do.
Colin Moffat: Had you been promoted by now?
Philip Donnellan: No I was a Lieutenant, automatic from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant under normal circumstances after six months I'd been briefly a Captain a month after I was commissioned because I was I did so well at the local battle school which was this battle simulation course that they asked me to come back as an instructor so for a month or two I was an instructor at this battle of school but otherwise I was still a subaltern. The course finished on June the 4th 1944 and I went home on leave and the next day was June the 6th D-Day, of course I knew nothing about it and I was terribly galled that what seemed to be the final phases of the war were coming into and I'd never even seen a German much less done anything about it. So I went straight up to London put on my best uniform bought bought a green beret at a shop in Jermyn Street and presented myself at Combined Operations Headquarters and said “I am in I'm stationed in Gibraltar. I'm due to go back there I don't want to go back there. I want to get into commandos as quickly as possible and go and fight the war.” And so they were all really rather surprised at this and I didn't see General Laycock as I'd hoped but I saw the Lieutenant Commander who was his ADC. Three weeks later I was I was posted to the holding commando which was the place where … I didn't know that every other commando had been through the AACC battle course before they got a Green Beret, the green beret was the accolade that they received when they passed out satisfactorily I'd just been to Jermyn Street and bought a bloody Green Beret [LAUGHTER]. So I didn’t … everybody thought that I was fully trained. Anyway the upshot of it was that I spent three weeks at the Royal Welsh Fusiliers depot at Wrexham stamping up and down and getting very bloody minded and then I was posted to 3 Commando Brigade which was in Burma. And I set off for Burma with 100 men and 3 other officers and they decided the fleshpots of Calcutta were better than than the frontline. Very understandably and sensibly but I was so bloody immature that I wanted to get to the battle so I hitched a ride down the coast of Burma in an American landing craft and arrived to find the commando had gone off into the jungle and I followed them. And we had I had that was that must have been November/December 1944 and we had a brisk time in the next two months cutting off the Japanese retreat. We were landing from the sea cutting the Japanese retreat line because by that time they were removing themselves in North Burma and heading for Rangoon as fast as they could go and we were deputed to go in and cut their escape line which was which was resisted quite strongly. But the interesting thing to me was that having trained for three and a half years to recognise precisely what a German soldier wearing white patches on his collar and with particular sort of buttons was I had never been told a single thing about the Japanese army not a single hour, not a minute had been spent on training me to meet the very wily Japan Japanee soldiers, Japanee was what we called them and the first slip trench I ever dug was in the jungle and and it was it was a ludicrous example of misdirected endeavour. I'd spent three years training to fight the Germans never saw a German in my life and went in terrified to encounter Japanese.
Well we went back to India then we went we were training in in India during the monsoon of 1945 to land in Malaya at Fort Dix in Malaya on September the 15th 1945 to stop the re-conquest of Malaya. We were spearheading the the the landings and I would probably have given up my life for the British Empire at that point had the bomb not dropped. The bomb dropped we were in Pune at the time and we were instantly rushed to Bombay. We were the strategic reserve, 3 Commando Brigade, 4 commandos 1 commando and 5 commando from the army and 42 and 44 commandos Royal Marines to whom of course we felt incredibly superior. And we were rushed onto a boat and sent off to go and land in Penang. Well the the Japanese had not surrendered in Penang and as the as the generals didn't want any bloodshed at that point and questions asked in Parliament we stopped in Trincomalee in Ceylon for three weeks and then we finally landed in Hong Kong in September at the end towards the end of September 1945 and I stayed.
I had an extraordinary time in Hong Kong I got involved with a member of the intelligence staff who had been in the colony when it had been overrun. We were witnesses to American politics working themselves out in terms of Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tong and the beginnings of the revolution. And there are various stories which I wont put on to tape here about some of the support that by that time speaking for myself I was very inclined to offer to the Chinese as compared to Chiang Kai Shek’s army to the communist army and that was all very interesting. I also got involved with got substantially involved with collaborators and non-collaborators through my intelligence contacts in Hong Kong and started to understand something of the realities of the sort of politics that had accompanied that particular bloody point in the history of British Imperialism.
At the same time one has to remember what was happening worldwide was the British, the Churchillian attempt to reinstate the Greek king which led to the revolt of ELAS and the confrontation between the communist resistance in Greece and the British Army. The similar thing that took place in Indonesia when the British and Americans occupied reoccupied Indonesia and then tried to reintroduce the Dutch colonial government which Shareef Stevens had dealt with in an extraordinary film – the title of which I instantly forget. And in Vietnam of course the British reoccupied Vietnam and handed it back or Indochina as it's called then handed it back to the French. So everywhere what we were seeing was the old forces of imperialism in whatever country reoccupying those segments of the world and we were being enforcibly a party to that.
Now I wasn't sufficiently sophisticated or politically aware to understand these things I only realized afterwards what extraordinary things were unfolding. The intelligence groups who particularly interested me were coming in from the north of China, way off in the north of China where they had been planted since 1938 and this was 1946 and they were sleepers in a situation of reporting too on the various changes that were taking place in China as a whole. They were nearly all pre-war commercial people who had been among the braver managers in the great British industries in China, British American Tobacco, Jardine Matheson the great steamship company who had sold opium to the Chinese or flogged opium to the Chinese masses during the nineteenth century and so on. All this one was becoming aware of and I saw it in the context of the Spanish Civil War because in Bombay during the time when briefly I was in Bombay in 1945 and and at the beginning of 1946, I probably got the times wrong, in the Congress bookshops in Bombay all the radical literature was appearing in English, very cheap underground publications which you could buy in bookshops in Bombay. So I started to buy the speeches of La Pasionaria and the Congress party's analysis of the Spanish Civil War, books about Indian resistance which had always been represented to us in similar terms that long, long afterwards I heard British officers in the north of Ireland representing to their troops exactly the things that had been said to me in 1945/46 when the struggle for independence in India was proceeding.
Colin Moffat: You are talking very clearly about this were you actually briefed? Your understanding of this, are you talking in retrospect really?
Philip Donnellan: Yes I am talking in retrospect but I did I bought books in Bombay and started to hear from people in Hong Kong and in South China about why they were why they were trying to turn over the Chiang Kai Shek regime in China. So half of it, nearly half of these impressions were directly from people. For instance I had an outpost on the coast of China that was filling in Colonial Office reports on the economic basis of life in the northern part of the colony adjacent to China. I was told at one point by Commando headquarters to go and oust from the colony, a few miles north of where I was in tents on the edge of the shore, a colony of communists, communists wounded who had been brought over to take refuge from possible contraction by the Chiang Kai Shek forces. And I went to meet them and I talked through my interpreter with with the doctor a woman doctor in charge of this party of wounded and I was enormously impressed by what she said. I had in the process of some slightly clandestine dealings with the with the communist South China and East River Group army I spent some time with with the communist commissars eating in restaurants on the extreme flank of the British possessions. And while we toasted Churchill and Mao Tse Tung at the same time he told me about some of the realities through my interpreter who probably hadn't really got the full language to take it in but he was an astute little man. And so partly I was beginning to understand some of the political realities of the world which still form a dense historical perception about what actually happened, the more books appear the more one understands in with some degree of perspective the nature of the world that one was participating in after the war.
Colin Moffat: Were you untypical in this what you were doing here? Informing yourself rather well about the situation there? Do you think do you think you were rather on your own in that?
Philip Donnellan: It's awfully difficult to know some of the lads some of the other ranks took to holding up opium dens with their I mean everybody had guns we were all used to handling guns and it's the most natural thing in the world is for you to if you think that there's going to be some loot around the corner you impose the strength of armed force on it that was quite natural as part of as a sort of offshoot of commando training. So that the the quite a significant number I mean say 5 in the commando of 400/500 had taken to armed robbery. Now that was their response to their situation of having no freedom within the situation in which I had a relatively high degree of freedom. Now I use that not to stick up opium dens though I took part in raids on them in a formal sense with the police. Indeed I’ve got an opium pipe upstairs that I whipped hot from the smoker's mouth on one occasion I remember, souvenirs you know what soldiers are like. And and I use my freedom in cocktail parties, dinners, the way we were feted as as conquerors although we'd done fuck all to justify that in my view I used it to ask naive questions, they were genuinely naive not faux naive of the people that I met “Was it really like this? What happened? What did you do?” And the answers I got “Well well come and meet so-and-so” and so that yes I think because I was the youngest officer in the commando, I think I was perhaps there were another more or less my age, I think I took a considerable interest whereas others who were much more successful with women than I was spent their time in bed. I wanted to spend my time in bed but found myself instead spending my time with collaborators and non-collaborators under the aegis of this fascinating bloke who later became professor of Japanese at London University. His name was Boxer he’d been wounded, he is dead now. There was a notorious affair in 1938 with him and Melanie, not Melanie Klein that's the great child guidance person. Anyway I'm diverging so yes the answer is that I'm not conscious of anybody else in our particular commando who had those sort of opportunities. Also I could see that the great commando adventure was coming to an end and my I wasn't being demobbed because I'd got in fairly late I wasn't being demobbed as early as some of the rest of the commando and so I went in to field security.
And and and I started making overtures on the intelligence front and to cut a very long story short via MI5 in Hong Kong, Singapore and London I was posted in July 1946 I was posted to MI4 which was order of battle intelligence and because I said I spoke Spanish, I did speak a rudimentary amount of Spanish but fortunately they never tested me they never found out the truth, I was eventually posted as General Staff Office Grade 3 (intelligence) in brackets (I) in brackets to Gibraltar again on condition I deferred my release for a year. And I arrived in Gibraltar in June or July 1946 and left in July 1947 for demob in England. During that time I was responsible for order of battle intelligence that's the order of battle of the Spanish army; what units were stationed where and why and when they were moving and what guns were being put in position and so on in Spanish and French Morocco and in Andalusia. And my main contact in that field were the MI6 representative at the Consulate General in Tangier and I had access to all the fortress intelligence documentation. Now there was no breach of security here because if I was an emotional leftie I certainly had no position that would have been any sort of a threat to the official governmental status quo. And the reports that I wrote for the G1, the General Staff Officer Grade 1, Archie Douglas of the Scots Guard a lovely old man with a wooden leg, were well if journalistically excessive in an expression were were quite well written and quite informative and I had a ball, I mean I had a wonderful time. Because the sense of being involved in things that are secret is really of course, I was still only in 1946 I was 22, and it was ridiculous really to put the stability of Great Britain in the hands of idiots like that. I got from the Head Office in Whitehall in 17 envelopes you know security insisted in putting things in lots of lots of other envelopes so people get bored with opening them. I got an instruction that if the Russians moved through Europe Gibraltar is a crucial strategic stronghold. It's perfectly possible the Russians will move through Europe occupy the whole of Europe and once again Gibraltar will be our only foothold on the continent of Europe this puts your role in a context of enormous significance etcetera. So I was instructed to plant agents here there and everywhere they were all it was all dotty. I found myself negotiating with Republican survivors who had been at loose in the Sierra Nevada just to the south, to the north of Gibraltar since 1939 and asking them what military hardware they had and so on.
Colin Moffat: Were you still a Lieutenant?
Philip Donnellan: I was a Captain at that time I'd been promoted to a Troop Commander in the commando I ran, the heavy weapons troop, which was three medium machineguns and three 3” mortars. Consequently this over inflated role or this role which over inflated my sense of my own importance and the importance of these things that I was marginally involved with especially in a romantic situation where I'd been if you remember passionately interested in the Spanish civil war there, and and had read a great deal about it since those days in 1937 when we'd wrecked our classrooms, prepared me for everything I suppose to feel that I was pursuing a significant role from then on. Which of course was totally ridiculous because within six months after my demob I was I was an announcer in the BBC in Birmingham than which you cannot imagine a more fusty boring well I don't quite know how to describe it charitably. It was it was a dry as dust mixture of very interesting people and in some of the people in the BBC in Birmingham in 1948 were really interesting people. The rest were the standard BBC mixture.
Colin Moffat: Since you, it all sounds so very successful and that you enjoyed all this a great deal. Were you not tempted to stay in the army as a soldier? Couldn’t you have gone on? Didn’t you think about that?
Philip Donnellan: Not for one moment was I tempted to stay in the army. No. Successful I don't think it was successful in any real sense, I enjoyed it because it was, I can't help but use that awful phrase it was great fun, it WAS great fun. You know in Fortress Gibraltar in peacetime dinners, all salons, teas, parties were the order of the day. If I was in Andalusia I was living in a different world, if I was in Spanish Morocco there were also, I mean remind me to tell you off the record not because it's significant but just because it’s long the story about the itching powder and the Consulate General in Tangier which was a strategic weapon in the fight against the axis.
Colin Moffat: Now well the only reason I said why not stay on is because it sounds so much more exciting than working on a Surrey Newspaper, right?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: I mean if you were going back to that which presumably at that moment you would probably going to think about doing, picking up the career you had in journalism didn't you compare the two and think well this is more dramatic?
Philip Donnellan: I think I've always been a, I don't want to make this sound ridiculous, I've always been a creature of convention and my first instinct is to do what everybody else is doing and everybody else is getting demobbed and people talked about the army in derisive terms and the idea of signing on was ridiculous I'd already signed on for a year and and I didn't really want to pursue that, it was very exciting while you were doing it but it was obvious from the whole prevailing tone of the little society in which I'd been circulating for the last five, four or five years was that there would cut me into this and we’d have to get down to ordinary life. And so quite naturally I accepted that view and became part of ordinary life, so no there was never any temptation to stay on.
My predecessor as General Staff Officer Grade 3 brackets (I) for intelligence was a remarkable man who was infinitely more valuable and intelligent than me. His name was Donald Maitland, he was a very small man, he spoke absolutely fluent Spanish and from Gibraltar he went to the to a place called MECAS, which was the Middle East Central Arabic Studies where Philby was an occasional visitor in after years. Donald Maitland went to MECAS, which was actually the British spy school in the Middle East not literally but more or less. Donald went then into the Foreign Office and his last the last appointment that I noticed after he'd been knighted was as political adviser to Mrs Thatcher. Now Donald Maitland you'd find him in in Who's Who, now the man who was therefore cast for that sort of job that I accidentally occupied by sheer glibness for a year in 1947 was a career man who could have remained in the army but went into the Foreign Office. Now there was no such prospect for me I didn't see it like that because below all the bullshit and the pretty uniforms and the Green Beret and all the rest of it, which persisted of course I wore it in Gibraltar as well which always caused a flutter and so on, there was a quite realistic understanding of what might be in prospect. So it was no I mean I was alarmed once I got home.
Colin Moffat: How were your parents think about all this? Were they rather pleased with what had happened in your wartime career? Your father in particular?
Philip Donnellan: I don't know.
Colin Moffat: Were you in touch?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes rather. Yes yes yes. Constantly. I suppose as a small measure of my appreciation when I came into funds in China I sent them what by the standards of those days was a large cheque but they fortunately never asked me where it came from. Because I just felt guilty about the, the deprivations that they had experienced and that I manifestly was not experiencing. And and it was in as far as I was concerned I really knew at heart it was a ludicrous life that I was living but not it didn't harm anybody but perhaps my own by the standards of those days was a large cheque perhaps my own amour-propre and of course I got my comeuppance when I arrived in the BBC because not only was I a bumptious bugger in a very small provincial situation, and you will know even years later how provincial that was, but I also had lots of clothes. And the first thing that struck me was that people in England had no clothes they had all worn out during the war and clothes rationing and …
Colin Moffat: You mean civilian clothes? Why did you have lots of clothes?
Philip Donnellan: Well because I'd bought them in Gibraltar and Gibraltar was part of the sterling area and and I had to be appropriately dressed for my diplomatic role [LAUGHTER] So I arrived in Gibraltar …
Colin Moffat: You mean suits?
Philip Donnellan: So I arrived in Gibraltar, not in Gibraltar in in Birmingham. And so it was rather painfully obvious about this um self-assured man who arrived in the BBC in Birmingham.
Colin Moffat: Well hang on you've jumped a bit haven’t you? Your BBC career didn't start in Birmingham?
Philip Donnellan: Well more or less.
Colin Moffat: Did it?
Philip Donnellan: No it started in London.
Colin Moffat: Well tell me what happened when you were demobbed how did you get into the BBC initially?
Philip Donnellan: Well yeah. Here I am 1947 July arriving home plaudits of all friends all pretty girls arrive and so on in July 1947 and …
Colin Moffat: Did you go back and live at home?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: With your parents?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: Where was that?
Philip Donnellan: In Pirbright in Surrey where they lived throughout the war
And and of course I had to get a job. Now because of that and I deliberately mentioned earlier that sort of sense of a manifest destiny which overcame me when I thought I was being important in in Spanish circles, was that I couldn't possibly go back to the small town newspaper. I felt I was far above that and the question was what what could I do? And the answer really was nothing like thousands …
Colin Moffat: What you mean above it?
Philip Donnellan: I felt I felt that this was far beneath my attention to go back to …
Colin Moffat: You mean socially?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah, socially I mean that’s the only way. Yes. Yes.
That it wasn't an important enough job for me to get.
Colin Moffat: Journalism in general as a career?
Philip Donnellan: No no.
Colin Moffat: That particular type?
Philip Donnellan: That particular newspaper, provincial newspaper which was the immediate prospect and I didn't see myself going to the Daily Mirror at that point and asking for a job. I think I did actually write to the Daily Mirror.
Colin Moffat: What about the more respectable side of Fleet Street?
Philip Donnellan: It never occurred to me to be frank. I wrote to all the all the big business groups ICI and BP and all the others who were inundated with letters from ex-officers who thought that they were being quite important in winning the war and who’s only experience was man management which was about all the experience I had.
Colin Moffat: You thought of getting a managerial job?
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yep and of course nothing came up. We had we had some childhood friend who who lived not far away and he was he was a drama producer at the BBC, in radio of course there was nothing else at that time. He had been a studio manager who worked his way up he'd been a number of years at the BBC and he was now a drama producer, David Godfrey. And so one day we dropped in to see them and we were talking about this and he said, “Well have you thought of applying for BBC?” And I said “Well I had vaguely” because I had some idea of emulating Richard Dimbleby you see that was my first target to be a reporter, a roving reporter.
Colin Moffat: How do you know about him at that point?
Philip Donnellan: Oh …
Colin Moffat: Where would you have seen him or heard him?
Philip Donnellan: Oh I'd have heard him on the radio I'm sure in all sorts of circumstances. Radio Gibraltar would no doubt have used …
Colin Moffat: Reporting the Spanish Civil War?
Philip Donnellan: No no no no.
Colin Moffat: In the late ‘30s you weren't listening to the radio much?
Philip Donnellan: Oh no nothing like that.
Colin Moffat: Did you have a view of the BBC then, I mean did you were you particularly aware of it at that point in your life?
Philip Donnellan: Yes I did that it was important, what it was doing was important and that is that it seems to have seemed to have done so with great success during the war although I wasn't sure what that success actually contained. What I did know was that the voices of the BBC, the Alvar Lidell, Stuart Hibbard um forgotten their names now, were the voices of some sort of social power. And so when David Godfrey made some sort of tentative suggestion I said eagerly “Oh that's a nice idea” or something like that. And he said “Well I'll talk to somebody there” and of course I heard long afterwards that's it the norm was considered to be that you had to know somebody in the BBC before you could ever get in and I'd never heard that we didn't know anything about BBC. And so a few weeks later, oh no maybe fairly quickly after that he he said “I suggest you write to the Appointments Officer”. And I wrote to the Appointments Officer giving all the details of my non-existent CV and ten days later I got a letter from the BBC enclosing an enormous form and asking for all the information that I had given in in my letter. And I thought oh with what is now what now seems to me characteristic obtuseness I thought this was just a ploy to put me off. So I wrote a snorter to the Appointments Officer saying quite obvious that you were not interested in offering jobs to ex-soldiers.
And anyway it was in a tactical move that I've often heard expressed later that you've got to draw yourself to the attention of the management of any organization if there are a thousand applicants for a job you somehow got to make sure that you are characterised in this as a potential person of interest. And I'd done that quite accidentally. And the Appointments Officer replied in due course, I’ve still got the letter somewhere upstairs, in which he said “I think in conclusion I would say that you I would suggest you would get more favourable attention from potential employers if you were to write them less hectoring letters than the one you have sent us. Yours sincerely D.H. Clarke” and of course by that time I'd been offered a job as an announcer. David Godfrey had said to various people I think this chap would be very good “He can read and he's got a standard southern English voice, why don’t you give him a whirl as an announcer”. So I was asked to come and give an audition and so on, that's how it happened. And of course my parents were delighted they thought this was the absolute climax of any possible status and I was sort of quite pleased but disappointed because I really wanted to do something I mean I didn't honestly want to be an announcer and to be famous only for having this artificial voice. So I was rather disappointed but at least it was a job.
Colin Moffat: You were looking more to radio journalism? A reporter’s job?
Philip Donnellan: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. It's awfully difficult to represent accurately what one's attitudes and ideas and even memories were 44 years ago. Um I mean I think you have a myth in your mind about what you did and what you thought but I wouldn't like to swear that I don't know how intelligent I was I assume that I wasn't very intelligent about all this and I think that's probably true. But exactly what my motives were at the time apart from writing a rude letter to getting fed up with letters of rejection and finally thinking that I ought to get into the BBC and then getting a rejection apparently, what I thought was a rejection.
Colin Moffat: Had you sort of over the years since childhood had you you and your parents listened, were you a family that listened a lot to the BBC and basically approved of it and enjoyed it and were pro?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah. Well I think a great deal of feeling
about the BBC at that time had to be neutral, there's no alternative it's something coming out of the radio set. What alternatives did we ever have to think about? We didn't know what an alternative wireless program might be like so there was no question that it was it was funny although we didn't listen to comedy very much but then we didn't listen to anything serious very much – music, Leonardo and his orchestra, Harry Engelman and his players.
Colin Moffat: Did you listen by chance or were you fairly selective, I mean to be more specific did you ever listen to some of the well relatively few some of those radio features programmes that were broadcast in the ‘30s. I mean you could have heard them by chance but in view of what you later did that might be I imagine not?
Philip Donnellan: I do remember, I do remember hearing, although not consciously registering, at least one episode of Laurence Gilliam’s Shadow of the Swastika in 1939. I must have heard that and I suspect that, ah no I wasn't at school in 1939 or was I, yes I was, I suspect that at school people would have talked about this and I might easily have heard about it heard of it on the House radio set, wireless set sorry. But I can’t and I don't think there was any positive image of the BBC. My mother, my father loved ITMA and my mother disapproved of anything so clearly designed for common people to listen to as ITMA. On the other hand if my sister put on classical music especially sopranos she would instantly reject that and say “Oh that screeching woman” and so on. Colin Moffat: What did she like?
Philip Donnellan: I don't remember, light music I would think. Talks I have no doubt that my father must have enjoyed these but whether he was allowed to listen to them I honestly don't know.
Colin Moffat: Had you listened to Children’s Hour?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: In the ‘20s?
Philip Donnellan: Absolute passionate Radio Circle and I remember my my birthday being chanted and it was the excitement of all time but today's birthdays until they got to be 12,000 or something you know and Uncle Mac would say “Hello Philip” or whatever the hell it was. And we wore Radio Circle badges and so on you know that was really important. Toy town and all those mildly improving funny things which remain to me in my mind in my memory to this day I can still hear.
Colin Moffat: Do you think it had much …
Philip Donnellan: Larry the Lamb.
Colin Moffat: Did it have much impact on your life, socially or culturally?
Philip Donnellan: No I don’t think so. Can't recall that it did. Stephen King-Hall always used to finish in the same way “Now children I'm going to say goodbye I’m going to say good night but don't forget” how did it go it's not important anyway it was a standard finish. We did listen to Stephen King-Hall talking about current affairs that may well have been that's an interesting point that may have been one of the factors as well as newspaper headlines that that reminded me of events that were happening around.
