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Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)

Producer, Presenter, Executive

Main image of Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)

As a presenter, a producer and an executive, Huw Wheldon had an immense influence on a generation of broadcasters. A passionate spokesman for the public funding of the BBC (and the arts in general), Wheldon, cast from the Reithian mould, was a corporation man through and through. Once he had joined the BBC Wheldon never left, despite numerous offers from ITV, becoming the first television presenter/producer to rise to the ranks of the executive.

He joined BBC Television as a publicity officer in January 1952, following a period between 1946 and 1949 as the Arts Council director for Wales, and having served on the directorate of the Festival of Britain (for which he was awarded an OBE in 1952).

However, Wheldon was more interested in involving himself in television production rather than in marketing. He received his first opportunity after a chance meeting with Freda Lingstrom, head of children's programmes, who needed to fill a gap in the schedules. Wheldon, for some reason, suggested a conker competition. Tens of thousands of children applied to enter, and letters were even exchanged in The Times regarding the rules that should apply. The Conker King followed hard on the hooves of Muffin the Mule on 5 October 1952, with Wheldon as its presenter.

Lingstrom hired him to present the new series All Your Own (BBC, 1952-61), in which children demonstrated their skills in a range of activities. The series became immensely popular, with Wheldon a benevolent headmaster-type figure, towering over the children as he enthusiastically questioned them about their talents. He continued to present the series, despite his other activities in the period, until 1960, after which the series continued with other presenters.

He retained his position as a publicity officer as these career changes were underway, but in July 1954 he was appointed a producer in the 'Television Talks' department - essentially the documentaries department under another name. Throughout the 1950s, he gained experience on the production of a range of programmes, including several party political broadcasts; Orson Welles's Sketch Book (BBC, 1955), a six-part series in which Welles talked to the camera in his own inimitable, and highly entertaining, style about whatever happened to interest him that week; numerous historical series featuring Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, including Men in Battle (BBC, 1956-57), and Men of Action (BBC, 1959-60); Portraits of Power (BBC, 1957-58), a series of documentaries on leading world figures of the twentieth century, some of which he co-wrote with presenter Robert McKenzie; and two poorly received series, Harding Finds Out (BBC, 1955), with Gilbert Harding, and an agony aunt-type series, Is This Your Problem? (BBC, 1955), which he considered the most embarrassing disasters of his career.

He enjoyed being in front of the camera, and eagerly grasped any chance that came his way. While All Your Own was still in the schedules, he appeared in a Panorama (BBC, 1953- ) discussion with Tom Harrison on the value or otherwise of television (tx. 23/12/1953), and another programme in the same series on 18 May 1957, interviewing boy scouts on the occasion of Lord Baden-Powell's centenary.

By 1957, the Talks department had begun to consider a magazine programme devoted to the Arts. The eventual result, Monitor (BBC, 1958-65), would be a television landmark. Wheldon was offered the position of presenter, which he readily accepted, also becoming overall editor when the first choice, Catherine Dove, married and left for India.

Wheldon became both the driving force behind the series and its figurehead. He presented the programme (in his usual enthusiastic and erudite manner), narrated the film inserts, and interviewed the featured subjects. He also assembled a production team from which he demanded the highest of standards. He was a patron of new talent; a guiding hand in the choice of subjects and the editing of films, but a fearsome adversary when the work was not of a sufficiently high standard.

Those who forged careers on the series include John Schlesinger (whose film about circuses opened the first programme on 2 February 1958), Ken Russell (whose dramatised biographies of composers such as Elgar, Debussy and Prokofiev were ground-breaking in their treatment of artistic subject matter), Patrick Garland, Humphrey Burton, David Jones and Melvyn Bragg.

A critical success, the series also gained impressive audience figures, Wheldon always referring to the series as a 'smallish majority programme' rather than one appealing only to 'minority' audiences. Monitor demonstrated the potential for the serious treatment of the arts on television, and the later series Tempo (ITV, 1961-67), Aquarius (ITV, 1970-77), Omnibus (BBC, 1967-), Arena (BBC, 1975-), and The South Bank Show (ITV, 1978-) owe both Wheldon and his programme an enormous debt.

Wheldon became Assistant Head of the Talks department in early 1962, and in 1963 he was promoted again, becoming head of music and documentary programmes. He was still involved with Monitor during this period, but in the autumn of 1964 he left the series to concentrate on his other duties. The editorship was bestowed on to Jonathan Miller who continued with the series up to its demise in 1965.

By 1965 Wheldon had become controller of programmes for BBC Television, in charge of both BBC1 and BBC2. In 1968 he became director of BBC Television, a position later renamed managing director. He was the first programme producer to rise to such heights, which, as David Attenborough later recalled, created a feeling of excitement and exhilaration in the organisation that someone was in charge who understood first hand the nature of programme production.

Wheldon retired in 1975 (although he stayed on for another year as an advisor). During his period of management, the BBC had produced such lasting television greats as Till Death Us Do Part (1966-1975), Dad's Army (1968-1977), Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), Dennis Potter's Casanova (1971), Alistair Cooke's America (1973), War & Peace (1973), and Dr Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973).

Following his retirement (at least from management), Wheldon returned to the writing and presenting of television with Royal Heritage (BBC, 1977), on the history of the British monarchy, The Library of Congress (BBC, tx. 21/1/1979), and Destination D-Day (BBC, tx. 29/5/1984). They all, particularly the last, demonstrated that he had lost none of his ability to convey his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject matter in an authoritative but relaxed style. They remain models of exemplary television presentation.

Wheldon was knighted in 1970 for his services to television. In 1976, he was awarded the Royal Television Society's Gold Medal for service to television, followed by the Silver Medal in 1978 for creative achievement in front of the camera. Between 1979 and 1985 he was President of the Society. He was awarded an International Emmy in 1981. He died from cancer in 1986.

John Oliver

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

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Ken Russell's portrait of the great Spanish architect

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Ken Russell's portrait of the great Hungarian composer

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Ken Russell's remarkably imaginative portrait of the composer

Thumbnail image of Gordon Jacob (1959)Gordon Jacob (1959)

Ken Russell's portrait of the English composer at home and at work

Thumbnail image of John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)

Ken Russell's first professional film, a visualisation of Betjeman's poems

Thumbnail image of Marie Rambert (1960)Marie Rambert (1960)

Huw Wheldon interviews the legendary dance teacher and pioneer

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: Huw Wheldon (1968)Now and Then: Huw Wheldon (1968)

Barbara Kelly interviews the producer turned senior BBC executive

Thumbnail image of Pop Goes the Easel (1962)Pop Goes the Easel (1962)

Ken Russell's kaleidoscopic impression of the Pop Art universe

Thumbnail image of Preservation Man, The (1962)Preservation Man, The (1962)

Ken Russell's portrait of eccentric artist-collector Bruce Lacey

Thumbnail image of Prokofiev (1961)Prokofiev (1961)

Ken Russell's portrait of the great Russian composer

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