Television producer who made an effective second career as Labour MP and MEP
Tuesday 03 January 2006
Phillip Whitehead, writer, television producer and politician: born Matlock Bath, Derbyshire 30 May 1937; producer, BBC 1961-67; Editor, This Week (Thames TV), 1967-70; MP (Labour) for Derby North 1970-83; Chairman, Fabian Society 1978-79; chairman, Statesman and Nation Publications 1985-90; chairman, New Society Ltd 1986; Chairman, Consumers' Association 1990-94; MEP (Labour) for Staffordshire East and Derby 1994-99, for West Midlands 1999-2005; Chairman, European Parliamentary Labour Party 1999-2004; chairman, Brook Lapping Productions 2002; married 1967 Christine Usborne (two sons, one daughter); died Chesterfield, Derbyshire 31 December 2005.
As a politician Phillip Whitehead did not have a big-time, front-room reputation. In the back room, over 40 years, he had a huge reputation among his colleagues as a heavyweight figure of principle and a highly effective issue politician.
Professionally in his capacity as a television producer, he was given the supreme accolade by his colleagues of an invitation to deliver the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 1987. As one who was present in the Queen Street auditorium I vividly remember the applause that he won from that discerning audience. Even those who differed with Whitehead on media ethics, or his charges of lack of imagination, praised his integrity and relished the challenges he posed.
Nearly two decades on he was still in the forefront of political and media thinking, as a current Member of the European Parliament and an influential member of its socialist group. His sudden death constitutes a huge loss.
Phillip Whitehead never hid the fact that he was an adopted child and always expressed the debt which he owed to Harold and Frances Whitehead who brought him up in Rowsley, the Derbyshire village between Matlock and Bakewell where Harold worked as a carpenter. From Lady Manners' Grammar School in Bakewell, where he had kindly and scholarly teachers, Phillip won a place at Exeter College, Oxford, to read PPE, doing his National Service first in the Sherwood Foresters. He was seconded to the Royal West African Frontier Force, spending 18 months in Gambia training African soldiers - a formative experience and one that led to a lifelong interest in Commonwealth affairs. In 1961 he was elected President of the Oxford Union.
Accepted for graduate entry into the BBC, he was a producer there until 1967 when he was lured to Thames TV by Jeremy Isaacs, to be editor of the programme This Week. In 1969 Whitehead was the youngest ever person to win the Guild of TV Producers Award forFactual Programmes. A quarter of a century later he was to gain the Broadcasting Press Guild Best Documentary Award and Emmy Award for Best Script for his programme The Kennedys. He was one of the most talented television producers of the second half of the 20th century.
Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary College, who collaborated with Whitehead in various pamphlets and television programmes, characterises his gifts:
First of all, nobody was better as a TV producer when it came to reconstructing the behind-the-scenes elements of past events, with which we
thought we were familiar. He could gain the confidence of potential interviewees with his special brand of charm and knowledge. He was also immense fun to work with, though prone to last-minute rushes. Everybody forgave Phillip his own version of brinkmanship, because you always finished a programme with a smile on your face and your little grey cells stretched to the limit.
Whitehead's first attempt at Parliament was in the 1966 general election when as vice-chairman of the Young Fabian Group he was selected to take on Aidan Crawley in West Derbyshire. It was a particularly acrimonious campaign. Crawley was well known on the television screen and had been a much-favoured young minister in the Attlee government when he was a Labour MP for Buckingham, 1945-51, as Under-Secretary for Air. In 1957 he had resigned from the Labour Party and had been adopted as Conservative candidate in 1959. Crawley won by 18,383 votes to Whitehead's 13,791 with Mrs M.V. Edwards for the Liberals gaining 4,874.
Such however was Whitehead's reputation as a gutsy and intelligent candidate that he was chosen for Derby North to succeed Niall MacDermot QC, Financial Secretary to the Treasury from 1964 in the Wilson government, who had decided to leave the House of Commons. Whitehead won, again, in 1974 by 26,960 over the Conservative 22,767 and the Liberal 10,595.
The Commons procedure for the allocation of time for Private Members' Bills is a random ballot in which 20 members are named but only the first half-dozen have any realistic possibility of getting legislation on to the statute book. Many members successful in the ballot have little idea of what they want to do, and most of them take some kind of a Bill on which they can be spoon-fed by an outside pressure group. Not so Whitehead. In 1972 he was lucky at the ballot and, in the face of a good deal of pressure from party and colleagues, insisted on introducing a Vasectomy Bill.
At first we thought he was in danger of falling into the hands of the experienced population-control and abortionist lobbies but as the Bill proceeded in committee he had the intelligence and the self-critical capacity to see the dangers created by enthusiastic allies. And perhaps he made too much of the fact that he was an adopted child. However with considerable skill, surprising in someone who had arrived in the Commons so recently, and helped by Leo Abse MP, an astute friend, he made notable progress in committee and impressed government departments.