Colin Moffat: Are you talking about Stephen King-Hall on Children’s Hour?
Philip Donnellan: On Children’s Hour.
Colin Moffat: Yes, yes.
Philip Donnellan: That's right I mean probably …
Colin Moffat: You think this set something off in your mind or in your identity?
Philip Donnellan: No. No I don't think so. I think we were I think we were the most conventional ordinary unthinking middle class audience. I do think that life was infinitely less analytical then than it is now.
Colin Moffat: I'm surprised you think it all didn't influence you if that’s what your are saying?
Philip Donnellan: Well it's not that I don't think it didn't influence me but I can't remember possible points of influence. I probably did.
Colin Moffat: I mean the general tone of procedure the general tone of BBC Radio.
Philip Donnellan: But what sort of influence are you suggesting …
Colin Moffat: Well class, class. I mean of course you weren’t aware of it at the time [LAUGH] but I mean looking looking back on it now I mean you didn't think it formed you in any way, it wasn’t one of the factors?
Philip Donnellan: But what did it form?
Colin Moffat: I mean into the sort of person you were up to about the end of the Second World War.
Philip Donnellan: No no no no I think, I think the the the general style of the home surroundings that the the tone the reflection in our home surroundings of our relationship with people of other classes upper or lower had a much more powerful effect than any of these external influences. In school in school I suspect that the basic trend was artistic influences. For instance at school I spent a lot of time in the theatre, I spent a lot of time in the print shop I did printing and and theatre as an essential part of my school life.
End Side 3
BECTU History Project Interview with Philip Donnellan – documentary, writer, producer
Interview Date(s): 28 & 29 June 1991
Interview number: 206
Interviewer: Colin Moffat
Philip Donnellan: Yes I don’t know whether that is true ...
Colin Moffat: Hang on. Philip Donnellan side 4.
Philip Donnellan: Now then where were we?
Colin Moffat: School, listening to the radio.
Philip Donnellan: I haven't got very much to add to that because I think reaction, my reaction to the BBC and to the environment of the Midlands in the widest sense scribbled the annotations on that blank page which was which was my political and social consciousness not my memory which is a different thing altogether. I started to realise um I suppose I you see I had a a what’s it called a troop or platoon or section, the terminology was different in every ground unit of the Army, in the commandos in in Five Commando we had sections, a lieutenant commanded a section which consisted of three subsections each of whom was commanded by a sergeant which was a higher rank than you would find in an ordinary infantry battalion. And one of my section sergeants was an Irish an Anglo, English Irish building worker from Birmingham, one of them was a Kidderminster weaver and one of them was a fresh-faced young man from East Molesey in Surrey. And they, they treated me with friendly and relaxed informality though as an officer and I issued orders to them as required by the normal everyday protocol of relationships that I and I saw them as very real people but not ones whose social background I could for a moment inhabit because we weren’t in a framework in which I could ask them about it.
But and we didn't relate out of hours by which I mean sitting around a campfire or anything when one was with officers and I didn't question that for a moment.
When we when we came out of the line in Burma we were plonked in beginning of February into uh mangrove swamps, it's quite pleasant place to live there are patches of firm ground. We had to build bashers out of bamboo – bashers is a little hut – each individual and I lived with my Batman who was a bloke called Duddy from Liverpool and he was I suppose he must have been a year or two younger than me which was difficult but nonetheless and we built beds for each other in this confined space and we slept on opposite sides of the room and I never talked to him about, first of all I didn't find him terribly interesting which is the main reason. If he had been a real person who said ‘Sir don't you think sir it's bloody ridiculous that you and I …’ you know if someone had challenged me I would have loved it, I would have been very open to it but nobody ever did and I wouldn't have initiated any sort of conversation, I wouldn't have asked him what it was like living in Liverpool or anything like that. So we never had any conversation. I do remember one very amusing moment when I had my 21st birthday in this mangrove swamp and to my astonishment the Post Corporal came carrying a battered parcel to my basha. And he said, ‘Parcel for you sir’ and I said ‘What not really?’ and he said, ‘Yes Sir just arrived new lot of mail up today. No letters I'm afraid Sir’ he said ‘Just a parcel.’ It was a battered looking brown paper parcel and I turned it over and on the back was written from the Officers’ Birthdays Association, Grosvenor Square correctly addressed so on and so on so I opened it and I didn't notice that there were various people watching from points of advantage. And I finally pulled aside the brown paper and in there was an empty seven-pound bully beef tin, an old picture post and a roll of newspaper. And so for a moment I thought oh that’s funny and within a second of course I realised it was a joke [LAUGHTER] and I fell about laughing and then the other NCOs came in ‘Thought you’d like it Sir’ and so on you know. And of course as being used to that sort of of a joke, my mother was horrified of course how cruel could they be. You know I wrote an ecstatic account of this event. But now you know that sort of thing I've got a photograph upstairs of the troop, our troop in the jungle after some raid or other and half the blokes in it I can I can recognise now and recall their particular their particular styles habits, feelings about each other and so on although because there's, it's like a strike in a way war and enclosure within a situation of danger with especially with other men and I'm I'm always accused of being very sexist about this but if you've got women in a unit it would be so curious not only on traditional terms but in terms of of upsetting a very enclosed monastic situation between men. It was an extraordinary, in a sense humanly politicising, experience just like anybody who had been on strike for one day suddenly changes they suddenly realise what it is to act collectively in a situation in which you have ostensibly no bargaining power but you make bargaining power by being together and that's what an army is like. And that's why I found it so interesting I think even though I didn't understand, didn't have any context against which to put this the sense and and congealed by a class consciousness which had told me that I was bound to be an officer because I had that sort of background and it would have been so much better if I had been mature enough to stick out against that and just been a Lance Corporal or Private or whatever but it was unthinkable.
Colin Moffat: Um that um that background presumably was not unhelpful when you put in for this BBC job. Your war record would probably look quite good didn’t it on paper? Did you submit it?
Philip Donnellan: No I don’t think they took any ...
Colin Moffat: Oh you don’t think so?
Philip Donnellan: No, I wouldn’t have thought so.
Colin Moffat: I thought the BBC were quite interested in people’s military and naval experience.
Philip Donnellan: Maybe. Nobody said anything about it to me.
Colin Moffat: You didn't have to describe it in your application form, what what ranks you held and where you’d been?
Philip Donnellan: Maybe I did but that would have been quite conventional I mean any firm might have asked that and I did it because I …
Colin Moffat: I thought the BBC were particularly interested in, and it always had been right from you know 1922 Savoy Hill and so on. In fact one almost got preference if you had held ranks …
Philip Donnellan: Very likely.
Colin Moffat: … one of those commission ranks. I mean it was just thought that it would be more helpful make you make more qualified to hold down some sort of middle job …
Philip Donnellan: Well it is true, it's true obviously from the outside from outside of oneself to feel that: I was 23 when I left the army and I'd been for a year General Staff Officer Intelligence in a fortress headquarters at 23. That does suggest that this guy must have some level of competence, which is a little bit exceptional. From inside I knew that this was all bullshit that I'd got that job by sweet talking that that I didn't speak Spanish, I knew nothing about the job, I was no more responsible than any other officer but I could just bullshit and so I didn't feel that myself that my service career was of any real significance. I suspect but again I have to enter that that warning about the myths that you think you remember I don't know what I felt and I don't remember those questions that you mentioned as being an important part of any interview. After all they were looking for an announcer …
Colin Moffat: Yes I was just going to say …
Philip Donnellan: They weren’t looking for for anybody …
Colin Moffat: It really had very little bearing on announcing.
Philip Donnellan: No none at all.
Colin Moffat: What was it like that job? Can you describe the job?
Philip Donnellan: Yes I can. First of all I had to wear a suit and a tie which I did of course because that was quite conventional it was unthinkable not to in a sense in those days.
Colin Moffat: Did it seem odd at the time? Did it seem odd …
Philip Donnellan: No, not a bit.
Colin Moffat: … to any of you?
Philip Donnellan: No, not a bit.
Colin Moffat: Why not?
Philip Donnellan: Because everybody wore suits and ties.
Colin Moffat: But I mean you're invisible there in Broadcasting House. Philip Donnellan: Well I don't see the point you are making.
Colin Moffat: Why should it matter what you wear?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes it was, everybody wore ties for example.
Colin Moffat: You mean the entire staff, literally, almost?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah, yeah, oh yeah. And I felt the need even before I left for Birmingham with my other five suits to have a grey, not pinstripe but a smart sort of bookish suit made which I had made by a tailor and it cost me nineteen pounds. And I bought a bowler hat, I bought a hairy bowler hat known as a Coke hat, beautiful things they were …
Colin Moffat: Did you go to Jermyn Street for that or nearby probably?
Philip Donnellan: Yes somewhere nearby.
Colin Moffat: Yes. St James Street.
Philip Donnellan: It was Lockes it was a Locke hat.
Colin Moffat: St James Street?
Philip Donnellan: Yes St James Street and I had this hairy bowler hat and I wore it.
Colin Moffat: Did other announcers wear bowler hats?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: Nothing unusual.
Philip Donnellan: They all wore cut away Windsor collars and Windsor tie, not Windsor collars, Windsor tie you know this great broad knot that the Duke of Windsor had pioneered and all this rubbish. And I always carried a walking stick once I'd been, because in the army always carried a walking stick and had always done instead of a swagger stick. And when I went into civilian life I continued and I I collected walking sticks and some of them are outside there now and I collected walking sticks until I find something else to lean on which was a wife. And I'm sure that this is …
Colin Moffat: It is very difficult to understand now why a man sitting with a microphone announcing should have to wear a suit or indeed why it should matter what on earth he's wearing.
Philip Donnellan: But they wore bow ties …
Colin Moffat: I simply can't understand.
Philip Donnellan: They wore bow ties and dinner jackets and Stuart Hibbert wore spats but that was just a foible.
Colin Moffat: There is …
Philip Donnellan: You asked me about the job. Well I remember the first news I had to read, which was I think a sort of codicil to the main news and therefore I had another announcer with me, probably somebody called MacIntyre, I forget his first name. And we, we went in and of course I was nervous I mean it is nervous making a first broadcast and, and of course it was like falling off a log I just read it. And after that after that moment of fear it was a thoroughly boring job. But I did realise that you met all sorts of interesting people and if I was … Now this took some time but if you were sent to announce Reggie Smith’s, a Reggie Smith feature in a studio just across the road, then Reggie would put his arm round you and say “Now dear boy what I want you to do is this, this and this”. And it was all rather nice and you met other people as you would have done but of course as a non-participant I always felt marginalised by being an announcer because I wanted to be in there doing this not merely providing ‘This is this is the BBC Home Service’ or whatever it was. I didn't want to be doing that I wanted to be directing, producing it or acting in it or doing some dotty thing, a participant …
Colin Moffat: But not immediately you didn’t feel this surely?
Philip Donnellan: Sorry
Colin Moffat: You didn't feel this right from the beginning?
Philip Donnellan: No, no, no, no certainly not. It was a growing feeling that announcing was a complete fraud a waste of time, the status was, was high and the creative rewards the creative rewards were zero. Certainly within six months I felt that fairly acutely but again I may overestimate I may have short circuited this thing but once I went to Birmingham there was a little more involvement but really negligible.
Colin Moffat: What was the point of your move to Birmingham?
Philip Donnellan: The point was to fill a job vacancy.
Colin Moffat: But you had a job at Broadcasting House Langham Place.
Philip Donnellan: I think I was probably on the announcers’ reserve and that therefore the role as it's quite conventional in various areas of the BBC, certainly at that time, was to establish a reserve like a secretarial reserve you establish a, depending on your budgets, a dozen spare secretaries highly competent shorthand and typing speeds up to things that you could slot them in wherever there was a need and in the same way there was, was an announcing reserve which probably consisted of two or three announcers who could be put in for jobs as soon as they became vacant.
Colin Moffat: Was the job in Birmingham a better job in grade terms and money and so on?
Philip Donnellan: No. No.
Colin Moffat: No.
Philip Donnellan: In fact the first point on which I seriously fell out with the BBC was that I was told when I went to until I went to Birmingham … no sorry I'll rephrase that … I was paid at a certain level say seven or eight pounds a week when I was in London I was then posted to Birmingham and I was told you will stay on your present grade until you've done six months after which you will automatically go on to a higher grade. And when six months had passed which was then by which time I was in Birmingham I was told that I would not be put on to a higher grade because I'd been a naughty boy. Now I forget what that piece of naughtiness was it was probably stepping outside the norms of announcing like making a comment when I was announcing the middle of the night orchestra or something like that. And and I honestly forget but I was reminded at once that of something that in after years I found deeply irksome that you were expected to obey to the letter what the BBC told you but they could change their mind at any point. If they had made an undertaking to me that after six months I would go up in salary they didn't say provided you are a good boy. And I didn't deliberately set out to be a bad boy but they instantly broke their undertakings. So I protested about this to them to the Programme Head, Dennis Morris and this has continued throughout my expense of the BBC that they can change they can move the goalposts whenever they like but if you start to move the goalposts or cut them down then by Christ you are subversive if not worse. And I find that very irksome, I believed in a certain level of honesty in between Master and Man or whatever the thing you’d like to say the thing was although I wasn't prepared to be particularly honest with them and so I don’t suppose they wanted to be honest with me, I don’t know.
Colin Moffat: Had you behaved well in London?
Philip Donnellan: Oh impeccably I’m sure.
Colin Moffat: Yes. So the move to Birmingham was nothing, it was not a case of this …
Philip Donnellan: Oh no.
Colin Moffat: I think we’ll move this man out of …?
Philip Donnellan: Certainly not. Not like the Archie Harding occasion when Harding was moved to Manchester you remember and Reith is supposed to have said, “I think you'd better go to Manchester Harding. You can do less harm up there.” Well no there was nothing like that.
Colin Moffat: Well perhaps at this point you should say something about those who don't know the structure of the BBC about this Birmingham place you were going to was the Midland Region of the BBC.
Philip Donnellan: The Midland Region of the BBC.
Colin Moffat: You had better say something about regional, regional broadcasting how it fits in.
Philip Donnellan: Based at 282 Broad Street, Birmingham.
Colin Moffat: Why, why did the BBC need stations out of, a country as small as England, why did they need these provincial centres?
Philip Donnellan: I think you'll have to read Asa Briggs to find out that, a history of broadcasting.
Colin Moffat: Can you give us a note on it?
Philip Donnellan: I can tell you what I perceived which was that without any question I was posted to Birmingham and there were three important members of the hierarchy: one was the controller a man called Percy Edgar and Percy Edgar had been in broadcasting since 1922 when the first BBC wireless station started in Birmingham it had a call sign which was 5IT and it was based in part of the BSA, Birmingham Small Arms Factory in Witton to the north of Birmingham a working class area of Aston. And he was the controller and Percy Edgar retired three weeks after I arrived in Birmingham, I arrived in Birmingham on April 3rd 1948, snowed the next day, which wasn't a good impression at all. His son Barry Edgar became the first television OB producer in Birmingham in 1949 or ‘50. And their son …
Colin Moffat: David Edgar.
Philip Donnellan: ... is the radical playwright who now convulses now and again the English theatre with materials of one sort or another. I'm going to take my mic off and I’ll come back in a mo, I must go and have a pee.
The regional system existed of course because of the transmitter pattern.
There were two programmes broadly speaking available to most people in the country: one was a national programme transmitted from London and the other was a regional programme which provided a degree of difference from the national programme and was designed specifically to interest those listeners in the various regions. There were three national regions the north based in Manchester, the Midlands based in Birmingham and the West based in Bristol and then there were, I'm sorry those weren't the national regions those were the English regions. The national regions were of course Scotland based in Glasgow, Northern Ireland based in Belfast and Wales based in Cardiff. Now there was no apparent distinction except I believe that the national regions got slightly larger programme allowances.
Now I'll go back to the to the people whom one with whom one was involved in the Birmingham region and I remember one of the things that caught my attention particularly when I arrived in Birmingham in this very discreet little building on Broad Street and then only three or four hundred yards from the centre of the city was that there were still steel shutters on the windows which had presumably been put there during the war and they were still there and there was a sense of the place being a sort of fortress. Now in after years, though not at the time, I felt very strongly that we were rather like a sort of imperial outpost in in a British city. I referred to to us a long time afterwards as being sorts of ‘clerks of cultural dominion’ who broadcast to the natives yet were never part of their lives and I still think that's true. We were strangely isolated by reason of the work we did and the status that that work appeared to offer us in the world at large. Now when I arrived in Birmingham, I found out afterwards, there were about 154 of a total staff in Birmingham and the producers who were at the head of the sort of apex the hierarchical system there were producers in the fields of talks, there were two talks producers, there was one drama producer, there was an agricultural producer, there was a children's hour producer and there were two features producers Robin Whitworth, who had come after the war from North region where he'd been involved in that extraordinary Marxist outpost in Manchester under a man called Archie Harding, although he had spent the war organising the Friend's Ambulance Unit the pacifist group who only served as ambulance men or women during the war. Robin was an old Etonian, a very cool customer indeed and particularly interested in the field of industry. The other features producer and I mentioned them because I eventually became a features producer was Edward Livesey. Livesey was a young man who I think had been attacked by polio in his youth he had a limp and he died not long afterwards at the age of 39. He was a highly talented person who like all of us all, of us in features um was really involved in drama production because the work that we did although it was nominally geared to contemporary reality or even historical reality was actually performed with actors in the studio and the programmes went out live of course since there was no effective or cheap means of recording.
Now nearly all my critical feelings about the BBC are were framed afterwards. At the time as one of three announcers I just saw it all with a vague sense of wonderment I thought it was extraordinarily worthy and I thought also that the people concerned in it, the people who were producers were very nice people and I was impressed by their sense of ordinariness and I don’t mean their dullness I mean their ordinary sense of humanity, they weren’t went sort of gods and goddesses which in a sense I'd been led to believe about the people who were producers in the BBC they were very ordinary down to earth rational people although I believe they were caught up just as I was in a sort of large-scale factory system. Now the bosses of the factory were, in Birmingham, the programme head known as the Head of Midland Region Programmes, HMRP, the passion for initials also struck me straight away in the BBC everybody seemed to be identifiable by a set of initials. So the programme head as he was called for short was the Head of Midland Regional Programmes and his assistant David Gretton was the assistant head AHMRP and then the controller known as the CMR, the Controller Midland Region was formerly Percy Edgar, though as I've said he left three weeks later and his place was taken by a man called John Dunkerley and he surfaced for a number of years there during a lot of my time as a radio producer. But of course at first I wasn't a radio producer I was just a bloody announcer and announcers who were in a way the the slaves of all the producers in other words they had to come along and announce to the waiting public what was going to happen in this programme. I'm not doing this very well at all in fact I feel rather off-key about this.
Colin Moffat: Well there is some useful information there. What you haven't actually said where these programmes went to, a proportion of them went on the network and others were local programmes were they?
Philip Donnellan: Yes the, the first, the primary, the primary function of the region was of course to broadcast to its own audience the eight million people who were in the, within the transmitter area. But it also had a secondary but while being secondary paradoxically a much more important role for those people who produce programmes and that was to contribute material to the network. It was important to producers because if you've got your programmes on the network the costs of that transmission where repaid from central funds to the region so the programme was free as it were to the region. But much more important than that because we weren’t at least, I wasn't the slightest bit concerned about money at that time, was that it was a feather in your cap if you created programmes which got on the national air there was a much higher degree of status in getting them on the national air, partly because at the centre the regions were always regarded as second rate and the overwhelming thing about working in a region was that you were not thought good enough to work at the Centre. Now to a great extent that's still true forty or fifty years later if you're in a region it's because you’re in some way not good enough.
Now those of us who are really committed to the regional idea and I gradually grew up and was indoctrinated into the regional idea with a quite ferocious degree of passion as time went on to defend the regional idea at all costs and to insist that we were just as good as those people who were in London. It was a perfectly natural response obviously for people who were incarcerated in a strange industrial city but it also had all sorts of effect on your career.
So the fact was that throughout my service with the exception of two years in the ‘60s I always insisted on working in a region and I did so for a variety of reasons which didn't occur to me at first but as time went on and I found that the work, especially later when I when I went into television, I found that the work I wanted to do was not absolutely in line with what people in London wanted me to do. I found that being in a region was quite a useful way of evading the controls of the Centre so that while at first I wanted to stay in the region because I much preferred the scenery if you like eventually I realised that it was a singularly important area of manoeuvre to keep out of sight of the of those people who were ultimately the controllers of our destinies and therefore the controllers of our programmes was a major way of trying to do what you wanted to do.
And just as I had you know in a curious rather bleak way had managed to manoeuvre my way into various situations in the army and had managed to do, to a certain extent, what I wanted to do or felt that my destiny as you might say lay in doing in the same way that I found that the institution of the BBC, although nothing like the army in organisation or in morale, was rather a similar organisation in which if you were tenacious, determined, with a modest degree of talent and at the same time mildly devious you could actually do the things that you felt were important rather than those things that the institution itself felt were important.
Colin Moffat: What was the characteristic of the regional programme as opposed to London? Are you suggesting there was something rather special about the Birmingham programmes or is it or is it this freedom you’re really concerned about?
Philip Donnellan: Yeah. To a great extent I thought that and I still believe that people in the region now whether that would still be true all I say is that I still believe it was true then, whether it's still true today is another matter altogether I do think the BBC has produced has transformed its managerial patterns so as to allow far less room for individual producers or even individual collection of producers such as you find in a region far less room for them to affect BBC policy in any significant way than was than was possible at one time. So yes the, the crucial thing to me at the time once I became a producer in radio or in television was that I did feel we had a much greater degree of freedom to decide what we should do and this was because the programme head, the man at the top in the region or near the top, not of course right at the top the controller, first of all he had individual capacity to rely on the judgment and skills of his producers and he had independent funding because the regions each region got a weekly allowance, in Birmingham’s case I believe in the ‘40s it was about £2,500 a week to produce a significant number of programmes which were taken on the regional networks and not on the national network. So they could actually create an audience loyalty by deploying familiar names, familiar productions different to those that were obtainable on the national service. Now that was quite an exciting challenge and to me anyway who was always interested, deeply interested as time went on in this new experience, the experience of becoming familiar with the people of the region and the full scope and extent of this extraordinary region that I'd been dropped into the middle of. As I became more and more familiar with and if you like excited by that the more in a way one wanted to serve that definable or you felt it was a definable group of people even if there were 8 million of them. I haven't described that very well but it's the sense of growing regional loyalty but it's a regional loyalty that also wanted to push out the boundaries of what you were doing not just because it was a test of your own skill or understanding and increasing mastery of the forms of radio or eventually television but because also you felt it did serve the interests of a definable audience.
Colin Moffat: What about subject matter? I mean I presume that the idea was the material, which was turned into dramas and features and so on was actually to be drawn from the area was it? I mean where possible.
Philip Donnellan: There was no clear or written brief about this and the whole process was in a curious way very vague. You were expected to within a comparatively short time to understand the way the BBC went about things and the sort of ideas and standards that you were expected to pursue in terms of programmes. Innovation was not something that you were expected to pursue very strongly whereas conforming to a standard norm both of the sort of programmes you produced and the quality of, of material you produced and of your own personal behaviour were absolutely definable and were frequently defined in terms of approval or disapproval for the things that one did.
I shan't, shan’t quickly forget the, the way in which I started to be defined as rather a naughty boy because of things that either happened or or I did. For instance I remember I'd been an announcer in Birmingham about six months before I was asked to go and talk to the Derby Rotary Club, a collection of gentlemen in Derby. Well I'd been to Derby several times and I knew roughly what the Rotary Club was like and so I went to Derby Rotary Club and we had a pleasant evening and I told them what the BBC was like to work in and they seemed to enjoy it enormously because I just told them what I felt about the place and what a strange experience it was after being in the army and the sort of transformation of one's lifestyle between being in the army and being in the BBC.
