Monday, 26 July 2021

Bangladesh is a country which says বিদায়কালীন অনুষ্ঠান to a journalist called Simon Dring who, in March 1971, in its darkest hour, was the lone, brave and bright beacon who awakened the world to its plight

 Simon, who has died at the age of 76, was a brilliant foreign correspondent and television presenter who worked for many news agencies for over a career of 40 years, covering major stories and events, but in particular, over 20 wars and revolutions around the world. 

In 1971, at the age of 26, Simon was in Dhaka in East Pakistan working on the launch of 'Jamuna Television'. While there, he witnessed the speech given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the 'Founding Father of Bangladesh' at the Ramna Race Course Maidan to a gathering of over a million people. Simon later recalled : "For us, we were young journalists those days and we still didn't really have a very strong perception of what was happening here. But when I arrived I had the privilege of 7th March standing in Race Course Maidan on the podium where Sheikh Mujib was giving that famous 18-and-a-half-minute speech".

He said :"I was actually on the platform only a few yards away from him. I don't speak Bengali, but I have to say that in that 20 minute speech, listening to him, seeing the reaction of that huge crowd there, I understood everything that was going on." (link) Simon can be standing on the extreme left in the still photo. "It was extraordinary. There was that one phrase in particular where he said : "The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle now is the struggle for our independence. Joi Bangla".  When I heard that, I understood it even though I didn't understand Bengali'. The hairs almost stood up on the back of my neck, because I didn't understand it, but I understood it. It was at that moment I really began to get a feel for what was happening, in what was then, East Pakistan and the conflict that was evolving between the West and the East". (link)    

He wasn't to know it at the time, but he would, within weeks, cover the horrors of the country’s war of independence from Pakistan. He was among about 200 foreign journalists confined to their hotel, 'The Intercontinental', in Dhaka on March 25th and designed to hide the journalists from witnessing 'Operation Searchlight'. 

About an hour before the planned massacre began, Public Relations Officer of Pakistan Army’s Eastern Command, Major Siddiq Salik  (link) addressed the journalists in the room where they were confined and said : “Civil War has broken out and for your own safety we are going to take you out of the country.” Simon stood up and after introducing himself he asked : “I heard that we have to leave. Is it an order?” Major Salik replied : “Oh, no, it’s not an order. It’s just for your own safety.” Simon continued : “Then I don’t have to leave. I can stay”. Salik answered : “You can stay, but it might be dangerous for you.” Simon persisted : “What will happen if I stay?” Major Salik responded with his veiled threat : "Yes, if you choose to stay it's up to you, but you might find that we prepare a special party for you. So it might be better that you left". Simon replied : "OK, thank you".

Simon said : "I personally felt very angry about this. (link) Angry professionally, that we were being denied the opportunity to go out and document the scale of the killing and personally I knew many Bengalis and I knew a lot of innocent people had been killed. And somehow you couldn't allow this to happen and the Pakistan Army thought they could get away with it and that was really appalling and it did make you angry".

Without fear of the Major's threatened 'party', Simon went up to his room, packed his bag with a pretense of leaving. He thought that if the Major didn't count the number of journalists, there was a good chance that his disappearance would go unnoticed. As fate would have it, he was proved correct. Simon hid and watched from the rooftop as the journalists were loaded onto army trucks and whisked away to the airport. (link)  After a little while, Simon crept back into the hotel, which was now empty of all the army officials. He recalled : "All the Bengali staff in the hotel were very helpful and very excited that I had taken this step, and they said there was one other person here too - he's a photographer from Associated Press News Agency, Michel Laurent. So we got together and we decided we better hide overnight somewhere in the hotel and the Bengali staff helped hide us and protect us. We decided the next morning that we had to go out and document what had happened". 



When the curfew was lifted on March 27, avoiding the military patrol, they left the hotel dressed in kurta-pajamas and were able to extensively tour Dhaka in a baker's van. They managed to capture the harrowing details of the genocidal brutality that took place at Dhaka University’s Iqbal Hall, Rajarbagh Police Line and parts of old Dhaka.(link with graphic images) They were, however, spotted by a Pakistani army patrol at the University, but fortunately weren't captured. The officers were now aware that there were Western journalists still roaming around and came to Intercontinental Hotel to search for them. Once again the Bengali staff hid them and they escaped capture. 

