Obituary: John Lord

John Govan Lord, television producer and writer: born Rochdale, Lancashire 7 May 1924; married 1953 Alison Megroz (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1972 Karolyn Kennedy; died Montclair, New Jersey 18 May 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


(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...