Colin Moffat: I mean were you discreet or did you include criticism?
Philip Donnellan: Well, I didn't know whether I'd been discreet. I didn't try to be discreet it didn't occur to me I mean they'd asked me to come and tell them what life was like in the BBC and I told them.
Colin Moffat: Mmmmm …
Philip Donnellan: But afterwards I mean many years later or several years later I was told that my talk had been described to the Controller Midland Region who is the fountainhead of the diplomatic skills we were supposed to exercise that it was exciting but indiscreet and, and I wasn't asked again. And I remember when I was on the verge of moving out of announcing and becoming a sort of assistant producer, not assistant to anybody but just an assistant producer, a sort of cut rate producer I'd been on holiday and I'd grown a beard and it was it wasn't a sort of scraggly hippy type beard it was rather a well drilled, well groomed fine golden red beard I thought, I thought it was rather nice. Well the programme had called me in and said “Oh incidentally Philip I think you ought to shave your beard off. Announcers have to appear in public and I don't think that's consonant with the image of the BBC.” I was absolutely amazed at this I couldn't imagine my telling anybody, I didn't think of myself as a manager, but I couldn't imagine anybody telling somebody whether they'd got to shave or not unless they were just unshaven which of course none of us would have dreamt of being in those days. So I reacted very strongly against this and I didn't shave, I didn't shave my beard off and I was boarded for this for a job that had been created especially for me in order to get me out of announcing and I appeared bearded in front of the board and I didn't get the job and nobody else was appointed to the job and I shaved my beard off the day after the board and I was appointed to the job three months later. It was a finger wagging exercise ‘now then you have to do or you'll be punished if you do these sort of things.’ And I um …
Colin Moffat: Did most people toe the line in these different ways? Or did did your view of the BBC at that stage was it shared by others, your colleagues? Philip Donnellan: There was one, there was one chap who'd been a a bomber pilot in the air force during the war and he'd been shot down in 1940 and he’d spent five years in in a prison camp. And he came back from the war and the two characteristic things about him was that he had an enormous amount of money all his back pay for five years and so he had far more money than any of the rest of us and so he bought a car which none of us could even think of doing in those days. And secondly he, he had lots of spare energy to get rid of so he spent it in all the usual young man's pursuits and he and I were the sort of tearaways of the place the fact that we were probably the only two ex-servicemen on the staff at that time although most people had been involved in the war but not necessarily actually involved in the fighting part of the war. So I think the two of us were, were fairly on our own. But he quickly got married to a rather upstaged lady who was the daughter of a solicitor in Birmingham, quite a distinguished solicitor and she quickly tamed him so he knuckled under very quickly and I was never sure why I continued to be so difficult about authority. I'd never been persistently anti-authority after all I had represented authority by being an officer in the Army and I hadn't expected people not to do what I asked or told them to do. But I found myself reacting to the BBC in that increasingly as the years went on I disliked the way the BBC behaved towards its staff. First of all I was very, very conscious as time went on, not at once because I didn't have the leisure or even the intellect to start considering the formation of this institution in any detail, I became aware of a profound class difference between what I was and what for example the engineers were who were a crucial part of the whole process of transmission. Probably 50% or even more of the people on the staff of the BBC in Birmingham were engineers but they were they were regarded broadly speaking, and I'm only using it as an indication of a class relationship, they would have been normally regarded as working class people whereas we the producers were regarded as middle-class or even upper-class. And this was really part of the distinctive nature of the BBC as I began to understand it. Now I didn't particularly object to that I didn't say you know this is ridiculous these chaps are all in the business together. But as soon as we became politicised which was some years later I started to try and take a more active interest and about that time I had a particular colleague, whom I'll mention in a minute or so, who saw this even more powerfully than I did. Now I would say that the results of that tradition in the BBC, that is that engineers were completely separated from production, and this wasn't any from the production side the engineers themselves thought they had a deeply important role in controlling equipment and forms of development and forms of transmission which were no business of the production people at all so they kept us at arm's length in the same way that we kept them at arm's length. After all even if they were working class people they had two things going for them: they had absolutely definable skills, their capacity to understand the forms of equipment however simple they were in those days which they controlled in order to broadcast the material we created. Secondly they were almost invariably either in or on the verge of being in the union and those were experiences which most producers knew nothing about at all most of our skills were literary skills or quasi literary or journalistic skills which were very ill defined. You could find yourself, I mean as an announcer what skills did I have other than reading words off a page in a particular accent a class accent. So that all these things started over a long period of time because I was a I was a long service producer at the BBC these things started to irritate me mildly or rather to shape the ways in which I reacted politically more in the world outside of anything than inside the institution because I couldn't find any particular ways in which that view of the institution as a political organism could be made to stick. Nobody else felt like this as far as I could tell even there was a very sophisticated talks producer, David Bryson, who had worked in America with Bertrand Russell during the war and he very probably, I've got no means of actually knowing, had I think been a Communist Party member in the during the war and he was a man of great sophistication and wide contacts. But I never gathered from talking or casual conversations in the club or the canteen I never gathered that that David Bryson's …
End Side 4
Start Side 5
Colin Moffat: This is Philip Donnellan side 5. OK.
Philip Donnellan: Even David Bryson didn't seem to me to have in the conversations we had in the office or the club or the canteen or the sort of knockabout arguments we had he never gave me an impression that he had any more critical or analytical view of the institution than anyone else. I would have expected him to be the first person to say why are we doing this broadcasting in this way with these curiously ill-defined attitudes and feelings and directions because that ultimately is the way I felt about it but not yet I don't want to represent that, that at this stage I am talking now about say 1949/1950 I had the faintest inkling of such an analysis. I was perfectly happy with the BBC, as it was all I was concerned about was what it was going to do for and with me.
Colin Moffat: These what you call the class divisions between the producers and the engineers and so on did it … what of course ultimately matters is what effect this possibly had on the programme. You know from the point of view of the outsiders does it, does it, did it matter? I mean did it, did it … OK you became aware of this to some extent and maybe others but so what?
Philip Donnellan: Yes. Well I think that's a justifiable question and I do think that it had a significant effect. First of all if you, if you consider the two sides of what I call the class split the engineers and the production: production was supposed to supply if you like literary, creative talents to the equation and the engineers were in control of the technology even if it wasn't very advanced technology at that time. They controlled the processes of recording, the processes of the transmission the processes of, of assisting the creation of studio programmes such as studio engineers they were called in those days or programme engineers.
Now it seemed to me subsequently that the only way in which you could achieve real progress, creative progress in the interests of an audience in broadcasting, whether in radio or in television, was a combination of these talents. That technology was just as vital in the interests of creating new forms innovation and progress as the creative talents of the producers there was no use having one without the other. And what we were apparently doing was to exclude the engineering side from any involvement, any significant involvement except as a sort of wage slave with the processes of broadcasting.
Colin Moffat: Wasn't there a time fully occupied in maintaining the equipment and operating it? What’s, what’s wrong with that.
Philip Donnellan: Well in, in all working situations especially one in which you, people were closely knit and worked such long and sporadic hours as broadcasting there was, there could have been a lot of interaction between those two sides if you like. It was perfectly possible for engineers, of any grades because they were all in broadcasting in some form or other, to be involved in discussion with producers about the nature of the product and the way in which new ideas and new forms in radio could have been developed. Because when new forms were developed later particularly I'm thinking of the radio ballads in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s these were purely a combination of new technology, developed by engineering skill and creative ideas from people who were writers or composers or musicians of one sort or another. So I take the view looking back on it that the BBC’s role in trying to push forward, to roll forward the capacity of radio to talk in realistic terms, in terms that were useful as well as entertaining to the audience that technology could enormously have advanced that cause if it, if there had been full integration between the two sides in broadcasting. Now …
Colin Moffat: Do you think they wanted this, wouldn't have wanted this had it been proposed?
Philip Donnellan: No I don't think so, I don't think at first they would have been, would have wanted that and in fact there was very often resistance to this. For instance engineering were terribly hostile to the idea of producers handling technical equipment and there was an absolute refusal to allow people to handle recording gear and stuff like this. Yet when the tape recorder came in 1954 and became increasingly common property among producers it was always the producers who were able to go out with that new technology and use it.
Now these barriers were artificial, they may have had traditional roots in the way the BBC had behaved since 1922 but given the situation we were faced with after the war I believe the BBC’s limited view of the way in which technology and creativity could be integrated was responsible for a very, very halting progress towards effective innovation in broadcasting. One of the most important areas of this and one in which the BBC lagged completely behind most of European broadcasting systems was that, it was in the move towards tape recording. At the end of the war the BBC was the possessor of an enormous system of broadcasting, the biggest in Europe probably the biggest in the world because for five years and more it had been the host, the communications host to a whole range of exiled broadcasters whose countries had been overrun and who had arrived in Britain in the hope of continuing to transmit their message to the occupied countries. And this the BBC arranged for them to do.
Now as a result of that and as a result of the BBC having been equipped since the middle ‘30s or even a little bit earlier than that with disc recording they had to develop those technical resources that they had full command of which was disc recording. So there were enormous number of disc recording channels created during the war in order to service those exiled broadcasters. At the end of the war the BBC found itself lagging far behind in that area of technology just in the general industrial scene they found themselves with outdated equipment when all the countries that had had their industrial base destroyed had to start ab initio in creating a new industrial form and in broadcasting all the European countries turned over to tape. Germany had had tape since the, perhaps since the middle ‘30s I'm not sure of the exact date but certainly their frontline reporting units all used tape recorders in the field. At the end of the war the BBC acquired, as war loot, a number of German frontline tape recorders. They were very heavy, very ponderous but they worked extremely efficiently. Even with those as models the BBC research and development department which was of course part of engineering division failed to produce any sort of workable tape recorder until 1950 and then what they produced was not the equipment that we needed that an awful lot of broadcasters who were aware of the possibilities of new technology although they'd never seen any. They didn't produce the gear that we needed in the field what they did was to produce huge machines for recording off-transmission in fixed studio situations. They produced static recording channels and not the sort of mobile tape that was desperately needed to invigorate and advance the cause of programme making. So that area of technology was enormously limited first of all by the huge investment in, in contemporary but outdated technology during wartime. So it's legitimate to understand that, I'm not blaming the BBC it was in a, in a profound technical bind. First of all like the rest of Britain at the end of the war the BBC was pretty broke and I've heard the estimate offered of it needing £225,000 an enormous sum in those days to turn over from disc to tape. Well the money wasn't available and so for years after the war we were left with disc recording technology as the fundamental basis of the sort of reporting that at all costs needed something quicker, more responsive to modern needs and the advancing needs of younger people who were coming into broadcasting and freer people who were coming into broadcasting.
Colin Moffat: You're talking of course about the, the tradition of programmes being uh studio base, which had been the BBC’s arrangement right from the beginning. Right?
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yes that’s broadly true I think.
Colin Moffat: The point before the tape recorder came in I mean were you, were you looking you were becoming interested in production and probably thinking of getting a job as producer or something. Did you before, before you realized there were, it was possible to have portable tape recorders presumably you, you, you would still have thought of becoming a studio based producer that I mean until you know a thing has arrived you don't really see its potential do you? Right?
Philip Donnellan: No of course you don't. You work with, with the tools that you've got and I think I referred a bit earlier to a sort of literary based culture, which dominated most of our responses that time we weren't a technology based outfit at all. Most of the producers in one way or another thought of the pen or the typewriter as the most crucial instrument so that scripts were created written, typed, put into people's hands and people broadcast from scripts.
Now again this was a tradition that had started in the ‘30s in one way or another and had been heavily endorsed by wartime censorship. For instance, during the war there wasn't one single broadcast that wasn't committed to paper and could be pre-censored and people sat in the studio with a sensor key under their hand and if people departed from the script the broadcast was cut-off. They were deeply aware of the potential dangers of broadcasting, as it all was, being picked up abroad and providing information for the enemy. So that the practical process of censorship, which has caused such ripples in the sense of the vital need for a freedom of information instrument in this country and was particularly dramatised in the Falklands War and in the Gulf War, those, those techniques and skills of censorship were developed a very long time ago, just as of course they were sharpened in all sorts of technological ways by the British presence, the British oppressive presence I would say, in the north of Ireland over the past 20 years.
Colin Moffat: The you’re, you're really talking aren’t you about the, the tradition of the BBC Radio tradition of, of words, scripted words being the medium that radio was not in fact a distinctive medium separate from the theatre. I mean it merely reflected, it was almost a version of theatre on the dramatic side and the rest was journalism I mean the news and discussion programmes were perfectly possible as studio programmes it can't have been obvious really what, what this tape recorder was going to do. I mean in a county like ours you know where words are the stuff of life, I mean we all communicate with words and government works by written documents and so on and so forth. Not surprising is it that the BBC simply fitted into this and reflected it all.
Philip Donnellan: Yes. But one of the fascinating things is if you, if you look at a BBC file from well anytime between 1932 right through to 1965 what you find in there is the exchange of memoranda between producers and management, between department and department couched in extremely well phrased and sometimes profoundly elegant and eloquent memoranda. It’s the, the level and standards of judgment written down on paper are really deeply impressive while at the same time appearing extraordinarily ponderous way of conducting business. On the other hand I mean if I am anything and I'm not really anything, I like to think I'm a historian I'm very addicted to the study of history and to contributing in some way to history. Now if you look at one of those, if you take one of those BBC files between 1930 and 1960 what you've got is an extraordinarily detailed statement of the way in which a particular cultural institution operates and whether you like it or not it's all down there in writing. If you look at a file of the 1980s you'll find to your horror that there are no statements of position, or intention, or hope, or expression, or creativity in the file at all almost everything is conducted on the telephone. And I have talked to the BBC’s written archive centre at Caversham and they are even now lamenting the quality of the written material, which is the only stuff with which they can deal. Nowadays producers don't write elegant memoranda or analytical statements about the qualities or defects of their programmes or critical analysis of other people's it's all done on the telephone. So people ring up and say ‘Liked your programme the other night old boy.’ ‘Oh thanks a lot, did you think the so-and-so worked?’ And the conversation goes on for 3 or 4 minutes or 20 minutes or an hour and there's nothing left on the file at all to indicate what the formal processes of internal criticism are doing either to the illumination of other people, the expansion of programme possibilities within as it were a closed circuit system. I think that's a great pity and I've always tried both in terms of responding to the public uh after a programme, I've always tried to be as honest and open as possible about what my hopes and intentions are and to put them down so that they're there as a record of the way in which a particular mind created a particular programme. And I don't know what the answer is I suppose there isn't an answer except if all telephone calls were recorded which is a ridiculous idea.
Colin Moffat: Well in a sense then you are defending the true tradition as far as useful communication within the BBC.
Philip Donnellan: Yeah. Yeah.
Colin Moffat: As far as that's concerned you're not, you don't object to that. In fact it’s rather better …
Philip Donnellan: Not a bit.
Colin Moffat: … than these informal conversations over the phone.
Philip Donnellan: So many, so many of the, of the institutional practices which with one breath one is profoundly critical with another breath can be seen as important and humane statements about a particular culture working in a particular way. You can be critical of that culture, you can dismiss it, you can reject it, you can operate in different ways but the fact is that it existed during a significant period of time and it had an enormous effect on the country.
But I want to say something more about that because it would be a mistake to think that all our efforts and strivings were literary and that the voice of the people, which is now regarded as a crucial area of history, notably oral history, were non-existent. Even with disc recording there are things that you could do and I had a striking example of this very early on in what I suppose some people would call my career, I often think of it as a sort of Dante's Inferno. There was a man who was a frequent correspondent with the BBC Midland region. Now I have to explain that because of the location of transmitters, which were all owned by the Post Office the, the BBC regions whose outlines and frontiers were governed by the position of the transmitters sometimes had extremely irregular or curious shapes. For instance, the BBC Midland region based in Birmingham had a perfectly logical pattern around its main transmitter at Sutton Coldfield, it was the service area of that transmitter for probably 40, 50 miles on each side of it but because it had, that transmitter had a subsidiary transmitter right over on the east coast near Norwich the Midland region also included a curiously shaped segment of East Anglia. Well this was, and if you look at it on a map, the word that I'm going to use can become quite vivid it was almost a lung for us because every year we would have an East Anglia week where the cohorts of producers and production staff and engineers would all traipse over to East Anglia and we'd set up shop in East Anglia and we'd broadcast about East Anglian events and with East Anglian people and it was great fun. Now I'd been stationed in East Anglia during my wartime service and I loved the place. And um, to find myself back in East Anglia at that time was a great pleasure.
But now I come back to my story this correspondent, this regular correspondent who at least once a fortnight would write in a bold rather crabbed, rather shaky hand to the BBC commenting on some programme that we'd done which he received over in Lowestoft, right over on the East Coast. And he would occasionally in one of these letters he would say ‘Well I'm a, I'm a very old man I've been listening for many years the BBC and I thought this programme etc., etc.’ whatever he wrote and he'd sign it ‘Yours sincerely, Charlie Andrews’. And one day soon after I became a sort of fledgling, embryonic type assistant producer one of these letters for some reason or another fell onto my desk and I read this letter and this letter said ‘I'm 93 years old and I was, I was a seaman all my life and I know what I'm talking about.’ It wasn't a vainglorious letter but bloody interesting so I wrote a cordial note back and said ‘Dear Mr Andrews, delighted to have your letter the next time ever I'm ever in Lowestoft I'll come and see you.’
Colin Moffat: Were you a producer at this point?
Philip Donnellan: I was a sort of assistant producer at that point. I had a reasonable degree of self-determination. And so the next time the opportunity occurred I went and found 295 London Road, Lowestoft and I found it was a sweet shop and I knocked on the, oh I didn't knock on the door I went in and I said ‘I'm looking for Mr Charlie Andrews’ and they said, they looked a bit astonished and they said ‘Why are you from income tax or something?’ And I said ‘I wasn't I from the income tax I was from the BBC in Birmingham’ Oh that impressed them. And so they said ‘Well Mr Andrews is upstairs.’ I said ‘He's pretty old isn’t he?’ And they said ‘Oh yes he's over 90.’ So they took me upstairs and I met this lovely bloke. He was a little old man with a little white beard and rosy cheeks quite unwrinkled, he had a lot of white hair and he was a bit corpulent, rather a short man and he was sitting in a chair and in his bedroom and I was introduced to him and we became friends immediately. Because the simple reason Charlie Andrews, who was the only son of a man who was head waiter of the Imperial Hotel Dover in 1842 had gone to sea in 1873 and he'd gone deep water the following year and he'd sailed in all the big ships all over the world under the British flag, although he'd been once in an American ship, and he had seen everywhere in the world. He'd sailed in the Cutty Sark to Shanghai he had, he had a discharge to show that; he'd been to Sydney in the Wool Race; he'd taken pilgrims to Mecca; he'd sailed to San Francisco and been up and down the Barbary Coast as it was called before the earthquake. He had been everywhere he had been dis-mastered in the South Atlantic and every one of these was a well-shaped marvelously organized story that over the years he had told again and again and again to his son Mr Andrews who ran the sweet shop.
Colin Moffat: Did he tell you all this on your first meeting?
Philip Donnellan: No, no.
Colin Moffat: Or he started to?
Philip Donnellan: No I'm gathering all this from a series of meetings. But what I gathered at the first meeting was that the family were bored to death of the old man's stories they had heard them all a dozen times and when this guy from the BBC, this young man, full of enthusiasm full of interest they were absolutely delighted. And of course Charlie was delighted because he could start all over again with a new audience. And I brought something else with me on the next occasion, I brought a recording car and we started to record the story of his life on disc, four minutes per disc, with Peter Castleberg and the recording car in the street below. And, and I suppose I probably recorded 100, 120, 150 discs of Charlie Andrews talking and telling his stories. And then I took them back to Birmingham and, and we started to edit them and I made, I did three programmes of Charlie's reminiscences which were broadcast time and again on the Light Programme.
Now after a time uh Charlie, I went to see Charlie and he was getting on of course by that time all these things had gone out several times and so on it was two years later he was 95 coming on 96 and one day he said to me when I came in he said ‘I've been discussing with my son’ he said ‘you brought me all this money and I probably got a guinea, couple of guineas for a broadcast maybe even a bit more.’ He said ‘You've got me all this money, I haven't earned any money for 30 or 40 years.’ He said ‘you brought me all this money. I made an agreement with my son that you're going to get half of everything that I get from the BBC.’ So I said ‘No come on Charlie I'm paid by the BBC. It's my job to come out here and find people like you. I'm not going to, I can't take any money it would be quite wrong.’ Well he said ‘No it's all wrong. As far as I'm concerned you're the man that put it in my way and you're the man who should benefit from it the same as I'm doing.’ Well it took me quite a bit of explaining but finally he agreed to keep it all. But he was that sort of man after 40 years at sea he was a man of heart and imagination and so on and he, he was a 19th century seaman and so here for the first time after this gradual build-up, opening up the sort of world that I perceived from within the BBC Birmingham and the potential of it, here was this man who was an extraordinary climax to the process. Of course he wasn't the end of the process at all because constantly if you started looking for them you find people like this about in that world of 1950s.
Colin Moffat: Had this sort of material been recorded from that region before you did? I mean is this actually almost the first time such a thing had been done?
Philip Donnellan: I don't know that I could, I would, I certainly wouldn't claim that because I don't know it's not a question I've ever been asked before.
Colin Moffat: I mean field recording on mobile disc cutting equipment was happening was it for various reasons?
Philip Donnellan: Yes but it was normally happening for straight journalistic purposes. There were programmes …
Colin Moffat: What sort of programmes?
Philip Donnellan: ... called Round and About for example which was produced by David Martin and Peter Cairns.
Colin Moffat: What Midlands’ magazine?
Philip Donnellan: Yes sort of Midlands’ magazine. You would go out and do a 3 minute interview or a 5 minute interview and that was generally the accepted use of the, of the disc recording machine car. Or it was for recording effects for drama productions or I suppose, there must have been actual recordings done in the Midland region. There is no question that people like Olive Shapley and the other producers under Archie Harding in, in Manchester certainly did actuality recording before the war.
Colin Moffat: As early as when?
Philip Donnellan: It would be difficult to say precisely, Briggs has probably got some information on that. But I believe that North Region in Manchester had a disc van which had continuous recording facility, in other words two sets of gear, so you could start recording on the second one before you'd finished the first one so you had overlaps because of course normally you would have to stop every 4 minutes while the recording engineer put a new disc on and gave you, told you he was ready, you gave him a 10 second cue he'd start cutting and then you'd, you'd be able to record again three and a half to four minutes.
Colin Moffat: What recording speed was it?
Philip Donnellan: 78.
Colin Moffat: 78 and it gave you about 4 minutes?
Philip Donnellan: Yes it gave you about 4 on soft acetate. Now the problem of soft acetate is the overall problem of editing. It's great if you can just use those discs once for an interview situation. Even then you had to, you'd have to mark them up for transmission and you'd have to rehearse them so they'd have been played three times by the time they were on transmission. But the very heavy stylus and, and gram heads that we had, probably ten times as heavy as a, as a modern one, still produced appreciable wear. Now to edit you had to transfer the selected portions of the recording onto another desk; you had to cut another discs with the bands all in the right order and then you would you play them onto a third disc so that you've got a complete statement rather than a series of disjointed bands. And by that time you were liable to have reduced the, increased the surface noise I should say very substantially. So that the, although some of the Charlie Andrews recordings were archived in and are in the permanent library at the BBC now the surface on them is really quite appalling by any modern standards.
Colin Moffat: Do you mean that you could edit a whole series of pieces of speech together onto a second disc recorder …
Philip Donnellan: Yeah.
