Obituary: Cecil Lewis

T. H. Bridgewater
Wednesday 29 January 1997 01:02 GMT

Cecil Lewis was the last surviving member of the original management team that launched the programme service of the British Broadcasting Company (the forerunner of the British Broadcasting Corporation) in 1922 and, in the book Sagittarius Rising (1936), a lively and moving portrayal of the experience of a young pilot, the author of a First World War classic.

Appointed the BBC's Deputy Director of Programmes in November 1922, a few weeks even before the arrival of the great John Reith, Lewis was at 24 the youngest of a small group of distinguished broadcasting pioneers also comprising Arthur Burrows (Director of Programmes), Stanton Jeffries (Director of Music) and Peter Eckersley (Chief Engineer). In 1924 Lewis became chairman of the newly formed Programme Board, and in 1925 he inherited Burrows's responsibilities when the latter left to become the first Secretary- General of the International Broadcasting Union.

In his book Broadcasting From Within (1924) Lewis tells the story of that tiny team of enthusiastic innovators during the first year of presenting home entertainment through a completely strange medium. Two years later, however, his promising BBC career came to an abrupt end when he unexpectedly resigned - preferring, he said, to live henceforward by his wits.

Lewis was the only child of an unconventional Congregationalist minister. In 1915, at the age of 17, after schooling at Oundle, he had trained as a pilot and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. On the eve of his 18th birthday he found himself in the air over the battlefields of France and, along with thousands of other youngsters, daily risking injury and life while improvising fighting tactics in an entirely experimental form of warfare. By some miracle, as he used to say, he survived, and after two mentions in dispatches came home to receive the Military Cross from his Sovereign.

In 1926, when he left the BBC, Lewis's career was still only beginning, but his years with the company permanently influenced his outlook. In its first few years the BBC brought to the microphone a remarkable range of writers, scientists, politicians, actors and other practitioners of the performing arts. These very various figures did much to broaden Lewis's vision and develop his talents. In particular, Bernard Shaw became one of the great influences of his life, for "he set standards of conscience, integrity and professional craftsmanship never met elsewhere". Lewis's career as playwright and producer owed much to Shaw's guidance and example.

Lewis's impulsiveness was characteristic. Even in the few years between demobilisation and joining the BBC he had already been twice unemployed, including 18 months as flying instructor for the Chinese government. His adventurous (and romantic) life thereafter can be traced in his writings - particularly his autobiography Never Look Back (1974, filmed for television in 1978), though at the same time he tantalises us with one or two unfilled gaps. We glimpse his (invariably brief) re-appearances in the world of broadcasting; first as a freelance, writing and adapting plays for the BBC, then off to New York to help NBC develop its radio drama. After a leisurely sojourn in the South Seas, he is back on the BBC payroll, in charge of Outside Broadcasts and Talks, at the inception of the new Television Service in 1936.

I well recall the enthusiasm and energy bursting from this tall and engaging figure (he was 6ft 4in). Throwing himself wholeheartedly into another innovatory task with the aplomb of an already experienced broadcaster, he would from time to time act as scriptwriter, announcer or commentator, as well as producing a wide variety of programmes during the early months of the new medium. These included all the events when the cameras were taken outside the studio into the grounds of Alexandra Park.

Lewis's stay with us at the BBC was all too short, as soon this restless whirlwind of a man set off for other studios in Hollywood. It was not till 1953 that he returned to broadcasting, this time in New York once more, to produce radio programmes for the United Nations. Then came his last venture in the field, when he crossed the Atlantic to become Assistant Director of Programmes with Associated Rediffusion at the start of Independent Television in 1955.

The Second World War saw him again in uniform; he was back in the Royal Air Force and gave unstinted service, first as a flying instructor and later on other duties at home and overseas, attaining the rank of Wing Commander.

But it was the pen that gave Cecil Lewis his principal milieu for self- expression. He was the author of over a dozen books after the success of Sagittarius Rising. He edited the letters and journals of Charles Ricketts (Self-Portrait, 1939), which were, like his 1928 translation from the French of Paul Raynal's The Unknown Factor, later adapted for television. He wrote and produced plays for stage, television and screen, including the adaptation of two Shaw plays for the cinema - his Pygmalion (1938) won him an Academy Award.

In 1991 he wrote and presented on Radio 3 Between Ourselves, a dramatised portrait of Ricketts, whom he had so greatly admired in younger days, with Sir John Gielgud in the principal part. A few months later, by now 93, Lewis published Sagittarius Surviving, a further flying autobiography. In the same year he wrote an introduction to Antoine de St Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars, and two years later his autobiographical All My Yesterdays appeared.