Simon recalled : "We thought we had to keep moving, keep hidden as much as we could. We went to the Hindu area and the older part of the city. A market area had been attacked and about two hundred yards of houses had been burned down. There were people dead in front of their shops. I counted four or five bodies there, but many more had been killed in the burnt out shops. When we got to the Hindu area, quite clearly, again, there had been a very deliberate attempt to kill people". (link)

Simon and Michel estimated that in the region of 7,000 were killed in that 24 hour period. They then managed to board on a flight to West Pakistan. Security personnel stopped Simon a couple of times, but he somehow held on to his notes hidden in his socks and taped to the back of his trouser belt.(link)  Simon recalled : "We ended up in Karachi (in East Pakistan) and we thought for sure a message would have come from East Pakistan and said : 'Detain these people take everything off them'. But there didn't seem to be, but 'Customs' were suspicious of us. We were taken into separate rooms. I was made to take all my clothes off. They stuck a pencil up my bottom, obviously looking for film or something like that and I was sitting there naked with all my clothes and my notes in my socks". (link)

Simon had retained his notes and Michel his film and when they flew out and reached Bangkok he filed a special report the extent of the sudden mass crackdown and ensuing massacre in Dhaka. His report was published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on March 30, 1971. It was the first news of the genocide and the first-ever international report on the atrocities as seen by a witness. It was also clear from his article that the Army had struck without warning, under the cover of darkness and that these factors were responsible for enormous casualties. 

Simon said : "It was a very important story, personally, but for us professionally, and its not often in your life that you can report a story that individuals get value from. Its not just a war story. There's something very, intensely personal, about it and you felt you were able to serve people in a way you couldn't normally do as a journalist"(link) 

Simon flew to Kolkata from London in November 1971. His mission was to collect war news and he entered Bangladesh in December with a Bangladesh-India Joint Force and he went to Dhaka where Pakistan Army was preparing to surrender. (link) When he, again, met Major Salik he said : “Major Siddiq, how are you? I am really sorry that you have ended up here. For your own safety now you are here”. With an embarrassing smile on his face Major Salik replied : “Things do change”. Another account of their meeting suggested that, when Simon asked the Major what he would have done if he would found him, he answered :  “We probably would have killed you”. (link)

Simon became the 'UK Reporter of the Year' for his eyewitness accounts in The Daily Telegraph of the massacres in Dhaka during the Liberation War of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Government  expressed its gratitude to Simon for his outstanding role during its War of Liberation. He returned to Bangladesh after it gained victory for its independence in December 1971 and was in Dhaka when Sheikh Mujib returned from his exile in Pakistan on 10 January 1972. Sheikh Mujib recognised him as they had met 2-3 times during March 1971. In fact, Simon was on the back of the truck which took Sheikh Mujib from Dhaka airport to Paltan Maidan. "It was very special and particularly exciting because when he arrived at the airport I was able to clamber on to the back of the truck and I actually drove into town on the back of the truck Sheikh Mujibur was on . (link) And of course mass crowds and the excitement and mass crowds and enthusiasm, you were caught up in that. It was a very special moment". The next day was Simon's 28th birthday. To his excitement, Sheikh Mujib had sent him a surprise birthday cake to the Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying. 

In 1997 Simon and his partners in Bangladesh helped to found 'Ekushey Television', bringing together a team of over 50 reporters, producers and editors, he helped establish the first television news operation in Bangladesh. The name, 'Ekushey' was chosen because, according to Simon, it is an allusion of the Bengali Language Movement of 1952 and the upcoming 21st century. It was launched in 2000, covered half the country's population and turned out to be the most watched channel that offered quality programmes. The ETV productions were unique in nature: children's programme, 'Muktokhabor', for example, was a news-based show in which the child performers would handle news with social relevance and 50% of the young team were from underprivileged families.                                 
Journalist Tushar Abdullah said : “Simon Dring was an iconic character in the expansion of TV media in Bangladesh". It was the countries first independent television station and attracting audiences around 70 million, outperformed the state-run Bagladesh Television. 

In 2002 Simon was Managing Director of the TV station, but was forced to leave  Bangladesh after the Government, led by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, issued a deportation order. Ekushey Television went off the air the same day, after the Government shut down its transmission facilities. At the time, ETV insisted that its news and current affairs coverage was neutral and objective, but the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party believed it was biased against them. Before his departure, Simon was given a farewell reception, at which many of Bangladesh's leading cultural personalities were present and told the audience that it was the second time he was being deported from Dhaka.