Colin Moffat: … almost as well as in terms of timing, placing one against the other as you could later with tape, something approaching?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes, yes. Yes.
Colin Moffat: In other words you wouldn't notice it over the air?
Philip Donnellan: You wouldn't notice it except for slight changes in level, which you sometimes notice in tape. But, but what you would notice was a very high level of surface noise. Now that would be consistent right across the disc of course because all of them finally would probably be on a third or even fourth generation disc. Whereas on a fourth generation tape of course there's absolutely no difference in quality at all you can go to ten or twelve generations without any effect on the quality can’t you?
Colin Moffat: The ones you did of Charlie Andrews you didn't have a double disc recorder?
Philip Donnellan: No, no, no.
Colin Moffat: You only had one?
Philip Donnellan: So Charlie had to get used to, to the interruption because he used a very heavy bronze mic and when the recording engineer in the car down below or across a field or something pressed his switch in order to speak to you or to stop you talking because he'd come to the end of the disc he pressed the switch and that, and that reversed the, the system so that the microphone became a loudspeaker and the voice came out of the microphone. So you had the microphone up against the speaker and suddenly out of this microphone, there he is in the middle of his story and suddenly the voice of the recording engineer went ‘That's it Phil. Do you want another disc on?’
Colin Moffat: How quickly could he put on another disc? How long did you have to wait?
Philip Donnellan: Half a minute.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: Take the other one off, clean the swarf, move the recording head back, put on a new disc, put the clamp on the top, move the cutting and then he'd say ‘Okay ready for 10 second cue’ And you would say ‘I'll go ahead in 10 seconds from now’ and he would start cutting so you would have a scroll at the beginning of the disc and then ‘Okay. Okay. Charlie what were you saying?’
Colin Moffat: Since this …
Philip Donnellan: ‘I got my gloves, on as I walked up to the wheel and the captain said to me …’ and so on.
Colin Moffat: It worked quite well I mean it’s all you knew at this point so it didn't strike you at the time as all that irritating these breaks, these recording breaks? I mean it sounds pretty grim actually …
Philip Donnellan: Well you couldn't conceive of a situation in which you could have continuous perfect quality recording because none of us had experience tape recording. So that's true. But it did seem irksome it seemed inefficient.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: But in an indefinable way.
Colin Moffat: Can you now say um what you did with the, this particular group of recordings of Mr. Andrews? The result, what was it like I mean compared with the journalistic programmes who were using field recordings something rather longer or what?
Philip Donnellan: Well I mean it could, they were 30 minute programmes in which there would be 4 broadly 6 minute stories Charles, Charlie would tell and they'd be linked by some explanatory material spoken by an old friend of mine who was very keen on 19th century maritime subjects, a man called F R Buckley.
ColinMoffat: Couldn't you have done it?
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yes I could have done it but …
Colin Moffat: He had a more suitable voice did he?
Philip Donnellan: I, I didn't see myself as a broadcaster once I'd stop being an announcer I saw myself as a producer I think. I don't know I couldn’t define it very clearly.
Colin Moffat: So it wasn't a job in particular for an announcer?
Philip Donnellan: Oh no, no, no.
Colin Moffat: It ought to be somebody rather different?
Philip Donnellan: I wanted a slightly rougher more characterful voice to introduce this very characterful voice of this 93 year-old ex-sailor you know.
Colin Moffat: Mm hmm. So were you, you were allowed to use non, non-standard English voices for this sort of job?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes absolutely.
Colin Moffat: I mean you really were saying the importance of that sort of voice for announcers but presumably a narrator of a documentary programme could, could be anybody you thought was suitable – an actor or a local man who was just able to talk, right?
Philip Donnellan: That's certainly true. We didn't actually call them documentary programmes in those days.
Colin Moffat: What did you call them?
Philip Donnellan: They were called feature programmes. Now this was a meaningless word because a feature programme could be anything and most of the time the features that one produced were done with actors and they had voice 1, 2 and 3 and all this sort of nonsense and then the narrator voice. But one of the first programmes I did which would be about 1950 or ‘51 was a thing called Power Cut because power cuts, electricity cuts in supply were very common in those days it was nothing to have, in the winter especially, for the power to go off for 10 minutes or 20 minutes or 30 minutes. I mean it was almost a sort of Moscow situation [LAUGHTER] And, and so I said to the assistant programme head who was the, the editor, the programme editor who was the supervisor of all our material, I said ‘I'd like to do, I think I'd like to do a programme about power cuts, explain what happens. I don’t know what happens and why there were power cuts.’
So it so happened that I was a bachelor of course then and I lived in, in digs in a little street and in Birmingham and one of the other people, one of the other families in this house was a nice young couple who were motorbike people they went to and fro in leathers on one motorbike. And we became great friends although only passing in the corridor and so on but and I would go in and have a cup of tea in their little pad and so on and I said to them one day ‘Would you like to be on the radio? I'd like you to come and do a programme with me.’ And they said ‘It would be a bit of a lark wouldn't it’ and so I got them to ask all the questions of all the officials in power stations in the, in the Midlands Electricity Board, in the chaps that threw the switches all these things. And this young couple I would brief them and say ‘Well look I suggest that in this you, Jack you barge in and say ‘look what is this all about?’ Something like that you know something like that and this was it, they were wonderful.
Colin Moffat: This was the idea of the consumer of electricity a logical person to …
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yes. And, and they were they were really very good.
Colin Moffat: Any trouble …
Philip Donnellan: And I never really pursued this in other ways. It was all rather sporadic and it was sporadic because there was no effective criticism of programmes at all. There was a Programme Board once a week in which producers sat around with the contracts lady, the overseas programme lady, the head of programmes, the assistant head of programmes and, and the Midland Region executive who was responsible for broadly overseeing all the administrative roles. And the Programme Head would give us information or invocations from Head Office as it was called, in other words London and that's was its role. I mean it was a significant phrase that used to irritate me enormously: the idea that they were Head Office and we were just a sort of junior office somewhere down the road in Birmingham. In a quite perhaps unnecessary way that used to irritate me these old lags who called it Head Office. Anyway …
Colin Moffat: These are, these early field recorded programmes …
Philip Donnellan: No hold on a minute. I'm just talking about Programme Board and, and we would go through the Radio Times and the Programme Head would make a sort of comment and then ‘Anybody any other ideas’ and somebody would say ‘Oh I enjoyed it’ and so on. That was what passed for criticism of I mean quite a major production that I'd spent days writing, 3 or 4 days rehearsing with a cast of probably a dozen actors and more and that would be it, you’d get no feedback from the audience very rarely would people write and the internal comment or criticism was virtually non-existent, totally casual and sporadic and that's the way I've always found the BBC system. It was completely inadequate in terms of responding to what a group of professional people or stimulating a group of professional people daily involved in broadcasting to an audience who were just there outside the door and never where we said ‘All right let's think again about what we're doing in this field.
Why do we do it like this? Aren't there different ways in which ideas …?’ Now perhaps casually once in every 4 or 5 Programme Boards there would be fumbling attempts at analysis, I don't mean to say that people weren't perfectly capable of putting ideas together but there was no stimulus really to ask why are we doing it like this? What is the world expecting of us and why don't we have effective links with the people who are the audience?
Colin Moffat: Um the missing comment you're talking about producer level or the people who are heading up the sort of group you were part of?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: Is that because they weren't actually ex-producers and so therefore were slightly out of their depth or would have been if they'd attempted any analysis?
Philip Donnellan: Yes that might be an excuse …
Colin Moffat: That’s part of the reason?
Philip Donnellan: … but it's not really the reason they were all perfectly intelligent people whose work was around broadcasting and even if they were engaged merely in, in overseeing the contractual side of the business nonetheless they would have had, they would too have sat down by their radios in the evening and listened. So there was no excuse why we couldn't all very coherently hammer out some sort of coherent policy for programme making. Colin Moffat: These, these meetings were they attended by your fellow producers.
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Colin Moffat: But they didn't say anything either much?
Philip Donnellan: Well they made the sort of sporadic comments that I've already described and I no doubt said exactly the same things I said ‘Well I did enjoy it. You know it really had a breath of fresh air.’ I don't think I'd ever use a cliché quite like that but more or less.
Colin Moffat: That was the level of it?
Philip Donnellan: Yes and if you read the minutes of the Television Programme Board right through the 1970s and ‘80s the level of debate and analysis is horrifying. This is one of the characteristic modes at the BBC.
Colin Moffat: Is this um, is this just a comment about regional people? Philip Donnellan: No, no I'm talking about the Television Programme Board at Television Centre.
Colin Moffat: It happened in London as well. I'm talking about radio at the time we're talking about.
Philip Donnellan: Oh yeah.
Colin Moffat: I mean what about what about the Features Department in London. I mean you're not telling me that …
Philip Donnellan: The Features Department in London always existed entirely as individuals they wouldn't dream of discussing other people's programmes. They would scarcely even attend …
Colin Moffat: Except privately?
Philip Donnellan: … Features Meetings they were usually attended by their secretaries.
Colin Moffat: Is this because it wasn't encouraged officially? I thought, I thought all radio and television producers were constantly checking about um last night’s programme and so on. It’s hard to believe this.
Philip Donnellan: Yes of course that is that is the, that is the case on which the BBC rests its perennial myth about the debate on broadcasting ideas and broadcasting standards. My experience is rather different. Of course in the canteen of the club there are, there are comments about programmes but they're not at any sort of a structured or disciplined level or form in …
Colin Moffat: Which could have come from the chair the chairman, that’s what you really wanted …
Philip Donnellan: Yes and coupled with playbacks. Now it was years before there was any sort of playback system so that producers could catch up on programmes they haven't had or indeed a playback taking place within a meeting so that people would say ‘Yes stop there a moment. I'm interested in that. Now why did Charlie, why did you do it like that? What's the significance of that piece injected in there because that threw me completely when I heard it the first time?’ Now then those are only comments you don't need playbacks in order to formulate the basic patterns of thinking about the nature of broadcasting in a region. That's valuable as a way of stimulating or disciplining or advancing the ideas and attitudes of particular programme producers and they need that sort of thing. Of course I do accept absolutely that there is casual chat about programmes and sometimes this is useful. But the idea that any serious debate can take place or develop in that very casual unformed way is I think an illusion. And I've only found very rare occasions when I've been able to get real analysis of particular programmes. But I've never, I've never felt really that I ever did any radio programmes that were worth analysis but in terms of television I have. Nobody likes criticism particularly one doesn't like to be nailed to the wall and the weaknesses of structure which I suffered from for years, I found it very difficult to structure programmes, television programmes or inadequacies of presentation or narrative line or style. One doesn't like to be reminded of one's inadequacies in these areas but by God if it was a discipline of being a broadcaster then it ought to happen whether you like it or not and …
Colin Moffat: Do you believe this to be true what you're saying about the whole of the BBC throughout its history right from the beginning? That this was …
Philip Donnellan: I couldn’t possibly say that.
Colin Moffat: Well I mean I know you can’t know but do you do suspect that this is …
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yes I do.
Colin Moffat: Yeah.
End Side 5
Start Side 6
Colin Moffat: Philip Donnellan side 6. Intellectuals and the BBC?
Philip Donnellan: Yes of course there were a great many intellectuals in the BBC and it must therefore sound to some extent ridiculous to say that there was an anti-intellectualism. But it's one thing being an intellectual and engaging in casual intellectual analysis with a friend in a pub and it's another creating a framework of understanding about the nature of what you're doing with people who maybe aren't intellectuals but who would benefit enormously from this sort of infusion.
Colin Moffat: Hmmm ...
Philip Donnellan: And I, I found it absolutely impossible to find except in the company of my colleague Charles Parker who became a features producer in Birmingham in 1954. With Charles and I, with David Litten who was first a contributor and then a drama producer in Birmingham for some time, did develop a common understanding coupled with a capacity to argue and discuss which was enormously valuable to me. Everybody that I knew in the BBC was first and foremost encouraged to be an individual creator. They were encouraged to be seen as such and anybody who couldn't stand up to the challenge of being entirely on their own um was not thought fit to be a producer. Now that may appear overdramatic but I think of one particular occasion and this was after I had joined television and spent some time in London when there was a group of producers around an epoch making programme called Tonight which started in 1957 and which I was on the fringes of. And I found that team involvement extremely exciting for a time but I found the total inadequacy of their approach to broadcasting so frivolous and so irritating that I couldn't stay very long.
Now in that department, the Talks Department there was a persistent bloodletting, which took place every Friday at the Departmental Meeting in which you were expected to stand up to the most swingeing and cruel cross-examination of your programmes. And this was not in any sense an attempt to establish a common understanding it was a bloodletting process in which people were exposed to the sort of treatment, which was common in 19th century public schools I understand. In other words it was part of a process of hardening, a process of becoming a member of a master race who could exert their influence not just over their television programmes but could stand up to anything the world could throw at them. And it was the creation of that sort of group, which I found particularly offensive in talks and which led to my leaving very quickly and going back to Birmingham.
Colin Moffat: Did the bloodletting come mainly from those running Tonight I mean the, the editor of Tonight?
Philip Donnellan: Well yes.
Colin Moffat: It wasn't so much between the individual directors and so on was it?
Philip Donnellan: It was encouraged.
Colin Moffat: Was it, was it in all directions, was it going in all directions?
Philip Donnellan: It was more, more the, the people in the Tonight team laying down in the most vigorous and assertive terms the way in which programmes should be made and the standard which should be achieved in those programmes and the content and material and editing time and logistics and everything should be governed by their say so. Now that was certainly the dominating factor but there was a considerable amount of bloodletting between individuals as well. Um a few people stood outside that.
Colin Moffat: And you didn't feel it was useful any of this? This was the wrong sort of exchange?
Philip Donnellan: No it infuriated me absolutely.
Colin Moffat: No, it was not a creative sort of approach to it?
Philip Donnellan: It never seemed like that to me. It was deeply destructive …
Colin Moffat: Yeah.
Philip Donnellan: ... I thought and especially for people who had retained some modest degree of sensitivity it was an appalling experience. But of course that department with its extraordinary head, Grace Wyndham Goldie, was not given to condescensions to the sensitive. I mean you were expected to, to where appropriate to mete out punishment to others and turn your bare bottom or back to the flogging that you got from your mates if you done anything. Oh you know it was terrible.
Colin Moffat: It sounds like a sort of testing process – can he stand it if we say these sort of things?
Philip Donnellan: Yes exactly.
Colin Moffat: Is he good enough to continue and so on?
Philip Donnellan: I remember on one, since we are talking about that time though we are leaping on by years but in a sense this was the climax of the sort of process which certain people in the BBC regarded as ‘framing an ideology of television.’ When I made a film called Sunderland Oak in 1961which was I thought and still think a quite remarkable visual film that accompanied by a rather fumbling soundtrack made up of music and voices. Humphrey Burton and Huw Wheldon who ran Monitor and Humphrey particularly who was had a degree in music of some elevation both attacked Sunderland Oak in the most extreme terms. Now it had already been attacked by the Head of the Department before transmission uh and I had been instructed to remove the music and I refused and referred it to the Controller of Programmes and he supported me and said the programme must go out as it was made. So Humphrey and Huw pitched into this programme at the Talks Meeting and Huw Wheldon absolutely denied my taste, discrimination or even my right to make a programme which used such trivial music, which as everybody knows it was a gross solicism to suppose that contemporary workers sang songs like this what were we supposed to believe it was nonsense. The music was bad and so on and so on. So I uh I counter-attacked, the only thing of that that I remember about my counter-attack was of I, I referred to the Monitor pop intellectuals as thinking that they could lay down the law on all matters concerning their own professional expertise. But what did Humphrey Burton with his professional expertise know about folk music that couldn't be written on a postage stamp and so on. I mean it was a thorough brawl the sort of thing that Grace would sit back and apparently enjoy and Huw Wheldon appealed to the Chair ‘Must Mr. Donnellan really be so rude?’ Well compared to the average rudeness which was meted out by those in intellectual authority in the Talks Meeting it was nothing, it was just that I'd lost my temper and I was bloody right to do so and you know. But that's it. It was, I've compared it, I've written a piece about this and I've compared it to a gathering of Chicago gangsters sitting around with their tommy guns in Chicago with their Chicago pianos and pineapple hand grenades under the table in their briefcases. And all the different sectarian interests who were prepared to, ranging from Paul Fox the editor of Panorama, the Tonight team, Michael Peacock all these people who in later years left the BBC and dominated British television and those are the standards that they took with them.
Colin Moffat: Mmm, mmm. This missing ...
Philip Donnellan: Sorry I’ve lept ahead of the story.
Colin Moffat: Well I was going to ask you this: do you think this is um common in other media? I mean if one was in a publishing house or in a large newspaper or amongst writers and so on? Did they expect? Do they need? Do they want this sort of …?
Philip Donnellan: Evisceration.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: [LAUGHTER]
Colin Moffat: Is there anything special about the BBC’s failure to provide this follow up?
Philip Donnellan: Oh I see you're not talking about the bloody bloodletting of the Talks Meeting you're talking about framing some sort of professional ongoing critique.
Colin Moffat: Well I mean is, is it, is it reasonable to expect the BBC to have provided what was missing when you don't find it elsewhere in society um in the arts and communications business?
Philip Donnellan: Well it probably isn’t reasonable but you know um one's aspirations for broadcasting and for the organisation structure and the democracy of broadcasting were much higher than we could ever have achieved within the particular society that we had or have. So nearly all our hopes and expectations about those things went by the board as time went on. But I don't think it's unreasonable to expect such a new and powerful form of culture to provide or to create for itself a critical framework in which they ask themselves regularly ‘How am I serving the public interest? How am I meeting my own creative needs and putting them to the test and yet at the same time trying to recognise that these things are all done at the expense literally of the public and that there should be some link between my creative imagination and the way in which we create broadcasting?’ Now I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that.
Colin Moffat: The only explanation that I can think of is that the BBC thought, though may never have actually laid this down, is what matters is the reaction we can get from the listeners that's what actually matters most. If our audience research tells us that this programme was successful and they make comments about it, people write letters in that's the best evidence we can get hold of. I don't think we need to discuss it ourselves so much. If that happened, if the listeners were unable to comment that really would have been disastrous wouldn’t it? We would have been missing on all fronts then. Is that fair?
Philip Donnellan: Yes I think, I think there is an element of fairness about about that and I think I, I don't know enough about what I think is called sophrology to know whether the listener research techniques that were used were fully effective to fill the entire need of the institution to create an informed production system. I do think that the processes of self-selection which went towards creating the BBC’s viewing and listening panels is a fairly narrowing effect on the sort of people who get recruited to comment on the programmes. People are not chosen at random or never were when I knew anything about viewer research or listener research they, they were, the Listener Panels are made up of people who volunteered for them. Now while there are plenty of working-class people who are quite eager to take a share for political or social or intellectual reasons to take a share in such an activity …
Colin Moffat: Why do you specify working-class?
Philip Donnellan: Well because inevitably I think in that self-selection process educated stroke or middle class people would be the most likely people to come forward and and volunteer for that sort of work and if you are …
Colin Moffat: Well perhaps that's because it is that category socially were the people who listened to the BBC Home Service if that was your channel.
Philip Donnellan: Yes well that certainly …
Colin Moffat: So it is to be expected.
Philip Donnellan: Yes but that's not a justifiable … surely that's not a justifiable base for creating a viewer or listener research panel which after all must be, should be directed toward evaluating the entire potential audience. Even if …
Colin Moffat: Yes but you can only collect your evidence from people …
Philip Donnellan: Sorry.
Colin Moffat: You can only collect this reaction from the people who actually do the listening and if most of the people who do the listening are middle-class you are bound to get this result.
Philip Donnellan: Yes but is that so? Can you establish that? I mean I would have thought there is, after all viewer and listener research panels don't only concentrate on one, on one area of the radio or television transmissions of the BBC. They are not BBC 1 audience panels and BBC 2 audience panels …
Colin Moffat: Yes but we're not talking about television Philip …
Philip Donnellan: Hold on a minute just let me finish the sentence.
Colin Moffat: … we are talking about the early ‘50s and radio aren't we?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: So there's no point in mentioning that …
Philip Donnellan: But the BBC …
Colin Moffat: Of course we've got a mass television audience what I've suggesting just now is to stuff that doesn't apply I’m talking about radio then. Philip Donnellan: Yes there was a mass audience for radio.
Colin Moffat: Yes but it was it was a different composition wasn’t it?
Philip Donnellan: In what sense?
Colin Moffat: Socially wasn’t it?
Philip Donnellan: In terms of class constitution?
Colin Moffat: Yes yes.
Philip Donnellan: I wouldn't have thought so.
Colin Moffat: I’ve always got that impression that at that stage the BBC …
Philip Donnellan: The Midland region was broadcast, I mean all opt out regional programmes were broadcasted on the home service. Now there's no evidence to suppose that a substantial proportion of an audience of whatever percentage it was that listened to a Midland Home Service programme was loaded numerically in favour of the middle-class because that was the regional Home Service so that it was supposed to be catering for all classes of, of the listener.
Colin Moffat: I thought that this was the hidden point behind Haley's Pyramid you know you gravitate gradually upwards from the Light Programme to the Home Service.
Philip Donnellan: Yes if you accept …
Clive Moffat: If you become an intellectual you would listen to the Third Programme, we hope you will move through this process and I always assumed that the Home Service, what we call Radio 4 now was the middle-class – the ordinary middle-class.
Philip Donnellan: Really?
Colin Moffat: Mmm.
Philip Donnellan: Oh I've never thought of it like that. I mean even if one accepts Hayley’s extraordinarily schematic and in my view rather spurious pyramid the idea that that, that the effectiveness I mean this is, this is determinism of a very particular sort to assume that that your audiences are acculturated by the process of listening to what was it at the bottom the Light Programme and that that then become upwardly mobile so they now listen to Home Service, this is a bizarre analogy about …
Colin Moffat: Of course he was careful, he didn't mention, he was clever enough not to mention middle-class, working-class.
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: I would read that into that, what it amounted to.
Philip Donnellan: Yes. Well there was never, there was never any any sense in my mind and certainly there was no information passed out to us that we should assume that that the audience was anything but a highly differentiated audience within the purview of the Midland Home Service. And of course once you, once you put a broadcast on the on the whole national programme on what was called Basic Programme, Basic Home Service then quite clearly it was radiated in any part of the United Kingdom and would therefore have an even more differentiated audience, undifferentiated.
Colin Moffat: The quote is “so that over the years the listener should gradually be induced to in favour of the things that are more worthwhile” that's hmmm part of the process …
Philip Donnellan: Hmmm.
Colin Moffat: The gravitational process.
Philip Donnellan: I'm sure that Hayley as the ex-editor of The Times may have thought about his audience in those terms because clearly this, this was the case in the newspaper world. But I would have thought that um that in the radio world the amount of evidence about that is quite inadequate to make any assumption about the accuracy of that isn't it? Are you aware of any statistical evidence, which suggests …
Colin Moffat: I thought I had read all this somewhere, I thought I read all this.
Philip Donnellan: … that had an approach to reality?
Colin Moffat: Well look the original point was that was the one about perhaps we don’t really have time within the BBC to do a lot of reviewing of programmes. What matters is that we must find out what THEY the listeners think about it …
Philip Donnellan: Think of it.
Colin Moffat: … that’s the most important thing. If we we get it right for them as a public service radio service well that's fine.
Philip Donnellan: But don't you think …
Colin Moffat: Why waste time sitting around talking about it all, let's get on with the next programme, there isn’t really time anyway we are very busy men.
Philip Donnellan: That certainly was the, was the tenacious view they held in Features Department I'm quite sure of it. But on the other hand I would rate the, I would assess the decline in British industry as being due to the fact that they said ‘Well as long as the bloody things are sold why do we have to worry about research and development? Why do we have to worry about learning the skills of salesmanship? We don't. We can just go on making the things and they'll go on buying them.’ And that was proved incredibly fallible and has brought us to the position we're now in.
