BBC US correspondent and Head of Television Talks who became the Corporation's affable ambassador
Friday 25 February 2005
Rowland Leonard Miall, journalist and broadcasting administrator and historian: born London 6 November 1914; German Talks and Features Editor, BBC 1940-42, Special Correspondent, Czechoslovakia 1945, Acting Diplomatic Correspondent 1945, Chief Correspondent in US 1945-53, Head of Television Talks 1954-61, Assistant Controller, Current Affairs and Talks, Television 1961-62, Special Assistant to Director of Television 1962-63, Assistant Controller, Programme Services, Television 1963-66, Representative in US 1966-70, Controller, Overseas and Foreign Relations 1971-74, Research Historian 1975-84; OBE 1961; married 1941 Lorna Rackham (died 1974; three sons, one daughter), 1975 Sally Bicknell (née Leith); died Taplow, Berkshire 24 February 2005.
A great institution like the BBC is made by people. Leonard Miall, who was involved with the BBC from 1939 into the new century, must rate as one of its outstanding public servants. He was a star in his own right as a reporter, he was the head of a production department in television that still influences the standards of current-affairs broadcasting, he was an administrator of bottom, he was an ambassador for the BBC and then went on to be one of its historians.
Miall was a tall man; he never put on weight. He had cheerful eyes, he was a half-full man rather than a half-empty fellow. Giving instructions to a stranger he was going to meet, he would say he looked like Alastair Sim, and the black Homburg hat he wore when I first knew him completed the picture. He was a gentle man, considerate, witty. If you wanted aggression or obsession, you did not go to Miall.
Born in London in 1914, he was educated at Bootham School, York, Freiburg University and St John's College, Cambridge, where he read Economics and Law, and was President of the Union - his first broadcast was a transatlantic debate in 1936 between Cambridge and Harvard - and Editor of the Cambridge Review.
He was first employed by the BBC in 1939 because he knew German, and he became the first Talks Producer in the newly formed German Service; his colleagues included Hugh Carleton Greene, the future BBC Director General, Patrick Gordon Walker, the future Foreign Secretary, and the actor Marius Goring. When the King and Queen visited their unit Miall told the Queen that the BBC was there to keep up the morale of the home audience, while he and his colleagues were intent on lowering the morale of their foreign audience.
In 1942 he was seconded to the Political Warfare Executive and sent to America (where he was Director of News in San Francisco and headed the New York office). He finished the Second World War in the Psychological Warfare Division of Shaef in Luxembourg.
As he had been in America during the war he was a natural choice when he rejoined the BBC to be the senior correspondent based in Washington, and there, between 1945 and 1953, he became a very well-known voice in Britain. It was a good time for a journalist of Miall's quality. The Truman years - with increasing difficulties with Russia, the Truman Doctrine, the founding of Nato, the Korean War and the beginning of McCarthyism - were vital in post-war history.
Miall knew many of the American journalists like Edward R. Murrow and James Reston who had been in London during the war. He was respected in the White House, he knew his way around Washington, which was the power centre of the world. He was a friend of Dean Acheson, appointed Secretary of State in 1948, and it was through him that Miall became more than a footnote in the history books over the start of the Marshall Plan.
In 1947 the American government wanted to assist Europe, which was in a desperate state two years after the war and a terrible winter. The trouble was that Congress was reluctant to put up the money and had to be convinced that the Europeans were serious and united. Miall broadcast General George Marshall's speech at Harvard on reconstruction in Europe which emphasised that the European nations must put up a concerted plan, and smartly. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, heard Miall's broadcast in bed, recognised the offer for what it was and the need for action. He spoke next day to the French Foreign Secretary and they brought the European nations to unanimous support for what was to become the Marshall Plan. Acheson said later that Bevin's enthusiasm overcame the scepticism of the Foreign Office.
The policy of BBC news at that time was no personalities and no scoops, so that when Miall came back to London there was no red carpet, merely a lowly job in the newsroom. However he had put in for and won the job as Head of Television Talks. His Assistant Head, in a job created for her, was the formidable Grace Wyndham Goldie, 14 years older than Miall and already becoming a legend. As Miall was to write, "it was contrary to Grace's nature to be assistant head of anything . . . she did not make a natural deputy".
Huw Wheldon was to say that Miall presided over the department with common sense and Goldie supplied the energy. Whatever their relations in a few short years, the two of them were responsible, in the bedraggled and grimy Lime Grove, for such a flowering of talent and creativity as set the standards and guidelines for factual television for years. What they did was to select, train, encourage, protect and even discipline the producers. They fought a difficult battle, not always together, for the staff, studios, film effort and finance for the programmes. They created the space for the ideas and enabled the people to develop them into events on the screen.
To name but a few, David Attenborough started his unique career, Richard Cawston, the film-maker, broke new ground with This is the BBC and Television and the World. Denis Mitchell created a new type of documentary, Paul Johnstone almost single-handedly started archaeology and history on television. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the star of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, made series on Rome and Greece, The Sky at Night started its 50-year trek though the heavens. Then there came the flagship team programmes, the relaunched Panorama, under Michael Peacock, Tonight with Donald Baverstock and Alasdair Milne, Monitor with Huw Wheldon, and Gallery, science programmes, Press Conference, The Brains Trust, Barry Bucknell, the king of "do-it-yourself", and Percy Thrower of gardening fame. Many political programmes, the first coverage of party conferences, the general election results, were planned up in those unpainted offices. It brought a new gleam. Miall imported Paul Fox from Sportsview.
