Obituary: John Lord
Saturday 18 June 1994
JOHN LORD loved to claim that he had invented a myth. In 1960, while writing the commentary for one of the programmes in The Valiant Years - Jack Le Vien's milestone television documentary series on Churchill and the Second World War screened by ABC in the United States - he was struggling to find some memorable lines to accompany some rather bland shots of the Tower of London, when inspiration struck. For the rest of his life, he would describe the moment with relish.
'I dreamt up the 'ancient' myth that, if the ravens leave the Tower of London, England will fall. This is now part of the repertoire of the Beefeaters guiding the gullible. The ravens' wings have always been clipped, of course, so presumably they would have to walk.'
Whatever the truth, Lord's other achievements as a writer and producer of television programmes are more easily documented. He made a unique contribution to the medium in Britain and the United States, and, sweeping ideology aside with charm, tenacity and ingenuity, built a lasting bridgehead between Western and Soviet documentary-makers during the Cold War.
Before finding his niche in television, Lord had successfully taken up two other demanding careers. After army service, which began during the Allied invasion of Europe and later took him to Africa as a staff officer with the Sudan Defence Force, he became a schoolmaster. His love of military history and splendour and his eloquent command of the English language coloured his later work, but it was his experience as a teacher that led Associated Rediffusion to recruit him in 1957.
ITV was then in its infancy. Innovations in programming were not only desirable, they were necessary: Lord and his colleagues were creating a network which had to have a distinctive voice and offer viewers a stimulating alternative to the BBC. He set about the task with a gusto undiminished by the rigours of producing programmes in the days before videotape. A nine-part educational series offering critical insights into Macbeth made a particular impact, and not simply because each elaborate episode had to be re-enacted live twice a day. Greatly admired by educationalists and politicians, including Harold Wilson, the series is thought to have been a key inspiration in the setting up of the Open University.
Lord did not linger long at Rediffusion: in 1959, he helped to set up Africa's first television station in Western Nigeria, and a year later, with dollars 400 and 42lb of luggage, he 'settled with the cockroaches in Hell's Kitchen', New York.
He arrived during what he later described as the beginning of the golden age of television in the United States. After The Valiant Years and a short stint writing the evening news for ABC, Lord moved to NBC where he worked as a reporter-writer for the morning Today show and shared an office with another up-and-coming television talent, Barbara Walters.
Throughout the 1960s, Lord was the presiding jack-of-all-trades at NBC News, masterminding the coverage of Winston Churchill's funeral from London, originating the network's first colour magazine programme, and producing ground-breaking documentaries. Perhaps the most striking of all his new departures was Four Days To Omaha, the first 'fictional documentary' on American television, and the predecessor of today's 'docudramas'. Somehow, he found the energy to moonlight as a feature-film writer, although only his A King's Story (1965), Jack Le Vien's documentary about King Edward VIII, made it to the screen.
In the early 1970s, however, the excitement had begun to fade. Lord left NBC to become Professor of Television and Film Arts at Boston University, to return briefly in 1976 to work on the network's Bi-Centennial programming, an ambitious mixture of documentaries and outside broadcasts. He wrote: 'The day-long live coverage of 4 July 1976 was the biggest single television project to date. It involved 257 cameras live in 55 locations at home and 22 overseas. As line producer, I was responsible for day-by-day supervision of this operation and for minute-by-minute programming decisions during the broadcast. I then went home.'
Three years later, Lord resigned from Boston University and launched himself into the choppy seas of the freelance life. His first assignment was to make 90 half- hours with the comedian Soupy Sales: 'This was not my finest hour, or, come to that, Soupy's. The series ran at 3am in Chicago.' But for the most part, he was able to continue to break new ground. He spent some difficult months in Moscow writing The Unknown War, a 20-hour account of the Second World War from the Russian point-of-view. This, the first television documentary co-production between the Americans and the Soviets, drew upon all his reserves of tact and patience, but the contacts he made then stood him in good stead 10 years later, when he originated Red Empire.
This was a seven-hour history of the Soviet Union made by my company, Granite Productions, for Yorkshire Television. Lord provided the inspiration and opportunity to make it.
In the late 1980s, he often had time on his hands. From a cramped office in New York, he telephoned his friends around the world, never touting for work, but offering ideas which might one day turn into programmes. One evening, having heard on his infallible grapevine that I was about to visit Moscow, he called and told me that I should contact some Soviet film directors. 'They're opening their film archives to Westerners. I think we should get in there fast,' he said.
The months of negotiation that followed in Moscow, London and Leeds were enlivened by Lord's presence. A striking figure amidst the drabness of Soviet life, with his bright checked shirts and shock of white hair, his mastery of the system inspired wonder: even regular visitors to the Soviet Union marvelled at his skill to order an edible dinner on hotel room service, a carefully driven car and tickets for the circus all in one evening.
John Lord spent his last years developing a television history of the 20th century, but, even during his last illness, ideas for other programmes never dried up. He believed in programmes, in inspiring the people who made them to tell stories with the combination of rigour and lightness of touch that made his own work unforgettable. He made the creation of another golden age of television seem possible to those of us he has left
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