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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 17:56 GMT


The captive audience for a treasured Outlook on the world
image: [ John Tidmarsh with the Order of the British Empire presented for his services to broadcasting ]
John Tidmarsh with the Order of the British Empire presented for his services to broadcasting

John Tidmarsh, one of the World Service's most popular broadcasters, recently went to Buckingham Palace to receive an OBE for his services to broadcasting. John has been a regular presenter of Outlook since it started in July 1966, and now files a monthly in-depth profile for the programme. He looked back on his colourful career in a special edition of From Our Own Correspondent:

John Tidmarsh's Outlook on the world
Don't do it. You'll regret it. It's a very bad career move for someone like you. That's the unsolicited advice I was given by one of the programme editors in BBC Domestic Radio and Television when he heard I was planning to resign from the staff of the BBC and take a freelance contract to present an entirely new programme called Outlook on the External Services ... as BBC World Service was then called. He was implying that I was committing myself to a backwater with the possibility that I would soon be forgotten.

It's true it was going to be a bit of a gamble. I'd been enjoying a rather promising career at home and abroad. Foreign assignments at the United Nations in New York; often in France during the turmoil of General de Gaulle's return to power and his decision to give independence to Algeria; in India when the Chinese invaded the North East Frontier; in Vietnam during the big build up of American forces by LBJ in the mid-sixties; and a high profile assignment in Alabama in the United States to cover Martin Luther King's Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. At home I was presenting the television news on the BBC's recently opened second channel ... BBC 2.

Yes, quite promising. But that's really why I was virtually head hunted to be one of the three presenters at the start of Outlook on July 4th 1966. The programme was to be live twice a day, leading with current affairs ... international events. And if any big story broke while we were actually on the air we were expected to know what to ask when some expert was rushed into the studio to explain the background. In forty-five minutes, Outlook would also include human interest features from around the world plus celebrity interviews live in the studio. It was a ground-breaking formula that produced more dire warnings, this time from within Bush House, World Service headquarters. You can't do it. It's an impossible mixture. You'll be lucky if Outlook lasts six months.

Well, just in case, I decided to set up my own base in Brussels, where I'd reported the collapse of Britain's first attempt to enter the European Community. In those days the BBC had no-one stationed in Brussels, not least because European affairs were thought to be rather dull, rather dreary. So I became the BBC's first European commuter ... flying to London every Thursday to present Outlook and back to Belgium after the programme on Friday. A foreign stringer, as they're called, for the rest of the week, in Belgium, The Netherlands and France.

In two years I missed the programme only once - fogbound at Brussels Airport. The producer of the day was so certain I would arrive she waited until the programme was almost on the air before she would allow our first editor Michael Sumner to take my place. He'd initially come from broadcasting in East Africa and so had our mid-week presenter, Colin Hamilton.

The start of the week was in the hands of a man with a wonderfully warm Yorkshire voice - a former BBC War Correspondent, Bob Reid. At the Liberation of Paris he'd seen General de Gaulle walk on, upright and unmoved, into Notre Dame Cathedral as sniper fire broke out all around - the mopping up of a few pockets of resistance still going on, in the jargon of the time. The fourth member of the team was Sam Pollock, who came from Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Each day he did what was always a very entertaining review of the Fleet Street papers, the national press.

Sam was wonderful company, especially over a pint of Guinness. But he did sometimes have problems with the names of foreign statesmen and politicians. One in particular, the then Federal Prime Minister of Nigeria, Al Haji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He stumbled uncertainly over that name more than any other. But finally he mastered it. Tragically it was all in vain. Not more than a week later, Al Haji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was assassinated. Still there were others left to test us, not least the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.

Speaking of assassinations, Colin was the first to find how celebrity interviews can suddenly meet world events head on. Our guest that day was the film actor David Niven. He'd hardly been introduced when Colin was handed a news flash saying that Egypt's President Sadat had been assassinated. For the rest of the programme David Niven hardly said a word. But afterwards he was very understanding and charming about it. I think he was fascinated seeing the world's number one radio station responding instantly to a huge and dramatic international event: the Newsroom, the Arabic Service, correspondents all round the world, all feeding us reports. David Niven, in fact, came back to the studio to be a guest some months later.

Other celebrities also caught us in calmer moments. Ronald Reagan was one of the first just after he had given up being Governor of California. I talked to him briefly about his film career. Not really too much to recall there. Then we moved on to politics. Would he like one day to be President? "Well", he said, with that familiar smile, "If it were offered I would have to think about it." In short, the answer was yes.

