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Ken Russell Huw Wheldon

Huw Wheldon

Wynn Wheldon interviewed by Iain Fisher about his father Huw Wheldon


Iain: Could you give an overview of your fathers life?

Wynn: My father was born in Prestatyn, Wales in 1916, and educated at Friars School, Bangor - he wasn't brilliantly academic, but he excelled in English; he spent a year - 1933 - in Soest in Germany.

He then went to the LSE [London School of Economics] to study economics, graduating with a II-ii, before joining the Kent Education Committee. His father was a senior educationalist and civil servant; he had also been a lawyer in Lloyd George's chambers [Lloyd George, British prime minister], and the two men were good friends.  Dad used to say that when 'LG' entered a room, even the furniture would dance.

When war broke out my father joined up as a private in Canterbury, subsequently being commissioned as an officer into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (his father had won the DSO in the same regiment in the First World War), before transferring to the Royal Ulster Rifles because he wanted to be a paratrooper.  He received the Military Cross for his actions on D Day + 1,  and finished the war as a Major. He was at Belsen a day after it was "'liberated"; he never ever spoke of it.

He then became Director of the Arts Council in Wales, and then Arts Officer for the Festival of Britain, for which he was awarded the OBE.  After the Festival of Britain he joined the BBC as Publicity Officer, but soon transferred to presenting - most famously the children's programme All Your Own.

He also produced programmes with Orson Welles and Brian Horrocks, both of whom became friends (Welles tried very hard to persuade him to become his Producer).  Among other things he produced live Prime Ministerial broadcasts by Churchill and Macmillan.


In 1958 'Monitor' was launched.  This was the first arts documentary programme, and for the time (and even by current standards) it garnered extraordinary viewing figures.  Going out fortnightly it would gain audiences of between three and four million people.  My father interviewed "everyone I wanted to" and then stopped.  He told me that the single most genius-like figure he interviewed was Marcel Duchamp.

Following 'Monitor' he began to rise through the ranks of management at the BBC, eventually becoming Managing Director, TV in 1968.  He remained there until his retirement in 1976.  He was passed over for the post of Director General (this is the general perception) because Lord Hill, Harold Wilson's stooge Chairman, feared the power of his personality; indeed my father was probably relieved not to have to deal directly with "the sodding governors", and to be able to concentrate on programme making.

In 1976 he took compulsory retirement, and began work on 'Royal Heritage" with the historian J.H. Plumb.  This was a thirteen part series which told the History of Britain through the art of its monarchs, art including everything from castles to faberge eggs.  It achieved enormous approval ratings.  Two more major documentaries followed, one on D-Day and another on the Library of Congress.

He became Chairman of the Court of Governors of the LSE, and sat on the boards of numerous institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery and Kew Gardens.

He died of cancer on 14 March, 1986, my sister Megan's 23rd birthday.

His commentaries on the films come over as avuncular and expert.  Was he widely read?  Did he do much research for the commentaries?

He was, by today's standards, widely read; certainly his best friends were all readers.  My mother was a novelist ['Mrs Bratbe's August Picnic' (1966)] and intellectual.  I know he had read Gibbon and Plato; he could recite Rilke in German; he had a good deal of time for Tolstoy.  He admired immensely Lincoln and Roosevelt.  His favourite films were True Grit and Monsieur Hulot's Vacances.  His favourite composer (human being?) was Bach - he loved music (his mother had been a concert-level pianist; his sister played harp for the ENO- English National Opera), from Poulenc to Ellington; he enjoyed Dick Francis novels, The Two Ronnies [British tv comedy] made him laugh.  He loved singing.

So far as 'research' is concerned, certainly he did all his own work; he also memorised all to-camera stuff (he never used an autocue).  One of the virtues of his interviewing style was his refusal to play 'clever'; "ignore the obvious at your peril" he used to say.  The obvious questions were often the best.

Should you want to know more about my father, you will find good information in the DNB [Dictionary of National Biography], in Leonard Miall's 'Inside the BBC', in Planet 83, in Ken Russell's autobiography, in Jonah Jones's Gallipoli Diary, and in a third rate biography by Paul Ferris, entitled, bafflingly, 'Sir Huge'. There are all sorts of other sources, too numerous to mention. Humphrey Burton dedicated an excellent RTS Wheldon lecture to the subject of 'Monitor'; it may be possible to get a transcript from the Royal Television Society - I don't know.


IŽll try and find the Monitor paper, I'm particularly interested in how the programme emerged.

"Television and the arts" was a lecture given by Dad in 1964, and published by the BBC (the BBC did that kind of thing in those days). It pretty much outlines my father's philosophy

In the Introduction to the Monitor anthology my father described KR as "the most original, unpredictable mind among us". I suspect what he liked in Russell was his zeal and commitment; these were qualities he liked in anybody - indeed character was more important to my father than the content of one's achievement. "Ideas are ten a penny" he often used to say.

Elgar and actors in films

However, he also hated that which brought attention to the film-maker and distracted from the subject. The famous rows he had with KR about using actors in documentaries centred around his convictions that it was gimmicky, it was untruthful and it was lazy. He hated the whole Hollywood schlock of "there's a guy at the back door who says his name is Schubert". My father, although uncredited, more or less wrote the commentary for Elgar (Russell would never claim to be a great wordsmith), and I believe it provides the gravity and edge so woefully missing from the atrocious (very sad) remake of the other month. The original Elgar is a spine-tingling piece of work, a paean in word and picture to the music of a great composer. The remake is cheerless, loveless, forlorn.


What do you think of Ken Russell's work after Monitor?

When I was young I was a great fan of D.H. Lawrence, and I found KR's Women in Love an appalling travesty. I was never personally very keen from that point in. I believe my father's general view was that KR was overindulged and his talent wasted.


Did you ever meet Ken Russell. If so what was your impression?

I met him several times as a child. I recall rotundity and a rather lovely voice and accent.

Ten years ago or so I saw him being interviewed at the Groucho Club. I went over and introduced myself, and was utterly blanked. He is a shy man - that is my charitable excuse for his behaviour.


Did you ever meet John Schlesinger [Ken Russell's predecessor in Monitor]. If so what was your impression?

Yes. A lovely man. I'm afraid he spoke more or less entirely about my father for an hour or so - the length of the meeting; so my impression is thoroughly biased. His films will last a good deal longer than dear old Ken's. They're articulate, and about something other than himself.


Is Melvyn Bragg fulfilling the same role as your father in the Monitor days.

Not really, no. I don't think either of them would consider that they are fulfilling roles. I do however think that Melvyn's broadcasting ethics are pretty much those he inherited from my father, and that he believes that TV can illuminate our lives.


Wynn Wheldon


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