Obituary: George Steedman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GEORGE STEEDMAN was one of the most remarkable characters ever to find a niche in the BBC, doing far more than most to make its reputation resound so splendidly around the world.

Soon after the Second World War he was responsible for the creation of the BBC's European Service. The Continent - then starved of information and intellectual sustenance - presented a unique broadcasting opportunity. Steedman took on the challenge. The news service was to be a sort of Third Programme aimed at an important audience of so-called "opinion formers". Intellectual probity and freedom of expression - a freedom which the home- based services were never quite able to achieve - were the watchwords.

Of course it was highly educative. George Steedman was always a teacher. Both his parents were teachers, his wife Nan, also a teacher, was the daughter of his old headmaster. Steedman did his teaching via a microphone, but he also taught his own broadcasters how to broadcast, on the basis of talking one to one, to be an invited guest in someone else's sitting room. He was a Yorkshireman born and bred but quite unlike the sturdy salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire stereotype. Perhaps Emily Bronte got it right - he was prickly, difficult, temperamental.

He won a scholarship to Cambridge, reading English and gaining a First at Selwyn College. His college was then known as a training ground for young clergymen, something Steedman resented. This was one of his silly resentments, like being born in 1916, doomed from the outset. War indeed came before there was any opportunity of establishing himself in a career. He went into the Field Security Police, a sort of Intelligence unit, and was badly wounded. Recovering, his educative bent reasserted itself with a period in the Forces Education Services. It was an easy step to the BBC.

The European Service was situated in Bush House, a far more promising place to be in than Broadcasting House. It was within walking distance of Parliament, theatres, galleries, university colleges including the London School of Economics, Fleet Street, which then held every journalist of note. Bush House itself was full of a dazzling mix of continental refugees, Russian, French, German, Italian, a hub of post-war intellectual excitement.

The European Service under Steedman's guidance lived up to this. Every subject was covered at its highest level and best. He was the first to employ a full-time science correspondent, a subject only just beginning in journalism. Francis Crick was an early contributor before DNA and the Nobel Prize hit the headlines; Bruno Bronowski began his broadcasting career under Steedman. The arts were not forgotten, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were other firsts for the service and Matthew Smith gave it his only venture into broadcasting. Lord Denning contributed a series on justice and morality, Bertrand Russell spoke on power and Aneurin Bevan on loyalty, Hugh Gaitskell on equality.

These people came not for the money, nor the kudos, but often for the stimulation which George Steedman provided, the dialectic argument which made brains buzz. He could be brutal, even cruel, in his contempt for any failure to come up to his standards. Many was a slammed door that reverberated after angry departures from his office. But he also enjoyed an intense loyalty and gratitude from those that worked closest with him and many went on to fine careers. Joan Yorke and Joanna Scott Moncrieff became pillars of the BBC's forever popular Woman's Hour.

Steedman was never a conventional "corporate" personality. Not for him the convivial canteen lunch or office intrigue at the club bar. He would sit long hours brooding at his desk and if interrupted might treat the intruder to a lecture on how to make an atom bomb in three easy stages. In the course of giving an annual report he explained at length the working of lavatory cisterns.

He paid the price for his eccentricity and his lack of collegiality. He was sidelined into becoming head of Overseas Regional Services (suffering from the acronym Horse), looking after the broadcasting needs of odds and ends that could not be fitted in elsewhere, the South Sea Islands, the Caribbean, the Falklands, before their hour of prominence. Meanwhile other parts of the corporation were casting covetous empire-building eyes at the European Service, which was soon to be subsumed into an all-embracing World Service.

Later Steedman moved on to yet another largely anonymous department of the BBC, the Transcription Service, a mainly marketing job, the selling of BBC programmes globally. It became one of the BBC's biggest money-spinners and because Steedman was always an innovator he initiated new programmes. His Topical Tapes, a 15-minute news magazine, is still mentioned with admiration. He became the Maecenas of the leading musical festivals, telling world-famous players how to improve their performance. He invented popular quiz games like My Word and My Music which were lifted into the home services.

The fact that the Transcription Service was selling to the North American market presented Steedman with one of his major achievements. Broadcasting technology in the numerous American stations which clamoured for BBC output was state-of-the-art, far ahead of the BBC. Steedman called on BBC Engineering to make his service competent to cope with this new technical challenge. He surprised the BBC engineers with his scientific know-how and modernising zeal. Improved BBC transmission throughout the entire corporation was the result.

On retirement he continued to provide information world-wide with a weekly series of his own, About Britain. It was a huge success and won him fan mail from around the globe. The series however came to an abrupt stop with yet another of Steedman's spats with BBC authority. He and his wife returned to their roots in the North Yorkshire moors to Newton-upon-Rawcliffe, the name itself redolent of Steedman's love of science and his fierce uncompromising temperament. But it was not like that at all. He mellowed, wrote poetry, went to church and lent his garden beautified by Nan's expert botanical care for the vicarage fete.

After a programme once a distinguished guest said: "The trouble with you, George, is you're a scientist manque." The other distinguished guest put in: "No, no, you're a priest manque." Steedman replied: "Don't you make a manque out of me." Anybody who tried did so at their peril.

Anne Symonds

George Steedman, broadcaster: born Catterick, North Yorkshire 9 March 1916; married 1945 Nan Saunders (two sons, one daughter); died Malton, North Yorkshire 31 December 1998.

Comments