In 2012, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Government awarded ‘Muktijuddha Maitree Sammanana’ (Friends of Liberation War Honor) to Simon for his outstanding role during the great Liberation War in 1971. Though Simon was honoured to have received such a prestigious award, he urged the Government to recognise Michel Laurent as he was not accorded the honour. Michel had been killed w in April 1975 in Vietnam whilst trying to rescue fellow news reporter when they were both ambushed by North Vietnamese troops. It was the last day of the war and Michel was 28 years old. 

Simon returned to Bangladesh again to work as the advisor of Jamuna Television in 2013. He was was looking forward to participating in "one final project" focusing on Bangladesh's Golden Jubilee of independence, before he passed away unexpectedly in Romania last Friday. On his passing, President Abdul Hamid of Bangladesh said : "Simon Dring made immense contribution in informing the world about the genocide in Bangladesh and the struggle of the people through his coverage of our Liberation War. With his demise, Bangladesh lost a time-tested friend". 

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said : "Simon Dring was a man of commitment, an upright man of high moral, ethical standard and values, who reported the massacre in Dhaka in 1971 with objectivity and courage. He trained a group of young journalists of Bangladesh at ETV that dynamically changed the TV journalism in Bangladesh. We salute him again and again." 

Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said that Simon was : "a true friend of Bangladesh" who "witnessed the sacrifices of the people of this country and shook the conscience of the international community with his reportage by putting own life at stake".

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recalled the brave contribution of Simon to the Liberation War, saying : "He put forth before the world people the information and report regarding the heinous genocide on the black night of March 25 in 1971".

His partner, Fiona McPherson and mother of their 10 year old twin girls said that Simon died in hospital wearing his polo shirt with an ETV logo. 

In her published  'In Memoriam'  she said :

'His ingenuity and drive to capture the true story no matter what the cost; to go where it was required, and to do what was needed for that end, is the stuff of legend'. 


In 2012, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Government awarded  Simon মুক্তিযুদ্ধ মৈত্রী সম্মাননা
                                                (Friends of Liberation War Honour)                                                           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tl-KpHHkl6k&t=23m07s

                                                                                                  

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Britain once made and the world has now lost and says "Farewell" to a 'Valiant servant of Truth’, foreign correspondent, Simon Dring, সাইমন ড্রিং

Simon, who has died at the age of 76, was a brilliant foreign correspondent and television presenter who worked for many news agencies for over a career of 40 years, covering major stories and events, but in particular, over 20 wars and revolutions around the world. 

He was born the son of Betty La Fontaine (née McAnally) and John, in the last year of the the Second World War during an exceptionally cold snap in January 1945, in the market town of Fakenham in Norfolk. His father was recorded in a 1939 government register as a 'Senior rank clerk' and his mother's occupation was classified as 'Unpaid domestic duties'. 

Brought up at home with his sister, Susan, when he was 11, Simon was packed off to Woodbridge School in Suffolk, where he lived as a boarder in this independent school for boys, with Tudor origins, with its motto 'Pro Deo Rege Patria', 'For God, King and Country''. However, his tenure at the school was broken short in his teens, when he was expelled after being found guilty of the misdemeanor of 'midnight swimming in the local River Deben'. Back in Norfolk, after a couple of years attending King's Lynn Technical School, he left at the age of 17 in 1962. 

Simon's childhood dream was to explore the world and in the same year he left school, he left home and became one of the first to walk, what was to become, the 1960s 'Hippie trail to India'. To raise money, along the way, Simon sold the shirts his mother had packed for him in his ruck sack as he hitch-hiked overland across Europe and the Middle East, out to India and then on to South-East Asia. It was here that he got his first media job in early 1963, at the age of 18, working as a proofreader and feature writer for the 'Bangkok World' newspaper in Thailand.

After his return the Britain, at the age of 19, Simon briefly worked as a freelance reporter for the London 'Daily Mail', before leaving the country again and reporting for 'The New York Times' in Laos, before moving to Vietnam at the end of 1964, where he covered the War for two years for Reuters, as their youngest staff correspondent at the time. It was the practice of foreign correspondents to become 'embedded' within military units, a practice required by the Pentagon. Simon, however, was critical of the practice and said at the time, no doubt with his desire to maintain his impartiality :  "My instinct is not to get embedded". It was here that he was, while working in the field, wounded for the first time in his career, the second time was to be in Cyprus, ten years later. Simon was snapped (right)with the Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis, who would be killed in Bangkok filming an attempted coup in 1985.