Colin Moffat: Not quite an analogy is it? I mean this is culture …
Philip Donnellan: I mean well it is an analogy in the sense that we are creating things that that are available for public consumption and the public go on …
Colin Moffat: A very different …
Philip Donnellan … unquestioned consuming them, paying their licence fee which they are supposed to pay. And my argument for, in later years anyway, for a much more fundamental democratisation of our processes was quite simply that I didn't think we were we were giving anything in return for the licence fee that was subject to the sort of scrutiny that I believe an intelligent audience was capable of giving to the work we did and being capable of enhancing the work we did. I mean I think critical debate both within the institution and with between the institution and the audience if there is any effective way of creating that was a crucial way of making, of improving the democratisation of the system. Now other European broadcasting institutions have behaved in different ways not to achieve those ends. BBC has done almost nothing about it. I mean the most radical thing they have done is to have some sort of answer-back panels, each of them with a member of the Board of Governors located in in cities where people can come and ask questions and that passes for consulting the audience and I think that's so ludicrous to be intolerable. We saw this with Esther Rantzen introducing the …
Colin Moffat: From the Birmingham Art Gallery?
Philip Donnellan: … I'm mean can anything be more embarrassing, inadequate, loaded, intolerable?
Colin Moffat: I totally agree.
Philip Donnellan: I mean it was just laughable.
Colin Moffat: I know what you mean.
Philip Donnellan: Now that seems to me the apex of the attitudes that I felt, as I started to understand more about what the hell I was doing, and to become and this was much later on I do keep on emphasizing that all these are post hoc and very much later feelings about the way in which the system operated. But it's made me remember, made an effort to remember, the curious ways in which the system worked that I walked into in 1948.
Colin Moffat: Just to recap it again: you were critical of these programmes being produced in Birmingham at this time. What what in fact did the audience think of them, as far as you know in terms of letters coming in and so on? Was there feedback, which told you what you wanted to know? Would you have liked to know?
Philip Donnellan: I'm not aware of any significant amount, I mean Charlie Andrews wrote letters every fortnight. Until I started making television programmes I got no feedback I might get a dozen letters a year out of 15 programmes. The, one of the most central aspects of um that I thought and I thought almost at the time that this was misguided was the enormous emphasis that our programmes gave to the countryside. Now considering that we lived in and ostensibly served the Midlands which is a very densely populated industrial area with very large areas of countryside interspersed in it but fundamentally the 8,000,000 people nearly I would have thought that more than 70% of those lived in major conurbations in the region and after all since 1865, it was 1865 when more than half the people of Britain lived in towns and cities over 10,000, so that by 1948 I would have expected 70% of those 8,000,000 to live in cities. Now there was very little personal mobility in the years that I'm talking about, comparatively few people had cars. They were tied very largely to the cities where they lived and the places where they lived and the countryside was the focus of a very high proportion of our programmes. Of course well in a way the combination of this was the establishment of the Archers in Birmingham which was really quite bizarre, almost as bizarre as when in 1972 I made a programme called Before the Mast which was about 19th century sailing ships and one of the critics said ‘|It is really quite bizarre that a programme about the sea should come from so completely landlocked a city as Birmingham.’ I mean it was a passing flippant comment from, from a newspaper critic. Now nobody ever said that about our years and years of broadcasting from Birmingham about the charms of fishing in the Severn or you know rural, agreeable rural pursuits and all this sort of stuff. We never really seriously until Charles arrived, Charles Parker, arrived as a features producer in 1954 that I mentioned, he took a much more fundamental view about the desirability of exploring the urban scene of which so many of us were apart.
Colin Moffat: Of course, one of the objections might be that it is rather nice and neutral in the countryside, there’s not a great deal of politics there that it’s sort of a safe subject. But of course it is very popular isn’t it the country and country pursuits, a lot of people do go fishing um …
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes they do now …
Colin Moffat: But you merely think the disproportion, there is a ridiculous disproportion …
Philip Donnellan: Now it's grown enormously in the past 25 or 30 years.
Colin Moffat: Were there not even …
Philip Donnellan: I am sure that that's not the case. I mean I do think that there has been a significant shift to more, much more urban-based considerations. But then of course the whole country has become suburban and there is no there's no real city and there's no real country anymore. I mean people live you know in a sense we live in deep country but actually morally speaking it's a profoundly suburban condition that we all live in I think.
Colin Moffat: Mmmm.
Philip Donnellan: But um I found that very strange that that there was very little reference, if any, because the obvious thing to do would have been to establish in 1951 or whenever it was a family who were not based in a farming situation - as the Controller at that time was himself – that were based in an inner city situation subject to all the toils and travails that have been made so enormously popular by Coronation Street and Eastenders since.
Colin Moffat: Mmmm.
Philip Donnellan: And that would have been very interesting and exciting and could really, I mean a spin off if you like from heightening public interest in THE city and THE town is a much more intimate concern and understanding of the problems of urban and suburban planning and architecture within this society where we are grossly deficient in so many of these perceptions. Robin Whitworth actually did do a major programme in I think 1952, about which was called Conurbation. There was an enormous report prepared in 1951 about that huge sprawl, that huge relic of the nineteenth century the Black Country and Birmingham and how it was going to be treated in planning terms in the next 50 years but that was about the only really major consideration of urban planning or urban life that I recall in those years.
Colin Moffat: How do you explain this? This strange and this emphasis what do you think is behind it? There must be a reason …
Philip Donnellan: Well all I can do in reply to that is to quote, not directly alas, uh but to talk about a book by a young American academic called Martin well I suppose he would call himself Wiener, I would call him Veena meaning a resident of Vienna I suppose. Um Martin Weiner’s book um um forgotten the title The Decline of the Industrial Spirit, um British culture, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. And he charts in that book the responsibility of an entrenched though declining aristocracy, the rise of the public school, the rise of the middle-class towards an abandonment of the, of the importance in our lives of um of innovation and um progress in industrial terms and the consideration of the city and the opportunities, particularly industrial opportunities offered by the city, to the middle-class. It’s a very bad description of …
Colin Moffat: Which period was he discussing?
Philip Donnellan: He was discussing oh more or less from um um I forget whether there’s a date on it I think the book's up there …
Colin Moffat: Does it covers the parts of post-war Britain …
Philip Donnellan: 1865, 1865 to 1960. I mean it it's a century of the steady decline in the attention of the, of the managerial classes to the importance of maintaining industrial progress in Britain. The, the more or less accepted fact, I say more or less because I'm getting tired and I find the precise articulation of ideas not as easy as it was a little bit earlier, but um, the, the way in which a very high proportion of middle-class children are turned by parental advice and school advice directly away from industrial management as a possible career towards the arts, particularly media particularly and other artistic fields because gradually industrial management and the skills of management have been socially um have been in decline in a social sense, in terms of social appraisal of their virtues and capacities and possibilities, for a great many years and now intelligent and, and – I’m running down – I think that intelligent sharp young people do not make industrial management any of their targets in terms of career expectations and so on.
Colin Moffat: But what, what is this in relation to the BBC and how is the BBC?
Philip Donnellan: You know you asked me why there is this interest in the countryside? Why is the countryside not a perfect valid area of …
Colin Moffat: Yes but on the part of the media. I mean you know …
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: … books and radio and television they put the emphasis on it because it meets some need right?
Philip Donnellan: No it meets the interests of the, of the producing classes.
Colin Moffat: I see.
Philip Donnellan: That would be my basic argument.
Colin Moffat: Mmmm.
Philip Donnellan: And and that the appraisal, I mean I have tried uh first of all in in films and then in specific exhortations to controllers of programmes and heads of department of relevant departments to develop industrial films in the BBC because I believe just as Mortimer Wheeler did in archaeology in the ‘50s developed a passionate nationwide interest which has still not disappeared in archaeology because he was an extraordinary communicator on the early box. Secondly the development of music through broadcasting in this country, which I suspect and I think there's some evidence for believing that broadcasting in the very widest sense had an enormous, has had an enormous effect on turning Britain – always regarded on the continent as an unmusical country - into a musical country over the past 50 years.
So I believe that if the BBC had created a really wide spreading and interestingly presented pattern of industrial programmes across the whole field, not not heavily imposed on people but a pattern, an unfolding pattern of appraisal and analysis of industrial need and so on this could have transformed the pattern of behaviour in in Britain.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: I don't know because while both the examples I've given archaeology has a mystery about it which is, which is fascinating and music of course has not only an entertaining but also a profundity about it which is very, very compelling. So it may be that industry would take much longer and might even be less effective. But they've never tried, you could, you could have watch programmes, you could have watched programmes in the ‘60s at perhaps a high point in television production at that time, watched for a month and never seen a programme that indicated that Britain was an industrial country.
Colin Moffat: Anyway you started to notice this defect [LAUGHTER] in the Midland region in the early 1950s that's what you started we moved away from.
Philip Donnellan: I I started …
Colin Moffat: You began to mention it in relation to that that becoming a radio producer …
Philip Donnellan: I started I started asking myself why there were so many programmes about the countryside.
Colin Moffat: Yes yes was the Archers going at the time? When did it start I don’t know?
Philip Donnellan: I think it started in 1950 or ‘51.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: It's been going 40 years something like that.
Colin Moffat: But you you were, you were involved in some countryside programmes weren’t you?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes.
Colin Moffat: Wasn’t Country Magazine part of this wasn’t it?
Philip Donnellan: Yes, yeah.
Colin Moffat: Yeah.
Philip Donnellan: Yes I suppose I've done my share of countryside programmes but I mostly turn towards the sea. Merely because nobody ever suggested that there was anything that perhaps I might do. I was left entirely to myself to make the decisions about what I wanted to do. I mean of course I put up ideas but nobody ever said ‘Why don’t you do … what about a, what about this? You have done far too many programmes in the past year and a half about X, the sea or history or something?’ which was a common blight of my programmes. They didn't do that. Once you had shown you were modestly competent they left you on your own.
Colin Moffat: Do you think now the, what I'm trying to think of the right phrase for your programmes like the Charlie Andrews programmes, regional character studies that's a separate category, I mean do you think they were valuable they, they were neither industrial portraits nor countryside programmes they were, they were about an individual. Was that that a strand in your thinking do you go along with that?
Philip Donnellan: Uh no.
Colin Moffat: You didn’t?
Philip Donnellan: I didn't have a very coherent strand of thinking. Um I did what impulse or chance threw in my way or through in the way of my momentary interest or affection.
Colin Moffat: Incidentally how did how did they go down with the BBC? Philip Donnellan: What?
Colin Moffat: Those Charlie Andrews’ programmes.
Philip Donnellan: Oh very well.
Colin Moffat: They liked them?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes. The first, the first time the name Donnellan registered with controllers in London was Charlie Andrews. And by the mid ‘50s Dennis Morris could write to Kenneth Adam who had been Controller of the Light Programme and say you remember that Philip Donnellan has written a number of very interesting or presented or devised a number of very interesting radio programmes unhindered etc. etc. etc.
Colin Moffat: Yes you didn’t say incidentally whether these programmes, you mentioned that programme Power Cut a little while ago, were those in fact network …
Philip Donnellan: No, no, no.
Colin Moffat: No they weren’t.
Philip Donnellan: They were regional programmes.
Colin Moffat: Your early work was regional was it? Only transmitted in the region?
Philip Donnellan: Yes except for Country Magazine, which I started doing in 1952. And in that same year I wrote a blockbuster programme based, not literally based, but certainly an inspiration based on the Charlie Andrews series, which was about the Cutty Sark. It was a dramatized portrait of of the Cutty Sark called ‘A Cloud of Sail’ um and, and that got the front cover of the Radio Times and a special award and all sorts of acclamation. It was, it was a complicated piece of production but but I'm, I'm totally dismissive of my work in radio. I worked very hard and I showed a reasonable, a reasonable level of skill in in writing complex dramatised programs but they were sub sub sub Lewis McNeice. They were derived from listening to other people and copying them more or less. I had no original ideas or thoughts to contribute to the radio scene and and if we hadn't been very effectively, during the ‘50s, reminded that in the end we would have to be considering our futures in terms of television. If that hadn't been made very clear to us by a Programme Head, Dennis Morris, who was very progressive about his, his view of our individual work skills, talents and future and so on. A very humane and interesting bloke, we fell out innumerable times I very rarely went into his office except for a bollocking but nonetheless he was, he was a man that one appreciated and his his deputy the Assistant Head, David Gretton was a man of extreme quality and humanity very slow moving, pedantic but very concerned about, concerned about the sort of work you were doing. I mean he never really gave me the sort of direction that I feel I would have expected if I'd been in his shoes in relation to a young producer. I think I would have been much firmer about saying alright I know you can write good programmes, I know you can string words and ideas and write dialogue and more or less structure things very well. I just think that you are using those skills and talents in a completely unfruitful way and what I would like you to do is to go off for a week, go and do some exploration in this field or that field, come back and let's discuss the possibility of you doing a programme on this subject or that subject. Nobody ever said such a thing to me. There was no guidance at all. It was a gentle form of control. We were each other's individual people who stood or fell by our own inherent talent. I describe it in one place I think as a pleasant process of divide and rule. Now there was nothing unpleasant about it I thought it was marvellous, free libertarian and so on. It wasn't to the advantage of either the audience or me.
Colin Moffat: Can we stop there we’ve just come to the end of it.
End Side 6
BECTU History Project Interview with Philip Donnellan – documentary, writer, producer
Interview Date(s): 28 & 29 June 1991
Interview number: 206
Interviewer: Colin Moffat
Colin Moffat: Philip Donnellan side 7. Right about this point a producer called Charles Parker arrived at the BBC in Birmingham and almost at the same time a new piece of equipment called the EMI midget tape recorder arrived. Those two facts are closely related and this affected your career from that moment on didn’t it?
Philip Donnellan: Yes inevitably and the careers of lots of other people and in broadcasting because for the first time. Well as I've dwelt already on the on the confinement of the BBC to disc recording the coming of the tape recorder was a profound revolution and most revolutionary of all was the fact that producers themselves were able to handle it. They were the people who took it out, took this midget recorder out and used it in the field. And it's almost impossible to estimate the significance of that whether it was against the opposition of the engineering department I have not been able to find out. But the day when we took the heavy little midget recorder powered by ten U2 batteries on our shoulder for the first time, went out with a mike and a stack of tapes, although tapes themselves were pretty were pretty precious too, individual 5” tapes were pretty precious in first and indeed the BBC safeguarded that material for a very long time.
I'm trying to filibuster until the car's gone I don’t know if you can hear it.
Colin Moffat: Was that machine commissioned as a design by the BBC to to EMI?
Philip Donnellan: Yes it was.
Colin Moffat: Who, who was responsible for it and what did they think it was going to be used for? I know what it was used for later but what what what was the thinking?
Philip Donnellan: Oh well it could only be used for one thing which was the collection of material in the field clearly but it was an enormous step forward from the the ponderous machines that had been designed and built by research and development inside the BBC for the recording of programmes of transmission.
Colin Moffat: One could guess that on the whole they probably thought it would be news that it would be the most useful for news, reporters I suppose, journalistic work anyway.
Philip Donnellan: I'm not sure about that and I I've accumulated very little evidence about that in my own experience. Now at exactly the same time in February in 1954 as the the midget recorder, two midget recorders where as it were posted to Birmingham and were available for our use and almost with it, and it really is a dramatic coincidence, it came this bloke as you mentioned Charles Parker. He was appointed following the move of Robin Whitworth who decided that radio was finished and he wanted to get into television and he went off as drama organiser television drama organiser in London leaving a vacancy which was filled by Charles who had until then had been briefly in the general overseas service for the BBC and then in the North American service producing more or less features and feature type programmes difficult to define but covering a very wide variety of interests and and possible programmes.
Now as so much has been said about Charles within and without the BBC over the past 37 years that it's very difficult now to be objective even to those people who knew him well and worked for him as I did for twenty years and more. First of all Charles appeared on the surface to be a characteristic middle-class BBC producer; he was tall and well dressed and wore a tie and checked jacket and grey flannel trousers, he had he had a small ginger beard and quite a lot of gingerish hair. And he'd he'd had what was often called a good war and that meant that he had joined the Royal Naval Patrol Service as a blue jacket, an ordinary seaman and he'd been commissioned and gone into the submarine service and he'd been a highly efficient first lieutenant of um um a ship called Sceptre and he had then eventually made his way up and been promoted, got the DSC, Distinguished Service Cross, the almost top available naval decoration for reasons that are still obscure to me and I'm not making light of them I merely don't know about their circumstances. And eventually he became as a lieutenant still he became commander of a of a submarine himself which was very unusual in the wartime Navy since he was an HO, Hostilities Only officer, temporary gentleman in the army and a submarine was a big ship in naval parlance and for it for an HO officer to become a commander of a big ship in the Navy was a really rare situation. So somehow or other Charles must have impressed himself profoundly on the Navy. Now it’s said and I've spoken to a number of his very good friends time it’s said that this was largely due to his very substantial efficiency as First Lieutenant. The ship was very well run, there was a high level of discipline everything was clean bright and slightly oiled. Now that may be a perfectly adequate reason but there may be other reasons of which we know nothing. Suffice it to say that when Charles almost accidentally broke into the BBC after going to Queens College Cambridge after his naval service there came into broadcasting an almost demonic personality who over a comparatively short time developed very powerful ideas, very often misguided ideas, about what he was going to do in broadcasting. Now my theory about Charles is quite simply that due to a a rather deprived lower-middle-class background and he was born in Bournemouth which he was always terribly sensitive about, Bournemouth didn't seem to him nearly as romantic as having been born in the back streets of Bradford or Birmingham or East Lancs or something, so he was always rather ashamed of having been born in bourgeois Bournemouth. Well that may sound frivolous but it's a very substantial key to Charles's own response to the world, which he then stamped on broadcasting. It’s difficult to go further than that in this sort of amateur psychology that I am capable of but the fact remains that he developed a powerful sense of various profoundly significant things, significant to him which he intended to do and and construct and make in broadcasting.
Now at first inevitably when he arrived in Birmingham he did what all the rest of us were doing which was to commission, develop, produce in the studio and broadcast standard acted feature programmes. Now what was a feature programme? I've been a bit coy about attempting a definition. But the fact is that a feature programme could be in any form that you chose Laurence Gilliam, the famous Head of Features Department from 1945 onwards and who created an extraordinary atelier of poets and journalists, he defined the feature programme as the programme ‘that bears the imprint of the individual mind’ that it is not in a sense mass radio it is pure radio it's it is as it were the creation of the artist although the use of that word was always regarded as highly pretentious in the BBC. But Charles nevertheless saw himself increasingly as an artist who responded to material as an artist would and that is in a sense the dominating factor of his life and his work.
Colin Moffat: Was he in fact influenced, are you implying he was influenced a little bit by Gilliam himself? Was he in touch with him?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes. Because even though we were in the regions and therefore regarded as rather lower grade people we were still features producers and members even if remote er country members of Gilliam's features empire. Colin Moffat: Were they overseeing your work from London?
Philip Donnellan: No they weren't. The work was while being developed along lines which we knew that Gilliam and and his empire would approve broadly speaking we were still members of the Midland region and subject to the programme controls of the Programme Head. But he too recognized the existence of features and David Gretton, the Assistant Head, would always recognise and support our involvement with features in the sense of getting programme ideas from them or picking up ideas that they wanted to … We were regarded in a sense as corresponding members of the of the London Features Department.
Colin Moffat: How far back did the Features Department go historically? Philip Donnellan: Well Laurence who came into the BBC in the middle ‘30s or the early ‘30s and he worked in public relations or whatever it was called in those days, publicity perhaps. And he then got involved in the journalistic end of programme making towards the end of the ‘30s just before the war. And then the first real impact he made on the broadcasting scene was a remarkable series which charted the rise of Hitler in 1938/39 which was called The Shadow of the Swastika which was written by one very remarkable man and one man who is who is to me totally a cipher. I've never come across any cross-references to him this was an Ivan Vinogradov. I've never heard of him in any other context but A L Lloyd or Bert Lloyd as he was known to generations of us was the other writer and the prime writer of the series. Now Bert Lloyd was a Communist Party member …
Colin Moffat: Is this Bert Lloyd the folk singer?
Philip Donnellan: This is Bert Lloyd the folk singer. Bert was fundamentally a journalist and he wrote Shadow of the Swastika. It was produced by Laurence Gilliam and the impact of that in 1939 was tremendous, great numbers, it was the first I think the first really huge audience that the BBC developed 11 or 12 million people listened to the episodes I think there were probably 8 or 10 episodes of the Shadow of the Swastika which charted the way Hitler had risen to the domination of the German people. Now a lot of Tory MPs and those fellow travellers that existed at the time thought that Bert Lloyd was much too harsh on Hitler. After all we had to live with him in Europe, we had to accept him in a way that was actually government policy at the time. What we now call appeasement was called at the time appeasement I suppose. So whatever the political context in which those programmes were heard the fact remains that it put Gilliam on the map. He worked throughout the war in almost in cahoots with the Talks Department, which was the most important area of the BBC in political and organisational. Talks and news were very important pre-war factors in the BBC.
Colin Moffat: Had there been regional outposts features department in several places in the ‘30s, Manchester for example?
Philip Donnellan: Well no not an offshoot because there was no Features Department. What there was was the powerful presence of Archie Harding the Marxist in Manchester who had developed his own atelier of experimental work and a combination of drama and journalism which later became was called features but wasn't called features at that time. There was no particular department.
Colin Moffat: This predated Gilliam.
Philip Donnellan: No it didn't. It didn't precisely, it predated Gilliam as a powerful force in the BBC but Gilliam was in the BBC at the time but he was in London working in publicity. Now Gilliam's emergence onto the scene came with War Report which started in 1944 and reported on the war in Europe for the last year of the war and was a tremendous organisational achievement given the real technical difficulties of coping with the additional load of the war which had been placed on the BBC by exiled governments, exiled broadcasters and so on which I've talked about already.
Gilliam's emergence onto the broadcasting scene with real public significance came in 1945 when the Features Department was formed with Gilliam and another remarkable man Geoffrey Bridson who had emerged in the Manchester coterie as Assistant Head of Features.
Colin Moffat: Commonly known as DG Bridson.
Philip Donnellan: Yes DG Bridson that's the chap. Now Bridson was was a writing machine, he was a prodigious worker and he he developed a whole series of different ways of handling well I'm I'm I'll say reality. What I mean is the spoken word actuality, reconstructed actuality, different ways of handling the stuff of radio as it started to develop in both innovative and traditional ways.
After the war Features was at the forefront of all creative broadcasting from 1945 certainly until the middle ‘50s it then started to go in decline partly because of the the imperial nature of Gilliam's empire became more obtrusive. The freedoms that this bunch of poets and journalists accorded themselves gradually started to affront the increasingly powerful managerial system within the BBC. I'm I'm not terribly happy at going on theorising off-the-cuff. This has been very well charted in terms of the evidence without coming to these somewhat glib conclusions that I'm being forced to do by talking off-the-cuff about them I'd much rather talk about my own direct experience and if you like Charles's. But more or less we're talking about us being proud to be, as it were, representatives, however mildly distant and rather impoverished cousins, in the regions of this powerful empire, which to us was a crucial area of technical and professional focus for our efforts.
Colin Moffat: Where else were units like yours?
Philip Donnellan: Oh in all the regions. Desmond Hawkins in Bristol; Elwyn Evans in Cardiff; in Manchester Norman Swallow at first and then Dennis Mitchell; Stanley Williamson and Olive Shapley in Birmingham; Robin Whitworth and Ted Livesey; um Cecil McGivern who by the middle ‘50s was the Director of Television had been a features writer in Newcastle during the war, Junction X and a number of other quite remarkable programmes he produced for the radio. So there were representatives everywhere and we tended to meet once a year in London at Features Conferences, which were largely excuses for a series of extremely boozy parties. But the general ethos the fraternity of the Features Department was reinforced in all of us by those annual meetings where we ostensibly listened to lectures about the craft of radio. We listened about administrative problems of coping with an increasing emphasis on money within the BBC even as early as the middle ‘50s and given the competition certainly in television of of um independent television.
