Last year Mark Tully quit the BBC in disgust. Today he returns to R4. Here, he tells Paddy Burt why

MARK TULLY is back. The BBC's untidy, shambling former India correspondent, who parted acrimoniously from the Corporation, is returning to the airwaves he once graced so famously. Starting today, he is presenting a weekly "contemplative" programme on Radio 4 called Something Understood, in which he will debate philosophical and religious matters about life, death and the universe.

Yet only a couple of years ago Tully, who will be 60 this year, vehemently denounced what he called the BBC's "Big Brother administration" during a Radio Academy lecture. Oh, what waves it caused. His charge that "John Birt's regime is run on fear and sycophancy" was - perhaps inevitably - followed a year later by his resignation. He had been with the BBC for 30 years. Won't a lot of people, I suggest, be surprised - shocked even - to discover he's back within the BBC bosom so soon. After so much bitterness. I mean, how could he?

He says that he never wanted to dissociate himself entirely from the Corporation. "If I had thought, `The BBC is a rotten organisation, to hell with it', I would have walked away then and there. The reason I eventually resigned was because I was told that my views must remain private. I had to keep my mouth shut."

Tully's argument was that his views had ceased to be private as a result of the furore that followed his lecture, the content of which had been widely aired in the media. The World at One devoted half its time the following day to examining his criticisms, while, in India, the affair was labelled the "Indian Mutiny".

He was not the only old trooper disgruntled with John Birt's new BBC, says Newsquiz presenter Barry Took: "We old broadcasters - Tully from India, John Tydeman from Drama, David Attenborough, and me - felt that these lunatic people who had taken over the BBC were ruining it. They were creating rafts of bureaucracy and getting rid of experienced broadcasters."

Until "that speech", Tully had been more used to reporting news than making it. While he insisted he was not averse to all change, he was certainly angered by the nature of it. "I disagree thoroughly with the allegation that I am out of touch. If anyone's out of touch, it is John Birt," he said at the time.

And now: "Suppose a journalist like you asked me a question, what would I be supposed to say?" he demands. "That the BBC told me to shut up? That would be more derogatory to the BBC. That I had changed my mind about what I had said? I certainly hadn't changed my mind. I walked out specifically because of the gagging."

Tully was approached to present the new series by an independent company, Unique Broadcasting. "And I can honestly say to you, and I hope I shan't be in trouble - no, no it doesn't matter if I am - that when the producer, Jane Jeffes, suggested this idea, I said: `Look, Jane, this is a lovely idea, but for heaven's sake don't put my name on it because you won't get your programme accepted.' I was sure I would be blackballed, you see. But she said: `We want you to do it.' And then Radio 4 very generously said that they regarded me as an appropriate person to present the series.

"After 30 years, I still have very warm feelings about the BBC," he explains. ``Coming back in this way without a contract that gags me - I don't feel I have broken any principles. And I feel a great debt of gratitude to Radio 4. In my heart of hearts, it is the place I love most."

Inevitably, though, Tully then began to worry about the project. Would returning to Radio 4 mean letting down all those people, both within the BBC and outside it, who had so wholeheartedly given him their support at the time of his speech? "I worried whether those who thought I had taken an appropriate stand might now feel I had been bought off," he says.

It wasn't, of course, an offer he couldn't turn down. As for his criticisms of John Birt's modernisation of the BBC, he emphasises that he would never have made that speech if the opportunity hadn't - well - just arisen: "The Radio Academy lecture gave me a platform. It seemed as if it were fate. As someone who has lived in India for a long time, I do have a tendency to believe in fate, you know . . ."

Some people in his position, I suggest, might have harboured a grudge against the BBC for forcing him to resign, not to mention John Birt's barb about "old BBC soldiers sniping at us with their muskets". He hesitates. "I'm sometimes portrayed as a `very nice person'," he says. "I don't think I am nice at all. I do bear grudges, I do dislike some people very much, I do get extremely angry. And I was extremely angry at the time."

The new series, the title of which is taken from a George Herbert poem, will reflect the BBC's fresh approach to religious affairs, taking into account not just different faiths, but thoughts on life and relationships. He will also interview people about harrowing or joyful experiences. ``I will offer something to people of all faiths and of none. I hope that the programme will be primarily about searching."

