History of the BBC

History of the BBC

8. Reith postwar

Lord Reith
Reith and producer Hugh Burnett on Face to Face 1961

Postwar 1945-1971

'I could do such a lot, you know'


After the war, Reith held a succession of jobs reserved for the great and the good, but never did he hold the influence of his BBC years.  Instead he regularly complained of being overlooked. His attitude to the BBC remained icy, though with occasional thaws if he was flattered enough by whoever was in charge at the time.  And his old thunder returned when the Churchill government decided to end the BBC monopoly and introduce ITV.


War work honoured

'Not a friend of Churchill's'


Reith left his Navy job officially in December 1944. In the 1945 New Year's honours his work was recognised when he was made a Companion of the Bath (CB), an award given to senior civil servants and military officers.  But typically, he still had a moan. The announcement in The Times was in print too small for his liking; and the man who succeeded him as Minister of Works, Lord Portal, had been promoted to Viscount, a higher rank of the peerage than Reith's.  'Shameful', he called it, and  blamed his old adversary the Prime Minister: 'Of course he is a friend of Churchill's'. 


A letter to Mr Churchill

'Very sorry that the fortunes of war should have proved so adverse to you'


Churchill lost the 1945 election and in January 1946 Reith wrote to him, with a long letter he said he'd been wanting to write for more than two years.  He   complained about his 'utter shock' at the way Churchill had sacked him and said that even when he was a minister he was never stretched. 'You could have used me in a way and to an extent you never realised.' Churchill replied sympathetically.  He was 'unfeignedly sorry' for Reith's pain 'which I understand very fully'.  He himself had been out of office for eleven years before the war, during which time he had wanted to be involved. But he also told Reith that whenever he considered him for a job, there was opposition because people said he was difficult to get on with. Churchill wrote: 'I am very sorry that the fortunes of war should have proved so adverse to you, and I feel the State is in your debt.'


The job hunter

'Isn't there some big job you would like me to do?'


Reith's postwar jobs included a globetrotting inquiry into Commonwealth communications and chairing a subsequent conference. He also worked – unpaid – compiling the 1946 Reith Report into developing new towns around London.  For almost a decade, between 1950 and 1959, he chaired the Colonial Development Corporation and he held a string of directorships. But he really hankered for the big jobs: like running the United Nations or the new National Coal Board.  'Starting up something new is my line' he wrote. When Lord Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy of India in the run-up to independence, he mourned: 'That is the job I most wanted on earth gone for good' and it had gone to 'the playboy Mountbatten', a 'fraud and a counterfeit'. Even in his sixties and seventies Reith was still looking for a high-powered role. When Clement Attlee was re-elected in 1950 he wrote plaintively: 'Isn't there some big job you would like me to do? I could do such a lot, you know.'  Fourteen years later, when Reith was 75, he appealed to another Labour Prime Minister, this time Harold Wilson, telling him: 'the more difficult the job the better.'


The vacant chair

'Reith speaking, you really are not up to the job'


Reith's relations with the BBC after he left in 1938 were distant. He admitted in 1946 that he had hardly listened to any BBC output since leaving, except for the occasional news bulletin and election broadcasts. When Robert Foot started his first day as Director General in 1942, he received a phone call:  'This is Reith speaking, you really are not up to the job and you should go at once.' The former DG boycotted the BBC's 21st anniversary dinner in 1943, saying  'the lunch should have been given to me'; and when William Haley got his old job as Director General in 1944, he persisted in calling him 'Bailey' in his diary. 


But flattery got Haley everywhere.  In 1946, Reith heard the new DG had been saying nice things about him and offered a meeting at which Haley was again complimentary.  A short time later BBC engineers installed a wireless and television set at Reith's home; and there was more flattery when he told Reith of plans for annual Reith Lectures.  There could well have been an ulterior motive for Reith's rapprochement.  There was a vacancy for the chairmanship.  It eventually went to a Labour peer Lord Simon of Wythenshaw and his example should have given Reith food for thought.  Simon said he, like the politically independent Reith, had unsuccessfully asked Attlee for a job.  But once he joined the Labour Party, Simon got a peerage and became BBC chairman.


The ice age returns

'It would be horribly insincere to go to Broadcasting House feeling as I do.'


Reith's relationship with the next Director General Sir Ian Jacob, who got the job in 1952, was much frostier.  Jacob had never worked at the BBC under Reith, and had been a close wartime ally of Reith's bête noir, Winston Churchill, as deputy secretary of the War Cabinet.  What's more, Jacob, like Reith, served in the Royal Engineers, but had achieved a much higher rank.   In 1953 Reith and Jacob agreed to have lunch, but it was an uncomfortable affair.  Each was determined not to talk about broadcasting and their lunch lasted less than 90 minutes.  There was a now a new iciness in the relationship with the Corporation.  Reith turned down an invitation to dine with senior managers and to a dinner in honour of his former deputy Charles Carpendale, even though Reith had suggested it: 'It would be horribly insincere to go to Broadcasting House feeling as I do.'  He believed the BBC was going downhill.  He was disgusted by a decision to televise greyhound racing, an activity he once described as 'the most significant manifestation of public depravity that I have seen.'   Showing it on television was, he thought, 'degradation and prostitution'.  He was also probably jealous of Jacob.  A few years later, when Reith was almost 70, he heard rumours Jacob might become Secretary General of Nato.  Jacob later revealed that Reith wrote to him, asking if the rumours were true and wondering about his chances of becoming DG again.


The End of the Monopoly

'Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country.'


