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Wheeler, Sir Charles (1923-2008)

Journalist, Presenter

Main image of Wheeler, Sir Charles (1923-2008)

To a considerable extent, the early TV journalist and documentarist came to recognise - as television in general has come to do - that the viewers have to be prised out of their apathy as limpets are detached from their rocks. A prominent member of the post-war school of British newspaper journalists who found their way into television (a distinguished group including Robert Kee, Kenneth Allsop and James Cameron), Charles Wheeler was the last of this first generation of television journalists.

He entered journalism in 1940, working briefly as a copy boy on the Daily Sketch before enlisting in the Royal Marines. After the war he turned to the BBC's External Service, initially as a sub-editor in its Latin American section and later as its Berlin correspondent. The latter posting was entirely appropriate since he was born and bred in Germany, where his English father was working; he arrived in Britain with his family in 1938.

Invited to join the current affairs programme Panorama (BBC, 1953- ) in 1956 as producer - during the era of such renowned journalists as Richard Dimbleby, Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy - he remained for only two years before returning to his first love as foreign correspondent. Between 1958 and 1973, he was the BBC's South Asia, Berlin, Washington, and then chief U.S. correspondent.

Appointed European correspondent in 1973, he reported for Newsday (BBC, 1974-78) from 1975 to 1977, then later, as chief correspondent, for BBC Television News, Panorama (again) and Newsnight (BBC, 1980- ). Astutely, he managed to continue working for the BBC past the retirement age of 60 by going freelance.

Having the time now to concentrate on larger projects, he undertook his first stint as a journalist-historian with the eight-part documentary The Road to War (BBC, 1989); his role as writer/narrator, recounting the pre-war politics of all the countries that engaged in the Second World War, delivered the world-changing story with exemplary clarity and seeming determination to take the long view.

He is perhaps best known for his years in Washington, bringing a body of experience and a shrewdness to his documentary Wheeler On America (BBC, 1996). Virtually a portfolio for a lifetime of quality reporting, which at the same time revealed his own turbulent relationship with America, the series traced the changes that had taken place in U.S. society since President Lyndon B. Johnson's attempt to create 'The Great Society' in the early 1960s.

Tise Vahimagi

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