In 1969, for the 'Daily Telegraph' he reported on the Nigerian Civil War and was the first western journalist in a year to visit front lines in east central Nigeria and highlight the plight of refugees flooding out of Biafra. Then, in 1970, he was Phnom Penh in Cambodia, reporting on the civil war between the forces of the Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong allies against the government of Lon Nol. As Prime Minister was supported by a brief two-month incursion by more that 80,00 US combat troops and South Vietnamese soldiers with President Nixon seen here, indicating the site of the incursion. In May Simon reported that this was 'forcing the North Vietnamese westwards and drawing Cambodia into a tragic and destructive war she is far from able to cope with'.

In 1971, at the age of 26, Simon was in Dhaka in East Pakistan working on the launch of 'Jamuna Television'. While there, he witnessed the speech given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the 'Founding Father of Bangladesh' at the Ramna Race Course Maidan to a gathering of over a million people. Simon later recalled : "For us, we were young journalists those days and we still didn't really have a very strong perception of what was happening here. But when I arrived I had the privilege of 7th March standing in Race Course Maidan on the podium where Sheikh Mujib was giving that famous 18-and-a-half-minute speech". (link) 

He said :"I was actually on the platform only a few yards away from him. I don't speak Bengali, but I have to say that in that 20 minute speech, listening to him, seeing the reaction of that huge crowd there, I understood everything that was going on." (link) Simon can be standing on the extreme left in the still photo. "It was extraordinary. There was that one phrase in particular where he said : "The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle now is the struggle for our independence. Joi Bangla". When I heard that, I understood it even though I didn't understand Bengali'. The hairs almost stood up on the back of my neck, because I didn't understand it, but I understood it. It was at that moment I really began to get a feel for what was happening, in what was then, East Pakistan and the conflict that was evolving between the West and the East". (link)    

He wasn't to know it at the time, but he would, within weeks, cover the horrors of the country’s war of independence from Pakistan. He was among about 200 foreign journalists confined to their hotel, 'The Intercontinental', in Dhaka on March 25th and designed to hide the journalists from witnessing 'Operation Searchlight'. 

About an hour before the planned massacre began, Public Relations Officer of Pakistan Army’s Eastern Command, Major Siddiq Salik  (link) addressed the journalists in the room where they were confined and said : “Civil War has broken out and for your own safety we are going to take you out of the country.” Simon stood up and after introducing himself he asked : “I heard that we have to leave. Is it an order?” Major Salik replied : “Oh, no, it’s not an order. It’s just for your own safety.” Simon continued : “Then I don’t have to leave. I can stay”. Salik answered : “You can stay, but it might be dangerous for you.” Simon persisted : “What will happen if I stay?” Major Salik responded with his veiled threat : "Yes, if you choose to stay it's up to you, but you might find that we prepare a special party for you. So it might be better that you left". Simon replied : "OK, thank you".

Simon said : "I personally felt very angry about this. (link) Angry professionally, that we were being denied the opportunity to go out and document the scale of the killing and personally I knew many Bengalis and I knew a lot of innocent people had been killed. And somehow you couldn't allow this to happen and the Pakistan Army thought they could get away with it and that was really appalling and it did make you angry".

Without fear of the Major's threatened 'party', Simon went up to his room, packed his bag with a pretense of leaving. He thought that if the Major didn't count the number of journalists, there was a good chance that his disappearance would go unnoticed. As fate would have it, he was proved correct. Simon hid and watched from the rooftop as the journalists were loaded onto army trucks and whisked away to the airport. (link)  After a little while, Simon crept back into the hotel, which was now empty of all the army officials. He recalled : "All the Bengali staff in the hotel were very helpful and very excited that I had taken this step, and they said there was one other person here too - he's a photographer from Associated Press News Agency, Michel Laurent. So we got together and we decided we better hide overnight somewhere in the hotel and the Bengali staff helped hide us and protect us. We decided the next morning that we had to go out and document what had happened". 

When the curfew was lifted on March 27, avoiding the military patrol, they left the hotel dressed in kurta-pajamas and were able to extensively tour Dhaka in a baker's van. They managed to capture the harrowing details of the genocidal brutality that took place at Dhaka University’s Iqbal Hall, Rajarbagh Police Line and parts of old Dhaka.(link with graphic images) They were, however, spotted by a Pakistani army patrol at the University, but fortunately weren't captured. The officers were now aware that there were Western journalists still roaming around and came to Intercontinental Hotel to search for them. Once again the Bengali staff hid them and they escaped capture. 

