Obituary: Gordon Watkins
Friday 17 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.
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