OBITUARY: Nan Macdonald

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The Independent Online
In an age when we read of the hundreds of thousands of pounds received by those regularly appearing on television and on radio, it is interesting to reflect that in the mid-1940s and at the height of his Have A Go fame, Wilfred Pickles drew the largest BBC audience recorded - yet would only accept a fee of precisely 18 guineas for each appearance he made on the BBC's Northern Children's Hour. Such was his tribute to the programme and in particular to Nan Macdonald, who was organiser of Northern Children's Hour from 1937 to 1949, for it was she who gave him his early range of broadcasting experience, along with Violet Carson, Derek Jacobi, Julie Andrews, Brian Trueman and Billie Whitelaw.

As for the young Brian Redhead, perhaps it was just as well that he decided to give up playing the clarinet after his broadcast initiation on Macdonald's Young Artist programmes from Newcastle, in favour of becoming a journalist.

Nan, or Margaret Annie Macdonald as she was christened, was born of Scottish parentage in London, attending the North London Collegiate School. From there she read Classics at Girton College, Cambridge, trained and led the chorus in Greek plays there, then proceeded to a teaching post in Classics at Howell's School, in Denbigh. In 1934, she obtained a post with the BBC in administration.

The chance to become involved with programme-making came in 1936 when she was one of the few selected to take part in the BBC's very first Programme Training Course. There followed a period of attachment to London Children's Hour and to Derek McCulloch (who later became "Uncle Mac" at the advent of Children's Choice, on the BBC Light programme), and she gained further experience of children's programmes working in Scotland. By the time Macdonald was appointed as Children's Hour Organiser North Region in the September of 1937, the nationally broadcast Children's Hour programme already consisted of material drawn both from London and from all the BBC regions so the new voice of "Nan" was immediately heard throughout Britain, as she introduced her Network programmes from the largest of the BBC regions.

It was Nan Macdonald who, in 1938, started the five o'clock programme for the youngest age group, Nursery Sing-Song. At 5.15pm, listeners in London and some or all of the other regions might then hear an episode of The Prince and the Pauper, the novel adapted for Macdonald by Joan Littlewood. At 5.45pm, Charles Holland, a plasterer, might be heard by Northern listeners as he told them of his experiences, or it could be William Bosworth, with more colourful tales of his circus life.

As Northern Children's Hour organiser, Nan Macdonald always put her own stamp on the programmes. They had to inform and to educate - and in an entertaining way. As Charles Groves said, arriving in 1944 as the new conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra, "One of the first people to come and see me was Nan Macdonald. Each BBC region had its own Children's Hour - and the one in Manchester was Nan. She wanted exciting music from a wide repertoire. I responded with alacrity." So began the Children's Hour Concerts, broadcast to the nation from the Milton Hall, Manchester.

From the very day that regional broadcasting had resumed in July 1945, Northern Children's Hour was heralded by its own signature tune, "On Ilkley Moor", recorded by Charles Groves and the BBC Northern Orchestra. Now, in a different age and broadcasting to a far wider audience, Nan Macdonald's seven-day output included film reviews by John Stratton, a monthly Children's Newsreel; there was John Coatman to talk about Commonwealth affairs, Bob Reid with his "London letter", the headmaster Harry Ree on current affairs - and besides all this, exciting serials, plays, music, features, poetry programmes, variety programmes and not forgetting Animals From Belle Vue Zoo.

"What does it eat? . . . how long does it live?" were the usual questions which the curator, Gerald Iles, received from his wide-eyed studio audience who were even allowed to hold the various exhibits. On one occasion Nan Macdonald took Gerald Iles on one of her regular broadcast entertainments for children in hospitals, and the matron of Leasowe Hospital, Liverpool, rang the BBC late that night to ask if someone might come and take away the snake which a young patient had secreted beneath the bed sheets.

Macdonald's post-war feature programmes included Walks With Wilfred (with Wilfred Pickles) and Wandering With Nomad, while her invitations to a cross-section of her young audience to discuss her future plans in Listeners' Forum resulted in the long-running series scripted by Bertha Lonsdale, Know Your Region.

Nan Macdonald left Northern Children's Hour at the end of 1949. For a period after this she was attached to Children's Television at Lime Grove, in London. Her first contribution to Children's Hour as a freelance contributor was a feature in 1953 for the Coronation, "A Thousand Years of Pageantry". Then and until the demise of the programme in 1964, Macdonald's name was frequently to be seen in the Radio Times as the adapter of a whole range of classic drama. She retired in 1972 and reverted to the privacy of Margaret Annie Macdonald.

Trevor Potter

Margaret Annie "Nan" Macdonald, radio producer and presenter; born London 24 May 1908; organiser, Northern Children's Hour 1937-49; died 10 November 1995 .