Obituary: Ronald Mason

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The Independent Online
A master of legitimate exaggeration, Ronald Mason was a spell- binding teller of tales. He was also a character about whom many stories were, and will continue to be, told. Most have a comic edge, all of them are full of drama.

Born into the Protestant, professional classes in Ballymena, where he shared an early education with Ian Paisley, Mason seemingly possessed all the conventional attributes which an Englishman might associate with such an Ulster background. This perception was reinforced by a euphonious, educated Ulster accent and an ability to speak, as well as write, in complex, Latinate, Cromwellian English full of clauses, sub-clauses, simile and metaphor, peppered with literary or biblical quotes (and misquotes) and always beautifully punctuated, even for the receiving ear. All this was perfectly in accord with a cultured graduate of Queen's University, Bel-fast, who began his career teaching English and French in Coleraine in the late 1940s.

Yet there was a histrionic element to this mode of speech which indicated all was not authoritarianism and the classic virtues. There was a highly dramatic lengthening and teasing out of the vowels used for forceful or comic effect, something which friends and colleagues loved to imitate - and he knew it. Behind the self-dramatisation was a wonderful sense of fun in the story-telling and the ability to puncture a more serious self with objective humour and self-deprecation.

What one remembers most about Ronald Mason - for 10 years Head of BBC Radio Drama - is not the way he looked, but the way he spoke. He was both poet and politician, creator and administrator. The tension between these two elements always made for excitement and it was a duality reflected in his BBC career which achieved a perfect synthesis when he took over Radio Drama in 1976. The public servant, Ronald, came together with the slightly Bohemian drama director, Ronnie. But woe betide any unfortunate who transgressed in confusing the private and familiar "Ronnie" with the public person "Ronald". Great was the Ulster wrath which could descend.

The seventh child of a seventh child, he had a sixth premonitory sense and an unexpected feyness behind the strictness and decisiveness which appealed to writers and actors. He himself was a good amateur actor, particularly at university, and had entertained the idea of taking up acting professionally. He had also entertained the notion of becoming a politician. Mercifully he did neither, but combined these aptitudes for the encouragement and enablement of others.

After six years as a teacher he joined the BBC as a radio producer in Belfast in 1955. There he worked with Irish writers such as Sam Thompson and Stewart Love and, most especially, Brian Friel amongst whose plays directed by him were Philadelphia Here I Come!, The Loves of Cass Maguire and Winners, which won the BBC Prix Italia entry for radio drama in 1968. During a period with BBC television in the mid-1960s he directed Brian Friel's The Enemy Within, and was responsible for the series Double Image. He also directed plays for the theatre at Harrogate, Richmond (Yorkshire) and in Northern Ireland.

In 1963 he had transferred from Belfast to the Radio Drama department in London and there he became Executive Producer of an innovative new series of 15-minute-long single plays broadcast every weekday evening at 11.45pm under the title Just Before Midnight. The series gave great encouragement to new playwrights, among them the young Tom Stoppard. For weightier fare he was the producer of a 20-hour-long serialisation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, plays by Ibsen, Shaw and Eugene O'Neill, as well as works by the contemporary writers Marguerite Dumas, James Hanley and Christopher Hampton. These were heady, enjoyable, creative years.

The political side asserted itself over the poetic when in 1970 he was called upon to become Head of Programmes for Northern Ireland. These were the most difficult and sensitive years of the Troubles when not only were programmes themselves targets but Broadcasting House, Belfast, and individuals were also in the firing line. Mason, with his tolerance for both sides of the argument, was one of these. Replying in 1972 to a query by the Director General, Charles Curran, as to whether he wanted some respite from the strain he was under, he wrote: "My duty is to Ireland. I intend to devote myself to the job of helping to make the province a better place in which to live." Although very much a son of Ulster, one who was indeed responsible in 1975 for launching BBC Radio Ulster, which more than doubled the radio output of the province, he was essentially a man of all Ireland. In spirit he saw no boundaries.

After six exhausting, exhilarating years he was asked to return to London to take over from Martin Esslin as Head of Radio Drama. The political Ronald chaired or sat on committees at home and abroad, for the European Broadcasting Union in Europe, for the National Council of Drama Training and for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He supported his staff tenaciously and fought for their projects with fierce debate. The creative Ronnie continued to direct plays, new works by David Mamet and Sam Beckett, with whom he established a good rapport. He also directed a sequence of nine plays entitled Whose is the Kingdom? about the early days of Christendom, written by that undervalued playwright John Arden and his wife Margaretta D'Arcy. The plays were recorded after his 10-year period was over and he had retired from the BBC.

This forthright, funny, larger-than-life man enjoyed and was enjoyed by a large circle of friends. He was very clubbable, though seldom the first at the bar to buy a round of drinks. A handsome man, he was attractive to many women. Their attentions were not reciprocated, a number of hearts were broken and he remained unmarried. Despite having the physical constitution of an ox, he finally succumbed to chronic emphysema as a result of his dedicated addiction to cigarettes.

Ronald Charles Frederick Mason, drama director: born Ballyemena, Co Antrim 8 September 1926; drama producer/director, BBC 1955-70, Head of Programmes, BBC Northern Ireland 1970-76, Head of BBC Radio Drama 1976-86; died London 16 January 1997.