New broom at the BBC

by
18 June 2008

After three years as Sacrist at Southwark Cathedral, and a further three as chaplain of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, John Lang was appointed Assistant Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC. It turned out to be a key time of change for religious broadcasting, he recalls

The Very Revd John Lang

The Very Revd John Lang

I JOINED the BBC on the first day of April 1964. The Director General was Hugh Greene, the son of my father’s headmaster at Berkhamsted and brother of the novelist Graham Greene. I was very shy in such company, and I felt sure he was thinking of me as the kind of person who would be in “religion”.

I had joined the BBC at a time of radical change, and many people didn’t like it. I remember seeing Adrian Boult sitting with David Davis and Uncle Mac, of Children’s Hour, all of them looking very glum. They were heroes of my childhood, but they were now considered out of date. When David Davis came to my office the next day to ask me to give him some work, I could have wept.

The very week I started work, a new BBC channel (BBC2) was opened, with Michael Peacock as Controller. He and Donald Baverstock (Controller, BBC1) were, practically speaking, the most powerful people in BBC television.

They were encouraged to innovate, and innovate they certainly did. So David Frost startled late night viewers with a satirical talk show called That Was The Week That Was. It was political satire with no holds barred — well, very few, anyway — and it created a sensation.

Even the Fellows of Emmanuel who were following my progress with interest — or perhaps curiosity — had something to say about it. The Chairman of the BBC, Lord Normanbrook, did his best to control it, but he was fighting a losing battle. The BBC of Lord Reith was no more.

RELIGIOUS broadcasting in television was lucky to survive at all. For the sake of churchgoers, all television had been banned between 6.15 p.m. and 7.25 p.m. on Sunday evenings. When commercial television got the Government’s permission to use the space, but only for religious programmes, the BBC followed suit. The “closed period”, as it was called, started as an opportunity, but because the Controllers were unwilling to give it sufficient funds, it became a trap.

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As “Assistant Head”, all my time and effort were devoted to radio. The radio producers were very capable. There was Adrian Carey, a delightful Old Etonian; Hubert Hoskins, who wrote for Dutch radio as well as for us; and KB (W. D. Kennedy-Bell), a fine musician and a producer of programmes in the World Service. Two newcomers, appointed by Kenneth before my arrival, were Joanna Scott-Moncrieff, a distinguished Editor of Woman’s Hour, and Roy Trevivian, who had been recommended by a colleague.

Elsie Chamberlain, a congregational minister, had for some years looked after a five-minute daily programme called Lift Up Your Hearts. This little programme was of particular importance because of its closeness to the main news bulletin of the day at 8 a.m. I thought Elsie had done it for long enough, and that it needed to sound very different. The change caused an uproar. There were thousands of angry letters, and we were accused of trying to secularise our programmes.

Not everyone was displeased, however. Punch published a cartoon with a picture of a man going off to work, with his wife saying to a neighbour, “He isn’t half so depressed now the BBC has taken off Lift Up Your Hearts of a morning.”

I am sure what we did was right, but I learned a valuable lesson: when you are changing much-loved programmes, prepare the ground carefully and proceed with caution.

One of the most long-lasting programmes was the Daily Service, which was broadcast each weekday morning from All Souls, Langham Place, just across the road from Broadcasting House. It had a large audience, many of them elderly, sick, or disabled people who could no longer go to church. I never allowed it to be changed, for their sakes. We were making changes but we were not being destructive.

Every Sunday, we broadcast two church services. Their quality varied greatly. One of them was conventional and the other informal, though scripted. Much depended on the producer. We broadcast cathedral evensong once a week.

In two fields we broke fresh ground. A religious news programme was the work of Colin Semper and David Winter. It became an indispensable ingredient of the department’s output, and Gerald Priestland’s contribution raised it to the peak of the reporter’s art.

The most surprising offering to radio was made to Radio 1, and was produced by Roy Trevivian. In Speakeasy, Jimmy Savile was heard discussing everything under the sun with young people. I was so worried about the programme going off the rails that most weeks I went up to the Paris Cinema in Lower Regent Street, where it was being recorded for transmission, to lend a critical ear.

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The most surprising offering to radio was made to Radio 1, and was produced by Roy Trevivian. In Speakeasy, Jimmy Savile was heard discussing everything under the sun with young people. I was so worried about the programme going off the rails that most weeks I went up to the Paris Cinema in Lower Regent Street, where it was being recorded for transmission, to lend a critical ear.

