Obituary: Nesta Pain

Charles Hodgson
Wednesday 26 July 1995 23:02 BST

Nesta Pain eventually became the doyenne of writer-directors in the features department of the BBC. But when she first arrived in London in 1942 to join the corporation, having travelled from Liverpool with her 15-year-old daughter in the middle of the Second World War to a city much in danger from air raids, it must have seemed a reckless move.

She was born Nesta Taylor in the Wirral in 1905. By 1942 she had achieved a First in Classics from Liverpool University, had been to Somerville College, Oxford, for a year and had written a play which had been performed in London by a Sunday Afternoon Professional Theatre Club. She was awarded a temporary contract by the BBC and immediately started writing for Bush House and for the newly created Features Department, by which time she was separated from her husband Cord Pain.

Her work for Bush House brought her to the attention of John Grenfell- Williams and her work for the Features Department, particularly a programme on Sleeping Sickness, introduced her work to Lindsay Wellington. The idea that the Features Department would concentrate on scientific programmes written by Pain was promoted by Wellington, who had also read the script and wanted to encourage the production of scientific programmes on radio. Pain got on with the scientific power figures of the Forties and Fifties and she was on excellent terms with Sir Henry Dale and Sir Alexander Fleming of penicillin fame.

Her promotion by Wellington confirmed Pain in her job and between then and her retirement in 1970 she wrote some of the most significant programmes of the Features Department. Her strong historical interest inspired her to write programmes which used the letters and language of the period to bring incidents and characters to life. She brought to the microphone in their own words Nelson, Byron, Fox and Pitt.

During the war her inquiring mind prompted her to undertake a programme on the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe at his hospital in East Grinstead, where he was cosmetically repairing badly burned airmen. In order to understand the problems of the surgeon and his patients in their plastic surgery she spent hours in the operating theatre and continued to follow the progress of the patients on the wards. "Tickle this," said an airman showing her the palm of his hand. "You will be tickling my tummy." It was not a project for the faint-hearted.

In the early Fifties, Pain commissioned John Mortimer's first radio play, Dock Brief (1958), in which a bumbling second-class barrister, admirably played by Michael Hordern, was taken on as defending counsel by a rather sharp petty criminal. The play was subsequently produced as part of a double bill in the theatre and was followed by a radio version of Mortimer's autobiographical Voyage Round My Father (1970), which also transferred to the theatre as a full-length play.

Nesta Pain's own historical documentaries included a serialised version of the life of Queen Victoria, with Peggy Ashcroft as the Queen, and plays on Byron's love life and Nelson's. She also co-directed a serial version of War and Peace which was a star production of the Sixties. While writing regular programmes for the BBC she also wrote and published a book, The King and Becket, in which she vehemently took Henry II's side against Becket; she followed that with a book on the Empress Mathilda, and one on The Private Life of George the Third.

For a long time her name was mainly associated with her programmes on the work of Jean Henri Fabre, the 19th-century French insect man, whose world she brought frighteningly to life. She worked briefly in television, where she produced Simon Raven's military drama documentary A Move Up Country, but was never as comfortable in television as she was in radio.

She wrote short plays for Joan Miller and Dorothy Tutin and also several son et lumiere productions. She wrote tapes for the Science Museum and to the end of her life was writing and working after an operation on her eyes had rescued her sight. She was very gregarious with the actors in her personal repertory, with whom she had excellent working relationships.

The scope of Pain's broadcasting output considerably enlarged the range of the BBC's programming and the confidence with which she approached scientists, psychologists and historians enabled her to widen the depth and content of her writing.

She continued her scholastic interests long after she had left the BBC and was still writing in her eighties. In many ways Nesta Pain was a woman of the Nineties in the Fifties: a scholar of questioning outlook who also hugely enjoyed the novels of Dick Francis and was keenly interested in racing.

Charles Hodgson

Nesta Florence Taylor, broadcaster: born the Wirral 27 July 1905; married Cord Pain (deceased; one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 23 July 1995.

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