Simon recalled : "We thought we had to keep moving, keep hidden as much as we could. We went to the Hindu area and the older part of the city. A market area had been attacked and about two hundred yards of houses had been burned down. There were people dead in front of their shops. I counted four or five bodies there, but many more had been killed in the burnt out shops. When we got to the Hindu area, quite clearly, again, there had been a very deliberate attempt to kill people". (link)

Simon and Michel estimated that in the region of 7,000 were killed in that 24 hour period. They then managed to board on a flight to West Pakistan. Security personnel stopped Simon a couple of times, but he somehow held on to his notes hidden in his socks and taped to the back of his trouser belt.(link)  Simon recalled : "We ended up in Karachi (in East Pakistan) and we thought for sure a message would have come from East Pakistan and said : 'Detain these people take everything off them'. But there didn't seem to be, but 'Customs' were suspicious of us. We were taken into separate rooms. I was made to take all my clothes off. They stuck a pencil up my bottom, obviously looking for film or something like that and I was sitting there naked with all my clothes and my notes in my socks". (link)

Simon had retained his notes and Michel his film and when they flew out and reached Bangkok he filed a special report the extent of the sudden mass crackdown and ensuing massacre in Dhaka. His report was published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on March 30, 1971. It was the first news of the genocide and the first-ever international report on the atrocities as seen by a witness. It was also clear from his article that the Army had struck without warning, under the cover of darkness and that these factors were responsible for enormous casualties. 

Simon said : "It was a very important story, personally, but for us professionally, and its not often in your life that you can report a story that individuals get value from. Its not just a war story. There's something very, intensely personal, about it and you felt you were able to serve people in a way you couldn't normally do as a journalist". (link) 

Simon flew to Kolkata from London in November 1971. His mission was to collect war news and he entered Bangladesh in December with a Bangladesh-India Joint Force and he went to Dhaka where Pakistan Army was preparing to surrender. (link) When he, again, met Major Salik he said : “Major Siddiq, how are you? I am really sorry that you have ended up here. For your own safety now you are here”. With an embarrassing smile on his face Major Salik replied : “Things do change”. Another account of their meeting suggested that, when Simon asked the Major what he would have done if he would found him, he answered :  “We probably would have killed you”. (link)

Simon became the 'UK Reporter of the Year' for his eyewitness accounts in The Daily Telegraph of the massacres in Dhaka during the Liberation War of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Government  expressed its gratitude to Simon for his outstanding role during its War of Liberation. He returned to Bangladesh after it gained victory for its independence in December 1971 and was in Dhaka when Sheikh Mujib returned from his exile in Pakistan on 10 January 1972. Sheikh Mujib recognised him as they had met 2-3 times during March 1971. In fact, Simon was on the back of the truck which took Sheikh Mujib from Dhaka airport to Paltan Maidan. "It was very special and particularly exciting because when he arrived at the airport I was able to clamber on to the back of the truck and I actually drove into town on the back of the truck Sheikh Mujibur was on . (text link) And of course mass crowds and the excitement and mass crowds and enthusiasm, you were caught up in that. It was a very special moment". 

The next day was Simon's 28th birthday. To his excitement, Sheikh Mujib had sent him a surprise birthday cake to the Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying. Back home in Fakenham, Simon's mother and father were photographed at home in the December of that year. 

In 1972 Simon was assigned to Uganda and in September he was photographed at at Manchester Airport with photographer Don McCullin (left) and Newsman Sandy Gall (centre) after their return from Uganda, where they had been detained in jail under the threat of execution by dictator, Idi Amin. Sandy Gall recalled : “I was in Uganda when there was an invasion from Tanzania and Idi Amin thought it was a British plot and locked up all the British journalists. We were rounded up and put in a military barracks in Kampala. We were put in an execution cell by mistake before eventually being moved, which was rather unpleasant”. Don said that, in his career as a photographer, having been most frightened when arrested by Amin’s men and taken to a notorious prison where they were murdering hundreds of people every day with sledgehammers. He said : ”Sometimes if felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed”.

In August 1974 Reuters carried a report : 'CYPRUS: ONE NEWSMAN IS KILLED AND OTHERS ARE WOUNDED WHEN THEIR CONVOY RUNS INTO A MINEFIELD'. In this conflict between the Turks and the Greeks on the island, Simon was driving first car in a convoy of 4 vehicles carrying newsmen when it ran into a minefield in a disputed area north-east of Nicosia. The whole episode was captured by a cameraman filming from the side of the road.(link) When Simon spotted  disturbance in the road surface he stopped and Ted Stoddard, a BBC sound recordist, got out to warn the following vehicles, when he triggered a mine and was fatally injured. Wounded by shrapnel, Simon was led by a Turkish captain out of the danger area and pointing to Ted said : "What about him ?"  As he was led to a jeep he said : "Which way do I go, for Christ's sake ?" 

