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My life in alcohol at the Beeb by Wilfred De'Ath.' In 1961, I joined BBC Radio features as a producer. At 23, I think I was the youngest producer in the Corporation. Now I am the last man standing'

Regulars | By Wilfred De'Ath


'In 1961, I joined BBC Radio features as a producer. At 23, I think I was the youngest producer in the Corporation. Now I am the last man standing'

In 1961, I joined BBC Radio features as a producer. At 23, I think I was the youngest producer in the Corporation. Now I am the last man standing. (I discount my dear friend Melvyn Bragg who, in those days, was only a trainee. Imagine that: senior to ‘Lord’ Bragg.)

In the features department, they still talked about Dylan Thomas (and his drinking), who had died eight years earlier. His producer, Douglas Cleverdon, who directed Under Milk Wood, was still there. (I eventually married his secretary.)

I once saw Brendan Behan measuring his length in his own vomit in the George, the BBC pub in Great Portland Street. I was friendly with his younger brother Dominic, a much nicer chap.

I shared an office for six months with the poet Louis MacNeice, who was employed to write radio features. He was a cold fish. I don’t think we ever exchanged a friendly word. He was too busy selling off his manuscripts to various American universities. Possibly he resented my overhearing his conversations. He died soon afterwards.

Louis would get up in the morning, sniff the air and try to decide whether it was a Guinness or a gin-and-tonic day. If it was the latter, he would go drinking with the legendary radio reporter René Cutforth, another fearsome imbiber. René became my mentor. I learned a great deal from him, mainly about how to spend a huge amount of money between us on drink. We would be given £80 advance expenses, intended for taxis and hospitality to contributors. We would get through René’s £50 in a single lunchtime session in the George. Then I would be asked to produce my more modest £30 and we would go to a drinking club, the Marie Lloyd, for the afternoon. It was a baptism in alcohol. We never did any work. The Marie Lloyd steps were very steep. It was like descending into Hell.

As our Radio 4 (Home Service then) deadline approached, René would be locked in an office with a pitcher of black coffee by our producer, Francis (‘Jack’) Dillon, and told to write the script. One day, he was still writing while we were actually on air. Even Jack, notoriously unflappable, looked nervous.

Briefly, I shared an office with Melvyn, now Lord Bragg. I noticed that, when he threw a piece of crumpled paper, a discarded script perhaps, across the room, it ALWAYS went straight into the waste-paper bin. I achieved this about fifty per cent of the time. I knew then that Melvyn would be a great man and I a relative failure.

However, I had the sponsorship of Huw Wheldon, another great man, who, when I was trying to get into TV, interviewed me with his feet up on his desk. He spent most of the time telling me how wonderful Melvyn was.

Our radio equivalent to Wheldon was Laurence Gilliam, strictly a radio man but another great man, nevertheless. He was once kind enough to tell me that I was better at radio than Melvyn, who was strictly TV.

My daughter, who now works as a television producer, tells me that the BBC has changed – no more excellent radio features, no more drinking on expenses. Those were the days. No regrets.


This story was from Summer 2017 issue. Subscribe Now