Obituary: Maurice Farquharson
Monday 17 May 1993
WHEN the Pilkington Committee, in the mid-Sixties, was accused of washing the BBC whiter than white, the blame - or credit - was largely due to Maurice Farquharson. It was he who organised the impressive written evidence which the BBC submitted to that broadcasting inquiry, just as he had organised the submissions to the earlier Ullswater and Beveridge Committees. He was a Secretary to the BBC's Board of Management with a remarkable flair for public relations in a period before it was deemed necessary to hire outside advisers for that task.
Farquharson first showed the qualities of leadership and coolness under fire towards the end of the First World War when he joined the No 2 Company of the First Battalion, Grenadier Guards. Within five weeks Farquharson's platoon had taken part in two massive attacks on the road to Salesmes against the retreating German army, and he had won a Military Cross at the age of 19.
Maurice Farquharson was a King's Scholar at Westminster, a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, and a schoolmaster in French at Bedales School before he decided to become an actor. With a handsome presence and a fine speaking voice he worked at the Old Vic and at the Northampton Repertory Company.
He met his wife Nan Konstam when they were both members of Robert Atkins's theatrical company on a tour to Egypt. Actually they had met once before. Her brother was a contemporary of Maurice's at Westminster and once, when they were 16, brought him home unexpectedly to stay the night. Nan, then aged six, was turfed out of her bed and made to sleep on a couple of armchairs. She asked who was to be sleeping in her bed, and when told 'Maurice Farquharson', said presciently, 'I'd like to be called that one day.'
In 1928 Farquharson was introduced to the BBC at Savoy Hill by Monsieur Max Stephan, renowned for his French lessons on radio. As Farquharson passed by an open studio door he heard the click of rapiers as in a duel. He looked in to see Val Gielgud, the Head of Drama, practising a sound effect with a colleague. Nowadays you take that off an effects disc. Then everything had to be improvised. Farquharson became immediately engrossed with the new world of broadcasting.
He had several engagements in radio plays but they ceased when he left the stage to become the Assistant Secretary of the National Council of Social Service. For five years he conducted a great deal of correspondence with the various societies associated with that council, especially in rural parts of the country, and became thoroughly conversant with the art of letter-writing, a skill he was later to use to great advantage in the BBC.
Since his early performances at Savoy Hill, Farquharson had tried at various times to join the BBC staff. He was given an interview with Reith's redoubtable deputy, Admiral Sir Charles Carpendale, who offered him the job of groundsman at the BBC's staff club, and later he was auditioned for a post as an announcer. Eventually, after an interview with Reith himself, Farquharson was engaged in 1935, as an assistant in the recently formed short-wave Empire Service. Within a few months he was transferred into the BBC's new Public Relations Division under Sir Stephen Tallents.
In the Empire Marketing Board, and later at the Post Office, Tallents had raised public relations to a fine art. He was brought into the BBC at the same time as Farquharson in 1935 and put in charge of all public relations activities, in a division raised to a level equal with programmes, engineering and administration.
Farquharson's personal range of responsibilities in the new division included establishing a system of audience research. Until then there had been none, and many producers bemoaned the lack of any yardstick which would compensate for the absence of box-office returns. Farquharson interviewed Robert Silvey from the London Press Exchange and within a few years Silvey's Listener Research operation had achieved an international reputation.
The BBC's Correspondence Section under RWP Cockburn also worked to him. Its policy was: 'Letters are to be answered with punctilious care. Though a listener may be almost illiterate and very vituperative he has probably many friends and far more may depend on our reply than may appear on the surface.' The section analysed the huge mail received by the BBC and made a weekly summary of programme correspondence which had a wide circulation in Broadcasting House.
Other public relations activities administered by Maurice Farquharson were the BBC's network of advisory committees and councils, especially the newly created General Advisory Council, whose chairman was William Temple, then Archbishop of York, later of Canterbury. Reith wanted the General Advisory Council to give advice to the Ullswater Committee, the first of the committees set up periodically by government to pronounce on the state and future of broadcasting, some said to 'dig it up by the roots to see if it was growing'. Farquharson made sure that the council's submission to Ullswater was signed by such people as Archbishop Temple, George Bernard Shaw, Lloyd George, Sybil Thorndyke and John Buchan, as well as a host of lesser-known luminaries.
He created an information unit which eventually became the BBC Secretariat to provide the appropriate staff work and public relations support for the Board of Management. He set up the news information services on whose clippings so many of today's programme researchers rely.
As Director of the Secretariat 1940-48 Farquharson also established the famous wartime Duty Room. It owed its birth to a telephone call in the middle of the night from the prime minister, Winston Churchill, who wanted to speak to the Director General. No one on the switchboard at that late hour knew where the Director General was. Churchill, who was making the call himself, asked who was there to whom he could speak, and was put through to a small monitoring office which knew nothing about the matter on which the prime minister sought information. It was said that Churchill was so irritated that he flung the telephone receiver away with such force that it broke loose from its moorings.
Farquharson was given the job of ensuring that such a thing never happened again. He commandeered the Engineers' Echo Room 3, and installed the secretary of his local squash club in Hampstead as the Duty Officer. From then on someone responsible was on duty all night to cope tactfully with such situations.
After the war he turned his hand to cultivating the BBC's relations with the Palace of Westminster. The BBC was wretchedly short of passes for the coverage of Parliament. The received doctrine of the Sergeant at Arms for the Press Gallery was 'one newspaper, one place'. Farquharson was able to persuade the authorities that the BBC was more like a whole Fleet Street than one newspaper, and to give him the exclusive use of five seats, not in the press gallery but in a row in the gallery facing the Speaker. Farquharson then allocated them according to need, so that broadcasters, such as the Indian princess who regularly reported on British parliamentary proceedings to listeners in the sub-continent, could be sure of a seat.
In 1953 Farquharson became the Secretary to the Board of Management and in 1957 to the Board of Governors. Both bodies respected his wise counsel. Until his retirement in 1963 he served as a valuable conduit between the Governors and the BBC staff, aided by a well-stocked mind and a finely honed sense of humour. He also painted extremely well.
In 1961, when Farquharson was deeply engaged in preparing material for the forthcoming Pilkington Committee inquiry, the then BBC Chairman, Sir Arthur Fforde, happened to take an interest in the origin of the BBC's motto 'Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation'; its change, as war loomed, to 'Quaecunque'; and, when peace came, its return to the original form. Fforde, after reading an erudite historical note which Farquharson somehow found time to compile, observed with some asperity that the first change had been taken with the full approval of the Board of Governors, but the decision, in 1946, to revert to the original motto had not even been referred to them.
Farquharson suggested that the line the Director General should adopt, if challenged, might be modelled on that of the third Marquess of Salisbury in somewhat similar circumstances. 'The Chairman', he wrote, 'may remember that, after a long day at Number 10, during which various international issues hung in the balance, Lord Salisbury changed into ceremonial dress and proceeded to a levee at Buckingham Palace, there to receive the reproof from King Edward VII that, while the upper part of his body was correctly clothed in diplomatic uniform, his trousers were those of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry. Lord Salisbury's excuse was that he had had to leave Hatfield House at an early hour that morning and that since then his mind had been exclusively occupied with less important matters.'
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