Obituary: Henry Straker
Wednesday 14 April 1993
HENRY STRAKER had a distinguished career as a broadcaster and planner for BBC Radio. His organising flair and innovative ideas made him responsible for a wide range of programmes, from the first radio soaps - Mrs Dale's Diary and The Archers - to the early editions of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America. Though much of his early work was overseas, his later years were spent as Assistant Head of the then Light Programme until he retired in 1966.
Educated at Westminster, Straker went on to Christ Church, Oxford. In 1935 he took an appointment in South Africa as English and History Master at Bishops Diocesan College, Rondesbosch which he combined with singing with the Cape Town Orchestra. In 1938 he joined the South African Broadcasting Service and became something of a celebrity with his Young Ideas programme. (He was delighted, last year, to receive a fan letter from a South African woman who still remembered his programmes of 55 years ago.)
On his return to Britain in 1939, he joined the Empire Service of the BBC. While announcing the evacuation of Dunkirk, he was given the additional news of several bomb outrages by the IRA in public lavatories in London where, although there were no injuries, 'several gentlemen suffered severe shock'. Unable to complete the sentence, Straker just managed to say - 'That is the end of the news.' This was relayed to the concert hall where the Empire Orchestra began their live transmission with audible mirth.
The result of this lapse was not, as Straker expected, the end of his career but a fan letter from Barbados saying it was a great boost to morale to know that Britain had not lost its sense of humour. In 1940 he volunteered for service with the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. Though surprised to find himself posted to Kenya for the duration, he set about running a leave centre for the troops and formed an entertainment unit with an orchestra of Italian prisoners of war.
He returned briefly to Broadcasting House after the war but was seconded by the Colonial Office for tours of duty in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cyprus, Malta, British Guyana and Jamaica, where he spent three years in educational broadcasting.
He became head of the BBC Paris office until 1949 and held a similar post in New York until 1951. During the Dewey-Truman election campaign, when the polls predicted a Dewey triumph, Straker advised Alistair Cooke to leave the last two minutes of his Letter From America unrecorded. So when Truman was elected President, Cooke was able to add a postscript. He gave Straker one of the few copies of An Evening With Alistair Cooke, a recording in which he plays and sings at the piano. On his return, Straker became assistant head of the Light Programme.
Henry Straker will be remembered by colleagues and friends as a kindly, generous man with an acute sense of humour. Recently, he was gratified to note the returning popularity of radio as an alternative to television.
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