Nancy Thomas was a woman with a tiny frame but a big, determined heart. In the 1950s she stormed the largely male citadel of the BBC Talks department at Lime Grove studios and left a distinctive mark on arts programming in a corporation career which lasted more than 30 years.
She was born into a service family in India in 1918 and spent her early childhood there. Her parents then sent her to England to be educated. She stayed with her mother's sister in Berkhampstead and became very close to her aunt and her children.
She started modestly. After going to Berkhampstead School for Girls she trained as a shorthand typist. In 1935, when she was 17, she got a job at the National Gallery with the youthful Kenneth Clark; she admired him, and called him "K". When war broke out she was impressed by the way he set up memorable lunchtime concerts in the empty gallery (the paintings were by then safely at the bottom of Welsh coal mines).
Next she joined the Foreign Office, in search of a more structured career. A French speaker, she was sent to Paris where, in 1940, she stayed until the very last moment, leaving Le Havre as the bombs began to fall. She had been forbidden to say that France had fallen, so back in England she told her puzzled family that she been sent home suddenly to attend a training course. She continued to work in the Foreign Office, eventually for Sir Anthony Eden.
Then came two sad events in her life. Nancy fell in love with an airman who was killed when his plane crashed in Egypt. She had planned to meet him in Cairo when she visited as a member of a Foreign Office delegation. She continued with this plan and set off in a heavily defended convoy; during the journey she met another officer, Philip Thomas, and she rebounded into a hasty marriage with him. The union failed early on and Nancy continued her career in the Foreign Office, but soon realised that lack of a degree was barring her promotion.
So she joined the BBC, starting close to the top, as secretary to the Director General, Sir William Haley. She found him a shy man but admired his journalistic skills. By now it was the late 1940s and BBC Television was burgeoning. Thomas set off up the slippery slope which led from the secretarial minding of important men to producing and directing programmes herself, though disadvantaged by her lack of higher education.
Her path took her through Programme Planning and eventually, in the mid-1950s, she achieved a foothold in the pioneering TV Talks department. She was the calm studio director of the popular quiz Animal, Vegetable and Mineral which featured Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and David Attenborough's Zoo Quest. She also helped to inaugurate The Sky at Night, launching Patrick Moore on his astronomical half-century.
She progressed to Huw Wheldon's Monitor, where she prospered. Because of her National Gallery/Clark education she was very knowledgeable about art and architecture. The august Wheldon, who called her "Nance", rated her highly enough to go with her idea of a feature on the surrealists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. She went on to make films which were the visual core of Wheldon's interviews with Jean Renoir and Henry Moore.
She also gave modern architecture a good run, with films on the Smithsons Economist building and Denys Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians' headquarters. Wheldon, as editor, commissioned her to do more pieces on, for example, the photographer Cartier Bresson (1960) and African art (1962) She was also good at capturing the magic of great performers making music – for example, Colin Davis rehearsing Mozart.
The BBC's mission is famously to "Educate, Inform and Entertain". Thomas was always very keen on the first "E", and after Monitor changed under Jonathan Miller she moved on to the Further Education department. There she produced and directed an eclectic mix of series – from Understanding Music (1967) to I Mean to Say, about the difficulties of communication. She did Places for People (1971), a European survey of developments in the built environment. She made films about community action (Let's Get Going, 1972) and did a fine valedictory job on Poets and Poetry (1973) which featured Seamus Heaney and WH Auden (who died while the series was in production).
She retired from the BBC in the 1970s, only to have a late flowering in the 1980s with films on Constable and Turner for the Open University, for which she was a powerful advocate.
In retirement Thomas lived in a small flat in Kensington, where her parrot Figaro, who was her companion for 42 years, welcomed guests. She was 96 when she died, and she remained feisty and entertaining almost to the end.
Nancy Bingham, television producer and director: born Ranikhet, India 23 August 1918; married 1944 Philip Thomas (marriage dissolved); died London 7 January 2015.Reuse content