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Greene, Sir Hugh (1910-1987)


Main image of Greene, Sir Hugh (1910-1987)

A decisive influence on British broadcasting at a critical period in its history, Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Greene presided over a radical transformation of the BBC's output as Director-General from 1960 to 1969.

Under his liberal leadership, subjects that had previously been persistently avoided found their way onto the air. He introduced satire with That Was The Week That Was (1962-63) and encouraged the realistic police drama of Z Cars (1962-78), the unconventional sitcoms Steptoe and Son (1962-74) and Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75), and the often controversial but critically acclaimed The Wednesday Play (1964-70). Some regard this period as the heyday of BBC television programming.

Hugh Carleton Greene was born on 15 November 1910, at Berkhamsted, one of four sons (including Graham Greene, the novelist-screenwriter) of a former headmaster. He was educated at Berkhamsted and Merton College, Oxford.

After leaving Oxford in 1933 he worked for a time in Munich as a correspondent of the New Statesman and of the Daily Herald. He became the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph when, in 1939, he was expelled from Germany as an official act of reprisal for the ousting of certain Germans from Britain. After the outbreak of war he covered events as a war correspondent, had a short spell in the RAF as a pilot officer, and was assigned to the BBC to help with propaganda broadcasts to Germany.

After the war, he helped reorganise West Germany's broadcast services. It was on his return to the BBC that he moved to the senior ranks of the Corporation. From 1952 to 1955 Greene was assistant controller of the BBC Overseas Services, becoming controller in 1955. He was the BBC's first director of news and current affairs for two years before moving up to the top management job, Director-General, in January 1960.

The commercial competition of ITV, which had overcome its initial financial troubles, was going from strength to strength with its array of popular quiz programmes, American imports, and variety shows. Determined to take BBC Television into a new age, Greene moved it into the popular entertainment market and freed its journalists to indulge in more wide-ranging reporting than had previously been possible. He oversaw the introduction of BBC2 in 1964 andcolour television in 1967.

Thanks to Greene's leadership and drive, the BBC saw a period of great achievement in a more enlightened age; the epic documentary The Great War (1964), the compelling performances of Jazz 625 (1964-66), the generational comedy of The Likely Lads (1964-66), hard-hitting contemporary dramas 'Up the Junction' and 'Cathy Come Home' (The Wednesday Play), science fiction anthology Out of the Unknown (1965-71), Jonathan Miller's idiosyncratic Alice in Wonderland (28/12/1966), classic drama with John Hopkins' 'Talking to a Stranger' (Theatre 625, 1966) and the 26-part The Forsyte Saga (1967).

In ratings terms, BBC TV soared to new heights, leaving ITV to follow its lead in spending more money on British programming. Due to Greene's innovations, British television did not end up dominated by American imports, as had happened in so many other countries.

In 1967, Lord Hill, chairman of the Independent Television Authority, was appointed chairman of the board of governors at the BBC (apparently at Prime Minister Harold Wilson's request) and asked both to discipline the BBC and to curb the free-thinking Greene. The appointment led to a rift and Greene lost something of his authority to Hill.

He retired as Director-General in 1969 and spent the following two years as a BBC governor. In 1969 he accepted the chairmanship of The Bodley Head, his brother's publishers. He also edited a collection of gaslight-era detective stories that was later produced as an anthology by Thames TV, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1971; 1973). In 1975 he was engaged by Thames as story consultant on Shades of Greene (ITV, 1975-76), an enchanting compendium of short stories from the work of Graham Greene.

One of the last giants of British broadcasting, a man of exemplary vision, he received a knighthood in 1964. Sir Hugh Greene died in London in 1987.

Tise Vahimagi

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Thumbnail image of Greene, Graham (1904-1991)Greene, Graham (1904-1991)

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