Obituary: Gilbert Phelps
Thursday 01 July 1993
In the BBC West Region in the post-war years he had the idea of getting the area's famous writers to the microphone: people like Sean O'Casey and John Betjeman. He once told me how Evelyn Waugh, whom he had approached, wrote back saying he could not come in to Bristol, but would the BBC send a 'factor' to make the recording in his own house? Gilbert constituted himself factor for the occasion, and to his relief was received by Waugh with great charm.
Later, in London, he was talks producer for the Third Programme and Chief Instructor, Staff Training. In the latter job he acted as mentor to the new 'general trainees' - young men with field marshal's batons in their knapsacks. He looked after Alastair Milne (who went on to become Director-General), John Drummond, Melvyn Bragg and many others.
He also trained young producers from newly independent Commonwealth countries. One young Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, confessed that he too wanted to be a novelist and produced an immense manuscript in a suitcase. Gilbert read it and told him he had not one novel, but six. Achebe duly carved shorter novels from it, the first being Things Fall Apart. The rest of his great trilogy followed - all from the material in the suitcase.
Gilbert went freelance in 1961, but continued to do much work for the Third; his best-known novel, The Winter People, started life as a radio drama, with Carleton Hobbs as Colonel Parry. He also worked for the World Service, where I ran a department which produced scripted features for translation into the various languages. Gilbert could do the work with one hand tied behind his back; his scripts on the English poets, novelists, dramatists and essayists were exemplary. He also came in as holiday relief to produce our daily book talk, a job for which his many contacts in the literary world suited him well. He never lacked an idea for a reviewer.
His achievements in broadcasting were great. But what I remember most is the warm humanity of the man himself. We looked forward eagerly to his periods of duty; just having Gilbert Phelps around was a treat.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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