OBITUARY:Donald Baverstock

Leonard Miall
Saturday 18 March 1995 00:02 GMT

Around the table at the weekly meeting of the BBC Television Talks department in the Fifties and early Sixties, when I was the departmental head, there was a profusion of production talent. Grace Wyndham Goldie, Huw Wheldon, David Attenborough, Paul Fox, Alasdair Milne, Michael Peacock and many others were later to provide the leadership of British television. The most voluble, usually the most stimulating, and often the most exasperating, was Donald Baverstock, the Editor and begetter of Tonight. That programme pioneered the transformation of the BBC away from mandarin broadcasting, several years before Hugh Greene was hailed as the liberating Director- General.

Baverstock, a dynamic Welshman who had read history at Oxford after wartime experience as a bomber navigator, had a remarkably well-stocked mind. He joined us after producing radio current affairs programmes for the World Service, and cut his teeth on television programmes that were easy to direct such as Facts and Figures and Press Conference. He helped Grace Wyndham Goldie with her television greetings to celebrate Churchill's 80th birthday. Faced with the challenge of producing a programme which would not look like a premature obituary, Baverstock suggested that Churchill's close colleagues and friends should address him personally by speaking directly to the camera lens. He also produced an enterprising series of programmes about British industry presented by Aidan Crawley. It was entitled The Edge of Success, though Baverstock, in his sardonic way, called it "The Brink of Failure".

The start of ITV in 1955 gave the BBC a daily increase of 30 minutes' television time, but no more studio space or film resources. Every production studio at Lime Grove was fully committed, so Cecil McGivern, the programme controller, planned to fill the new time from 7 to 7.30pm with a quarter of an hour's news from Alexandra Palace, followed by a daily television version of The Archers produced in Birmingham.

Unfortunately The Archers' pilot programmes were substandard, and at short notice McGivern asked me to provide a substitute daily programme which would have to be mounted, alongside a weather forecast, from the small Lime Grove presentation studio. That was the origin of Highlight, which Donald Baverstock produced brilliantly with no film resources or studio rehearsal time, and not much programme allowance, but plenty of bright ideas.

The Archers may have muffed their own television launch, but with panache they pre-empted the press coverage of ITV's Guildhall launch by making Grace Archer die in an attempt to save a horse from a blazing barn. Baverstock immediately arranged to have The Archers' writers interviewed on Highlight by its first presenter, MacDonald Hastings. He introduced the item with the words "And now for a slight case of murder". Castigated for causing national grief, they countered by demanding "Why blame us? Did people blame Shakespeare for the death of Desdemona?"

Highlight's other presenters, Cliff Michelmore and Geoffrey Johnson Smith, had both previously worked as television producers. There were usually three interviews, some serious, some light-hearted, often down the line to a regional studio. Baverstock, with Alasdair Milne, took endless trouble to establish a style of questioning that was finely honed and precise. Most interview programmes at that time tended to be soft or obsequious. The programme acquired both authority and a large loyal following.

After 18 months the limited facilities of Highlight made Baverstock and Milne restive. They wanted to make something more ambitious. At ITV's behest the Post Office again allowed an increase in viewing hours, this time closing the gap between 6 and 7pm. McGivern was uncharacteristically indecisive about how to fill what was called the "Toddlers' Truce". Goldie and I persuaded him to accept Baverstock's idea of a daily topical magazine based on Highlight. Thus, in February 1957, Tonight began, from 6.05 to 6.45 from Monday to Friday, with the jazz programme Six Five Special filling the space on Saturday.

At last Baverstock had film resources to deploy. With Tony Essex (his film editor on The Edge of Success), he produced brilliant film vignettes featuring an expanded team of fresh reporters. They included Polly Elwes, hitherto an announcer, Alan Whicker from the Exchange Telegraph news agency (Baverstock dubbed him "the cheeky chappie") and a number of excellent performers recruited from the dying Picture Post: Kenneth Allsop, Slim Hewitt, Trevor Philpott and Fyfe Robertson, the scourge of the bureaucrats.

As presenters Michelmore and Johnson Smith were joined by Derek Hart. The programme often included pungent comment in the form of calypsos sung by Cy Grant or Rex Harrison's son Noel. Tonight became compulsive viewing and Baverstock created a talented new production team. The Editor, with all those not directly needed in the studio, would watch the transmission of Tonight in a darkened viewing room - Baverstock could never bring himself to accept that most viewers watched with the lights on - and he would then dissect each item of the programme with merciless criticism. His team respected his creative vision despite what was often intolerably rude behaviour.

In 1958 the egregious Tahu Hole ceased to be the Editor of BBC News and Hugh Greene restored freedom to what he said had become the Kremlin of the BBC. Hole's successor, Donald Edwards, asked McGivern to lend him three of the best television producers to diagnose what was wrong with BBC television news. Ian Atkins, a senior drama producer, and the two rival whiz-kids from Television Talks, Michael Peacock, Editor of Panorama, and Donald Baverstock, Editor of Tonight, went to Alexandra Palace and made radical recommendations for improvement.

Three years later, following a reshuffle of senior BBC posts, one of the whiz-kids, Peacock, was made Editor of Television News and the other, Baverstock, promoted to become Assistant Controller of Television Programmes, under the new Controller, Stuart Hood. It was a position that required a good deal more diplomacy than Baverstock could muster. He had a healthy scepticism about traditional assumptions but was better at generating ideas and questions than at the management of talented colleagues older than himself.

The Peacock-Baverstock rivalry intensified with the establishment of the BBC's second television channel. Baverstock became Chief of Programmes for BBC1, Peacock for BBC2. They competed ruthlessly for resources, money and programme offers, with Hood as the luckless arbiter. When Hood left abruptly in 1965, there was a long, unhappy power vacuum at Television Centre. A strong new programme controller was sorely needed. Eventually the task was offered to Huw Wheldon, as voluble as Baverstock, and even more Welsh, for he could speak the language. Wheldon made it a condition of acceptance that Baverstock and Peacock should exchange roles. Baverstock agonised for a long time; he was less decisive than his reputation. Eventually he resigned. Alasdair Milne decided to leave too, and with Tony Jay, also formerly of Tonight, they formed one of the earliest firms of independent producers.

In 1967, after taking part in an unsuccessful bid for the new ITV franchise in Yorkshire, Baverstock was engaged by the winners, Yorkshire Television Ltd, as their first Programme Director. He and his wife Gill, the daughter of Enid Blyton, moved with their family to Ilkley and Baverstock took on the new role of a horsy country gentleman. After establishing shows which lifted Yorkshire into the top ITV programme league, he sought to return to the BBC as Controller, Wales. However the Governors who interviewed him were put off by his casual behaviour. Eventually when he did return to the BBC in Manchester for two years as an executive producer, the programmes for which he was responsible were sadly disappointing. He was his own enemy of promise.

Leonard Miall

Donald Leighton Baverstock, television producer: born 18 January 1924; Producer, BBC General Overseas Service 1950-54, Television Talks Department 1954-57, Editor, Tonight 1957-61, Assistant Controller, Television Programmes 1961-63, Chief of Programmes, BBC1 1963-65; partner, Jay, Baverstock, Milne & Co 1965-67; Director of Programmes, Yorkshire TV 1967-73; managing director, Granada Video 1974-75; Executive Producer, Television, BBC Manchester 1975-77; married 1957 Gillian Durrell Waters (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1994); died Keighley 17 March 1995.

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