Obituary: Robert Dougall
Tuesday 21 December 1999
Born in Croydon in 1913, Dougall was educated at Whitgift School, where he specialised in French and German. He went to work as a clerk in the firm of accountants responsible for auditing the BBC, and in 1933 joined the BBC's accounts office. Later he applied for a post as an announcer, and was interviewed by Sir John Reith's deputy, Admiral Sir Charles Carpendale, whose knowledge of public schools did not stretch much beyond Eton, Harrow and Winchester. Whitgift was not one that he had heard of.
"One of the new schools, I suppose," he said. Dougall courteously corrected him. "No, sir. It was founded in 1596 by Archbishop Whitgift."
Dougall became an announcer in the BBC Empire Service, as it was then called, on his 21st birthday. He had a wide experience of news reading. In the autumn of 1939, after Molotov had signed his Non-Aggression Pact with Ribbentrop, the BBC's then European News Editor, William Newton, showed signs of a nervous breakdown. Off his own bat he wrote a so-called "last-minute message to the German people from an anonymous Englishman", corralled a member of the German Service to translate it, and told Dougall to announce it. Newton did this without reference to his chief, J.B. (later Sir Beresford) Clark or to myself, then in charge of news talks in German. The British newspapers carried a report of the broadcast next day.
Once war had actually been declared, Newton collapsed. He came round to each of us apologising for being so beastly, and was subsequently eased out to become the BBC's Middle West American representative, based in Chicago.
Dougall was soon reporting on the London blitz, as well as keeping overseas listeners informed on how the war was going. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy. Hearing that volunteers were wanted for special duties at a base in north Russia, he took a short course in Russian, and was soon sailing with convoys between the UK and Murmansk.
After demobilisation Dougall returned to the BBC as a Home Service announcer, with what were then considered essential qualities, clear diction and standard English pronounciation. He was able to train other announcers in this traditional style. In 1947 he met and married Nan Byam, a BBC studio manager, a widow and the mother of a two-year-old daughter.
Dougall was sent to Singapore as the Programme Manager of the BBC's Far Eastern Service in 1947, but by 1951 he was back in London, ready to move into television. There was considerable discussion over whether Dougall and his first colleagues, Kenneth Kendal, Richard Baker and Michael Aspel, should be seen in vision. John Snagge said, "I do not believe that any real value will be added to News Newsreel by showing the announcer in picture. It will, I know, satisfy the curiosity of a great many people, who will be able to attach a face to a voice. To me it is of paramount importance that no distraction from the news as such shall be conveyed to the listener by way of satisfying curiosity or by stunts." Dougall himself said, "In television one must talk to people and not at them."
Dougall's straightforwardness made him very popular. He was appointed MBE in 1965 and received the insignia on the same day as the Beatles, with crowds of their fans surrounding Buckingham Palace. His anecdotal account of working for the BBC, In & Out of the Box, was published in October 1973 and before the end of that year (he retired on 31 December) had been reprinted six times.
Dougall was an ardent amateur ornithologist and wrote about birds for newspapers and magazines. He was President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for five years, during which its membership rose from 50,000 to almost 250,000. He was about to read the news one evening when his telephone rang. He expected it to be a last-minute addition, but it was in fact an eight-year-old girl seeking advice on how to care for a baby starling.
In retirement he made a number of natural-history programmes. He and his wife Nan moved from their cottage on Hampstead Heath in 1989 to live in Suffolk.
Robert Neill Dougall, newscaster: born Croydon, Surrey 27 November 1913; MBE 1965; married 1947 Nancie Byam (nee Lockhart; one son, one stepdaughter); died Southwold, Suffolk 18 December 1999.
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