Obituary: Trevor Philpott

Antony Jay,Alan Whicker
Friday 31 July 1998 23:02 BST

TREVOR PHILPOTT had a rather unlikely background - at least by today's standards - for such a distinguished journalist: it was non-metropolitan (his father owned a hardware shop in Northampton), non-literary (he read Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge), and from the ages of 18 to 23, he served as an engineering officer in the RNVR, minesweeping around the coast of Britain. But he always had the instincts of a born journalist - an insatiable desire to find things out and tell people about them.

It led him from university journalism via the News Chronicle into Picture Post in 1951, when it was still in its glory days under the editorship of Tom Hopkinson, until its depressing decline and final extinction in 1957.

From Picture Post he moved to the Sunday Times as special correspondent, where he built his formidable reputation for accurate in-depth reporting. His meticulous and exhaustive research and highly readable style won him several press awards and also a UN medal for services to the cause of international refugees, which were a by-product of stories he had filed from Korea, Hungary, Jordan and Pakistan.

During the period 1957-60 several of his Picture Post colleagues had moved over to the BBC television Tonight programme - Fyfe Robertson, Kenneth Allsop, Gordon Watkins and the star cameraman Slim Hewitt. After some occasional freelance television reporting for the programme, he finally joined it full-time in 1960, working under another brilliant editor, Donald Baverstock. Like Tom Hopkinson, Baverstock recognised his quality, used his skills and backed his judgement; and as a result he became one of Britain's most respected film reporters throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Like all his generation, Philpott had to learn how to make the transition from print journalism to film journalism. It may have been his early training on Picture Post that made the move so comparatively effortless. He realised that a television report was first and foremost a visual document, not a verbal report backed by such illustrations as the director might be able to concoct.

Together with his old Picture Post colleague Slim Hewitt, he produced hundreds of reports from around Britain and the world which had a unique combination of immediacy and intimacy; many of them seemed more "live" than live television. There was a very good reason for this; in the 1960s and 1970s the minimum of film crew for news documentaries was about six people, which could have a paralysing effect on interviewees not used to the medium.

Philpott and Hewitt worked entirely on their own (despite furious objections from the unions) and put people at their ease in a way that was impossible with a full film unit; it also gave them an unparalleled mobility and flexibility. The physical, technical and professional demands of this way of working were considerable, but the results were unrivalled at the time and not often equalled since.

From Tonight Philpott moved on to his magnum opus, a series of 50-minute documentaries, commissioned by David Attenborough under the title of The Philpott File. During the 12 years of the series he produced over 80 programmes, bringing to the shaping and editing of the programmes the same meticulous care and precision that he brought to his research and reporting. Despite the ephemeral nature of television, many of them are of enduring value and will be rediscovered in years to come as irreplaceable documents of their times.

What united them was Philpott's total immersion in any story he dealt with, his immaculate research, his storytelling gift, and his refusal to take an easy campaigning or knocking line. He discovered his stories from inside the subject; he did not impose his own line from outside it. As a result, he was trusted: trusted by individual people, trusted by the organisations and institutions he filmed, and trusted by the people he worked for.

For someone who appeared so regularly and so successfully on television for more than 20 years, Trevor Philpott had a surprisingly low public profile. It was his own doing. He had no interest in becoming a television personality or a media celebrity. He often had to speak to camera, and performed well, but he saw it simply as another aspect of his professional job, the skill of attracting and holding the audience's interest. What mattered to him was not whether people liked his face or remembered his name, but whether they enjoyed the programme.

This was one of the reasons why his professional career went on so long - he was never a fashion item - and why he commanded so much affection and respect from his professional colleagues. It was also the reason why, when the BBC ended his contract, he continued making successful documentaries rather than opening supermarkets and appearing on quiz shows.

His first marriage was unhappy, and made unhappier by the deaths of his wife (after their divorce) and both of his sons (his daughter survives). He remarried in 1967 and his partnership with Joan (nee Eakin) brought him a domestic peace and happiness he had not known before. The fact that he was dogged by heart and hip trouble, and that he and Joan divorced in 1996, makes it sound like an unhappy ending. In fact it was anything but. He treated his illnesses as he felt they deserved, brief interruptions in a happy life that were not allowed to interfere with his cheerfulness and energy; and although he and Joan were divorced they remained great friends, and indeed had just returned from a happy holiday together in France before he died.

Antony Jay

Trevor Philpott was one of the few television professionals who always did his own research - and could write well, writes Alan Whicker.

The Tonight programme had begun transmission in 1957, when Donald Baverstock, Alasdair Milne and Tony Jay shook the BBC's Current Affairs and Documentary programmes out of their post-war malaise, with a nightly jolt. Three years later, Trevor was recruited, to add weight and judgment - and the qualities of the all-round good egg. I have never met anyone who did not like Trev.

As Tonight's solitary man-around-the-world, I was happy and relieved to share the globe with someone I much admired. He teamed up with Slim Hewitt as cameraman and began sending back solid and thoughtful reports. When David Attenborough became Controller of BBC2 in 1965 and I took the Whicker's World series across to the channel, it was later supported by the equally alliterative Cameron Country and, once again, by 80 programmes in The Philpott File.

In 1980 colleagues were shocked when the BBC, for its own curious reasons, decided not to renew Trevor's contract. The documentary screen could ill afford to lose a man of such competence and stature. However, he carried on with Visual Arts and elsewhere, and every Philpott programme still carried his hallmark of judgement and professionalism, offering viewers the kind of intelligent television they now find all too rarely.

His private life was not always happy; his first wife was an alcoholic and his first son, permitted to stay up to watch one of Trevor's programmes, became so excited he had an asthmatic attack and died in his arms. His wife and second son also died tragically. Trevor always blamed himself, saying that his life in journalism and television was so demanding he had neglected his home. He was philosophical about his second divorce, though, and stayed friendly with Joan until the end.

He had a lifetime of wretched health, and would need to break off from filming around the world to retreat to a darkened hotel room for days, with migraine. Then he had a heart operation, many hip replacements - one had to be redone three times - and painful arthritis. Painkillers were ignored because they also killed concentration.

From a wheelchair he made poetry tapes for his daughter in San Francisco, survivor of his first marriage: "She's a very tough feminist mathematician. Not her fault, of course, because she had to look after her mother as a child. She has no feeling for words, only for numbers - but through this poetry I'm trying to make her see the beauty of words. I think she's coming round a bit . . ." That was Trev.

He had great humanity and gentleness about him, and looked at life from an analytical distance through the eyes of a reporter, calmly dissecting what had gone wrong. There was never a trace of bitterness or self-pity in that jolly, upbeat voice.

We last talked just before he underwent a major operation to his spine, which was successful. He had moved through life from one incapacity to another, yet remained cheerful, courageous, generous towards colleagues and above all, modest: "I'd like you to do my obit," he told me, wryly. "Then at least I know they'll use it."

Trevor Philpott, journalist: born Northampton 30 May 1924; married first Iris Wilkinson (one daughter, and two sons deceased; marriage dissolved), second 1967 Joan Eakin (marriage dissolved 1996); died Winchester 29 July 1998.

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