Religious questions became an undercurrent through the latter half of his life. He briefly experimented in community living on a sheep and cattle farm in South Africa, following the doctrines of the Russian mystic Georgi Gurdjieff. From time to time Lewis shared his thoughts and beliefs in broadcasts and interviews, some of these reproduced and expanded in his book A Way to Be (1977). A Wish to Be followed in 1994.

Between the wars Cecil Lewis created a beautiful retreat out of a rocky wilderness overlooking Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, which he said was always "waiting to restore me to sanity and peace". For over 20 of the last years he and his third wife, Frances, lived happily on the island of Corfu.

T. H. Bridgewater

While flying with the RFC at 15,000 feet on a dawn patrol in an SE5 Lieutenant Cecil Lewis was attacked by a Pfalz, a German scout plane, writes Max Arthur. As he struggled with his Vickers gun he felt something akin to a red-hot iron crease his back and even more bullets penetrate his plane. He spun down 2,000 feet and having shaken off the enemy pulled out and landed. His shirt was full of blood. The camp doctor found a six- inch wound across his back. Had he been sitting upright and his gun not jammed he would have been killed.

On 17 May 1917 11 aircraft of 56 Squadron took off on a misty evening. Over Douai they were met by Albatros fighters of Jasla 11 and a furious fight ensued. Passing in and out of cloud cover, Lewis once more was fighting for his life. That night seven aircraft returned. One of those who did not was Captain Albert Ball, who was later awarded a posthumous VC. Both these incidents are recalled in Lewis's classic Sagittarius Rising.

Cecil Lewis had devoured copies of Flight and the Aero while still at Oundle. He learnt to fly at Brooklands: after one hour and 20 minutes in a Maurice Farman Longhorn he was judged fit to fly solo. Two weeks later he was a commissioned officer in France and flying patrols over the Fricourt salient. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he was detailed to observe the explosion of two huge mines laid deep under a German strongpoint by Sappers who had tunnelled under the enemy lines. Precisely on time, the explosion detonated and heaved two monstrous columns of earth 4,000 feet. It was the biggest man-made explosion until Nagasaki. Lewis recalled the columns

hanging there a moment as monumental and unbelievable as the Pillars of Hercules. Then came a gigantic roar, drowning the sound of the engine and the thundering guns. My machine was flung over like a scrap of paper in a gale. I righted it and watched while the debris slowly fell away to reveal, far below, the two white eyes of the crater. It was a magnificent overture to failure.

The enemy, alerted by movement below, had simply moved further back.

The empty chairs in the mess that followed death constantly haunted air crews. Ball's death was significant, but it was the death of Arthur Rhys David which moved Lewis profoundly. At his most poetic, Lewis described his feelings in Sagittarius Rising:

So Arthur had gone too. We had been great friends, not obvious inseparables, but joined securely by a deep-

er tie of understanding and being

understood. Sometimes returning from a patrol we would break off and chase each other round about the clouds, zooming their summits, plunging down their white precipitous flanks, darting like fishes through their shadowy crevasses and their secret caves: such pleasure lay in this that never did we seem more intimate that when we traced five-mile hyperbolas across the evening sky. And then to land, grin at each other, stroll into the mess arm-in-arm, still mentally aloft, away up there, remembering the clouds: find me more true perfection.

Having destroyed seven enemy aircraft and patrolled extensively time and time again across enemy lines, Lewis was awarded an MC.

After the war, Lewis was employed in Peking by Vickers as a flying instructor to the Chinese government. On his first day his six pupils arrived in long black silk robes, their hands hidden in their sleeves. They bowed a great deal and were most courteous but proved appalling pilots. While in Peking Lewis met Douska Horvath, the daughter of a Russian general, and, after a short courtship undertaken in French, he married her. In 1922 he returned with his bride to London; he described his time at the fledgling BBC as "riding a tiger of a big adventure".

While at the BBC he was taken under the wing of the artist Charles Ricketts, who awakened his creative heart, giving him a love of art and language. (When Lewis discovered a villa in Italy Ricketts gave him pounds 300 to buy it.) He also fell under the influence of Bernard Shaw. When Shaw visited him at Savoy House, he tentatively asked him to come back and read a play: he offered a fee of pounds 100. Aghast, Shaw replied, "With an audience of 100,000 people in a theatre at 5s [25p] a head, that's pounds 25,000. Assuming that I take 20 per cent, that works out at pounds 5,000. Can you afford that?" Lewis replied emphatically, "No." Shaw, with a twinkle, said, "You obviously cannot afford me, so I will do it for nothing." A month later he stood in front of a microphone and gave a 45-minute, flawless reading of O'Flaherty VC.

