Obituary: Harry Middleton
Monday 19 January 1998
Harry Middleton was Peter Dimmock's troubleshooter and aide-de-camp in BBC TV Outside Broadcasts, and later an excellent ambassador for the BBC as Head of Television Liaison. He was a heavy smoker and suffered for many years from lung cancer. Last August, although he was very ill, he managed, by great force of will, to lead his daughter Laura down the aisle at her wedding near Belsay Castle, his family's Northumberland home since 1260, and to make a moving speech about what Belsay meant to the Middletons.
Middleton's broadcasting speciality was the coverage of horse racing. He was seldom without a racehorse of his own or as part of a syndicate. He was still in his twenties when his horse Porcupine won at Alexandra Park. He did a number of paddock commentaries for television at Ascot and Kempton Park in 1952 and 1953, and he made his first racing commentary for radio in May 1953: the City of Birmingham Cup.
In 1943 Middleton, who had been at Eton and New College, Oxford, was hoping to join the Coldstream Guards. While getting over an illness he took a job at the BBC as a stop-gap. But he was finally rejected by the medical board and settled down to two years as a recorded programmes assistant.
On one occasion his coolness was severely tested. One of Churchill's great war speeches, recorded on film, was being transmitted to the world. Middleton had to "shadow" the speech on disc recordings in case the film broke down. He kept his recording three words behind Churchill's voice on the film so that, in an emergency, the discs could be substituted for the film track with no audible break in the speech.
It was a rush job and Middleton had not had any time to rehearse the discs. All went well until he suddenly realised the two recordings did not tally. At that moment an engineer burst in. "The film is about to break. You take over." Frantically Middleton dropped the needle here and there on the disc, searching for the right line. Would Churchill be forced off the air? At last Middleton found it. Thirty seconds later the film broke. No listener noticed.
Middleton was a dark-haired, handsome man. He had a good speaking voice, and was soon tried out as an announcer. In 1947, when he was only 24, he became the BBC's youngest senior announcer. He then worked as John Snagge's deputy in Presentation and in 1951 he was the youngest man ever to read the general election results. Because of his interest in racing he was promoted to become the Assistant Head of Radio Outside Broadcasts under Charles Max Muller, before transferring, in 1959, to the equivalent post in television.
Middleton acted as the general deputy to Peter Dimmock, then in charge of television outside broadcasts. The two became close friends, and Dimmock was one of the last to visit Middleton in the Hungerford nursing home where he died. Middleton was particularly useful to Dimmock in dealings with the Royal Family - he shared a house with a senior member of the Buckingham Palace staff - and in supervising the coverage of events, as distinct from the other major areas of Outside Broadcasts, sport, science and features.
In 1972 Middleton was promoted to become Head of Television Liaison, where he spent the last six years of his BBC career. He was responsible for looking after the many visitors from all over the world who were anxious to see how Television Centre worked. His presence, charm and easy manner made countless friends for him and for the BBC. He retired at the end of 1978 to a new home in Berkshire, near to the race courses at Newbury, Ascot and Salisbury where he could pursue his major interest.
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