Obituary: David Jacobs, much-loved broadcaster whose BBC career lasted more than 60 years
Tuesday 03 September 2013
Everything about the broadcaster David Jacobs was polished and immaculate: the mellifluous voice, the smartly-cut single-colour blazers with brass buttons and the sharply-creased trousers, the military stance. He was the perfect front man for BBC broadcasts and he hosted numerous programmes including Juke Box Jury from 1958 to 1967 and Any Questions? from 1967 to 1983.
David Jacobs was born into a Jewish family in Streatham Hall, London in 1926. His father, also called David Jacobs, was a successful fruit importer in Covent Garden and the family had both a chauffeur and a maid. The family’s fortunes changed during the War: his father became bankrupt and his mother, Jeanette, took in dressmaking to make ends meet.
Jacobs’ first job was a groom at a stables and he had a succession of office jobs until he was conscripted in 1944. He started broadcasting on Radio SEAC in Ceylon during his service with the Royal Navy and he became Assistant Station Director.
Jacobs joined the BBC Overseas Service in 1947 and he told me, “All of us had come out of the services and we weren’t treating our jobs as seriously as we should. We were glad to be out of uniform, jolly glad to have decent jobs of course, but we did lark about. One night I was reading the news and I saw through the glass partition which separates the reader from the engineer, Jean Metcalfe with a fire guard helmet and Jack De Manio holding a jug of water. She put the helmet on my head and the jug of water was poured over the top of it. It made a terrible noise and I said, ‘I’m afraid that’s the end of the news’ and I was roaring with laughter.”
Jacobs’ career survived such pranks. From 1953 to 1958 he was an actor on the hugely popular Journey Into Space, but his real strength lay in presenting records. He started presenting such programmes as Forces Favourites and Housewives’ Choice and he introduced Bill Haley and Elvis Presley to the British public. He reflected, “I had thought of calling myself David Lincoln, but I’m glad I didn’t as ‘DJ’ has come to mean so much more. However, I have never thought of myself as a disc-jockey as it seems to me a marginally derogatory term, perhaps because it is American. A lot of people found American cars unattractive and I am bit that way about the American disc-jockeys.”
Jacobs became the chairman of the TV panel game Tell The Truth, and was the first presenter of Come Dancing. He attempted to interest the Corporation in his concept, Hit Or Miss, where a panel would discuss the latest record releases. The BBC thought that watching people listening to records had little appeal and rejected the idea. Meanwhile, a similar idea, Juke Box Jury, found success in America. It was imported to the UK in 1958 and Jacobs was invited to be its chairman. He and the panellist, Pete Murray, cultivated a good-natured feud which lasted through its nine-year tenure. “I saw myself as the chairman of a television panel game but our game was talking about gramophone records,” said Jacobs. “What the panel said was not to be taken too seriously. They were often larking about and it didn’t really matter what they said. Very often the person who made the record was sitting around the corner so it could be a little humiliating. Sometimes I thought the panel was completely wrong and I would say so, but I never thought that my ability to spot hits was anything special. After all, the recording managers had done that before me.”
Jacobs was very much a jobbing broadcaster and in a typical week might also be presenting the afternoon programme, Wednesday Magazine, taking part in a Victorian evening on the Third Programme and reading poetry on the World Service. He presented programmes on Radio Luxembourg, usually sponsored by Toni’s Home Perm. In 1960 he was voted TV Personality of the Year by the Variety Club of Great Britain.
Jacobs had minor roles as himself in the films The Golden Disc (1958) and It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) and he presented the radio chart show Pick Of The Pops (1957-61). The ups and downs of chart life were presented sedately, and many complained that Alan Freeman was too excitable when he took over. In 1962 Jacobs was approached by Brian Epstein to assist with the nationwide launch of the Beatles, but he declined in view of his BBC commitments. In 1963 a special edition of Juke Box Jury with the Beatles at the Liverpool Empire reached an audience of 24 million.
Jacobs married Patricia Bradlaw in 1949 and their happy family life was the basis of his autobiography, Jacobs’ Ladder, in 1963. The following year, he was one of four regular presenters on Top Of The Pops and he continued until 1970. Sometimes he gave the impression that he was not too fond of the hits and would rather be at home playing his Vic Damone collection. A new wave of presenters came up through the pirate radio stations and with the advent of Radio 1 in 1967, the four-way domination of Jacobs, Freeman, Pete Murray and Jimmy Savile was over.
Around this time Jacobs stood in for an ailing Freddy Grisewood on Any Questions? and its companion programme, Any Answers? When Grisewood retired a few months later Jacobs was the natural successor. He had to preside over many heated discussions, including racial issues with Enoch Powell and IRA atrocities. Jacobs recalled returning from Southampton to London on a train with Margaret Thatcher. She had loosened her blouse, taken off her shoes and put her feet on the opposite seat. They were drinking from a bottle of Scotch and she said, “Thank heaven my constituents can’t see me now.” Jacobs replied, “It’s a pity they can’t.”
Despite his cool exterior Jacobs had a traumatic personal life. His marriage fell apart in 1969 and his son Jeremy was killed in a road accident in Israel while doing charity work. In 1975 he married his long-standing girlfriend, Caroline Munro, and they went on holiday to Spain with Richard Marsh, then chairman of British Rail, and his wife, also called Caroline. While there they were rammed from the back on a mountain road. Both Carolines were killed, but only four weeks after the tragedy Jacobs returned to Any Questions? with Marsh as a guest. Both parties regarded it as therapeutic, and as further therapy he wrote a book about their relationship, Caroline (1978), which was surprisingly candid.
In 1975, Jacobs was voted Radio Personality Of The Year, and in 1984 he received a Sony award for his outstanding contribution to radio. He has presented numerous programmes for Radio 2 including a lunchtime series (1985-1991), Melodies For You (12 years) and latterly, The David Jacobs Collection on Sunday evenings, taking him into his seventh decade as a BBC presenter. He told his audiences he played “our kind of music”. On television, he hosted the return of the parlour game, What’s My Line? He was also a founder member of Capital Radio and presented travel programmes for Sky.
In 1983, Jacobs was made a Deputy Lieutenant for Greater London, and he also did significant charity work for the Stars Organisation For Spastics, the RSPCA and many other organisations. He was both a brilliant organiser and a natural chairman. He was awarded the CBE in 1996. His final David Jacobs Collection went out last month, when he announced that he was stepping down, suffering from liver cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
David Lewis Jacobs, broadcaster: born London 19 May 1926; CBE 1996; married 1949 Patricia Bradlaw (divorced 1962; three daughters, one son), 1975 Caroline Munro (died 1975), 1979 Lindsay Stuart-Hutcheson; died 2 September 2013.
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