He was placed in the back of a jeep to be taken to a hospital in Nicosia and remarkably, wounded and smoking a cigarette filed his report for the camera as he travelled to a hospital in Nicosia : "It only goes to show just how badly defined the front lines are in this war between the Greek and the Turks here in Cyprus. At least on the Greek side the minefields are marked very clearly with barbed wire and (indistinct) lines. Here on the Turk's side, where there's no front line marked at all, mines have been indiscriminately sown across the road and nobody ever makes any attempt to stop you crossing them. There are no checkpoints, nothing. Today it's no man's land, but hopefully one day it will be policed by the United Nations". (link) That night at a meeting in Geneva foreign ministers from Britain, Greece and Turkey renewed efforts to bring peace to the island of Cyprus. 

In 1978 Simon was in Africa working for the BBC and spent 5 weeks with the guerilla fighters of the 'Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front' before Ethiopian Army launched an offensive of 120,000 soldiers and hundreds of Russian tanks on EPLF positions, regaining most of the Eritrean territory which had been held by the organisation fighting for Eritrean independence. His resulting Report for the BBC (link) contained his question to one of the fighters : "How much are you able to operate in Asmara (the town of held by the Ethiopians) itself ?" He asked another fighter : "Does that mean that, as an army, you are prepared and ready to face the full force of an Ethiopian offensive ?" He asked a Relief Co-ordinator : "How much of your supplies actually pass through the Sudan ?" In the engineering shop he asked one of the operators : "Where did you get this machine from ?" The quality of his Report was recognised when he received the International 'Valiant For Truth Award' for his reports. 

For BBC TV News, Simon reported the Shah of Iran going into exile on 17 January 1979. He said : "The hatred of the monarchy displayed on the
streets of Iran has, according to court officials left him a bitter and saddened man. Few people expect him to return".
(link) On February Ist Simon was on the plane carrying the Ayatollah Khomeini back from Paris to Iran after 15 years in exile and was given the Monte Carlo Television Festival 'Golden Nymph Award', shared with John Simpson for his reporting of the 'Iranian Revolution' for BBC Television News. 

In 1986, at the age of 41, Simon produced and helped design and organise, with Chris Long and Bob Geldof , 'Sport Aid' and 'The Race Against Time', which is still the biggest simultaneous mass-participation sporting event ever held. At the time it was the most complex live global television event ever produced and raised over US$36 million for famine relief in Africa and more than 20 million people in 120 countries took part.

In 1992, at the age of 47, Simon retraced his 1962 overland journey to India for BBC Radio 4 as a series entitled ‘On The Road Again’. The series was first broadcast in the summer of 1993 and Simon repeated the journey again for an 8-part TV series of the same name for BBC Television and the Discovery Channel. He covered 29,000 kilometres in a Jeep and a Land Rover and wrote a book to accompany the series, ‘On The Road Again: Thirty Years On The Traveller's Trail To India’ in 1995. (YouTube clip, without sound, of Simon buying a melon, en route)

In 1994 he covered 'Operation Uphold Democracy', a US-led military intervention designed to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup d'état that overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The operation was effectively authorized by the 1994 United Nations Security Council Resolution 940 and Simon was awarded The 'New York Festival Grand Prize' for his BBC Radio 4 documentary of the US Invasion. 

In 1994 from Oslo he filed : 'Norway's Whaling Woes' centred on Norway's decision to resume hunting minke whales, in defiance of a moratorium by the International Whaling Commission  : 'Kathrine Kjelland of the Olympic Organizing Committee emphasizes that even with 3,000,000 visitors and more than 20,000 tons of waste, it will be possible to stage a reasonably green Olympics. Hard to imagine in a one-elk town like Lillehammer. But in order to preserve the sweep of the Alpine landscape here, the ice hockey rink, for example, has been carved out of the inside of a mountain. And even Coca-Cola has been persuaded to switch from glitzy red neon to more modest, wooden signs. This is the same country that hunts the minke whale?' (link) By complete contrast, In the same year BBC Radio 4 broadcast 'Dancing in Dead Men's Shoes', a series of reports about the aftermath of revolutions.

In 1997 Simon and his partners in Bangladesh helped to found 'Ekushey Television', bringing together a team of over 50 reporters, producers and editors, he helped establish the first television news operation in Bangladesh. Journalist Tushar Abdullah said : “Simon Dring was an iconic character in the expansion of TV media in Bangladesh". It was the countries first independent television station and attracting audiences around 70 million, outperformed the state-run Bagladesh Television. 

