Tuesday 30 July 1996
Drama was in Robin Whitworth's blood. His father, Geoffrey Whitworth, founded the British Drama League, serving as its secretary and later, Chairman. Robin himself became the organisation's Deputy Chairman in 1953. His mother directed and managed the Three Hundred Club for staging plays of merit likely at first to have a limited public.
He was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, where he read History. His father, a member of the BBC's Education Committee, persuaded Sir John Reith to give his son an interview at the end of his second year. Reith told him to go back to Oxford, get a First and return to see in which part of the BBC he would really like to work. Eventually he joined, without a First, Val Gielgud's Features & Drama Department late in 1932 as a trainee studio manager at pounds 100 a year "to pay for his fares and lunches".
Whitworth was first attached to Archie Harding, one of the BBC's most talented producers and a future head of staff training, who was preparing the first complicated round-the-world feature leading up to the King's Christmas broadcast from Sandringham. This was no nursery slope for a beginner but proved a splendid challenge. When an epidemic of flu incapacitated all the announcers in the recently started Empire Service, Whitworth found himself corralled into reading news and talks in the middle of the night to the short-wave audience.
Harding, who was moved by Reith in 1933 to become programme director in Manchester, took Whitworth with him as his producer of drama, features and light entertainment. He returned to London in 1934 for further work as a drama producer and was temporarily assigned to assist Eustace Robb, an ex-army officer who, with the aid of two engineers, Birkenshaw and Bridgewater, was producing experimental 30-line Baird television programmes.
On Christmas Day 1935 the BBC broadcast the most ambitious religious dramatic programme up to that time, Unto Us, devised by R. Ellis Roberts and produced by Whitworth, with music under the direction of Sir Walford Davies. When King George V died in 1936 the governors asked that the same team should devise a tribute in poetry and music to be broadcast on the eve of the King's funeral.
By that time Whitworth was based in Birmingham as Features Producer. He wrote and produced a wide variety of programmes about people and places in the Midland Region. One of the amateur actors he frequently used was Godfrey Baseley, who went on to create The Archers.
Whitworth had joined the Rev Dick Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union, and he made it clear to the BBC authorities that in the event of war he would be a conscientious objector. He told them that he would continue to work in broadcasting as long as he was needed, would do no propaganda on behalf of his personal opinions, betray no secrets and offer to resign.
When the Second World War did break out in 1939 he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit, working for some time as its publicity officer, and at the end of the war was reinstated in his Birmingham job as Features Producer, without loss of the regular increments to his salary.
One of Whitworth's major post-war activities was to produce a series of 10 half-hour programmes edited by Solly Zuckerman entitled Look Ahead. They concerned the main fields of science in which there would be developments likely to change our lives in the next 10 years. He and Zuckerman spent a year in preparing them. They were then broadcast weekly.
By 1953 Whitworth felt that his creative fires were burning low, and he wished to return to London. The BBC television service had recently created a new Documentary Department headed by Paul Rotha, the renowned producer of wartime documentary films and the author of The Film Till Now (1930).
Previously the various documentary producers had worked directly to the Controller of Programmes without any departmental organisation. Rotha's department needed a business manager, known in the television service as an Organiser, and Whitworth was offered the job. It was not a happy time for him.
Rotha was no good as a departmental head and Whitworth found that he was giving away copies of films to friends, contrary to all the rules. Within two years Rotha was dismissed. The documentary producers then went in three different ways. Those working on dramatised documentaries, what is now called "faction", moved over to the Drama Department. Some accepted handsome offers to join the new ITV companies, and some of the best joined the Television Talks Department which I headed.
While Whitworth was Documentary Organiser he conceived the idea of making a television programme about the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, and had the prescience to have it shot in colour, although British colour television was not to start for another 14 years.
One of Whitworth's ideas was to film from the same places with the same camera lens on the same day each year, so that they could be edited to show the cathedral grow. This was only partially successful, for three of the five camera positions got destroyed in the rebuilding. An Act of Faith, written and produced by Robin Whitworth and directed by John Read, the maker of documentary art films, was one of the first colour programmes broadcast by BBC2 in 1967.
The rest of Whitworth's BBC career was useful rather than creative. He moved over to become the Women's Programmes Organiser for the next eight years and in 1963 was seconded for a year as an adviser to the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation. On his return he became the Drama Booking Manager in the Programme Contracts Department. He retired in 1971.
Whitworth married Cecily Blunt in 1934. They separated in 1961 but remained on amicable terms. Their daughter Anna helps to raise funds for New College, Oxford. Robin Whitworth retired to live in Oxford. He was proud of the symmetrical garden he created, with the help of his friend Pam Mayor, a small-scale replica of that of the Chateau Villandry. He was a keen supporter of the work of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer and regularly made his way to London to attend their meetings. He was unhappy about recent developments in the corporation which he had served with such distinction in his youth.
Robin Aymer Whitworth, radio producer and television executive: born London 3 March 1911; Assistant, Drama Department, BBC 1932-33, Drama Producer, Manchester 1933-34, Drama Producer, London 1934-36, Features Producer, Birmingham 1936-40, Features Producer, Birmingham 1946-53, Documentary Organiser, Television 1953-55, Women's Programmes Organiser, Television 1955-63, Drama Booking Manager 1964-71; married 1934 Cecily Blunt (one daughter); died Oxford 26 July 1996.
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