Obituary: Ursula Eason
Saturday 15 January 1994
'SHE does pack a punch, doesn't she?' Huw Wheldon said admiringly, shortly before Ursula Eason's retirement from BBC Television Children's Programmes in the summer of 1970.
Tall, soignee, elegant, with a voice redolent of Marlene Dietrich crossed with Eartha Kitt, superbly dressed and always wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Eason was a far cry from the general perception of a 1960s BBC executive, let alone a Children's Programmes practitioner. Her broadcasting career was haphazard and unstructured and her connection with Children's Programmes happened by chance rather than design.
Born in 1910, the second youngest of six siblings, Ursula was educated privately at schools in Streatham and took a good English degree at University College London. This was followed by the almost statutory secretarial course which led to nine months with the Times Book Club as secretary to the Assistant Manager.
She then approached the BBC via the London University appointments board. Maybe the idea arose because her cousin Charlie Brewer was a producer of radio Variety shows. The interview went well and the 'practical, sensible, nice-looking' 23-year-old was offered the job of Children's Hour Organiser in Belfast. 'We have great difficulty in finding girls willing to go to Ireland,' the chairman of the interview panel wrote, but it was a successful appointment because their new recruit stayed with the BBC in Belfast for 18 years - not, it has to be said, particularly willingly.
As Children's Hour Organiser, Ursula Eason became one of the famous and much-loved Radio Aunties. Not as Ursula though - 'far too sibilant for the microphones', she was told - so she chose to be 'Auntie Phoebe', after her youngest sister. 'Organiser' was a synonym for jack of all trades, because as well as broadcasting for Children's Hour she was the producer in charge of the unit and also responsible for all BBC Belfast's 'gramophone transmissions'.
With the outbreak of war, most of her male colleagues joined the armed services, and she became Acting Programme Director, planning and producing the entire output for Northern Ireland.
It is ironic that her success in this role militated against her return to 'Head Office', as Broadcasting House was known, in 1945. By then she had extremely itchy feet and was longing to be back in the mainstream of the output. Mary Somerville had offered her a job in Schools Radio just before the war, but this move had been vetoed by Northern Ireland's Director of Programmes: 'Regret cannot release Eason,' he had wired to London.
Instead there was promotion to Assistant Programme Director and, despite numerous pleas to be relocated, she remained in Northern Ireland for a further seven years. 'I did everything,' she said some years later, 'except preach a sermon and give a football commentary.'
The breakthrough came in 1952 when Eason was allowed to transfer to London and to television, where she was attached to Television Talks, the Film Unit and finally Children's Programmes, where Freda Lingstrom, its formidable Head and begetter of Andy Pandy, appointed her a junior producer in 1953 and Assistant Head of the department in 1955.
During her 17 years in television Ursula Eason was a kind, generous and thoughtful colleague. As a newly appointed producer in the early Sixties, I was impressed by her laid-back, no-nonsense attitude and her abhorrence of anything that smacked of condescension to an audience she respected and loved. She watched the output hawk-eyed, ever protective of standards - she was passionate in her concern for children. I remember one acrimonious exchange when I was reprimanded for allowing Freddie and the Dreamers to make an unsuitable gesture - pulling a lavatory chain was her verdict; strap-hanging on a bus was mine - and we agreed to differ. But, in retrospect, I suspect she was right and I was naive.
Eason worked loyally for two other Heads of Children's Programmes, Owen Reed and Doreen Stephens - showing no rancour at their promotion although she, too, had been a contender for the headship. Her final boss was Monica Sims, who says: 'Her advice was always well-balanced, unemphatic and mercifully brief and given with an air of ironic detachment which put our parochial concerns into a wider context.'
Ursula Eason made two outstanding contributions to BBC Children's Programmes. Hard of hearing herself, she pioneered programmes for deaf children. Beginning with a monthly programme, For Deaf Children, in co- operation with Roy Cole of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) in 1953, she achieved a real breakthrough in 1964, with Vision On. The aim was to make a programme that appealed right across the board instead of putting deaf children in a ghetto. It was a totally visual programme with mime, paintings and drawings, presented by Pat Keyes and Ben Benison, from which sprang deaf children's mime groups and later the British Theatre of the Deaf. Tony Hart presented, too, as did Sylvester McCoy, later to become Dr Who.
Eason insisted that signing was used as a means of communication, although this was frowned on by many teachers of the deaf. But there was great support from the RNID and the National Deaf Children's Society. Long after Eason's retirement Vision On became Take Hart and is now Hart Beat, so her spirit lives on.
Eason's other great triumph was The Magic Roundabout. A series of five-minute programmes had been bought from the French and a colleague had spent weeks translating them. But they lacked immediacy and spark and it was Ursula Eason who came to the rescue. 'I think I'll let Eric have a go,' she said. So Eric Thompson, the actor and theatrical producer, was given a free rein to make the Roundabout truly Magic.
Eason was his producer and it was thanks to her that The Magic Roundabout became a cult - as popular with the university Dougal Appreciation Societies as with the three- and four-year-olds for whom it was intended. Modestly she took little of the credit.
Huw Wheldon and David Attenborough both paid warm tributes to Ursula Eason when she retired in 1970. Attenborough, BBC Television's Director of Programmes, who hosted her farewell party, said he believed the BBC owed her a great debt: 'The generosity with which you have given your advice, your wisdom, your sympathy, time and labour has been enormous.' Huw Wheldon's letter ended: 'This place and therefore this country owes you more than it knows.'
Eason looked forward to her retirement enormously. She championed the RNID in a voluntary capacity, giving talks all over Britain. Her successor, Edward Barnes, asked her to help with Children's Programmes massive mailbag which he was amused to discover she did with far greater panache than when she was wearing her Deputy Head's hat. She travelled to Europe and India and was also able to enjoy her beautiful Georgian house in Kew Green - her family home since the 1920s.
But cruelly, the pleasures she so richly deserved were cut short by the onset of Alzheimer's disease in her mid-seventies. Her large and devoted family rallied round, her sister Phoebe and her niece Ann providing round the clock support. But eventually, heartbreakingly, it became too gigantic a task and Kew Green had to be exchanged for a nursing home.
Now her family and her friends and colleagues can rejoice in her liberation and remember only the beautiful, vivacious and loving woman who gave pleasure to millions through that now undervalued concept of Public Service Broadcasting.
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