OBITUARIES: MURIEL HOWLETT

Click to follow
Muriel Grace Howlett, radio producer: born Gunnedah, New South Wales 18 October 1906; producer, BBC 1935-67; MBE 1966; died Portsmouth 11 November 1994.

Muriel Howlett was an outstanding senior producer of current affairs in the BBC World Service and one of the first women to win an important role in the early days of news talks. She was thoughtful, scrupulous and decisive. She was held in great affection by her colleagues in the BBC, where she worked for 32 years.

Born in humble circumstances in the Australian outback, she gained a scholarship from her village school to the Fort Street Girls' High School in Sydney. Her lovely contralto voice was later to bring her into the professional choir at St Columba's, Pont

Street, London, and into the London Orpheus Choir. In Sydney it won her a singing competition, which in turn financed her through a secretarial course and led to a good job with Shell.

In 1935 she took a boat for London and landed a job in Broadcasting House in the Home News Talks section. In June 1938 the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, persuaded Sir John Reith to resign from the BBC and become the chairman of Imperial Airways. As a reward for Muriel Howlett's excellent work, and to give her a trip home, Reith immediately arranged for her to travel on the inaugural flying boat service from Southampton to Sydney. She provided news talks on the progress of the nine-day journey from Calcutta and Singapore and on arrival from Sydney. It was the first time she had either flown or broadcast.

In the News Talks section Richard Dimbleby rapidly became Howlett's devoted friend. When, at the age of 26, he was assigned to report the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada in summer 1939 - the first royal tour to be covered by the BBC- he wrote Howlett notes (signed "Bumble") about the lighter side of his work. She showed me one after Dimbleby died which said, "I took part in an amazing broadcast at Moose Jaw the other day, for the local station, and was announced with a terrific fanfare of trumpets as the star of the evening. They brought the mike right up to the train as it arrived, and all would have been well if the bastard (beg your pardon) hadn't got my name wrong. Very undignified having to correct him and say that your nameisn't Dunglehop."

During the war Howlett worked for what was then called the Empire Service. In July 1940 the Empire Service broadcast the first edition of Radio Newsreel, which was to become the most ambitious and longest sustained radio news magazine mounted anywhere inthe world. Its purpose was to report the actuality of the war through the new corps of BBC war correspondents and, later, foreign correspondents. Howlett became one of its main producers.

Her editorial judgement was sound, and her touch in dealing with correspondents was sure. I was the BBC news correspondent in Washington in 1950 when President Truman unexpectedly decided to support the Security Council's plea for help to repel the invaders of South Korea. I came hotfoot from the White House to the radio studio to report this development into the 6pm news only to be told that the Home News Editor, Tahu Hole, wished to postpone my live report for three hours, in order to give "consideredreactions". He was dithering about whether it might cause a panic. It was a mighty relief when the calm clear voice of Muriel Howlett came on the transatlantic circuit and gave a succinct summary of how I could best provide the material that Radio Newsreel urgently needed.

In 1966 she was appointed MBE for services to broadcasting. Her last post in the BBC before retirement in 1967 was that of Senior Producer in the Talks and Features Department of the World Service, then headed by Gerard Mansell, who described her as the "sheet anchor". She was in charge of all the principal weekly discussion programmes such as London Forum and the daily This Day and Age. She also had the job of training the intake of new producers, one of whom was John Tusa.

Leonard Miall

Comments