The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Lord Priscilla's secret

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The Independent Online
THOSE of us in the swim of things were, of course, only too aware of Lord Reith's little secret. In retrospect, I suppose my suspicions were aroused during our first meeting at his office in Broadcasting House when he fixed me with his stern eyes, leant forward in his chair and insisted on being called Priscilla. Young and mustard-keen to make my way in the exciting new world of the wireless, I thought little of it at the time. It was only some years later, after I had risen to chairman of Gardeners' Question Time, that it struck me that 'Priscilla' was, in fact, a lady's name.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that the clues were there for all to spot, if only we had not been so busy turning out programmes of the highest quality. On his memorable 1955 appearance on Desert Island Discs, for instance, Reith chose only records by Judy Garland. For his one luxury he wanted a troop of strapping young Sea Scouts and, when told that regrettably this was not allowed, he opted for a powder puff and deluxe curling tongs. Even when he went on to specify that his one book, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare, should be a complete set of Bunty comics, we took it very much in our stride.

Lord Reith cut such a stern, forbidding figure at Broadcasting House in his kilt and sporran that one could never have guessed that he was anything other than a dedicated son of the Kirk. When once I expressed an interest in the way he always wore a petticoat beneath his kilt on formal occasions he turned his beady gaze on me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was in strict accordance with the God-fearing traditions of the entire Reith clan, and that the rule of a petticoat under the kilt was the solemn proclamation of Yahweh himself, referring me to the Second Book of Isaiah.

Nevertheless, it must be stressed that under his at times autocratic directorship 'The Beeb' (as we well-loved broadcasters call her]]) held firm to the highest standards of manly endeavour. Determined that the youth of our nation should develop and flourish, Lord Reith took an especial interest in The Gang Show, condemning the wearing of long trousers by the under-18s as 'sissy' and personally supervising the cold- shower arrangements after rehearsals. When, some time in the late Sixties (dread decade]), he was espied by a reporter from the Daily Express sitting hand-in-hand in an exclusive London nightspot with Mr J Edgar Hoover, Reith expressed himself 'aghast and outraged that his companion was in fact a man'. The two were never again seen together without Reith first donning a Carmen Miranda wig and discreet polka-dot evening gown.

You must not think that such historic detail, reluctantly surrendered for scholarly purposes, gives the green light to purveyors of tittle- tattle. I mention it today only so that the world will appreciate more fully the tensions and struggles in the character of this extraordinary man. I am - as my enthusiastic readers (among them, incidentally, Miss Clare Latimer and you-know-who]]) will heartily attest - no lover of gossip. Next week, in our first serialisation of my forthcoming biography, Reith: The man and The Miss (Weidenfeld pounds 25) I shall reveal his plans for redecorating the foyer of Broadcasting House in salmon pink with ruched emerald curtains, and his struggles to alter the BBC motto to 'Nation Shall Never, Never, Never Tell Fibs Unto Nation'. But this is only to show what a very remarkable man the first Director-General of the BBC was; in my opinion his private life should remain entirely his own affair.