If a roll of honour were continued it would run into the business pages. Richard Dimbleby, Cliff Michelmore, Derek Hart, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Woodrow Wyatt, Christopher Mayhew, Robin Day, Robert McKenzie, David Butler, Christopher Chataway . . . There were many more: the reporters, the cameramen, the film editors, engineers, design staff, the secretaries.
It was not an easy life: there were institutional pressures from Broadcasting House, competition from the other dynamic programme departments at the Television Centre, substantial egos, inter-programme rivalry, personal tensions and creative problems. Then there was the effect of the programmes on people and institutions. Miall wrote a note about 1956 Conservative Party Conference, "Some complaints about the aggressive questioning by Robert McKenzie." It was the shape of things to come. The political parties thought of Lime Grove as a loose cannon not in their control.
Miall once said as he ambled down Lime Grove to his office, "I wonder which town clerk they will insult today." Reporters and cameras around the world sometimes led to complaints and they all went to the head of the department. Asked about what he thought of the eight years of pressure Miall said, "They were halcyon days." When David Attenborough published his 2002 memoirs Life on Air, he sent a copy to Miall and written inside was "To the best of bosses". It was indeed a good place to be, even if there were quite a few embarrassingly bad programmes.
Suddenly, in 1961 (the year he was appointed OBE), Miall was removed from his post at Lime Grove by Hugh Greene, the Director General. Greene's biographer Michael Tracey wrote, "The event had gone through the corridors of the BBC like a chilly wind reminding people that Hugh Greene was not all twinkling eyes and liberal-mindedness." It was the manner of Miall's going that offended many people. Miall ended his obituary of Greene for The Independent in 1987: "He was often aloof and he could be ruthless. He was a private man who made a great contribution to broadcasting."
Moving to the Television Centre Miall became the Executive Secretary of the committee planning the start of BBC2. He did three years in the management of the programme services and then, in an inspired move, went back to America as the American Representative of the BBC, based in New York.
It was a perfect choice: Miall knew the top people in the three networks; many of them were old wartime friends. He and his wife Lorna conducted a private British-American salon in their roomy, rather old-fashioned apartment on the West Side overlooking Central Park. It was a great place for noisy and mostly good-natured arguments about television in Britain and America. Miall was a good ambassador for the BBC and for Britain. He was very English but had a wide knowledge of and a deep affection for America.
Back in London in 1971 he was made Controller of International Relations, taking charge of the BBC's offices overseas and relations with other broadcasting organisations, and played a leading role in establishing the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.
Leaving the BBC at the age of 60 he started another career as a research historian. He worked for almost 10 years with Asa Briggs, who acknowledged his contribution to The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (1961-95, the two volumes from this period being Sound and Vision, 1979, and Competition: 1955-1974, 1995). Once again he was in his element: he had known the BBC since 1939 and had a prodigious memory. He knew where the bodies were buried.
Miall had already edited a book, Richard Dimbleby, Broadcaster (1966). In February 1987, four months after the newspaper was launched, he contributed an obituary to The Independent of the broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. He then wrote to the Obituaries Editor, James Fergusson, proposing the names of people who deserved obituaries, some his friends, others people he had known. This, the last phase of his life, produced yet another of Miall's real achievements.
The obituary was a genre that suited him: he had a curiosity about people and their contribution, and was keen to put first-person history on record. It gave scope for his knowledge and his kindness. He was rarely censorious and he was not interested in private lives. Of his BBC colleagues, he wanted to record the contribution they made. And he put them in the context of their time, often by using his own memories. Most of his subjects - a huge number of them, from Sir Hugh Greene, Sir Ian Trethowan, Lt-Gen Sir Ian Jacob and Harman Grisewood to Gerald Priestland, John Snagge, Sir Robin Day and Alastair Cooke - came from the BBC. His 1994 book Inside the BBC: British broadcasting characters, which is in part based on pieces for The Independent, makes a comfortable companion volume to the Briggs history.
He also did a service by his notes on old American friends: Janet, the widow of Ed Murrow, Alice, the widow of Dean Acheson, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, poet and widow of Charles Lindbergh, James Reston, Fred Friendly and Charles P. Kindleberger.
In retirement, or rather in a period of further activity, Leonard Miall lived with his second wife, Sally (Lorna had died in 1974), in the village of Taplow, in Berkshire, where they had many friends, a lovely cottage and garden, and time to entertain with grace, cheerfulness and mutual enjoyment. It gave Miall a chance to rehearse his old stories or try out new ones. He loved telling jokes and he had a way of pursing his lips and raising his voice when he came to the punch-line. With his smile came the words "Did you hear about this (or that)?" and he was off.
Last November he celebrated his 90th birthday at home with fireworks and a large family party - including his descendants from Australia - and poems recited in his honour. "It was heady stuff!" he said.
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