So so Charles and I in 1954 assumed the mantle of features producers in Birmingham and it was a matter of considerable pride as I've already said to us. However I although I could write and and did write endless programmes nearly I would have thought that by 1955 I was writing about 80% of the 16 to 20 programmes a year that I produced. Charles lesser because Charles was not an easy writer right up until his death he found great difficulty in coping with words on the page and there are notebooks in the Charles Barker archive in Birmingham now there are notebooks in which he agonised over the real difficulty of commanding written language. But his real strength and it was only made possible by the coming of the tape recorder was spoken language and on that framework he over the next 5 to 10 years he created a dominating ideology for his own personal life and work which was the importance a) of the oral tradition in the man's mouths of mainly working class people because he believed as many of us did that they spoke with much greater freedom, far fewer social barriers between the voice, the will, the intention and the expression and the second thing that Charles made the basis of his his work of course the midget tape recorder liberated the oral tradition and the second thing was the folk music tradition which from the middle ‘50s became the second folk revival the first folk revival being Cecil Sharp in the 1900s the discovery of an extraordinary tradition of music and dance within the rural working-class of Britain. The second folk revival which started with people like McColl and Bert Lloyd, Ewan McColl known by all old hands, particularly around Manchester where he was born as Jimmy Miller his name changed, he changed his name during the war. Partly it's said …
Colin Moffat: Do you know why?
Philip Donnellan: I don't know why. It's partly the stories, he told many story different stories about it and that one of them certainly was that he wanted to attach himself more firmly to the to the Scottish tradition and to re rename himself Ewan McColl was a perfectly legitimate showbiz ploy because basically he was an actor, a playwright and a performer.
Colin Moffat: The parents were Scots were they?
Philip Donnellan: His parents were Scots and they had emigrated south to Salford in, well I didn't know when but certainly long before Ewan was born. Ewan was born in 1915. His father was an iron moulder unemployed most of the time in Salford as one can imagine. And Ewan was brought up in that holy proletarian, Scots proletarian background with an inherited body of songs that he got from his mother Betsy Miller. Now another story about the change of name was quite simply that the Ewan was called up into into the Army early in the war and he deserted and that he changed his name in order to avoid any embarrassing repercussions from the authorities. A jolly good thing he did so, the idea of Ewan McColl soldiering on in in Europe instead of becoming a member of Theatre Workshop and developing the skills and artistic possibilities of Theatre Workshop seems quite ridiculous to me. I don't believe in soldiering at all costs but anyway …
Colin Moffat: Was he a pacifist?
Philip Donnellan: Not that I know of. He was a lifelong Communist although um absolutely staunch in his proletarian loyalties but somewhat vague in his social responses to Marxism. I mean he enjoyed the good life when it became available just as we all did. And he saw nothing inconsistent with the, with his convictions in that and I think he was quite right. He was a great man he was a very very remarkable man indeed. He had a great effect on my work because I I increasingly came to recognize with Charles the importance of folk music in terms of representing the sort of areas of experience and tradition and so on particularly in the industrial field that I was particularly interested in.
Colin Moffat: The contact between Charles Parker, Ewan McColl etc. that's actually a little bit later isn't it from where we are just at this moment when Charles Parker arrived in Birmingham …
Philip Donnellan: Yes in 1954.
Colin Moffat: ... he was already in touch was he not with folk music in some in some way even before he arrived in Birmingham in the North American service?
Philip Donnellan: Yes to a certain limited extent. He was in touch as many people were with American folk music I mean he knew a number of classical American ballads Moses and the Mail, things about railway disasters and things like that which are not uncommon in the American, in the common popular tradition of America.
Colin Moffat: Could Charles Parker sing?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes yes. Oh yes. I mean I wouldn't say he was a natural singer and I'm not really qualified to judge. But certainly he trained himself as resolutely as a singer as he trained himself resolutely as a tape editor and a producer of radio material. Anything that he did he did with enormous conviction and passion if he decided something was worth doing he did it to the absolute final degree and it was one of the characteristics that made him most offensive to the BBC. BBC does not believe in passion it believes in objectivity and Charles and I must say I myself perhaps partly from my Irish background I always romantically think so anyway were inclined to do things with absolute conviction and energy and that conflicted very severely with the attitudes of the BBC as expressed through their programme doctrines. However,
Colin Moffat: Did you get on with Charles right from the beginning quite quite nicely?
Philip Donnellan: I always found him a kind of strange person partly because he was a profoundly Christian believer and despite the early Christian Science and, in my life I had long since left the Christian conviction behind me I was characteristic of an unthinking person who who for whom Christianity was a rather burdensome piece of luggage which you forget in the waiting room of the past, you know and …
Colin Moffat: Were you interested in religion in general, that side of life in a broad sense?
Philip Donnellan: Moderately but I don't think it's something on which I would waste time committing myself now. It didn't figure in my life or in the lives of the family that Jill and I have have created …
Colin Moffat: Did you discuss?
Philip Donnellan: … we wouldn't have objected if they had, I always said that first child, Thomas eldest child, would either be a croupier or a Church of England clergyman. He had an absolutely glib bonhommus quality, which might have marked him out for anything like that. In actual fact he is still a bit like that but much much more technically minded than either a croupier or a Church of England clergyman.
Colin Moffat: This difference between you and Charles was not a, it sounds as if it didn't get in the way of your working relationship anyway?
Philip Donnellan: He disapproved entirely of my irreligion.
Colin Moffat: Oh he did.
Philip Donnellan: He did but not in a way that stood in the way of our friendship. I mean he didn't ram it down my throat anymore than he rammed it down everybody's throat.
Colin Moffat: You weren't constantly arguing about Christianity?
Philip Donnellan: Oh no I wouldn't dream of arguing about religion. Charles saw it in everything. He wasn't a Sundays only Christian he profoundly believed in the structural importance of God in his work, a personal God. And his notebooks again are full of these references and in his programmes if he were recording people the one thing that was absolutely sure to go into the finished programme was if there was a meaningful account of a person's relationship, however superficial in a sense, I still think it would be superficial but meaningful, in other words if they talked about God however marginally it always went into the programme because Charles saw that as a crucial element in his perception of the world. He was a, he lived in Harborne a suburb of Birmingham, in a biggish old house and he was, it was right opposite St Peter's Church and he became a a a member of the choir and sang in the Harborne Choir for many years and he did some of his earliest and and I believe most important and meaningful multi-media shows in relation to the church and they were always shot through both with visual and aural Christian significances. So the whole struggle he had to create and develop a new way of feeling and thinking about features radio was shot through with, first of all with his religious convictions and then increasingly in the ‘50s and the ‘60s as he became more and more musically dependent on Ewan McColl and his associates, who were Marxists, became shot through with a perception that Christianity wasn't quite enough and that somewhere along the line he had to take into account the Communist view of the world – the view of men as brothers not in Christ but in terms in Marx and in terms of social reality and exploitation and these other aspects of Marxist doctrine. He never made complete sense of that and there was always a profound tension in Charles because he was wracked by problems of conscience. Now one mustn't, one mustn't obscure the actual work that he did by referring too much to these moral problems they were part of his everyday life but his real work was broadcasting but he brought a whole complex of ideas attitudes to his work which were totally absent from mine. In other words I was much, much more glib and superficial in my perception about the needs of radio and until until a much, or rather later period in my life characterised I suppose by my contacts with with television which immediately foregrounded a different sort of significance in broadcasting to me and …
Colin Moffat: Did you allow him to influence you from the beginning? I mean …
Philip Donnellan: Well it wasn't a question of allowing it I mean if you have a close friend and a fellow worker whose office is just along the passage from yours and you’re constantly in and out of people's, the other people's office, the other person's office and you are sent always as a routine we send each other copies of our scripts in advance. We talked in the canteen or in in social occasions because I went fairly frequently to his house and he to ours. In fact our visitor's book at home has got H Charles Parker and Phil his wife in I think the second week that he was in Birmingham. I wanted to make it very clear because obviously I'd been there already 6 years, 8 years by the time Charles came, no um 6 years I'd been in Birmingham by the time Charles came I didn't want him to feel that I was in any way resentful of his coming in at a higher level in the programme production hierarchy. He um I was extremely glad and genuinely so that that he had been appointed to the senior Features Producer’s job rather than me. He was much, in my view he was a much more significant broadcasting figure in radio than I ever was.
Colin Moffat: Can you can you describe a typical feature programme of that time when you were first with Charles Parker either produced by you or him or that really would represent both of you in a general sort of way?
Philip Donnellan: Yes well the first thing is that they were they were, the most characteristic one would be a contact between a producer Charles or me; let's assume that it's my programme I have a particular idea, which I'm anxious to pursue. If I have the idea I would almost invariably sit down and write the programme eventually after some degree of research usually in those days it would be research in books or through talking to people but less of the latter.
Now that contact between me and a subject might come through contact with a regional writer. I comparatively rarely compared with Charles who launched himself much more onto the national plain of of outside writers, I would if I thought it was appropriate, I would get hold of a particular writer and encourage him to write a 30, 45 or 60 minute film on a particular subject.
Now that contact might take its place with at least half-a-dozen other contacts of a similar sort that one was running at any particular time. In other words you would engage in developing scripts and ideas throughout the, the throughout the year. The year itself was broken down into quarters: you made submissions of programme ideas and proposals to the Programme Head for every quarter, you made it in the previous quarter and so this is what I proposed to do in the third or fourth quarter of this year. Now so the continuum of the office work of a producer would be the development with say half-a-dozen contributors of ideas for work ahead while at the same time you might be writing or compiling or editing the immediate work of the quarter that you were actually living through.
Okay let's assume that either I have written a script or somebody else has written a script. The next thing would be to cast it, you might need anything up to 12, 15 sometimes 20 actors in a production. There was there was absolutely no concern with budget, now other people's experience at exactly the same time as I'm talking about was completely different. For example if I talk to David Litton about this he will say I was given so much to make a programme, I was never conscious of that money was not a factor in the process of making programmes in my experience. So I would cast with a high proportion of London actors but there would inevitably be probably 25% of the smaller parts would be taken by regional actors, people who were living in or around Birmingham. If there were special vernacular accent needs from Norfolk say, it was always difficult to get actors who could do Norfolk accent, then you would cast the very few people who could or if you want if if a particular sequence of a play was set in Derbyshire in rural Derbyshire you would you would get in probably an actor and there would be an actor in Derby.
Colin Moffat: You are talking about players at this point?
Philip Donnellan: I am talking about acted pieces. Yes but not play …
Colin Moffat: What form of programme are you talking about?
Philip Donnellan: Well a feature programme this is the problem in defining a feature programme. A feature programme juggled with the techniques, which had been developed over the years mostly by well people like David Thompson,
Rayner Heppenstall, Louis McNiece, W R Rogers in the Features Department in London.
Colin Moffat: Yes, yes.
Philip Donnellan: You would listen to their work as I had done for years as an announcer covering programme junctions in the continuity studio, I listened to programmes and so I knew what people were doing. I have a sort of command of the language of radio, which is available to features producers and writers. Colin Moffat: Yes I'm still not clear what what, what form these programmes took beyond what sound like acted sequences.
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: What were the other components?
Philip Donnellan: The other components were um um narrative voices. Now you might have one, two or three different narrative voices from different stances within a programme. For instance if you were if you were say talking about the history of the Birmingham Post for example which was a programme that I did at some point in the ‘50s to celebrate the centenary of the Birmingham Post, it was written by Kenneth Byrd who had actually worked on the Birmingham Post. He was a freelance writer, he later came into the BBC as publicity officer, he was a journalist. He was a very skilled and fluent writer with quite a useful sort of sense of the politics of the occasion although at that time I wasn't the slightest bit interested in politics and I was a quite apolitical, typical BBC type producer.
Now Byrd would write a script which consisted of various narrators it might, I don't recall the actual programme but I was, the sort of things he would be juggling with would be the Birmingham man who would be the common man who was a newspaper reader who might have a particular perspective from which to speak. ‘Why is it like that?’ the the common man might say, the journalist might might be another character a generalized image of a journalist might be another character in describing how the Birmingham Post had changed during the Victorian period through into the present day. The interaction between the local paper and local politicians that might be handled by a journalist figure and there would be the magisterial voice of a series of famous editors who had characterised the Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary period. Now these people would be characterised at the same time there might be an objective narrator voice which said that ‘In 1893 the paper changed hands it fell into the hands of a group of local landowners who articulated a different editorial line’ and then you would you would start again.
Colin Moffat: These were documentary based programmes I mean they dealt with the with the record, the public record on all these matters?
Philip Donnellan: They dealt with what was ostensibly called reality but it was the reality of the imagination using historical fact as far as you could discern it as a basis for for rewriting history. Now at the same time of course if you had acted scenes for example you might reconstruct the pressroom of the Birmingham Post with two or three characters in it. You'd want people with with Birmingham working-class accents, you would want effects, you would want acoustics in the studio that provided you with an an acoustic framework on the air which was akin to what you had heard and seen in the pressroom of the Birmingham Post. So all these components, which really it's it's quite difficult to to describe with confidence because it could range across the entire imaginative spectrum. You could have, you could try and reconstruct one of Henry VIII’s commissioners exploring Pershore Abbey in the 14th century and you would have monks droning on and playing the song and the the the abbot meeting the commissioner and you'd have to provide an acoustic and an oral framework for that.
And the Birmingham Post, I mean the range of programmes could be entirely at your imagination. I mean I did in the, very early in my experience 1951 same time that I was doing more or less at the time I was doing a programme on a power cut with a couple of, as I described, a couple of actuality narrators who were just real people I was doing a programme on the Warwickshire Cricket Club. And of course what you did then was to reconstruct the sound of the County Ground and you would you would find out about the the struggles between gentlemen and players in the Victorian period and how a club became professional and hyped and so on. So these things were only limited by the scope of your contact with the generalised historical and contemporary experience of people in the region and what you could do with the material on this, what another writer could do with the materials on this in the framework of a 30 or 45 minute programme.
Colin Moffat: Yes. This imaginary programme you've just been describing is obviously one set mainly in the past, which is why you used actors, the only way to do it but presumably there were programmes that brought the story of something or other up to date. How did you deal with the present day? Were you then able to get into actuality recording?
Philip Donnellan: Well of course the rule of thumb that was enjoined on me from the beginning was that you didn't mix dramatic construction with actuality material because in some way or others was liable to be confusing to the audience if you had an actor who was a skilled vernacular, Birmingham vernacular speaker and you had him speaking words which you had written for him in a particular part and you then cut to a piece of actuality in a rather similar vernacular which said other things there was a danger of confusion between the actor and the actuality speaker and the real person.
Colin Moffat: Did you yourself believe this would mean mixing the conventions in the wrong way?
Philip Donnellan: No. I mean I'm more or less towed the line. If there were convention, programme conventions I would easily accept what I was told. And David Gretton who was the as it were the editor of all these scripts and works that that we produced he would he would say or write, very often written but we might he said “Philip I don't think that er what you've done in that script about the Warwickshire Cricket County Cricket Club is going to work. You know there's a real danger there that that that er wicket keeper chap you talked to he sounds he is liable to sound certainly looks like on the page exactly like the bloke you've got up in front of him. I mean is that going to work?” And I would say “Well I think it's going to work but I don't know. What do you think? You think it's inadvisable?” and he would say “Well I wouldn't do it if I was you my own experience would be …” and so on. So that was how the wisdom of the, of professional techniques was passed on. It was all rather hit and miss but there was a debate if you like but a small scale one.
Colin Moffat: Nevertheless you were making also programmes about present day life in the Midlands were you? And then of course …
Philip Donnellan: My inclination alas I'm afraid that a vast amount of the work I produced was historical.
Colin Moffat: You mean that actually was your interest?
Philip Donnellan: I had always been profoundly interested and excited and moved by the events and facts of history as they were said to be. I didn't exercise a searching scrutiny of what historical truth actually meant I tended to accept it and I would write things that in retrospect that are embarrassing thin and inadequate as expressions of a particular subject however cogently framed within the techniques and styles of radio presentation. I mean they might be very cleverly done but they but their examination and scrutiny and imaginative penetration of the likely perspectives of history as it had been experienced in the past was almost completely lacking. I mean I remember one of the earliest dramatisations that I did was in my view more interesting, I had I developed partly from a radio series that had been produced by Ted Livesey which I had announced way back in ‘48 or ‘49 called The Silver Bowl which was about a historical fact called the Campden Wonder which paralysed the informed classes of Elizabethan England about something that had happened in Chipping Campden which was part of our region in I think 1616 or thereabouts. Now Ted Livesey did a brilliant series of programmes in serialising Hugh Ross Williamson's book The The silver Bowl. It was about witchcraft his analysis and I became very interested in this and it so happened that the head of staff training at the BBC at that time Michael Penerthorn Hughes was also himself an expert on witchcraft. And I started to explore this in amongst the all the other things that I found fascinating about the environment the landscape, the countryside and the, and the past in the Midlands. I found myself very interested in witchcraft, historical witchcraft I wasn't interested in contemporary witchcraft because I didn't, I assumed it didn't exist and I didn't ask whether it existed. And I found out that the last trial for witch murder, for murdering a woman because she was alleged to be a witch, took place in the Warwick assizes in 1875. And this case came, revolved around the the the personality of a farm labourer in a village called Long Compton out on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border. And I went out to Long Compton explored this and then I went to the original records of the trial and I wrote a 30 minute, 45 minute programme which dramatised the trial and the various issues about the existence of witchcraft in the village and the things that the accused had said. And and then followed it with a discussion about witchcraft which included the head of staff training and Hugh Ross Williamson. Now this was called A Brief Inquiry Into Witches.
End Side 7
Start Side 8
Colin Moffat: Philip Donnellan side 8.
Philip Donnellan: That program was called A Brief Inquiry into Witches and it in a funny way it led quite directly into an initial contact with television. And if I may go on in that direction now briefly I mean we can come back to radio if we want to but but I think I think perhaps it's premature to do that because I haven't completely answered your programme about the nature of the activity in the studio and perhaps I ought just to say something about that. Now we can take A Brief Inquiry into Witches and now the cast was smaller in that case: I would have a judge, I would have two lawyers, I would have the accused who would have to be a really rural Warwickshire voice.
Now I mentioned Ted Livesey’s series on The Silver Bowl and a number of others and Ted had developed among villagers in Chipping Campden a sort of repertory company of people who were extraordinarily good radio actors. And indeed it was one of the reasons why The Archers was so successful right from the beginning was that the people in it were real people although they later joined Equity the actors union and became professional radio actors they were initially merely villagers from the Warwickshire/Gloucestershire border and the villages around a whole number of them so that there was a ready corpus of actors available to take part in this which had a sort of affect, a certain leverage on the sort of programmes that we did. I mean the, you know the Campden Wonders as they came to be called were were so good and so real that there was a tendency to look for programmes which would use their talents.
However, okay well you you have a cast of half-a-dozen actors you would then the script would be typed in the appropriate format, you would have two studio managers perhaps plus a panel operator. The studio managers one would do the gram.. the gramophone the disc effects which would be in the control room in the gallery that you produced from, the other would would probably be involved with effects in the studio. The cliché image is coconut shells, half coconut shells for horses’ hooves whereas in fact you've gotten plenty of horses galloping or whatever on disc though. The spot effects man would open doors and close doors and make feet going upstairs or whatever.
Colin Moffat: You talking about live broadcast here?
Philip Donnellan: I'm talking about live broadcast. Everything went out live. It wasn't recorded.
Colin Moffat: Why not?
Philip Donnellan: Well just facilities were not available there was no point.
Colin Moffat: No disc recording?
Philip Donnellan: There was disc recording for effect use but on the whole unless something had a possible value in terms of a later repeat on the basic Home Service things would would not be recorded.
Colin Moffat: The reason it was impractical was because the recording time was so short on the disc wasn’t it?
Philip Donnellan: Er …
Colin Moffat: You had a whole series of discs to put a programme on?
Philip Donnellan: Yes but if you were going to record a 45 minute programme off transmission you would use 33⅓ disc equipment in a in a special technical area in the recording area so that there was no particular problem about that but they were regarded as expensive commodities. So you didn't record off transmission without there being some valid reason for thinking that the programme had a future. Most of the stuff didn't have a future it went out once it was part of the Midland Home Service on a particular night and and and it disappeared into limbo. That was the overwhelming thing in moving from from sound radio into film making in the ‘50s because by definition at the end of making a programme on film, even though it was called a programme rather than a film, you had a can of film which you could send anywhere in the world if you could get hold of it and didn't matter what the language was, you would you could proclaim whether you were a good or a bad film maker with radio you never had anything except a script. And so there was a powerful sense of a creative product at the end of filmmaking, which was totally absent from radio.
Colin Moffat: But just before we go into films if that's what we're going to do can you just say a little bit more about whether feature programmes were able now to cover contemporary material and did you start then? We have mentioned the arrival of the portable tape recorder presumably is that what allowed features to deal with the present day scene? Or could you was there some means of doing a feature program by lugging these disc recorders around?
Philip Donnellan: Oh yes of course there was. There were various ways and I mean the a great many radio producers, features producers we're dealing with nothing else. You mustn't imagine, and I'm sure you don't, that that the entire output of the Midland Home Service focused on Charles and me it certainly didn't and 99, no not 99 but say 90% of the rest of the Midland Home Service would be non-historical material. So it took its place in a in a sort of palimpsest of of of general material about the present day. But in terms of feature programmes dealing with the present day yes we did start from 1955 onwards when there was an editing channel. You see the coming of the tape recorder opened up the possibilities of editing tape, now that had not really been fully understood or imaginatively predicted by the people who had ordered, the BBC or the people who designed, the tape recorder. It wasn't designed for editing of course it was much too small scale and that the the tape deck was not designed for editing couldn't be used for editing.
Colin Moffat: So the midget didn't pre-suppose editing it was going to be used to make just sort of longish recordings which might stay in that form or just fed into other programmes …
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: … or they might indeed be the complete thing it might just be a 20 minute interview with somebody which you could then …
Philip Donnellan: It might but that was very unlikely. And within a very very short time of of getting the midget recorders the question of editing had obtruded quite practically and sharply. For the simple example that even with discs we had been editing material to make programmes as I described about Charlie Andrews, although it was difficult and the quality was bad. But there was no question within a very short time of getting the the tape recorder the the question of editing became paramount. Now at that time and I certainly edited edited material for programmes in 1954 and it was done in a completely different way than the way it's done now. For instance you you cut you cut the tape with a pair of brass scissors to avoid clicks on it and you then dissolved off the the acetate coating or whatever it was the brown coating on the tape dissolved it with a solvent and you then put glue on the other side and you stuck it together. Now that process meant that every cut took about err 25 seconds. Colin Moffat: Did you yourself do that?
Philip Donnellan: No no I didn't. An ed a tape editor did that who the particular instance I have in my imagination as I describe it is a man who would have been a an ordinary engineer not necessarily a recording engineer probably a control room engineer. But certainly in Birmingham and I'm not aware of the experience in other places but certainly in Birmingham that quickly fell into the hands of two highly talented women who had been control room engineers but when there were volunteers called for they volunteered to become tape editors knowing nothing about it at first. This was Mary Baker and a woman called Jimmy Bailey, she was known as Jimmy because her initials were GIM. And and the the reasonably glib but not inaccurate assumption was that women were more nimble fingered than men and therefore could could handle the fine detail of tape editing more competently than men. Mark you …
Colin Moffat: Because they did needlework and that sort of thing?
