Obituary: Tom Chalmers
Monday 04 September 1995
In 1923, during the first year of the British Broadcasting Company's existence, Chalmers's father, an electrical engineer, helped his 10-year- old son to build his own wireless receiver. After winning a Children's Hour competition Tom went to 2LO's premises at Savoy Hill. He then set his heart on becoming a broadcaster. In 1931 Chalmers's housemaster at Bradfield College wrote to Sir John Reith, the Director-General, asking whether there might be a vacancy at the BBC for his pupil, then 18, who was interested in music as well as in engineering.
Reith took the trouble to write a long and thoughtful reply. He pointed out that almost all the people engaged in broadcasting had originally earned some professional qualification. If a boy were to come straight to the BBC and then wanted to leave later he might find it hard to get another job. "The boy about whom you write," Reith declared,
would probably not be sufficiently qualified musically to become one of our regular accompanists, even if there were a vacancy - and there is none at present. Then there is a Section in which people with a combination of wireless technical knowledge and musical knowledge are employed, but there is no vacancy there either. And what I have said above very definitely applies here, namely that he would have nothing to show at the end of it.
The Director-General repeated his advice that Chalmers should first undergo some professional training.
Four months later, it fell to Chalmers to conduct Dr Montague Rendall, the visiting preacher, around Bradfield. Rendall was a former Headmaster of Winchester and an original governor of the BBC. Chalmers again expressed his interest in a BBC career and Rendall persuaded Reith to interview him. Reith reported, "I saw the boy Chalmers and to my astonishment found that he had never been shown the long letter that I wrote to his House- master . . ." Reith gave a copy to Chalmers who was most grateful. He took Reith's advice, won an organ scholarship to King's College London, acquired an engineering degree there, and in 1936 was posted to Belfast as an announcer, later transferring to London.
In 1939 Chalmers became Head of Presentation for the Empire Service. American and Commonwealth broadcasters, eager to relay programmes from London during the blitz, demanded more exact timing than the BBC observed on the domestic air. He devised a central presentation suite combining engineers and announcers to link programmes, with the power to cut off any that overran. It was his voice that relayed to the rest of the world the news, just monitored from Germany, that Hitler was dead.
On 29 July 1945 his voice also announced the start of the Light Programme, directly following Marjorie Anderson's closing announcement of its predecessor, the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme. Chalmers had been appointed Chief Assistant for the new network and, three years later, became its Controller after his two predecessors, Maurice Gorham and Norman Collins, had in turn moved over to television. The Light Programme contained much of what had been popular when broadcast to the forces during the war with some serious content, including Radio Newsreel and classical musical recitals.
In 1950 Chalmers was invited to establish a broadcasting service for Nigeria, not yet independent. He spent the next six years supervising the building of a broadcasting centre, recruiting and training staff, and establishing a pattern of programmes.
On return to England he was appointed the BBC's Controller, North Region, and in 1957 was appointed CBE. However in 1958 his services were again required for work in Africa, this time in Tanganyika, where he created a broadcasting service on similar lines to that in Nigeria. He spent four years in Dar es Salaam as Director of the Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation and a further two as Deputy Regional Representative on the UN Technical Assistance Board in what, by then, had become the independent Republic of Tanzania.
In 1964 Chalmers began his last BBC post as Special Assistant in the Overseas and Foreign Relations Division. He retired shortly after I became Controller of the Division in 1971 and I had time to appreciate what an outstanding reputation he had created for himself, and for the BBC, in the role of providing professional assistance and training for the newly independent Commonwealth broadcasters. He was a modest man, and a very able one.
Thomas Wightman Chalmers, broadcaster: born Lewisham 29 April 1913; announcer, British Broadcasting Corporation 1936-39, Overseas Director 1939-45, Chief Assistant, Light Programme 1945-48, Controller, Light Programme 1948-50, Controller, North Region 1956-58, Special Assistant, Overseas and Foreign Relations 1964-71; Director, Nigerian Broadcasting Service 1950-56; Director, Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation 1958-62; Deputy Regional Representative, UN Technical Assistance Board, East and Central Africa 1962-64; chief executive, Radio Services, United Newspapers Ltd and director, Radio Fleet Producations Ltd 1971-75; died Cambridge 30 August 1995.
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