Over the following years Lewis would frequently be invited to lunch at Whitehall Court. Here Shaw would have four guests such as H.G. Wells, the boxer Gene Tunney, Aldous Huxley, Maurice Chevalier, the Webbs, the odd circus performer. At the end of one meal Shaw asked Lewis if he would walk a guest (Lewis had arrived late and missed his name) to Waterloo Station. He remembered the man as rather small with piercing blue eyes; he had mentioned he had been in the Middle East during the war, but was very keen to hear of Lewis's experiences on the Western Front. As they shook hands at the station Lewis said, "I'm terribly sorry, I didn't catch your name." "I'm sorry," came the reply. "Lawrence."

With the advent of talking pictures Shaw saw an opportunity to give his plays a wider audience. He allowed Lewis to adapt his one-act play How He Lied To Her Husband. The critics hated it, but it resulted in Lewis's being offered Arms and the Man, which proved too much for the inexperienced screenwriter, especially as Shaw would not allow a single word to be cut. At 34 with his first failure on his hands Lewis and his wife returned to China. In despair he decided to write of his wartime experiences; Sagittarius Rising was the result. To this day it is the definitive account of aerial combat - full of passion and poetry. Since publication it has never been out of print. It will be published by the Folio Society, as part of their 50th birthday programme, in 1998.

On the success of his book and with television emerging, Lewis became the Director of Outside Broadcasting at Alexandra Palace. However, when Sagittarius appeared in the United States, Paramount invited him over to write a script on the history of aviation. After several scripts and several months and with his contract nearly up, he was approached by Gabriel Pascal who wanted to make a film of Pygmalion but had been told by Shaw that he would only agree to it if Lewis wrote the script. The film (with Wendy Hiller, Leslie Howard and Stanley Holloway) was a box office success and Lewis picked up an Oscar.

After the brashness of Hollywood, Lewis journeyed to Tahiti to seek and find a simpler life, which he recorded in The Trumpet is Mine (1938). He then returned to Italy to write Challenge of the Night (also 1938). Just before the outbreak of the Second World War he came back to England to join the RAF as a flying instructor and even taught his son to fly. In his spare time he wrote Pathfinders (1943). He completed his service commanding a staging post in Catania, Sicily.

After the war he became interested in the work of Gurdjieff, who he mistakenly thought was dead. In a bizarre sequence of events, Lewis bought a plane and flew to South Africa, a journey recalled in Gemini to Joburg (1984), to set up a community based on Gurdjieff's ideas; only to find, once he was there, that Gurdjieff was alive and working in Paris. The experiment proved disastrous but he continued to study, and write and broadcast, about the teachings of Gurdjieff.

Lewis was employed by the United Nations Secretariat in New York from 1953 to 1955 to produce a weekly programme on the work of the Specialised Agencies. He then joined Associated Newspapers to work for the Daily Mail for 10 years before taking "formal retirement". Three years later, at the age of 71, he bought a 26ft boat and sailed to Corfu, with his wife Fanny, a story told in Turn Right for Corfu (1972), and continued to live there, cared for lovingly by his wife up to the time of his death.

He broadcast regularly for the BBC World Service on religious and philosophical themes well into his nineties. He had a compelling voice which could both intoxicate and entrance; he will be remembered for an interview with Sue Lawley at the age of 93 on Desert Island Discs. Recently he had been writing poetry: three months before his death a selection, Cecil Near a Hundred, was published in Corfu.

Lewis had an extraordinary vigour and curiosity for life. In his 94th year, he flew a Tiger Moth from a grass strip at Badminton and made a perfect landing in a 15-knot 90-degree cross-wind, much to the admiration of his co-pilot, who had been an instructor for 25 years. "Flying is just like riding a bike," he said. "You never forget how to do it." At the age of 98, as President of the Tiger Moth Club, he was unable to attend their annual dinner, so sent them a tape recording of his thoughts. In it, he spoke of flying and the influence of Joseph Conrad:

We who fly do so for the love of flying. We are alive in the air with this miracle that lies in our hands and beneath our feet. The pleasure of just getting up off the ground, getting into the air, getting our machine working, listening to the engine. Whatever it might be, you are master of it. You can take it up, bring it down, roll it, loop it, and all yourself. It's terrific egoism. You can't get that feeling in anything else, that feeling of leaving the earth, of going to heaven and really lifting yourself up off this flat dish of earth into the three dimensions of God.

In Sagittarius Rising he wrote: "You should live gloriously, generously, dangerously. Safety last!"

Cecil Arthur Lewis, broadcaster, aviator and writer: born Birkenhead 29 March 1898; MC 1918; married three times (one son, one daughter); died London 27 January 1997.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in