Obituary: Gordon Watkins

Gordon Watkins, journalist and television producer, born 22 January 1920, married 1950 June Walker (one son, two daughters, and one foster-son), died 3 July 1992.

AMONG the many handsome men at Picture Post when I arrived there in the mid-Fifties was one whose lean, intense features were distinguished by a dramatic scar down one side of his face. He was hyperactive, passionately idealistic and permanently immersed in projects of transcending importance. His name was Gordon Watkins and soon I found myself sharing an office with him.

Here he made a great deal of noise - especially on longdistance telephone calls - and violent objection to the least interruption from others when he himself was engaged in writing. This capriciousness of temperament, though disconcerting at first, was entirely harmless, for Watkins was the least malicious of men and I learned to expect, after each outburst, a contrite note of apology, handwritten in blue ink on blue paper, in which he was unsparing in his criticism of himself. Such self-flagellation was characteristic of Watkins for, in keeping with his face, his soul was in constant torment. He set himself the highest standards, drove himself hard to keep to them and was humble in the extreme about his own capabilities - though deeply appreciative of the slenderest talent in others. He was often sunk in deepest gloom.

The dissonance in his character, I now feel, had a lot to do with that scar down his face. When he was a little boy, he dashed into the road after a ball and was run over by a lorry. His skull was fractured and for weeks he hovered between life and death. At this moment, his younger brother was born. Then, soon after he had recovered physically, he was sent away from his beloved nanny to boarding school. Prep school was followed by Ampleforth, which he hated, though he learned to revere the discipline and structure of the Benedictine Order. He became, as a result, one of those who work best within the comradeship and containment of an institution.

Watkins's father, a Welshman, was a Roman Catholic - a sculptor who joined the Air Force in the earliest days of the First World War and became a test pilot. He was a hero to his eldest son and much of Watkins's subsequent life can be read in terms of his working through his father's war, and his search for and affinity with hero-figures. Both as a journalist and as a television producer, he became a great chronicler of heroism in others. He also needed to feel its presence in those with whom he worked.

His first editor, Clarrie Carter of the Bedfordshire Standard, was just such a figure and he blossomed as a cub reporter under his aegis. When war broke out, Watkins joined the Army, went as an intelligence officer to North Africa and thence up Italy from south to north. He had a great time in the war, felt at home in the Army, admired enormously his colonel, Peter Payne-Gallwey, and spent much of his time writing up the heroic exploits of others.

In Florence, he met an Italian aristocrat, Donna Anna Corsini, who influenced him greatly and who became a lifelong friend. It was she who urged him to go to university after the war. 'It is not easy,' he wrote in his journal, 'to turn one's back on the easy and obvious path of 'popular' journalism where I know my flair for glibness and facile emotionalism will reap a quick dividend. But because I am vain - if it is vanity to want to be respected by the people whom one respects - I cannot escape my obligation to myself.' He went to Hertford College, Oxford, where he read history and found life altogether delightful.

Briefly on the Birmingham Gazette as a sub-editor, he resisted the temptation of doing a column for that paper and accepted a job on Picture Post. It was there I met him, amid a cast of heroes, all dedicated to the pursuit of journalism in its noblest form - Picture Post was still, in those days, infused with the highest ideals of radical photo-reportage. It was natural, therefore, that when that unique journal lost its way, faded and folded forever, Watkins found his way (along with Slim Hewitt, Trevor Philpott, Fyfe Robertson, Kenneth Allsop et al) to BBC Television, where I was already working with Donald Baverstock and Alasdair Milne.

Having run, for some time, a 10-minute daily topical programme called Highlight, we were engaged in setting up Tonight and, one day, a familiar figure bounded, with a wild laugh, into my office and seated himself at the next desk, where he seized one of my nine telephones and began establishing a network of provincial stringers at the top of his voice. Tonight was the television son-of-Picture Post: we worked as a team, a sort of Wingate's Private Army in which the only criteria were within ourselves, under our leader - our belligerent, exuberant leader, the inimitable Donald Baverstock.

In Baverstock, a Welshman, Watkins found many of the qualities he most required to give of his best. He worked on Tonight until 1964, when he embarked on his most remarkable television enterprise, The Great War: a 26-part series showing the First World War in all its horror and futility. In 1967 he moved, by way of natural progression, into administration and became Head of General Features, where he enjoyed himself less, though he later produced a number of outstanding series including Bird's-eye View, The Explorers and Ireland - a History.

He could never quite manage retirement, although he tried valiantly to fling himself into untapped activities: bread-making, sailing and gardening were three of them that I noticed. In these, as through all the years of his post-university life, he was supported with unflagging respect and loyalty by June, his wife, a woman of exceptional qualities. Together they were staunch and constant friends whose tolerance, kindness and concern towards others never failed.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003