Obituary: Lord Willis
Thursday 24 December 1992
ON 20 JANUARY, the House of Lords is to call attention to the life and work of the Labour pioneer James Keir-Hardie, 'his political philosophy and its advantages', writes Lord Ardwick. The motion was put down by Ted Willis, one more proof that he was as devoted to socialism at 74 as he was at 20 when he was Leader of the Labour Party's League of Youth. But the Lords, as he wrote last year, is a bit like God's waiting-room, where yesterday's men and women can sit comfortably and talk until the old gentleman with the scythe taps them on the shoulder and tells them it is time . . . To the surprise of us all, Ted felt the tap on his shoulder on Tuesday and his debate, if we have it, will be his Lords memorial.
He served in the House for nearly 30 years and although he mixed creative writing with directorships in film and broadcasting companies, he was a good attender and was a remarkably warm friend, not only of other peers but also officials and servants of the House.
He made many deeply thoughtful speeches. His maiden, in 1964, lasted 22 minutes, unusually long, but it was on the Police Bill and Dixon's creator was heard with special respect, though he said: 'I am a writer about the police. I have a ragbag of information, but I am not an expert.' It was important not that the police should be loved, they could never be that, but they should be respected and that they should respect the public. The Labour movement had often been critical of the police because of their use in industrial disputes and demonstrations. Often Labour saw the defence of property as the defence of privilege. 'We failed to realise that the police were instruments and were not responsible for policy.' Ted himself had spent a week in police custody after a brawl with Mosley's Black Shirts.
In the Lords he was often the voice of the struggling professional authors who had enjoyed less success than he had. He was chairman of the Writers' Guild and led the fight for legislation on authors' public lending rights and the protection of their copyright, including work put on to tape. Earlier he fought for the abolition of stage censorship and the law of blasphemy.
His last major speech in the Lords was in a debate which he had sponsored on libraries. After an eloquent testimony to the treasure house which he, as a boy from a poor illiterate home, found in the Tottenham public library, he dealt with the threat which financial restraint was causing to the public library system. 'It is in a state of persistent decline.'
I asked Ted a month ago if he could help a friend of mine in Canada who wanted to place a book in London. 'Give me his name and address,' he said. A few days before his death, my friend telephoned to say he had had a wonderfully helpful letter from Lord Willis. Many struggling writers owe him this kind of debt.
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