Sir Hugh Carleton Greene

By Robin Carmody

In 2000, the newly appointed BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, spoke at the Edinburgh Television Festival on the subject of the BBC's stark choice between managing change and facing decline. It was inevitable, and quite right, that he should have looked back 40 years to the appointment of Hugh Carleton Greene as DG to set the scene.

The BBC in 1960 was not yet noticeably declining, but it was certainly stagnating. To a certain extent the stiffness and formality of its output on both television and radio merely reflected the dominant establishment culture of the time, but it totally failed to reflect the new affluent consumer culture embodied by the original ITV companies. Its regional TV output was pale and tokenistic compared to the federal ITV structure that was developing, and its approach to "pop" music (the inverted commas were de rigeur with the BBC then) on radio seemed laughably quaint and outmoded compared to the then hugely popular and influential Radio Luxembourg.

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene - the BBC's best director-general since Reith and for the opposite reasons!

Born in 1910, Hugh Carleton Greene was the brother of the writer Graham Greene, and had been a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph reporting the rise of Hitler in Germany until he was expelled in 1939, informing a disbelieving Polish government that the Germans were bombing Katowice. He enjoyed the Berlin cabaret of the 1930s which would be a key influence on the revolutionary "That Was The Week That Was" many years later. His experiences as head of the BBC's German Service during the Second World War, from 1940 onwards, were a key influence on his thinking, as was his organisation of the new broadcasting structure after the war in the British Zone of Germany, much of eastern Europe and Malta. Appointed head of BBC News in 1958, he had ensured that BBC news, which had been openly ridiculed for its outmoded, stuffy presentational style in the wake of ITN's arrival in 1955, recovered its journalistic credibility.

When he became Director General in 1960, replacing the professional soldier Sir Ian Jacob, he aimed to "open the windows and dissipate the ivory tower stuffiness which still clung to some parts of the BBC ... I wanted to encourage enterprise and the taking of risks. I wanted to make the BBC a place where talent of all sorts, however unconventional, was recognised and nurtured", as he wrote in his 1969 book "The Third Floor Front". He could be conservative in some ways, feeling that commercial television had been a malign influence that had lowered the general quality of broadcasting, but the BBC of the late 1950s was certainly not his ideal alternative.

Though Greene's modernism instantly seeped through to on-screen presentation and the design of the Radio Times - both rejuvenated dramatically in October 1960 - it was not for two years that BBC programming was really reinvigorated. In 1962 - year of the BBC's 40th anniversary - three of the most important programmes of the decade came on air: "Z Cars" in January, "Steptoe and Son" as a full series in June, and "That Was The Week That Was" in November.

It is hard now to convey the culture shock that these programmes conveyed, but they shattered forever the image of the BBC as a cosy Auntie, never really rocking the boat and always shying away from controversy. Now, it was also transmitting the most realistic portrayal of police work up to that time, a frighteningly accurate portrayal of working-class life at its most frustratingly trapped and dead-end, and an attitude of irreverence and disrespect towards politicians and establishment figures absolutely unthinkable on British television previously. It was at this time that the Pilkington Committee condemned the ITA and praised the BBC unequivocally, recommending that the BBC should have the next available TV channel.

Greene axed "TW3" in November 1963, desperate to avoid any more difficulties among the Board of Governors as 1964 would have to be an election year, but this was no sign of greater caution ahead. Over the next few years the BBC went from strength to strength in terms of risk-taking and innovation, with current affairs and political programmes like "Panorama", "Gallery" and "24 Hours" developing an inquisitive, analytical, questing approach to their subject matter. The series of Wednesday Plays like "Cathy Come Home" and "Up The Junction" displayed unprecedented social realism and a portrayal of the brutalities of day-to-day life for many people in Britain at the time.

"Till Death Us Do Part", the comedy series written by Johnny Speight which, in the character of Alf Garnett, dared to represent the most socially intolerant, fearful, hateful attitudes of Britain's social underbelly. The new BBC-2 channel, which began in April 1964, broadcast the monumental documentary series "The Great War", credible serious analysis of social issues in "Man Alive", the open-ended nightly discussion show "Late Night Line-up", and many other programmes of great interest.