When it comes to name dropping, Outlook could hold its own with any programme in the world. Shirley MacLaine was one of my favourite guests. She appeared on two occasions. And among many others: Audrey Hepburn, just before she died; Julie Andrews, Jane Russell, Omar Sharif, Dame Joan Sutherland; Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland; Anthony Hopkins, Charlton Heston, the song writer Sammy Cahn, who sat at the piano and made up a song about Outlook while we were on the air; and the philosopher A J Ayer ... Freddie Ayer .. we discussed Wittgenstein - one of my severest tests as an interviewer. Much more testing than Margaret Thatcher. Among many other politicians I met face to face was Henry Kissinger talking about his secret negotiations with Le Duc Tho to end the Vietnam war - while a public charade, supposed to be the negotiations. took place in Paris.

Chatting afterwards I told him that my best friend in America the one time photographic editor in the White House, Bill Parrish, had taken that famous picture of Richard Nixon with his red setter dog, his front paws on the President's shoulders, the two gazing lovingly into each other's eyes. Ah, yes, said Kissinger, actually that dog hated Nixon.

Who was Outlook's most enjoyable guest over the years. I am often asked that. But, of course, it's a question that's almost impossible to answer. There've been so many. But, looking back, I suspect there was no-one more entertaining than the British actress and comedienne Beryl Reid, not least for the advice she gave to the world on how to get rid of uninvited guests.

Beryl, who alas is no longer with us, lived in a house on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor. She told me how she'd arrived home one day, thoroughly fed up after a very tedious rehearsal with a particularly irritating director. She wanted nothing more than a quiet evening, putting up her feet and enjoying a glass or two. Beryl liked a glass or two. Suddenly the phone rang. It was a neighbour calling to say that some friends had moored their boat at the end of her lawn and were making their way towards the house. Wearing what she described as her pink catsuit, Beryl dashed into the garden to meet them. 'Lovely to see you,' she said. 'But I'm terribly sorry I can't invite you in. I'm afraid you've caught me in bed with someone I hardly know.' I'm told that works everytime.

But of all our guests it was the people with whom we had established, through our broadcasts, a very special contact that we were most delighted to welcome to the Outlook studio. Early on it was Anthony Grey, the correspondent for Reuters news agency who was held under house arrest in Beijing by Red Guards during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. We often mentioned, on the air, the appalling way he was being treated and how long he had been held prisoner.

On his birthday his mother came to the studio to send him a message. Tony by this time had got hold of his own radio again. And when he was eventually released and flown back to Britain one of the first things he did was to come to Bush House and say thank you. And then, would you believe it, he took a job presenting one of the World Service current affairs programmes.

Then there was the British family, mother and father and two small children held prisoner by rebels in Eritrea. They too listened to Outlook every day and heard us say what was being done to free them. The Sunday Times correspondent Jon Swain who was with them told me later we actually saved his life. The rebels were going to shoot him as a spy until we confirmed that he was actually a bona fide journalist.

I suppose our five minutes of international fame came as the hostages began to emerge from Beirut. They all said how much they valued BBC World Service, which they heard on Terry Waite's small radio. And in particular they said how much Outlook had kept them sane and in touch. Most of them came to see us; Terry Waite was an old friend ... Tom Sutherland came, Terry Anderson and John McCarthy who then stood in from time to time as an Outlook presenter.

For me the programme has really been one long adventure. It's taken me all over the world many times, presenting editions in Canada, the States, South America, the Caribbean, all over Europe - East and West, Africa, India, the Far East, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It's a programme, I think, that has found success by looking at world events in a way that others haven't thought of, or have had no time to explore. Often, especially these days, events seen through the eyes of people who had to live with them rather than the studio-based thoughts of pundits and politicians.

If an ability to see events from a different perspective has been an important element in Outlook's success so has a sense of fun. In the very early days we decided to take a look at London buskers - street entertainers. There were more and more of them. But was it a good living? One of our reporters at the time was Chris Bickerton. So we sent him to Oxford Street in London along with a leading violinist from one of the London orchestras. I think it may have been the BBC Symphony.

How much would they make playing for a while outside Selfridges department store. An outside broadcast unit (an OB Unit) was also sent to meet them so that we could tune in to the experiment live. Just before we were due to go over to Oxford Street there was a slightly fraught message from the OB engineer, who apparently hadn't been properly briefed. "Hold on a minute, Outlook," he said. "I can hear some bloody violinist playing in the street. I'll just go and tell him to bugger off."

Looking back to that advice I was given in the summer of 1966 there was a moment when I thought I was perhaps no longer visible enough to be getting as many offers of work as I might have been. Not that I needed any. Curiously enough it came when I was offered a job. An old colleague from BBC Television News rang me one day to ask if I would like to present a programme called Young Scientist of the Year - a competition between schools.

I said I didn't know much about science. Excellent, he said, you'll be perfect. On the Sunday afternoon when the first programme went out, my first appearance in colour incidentally, on that weekend one of our secretaries (as they were then called; they have much grander titles these days), she was at home with her family. She told her mother that she wanted to watch this programme 'Young Scientist ....' What on earth for, said her mother. Well, said Jackie - that was her name - it's being presented by John Tidmarsh. There was a slight pause and her mother said ... "Is he still alive?"

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