In 2002 Simon was Managing Director of the TV station, but was forced to leave  Bangladesh after the Government, led by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, issued a deportation order. Ekushey Television went off the air the same day, after the Government shut down its transmission facilities. At the time, ETV insisted that its news and current affairs coverage was neutral and objective, but the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party believed it was biased against them. Before his departure, Simon was given a farewell reception, at which many of Bangladesh's leading cultural personalities were present and told the audience that it was the second time he was being deported from Dhaka.

For BBC Radio he was commissioned to produce a documentary on Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party 4 on Turkey’s war against the Kurds for which he was awarded a 'Sony Radio Award' while at the same time receiving recognition from Amnesty International.

In 2012, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Government awarded ‘Muktijuddha Maitree Sammanana’ (Friends of Liberation War Honor) to Simon for his outstanding role during the great Liberation War in 1971. Though Simon was honoured to have received such a prestigious award, he urged the Government to recognise Michel Laurent as he was not accorded the honour. Michel had been killed w in April 1975 in Vietnam whilst trying to rescue fellow news reporter when they were both ambushed by North Vietnamese troops. It was the last day of the war and Michel was 28 years old. 

In his later years, in addition to the countries mentioned here, Simon, could look back on the reports he had filed in his career from other hotspots in the world in Angola, Israel, Croatia, Bosnia and Georgia. Although no longer working as a foreign correspondent, he continued to work for different television channels in a number of countries and served as a consultant in Australia and returned to Bangladesh again to work as the advisor of Jamuna Television in 2013. 

Simon was looking forward to participating in "one final project" focusing on Bangladesh's Golden Jubilee of independence, before he passed away unexpectedly in Romania last Friday. On his passing, President Abdul Hamid of Bangladesh said : "Simon Dring made immense contribution in informing the world about the genocide in Bangladesh and the struggle of the people through his coverage of our Liberation War. With his demise, Bangladesh lost a time-tested friend". 

Simon's partner of 26 years Fiona McPherson, on behalf of herself and their 10 year old twin daughters, Ava and India, said in her published 'In Memoriam'

'Simon's success and achievements in his life as a renowned international journalist are very well known. His ingenuity and drive to capture the true story no matter what the cost; to go where it was required, and to do what was needed for that end, is the stuff of legend. Indeed, our twins have spent many a bed and bath time sharing his extraordinary adventures! It gave our girls, and myself, boundless inspiration and far-reaching courage to live the road less travelled with him. To find answers and meaning in wide horizons'. 

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Britain made, but America has lost its much-loved Maestro Wig Maker, for actors of stage and screen, Paul Huntley

Paul, who has died at the age of 88, spent the first 40 years living and working in Britain and his last 48, in his adopted home - the USA. In the course of that time he designed wigs and styled hair for actors on stage and screen on both sides of the Atlantic including over 200 Broadway productions and some 60 cinema films. Costume designer William Ivey Long pronounced him “by far the premier hair designer on the planet hands down”. 

He was born in Greater London in the summer of 1933, into what became a family of five children supported by a father who served in the British Army and was presumably absent from the home for long stretches at a time. He grew up surrounded by a love for glamour and told Playbill in 2004 : “My mother was an avid movie buff. She always had magazines and she would let me look at them. I must have been six or seven, and I saw an article about the make-up people in the studios. It showed the actress Agnes Moorehead being aged from a youngish woman to a 100-year-old lady and I thought, ‘I want to do something like that’”


On another occasion he said : "As a small child, my mother was very remarkable in the fact that she would like to wear very heavy make up and I was fascinated at the age of six watching her make up" (link) and was also fascinated by the way "she curled and dressed her hair. That is basically how I started my interest : as a small child".

Having left school in 1949, Paul tried to find an apprenticeship in the film industry, but in the flooded post-Second World War job market, found that there was no vacancy for him. In 1951, at the age of 18, Paul was called up for his two years National Service in the British Army and recalled : "When I came out of that I decided I wanted to be an actor. So I went to a drama school (the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and trained.(link)

Then after a few months
(working in repertory theatre, seen here seated in front of the door) I decided that acting wasn't the thing I wanted to do at all. I wanted to do something more creative and then I trained in a very wonderful company called 'Wig Creations', which was a great experience. They asked me about the fact that I'd trained as an actor and the position required someone who had knowledge of wigs, which of course I did not really know much about wigs, but I said 'I know everything about wigs' to get the job and I trained as theatrical wig maker and so I had to go to hairdressing school at the same time".

