Polly Bide

Maker of compassionate TV documentaries
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Polly Bide, television executive and film-maker: born Wells, Somerset 25 August 1949; Chief Adviser, Editorial Policy, BBC 1998-99; Controller of Factual Programmes, Carlton Television 1999-2003; married 1976 Colin Richards (died 1979; one son, one daughter), 2002 Bill Cran; died London 9 July 2003.

The film-maker and television executive Polly Bide was one of the most quietly inspiring influences in television. She was also a delightful and resilient friend, wife and mother. In modern women's terms, Bide had it all.

There's a media myth that success means being ruthless to both contributors and your team. Concern for journalistic ethics, or respect for those you work with, are dismissed as liberal weakness. "Real journos" do anything for a story. But Bide was straight - honest, compassionate, and thoughtful - and continued to be so in her ascent from researcher to senior executive. During her 25 years in television, she worked with a number of macho colleagues, in the testing waters of mainstream factual television. She succeeded year after year at maintaining strong ethical standards while delivering rewarding programmes - and encouraging others to do the same.

I recruited her to television. It was the late Seventies, and I was tasked by Granada to do a series on Europe - a difficult job then as now. It was intended to impress the regulators so that the franchise would be renewed. It was indeed a Golden Age of factual television. But there was strong rivalry between the World in Action investigators and the documentary makers such as Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, Mike Beckham, Denis Mitchell and myself. We were paid to follow ambitious projects for as long as it took - accountants and ratings were not yet calling the shots. I looked outside television for researchers on Europe, who could speak languages and think openly. Bide came from the Economist Intelligence Unit, and impressed me with her quiet authority.

She graciously endured my ludicrous insistence that we should practise French in the office (hers was perfect), and learn German. She joined Granada on the same day as Anna Ford, another formidable young researcher. They were both vicars' daughters as well. Ford became a lifelong friend of Bide's on the long and winding road to serious television.

Inside Europe was cynically cut by management when local broadcasting became more politically useful. Bide and Ford were recruited by Gus Macdonald and Steve Morrison, two tough radical lefties (at the time), into the other extreme - quick turnaround daily journalism. Despite their inexperience, they were thrown in at the deep end making films for Granada Reports in Manchester.

On the way, Bide picked up admiration, respect and the love of Colin Richards, a dashing young director. After enthusiastic beginnings over sprawling dinners with friends, they married in 1976 and produced a daughter, Hannah, in 1978. A year later, Colin died of cancer while Polly was pregnant with their second child, Ben.

Polly Bide's resilience had first been tested at 11, when her mother died. She was born in Wells, Somerset, in 1949, and her parents had both been in intelligence - her mother at Bletchley Park and her father in the SIS (the Special Intelligence Service) - he later resigned on a point of principle and became a vicar. Her mother's death was traumatic, but Polly Bide soldiered on through an awkward childhood of several schools, and eye operations to correct a squint. In 1967, she went to the radical hotbed of Sussex University, where she studied Sociology, and blossomed. With an MA from Sussex, she joined the Economist Intelligence Unit.

After Colin's death, she moved to Thames as producer-director, while trying to raise two children. Her films on social issues - especially on children - reflected the compassion that was her hallmark: Mothers Behind Bars (1990), made with Helena Kennedy, showed the terrible impact of separating convicted mums from their children, as was Home Office policy. Thanks to her film of a New York prison crèche, the policy softened to a degree.

In 1992, when Thames lost its franchise in the Thatcherite auction, Bide went freelance - a precarious route for a mother with two kids. At the BBC she worked in both science and education, culminating in Great Ormond Street (1995), a major BBC1 series on children dying with cancer, filmed with great sensitivity at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Her integrity made her perfect for a senior role from 1998 as BBC Chief Editorial Adviser, acting as executive producer and a conscience for young film-makers who seemed to her increasingly ethically colour-blind.

A year later, she was recruited as Director of Factual Programmes by Steve Hewlett at Carlton, the successor to Thames that was then under a cloud. Ironically, Bide's cancer was revealed at a company medical but, with Hewlett and colleagues, she went on to lead Carlton astonishingly rapidly to a high reputation in both archive series (The Second World War in Colour, et al) and social documentary, such as Frank Simmons's Organ Farm and Marilyn Gaunt's Kelly and Her Sisters, which swept all the awards last year.

Polly Bide's last years living with cancer were as impressive as her career. She found personal happiness with the film-maker Bill Cran, and fused their families beautifully. She looked radiant last summer when I saw her in France, after they had been married in a respite from her treatment.

I worked with her recently on a series on malaria for PBS and the BBC. Our last meeting, when she had just had treatment, included the director, just back from Africa with food poisoning. She didn't cancel, but held the meeting standing outside her office, so she wouldn't risk infection.

Last Christmas, although she knew she might be near the end, she held a party for the director Antony Thomas at the ICA. She was always a great host, greeting old friends warmly, while reminding us of the very best television can achieve. That was her style.

Roger Graef

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