Obituary: Robert Barr

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT BARR was an outstanding BBC war correspondent. In peacetime he moved over to television and became a leading writer and production executive. His work included Z Cars, Softly, Softly and Moonstrike. In 1959 he won the Italia Prize for his television documentary Madico, about the medical service to ships.

Barr's writing career began as a freelance reporter before joining the staff of the Daily Mail. On the outbreak of the Second World War the BBC engaged him as war correspondent and sent him to cover North Sea convoys. Later he landed a plum job. He was one of the four correspondents specially picked from the world's press and radio to travel with and live alongside the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower.

Barr was undergoing parachute training outside Manchester when he was told to meet a certain plane. Richard Dimbleby, the BBC's chief war correspondent, emerged from it and said "Don't look round, just get in. Everything has been arranged. They want you back in London." Barr found himself straightaway attached to Eisenhower's personal staff.

He described the paratroopers preparing for the D-Day armada:

Their faces were darkened with cocoa; sheathed knives were strapped to their ankles; bandoliers and hand grenades, coils of rope, pick handles, spades, rubber dinghies hung around them, and a few personal oddments like a lad who was taking a newspaper to read on the plane. As they knelt round their padre in prayer, with bent heads and on one knee, the men with their equipment and camouflaged faces looked like some strange creatures from another world.

Barr was aboard HMS Kelvin which took Churchill, Sir Alan Brooke, Field Marshal Smuts, and others, over to Normandy shortly after D-Day. "About a quarter of a mile from the shore," he reported, "we drove through the water and up on the beach where General Montgomery was waiting with three jeeps. The Kelvin edged her way past Nelson and Ramillies and took up a position right on the German flank. Here the order was given: `Three salvoes into the German lines'. Mr Churchill, cigar in the corner of his mouth, and his sea cap on the back of his head, smiled and raised his binoculars. And the guns of HMS Kelvin began to pound the German positions."

When the General entered Paris Barr left Eisenhower's staff. In 1945 he became a radio features producer and the following year switched to television. When he returned for a visit to Broadcasting House a senior sound producer ran into him at the door. "Good Lord, I thought you were dead." "No I'm not" said Barr. "No? Ah, yes; gone to television; same thing, old chap." That was before the Coronation in 1953, when television for the first time had a bigger audience than radio.

Barr wrote and produced the first documentary ever written for BBC television, Germany Under Control, and followed it with another documentary about the Berlin airlift, using a German television crew.

From his fertile pen came such excellent series as Z Cars, Softly, Softly and Spycatcher. The format for Z Cars had been written by Troy Kennedy Martin. Another closely involved with the series was Barr's boss Elwyn Jones. Barr was the Executive Producer. Z Cars, though well received by both the critics and the public, at first caused a certain amount of consternation among the police.

"It was the policemen's wives," disclosed Barr, "They said to their husbands `You don't carry on like Charlie Barlow do you?' The husbands reassuringly said `No dear', adding that Charlie Barlow wouldn't last three days in a police force. But after a little while they'd start to say `Remember old so-and-so? He was just like Charlie Barlow'."

The audience figures of Z Cars climbed from nine to 14 million in the first eight weeks. The public was ready to accept that the police were not all fatherly PC Dixon types who helped old ladies across the road and always had a sweet for a lost child. The intended first run of 13 was extended to 31. A loyal audience followed the careers of Barlow and Watt as they rose up the force in a new series Softly, Softly, written by Barr, with a second-generation cast moving through the old setting.

One of Barr's early post-war scripts for television was Mock Auction, adapted from his radio series It's Your Money They're After. He wrote another called I Want to be an Actor produced by the then Head of Drama Michael Barry, who much enjoyed, according to Barr, the freedom to talk about the script with its writer and discuss ways to improve it.

Barr regularly used to include real people in his dramatic scripts. For instance, in a programme about a hospital ward he engaged eight genuine nurses with his cast of actors. Their task was to give the authentic touch of bedmaking in the ward which had been recreated in the studio.

In another programme, with a trial scene including pronouncement of the death sentence, he used a man who had for years been clerk to the Lord Chief Justice; his job was to place a black cap on the actor-judge's head. Only one who had seen this happen again and again could - in Barr's opinion - do the action correctly. Barr used to admit that his aim in television documentaries was to interest people in other people rather than to explain some aspect of life in sociological terms.

Barr spent his retirement on the Isle of Bute, which had long been his favourite home. He had done most of his writing there, though he always went to London for his research.

Leonard Miall

Robert Barr, war correspondent and television scriptwriter: born Glasgow 22 December 1909; joined BBC 1939; correspondent covering North Sea Convoys, then special correspondent with Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force 1944; Italia Prize 1959; married 1936 Janet Connell (died 1996; one daughter); died Isle of Bute 30 January 1999.