Mark Tully spent the first 10 years of his life in India. When the family returned to England, he was sent to Marlborough and later studied theology at Cambridge under Robert Runcie. He then trained as a priest but dropped out. "The bishop told me I liked wine, women and song too much and that my face was more appropriate in the pub than in the pulpit. And the late Brian Redhead once said I was one of those people who looked for God in the bottom of a glass." He chuckles at this, but you sense that the regret still exists: "The reason I sometimes appear modest is because I am an insecure person and I am partly insecure, funnily enough, because of my own wrestling with Christianity and my sense of inadequacy because I cannot be a proper Christian."

Tully still divides his time between India and Britain. In Delhi he lives with his girfriend Gilly Wright; in London he stays with his wife, whom he has never divorced, and sees his four children. He will present the series from both continents. Each programme will have a different theme - the day of rest, hospitality, death, and so on. "One of my themes will be arrogance and - perhaps I shouldn't say this - I have put in a request to interview Melvyn Bragg." Does Bragg know why? "Not yet - but I don't mind if he does." Why should he want to interview Melvyn Bragg on the subject of arrogance, I wonder?

! `Something Understood': 6.10am Sundays R4.

"India is my home. it is where I was born." (In Delhi, he shares his house with Gilly Wright [ASK who is she?]: "We do research together, travel together and she's the first person who reads what I've written"; in London he stays with his wife, whom he has never divorced, and visits his children - he has four.) "And so it was eventually agreed that many of them will be recorded in India, perhaps in blocks of five."

The aim is to talk about subjects that are often considered "unmentionable" in Britain.and so far, a wide variety "themes", has been lined up: what is the meaning of life ("the exciting thing is I haven't reached a conclusion either"); hospitality ("how important food-customs are and what modern life is doing to those lovely old traditions of entertaining"); the day of rest ("I'm very keen on that, it doesn't exist here any more"); the motivation of soldiery ("which will try to get to the heart of what soldiers think is worth fighting for") - and death.

"We do not face up to death in this country as we used to in the old days. People should be reminded of death - it alters their attitude to life. In Delhi, there's a very different tradition. The whole concept of the Hindu funeral service is the open face, the lack of a coffin, the cremation rites. There's no locking something in a box and trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Indians cope much better with death because they don't find it hard to weep, like we do."

I'm curious to know whether he finds it hard to weep? `I'm a terrible weeper,' he says cheerfully. "Coming over on the plane I watched the Browning Version and tears were pouring down my cheeks. I'm terribly sentimental."

Perhaps being brought up in India has contributed to his being a terrible weeper? "Yes. Which brings me to another theme: roots. We have such a rootless society in the west. I almost accept the Hindu doctrine of Karma, that where you were born, and of whom you were born, is of immense importance. I am enormously proud of my association with India and the fact that so many Indians regard me as Indian. I am also enormously proud to have a decoration from the Indian Government (Padma Shri - the equivalent of the MBE) and I get very cross when people say Mark Tully OBE and don't mention the other decoration. I see myself in a very privileged position and it all stems from my birthplace. India has given me roots that England couldn't."

So far, Tully has talked to Maclar Ahmed, Professor of Divinity at Selwyn College, Cambridge, an authority on Islam; the Bishop of Rochester, a Pakistani by birth; Michael Thorn, a biographer of the poet Tennyson; and TV producer Jonathan Steadall who, through his work, was close to both Malcolm Muggeridge and John Betjeman: "We talked to him about their views on life. "There will also be a Hindu monk; a leader of a Muslim Sufi group and some rabbis. "No, not Lionel Blue - not because he's so familiar, we don't went to rule such people out, but we don't necessarily want to go for the stage armies either, if you see what I mean. Sometimes," he sighs, "I think of myself as a stage army on India. You know, anyone who wants to know anything on India, ask Mark Tully, I don't think that's true at all."

Tully is famed for his modesty. But is he really such a modest person? "No, but I will put it like this. I hate arrogance. I think it is the sin of all sins." He is smiling broadly.He chuckles, but it is impossible not to sense that the regret still exists.


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