Selwyn Roderick: Pioneering television producer in Wales
Tuesday 24 May 2011
One of the first television producers in Wales, Selwyn Roderick had a distinguished career in which he was held in high esteem as much for the programmes he made as for his amiable personality and the unfailingly generous help he gave to younger professionals in the broadcast media.
He joined the BBC in Cardiff early in the 1950s while still in his 20s, working at first in radio, and remained with the Corporation for the rest of his working life. He and his colleagues, who included DJ Thomas and Dafydd Gruffydd, laid the foundations for what became BBC Cymru/Wales by exercising the talents they had in abundance. Quartered at first in a cluster of huts at Baynton House, which in 1967 metamorphosed into the BBC's splendid broadcasting centre in Llandaff, on Cardiff's northern rim, these were young men eager to win their spurs in the new medium – and Roderick was soon regarded as outstanding.
In 1954, at the age of 26, he became the Corporation's youngest television producer. The Outside Broadcasting Unit had just arrived in Cardiff and it was his job to use it to make programmes for Wales and the rest of Britain. This he did with commitment and panache. Although he was admired by colleagues, Roderick became famous not so much for his grasp of the administrative skills that usually went with being a sober-suited BBC executive, but for the original ideas that sprang from his quicksilver mind.
The historian Dai Smith, with whom he made a lively series entitled Wales! Wales? in 1985, described him as "feisty, intellectually driven, and a passionate (Welsh) patriot. At times he could be irascible, a pain in the neck. He could also be charming and delightful company." What I recall about Roderick was his love of good talk: a few years back we met over a liquid lunch to discuss a film he was making with Emyr Daniel about the writer Glyn Jones but, several pints later, we had still not got down to business.
Among his early successes was a series of programmes as diverse as Come Dancing, Songs of Praise and Your Life in their Hands. He also covered umpteen royal events, eisteddfodau and rugby internationals. But he was always looking for opportunities to make better, more serious television, especially documentaries. His big chance came in 1968 when he took his cameras out into the streets of Tiger Bay, as the docklands of Cardiff used to be known before the advent of the National Assembly, to record the break-up of a well-established working-class community that has since all but disappeared.
He was just in time to witness the demolition of the old Bay as buildings were knocked down, roads widened, docks filled in and people rehoused. The result was his crowning achievement, Tamed and Shabby Tiger, an affectionate portrait of a neighbourhood known for its multicultural mix and thriving pub and street-corner culture, then at its last gasp. Selwyn Roderick was the narrator and Shirley Bassey, who is from Tiger Bay, took part.
Born in the colliery village of Cwmgors on the Glamorgan-Carmarthenshire border in 1928, Selwyn Roderick was a son of the manse, like so many in the early days of broadcasting in Wales. His father was a member of the Independent Labour Party and Selwyn learnt early the socialism he embraced for the rest of his life. He was very proud of his family's connections with William Williams of Pantycelyn, author of the words of the great hymn "Cwm Rhondda", which starts "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah", and is often heard at international rugby matches.
Roderick won a scholarship to Caterham school in Surrey, where he acquired, in addition to his rich Welsh, a command of English that was to serve him in good stead. From school he went up to Jesus College, Oxford, then on to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. On his return his sights were firmly fixed on a career in the broadcasting media.
By the 1970s, now an éminence grise at the BBC, he was put in charge of a group of producers who were making a range of documentaries and arts programmes. He enjoyed this avuncular role but, once again, he became famous, and admired, for his cavalier attitude to administrative niceties, preferring to strike sparks in discussion with younger men and women than give his attention to mere paperwork. He always staunchly defended his protégés from any meddling from the top floor of Broadcasting House.
His last major programme was Plant y Paith ("Children of the prairie", 1979), about Welsh settlers in Patagonia, who set up a self-governing community in 1865. It remains an important record of that quixotic venture, having captured something of the emigrants' radical Nonconformity and the gaucho culture they adopted in order to survive.
"Information about the world's ways," he wrote in typically wry fashion while reminiscing about the Patagonian programme in the symposium Wales in Vision (1990), "may come from somewhere else, but Welsh broadcasters have an unchallenged responsibility to keep an eye on our own wherever they may be. Nobody else will do it for us – nobody else would want to."
One of his sons is Vaughan Roderick, BBC Cymru's Welsh affairs editor.
Selwyn Thomas Roderick, television producer: born Cwmgors, Glamorgan 21 August 1928; married 1954 Dilys Owen (two sons, one daughter); died Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan 12 March 2011.
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