Obituary: Ronald Hastings

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Ronald Hastings came into his own as one of Fleet Street's earliest and most amusing previewers of television programmes. For years there had been critics of television whose comments were published the morning after, but increasingly the casual viewer felt the need for tips on what to see and what to skip in that day's programmes.

With his dry wit, acerbic style and quiet authority as a critic he gained (some people said) a wide readership and more influence than the morning- after writers.

No one was more surprised than Hastings at his fan mail, or more amused by his apparent popularity as a previewer since he had spent many years as the Daily Telegraph's Theatre Correspondent, anticipating in a weekly column the following week's theatrical openings but rarely writing reviews himself.

Inheriting the theatre correspondent's job from the legendary George Bishop (one of James Agate's loyallest colleagues), the almost equally tall Hastings may never have felt as powerful as a theatrical reporter as he did with his television tips; but his decades of first-nighting had been in many ways more congenial.

In those days a critic only had an hour or so and sometimes much less to file his notice from the fall of the curtain, whereas Hastings could always stay to the end. His job was to hobnob in the foyer with everyone and anyone, before or behind the scenes, whether at Stratford-upon-Avon or Glyndebourne, Chichester or the West End. He began with My Fair Lady at Drury Lane in 1958.

It was a time of sweeping changes in the British theatre which Hastings heralded in a weekly column and elsewhere with a detachment and accuracy which won him much professional respect. Considered to be the playgoer's preferred daily paper, the Telegraph was generously disposed towards its coverage of the stage both at home and overseas, and Hastings got wind of most events. Ranging from the last years of the most famous commercial manager of the era (Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont) to the New Wave of angry young men at the Royal Court, the battles with the Lord Chamberlain as censor, the rivalry of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and the Arts Council's distribution of grants which brought artistic directors a new power, he had plenty of subject matter.

The Royal Shakespeare Company was to have not one but two theatres in London to add to its repertoire from Stratford-upon-Avon under Peter Hall's controversial leadership and Laurence Olivier's long-awaited National Theatre was due for a trial run at a new theatre in the round at Chichester.

Meanwhile Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre was drawing family audiences to its open-edged stage in the city, and in the regions a rash of new provincial theatres was rising on the rates.

It was a heady time in Fleet Street for theatre writers and the stately Hastings with his pipe, umbrella and imperturbable manner (he might have been the man from Scotland Yard in an old-fashioned whodunnit, or an English Monsieur Hulot in his deadpan way of rising above fellow first-nighters) cut an imposing figure of some authority.

It was a manner which assisted all his journalism for which he had prepared himself by reading English at Balliol, after wartime service in the RAF and stints on Kent newspapers.

Joining the Telegraph in 1955 after two years on the Daily Mail, he covered the Lewisham rail disaster as a special reporter, and within 24 hours was giving reasons on the front page why it had happened.

After walking along the broken tracks with his friend the cricketer Colin Cowdrey, he asked the Waterloo authorities to assemble the chief operating superintendent, the chief signalling officer, locomotive engineers and other departmental heads for a meeting. The Southern Region agreed that afternoon following the accident, in which 90 people died, and Hastings alone was able to discuss with those executives, over large maps spread on a table, what had gone wrong.

"We'd like to use this on the front," said his editor Colin Coote, adding suspiciously. "Is it all right? Have the other papers got it?"

"No." "Why not?" "Lack of initiative, I suppose," replied Hastings. "They never thought of it, or that they could go so high." A subsequent public inquiry confirmed the truth and the facts of his account.

Hastings never hesitated to show initiative. As a reporter on the Daily Mail he heard one of Billy Graham's assistants boasting that the evangelist sometimes addressed as many as 30,000 people. "I could get you double that number," said Hastings. He rang Ted Drake, the Chelsea manager, whom he did not know but who agreed to invite Graham to the match for the interval. On the crowded terraces a few days later Hastings grinned at "how easy the impossible sometimes is".

Among other strings to Hastings's bow were longcase clocks (he had several notable examples), opera (he came from a musical family), golf (he died on Twickenham golf course), tennis (while playing at Nassau during the war he recalled with wry amusement the Duchess of Windsor's uninhibited language on a neighbouring court when she missed a shot), ancient cars and railways. He kept an 00 gauge model railway - Southern Region - in a room at his home at Barnes.

While his heart would remain in the theatre and opera, the switch to television which had grown so steadily in its influence during his 35 years on the Telegraph brought its rewards not only with an increased salary but also in the daily proof how close he had got to his readers, especially when he was ill in 1989.

Ronald Arthur Hastings, journalist: born Strood, Kent 14 November 1922; staff, Daily Telegraph 1955-89; married 1948 Vida Staples (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Twickenham, Middlesex 1 May 1997.