But the backlash from the moralists and traditionalists was on. Two Birmingham housewives, Mrs Mary Whitehouse and the much less well-known Mrs Norah Buckland, founded a self-appointed vigilante body called the Clean-Up Television Campaign - later renamed as the more authoritative-sounding National Viewers and Listeners' Association - in the spring of 1964. Their manifesto called for the dropping of all the controversial programmes, claiming that the BBC employed "people whose ideas and advice pander to the lowest in human nature" and that it should instead "encourage and sustain faith in God and bring Him back to the heart of our family and national life". When this petition was presented to Parliament in June 1965 it had 365,355 signatures, and the ignorant Mrs Whitehouse and her ilk still cite Hugh Greene as the greatest malign influence (as they see it) towards the liberalisation of the prevailing culture in the UK.

Someone less strong-willed might have given in at this point, but in stark contrast to many of his predecessors, Greene decided that Mrs Whitehouse's opinions were irrelevant to the work he had in mind, and he refused to even see her or give her airtime. Director of Television Kenneth Adam wrote to the Church of England newspaper in August 1964 to point out that delegates from many women's organisations had very different and much more progressive views on television, and that Mrs Whitehouse's opinions were only held by a minority of women. Greene seemed utterly fearless in defying the hardline moralist objections to his approach. Along with the BBC's similarly forward-looking director of radio broadcasting, Frank Gillard, he was instrumental in overpowering many of the Corporation's old guard with the inception of Radio 1 in 1967 as a replacement for the offshore pirate stations that had been banned by the Labour government, and in the almost simultaneous launch of BBC local radio, as distinct from the old regional Home Services.

But the arrival of Lord Hill, previously in charge of the ITA, as BBC chairman in the summer of 1967 - a massively unpopular appointment within the BBC - seemed to herald a new, more cautious approach. Hill attempted to prevent the broadcast of the film "Magical Mystery Tour" by the Beatles, because of the line "Crab a locker, fishwife, pornographic priestess, boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down" from the song "I Am The Walrus", which it was discovered was being broadcast twice a day on the newly-constituted Radio 1. Not a single viewer claimed to be offended when the film was shown. Also in this period, the cycle of satire shows instigated by "TW3" came to a close, and "Till Death Us Do Part" was dropped - a very unusual development for such a hugely popular series, and one almost certainly motivated by Hill's wariness over some of the ideas and language expressed by the character of Alf Garnett.

In July 1968, when Sir Hugh Greene announced his decision to retire, many suggested that he had felt inhibited by Hill, and certainly his successor as Director General in March 1969, Charles Curran, was prepared to allow Mary Whitehouse and her lobby much more airtime, and took their arguments much more seriously. The BBC certainly became a less liberal and more inhibiting place to work through the early 70s, as the Monty Python team, among others, would discover. But the genie was out of the bottle. It was absolutely clear to everyone that neither Britain nor the BBC could ever return to what they had been in 1960, and that Greene had been the main force ensuring that the institution did not fall, perhaps irrevocably, behind the changes in the country at large.

In the end, the greatest tribute to Sir Hugh Greene is the ire that he still inspires among those who would oppose his liberalisation of the BBC. Even today, right-wing traditionalist journalists cite Greene as one of the destroyers of their beloved Olde England, while others describe Greene as a "bigoted icon". And, from their own anti-modernist perspective, they have picked the right man, because Hugh Greene saw a beloved institution almost imperceptibly slipping behind the times, held on to its best virtues, brought forward new talent, new methods and new ideas, and did so much to bring about a new liberal pluralism both in British broadcasting and British culture as a whole.

The BBC's new digital TV channels, the reinvention and success of Radio 1, the authority of BBC News 24, the global spread of BBC World, or the status of BBC Online as one of Europe's largest and most-visited websites: arguably none would have happened in the first place were it not for Hugh Carleton Greene, defender of traditional British public service broadcasting values, but vital catalyst and instigator of change.

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Article ©2002 Robin Carmody

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