On the Bill's becoming law both administrative and medical circulars were sent out to local authorities making it clear that no approval or grant should be afforded to them to enable them to become involved in vasectomy unless they conformed to strictly defined criteria: and those criteria, including a proper standard of pre- and post- vasectomy counselling, would be sufficiently and expansively drawn to make it most improbable that any but older husbands of completed family units would be made sterile.
Whitehead was very good at gaining all-party co-operation and was the first to pay tribute to the assistance of Michael Allison, later to be Margaret Thatcher's Parliamentary Private Secretary and a Health minister, in evading filibusters and getting his Vasectomy Bill on the statute book. Once it was there, Whitehead was established as a very serious Member on all controversial social matters. As Chairman of the Fabian Society, he had many outlets for his views on abortion, homosexuality and other "hot potatoes". The thread that ran through his thinking was one of tolerance and kindness to the vulnerable.
Another of Whitehead's major contributions related to parliamentary discussion of the media and their role, culminating in his membership of the Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting between 1974 and 1977. Noël Annan told me that he had the very highest regard for Whitehead's informed, conscientious and imaginative contribution to the work of his committee. Annan's praise was by no means universal and really meant something.
I remember well Whitehead's speech on 24 February 1975 on the future of broadcasting, making a plea for the experiment of televising the House of Commons:
For reasons which I will explain I do not believe that there is any reason for believing that the experiment will necessarily become the custom and practice of the House or that it will necessarily be a success. I speak with some professional knowledge of these matters. There are reasons for supposing that in some instances the television experiment might be a dismal failure.
Whitehead then brought an expertise that none of the rest of us had:
My own preference is very much to say that if we are to have the experiment it should be expressed clearly today that we want it to be conducted with a light-intensive camera, such as the LDK/5 which is not yet in production, that can operate with 10-15ft candlepower. That lighting is precisely what we have in the chamber now. With cameras of that type slung below the gallery, with operators only in the gallery, with no technicians of any kind and with no intrusive wires on the floor of the chamber, the experiment would be a rather different proposition to anything which the 1966 Select Committee could have considered.
Whitehead had a unique technical understanding of the televising of Parliament.
The centre of his political interest was Britain's relations with the European Community. From the time that he joined 68 of us in going in to Edward Heath's lobby on 28 October 1971 to enter the Community he was the most unwavering of all of us pro-marketeers. He did not cave in, in the face of party and constituency troubles, on the European issue. Equally, unlike many of his closest political friends, Whitehead would not countenance leaving the Labour Party to join the SDP. I know how disappointed the Gang of Four was that he would not join them, and he was faced with recriminations on all sides. His bravery from 1979 to 1983 was all the more estimable because in the 1979 general election the figures in North Derbyshire were Phillip Whitehead 28,797, R.N. Kemm (Conservative) 28,583, R.F. Whitehouse 6,093, C. Bayliss 592 and S.P. Gibson 116, giving Whitehead a majority - after many recounts - of 214.
Inevitably, given the national swing, he was swept away in 1983 at the nadir of Labour's fortunes. He returned to television and particularly to the highly progressive firm of Brook Productions, who welcomed an ex-MP who had been frontbench spokesman on higher education, 1980-83, and on the arts, 1982-83. I saw a lot of him after he had lost his seat, and unlike many defeated MPs he remained as full of life as ever.
He was rewarded in 1994 by being chosen as Labour's standard-bearer in the European Parliament elections for Staffordshire East and Derby, which he represented until 1999; subsequently until his death he was one of the Labour members for the East Midlands region. Whitehead had many outside interests and, as befitted one who was sponsored (as I was) by the National Union of Railwaymen, a fascination for model railways.
His books Stalin: a time for judgement (with Jonathan Lewis, 1990), The Windsors: a dynasty revealed (with Piers Brendon, 1994) and Dynasty: the Nehru/ Gandhi story (with Jad Adams, 1997), all based on his television programmes, make compelling reading. But perhaps his most interesting book contribution of all is that he made to Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon's Ruling Performance: British governments from Attlee to Thatcher (1987). In "The Labour Governments 1974-79", Whitehead notes: "Much of the left distrusted him [Harold Wilson] for his record in government." I always thought that Whitehead's political career would have prospered more if he had been able to conceal rather better his criticism of - sometimes disdain for - the leadership of the Labour Party. Both Wilson and Callaghan were uneasy at coming under Whitehead's all too blunt scrutiny.
I revered him for the very reasons that Wilson and Callaghan were uncomfortable with him. He added spice to British politics.
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