John Slater

Anarchic TV journalist and producer
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The Independent Online

In late July, John Slater, the broadcaster and writer, left a message on my answer machine. He had learned that documents covering the most sensitive areas of British nuclear policy during the Cold War were now not to be released by the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that they were "contaminated with asbestos dust".



John Michael Slater, broadcaster and writer: born Poole, Dorset 22 June 1941; married 1963 Gill Baldwin (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 2003 Fiona McKenzie (three sons); died Grosmont, Monmouthshire 6 August 2004.



In late July, John Slater, the broadcaster and writer, left a message on my answer machine. He had learned that documents covering the most sensitive areas of British nuclear policy during the Cold War were now not to be released by the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that they were "contaminated with asbestos dust".

Slater was very sceptical about the given reason. By a terrible irony, he was dying of mesothelioma - the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos - and yet he was desperate to have access to the documents to complete his book on British nuclear policy. He knew he was terminally ill, but expected to live long enough to finish his book. A sudden crisis led to his death six days later.

Diagnosed with mesothelioma only eight months before, he had maintained his usual flow of sardonic humour, and it was hard to remember that he was terminally ill. Slater was a man whose "flashes of merriment . . . were wont to set the table on a roar". He loved good company, fine wine, and had great generosity of spirit.

Educated at Mercers' and then the City of London School, John Slater went to St Catherine's College, Oxford in 1960 to read PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). There I and others fondly remember him as a deeply committed CND activist whose exceptional organising abilities were vividly apparent.

After Oxford he worked for a time on the national organisation of CND, and was a co-founder of its magazine, Sanity. There followed a spell teaching in Africa. In 1968 he joined Granada Television's World in Action, the weekly current affairs strand whose style of radical journalism suited his temperament perfectly - first as a researcher, then as a producer-director.

He moved on to be the editor of local programmes. Today when ambitious local programmes have disappeared, it is difficult to recall a time when they mattered. For the Granada management the strand was both the company's lifeblood and its investment in future talent.

Slater realised he had "the best box of toys" in the cupboard. He rode in on the bus every day where he said he always got his best ideas. His journalism was challenging and anarchic. For example, a company accused of polluting the rivers with chemicals would find itself named every night of the week until the spokesman requested was put forward to answer the charges posed.

In 1975 he became a freelance producer-director, but he maintained a close relationship with Granada Television, coming back periodically to run training courses for directors. He was an exceptional teacher - a rare gift, and even rarer among television producers. He often taught at the National Film and Television School. His book Just Off the Motorway (1978) - a guide to good food and drink off every motorway junction - was a best seller.

In the 1980s he had a varied career developing new talent. He discovered David Starkey and produced him in a landmark series for Channel 4, This Land of England (1985), which allowed him to get back to his first love - history. He did a pop psychology series with Russell Harty, Behave Yourself. He was one of the first people to work with the historian Simon Schama. He set up one of the first independent production companies, Mirageland, when Channel 4 was started in 1982.

In the 1990s Slater was headhunted by the BBC to run its History Unit at Elstree, and later was head of its South-east region. At Elstree he seems to have recreated the spirit of happy but well-organised anarchy he had enjoyed at Granada in the early 1970s and was crucial in helping Paul Watson - another anarchic spirit - to make Sylvania Waters (1992), the Australian version of Watson's famous 1974 series The Family.

At Oxford John met Gill Baldwin, his first wife and mother of Imogen, Emma, and Adam. By his second wife, Fiona McKenzie, he had Tom, Harry and Jack. Their beautiful house in the Golden Valley in the Welsh Borders was always open and welcoming to a vast circle of friends. With Fiona he returned to his roots with a common interest in matters nuclear. In 1995, their company, Black Hill Productions made the nuclear history Geiger Sweet Geiger Sour, and the Radio 4 series Atomica America about human radiology experiments.

In 1997 Slater got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to research and write a major investigation into the British nuclear bomb. The research work he has done is prodigious and the book is half complete. His widow Fiona is setting up the Slater Trust to bring the book to fruition, and to release his documentation on to the web. It will be a fitting monument to the man.

Michael Ryan

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