Obituary: Nigel Holmes

12 April 2019

Richard Watt

Nigel Holmes, at the General Synod session in February 2000

Nigel Holmes, at the General Synod session in February 2000

The Revd Dr Chris Angus, Kath Worrall, and The Revd Anne Marr write:

KNOWN to many as “The Voice of Cumbria”, Nigel Holmes died suddenly on 20 March.

For a quarter of a century, Nigel was rarely off the air, serving Radio Carlisle (Radio Cumbria from 1982) with enviable enthusiasm. He combined his passion for broadcasting with an unwavering Christian faith. The former head of local radio, Michael Barton, credits Nigel with “doing more than anyone to hold the BBC to account over its religious broadcasting. . . unafraid, and convincing with his arguments”.

Nigel was also a Reader, and served on the General Synod from 1985 to 2010.

Nigel received his first tape recorder when he was aged 13, from his parents, after Rossall School Choir was featured in the BBC’s Children’s Hour. It was at Rossall that Nigel honed his communication skills. He was the radio signaller for the compulsory school Cadet Corp, so trading a warm hut for muddy fields.

In 1964, Nigel went to Durham University, to read geography. In a pioneering venture for the time, Nigel led the Durham University Expedition to the Middle East, supported by the Royal Geographical Society. Finals over, the team headed south in two old Land Rovers packed with essentials, including Nigel’s typewriter, tape recorder, and three months’ supply of marmalade.

Some of Nigel’s expedition recordings were broadcast on Radio 4, which helped him to obtain a BBC traineeship in London. He chose, however, to stay in the north to help establish the experimental BBC Radio Durham. This training ground spawned BBC producers and presenters including Gavin Hewitt and Kate Adie.

Nigel has said of the BBC: “Joining felt like a vocation: a bit like falling in love.” But the BBC wasn’t his only love, and, in 1972, Nigel married Susan, a solicitor from Lancaster. They settled in the village of Great Corby. Susan was Registrar of the Carlisle diocese from 1991 to 2005, and was ordained in 2007.

After five years in Durham, Nigel was among the launch staff at Radio Carlisle in 1973. Behind a conventional façade he hid an independent, often mischievous, nature. His programmes were varied, high-quality, and amazingly economical. They enriched the output of one of the most popular stations in England. He sought the voices of those who would never otherwise be heard. His reporting covered many memorable, sometimes harrowing, situations, and also grand events such as the Royal Maundy Service in Carlisle Cathedral in 1978, when his commentary was highly praised.

Nigel’s quick thinking was also an asset. One Christmas Day, the crew accidentally failed to transmit the Queen’s broadcast. In the BBC of those days this was a dismissal offence. Nigel’s calm response was, “Let’s see if anyone notices.” No-one did.

A defender and critic of both the BBC and the Church of England, Nigel was passionate about the relationship between the two, observing: “As a BBC producer, you do have the opportunity not to proselytise but to initiate an attitude of spirituality — a kind of ethos of the airwaves — which prompts people to ponder the claims of faith.”

He was deeply committed to the preaching and outreach ministry of a Reader. Under Nigel’s chairmanship, the quarterly magazine The Reader was relaunched to mark its 2004 centenary in style.

As well as the General Synod, Nigel also served on the Church’s Board of Mission, and represented the C of E on the Church and Media Network.

The General Synod enabled him, by means of two private member’s motions, to question the marginalisation of religious broadcasting. A debate in the Synod in 2000 led to a unanimous vote in favour of a monitoring unit to check the quality of religious programmes. This attracted extensive national media coverage, and the subsequent increased coverage of religion and spiritual issues was to some extent a result of that national debate.

His book, Losing Faith in the BBC, followed, although, in spite of the title, Nigel always maintained that he was inspired by love for the Corporation, and its public-service roots.

Nigel’s enthusiasm and verve infused everything he did. He also served on Wetheral Parish Council, campaigning for the railway station at Wetheral to be reopened and local bus services reinstated.

A week before he died, Nigel addressed the diocesan synod that he had long served. The Bishop of Carlisle observed: “On that day, as ever, he remained a passionate and committed advocate of the place that religious programming should have within public sector broadcasting.” … “He brought great insight, coupled with a ready wit, to discussions about faith issues and the workings of the Church of England.”

His funeral in Wetheral Parish Church was conducted by the Archdeacon of West Cumberland, the Ven. Richard Pratt, who expressed his appreciation for the advice and encouragement that he had received from Nigel when he had been diocesan communications officer. Nigel was buried in the churchyard at St Leonard’s, Warwick, where he had regularly led Sunday worship.

Nigel leaves his wife, Susan, their two children, Helen and Andrew, their spouses, and four grandchildren. In William Penn’s words: “He has but turned from time to eternity,” but we wish he hadn’t, just yet.

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