Obituary: Owen Reed

Leonard Miall
Sunday 13 July 1997 23:02 BST

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Owen Reed, who headed BBC Children's Television when Blue Peter started, and later ran BBC Staff Training, had theatre to his blood. He was the nephew of the actor Sir Lewis Casson, who treated him as a son. Casson's wife, Dame Sybil Thorndike, also had a great affection for the young actor who had trained at her sister's drama school.

Reed's father was a professor of English at King's College London, and he himself read Greats at Christ Church, Oxford. He then spent a couple of years in provincial repertory theatre before applying in 1934 for a radio producer's post in Birmingham. Reed and his newly married wife, Paddy Goscombe, a social worker, were invited to the station by the Midland Regional Director, Percy Edgar, to be looked over. After a visit to the ladies' cloakroom Paddy Reed understood Mrs Edgar to say: "Where's my purse?" "You probably left it in the cloakroom," Paddy suggested. "No," said Mrs Edgar. "I mean my husband!"

Reed spent three years in Birmingham, first working on Outside Broadcasts and then as a producer of radio features and drama. In 1939, after training at Eileen Thorndike's Embassy School of Acting, he became a member of the Old Vic company which toured Egypt and a number of European countries from Portugal to Greece under the sponsorship of the British Council. Andrew Cruickshank, Alec Guinness and Cathleen Nesbitt were also among the company, which was led by Lewis Casson. They sailed, with their scenery, props and costumes in the liner Alcantara. They docked at Lisbon and Reed watched with horror their scenery being lowered into the grimy waters of the Tague by Portuguese crane operators.

During the Second World War Reed served in the Royal Tank Regiment in the United Kingdom and Egypt. He then joined SOE and was dropped behind the enemy lines in Yugoslavia as an intelligence officer to provide help for Tito. This was highly secret work, and his wife did not know where he was or what he was doing. All she knew was the arrival of a regular payment for "potatoes". Once Reed struggled to make his way by night with a heavy load of explosives to blow up a bridge over the Danube. When he finally got there he found that the RAF had done the job already, the previous day.

Reed eventually became the head of the Allied military mission to Tito's Croatian headquarters. After the Germans withdrew from Yugoslavia in the spring of 1945 he went with the partisans by motorbike to Zagreb, where he became the British Military Attache and combined diplomatic work with humanitarian aid. He was awarded the military OBE. When he returned to Britain he was debriefed by, among others, Kim Philby.

In the immediate post-war period the BBC's West Region, based at Bristol, became a major production centre under its new Director, Gerald Beadle, and his Head of Programmes, Frank Gillard, the former chief war correspondent. Desmond Hawkins, from War Report, came to found the Natural History Unit. Reed joined as a drama producer, initially for radio. He adapted many of the Thomas Hardy novels for broadcasting, and had the enterprise to persuade Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose special music for the dramatisation of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

After the opening of the Wenvoe transmitter in 1952, which brought television to South Wales and the West of England, Reed underwent a television training course in London. Bristol still lacked a production studio so most of Reed's programmes took the form of outside broadcasts. His first was a performance from the Theatre Royal, Bristol, with Wendy Hiller starring as Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He was an excellent producer who always paid a meticulous attention to detail. Having been an actor himself he was good at dealing with casts and was a great encourager.

Reed produced several plays for children's television, then headed by Freda Lingstrom. When she retired in 1956, Reed rather than her deputy, Ursula Eason, was chosen to succeed her. He introduced many new programmes. Some were contributed from Manchester, which was the first station outside London to have a television production studio. The first of these, for tinies, was Pinky and Perky. Then came a magazine for older children presented by Judith Chalmers and called Children's Television Club. Reed took a great interest in this programme and soon brought it to London, giving it the new name of Blue Peter which continues 40 years on. So does Judith Chalmers, on another channel.

Reed was publicly described by a colleague as "a perfectionist, questing and seeking to push back the protective net surrounding television for children". But he began to have trouble when Stuart Hood, the Controller of Programmes, and his deputy Donald Baverstock, who had little talent for man-management, started to reform the television programme departments. "You are too bloody middle-class!" Baverstock told Reed, in his charming way. Reed courteously replied: "I don't mind being middle-class as long as it doesn't rub off on my programmes."

Around the same time two other programme heads regarded by Baverstock as too middle-class, Light Entertainment's Eric Maschwitz, and Drama's Michael Barry, were edged out of BBC Television. Reed himself was given a rough ride. In 1963 eight drama producers in children's television, some of them highly experienced, were transferred to the newly formed Drama Group under Sydney Newman. Reed, then left with a small budget, found himself having to defend programmes for which he had not been responsible, such as a version of Oliver Twist which he regarded as unnecessarily violent.

Reed was transferred in 1964 to become Head of Staff Training for the BBC, which he did very well, for he was an inspired teacher. He enjoyed passing on his skills to new generations in both radio and television. He also took a particular interest in the training of overseas broadcasters, a task which the BBC was increasingly being asked to undertake. As a conscientious public servant he described that work in one of the BBC's Lunchtime Lectures.

"Broadcasting," he said, "must be made to be information's champion. We have seen how it can be bread and circuses for stupefied populations, or a lifeline, as I think the BBC discovered during the war, when broadcast truth steadied the world's nerve, broadcast education reassured uprooted children, broadcast stories and laughter took fear from frightened people."

Leonard Miall

Owen Perceval Elrington Reed, television producer: born London 13 September 1910; staff, BBC 1934-37, 1946-73, drama producer, West Region 1946-56, Head of Children's Programmes, Television 1956-63, Head of Staff Training 1964-73; OBE 1946; married 1934 Paddy Goscombe (died 1991; two sons, two daughters); died Lavant, West Sussex 8 July 1997.

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