IN 1971, MY LIFE changed dramatically. I got married, and also became Head of Religious Broadcasting in the BBC in succession to Penry Jones, and was therefore responsible for television programmes as well as radio. My engagement to Frances was announced in The Times on 1 December 1971, the very day I became Head of Religious Broadcasting — a much more prestigious post then than it is now. We were married in St James’s Piccadilly on 12 February the following year.

Of course my new job was exhilarating, but it was also rather frightening. How could I, without any experience to speak of, succeed where others had manifestly failed? Huw Wheldon, who was Managing Director of television at the time, made it clear that he thought my appointment was a mistake. I was determined to show just how wrong he was. Happily, Alasdair Milne and others thought differently. And fortunately for me, two very able new producers were waiting in the wings.

The most talented of these was, undoubtedly, Peter Armstrong. When he applied for a job in the television service he was turned down. But when I saw a brief film he had made as an amateur, I was pretty sure he was the man I wanted. I scraped together enough money to pay him for a few weeks’ work in radio. The result was decisive. Father Green’s Ash Wednesday Mass was not only a good piece of radio, but it was technically innovative as well.

No one before him had used radio microphones to record a complete programme. When Fr Green bullied the altar boy sotto voce, the listener heard more than the words of the mass. The new technique, relying on a microphone hidden in the priest’s clothing, convinced me of Peter’s imaginative and technical skills. Of course, there was a moral issue here, too. Had Fr Green been fairly treated? I was convinced he had.

So, when television programmes became my responsibility, I was clear that I wanted Peter to join the team I was putting together. It was not long before I was able to transfer him to television, where he made rapid progress. But to make the changes necessary, I would have to refuse to renew some producers’ contracts, and terminate others I had inherited.

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WHAT I WAS doing certainly didn’t make me a popular figure, though I tried hard to be kind and always told people the truth. During my years in the BBC I dismissed, in one way or another, quite a lot of people. I always hated doing it, but I did it myself and as gently as possible. The only consolation I could find was that those affected knew in their heart of hearts they were not good at the job. But, I always asked myself, how good was I at mine?

I was anxious to get Peter into a senior post in television. I believed that if we worked as a partnership we could transform the television output. It would be tedious to describe our co-operation in detail, but the changes resulted in bigger budgets and significantly bigger audiences.

Songs of Praise was then a hymn-singing programme with a professional introducer. That was given a real lift by the insertion of short pieces of film made with people who had particular reasons for their choice of hymn. The fact that Songs of Praise is still in the television schedules speaks for itself.

Much more significant was the successor to Meeting Point, Oliver Hunkin’s pride and joy. I knew that Oliver cherished it, and he would have been right had it been in a serious and small audience placing. But it was actually transmitted when the potential audience was large, and wanting to be entertained by something more arresting than studio talk.

I agreed with Peter about the desirability — I should say the need — for a regular religious documentary which would equal Panorama in character and quality. I took on responsibility for getting the money we needed, and for persuading the cautious religious advisory committee (CRAC) to agree that we should give up the closed period in exchange for a placing not later than 10.15 p.m. It was a complicated and difficult business because commercial television was exercising the same restraint in the placing of religious programme as we were.

We were successful, and were able to launch Everyman. I had learned a lot about getting what you want from the BBC, but it was the quality of the programmes coming out of the religious broadcasting stable which won the day. When the time came for “offers” (that is, when we proposed a sequence of costed programmes to the Controller of BBC 1) we asked for more money than we had ever had before.

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We were not greedy, because we would have gained nothing that way. We did make it clear, however, that we wanted enough for properly financed documentaries, and the Controller, Brian Cowgill, knew Peter would not waste it.

As soon as we told him what we wanted he called Alasdair Milne, by now Director of Television Programmes. After some discussion we broke up and went home. Later that night, Peter had a telephone call. We were given everything we had asked for.

As soon as we told him what we wanted he called Alasdair Milne, by now Director of Television Programmes. After some discussion we broke up and went home. Later that night, Peter had a telephone call. We were given everything we had asked for.

There followed the most difficult but worthwhile creative period of my life. I had to find people who knew some theology, as well as having some skill in making television. If I do not name others, it is not because I did not value them; there are just too many for a short account. And if you add the radio staff, especially Michael Mayne, to say nothing of those who worked in the regions — like lan Mackenzie, Moore Wasson, and Peter Firth, you have a group of very talented men and women with whom it was an extraordinary privilege to work.

Eventually, after a lot of success, my partnership with Peter began to show signs of strain. I knew that I had done as much as I could. Someone else should take over.

Edited extract from Nobody’s Good Fortune, the autobiography of John Lang, published by Grosvenor House Publishing (£9.99; 978-1-906210-97-7)

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