Obituary: Tom Richards

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The Independent Culture
THE LONG tradition of journalism in Wales has produced many newsmen who have cut their teeth with provincial papers and then gone on to make their mark in London. But Tom Richards, professional to his fingertips, was content to stay at home.

Born in Towyn, Merioneth, in 1909, but brought up in Dolgellau, Richards was the son of a station-master at what is known to English tourists as Dovey Junction. He spoke Welsh as his first language, and all his creative writing was done in Welsh, but it was in English that he chose to work as a journalist. It was a language that he loved, and wrote with precision and panache.

His career began in 1927 when, straight from school, he landed his first job as a reporter with the Cambrian News, in Cardiganshire, after which the ink was in his blood. Eight years later he joined the Western Mail in Cardiff, a paper then owned by Lord Thomson, and worked there for seven years as a sub-editor.

Exempted from call-up in 1939 because he had lost a leg at the age of 15 as a result of tuberculosis, he was appointed campaigns officer with the Welsh Region of the Ministry of Information in 1942. Moving to the BBC as publicity officer in 1945, he became an indispensable member of its staff at a time when resources were scarce and programmes made on shoestring budgets called for ingenuity and perseverance.

Although later in life he was to regret his lack of higher education and the fact that he had not even trained as a reporter, he was widely read in what he called "an unsystematic and time-wasting way".

In 1952 he was promoted to the post of News Editor at the BBC in Cardiff, where he pioneered both radio and television news. Among the young men he took on as newsreaders was Michael Aspel.

This was a difficult era for the Corporation in Wales. There was growing pressure for better news coverage in both Welsh and English and for a wider variety of programmes. Conservative and Labour allegations of Nationalist bias further complicated an already fraught operation, and Richards was seen as the man who could cast an unbiased eye over Welsh broadcasting, because he kept his politics to himself.

Together with his assistants Wyn Roberts (later a Tory Secretary of State for Wales, and now Lord Roberts of Conwy) and John Ormond Thomas, who was to make his mark as a poet and film-maker, Richards was given the laborious task of working out how many Plaid Cymru members had taken part in talks and discussions in 1955. Several months later, it was announced that of the 360 speakers in that year's programmes, only 15 were known to be party members.

The Ince Report of 1956, charged with looking into the matter, came to the conclusion that some criticism of a lack of balance over the previous six years are justified, but that "if Nationalism in the widest sense is considered, then it is difficult for the Broadcasting Council in Wales to avoid such charges . . . as it has the duty `to pay full regard to the distinctive cultural interests of Our People in Wales' ". The Nats under the Mats scare was over.

Richards took over as the BBC's representative in west Wales in 1963, remaining in that post until his retirement six years later. It was there, at the west Wales branch of the BBC in Alexandra Road, Swansea, that I first met him - a streetwise man with a genuine interest in younger colleagues and not averse to offering them advice and relating mildly scurrilous anecdotes, especially about members of the broadcasting establishment in Wales. "News is what they don't want you to hear," was one of his favourite axioms.

His genial, rather shy personality marked a mischievous sense of humour which is to be seen at its best in his plays, especially Y Cymro Cyffredin ("The Ordinary Welshman", 1960) and Mi Glywaf Dyner Lais ("I Hear a Tender Voice", 1982). His choice of Welsh as the medium for his plays was explained in a no-nonsense manner in an essay he wrote for my book Artists in Wales (1971): "I think in dialogue, I talk to myself, and when I hear other people talking, they do so in Welsh."

Writing of the prospects for literature in the Welsh language, he referred to what he called the Ozymandias syndrome: "In the all-English desert of 21st-century Wales, some diligent researcher may stumble on this mysterious body of writing and will no doubt be impressed by its glorious past, if he manages to decipher it. We still have time, though, to try the other way." It comes as something of a surprise to learn that he chose to bring up his two sons without the language.

Richards's masterpiece is the novel Mae'r Oll yn Gysegredig ("All, All is Sacred", 1966), set in the fictitious town of Llanathrod ("Libelville"), where a miracle is reported by the local paper. The story is taken up by the London dailies and is about to be made into a film, much to the consternation of the chapels and the town's bigwigs.

Out of this farcical little story, not unlike that of Clochemerle, the author pokes a good deal of delicious fun at the expense of small-town attitudes; it is one of the funniest novels ever published in Welsh. I can still hear him chuckling as he explained to me how he had based much of it on his own experience as a newsman of more than 40 years.

Thomas Hugh Richards, journalist and playwright: born Towyn, Merioneth 28 September 1909: News Editor, BBC (Cardiff) 1952- 63: representative, BBC West Wales 1963-69; married 1944 Aelwen Williams (two sons); died Swansea 19 June 1998.