Nick Rossiter

BBC arts producer with presenters from Prince Charles to Sister Wendy
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The Independent Online

Two incisive, witty and mischievously probing BBC documentaries exemplify the special talents and sense of fun of the film-maker Nick Rossiter. In The Secret Art of Government and Sotheby's and Christie's: a crime amongst gentlemen, he took on the toughest, most media-savvy institutions and by a combination of guile, charm, intellect and even low cunning managed to outwit them and outplay them at their own games of spin and presentation. His sudden death at the age of 43 is a loss to all those who value the best qualities of public service television.

Nicholas Jeremy Rossiter: television producer: born Litton, Somerset 17 July 1961; arts producer, BBC 1987-2004; married 1995 Bea Ballard (two daughters); died London 23 July 2004.

Two incisive, witty and mischievously probing BBC documentaries exemplify the special talents and sense of fun of the film-maker Nick Rossiter. In The Secret Art of Government and Sotheby's and Christie's: a crime amongst gentlemen, he took on the toughest, most media-savvy institutions and by a combination of guile, charm, intellect and even low cunning managed to outwit them and outplay them at their own games of spin and presentation. His sudden death at the age of 43 is a loss to all those who value the best qualities of public service television.

Rossiter's fearless ability to tackle the biggest projects also made him a natural choice to mastermind and bring to the screen some of the BBC's most prestigious arts series of recent years. American Visions, Renaissance, Leonardo - all were stamped with his flair and great professional skills.

Such films inevitably entailed working with some illustrious and highly opinionated presenters and performers. It was a tribute to his tenaciousness and tough-mindedness that he nurtured, enhanced and refined the work and screen appearances of the Prince of Wales ( A Vision of Britain, 1987), Simon Schama ( Rembrandt: the public eye and the private gaze, 1992), John Cleese ( The Human Face, 2001), Andrew Graham-Dixon ( Renaissance, 1999) and Alan Yentob ("The Secret Life of the Mona Lisa", 2003, the third part of the drama-documentary series Leonardo).

He also discovered and created an unexpected television star out of Sister Wendy Beckett, a Consecrated Virgin attached to the Carmelite order. Having come across some of her writings, Rossiter invited her to be an art critic for a programme on the National Gallery. From this came the six-part series Sister Wendy's Odyssey (1992), which followed the nun on her tour of Britain's art galleries, and later Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (looking at art in Europe) and The Story of Painting.

His collaborations were honoured with many Bafta, RTS and Emmy nominations and awards.

Rossiter had a restless curiosity about so many things and a profound respect for the world of ideas, but he also had an equal command of the lexicon of popular communication. This made his grasp of the media of film and television always challenging and unformulaic, but never pretentious or dull. He valued the beautiful apt image, the imaginative moment, whilst writing tough, eloquent prose which kept clarity and story at the heart of everything he did.

Nicholas Rossiter was born in 1961, the son of the painter Anthony Rossiter, and brought up in Somerset. He went to Downside and then up to Greyfriars, Oxford, to read Modern History. He later studied journalism at Cardiff and there met Alex Thomson, now the Channel 4 News presenter and correspondent. Together they cycled around India raising money for Oxfam - a journey which was recounted in the book they co-authored, Ram Ram India (1987).

Rossiter joined the BBC as a production trainee in 1986. He worked on Newsnight, Heart of the Matter, Out of Court and Look North, in Newcastle, before joining the arts department in 1987. His first big film was A Vision of Britain, in which Prince Charles set out his controversial views on modern architecture.

The still core of his personal life was his happy marriage to a fellow BBC executive, Beatrice (Bea) Ballard. They were true soul mates and Nick was a most active and devoted father to their two daughters, Pandora and Alice. Rossiter's father-in-law, the novelist J.G. Ballard, says:

Nick was tremendous fun. I remember wonderful dinners that we all had together and his tremendous sense of humour, his zest for life and his deep love for my daughter Bea. What impressed me most about Nick was his complete integrity, his idealism and his commitment to making the best possible programmes about the arts. In many ways he was one of the last links to the great era of Huw Wheldon and Monitor.

The demands and strains of running so many big series left him all too little time for his own obsessive films which brought all his skills into sharpest focus. He freed himself from troublesome presenters to rely on his own sure instinct for a compelling story, crafted with exquisite precision and cleverness. The Secret Art of Government was broadcast on BBC2 in 1998, followed by Sotheby's and Christie's: a crime amongst gentlemen in 2002.

The wayward secretiveness of the Government's handling of its art collection and the price-fixing scandals in the salerooms of Sotheby's and Christie's were very difficult subjects. But with wit, quick thinking and brilliant intuitive insights into the peccadilloes of his contributors, Rossiter got deep under the skin of the workings of these powerful institutions. Masterly observed filming and the deftest editing and scripting made elegant, funny, debunking films that hoodwinked the most vigilant minders and the determinedly protective PR specialists. This was the playful, the mischievous and the probing combining with richly entertaining and deadly effect. Seldom did his journalist's nose and his artist's eye make for such ludic harmony.

The joy he experienced in making this work was perhaps all too meagre recompense for the heavy toll that managing difficult teams and temperamental talent brought down on someone who, though outwardly tough and even sometimes pompous and bombastic, was inwardly sweet-natured, sensitive and deeply moral. He was on the verge of leaving the BBC and looking forward with fresh vision to new challenges.

The day before he died we spent the day together at Lord's watching England play some wonderful cricket, and I listened to his plans and ideas for the future. They were modest and grand in equal measure, graced with his usual boyish eagerness and a defiantly professional zeal for the next big hurdle to be crossed.

R. E. Thompson



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