Owen Edwards: Pioneering television executive and architect of S4C

Social class in Wales is subtly different from that in England, but even by English standards Owen Edwards, broadcaster and first Chief Executive of S4C (Sianel 4 Cymru), the fourth television channel in Wales, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards, was the founder in 1922 of Wrdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Youth), which still flourishes in many parts of Wales. His grandfather, Sir Owen M Edwards, was Chief Inspector of Schools with the Welsh Board of Education and, as writer, editor and publisher, made a major contribution to the Welsh national revival of the late 19th century.

Some of their forebears had been leaders of early Welsh Methodism and belonged to an intellectual élite which owed its status not to money but to their standing as pillars of a chapel society that amounted, in some parts of Victorian Wales, to a theocracy. The family's roots were in the monoglot, radical, Nonconformist peasantry of upland Merioneth, but over three generations they became the nearest Wales has had in recent times to a patrician line devoted to patriotic endeavour and public service.

Owen Edwards was born in Aberystwyth in 1933 and was among the first seven pupils to attend a pioneering Welsh-medium primary school which was opened by a group of prominent townspeople led by his father and under the aegis of the Urdd. Welsh was his first language and, although he acquired a pukka English accent at Leighton Park, a minor public school near Reading, it remained the language of his home and professional career for the rest of his life. Like his father and grandfather, he chose to serve the language and nation which had first claim on his allegiance, though like them he never revealed his political opinions and eschewed all affiliations which might have compromised him.

As an undergraduate reading Law at Lincoln College, Oxford, where his grandfather had been Fellow and Tutor in History before joining the Inspectorate, he showed little interest in party politics and confined his social activities to the convivial gatherings of the Dafydd ap Gwilym Society, where he came into contact with several compatriots who, like him, were later to take up influential posts in Wales. His first job was in his home town: he became a cataloguer at the National Library of Wales, but remained in it for barely two years. It was only after he went to work in television, initially with Granada and, from 1961, with the BBC in Cardiff, that he came into his own. He had an authoritative voice, fluent Welsh, dark good looks, and an affable interviewing manner – all the very stuff of television – and it soon became clear that here was a man cut out for the new medium.

For the next six years he fronted the nightly current affairs programme Heddiw (Today), winning his spurs as an accomplished broadcaster who became in many ways the Welsh counterpart of Cliff Michelmore. It was not long before Radio Times would describe him as "a friendly personality whose name has been made as widely known by the television camera as those of his father and grandfather who, in their turn, gave immeasurable service to Wales." The programme was the first of its kind in the Welsh language and proved to be a training ground for a generation of broadcasters, many of whom went on to make their reputations as directors and administrators not only within the BBC but in commercial television and with independent production companies.

Edwards' promotion was swift and well-deserved. In 1967 he was appointed Programme Organiser with BBC Wales, Head of Programmes in 1970 and Controller in 1974. His seven years at the helm coincided with the rapid development of the BBC's output in Wales, in both Welsh and English, so that by the mid-1970s it was producing some 1,500 hours of radio a year and 650 hours of television, in both languages.

But these were also some of the most turbulent years in the history of Welsh broadcasting. There was keen public debate about the structure of the BBC and vigorous, sometimes law-breaking campaigns were mounted by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg [Welsh Language Society] which was calling for greater provision and, in due course, for a single Welsh-language channel. There were attacks on the BBC's studio in Cardiff, Bangor, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle and Plymouth, as well as a sit-in at Bush House and a demonstration in the House of Commons, followed by arrests, fines and prison sentences for hundreds of militants, young and old.

In the heated clashes between broadcasting executives and language activists over how many hours a week should be broadcast in Welsh, Edwards maintained a lofty insouciance towards the abuse hurled at him as the BBC's representative in Wales, but was always ready to talk to those who bothered to ascertain the facts before joining in the fray. Nevertheless, thousands refused to pay their television licence fee for as long as the broadcasting authorities remained intransigent.

It was, inter alia, Edwards' sympathy for the principle of a Welsh Channel – whatever the technical difficulties and political implications may have been – that encouraged the BBC's critics to go on pressing for it. "The effectiveness with which nation can adequately speak unto nation," he conceded in his coded manner during a lunch-time lecture in 1976, "depends upon the extent to which a nation can adequately discharge its prime function and privilege of properly speaking to itself." As a BBC man, he was not, however, in favour of an independent Welsh Broadcasting Authority and managed to staunch all talk of it.

When in 1974 the Crawford Committee was preparing its report on broadcasting in Wales, with particular regard to how a Welsh-language fourth channel might be funded and operated, Edwards made important contributions to its deliberations and brought his professional expertise to bear on some of the practical problems. The cause of the channel suffered a setback in 1979, however, when William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, announced that the Conservative government had changed its mind and would not, after all, set up a Welsh-language channel. It was only after the veteran leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans, threatened to fast to the death that Margaret Thatcher, making her first U-turn, announced that the government would keep its promise to set up the channel. Edwards, with others, worked hard behind the scenes in the fraught atmosphere of the time, using his diplomatic skills to excellent effect.

It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that when S4C was created in 1981, and began broadcasting on All Saints' Day in the year following, Edwards should be its Chief Executive. Gwynfor Evans referred to him in his memoirs, For the Sake of Wales, as "the right man in the right job", and that was the general view of his appointment. Not least among his qualifications was that he was wholly conversant with the ways of the BBC and commanded a wide measure of respect in all camps – among independent programme makers, HTV and the BBC itself, in both Cardiff and London, all participants in the new enterprise.

Under his directorship the channel, even if the English-speaking Welsh viewed it with some envy, soon won its place in the affections of Welsh-speakers to an extent that it is now difficult to imagine a Wales without S4C. Owen Edwards was its architect and if he had not been obliged by Parkinson's Disease to take early retirement in 1989, he would doubtless have continued to add cubits to his stature as the most outstanding broadcasting executive of his generation.

Even so, he maintained an interest in broadcasting as Chairman of the Association for Film and Television in the Celtic Countries, often speaking at its conferences and publishing papers in which he was always prepared to examine new concepts and structures. He served several of the organisations whose work was closest to his heart: as President of the Welsh Nursery Schools Movement, as Council member of Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and as Vice-Chairman of the National Eisteddfod. Among the awards he received in recognition of his contribution to the television industry were an honorary LLD from the University of Wales, the Gold Medal of the Royal Television Society and a special lifetime achievement prize from Bafta.

A genial man with a laconic sense of humour, fond of late-night company but allowing only a few of his closest colleagues a glimpse of the more relaxed side of his personality, he had one eccentricity which he made no attempt to hide. Railway timetables were for him a source of endless fascination: he knew the times of trains running on all the tracks in the United Kingdom and often tested his knowledge, and their reliability, by travelling its length and breadth of his favourite mode of transport. It was his way of relaxing from the arduous duties which he carried out with such exemplary diligence and courage.

In all that Owen Edwards did he proved worthy of his illustrious forebears and, like them, served the Welsh people to the utmost of his abilities. His grandfather's motto had been I godi'r hen wlad yn ei hol ["To raise the old country to its former state"] and to that ideal he devoted his life's work. In recognition of his major contribution to broadcasting in Wales he was awarded the Cyfrwng Award in 2008.

Owen Edwards, television executive: born Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire 26 December 1933: Head of Programmes, BBC Wales 1970-74, Controller 1974-81; Chief Executive, S4C 1981-89; married 1958 Shan Emlyn (marriage dissolved, deceased; two daughters), 1994 Rosemary Allen; died 30 August 2010.

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