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Huw Wheldon

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Huw Wheldon
Legendary BBC broadcaster Sir Huw Wheldon was born in Prestatyn, Wales in 1916. His father, Sir Wynn Wheldon, was a prominent educationalist, who had been awarded the DSO for gallantry in the First World War. His grandfather, Tomos Jones Wheldon, had been the Moderator of the Calvinist Methodist Church in Wales. His mother, Megan Edwards, was an accomplished pianist.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 Wheldon joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but subsequently applied for transfer to the Parachute Regiment, and joined the Royal Ulster Rifles, with whom he flew into Normandy. He was awarded the Military Cross for an act of bravery on D-Day + 1.

After the war Wheldon joined the Arts Council of Wales, and then in 1951 became the Arts Council's administrator for the Festival of Britain, work for which he was awarded an OBE.

In 1952 he joined the BBC as a publicity officer, but he was keen to make programmes, and he made his first appearance on television running a nationwide conker competition, and thence became a familiar face on children's TV with his programme All Your Own.

He also began to produce and present adult programmes, such as Orson Welles' Sketchbook, Men in Battle with Sir Brian Horrocks, and Portraits of Power with Robert McKenzie.

But it was the arts magazine programme Monitor with which Wheldon truly made his mark on the cultural scene. He was the editor of the programme - in the sense in which a newspaper has an editor, a title still employed by Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show - and he set about molding a team of exceptional talents, including John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, Patrick Garland, David Jones, Humphrey Burton, John Berger, Peter Newington, Melvyn Bragg, Nancy Thomas and Alan Tyrer. Monitor ranged in subject over all the arts. The hundredth show was a film directed by Ken Russell and written by Wheldon, the celebrated Elgar.

Wheldon's Monitor lasted until he had "interviewed everyone I am interested in interviewing", and he was succeeded by Jonathan Miller. Monitor finished soon afterwards.

Wheldon now entered BBC management, becoming by turns Head of Documentaries and then Controller, BBC1. In 1968 he became Managing Director, BBC TV, a position he held until compulsory retirement in 1975. During this time Wheldon again gathered a team of the talents about him, promoting fellow programme makers such as David Attenborough and Paul Fox to high executive office, and the period of his administration, which has come to be known as 'the Golden Age of British Television' icluded programmes such as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad's Army, Civilization, The Ascent of Man, America, and plays by Dennis Potter and David Mercer among many others.

After he retired from management Wheldon co-wrote, with J.H. Plumb, and presented Royal Heritage a thirteen part series on the history of the British monarchy as expressed through the Royal collections, produced by Michael Gill. It achieved immense popularity ratings in 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Two other major documentaries followed, The Library of Congress and Destination D-Day.

Huw Wheldon was knighted in 1976 for services to broadcasting. Following his retirement from the BBC he became Chairman of the Court of the Governors of the London School of Economics, where he had read economics before the war. He disarmed potential sponsors of the school by eschewing flattery and opening negotiations with the bald statement that what he was after was their cash. He was also a formidable and active President of the Royal Television Society. An RTS Memorial Lecture in his name by a distinguished broadcaster is televised annually. Speakers have included David Sattenborough, Jeremy Isaacs, and, in 2005, a writer of whom he would have thoroughly approved, Paul Abbott. In addition to this, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) dispenses a Huw Wheldon Award for Specialist Factual Programme. There are also Wheldon bursaries and awards at the LSE and the University of Wales, Bangor.

Wheldon's lasting influence, other than as a programme maker, which was considerable, probably lies in the ways in which he articulated the needs and requirements of public service broadcasting. "To make the popular good and the good popular", "the aim is not to avoid failure, but to attempt success", "multiplicity does not mean choice", were among his favourite sayings. He also coined the term "narrowcasting".

Wheldon died of cancer in 1986. His ashes were spread anonymously in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where he had served as a Trustee, and which he had loved.

Huw Wheldon was highly regarded in the United States, where he had many friends, one of whom, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, caused Norman Podhoretz's obituary of his friend Wheldon to be entered into the Congressional Record.

Wheldon was married to the novelist Jacqueline Wheldon. They had three children.


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