OBITAURY : Cecilia Gillie

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The Independent Online
Cecilia Reeves was a handsome, lively young woman who played a major role in founding the BBC's wartime French Service and later became its long-term Paris Representative.

In the gloomy summer days of 1940 following the collapse of France she devised the idea of getting a sophisticated group of Frenchmen to discuss the events of the day in a light-hearted and witty manner, enlivened by the use of songs and slogans. Derision became one the most incisive and effective weapons employed by the programme Les Francais parlent aux Francais. Criticism of those who had managed to escape to Britain was deflected by the slogan "I would prefer to see the English in their country than the Germans in ours".

After graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge, she joined the BBC in 1933 as an assistant to Richard Marriott, the Foreign Liaison Officer. The function of this small section was to look after the needs of foreign broadcasters who used BBC facilities to transmit material to their home countries. In 1937 Reeves was particularly concerned with the arrangements for the new European Director of the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York, Edward R. Murrow. His main task then was to arrange educational talks by other people. She and Murrow became close friends.

In March 1938 Ed Murrow flew at short notice to Vienna to cover the Anschluss in what was his first personal reporting assignment. Cecilia Reeves was called to Broadcasting House very early one Sunday morning to arrange the studio facilities for Murrow's uncensored London broadcast completing the story of Hitler's takeover. Murrow came in at 3am directly from the plane, looking shattered, she thought, and terribly fatigued.

She sat riveted throughout his broadcast with its grim account of the sound of smashing glass as Jewish shops were raided and the haunted look on the faces of those long lines of people outside banks and travel agencies desperately trying to get away. When it was finished Murrow asked Reeves whether she was very tired, for he longed to have the chance to talk. They walked back to Murrow's flat, where his wife was sleeping quietly. He poured drinks and the traumas of the past week came tumbling out as she listened. Later she recalled, "I still have a picture of the horror, and of the agony with which he told it."

Early in the war Marriott and Reeves worked in the BBC's Paris office, but in the dark days of June and July 1940 she had become the Senior Talks Assistant in the French Service. She was trying to put together a team of French broadcasters to handle the expansion of the BBC's service made necessary by the Nazis' control of all broadcasting in France.

She consulted Peter Pooley, the creator of Radio Newsreel, who told her that Michel Saint-Denis, the well-known stage director, was in England awaiting repatriation to France. He had been demobilised from the French army and had been offered a British commission, but Cecilia Reeves persuaded him that he could make a more useful contribution through broadcasting. Known thereafter as Jacques Duchesne, he became the leader of a brilliant team.

Reeves had been much impressed by the way CBS mounted three-way discussions between its correspondents in Berlin, Paris and London. She thought the discussion format would suit the French, who were naturally argumentative. And so, in addition to Les Francais parlent aux Francais, the group Les Trois Amis was formed. Duchesne's companions were Pierre Maillaud - who had been working as a journalist in London and was passed on to Reeves by the Ministry of Information; he broadcast under the name of Pierre Bourdan - and Jean Oberle, a painter, who was in London as a war correspondent.

Raymond Mortimer, who was responsible for French Broadcasting at the Ministry of Information, wrote subsequently, "Their work, which sprang from a happy collaboration between Frenchmen of very various professions and opinions, is likely to rank as a classic of propaganda in the best sense of the word."

The French News Editor at the BBC in 1940 was Darsie Gillie, a distinguished foreign correspondent who had been working for the Morning Post in Warsaw at the outbreak of war, and then transferred to Paris as the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. He had a profound knowledge of Europe and was a man of deep culture and a classical scholar. He left Bush House in 1944 to return to Paris for the Manchester Guardian and in 1955 married Cecilia Reeves, at that time also working in Paris as the BBC's Representative. She was there for altogether 20 years, with a number of different titles, sometimes as the radio assistant to senior members of the BBC Television Service such as Robin Scott and Noble Wilson. She and Darsie Gillie were held in very high esteem by the French, and were staunch Francophiles.

They retired to St Mirabeau in Vaucluse, where Cecilia compiled a detailed history of the BBC's French Service in wartime. Alas, it failed to find a publisher but it is kept as a valuable source for researchers at the BBC's Written Archives Centre at Cavershan. Darsie Gillie died in 1972. He had befriended and helped to educate a young Pole, Stanislaw (Stash) Pruszynski, the son of a writer he had met in London during the war. When Cecilia Gillie's health began to fail Pruszynski and his wife kindly invited her to live in their house in Warsaw. She suffered a serious stroke on 20 April 1986 which incapacitated her and made communication very difficult. She died 10 years to the day later.

Cecilia Grace Hunt Reeves, broadcasting executive: born Sheppey, Kent 18 August 1907; joined Foreign Liaison Department, BBC 1933, Paris Office 1939, Senior Talks Assistant, French Service 1940, Paris Representative 1947-67; married 1955 Darsie Gillie (died 1972); died Warsaw 20 April 1996.