Philip Donnellan: In actual fact of course they were marvellous suited to tape editing because they had very quick minds. They understood exactly what was happening in the producer's mind whereas a great many people who had been control room engineers who were male would never have got within miles of understanding what you were trying to get out in a particular program. However, there it is.
Colin Moffat: Who was most interested in the potential of tape editing you Charles or somebody else or what?
Philip Donnellan: Oh at that time I probably did more tape editing than Charles did. When I say I did a tape editor did it for me. It was years it was when I went into television and found there was no ¼” tape editing that I started editing tape myself and Charles had started before that. But just erm just to go back, I forget actually where where I was I was I was too oh yes, my first experience of tape the first time I became conscious of tape editing was when in in 1955 early in 1955 one of the programmes, I'd started a series of programmes in East Anglia called Down to the Sea which looked at the whole perspective of life at sea in a series of talks. It was a magazine programme done once a month and gave me a marvellous outlet to go to East Anglia and collect expenses for doing so and staying away and having a great time and then coming back and drinking too much all the rest of it – great fun. However, in 1955 the man who had proposed that programme with whom I worked regularly a man called Roy Clark who lived at Kessingland south of Great Yarmouth um he said “Why don't we do A Down to the Sea about the relationship between East Anglia and Denmark? Let's go to Denmark.” So this is quite adventurous, nobody went abroad things in those days. However we did and we spent a week in Denmark and we got some marvellous stuff on tape. And I edited that programme with the Danish State Radio in Copenhagen and to my astonishment what did I see when I arrived at the Radiohuset in Copenhagen I was taken up to their tape editing channel. Now their tape editing channel was a control room, circular control room with eight tape editing channels around it where engineers worked with tapes in a vertical mode, vertical position not horizontal which was the way subsequently the BBC adopted it in which we now conventionally think of as a way to edit tapes, they worked vertically with the tape spools vertical. And in no time at all there was a highly competent young man who spoke completely fluent English editing my programme for me – it was an absolute knockout. At that time when the they well a poor relation the Danish Radio had 8 tape editing channels in its major studio the BBC had one tape editing channel in Broadcasting House in London that was the only one in the country – this vast panoply of radio experience and the BBC had one tape-editing channel. So I came back to Birmingham of course absolutely convinced of the power of tape editing and it was it was later in that year before we actually had a tape-editing channel in Birmingham, one tape-editing channel.
Colin Moffat: What did the management I mean think of this development? Was there a school of thought that was a little bit suspicious of all this? It seems to me that it could have created problems that if we're going to make more programmes on location with tape recorders that we're not going to give so much work to actors?
Philip Donnellan: No.
Colin Moffat: You don't think so?
Philip Donnellan: I'm not aware of that. I think Denis Morris in particular, the Programme Head, was was a fairly innovative and expanding thinker about these things. He wasn't he wasn't creative in a real sense but his his view of his personnel was his responsibility for allowing their innovative instincts if they had any to develop and he never stood in the way of that sort of thing. David Gratton was a little more cautious he would think of the financial constraints the possibilities of of and I have no doubt that perhaps he may have mentioned it but it never it never became part of any dogmatic concern that I was aware of.
Colin Moffat: It's just that it has been said even in the television period that one of the reasons studio programmes continue to play a big part in the whole schedule is the fact that the studios exist and must be used …
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: … and if we start phasing them out and shooting on location we've got certain personnel problems.
Philip Donnellan: Absolutely, absolutely. But I think that was too small scale to be fully envisaged at the time.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: Although I suspect given the complexity of the BBC I'm quite sure this was taken into account somewhere. But I never felt any inhibitions on that front. Nobody ever said look at least a proportion of your programmes must take place in the studio with actors now. No not at all.
Colin Moffat: What about the decision to allow this new EMI midget to be handled by producers, was that a bit of an issue when that idea came up? Where did that idea come from?
Philip Donnellan: Well I did speak about that yesterday I think and I said we couldn't I have tried in vain to find at the written archive centre at Caversham any technical or managerial decision about that but I've not been able to find anything, I've talked to quite a number of people. “When did this decision take? How was it pushed through? Isn't it completely against the grain of engineering department jealous enclosure of their own technical resources?” They didn't trust producers and so on and so on. But nobody's ever been able to put a finger on it.
Colin Moffat: You didn't meet any objection in Birmingham to it you didn't hear sort of people mumbling I mean you know, “What's going on here? They've got these new recorders and the producers are going to take them out and use them without any engineers present.” Wasn't there anything like that?
Philip Donnellan: Now in a more strongly unionized situation that would undoubtedly have taken place on that political, with a small p, front. But and while there were undoubtedly, I can't recall particular instances but I'm quite sure given the nature of the of the region and some of the personalities in engineering I'm quite sure those those doubts were expressed. “Can you imagine X or Y going out with one of these bloody things? He wouldn't know what to do with it” and that sort of thing. I’m sure it was said.
Colin Moffat: Not entirely unreasonable if the fear was that technical standards might start to drop because the producers might in some cases just not be competent enough.
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: Yes.
Philip Donnellan: Well there was, there was training there was producer training with the new machines and I've got an entry in my diary for February 1954, which says producer training on one afternoon. But after all we're talking about a very simple operation uh though Charles himself was conscious of that of the real difficulties of getting close-up actuality speech because the doctrine was that you put your speaker about 2½ foot to 3 foot away from the microphone in studio situations and certainly when even when he worked with a recording car the normal standard was at least 18 inches or 2 foot away from the mouth for the microphones we had at that time.
Colin Moffat: Did this stem from the the methods used in studios is that it?
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: Yes. That's why they thought it was …
Philip Donnellan: Yes. For instance in a in a studio situation with a non, with an inexperienced broadcaster or even somebody inexperienced who was acting in in a in a radio situation you I I picked up what it was called the 3 foot rule which was that the speaker was 3 foot from the microphone and the listener at the other end was 3 foot from their large speaker. So you had the 6-foot divide. It was a 6 foot rule: 3 foot, 3 feet from the speaker to the microphone 3 feet from their loud speaker to the listener and it was called the 6-foot rule. And broadly speaking that was quite a useful thing with studio microphones and studio acoustics. Charles agonized over this. He at first thought the strength of the tape recorder was overheard material so he went out on one programme and all the material that he collected was overheard. He pinned a microphone on his lapel and and tried to capture people's musings to each other and it was a total disaster. But it was the product as all of Charles's experimentation was not of casual encounter with something that he didn't understand but extremely thought out. He thought that that overheard recording was more likely to reveal some sort of truth and he wrote an article about it in The Radio Times and there was an article in a Birmingham paper before the programme was broadcast ‘Charles Parker had cracked the problem of the tape recorder.’ Well of course it was a total disaster I mean the stuff was inaudible, the quality was appalling and Charles is on record in a lecture he gave to students at the Polytechnic of Central London some years before he died, quite a short time before he died, in which he in which he agonised over how to record people with sufficient presence with the quality of their voices right there in your ear. And in pursuit of that he went to talk to Dennis Mitchell in Manchester who had pioneered from the early ‘50s a series of programmes called People Talking, once the tape recorder came into the hands of Dennis Mitchell Dennis knew what to do with it he planted it on a table in a cafe somewhere or in a bar. And speaking as little as possible himself he stuck the microphone into people's gobs and said tell me about your life in effect and they did. And Charles went to Dennis and gathered the fruits of Dennis's technical experience with these programmes. And Dennis said “Get them, forget what the engineers say get the microphone as close as you can to a person's mouth. You will quickly be able to tell whether you are over modding get it close to them.” And so Charles concluded his lecture by saying the strength of the actuality recording is identical to the strength of the close-up in film you've got to get close in and you've got to have presence on the material that you record. So now I mean this microphone on me is I suppose is 6 or 7 inches away from my mouth which is the ideal distance if you're going to get real quality from a speaker and record even the intakes of breath, the asthmatic quality of some people the sense of their reality comes through on the mic. And as we went on getting more experienced with the tape recorder you realised a whole range of complex emotional relationships which developed around that extraordinary focus the point of the microphone and the way it set up a confessional relationship in the space between you and a speaker and and all sorts of techniques we developed from that.
Colin Moffat: You are talking about a handheld mic?
Philip Donnellan: I'm talking about a handheld mike. Yes. The clip mic, which leaves you free to behave rather differently, was unknown in those days. And indeed the early mics that we had were very limited for use in external filming but they were marvellous for handling in relation to a particular person.
Colin Moffat: To get back to your particular work, your programmes and presumably you got your hands on the recorder as quickly as you could, were you encouraged to keep going on the stuff you described you did with Charlie Andrews on disc? I mean did did Gretton & Co say you know Philip you ought to continue with these these studies of individuals. Take out the recorder and now you're going to be rather better better provided for.
Philip Donnellan: No.
Colin Moffat: Did you want to do it and did you do it?
Philip Donnellan: No I I didn't strangely enough no I no I I tended to confine myself within the framework of what interested me which was writing. I mean I was really if I was anything I was a writer. I mean of course until I came into the BBC I'd never written any sort of dramatic material but I had ground out a vast amount of semi-personal material on account of an interview with a famous actor a feature story for the Surrey & Hants News in Farnham on some local happening did call into play one's own sense of structure and dramatic handling of words. And when therefore I moved away from announcing I found myself having a field day with what I really enjoyed doing which was sitting down and driving a pen across a piece of paper. And so while I was excited by the prospect of the use of the tape recorder it certainly didn't dominate my considerations. I did mention earlier that we were yeah you know an almost literary group of people for whom the word was terribly important and the word meant the word written down. And that in a sense is what I rather resent about the about the traditional nature of the, of the framework of BBC programmes in that that was enjoined on me at the time almost unconsciously. I mean I got that I got that feeling.
Now Dennis Mitchell in Manchester who was much more experienced a, much more sophisticated than I was as well as being at least 15 years old with a wide variety of radio experience he took a much more independent line. So he did his people talking using the midget recorder very early while at the same time producing major programmes at the studio.
Colin Moffat: So you were a slow convert?
Philip Donnellan: Oh I I've always been very slow to pick up ideas. Well quick to pick up ideas but slow to develop them.
Colin Moffat: One wouldn't guess this from your later television work which seems to me you know you used it a lot later didn’t you the portable?
Philip Donnellan: Yes well …
Colin Moffat: I mean there must be a separate reason for that?
Philip Donnellan: Well whether there is a reason or not the fact is that that I found the representation of the picture and the sound an absolutely compelling area of artistic work. And I I in a way that I took to it like oh well you know cliché a duck to water in a way that hadn't been the case in radio. I was reasonably competent in radio as I've explained but I never found the intense compulsion that came when one understood something about the nature of montage and the possibilities that flowed from it. But that in looking towards television now I talked earlier about witchcraft and I've not talked about tape recording and these two things in a sense can be seen to come together in a particular manifestation.
Colin Moffat: Yes of course we can come back to your work with Charles a little later when we when we talk about your adaptations of some of his musical documentaries.?
Philip Donnellan: Oh absolutely.
Colin Moffat: Maybe we should now now go into your first contact with film, which took place presumably in Birmingham did it?
Philip Donnellan: No it didn't. Now how should we actually go about this … first of all I think I must momentarily relate it to ¼ inch tape editing because what very quickly tended to obtrude itself once you started cutting tape and you got sudden sharp juxtapositions of material because instead of the fades and the transformations of scene which had been very slow in normal studio production elegant fades, new voices coming in, people exchanging and a form of dialogue, observations and so on with tape you put a of scissors in or you cut it with a razor blade and you could put people's voices one after the other bang, bang, bang, bang as fast as you like to cut it.
Colin Moffat: Why would you want to do that?
Philip Donnellan: Well because there was an element of surprise within it. You could go from the seclusion of a church … this this comes up as a particular example I made a film about the area known as the Bullring in Birmingham, which was a fairly sleazy rundown area but characterized …
Colin Moffat: A film?
Philip Donnellan: No on tape in the middle ‘50s. I made a I spent a lot of time in the Bullring talking to tramps and drop-outs and so on and and you then cut from the quiet of a church to the roaring nature of the Bullring hawkers and so on. Now this may have been some residual impression of film that accustomed us to that technique and there we find it reborn in terms of the tape recorder. I don’t know it's very difficult to attribute precise deterministic motivations for these things that happen in your imagination or in your daily experience.
Colin Moffat: Well it does sound different from what other people might have done which is to just go out and make a sort of radio report on the Bullring
which wouldn't necessarily have involved heavily editing the thing at all but it is some interviews with some people involved in the Bullring.
Philip Donnellan: Yes.
Colin Moffat: That's the more journalistic kind of middle of the road kind of programme?
Philip Donnellan: Yes certainly but I think perhaps I I mustn't over-emphasise but at the same time I mustn't ignore the the sense of surprise I got from editing in Denmark in the way that I described. One really did see the potential of exciting juxtapositions of material which didn't come, as far as I can recall, didn't come primarily from any residual film memory. They came merely from the excitement of being able to put scenes tightly together and provide sudden a shift of perspective and so on. And that was quite an exciting innovation.
Colin Moffat: Since you …
Philip Donnellan: But I wouldn't say I was pioneering in any real sense in that I mean it was just one of the attributes of tape that we rediscovered if you like.
Colin Moffat: The, you mentioned that there may have been subconsciously an influence from film, the montage idea in itself of fast juxtaposition of images, pictures and then why not the in sound. What was your knowledge of the cinema or the film at this point just as you were coming up to to start dealing with it? And how much did you know about it? Were you a person who was interested in films?
Philip Donnellan: I'm afraid the short answer to that is no. My perception of film was purely of a story told in a particular mode on a screen. I didn't know what a close up was or a long shot I didn't distinguish between it it seemed to be a perfectly acceptable grammar in the same way that a book would would, there would be all sorts of techniques embedded in the way in which somebody wrote a novel but I wouldn't understand these I would just read the book for as as an experience and the same with film.
I mean from the earliest days I think my first recollection of film is Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger which was probably about 1928 or ‘29 when I was 4 or 5, how I was taken to the cinema at that age I'm not quite sure! But I certainly remember the first documentary I saw with which I can remember scenes this day that was in 1929 it was called With Byrd to the South Pole it was the Admiral Byrd Expedition to the South Pole I remember them shooting the huskies. It would inevitably for an English child be malfeasance to the animals you know [LAUGHTER] How ridiculous but I suppose my parents used to take us or take me I don't remember my sister being there to the movies in in Guildford not irregularly and not regularly I mean but fairly frequently I saw all sorts of strange things. I remember seeing a film about Ireland called Ourselves Alone but that must have been which is after all what Sinn Fein means in Irish. I remember seeing that it might have been ’34, ‘35 may not have been as early as that it's very difficult to distinguish years in one's memories.
Colin Moffat: I was really thinking of …
Philip Donnellan: A science fiction movie called FP1 about a floating platform in the middle of the Atlantic with all sorts of model shots of planes painful model shots I recognized them as models but it didn't actually detract from the sense of reality I got from the idea. And Charles Laughton in films in the later ‘30s and so on.
Colin Moffat: Yes. What about at the time you were at the BBC, what was going on in the cinema around the time of the middle ‘50s anything that interested you?
Philip Donnellan: I can't remember even seeing a film in Birmingham in the ‘50s. I had abs, I would say that I had no film culture at all and that film culture on the whole wasn't in the air in the BBC there wasn't I never got the faintest flicker of of a parallelism between broadcasting and film for example they were both modes of communication such an idea never crossed the surface of my mind as far as I know. There were regular film reviews broadcast by the middle home service but there were regular theatre reviews as well you know 10 or 15 minute talks on what's on in the film world in Birmingham at this moment and so on. I wouldn't listen to these with any attention. But the thing that changed that was one absolutely symbolic event, which I remember with great clarity and after all that was in that was in 1956 when I was after all 32, which is pretty late and that was the Observer Film Exhibition in Trafalgar Square. And quite by chance I'd known that bombsite on the corner of Trafalgar Square for years and I think I'd been to other exhibitions that had been put up temporarily there. But in 1956 the Observer Film Exhibition was on that corner by the National Gallery and I went to it and on the steps I met a young man or going in I met a young man and and I got involved in some sort of discussion I may have said “What's the point of my coming into this exhibition?” I would have said something mildly abrasive and challenging to this bloke and it was David Robinson the film critic. And and so he argued strongly that I that I should come in and we had a we had an exchange and I went in and I I saw Battleship Potemkin and I I think I saw, I might have even seen A Diary for Timothy I don't know but suddenly film became real for me I suddenly saw it with different eyes. Perhaps I'd be exaggerating if I said I had any conscious memory of the way I saw it it just impressed me enormously and very soon after that Free Cinema started and I went to all the Free Cinema events in London.
Colin Moffat: What was Free Cinema?
Philip Donnellan: Free Cinema were, capital F capital C, was a series of programmes developed by the newly established National Film Theatre, which I think probably opened in ‘56 or ‘57. And Free Cinema was independent cinema outside the assumed limitations of either commercial cinema, which made a great many commercial films, advertising films and so on which one would see in in routine cinema programmes as a filler or short in between the main films. Or or the documentaries of the GPO Film Unit and so on which I wasn't particularly conscious of at the time.
ColinMofatt: So Free Cinema was a series of programmes by people who were handling new aspects of the England of 1956? Now we're talking about I'm not sure whether you will know better than I did Free Cinema start in 1956 or 1957?
Philip Donnellan: But these were views of the sort of England that had been represented by John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger.
Colin Moffat: You are talking about documentaries not story films aren’t you?
Philip Donnellan: I'm talking about documentary yes.
Colin Moffat: They were by definition documentaries?
Philip Donnellan: Yes yes they were but they were they were documentaries that had storylines that very often were much closer to the idea of a story film. There were people in them who moved through them and became definable as real people. And I think that it was that that caught my attention after all I was dealing in roughly the same coin in radio and all this is mixed up together in my mind between the tape recorder, the powers of the tape recorder to capture sort of reality from people's voices and a sudden recognition that other people were doing this in a slightly different way but parallel way in film. And I became immediately hooked on these things and at the same time in ‘56 and ‘57 I became formally involved in in television, now on the fringes of television I have to say.
Now we've got got to remember I think I've said this as an aside earlier on in this conversation: I've referred to the general policy in the BBC certainly in the regions where it became more possible for ambidexterity among the production classes. The idea was that producers should see that the future tended to be more in the direction of television and they ought to consider how they were going to work in television as well as in sound radio. And of course those of us who who worked in a free area of broadcasting features rather than in specifically agricultural programmes or Children's Hour or Talks we were the people who might have had the freedom to work more generally towards television then and perhaps increasingly in a less way exclusively in radio and I found that extremely attractive.
In fact my first formal contract with television was much earlier than this I've just remembered that when I was an announcer and still seeing myself, although rather hopelessly now, in the Richard Dimbleby mode of being a commentator on great events or a reporter with a roving commission there was an advertisement either on Arial or on BBC notice noticeboards which said people who fancy themselves as commentators may attend a an audition at Alexandra Palace, you should apply through your personnel officer etc. etc. So I immediately applied for an audition and I had an audition in perhaps it was 1949. I went down to Alexandra Palace and there were a number of hopefuls I should think and I went into a small booth and was given a lip mic and they ran a piece of film in front of me and I had to do a commentary on it without having seen it before. And I was pretty hopeless but I had this you know this valuable standard southern English voice which was the dominating voice in television at the same time as it was in radio at that time and I then met the man who was conducting the auditions and he was an outside broadcast producer called Aubrey Singer and his name became much more familiar to me in later years when Aubrey rose through into the hierarchy of the BBC. I was accepted as a as a possible commentator and in 1952 when I was on holiday I got a telegram from Aubrey Singer saying would I commentate would I commentate on the first televised church service at Warlingham Parish Church in Surrey. Well I thought my moment of fame had arrived I thought I was made I could see a great glowing future for myself. So I came back off holiday and arrived in Warlingham without the faintest idea what I was going to have to do and it was pouring with rain and it was September and everybody in the world seemed to be there and a full OB crew if not two, the place was rigged with cables and wires I was completely astonished by this sight. I was invited to sit on a wet tombstone outside with a very very dim blue monitor and commentate on the opening minute of the, of the church service. In effect I was doing I was doing merely an announcement about it but it was couched in a more free and easy and relaxed form so that I was allowed to improvise to a certain extent which I'd continually done to the displeasure of the Programme Head in lots of announcements that I had done in Birmingham in the previous two or three years. So that was my first acquaintance of television and it was horrifying and I hated it.
And then as ambidexterity and the possibilities of it increased with the arrival of an outside broadcast unit to Birmingham in 1951 or ‘52 I'm not sure of the exact date, complete with producer Barry Edgar whom I've referred to before, they started to do nine again opt-out regional magazine programmes and one or two people who had done interviews in the region were invited to take part in these and they were absolutely ghastly programmes. I can’t I mean I was eager enough to take part because I thought this would lead to opportunities of course I was quite wrong. But they would be done in the Bingley Hall which was opposite er the studios in Broad Street or they'd be done in Saltley Baths and I remember one particularly awful experience where they had thought Saltley Baths could be used on a drive-in basis for the outside broadcast unit. The cameras would be brought in the the the swimming bath would be covered with a floor and all of us would roll into this and and I had to interview the owner of a shire horse that had won a prize in the Derby Horse Show that afternoon. They had transported this gigantic beast into the Saltley Baths for this programme, which went out live at half past seven or eight or something like that, not eight I'm sure it's much too near the crucial hours of broadcasting. Well this was a gigantic horse which weighed about two tons and had feet the size of a small coffee table and and I remember Barry Edgar bustling along at some point in the thing and saying to the owner “We need to keep its feet still.” And the owner said, “Oh yes oh yes it'll keep its feet still sir”, of course all television producers are addressed as Sir by the ordinary populace quite naturally. And of course we were number three on the menu and this horse was wonderfully docile except now and again as horses will it picked up one of its feet and put it carefully down again. But the noise on this covered swimming bath was absolute phenomenal it sounded as though an atom bomb had gone off not far away. And the last time the animal picked up its foot it put it down on my toe and this was about 10 seconds before I was cued to start the interview. And when the camera cut to me I was standing there trying to get this brute to lift its leg and the owner was very solicitous and the the the animal eventually picked up its leg and released me and then the interview went on with a painful bruise which bothers me still 30 years later.
End Side 8
Start Side 9
Colin Moffat: Philip Donnellan Side 9.
Philip Donnellan: So this ambidexterity went on alongside alongside our everyday radio work some of it wasn't actually everyday at all. I remember in 1952 this would be just just after I'd met the woman whom I'd asked to be my wife and who I'm glad that still is my wife who lived in London and we were talking in Programme Board about an outside broadcast on radio which was due to take place from the May Fair in Hereford in the city of Hereford, which was part of our region and on the spur of the moment I said to the Programme Board with characteristic braggadocio and I said “Oh I'll go in a boxing booth, what about that?” And somebody the producer said, “Well will you?” And I said, “Yes of course I will.” I'd done a bit of boxing in the army and so on but I wasn't exactly a boxer. However the day came as usual it was pouring of rain, May in Herefordshire ghastly and there were a number of points in this outside broadcast on the camera and the the thing was passed around but one of the highlights of it was me volunteering to go into the ring with this chap. I'd seen him in the afternoon he was a young Welsh bruiser very stocky experienced young boxer with a flattened nose and I'd said to him beforehand “Look take it easy mate you know I'm not I'm not a professional boxer so take it easy” and we agreed that it was a nod and a wink and I volunteered, cams held up the mic, I went up to the ring and did a brief interview with me as I went in. You know “What were the chances? Was I going to win the thirty bob? Would I stand the three rounds?’ “Oh yes of course” I said. So we went in and put on the gloves ‘DING’ the first round, went out. This bloke came out and he hit me a really solid one, so I thought Jesus this isn't what we agreed and so I hit him back and after that I was half on the floor and half lying across around the ring I hit him once or twice. The bell went they were only one-minute rounds and I staggered over to the corner where cams was holding up the mic expecting me to do the inter-round summaries as well, which I did [LAUGHTER] although
I was a bit short of breath and I stood the three rounds. Well and I won thirty bob and I bought a chair with it in a junk shop! Now these sort of things well enriched the sort of everyday life of of one's ‘career’ in the region and I suppose if there was any subtext in all this it was that I was prepared to do anything that would be enjoyable and that would give an edge to the sort of things that we were doing however trivial they ultimately were.
