OBITUARY:Peter Pooley

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The Independent Online
Peter Pooley was the founder and first editor of BBC's Radio Newsreel, which was to become the most ambitious and longest sustained news programme mounted anywhere in the world. Half a century after its start it was still being rebroadcast by 64 radio stations in 25 countries.

By midsummer 1940 the BBC World Service, then called the Empire Service, was transmitting 39 news bulletins in English each day. Its listeners included British and Commonwealth forces serving overseas, the Merchant Navy engaged in its perilous duties, and the domestic audiences of the English-speaking world, many of whom had flourishing competitive sources of news readily at hand. As the rebroadcasting of BBC programmes expanded, for instance by radio stations right across Canada, new disciplines had to be learnt. Timing needed to be much more exact than was customary on the domestic news bulletins, and the Empire News Editor was unable to concede space for the actuality recordings of war correspondents covering the German blitz into France.

Peter Pooley was an Empire announcer who had become a talks assistant on the outbreak of war. He devised Radio Newsreel as an outlet for the BBC's small corps of men who had become war correspondents, and later for its first female reporter, Audrey Russell. RNR's first edition went on the air at 3.30am on 8 July 1940. The presenter was Robin Duff, a fellow Empire announcer later himself to become a courageous war correspondent, and it was he who selected "Imperial Echoes" as its signature tune.

That first edition, broadcast to North America, included a talk by a bomber pilot about the fortnight he had spent drifting in an open boat; a talk by (Sir) Geoffrey Cox on a meeting of the French cabinet (nine days before Marshal Petain surrendered to the Nazis) and an interview with three Canadian soldiers in hospital. Pooley later recalled: "France was down and out. We were certain to be bombed and probably invaded. There was still a need to remind our friends overseas that we still lived and were prepared to fight."

Editions of Radio Newsreel for Africa and the Pacific were added in 1941 and the programme rapidly became a popular success. Its on-the-spot reporting and lively presentation were a refreshing contrast with the sombre style of the news programmes themselves, and were emulated from D-Day onwards on the domestic service in War Report.

Those of us who were correspondents abroad were grateful for the professionalism the producers of Radio Newsreel always showed. They knew what they wanted, which was accuracy combined with speed, and an ability to use the new tools of the recording trade with imagination. One example was when Robert Dougall went to record the Australian prime minister Robert Menzies in Plymouth and found himself in the middle of one of the fiercest air-raids of the war. Another was Stanley Maxted's report on the Battle of Arnhem. Maxted, who had been one of Pooley's producers of Radio Newsreel before becoming a war correspondent, staggered into the BBC with a pile of sound discs he had recorded under fire in a Dutch foxhole. An hour later he was on air.

A landmine descending by parachute blew in the side of Broadcasting House in December 1940 and forced the Empire News Service, including the editorial team of Radio Newsreel, to be evacuated rapidly to Abbey Manor, near Wood Norton in the Vale of Evesham, and it was from there that the five daily editions of RNR were produced. When the Monitoring Service, based in nearby Wood Norton Hall, reported that an attempt had been made to kill Pierre Laval, the collaborationist prime minister of Unoccupied France, Radio Newsreel quickly sent over for the recording of the event, which included two shots and cries of "Assassin". But it had only been recorded on a dictaphone cylinder, and the engineers pronounced it untransmittable. However the producer attached the cylinder and its reproducing equipment against the microphone stand and Radio Newsreel broadcast another vivid piece of news actuality.

Pooley did not go to Abbey Manor himself, but stayed in London organising material for his evacuated producers. He was not only a good editor and leader of a team. He was also a skilled administrator who was able, for instance, to persuade the War Office to let Audrey Russell become a fully accredited war correspondent to go into Europe with the liberating troops. He had already tested her on various dangerous home assignments. This was breaking new ground.

Peter Pooley had entered the BBC by what before the war was a not uncommon route: a good education, a rebuff from one of the established professions and a touch of influence. His father had been the headmaster and owner of a preparatory school in Dorset. His mother was Danish, and it was from her that he derived his blond Scandinavian good looks. He was educated at Gresham's, Holt, which had also been Lord Reith's old school. From there he won a Graves scholarship to University College, Oxford, to read Modern Greats, in which he took a Second. Pooley was set on a diplomatic career, and after a year at a London crammer he took the Foreign Office exam. Only two of the many applicants were appointed. After a further year of cramming in Vienna at the Konsular Akadamie he tried again. This time the Foreign Office had vacancies for four new entrants, but not for Pooley, who had to look elsewhere for a job.

The Graves scholarship which had taken him to Oxford had been founded by a relative of Cecil Graves, later Sir Cecil and Joint Director-General of the BBC. In 1938 Cecil Graves was in charge of the Empire Service, and the tenuous scholarship connection was sufficient for him to grant Pooley an interview, which led to his appointment as an Empire announcer just before Christmas that year.

With the widely acclaimed success of Radio Newsreel, there was considerable surprise when Pooley, regarded as one of its ablest staff, resigned from the BBC in 1947, without another job to go to. RNR was about to be carried on the Light Programme and would come under the control of the new Editor, News, the late Tahu Hole, whose malign influence crippled BBC journalistic enterprise for the next decade and a half. Pooley had worked with Hole before, and dreaded what his dead hand would do to the programme he had successfully run without repressive management. He decided to get out.

After a period of badly needed rest, and some travel on the Continent, Pooley became an associate producer in John Grierson's Crown Film Unit and was shortly seconded to the Marshall Aid office in Paris to make films about the way funds provided under the Marshall Plan were being used to revive the economies of various war-torn countries.

Early in 1951 the Nato Information Service was formed, and Pooley's experience in both BBC and the Crown Film Unit made him a natural choice to look after the needs of the audio-visual media. He joined Nato's London office in September 1951 and moved in April 1952 to the Palais de Chaillot in Paris where Lord Ismay, the first Secretary-General of Nato, had his headquarters. He worked there as Assistant Director of Information until 1967, when President de Gaulle threw Nato out of France and its headquarters were moved to Brussels. He retired in 1977 to live near Fontainebleau with his second wife Vera, who had also worked for the BBC.

Leonard Miall

Henry Peter Krohn Pooley, broadcaster and information officer: born 12 January 1912; BBC Empire announcer 1938, Empire talks assistant 1939, editor, Radio Newsreel 1940-43, Editor Overseas News Talks 1943-47; Associate Producer, Crown Film Unit 1949-51; Assistant Director of Information, Nato 1951-77; married 1939 Laura Dyas (three sons; marriage dissolved), 1975 Vera Holyman; died Villiers-sous-Grez, France 5 February 1996.