As Britain went into the 1950s, British broadcasting was much like it was when Reith left the BBC: a monopoly run as a public service overseen by governors.  But under the Conservative government elected in 1951, proposals surfaced to introduce a new model; a second television service funded by advertising. Reith was outraged.  He had campaigned for what he called 'the brute force of monopoly' back when the BBC was still a company; and he believed setting up ITV would bring only falling standards. In a speech in the House of Lords in May 1952, he fulminated against those saying commercial television worked in other countries and should be introduced into Britain.  Not everything new was good, he argued:


'Somebody introduced dog-racing into England…. And somebody introduced Christianity and printing and the uses of electricity. And somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country… Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.'


Even when ITV was firmly established, Reith had not changed his view.  On the BBC programme Face to Face in 1960, he described ending the monopoly as 'one of the most  deplorable mistakes ever made in public affairs'.


The Godfather

'Life is for living'


While Reith feared for the moral well-being of the nation, he was immune to questions about his own morality.  When he took a flat in Westminster after the war, he got Joyce Wilson, his wartime secretary, another flat in the same block.  He also tried to get her a job with the BBC using his new friendship with the DG Sir William Haley.  In 1949 he met another protégée, 19-year-old Dawn MacKay.  As time went on, he became a regular visitor to the family home and took her to the theatre and expensive restaurants, introducing her as his god-daughter.  She told him 'life is for living' – advice that late in life he tried to give to others.  Dawn insists the relationship was innocent.  Speaking on Greg Dyke on Reith, shown on BBC4 in 2007, she admitted she was fascinated by him, but any suggestion the relationship was sexual was 'grotesque'.  Also interviewed in that programme was Reith's secretary and confidante at the time,  Barbara Hickman.  She too says nothing sexual went on between Reith and Dawn, but Reith also told her he was sometimes sexually aroused. Why did Reith form such attachments?  He shocked Dawn by telling her that his wife Muriel was 'no suitable consort'. So, why marry her?. His reply went back more than 40 years, to his relationship with Charlie Bowser: 'Somebody else that I didn't particularly like was interested in her, so I thought I would see if I could cut him out.”  


Near-fatal attraction

'Just pull the trigger.'


Reith was obsessed with Dawn – to the distress of Lady Reith.  One night in 1961, as Dawn returned home from a night out,  she received a disturbing call from 'Lord John' as she called him, who was alone in his flat.  He told her he had a gun and wanted to shoot himself. Dawn was trained for this: she did voluntary work for the Samaritans. But Reith's state of mind exasperated her. After nearly two hours on the phone, she lost her patience. 'Just pull the trigger,' she said, and there was a bang at the end of the line. He had dropped the gun. Next day, her father rang Reith and ordered him to bring  the gun over to him. 


A new name for the hate list

'Only the fourth person of the Trinity would be good enough for the daughter of a Reith.'


Reith's diaries are packed with complaints about politicians and public figures. He compiled a hate list. Churchill, was on it; so were the Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden 'namby-pamby, rabbit teeth, a hollow third rater'; the Labour politician Hugh Dalton 'he couldn't have been more civil – or more insincere'; and Lord Mountbatten 'playboy, fraud and counterfeit'.   But strangely the list also included an unnkown future Church of Scotland minister called Murray Leishman. The reason was he had met Reith's daughter Marista while they were both students at St Andrew's University and they wanted to marry.  Reith, who had sent his son Christopher to Eton and pulled strings to get him into Oxford, clearly thought she could have chosen better, though as George MacLeod, founder of the religious Iona Community and a former neighbour of Reith's in Glasgow, put it: 'Only the fourth person of the Trinity would be good enough for the daughter of a Reith.'  Reith was so unhappy about the impending marriage in 1960 that he was undecided whether to go to the wedding.  He turned up at the last moment and left during the speeches. When Marista and Murray  appeared unexpectedly at his house on Christmas Day 1960, he had difficulty shaking his son-in-law's hand.


The Swinging Sixties

'I lead, he follows'


The 1960s began with another thaw in Reith's relations with the BBC. He agreed to appear on television in the Sunday night Face to Face interview with John Freeman. This groundbreaking series featured guests ruthlessly framed in close-up: in Reith's case vividly highlighting the war wound in his left cheek. On leaving, he signed the visitors' book 'John Charles Walsham Reith, late BBC and regrets he ever left it.' By 1964, though, Reith was frostier to the BBC and was disparaging about its DG Hugh Greene: 'I lead, he follows the crowd in all the disgusting manifestations of the age… Without any reservation he gives the public what it wants; I would not, did not and said I wouldn't.'  In a letter to the retiring BBC chairman Arthur fforde in 1964 he said the BBC had lost dignity: 'It is no longer on the Lord's side.  I am sorry I ever had anything to do with it.'  Even a family programme like the early Saturday evening Juke Box Jury roused Reith to anger. He called it 'evil'.


The Lord High Commissioner

'D'ye not yet realise, woman, that I'm the Queen's representative in this land?'


Reith's final years in the public eye were back in his native Scotland. From 1965 until 1968 he was the elected Lord Rector of Glasgow University. And in 1967 he achieved a rare honour representing the Queen at the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As Lord High Commissioner, for a week in May he took precedence over everyone in Scotland except the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. The man who always wanted to become Viceroy of India was briefly Viceroy of Scotland and he was all-too-aware of it. When the official car turned up and his wife started to get in first, he pulled her back, telling her: 'D'ye not yet realise, woman, that I'm the Queen's representative in this land?' Reith was asked to perform the task again in 1968, but by then he had developed heart trouble and had a pacemaker fitted. In 1970 he and Muriel moved back to Scotland to live in a grace and favour house owned by the Queen. It was a short stay. In May 1971 Reith had a bad fall at home and broke his thigh.  He was taken to hospital where on June 16th 1971 he died.  He was cremated and his ashes are buried at Rothiemurchus Church in Perthshire. 


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