Raymond Baxter

Old-school BBC commentator and presenter of 'Tomorrow's World'


Raymond Frederic Baxter, broadcaster: born Ilford, Essex 25 January 1922; OBE 2003; married 1945 Sylvia Johnson (died 1996; one son, one daughter); died Reading, Berkshire 15 September 2006.

With a long background in reporting on motoring and aviation, the Spitfire pilot turned broadcaster Raymond Baxter brought to Tomorrow's World an enthusiasm for science and technology that he communicated to television viewers in calm, measured tones and an old-school BBC voice that went with his RAF background.

The programme attracted more than 10 million viewers in its heyday, which was a result of either the public's eagerness for new scientific developments to be explained to them or the fact that it was for many years scheduled immediately before a then popular Top of the Pops.

Baxter was the original, sole presenter of Tomorrow's World (1965-77), which was conceived as a popular science series to fill a gap in the BBC1 schedule at the time of a boom in Britain described by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson shortly before his election victory as "the white heat of technology". The series, which featured a host of developments and inventions each week, from the earth-shattering to the trivial, had a certian "gee whizz" factor and was optimistic in its outlook.

Although Baxter could "see the future" in a a wide range of gadgets, some never saw the light of day. These included a wheelbarrow with a large ball at the front instead of a wheel, but he still insisted years later: "It was a great technological advance. I remember happily pushing the ball-wheelbarrow around the studio." More successful inventions unveiled by the programme in his time included the breathalyser and the pocket calculator.

At the beginning, Baxter presented studio demonstrations -some of which inevitably went wrong - while Derek Cooper narrated filmed reports. Soon, the host was joined on screen by James Burke and, in 1974, by William Woollard, Judith Hann and Michael Rodd. But, three years later, Baxter left after falling out with the programme's new editor, Michael Blakstad, who described him as "the last of the dinosaurs".

Born in Ilford, Essex, in 1922, and educated at the town's County High School, Baxter worked briefly for the Metropolitan Water Board before joining the RAF at the age of 18. He was a Spitfire fighter pilot in the Second World War, serving as a flight lieutenant with 65, 93 and 602 Squadrons in Britain, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. After two and a half gruelling tours in the skies over North Africa, he spent two weeks recovering at the RAF hospital in Ely, Cambridgeshire. "I was shattered and needed rest and recuperation," he recalled. "They looked after me very well at the hospital and I was prescribed Guinness." During his last year in the RAF, Baxter flew Mustangs and Dakotas.

In 1945, while still a serving officer, he joined the Forces Broadcasting Service in Cairo and worked as an announcer, before becoming the civilian deputy director of the British Forces Network in Hamburg (1947-49, later to become BFBS).

Following a short attachment to BBC West, he joined the corporation's outside broadcast department in London in 1950, working for both radio and television. During live coverage of the Queen's Coronation in 1953, Baxter was its commentator in Trafalgar Square. His voice was heard on many state occasions , including the funerals of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Earl Mountbatten of Burma, at historic events such as the first Telstar satellite link with the United States in 1962, and at every Farnborough Air Show from 1950 to 1986.

He was also the BBC's motoring correspondent (1950-66), who commentated on Grand Prix races in the days when coverage started only minutes before the flag dropped, leaving him to run through the grid at breakneck speed. Baxter himself regularly took part in - and broadcast from - the Monte Carlo Rally (1951-66), usually as an official British Motor Corporation entry, and once coming fourth overall. He was clearly disappointed in his final Monte Carlo Rally, in 1966, when the BMC cars were disqualified- after taking the top three positions - for contravening headlight regulations.

Long before then, Baxter had ascended to the status of "celebrity". For a 1955 radio episode of the classic comedy Hancock's Half Hour, in which Tony Hancock dreams that he is entering the Monte Carlo Rally, Baxter is heard taking part in a souped-up Ford Zephyr. Later, he was seen as a commentator at the Silverstone motor-racing circuit for another dream sequence, in the 1962 film The Fast Lady, starring Stanley Baxter (no relation).

More seriously, Baxter's knowledge of technological matters found an outlet on screen as presenter of the television science series Eye on Research (1959-63). Then came Tomorrow's World, which he continued to front after leaving the BBC staff to become the British Motor Corporation's director of motoring publicity (1967-68).

During his short stint at the BMC - ended when the company was bought by Leyland - he had the misfortune to have to unveil to the media the Austin 3-Litre, a car roundly condemned for its ugliness and mechanical shortcomings. Despite Baxter's polished presentation at Austin's Longbridge factory shortly before its launch at the 1967 Motor Show, the car drew only a small ripple of polite applause, followed by embarrassed silence, when it finally appeared on stage.

All his future work for the BBC was as a freelance. After leaving Tomorrow's World, he hosted a new series, The Energy File (1978), finding a topical scientific subject to explain at a time when oil was starting to flow from the North Sea.

Baxter continued to commentate on Royal British Legion Festivals of Remembrance and other occasional events, and it was appropriate that, at the age of 81, he should return to join the BBC team for live coverage of the decommissioned Concordes' last arrival into Heathrow airport, in October 2003. Many viewers would have recalled his commentary on the supersonic airliner's original test run in 1969, memorable for his shout of: "She flies, she flies!" Baxter also joined other Tomorrow's World presenters to host the three-part series TW: Time Machine (1998), recalling inventions throughout the programme's history.

Earlier this month, he was at Goodwood's Revival Meeting for a tribute to Ray Hanna of the Red Arrows, commentating on the Spitfire displays.

A founder member and Honorary Admiral of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, Raymond Baxter frequently sailed to the French beaches to mark the anniversary of the Second World War landings. He also served the RNLI as a member of its management committee from 1979 until 1997, when he became a life vice-president, and was on the Air League Council from 1980 to 1985.

He was the author of two Tomorrow's World books (with James Burke, 1971 and 1973) and Farnborough Commentary (1980).

Anthony Hayward

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