Well in the in a sense a sort of sub-climax came in 1957 when at the Annual Features Meeting I met a woman who really transformed my life. This was a woman called Grace Wyndham Goldie who was Assistant Head of Television Talks. Now it's a curious title for a department and it's a hangover from the traditional formation of BBC departments. Talks had always been that area of broadcasting which dealt with the formal talk which in which a very wide range of subjects from the densely political or social to quite frivolous or more frivolous areas of experience would be retailed from a script by by speakers who would be carefully coached and produced whether they were experienced speakers or not and would be put on the air by Talks producers.
Now when television started that title of Talks was carried over into into television as though there were still formal talks in that style though there weren’t. So Talks Department included documentary programmes what would have been called in radio feature programmes of all sorts; it included discussion programmes, interview programmes and also films.
Colin Moffat: What was Mrs Wyndham Goldie’s background? Had she come from radio incidentally?
Philip Donnellan: She had been briefly in radio during the war she had been a journalist. She was married to a well-known actor called Frank Wyndham Goldie and she was a radio critic for The Listener and a very influential radio critic because not only did she write very succinctly and with a great sense of style but she also believed in pursuing the byways of BBC Broadcasting and she went out into Manchester and into Birmingham for articles in The Listener during the latter years of the ‘30s.
Colin Moffat: Background material to programmes going out?
Philip Donnellan: Background material but also foreground material. She would attend a production and write about it. She would talk to producers about it. They all had articles in The Listener that I'm aware of were really quite penetrating about the way in which broadcasting was done and the motivations and feelings and ideas of the people who did it; it was a fairly rich and fairly unexplored field so Grace put her mark very early on on the BBC from the outside. During the war she came into the BBC as a as a producer and she worked throughout the war in the BBC as far as I know in current affairs broadcasting. And there she took up, now she took her place in quite a significant number of outstanding women who were in the BBC in those years.
Mary Adams was one who was very much on the left and there were one or two others now Grace Wyndham Goldie was not on the left – she would have argued that she was right where she belonged politically in the BBC, which was objectively in the middle. However she was in our view a blue stocking of a very conservative cast of mind although I wouldn't use the word conservative with a small c in relation to her programme ideas. She was a very challenging critic of the work of the young men whom increasingly she recruited into Talks Department. Grace saw in the very early ‘50s when television was developing again in the BBC that the old ways of handling the world was not good enough and when television, when commercial television started in 1955 the main weapon that the BBC had to drag it into the present day was Grace Wyndham Goldie. She built a reputation for the fiercest and sharpest of internal criticism of programme styles, of individuals, of producers. Nobody got by with sloppy thinking sloppy handling of ideas, failure to handle interviews with conviction and penetration and a sense of an audience beyond who wanted to know certain things [TELEPHONE RINGS]
It's not easy to describe Grace's power erm she was a small woman probably about 5 feet 4 or 5. She had absolutely glittering steely bluish gray eyes I should have said and she fixed you with them and almost at the same time gritted her teeth. She was a very determined and direct woman of a sort that is not often encountered in any form of life. I would have said that intellectually she was streets ahead of Margaret Thatcher but of a similar similar Napoleonic tendency. She certainly destroyed the to a very large extent the will and capacity of a significant number of men around her. She wasn't in my view the slightest bit interested in women, she recruited young men young men who were tough and aggressive themselves but who accepted her skill and professionalism completely as an indicator of the way in which they should do their job. So in consequence you've got her surrounded by some very talented and ambitious journalists and executives of one sort and another, that's when I joined her department.
Now how that actually happened might be worth just putting on the record: in June or July 1957 there was the usual Annual Features Meeting and most of the little sort of seminars or informal small scale lectures that were on the on the programme took place in the dusty lecture rooms of the BBC staff training establishment in Marylebone High Street or just off Marylebone High Street. Now I've said already that really the Features Meeting was a sort of general excuse for a series of parties, which went on at lunchtime and in the evening in the houses of various people, features producers who lived in London, or in local pubs. And we we'd all been to the to the pub on this occasion and got back for a lecture in the afternoon which was the role of the writer in television by Mrs Grace Wyndham Goldie, Assistant Head of Television Talks. Now in the room at the time I think my memory tells me that there were perhaps a dozen people I can remember Louis MacNiece, John Bridges, Dorothy Smith, David Thompson perhaps Rayner Heppenstall, me, I don't know a variety of people. They were all doing something else, they'd all had three or four pints of beer over lunch, they were all very disinclined to sit with any considerable attention to a woman coming from television to talk to the elite members of the Features Department. So they would be reading a manuscript, reading a literary magazine, reading a newspaper, talking together and in walks Lawrence Gilliam who was a large very large bear man ushering in this small woman neat, in a dark suit wearing a vivid scarlet hat with a gold cord around it and he got up onto the rostrum and in Lawrence's very laid back burbling way he said “A great many of you know Mrs Wyndham Goldie, a dynamic leader of Television Talks and she’s no doubt got plenty to say to people like ourselves about the future of our trade. And I’m very happy to … Mrs Wyndham Goldie”.
And she stood up and I saw it at once one of her characteristic gestures she whipped off her glasses, she'd whipped them off and she my recollection is that she denounced us. Now I had been getting increasingly pissed off with the the pace and tempo of Features Department and more and more interested in television which I saw as dynamic, exciting, the future. And so what Grace said about us, these rather faded middle-aged people wrapped up in a literary tradition, which was totally irrelevant in television, we recognize that there’s got to be writers but they've got to write in a different way for different objectives and different ideas. And she talked about film making which was an area that I was increasingly interested in so I gulped it all down. I thought it was absolutely wonderful stuff if this was the sort of leadership that was that was taking place in television I wanted to be right there. And especially I was attracted by because I never worked for a woman and I was and I loved women and and I was very keen to work for a woman like this. [LAUGHTER] Little did I know [LAUGHTER] I had no idea of the consequences of that I mean I was, I've written about it and I’ve said I referred to myself as a faded commander thinking going for the smell of the gunpowder and the sounds of the guns venom you know.
Immediately the lecture was over and Grace had answered one or two questions and I rushed up to the rostrum and said to Lawrence “I'd like to meet Mrs Goldie” and he said “Philip Donnellan, Birmingham er one of our producers.” Grace said “How do you do” and I said, “I thought you'd be interested to know as you referred to the real difficulty of getting film crews and the scarcity of film as a resource” I said “that there's been a film crew in Birmingham for a year and it hasn't made a single film and I'm very anxious to use it and I can't get it.” She looked across at me and her eyes glittered and she said, “Meet me at Ealing on Thursday for lunch” so I said “Right you are” and that was that.
And I met her at Ealing the Ealing Studios, which the BBC had bought comparatively recently and was the heart of the filmmaking operation in the BBC, notably in Talks.
I met her there for lunch and I by that time I had not only written a number of treatments all of which were related to the regional people and the regional ideas which I had which I had become attracted to during my time in radio and I absolutely nailed her to the ground with enthusiastic analysis of these ideas and where they would take place and how we would do them because I'd thought a considerable amount about, as I thought I'd thought about, the realities of filmmaking in fact I hadn’t got the vaguest idea about the realities of filmmaking but I thought I had. And so she said at the end of lunch and this relentless disquisition by me she said, “Let's go back to my office.” So a car miraculously appeared and we went back in the car three miles down the road to her office at Lime Grove a little tiny office there were no elegances in BBC television in those days the television centre hadn't been opened yet and everything was it was crammed into Lime Grove, little street little suburban street not very far from the White City athletic stadium at the end of Shepherd's Bush Green. Everyday life of London all around it and here was this little row of houses which had been which were a rabbit warren communicating with the tower. There was a small tower block there which had been used and occupied by Gaumont British in the ‘30s in fact a cousin of mine had been a sound recordist at Gaumont British there in the ‘30s so I'd heard of the place and my wife to whom I'd been married by then for five years she had worked in television in children's television and been an announcer there and also a Programme Secretary doubled as an Announcer and a Programme Secretary in Lime Grove several years before so I knew in a sense the place.
We went back to her office she she called in Donald Baverstock, now Baverstock three months before had started an epoch making programme, epoch breaking programme called Tonight which was a nightly 45 or 50 minute programme of in a sense well it's difficult to describe Tonight. It's, the early ones started with a calypso about current events, which was written every evening or every afternoon. It was done in the day but it contained a core of film material, which was shot by a travelling film crew and director by the name of Antony Jay who were on the go around the country.
Now Donald Baverstock who was an absolutely classic BBC man, a Welshman disguised as a free-booting Napoleonic character himself but actually profoundly socially conformist but like one of the nastier sorts of newspaper editors and I believe he modelled himself on that free-booting and aggressive style.
Colin Moffat: Was he the editor of Tonight?
Philip Donnellan: He was the editor of Tonight and the founder of a number of founders and working with him were people like Alistair Milne who had who later became Director General of the BBC and Antony Jay whose father was an actor whom I'd employed. In Radio Features he had come from the Library Theatre in Manchester erm he was, they were all young considerably younger than me in their late 20s or early 30s and a whole host of other people a lot of people worked on it, there were a number of women involved with the programme although they got a very rough deal and had a very hard time.
She called in Donald Baverstock and the programme had been going for three months and it was a really striking piece of technical innovation at that time. Terribly hard to do, terribly difficult to to get the engineering division to adapt themselves to a daily programme done live and and filled with all sorts of elements of extravaganza late they tried to cut a dash but with a solid sort of current affairs base. But they chiefly relied on a profoundly different posture towards everything, towards ordinary people, towards politicians, towards the whole of the power, completely different style of approach to say the political interview that anybody and had before there was always a direct and manifest journalistic or ideological line in any questioning the programme did. And Baverstock held it all together by a process of editorial arrogance and aggressiveness.
Donald came in sat in the corner. He was he looked absolutely whacked he reminded he made me think of Napoleon at Waterloo I don't know whether Donald Baverstock had piles but Napoleon certainly did. He looked grey and worn out and Grace said “Donald this is Philip Donnellan from Birmingham” She said “I told him that he can do some work for you. He is a radio producer at the moment and he works in Birmingham. But he can do some work for you – legwork - and I've told Phillip that if he can do some good stories for you I'll let him make a film by himself. Is that understood?” Donald grunted and I I had hoped for more than that I had hoped for a commitment to allowing me to go off in the Midlands the film unit and make a film straight away but that was not Grace's style. She wanted control. She thought there were possibilities in this animated and enthusiastic young bugger and I was exactly the sort of person that she liked to recruit into the department although I didn't know that at the time.
Donald went off back to some Tonight editorial rehearsals I think and I slunk out feeling rather rather disappointed and and but that was the start of my relationship with Tonight and from my secure eerie in Birmingham I bombarded the Tonight people with with um proposals and suggestions for stories as they were called seven minute stories which Tony Jay and the film unit, 35 mil film unit, were going around the country and shooting at least one if not two a day in a series of places that had been researched and reccied beforehand not researched the word was reccied. The whole terminology of Tonight prefigured the sort of interest and sort of work that they did you did not research programs you reccied them. They were there, you walked round them, met the people concerned and shot them. There was no research involved in effect.
Colin Moffat: Speed was of the essence?
Philip Donnellan: Speed was of the essence. The programmes were not cut by the the director they were sent back and handled at base by Tony Essex so the stories had to be extremely simple and there was a formula which was applied both in terms of the positioning of the camera and in terms of the way in which stories were handled. They had to be intelligible when they got to the cutting room it would be labelled ‘This is Derek Hart on Black Country football teams’, ‘This is Fyfe Robertson on the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal.’ Once it was labelled and they knew what it was they could cut it because it was all formula shot. It was extremely economical and very very limited and superficial filmmaking and I found it profoundly dissatis… dissatisfying after a time but not at first.
Colin Moffat: Was it not good enough as a start? I mean …
Philip Donnellan: Yes of course it was. However whether whatever I felt about the about the sort of work that Tonight did later I I supported them enormously strongly at the time and did everything that I could to get as many Midland stories into the into the nightly programmes.
There’s um I've got a bit of paper here which is addressed to Tony Jay 21st of August 1957, ‘We're still trying to see whether we can fix up the old time boxes for August 31st. One or two other suggestions Lorry Driver of the Year there's a competition for this in Nuneaten, Warwickshire on Sunday September the 28th. Apparently it takes place every year. The interesting thing is that this year one of the chief contestants and probable winners a woman like driver of Coventry who drives a van for Humbers.
Two: I mentioned to you on the phone the possibility of tilting at the souvenir trade, which largely originated in Birmingham, ie the people who make appalling crinoline skirted bells, frying pans that turned out to be clocks and the massive brass and copper horrors which bestrew the shops of Stratford-upon-Avon and Southend-on-Sea etc.
Three: there’s a pub in the Forest of Dean the name escapes me at the moment which is half I think in Gloucestershire and half in Herefordshire closing times are different in the two counties and when one’s public bar closes at 10 the customers obediently drink up and troop into the next bar where they drink for another half an hour.
Four: another Forest of Dean thought you may know that they have what are known as Free Miners that by which having worked for a year and a day at a coal seam the man becomes the owner of it. In consequence you find dozens of small mines operated by two men with the most primitive machinery. This seems to evoke all sorts of penetrating and unusual questions.
Five: the Birmingham Post celebrates its centenary on September the 4th. This in itself is purely a news event but it might well be the fulcrum for levering out of the mouths of a group of embittered newspaper salesmen something of the story of their occupation Winter and Summer or indeed kerbside sellers in general, flowers, comics, toys etc.
Here follow random thoughts: did you know the most expensive school in England is Millfield, Street, Somerset which fees are £435 per annum for boys and £540 per annum for girls?
Did you know that the largest pub in England is the Downham Tavern near Bromley Kent and that the smallest is the Smiths’ Arms at Godmanstone, Dorset?
By the way my spare time reading is the Guinness Book of Records. Did you know that the highest birth rate is Helston in Cornwall must be something to do with that fertility dance they still do near there? The lowest death rate is Aldridge in Staffordshire.
More random thoughts: there's a Malayan Teacher's College near Wolverhampton. I wonder when I wonder whether they learn to use hand grenades or chalk?’
The Malayan emergency was on at that time.
‘New term will start near the end of September at the Welbeck Army College, which you may know is a sort of public school for the technical arms of the service. I wonder whether the axe with which the Army is currently threatened will have made any difference to the aspirations of the 16 year olds who go there and whether their reflections on guided missiles and so on.’
(Even in 1957 we were talking about guided missiles).
‘Eleventh and last The British Town Criers Championship takes place at Redditch, Worcestershire on Saturday September 14th.
Well there you are. You can't say I don't try.’
Tony Jay ‘Many thanks for your suggestions I can't tell you how valuable they are even the suggestions we don't use very often spark us off on a train of thought that leads to a story on similar lines to the ones you suggest. I wonder if you realise how much this sort of co-operation encourages us. One Donald in each region and we'd all sleep better.’
Well so the relationship with what eventually became the dominating programme factor in the Talks Department was at first anyway of great importance to me because gradually not only did one start to um with an editorial vision start to sift the the dross from the gold but it also taught you on the street on location the mechanics of handling that appalling secret weapon the double camera which the BBC used, all BBC film crews used at that time. Now the double camera was designed by the BBC’s Engineering Department, which already I have said a number of unkind things about and this could probably be the unkindest of all, it was a dreadful machine …
Colin Moffat: This is the 35 millimetre camera?
Philip Donnellan: Yes it was a 35 Cameflex, French camera, co-axially mounted with a 35 mil sound recorder which you loaded with 35 mil magnetic stock at the same time as you loaded the Cameflex and they worked in sync controls to the outside of an enormous blimp. The whole thing weighed 108 pounds. Controls were horrible but ridiculous of course there were no zoom lenses in those days so to change the shot size without moving the camera you had to unfasten the blimp open it up change the lenses in the way that Hollywood had been doing for 30 years but seemed conspicuously irrelevant in a television operation in which speed was of crucial importance. When you set up the camera on a very on a heavily reinforced tripod I suppose the same sort of tripod that would be taken that would take a standard Mitchell for example you find a location in which you could turn the camera in one direction and you'd get a particular background to the interview the whole thing was based on interviews and then you turn to another direction and you’d get a different background so you looked as though you moved and the third direction if you get more than that well and good. So you have a street with traffic behind one interview, a garden wall with plants disappearing in the distance on the other, a distant meadow seeing on the third if you were lucky. Otherwise you had to move the bloody thing and that was a disaster. It would take half an hour to move from one location to another. So those were the conditions under which I started my filmmaking career and of course they were very realistic conditions because it did teach one about the horrors of the equipment.
In 1957, in the summer of 1957 I was asked to write a television programme about Warwick the town we lived in, it was a series of broadly speaking outside broadcasts which didn't take place in the town it took place in a studio. So they weren’t outside by any definition except the technology involved and that was the first experience I actually had of shooting a sequence by myself. Now so primitive was my perception about this that I thought that you had to shoot cutaways with the specific sound speech over it and this was of course a nightmare, highly complex. I'm sure I spent the whole of the previous night working out how it could be done and writing it all down which was my inevitable response since I didn't like to think on the wing since I didn't understand the technology well enough at that time. This was of course before I had the full experience of setting up Tonight's story as it was the very first thing that happened to me in effect. Well I shot, I shot this sequence and took the film back to the cutting room in Birmingham err and put it in the hands of the Midland film editor who was a most remarkable man, his name was Edward Le Lorrain and he was of Dutch parentage and he'd been in a civilian internment camp in Indonesia during the war. He'd gone back to Holland after the war
and grown up in Holland and he'd eventually become apprenticed to Bert Haanstra, the famous Dutch documentary director, and then for reasons which I have never found out he came to England and joined the BBC and was posted to Birmingham as a film editor. Eddie was a superb filmmaker a superb editor. He brought to the filmmaking that we were to create in Birmingham in the next 10 or 15 years a sense of quality of care, of sympathy of imaginative penetration which I have rarely if ever found paralleled by another editor. He was very slow and punctilious and this produced tensions both in him and with the management in the BBC as the timescale, the time schedules of television became more apparent in the next few years. But he spent hours of his own time, not the BBC’s time, mulling over rushes before he would cut them and many a time I found Eddie running and re-running and running again sequences that I thought were absolutely straightforward but he found new and well subtly new and profoundly human based and movement based ways of cutting them. He was an inspiration to me and he his sense of film while I often got very very impatient and intolerant of even the standards that he was imposing on the films that I made which was fully justified in my view now, I often got very impatient with him and I should think he found me pretty intolerable because I too readily accepted the the the need for urgency in the work that we were doing. Although very very often I over-shot my own schedule as well so it wasn't a determining factor in me.
But Eddie and I did remain good if somewhat strained friends and in latter years it would be difficult for me now to say exactly when this was I think the last film he cut for me was 1968 – two big films about the blind. I would I had said to him for years and we knew him socially our families were friends and we used to see each other occasionally not often outside the work place and I would say Eddie “You know you’re you’re you’re really I should hate to lose you but you really ought to get out of this place. You'll be dragged under by it and you will be you'll be here when you're an old man if you don't go and do something.” Well eventually probably under the direct impress of my uneasy and too urgent personality because I worked with him very largely he did leave he resigned from the BBC I suppose 1968 ’69 and went to Canada. And his quality was recognised slowly, as in everything Canadian, eventually recognised and he has had the most distinguished career with the National Film Board of Canada. And although I guess I often feel that he will never actually really achieve his own aspirations nonetheless he's had every chance in Canada to do this and I think he's done some great work. And as we mentioned last night he he I think won an Oscar for one of his productions, when he became an editor/producer in one of the studios at the National Film Board, Bonnie Klein's film Not a Love Story. He was a great man and I remember him, he’s still very much alive of course. He's a great man and and I can't speak too highly of him the qualities that he told me about he taught me about about film nothing short of that. Almost everything that I understand about the nature of film as a technical medium I've got from Eddie and other filmmakers other mostly editors Colin Moffat: You're talking of course mainly here about the later programmes, I mean did he cut the little pieces you did for Tonight?
Philip Donnellan: No no no no.
Colin Moffat: Oh he didn’t.
Philip Donnellan: No I only directed about three or four films, short films for Tonight with Fyfe Robertson, with Polly Elwes, with Derek Hart. I did one famous one which particularly drew a certain amount of attention to me which while it was never my overt aim there was always a subtext you know could I do something that would would remind people that I wanted to make films on my own and not in this context Tonight.
I mentioned earlier my interest in witchcraft and and I can see the idea of doing a film about contemporary witchcraft, witchcraft in a place today and I discussed it with one or two people and notably the Campden Wonders the the amateur actors from Chipping Campden who came very close to the center of my thoughts when I was thinking about a thing like this and odd friends I had around the place. And finally I mentioned it to Donald and in fact I'm not sure that I didn't write it in a note to Donald at the end of the day I said ‘Cotswold witches’ and Donald rang me up and he said “I don't like all your other bloody stories boy” he said “but I like the witches, get me some witches.”
And so I thought oh God how am I gonna get some witches I don’t know any bloody witches well we'll make some up. So I I I devised an entire story which was totally unreal and I got all the the odd friends and the Campden Wonders to play the parts of people who are either sociologists or a parson of a village church or actually people involved in witchcraft in a Cotswold village and we created, by moving the camera from village to village, we created a village that never existed, we took a church in one place, a street in another and so on. So we created a real place, which was called Wickes Green I made up the name.
And we I devised all this in advance so I had a friend who was a printer in a Warwickshire village and he posed as a European expert on because he spoke German and I posed as a European expert on witchcraft and was guaranteed to tell a really proficient lie or two about the about the whole panoply.
And this Parson friend of ours was to be the vicar of the church and in fact I did in my researches I did visit a church near the Rollright Stones very close to the village where I'd written about which I'd written a brief enquiry in which into witches ten years before. And I knocked on the door of the vicarage to ask if I might have permission to film the church which is slightly curious thing I mean to ask for permission to do that but that was the way I did it anyway at that time. The vicar came to the door I said “I wondered if I might have permission to take a shot of your church?” “Inside?” he said “No” I said “just outside. I'm doing um a little story for television.” “Oh” he said “Really. That's interesting. What about?” I said “Well um it's it's about witches” “Oh no” he said “Oh dear me. That again?” he said “I had to write about it in the Parish magazine last month.” So it was an actual reality that I was talking about and this was an area that had been known since the 18th century as an area of profound belief in the old religion and so on. So these strange things happened as they happened in all films that one made in the next few years; you would constantly come across both historical and contemporary references which made total sense of certain preconceptions that you had about the way in which people believed or behaved.
Well Derek Hart came to do this story: Donald sent Derek down to do the story about witches and I met him off the London train at Leamington and as soon as he got into the car and we started driving down towards Stratford and the Cotswolds I said “Donald, Derek look this story isn't real. It's a complete fake.” And he was horrified. “Oh well I don't know about that” because all the reporters carried the can for the stories, not the directors the directors are virtually irrelevant it was it was the people who appeared on the screen. So he said “I shall have to ring Donald.” So we stopped at a telephone box and he rang Donald Baverstock in London and they argued the toss for ten minutes or so and Donald agreed that we should do it and we went ahead and did it. And it was it was a marvellous story. I didn't cut it, I sent it off in the usual way and it was cut by Tony Essex in London.
End Side 9