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Obituary: Desmond Hawkins

Leonard Miall
Friday 07 May 1999 23:02 BST

THE BBC'S pre-eminence in natural history programmes was largely due to a Bristol features producer with a well-stocked mind, a good literary track record and a droll sense of humour.

When Desmond Hawkins was appointed to the BBC staff in 1945 he was already established as a freelance author and broadcaster. On leaving Cranleigh at the age of 16 he had entered, as a fourth-generation novice, the family ironmongery and electrical engineering business trading near the Elephant and Castle in London. But he continued his education on his own through voracious reading.

By his early twenties he was doing sufficiently well as a freelance writer to risk abandoning the shelter of the family firm, and became in turn literary editor of The New English Weekly and of Purpose as well as a fiction critic of the New Statesman, a position he shared with Cyril Connolly and George Orwell.

He also contributed regularly to T.S. Eliot's quarterly review The Criterion. Eliot invited Hawkins to initiate a Fiction Chronicle for The Criterion, a feature which remained his until the quarterly closed down early in 1939. Before the Second World War he had edited two books, Poetry and Prose of John Donne (1938) and D.H. Lawrence's Stories, Essays and Poems (1939), and published two successful novels, Hawk among the Sparrows (1939) and Lighter than Day (1940). He broadcast regularly and his first Radio Times credit dates as far back as 1936.

Until he was 10, in 1918, Desmond Hawkins's only sentient experience was of a country at war, and as he grew up he developed an intense loathing of the idea of another world war. In his twenties he became a keen member of the Peace Pledge Union. But the progress of Hitler's war changed his views, and he volunteered for the Navy only to be rejected for war service on grounds of health.

Laurence Gilliam, the brilliant though erratic head of BBC Features, recruited Hawkins as a freelance producer on the daily War Report programme which followed the nine o'clock news and carried the radio broadcasts of the corps of war assembled to cover the final liberation of Europe. When war ended he was asked to edit the book BBC War Report (1946) to preserve in print the more outstanding of these dispatches. It was published by the Oxford University Press, for in those days the BBC issued no books itself.

This work brought him into close contact with one of the leading war correspondents, Frank Gillard. In 1945 Gillard was appointed Head of Programmes in Bristol and he persuaded Desmond Hawkins to join him there as a staff features producer. Hawkins, a Londoner by upbringing and inclination, soon became a West countryman by adoption, and like many converts made up for lost time.

What eventually became the famous Natural History Unit had its origin in radio early in 1946 with Hawkins's The Naturalist series, which used a curlew's song as a signature tune. This was followed by Birds in Britain, Birdsong of the Month and many more. In the early 1950s, when television was able to break out from London and win a national audience, Hawkins came up to Lime Grove to learn the new trade, and with Peter Scott planned the highly successful and very long-running Look series of wildlife programmes.

He became Head of Programmes at Bristol in 1955, after Gillard was promoted to be the West Region Controller. The two of them had sufficient clout in the BBC to establish, in 1957, a specialist unit in the West Region to provide wildlife programmes for the national network. Hawkins was miffed, in a very gentlemanly sort of way, when I refused to let him augment his new unit by poaching one of my most talented producers from the Television Talks department. David Attenborough did not want to move to Bristol at that time and I did not want to lose him.

In 1967 when Attenborough had risen to become Controller of BBC2 and had established colour television on his network, the Natural History Unit provided what Hawkins referred to as "the icing on the cake". Later Bristol produced all Attenborough's outstanding natural history series.

In parallel with his wildlife work Hawkins turned to another important strand of BBC programming - radio dramatisation. He converted five of Thomas Hardy's major novels into serials. His version of The Return of the Native won the Society of Authors Radio Award for the best dramatisation of 1976. Two years later dramatisation of The Woodlanders again won the same award. His book Hardy: novelist & poet was published both in London and New York in 1976 and five years later was issued as a paperback and translated into Japanese.

For the last stage of his life in broadcasting Hawkins held one of the most sought-after posts in the BBC: Controller of the South and West Region, with headquarters in Bristol and other studio centres in Plymouth and Southampton. Another Regional Controller, born in Australia, once described the job to me: "You have a marvellously, interesting time and you are paid to live the life of an English gentleman." But Hawkins's role was much more than that. He reflected the life of the South and West to itself, and he provided outstanding programmes produced from the rich resources of his far-flung staff for the benefit of the rest of the nation.

His contribution was recognised by appointment as OBE in 1963, the award of the Silver Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1959, an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Bristol University in 1974 and a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1977.

When Desmond Hawkins retired from the BBC at the beginning of 1970 his career was far from over. He produced several more books such as his autobiography When I Was (1989). He wrote and presented a number of television films. He contributed articles to The New Scientist, The Contemporary Review, Encounter, Country Life and others.

He also became a successful lecturer, particularly to English colleges and arts centres with his presentation of "An Evening with Thomas Hardy", in which he was supported by an actor and an actress. He frequently toured abroad, lecturing at universities in the United States, Japan, Singapore and India. He wore his scholarship lightly, and a self-deprecating manner belied the scale of his achievements.

Leonard Miall

Alexander Desmond Hawkins, novelist, critic and broadcaster: born East Sheen, Surrey 20 October 1908; Features Producer, BBC West Region 1946, Head of Programmes 1955, founded BBC Natural History Unit 1957, BBC Controller, South and West 1967-70; OBE 1963; FRSL 1977; married 1934 Barbara Skidmore (two sons, two daughters); died Blandford Forum, Dorset 6 May 1999.

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