The company, 'Wig Creations', was run by Stanley Hall who, before the outbreak of the Second World War had worked as a make-up artist for Alexander Korda's 'London Films' at Pinewood Studios. During the War he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major as one of the chief organisers of Combined Services Entertainment, producing shows for the troops such as 'Stars in Battle Dress'. After the War he set up the company partnership with a friend and companion of the War years, Noel Macgregor, known universally as 'The Major'. 

Vera Mitchell, an apprentice wigmaker working alongside Paul, who would later emigrate to the United States where she became Marlon Brando's wig designer of choice said : “Wig Creations had a stranglehold on the wig market throughout Europe but that’s because they were the very best. They supplied the wigs to everyone, the BBC, ITV, all the big theatres and opera companies and the film studios”.

Paul recalled his work in the 1950s and said : "In those heady days as a very young apprentice I was allowed to put curlers in Vivien Leigh's hair and various luminaries at that time in the theatre and movies.(link) I was very fortunate, because it was that period when the very famous actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and Gielgud, all those knights were around”. He played a role when the company hand crafted and designed the wigs for the big budget film the 1961, 'El Cid' as the 1964 musical, 'My Fair Lady'. 

He created Elizabeth Taylor’s Egyptian braids for the 1963 film 'Cleopatra' and said : “It was monumental, because she had thirty wigs”.(link) Later, he recalled she asked him, “Do you do personal wigs? Because I have a dear friend who’s a comic in New York, and he wears one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen”. She introduced Paul to Mike Nichols, who had lost all his hair when he was four, from a defective whooping-cough inoculation and as a result Paul ended up making his hairpieces and fake eyebrows for many years. 

In 1965 Paul assisted on Olivier’s controversial blackface version of 'Othello' and created his wig for the Moorish Prince. In the same year he designed Angela Lansbury's wigs as Lady Blystone in 'The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders'.(link) Wig-making, Paul said, was "an intimate collaboration". Marlene Dietrich’s world touring cabaret act, in the 1970s required fourteen identical blond wigs, which she would mail back to Paul for upkeep and he would mail back to her in brown paper bags, when restored.

Paul said : "I even made a wig for an actress called Mae West, who was quite a character I can tell you". He recalled going to her room at the Dorchester Hotel for her wig fitting : “I was ushered into the hotel reception of the suite that she was in and she had asked them to raise her bed on a dais and she had four lilac spots trained on her. When I went in to take her measurements, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I mean, it was just extraordinary, because she'd got a peignoir on as low as she possibly could to welcome a fairy into her domain, and there she was with all these satin pillows. She was sweet and charming, but the thing that I remember mostly is her teeth. They were pure white and glowed, I mean literally glowed and all I could think was : ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ I literally had to ask her to sit up in bed, and I knelt. So I had to do pin curls kneeling on the fucking bed. It was very awkward, actually”.

Still working at 'Wig Creations' in the 1970s, when Paul was in his forties, he had been, in his own estimation "the number one person in that company for many many years". He was already, at Elizabeth Burton's request, creating wigs and false eyebrows for film director Mike Nichols when he asked Paul to make the wigs for the film he was making in the USA called 'Carnal Knowledge' (link) which was to star Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel. He asked Paul he’d ever considered moving. Paul recalled : “He said, "Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?" and I said, "Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud"". Mike pressed on and ultimately sponsored Paul's visa and he moved to the States in 1972. 

Life and work in the USA :                                        

Paul recalled that he now realised : "That I could, perhaps, start my own company and I would like to start it here in New York " which he found to be "very loud and very noisy, very hot and very cold".(link) However, he found that :  "American actors really are rather wonderful. In many ways more considerate than the English actors who take it for granted too often that things that are made, like wigs and beards and so on, it's their God-given right. American actors are so fascinated by the whole thing and  say : "Oh my God. Look at that. Look at this". 



Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Paul made his Broadway debut in 1972 with the Nichols-directed production of 'Uncle Vanya', starring George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish (seen bottom centre). Paul recalled : “The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, "Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage. You’re going to have to give me a gray wig”. And she did look young”.

As a designer he became known for reading the entire script and diving deep into the characters’ psyche before getting started. He defined his role as : "A wig designer is a person, either sex, it doesn't matter about age, they create a style, a look, that is a designer. (link) And so when I'm approached to a production, I have to know what sort of person they are, whether they're poor people who have no way of going to a beauty parlor and having their hair done. So you design for the character. He creates a look with his skill and his comb and his brush".

He defined the importance of wigs in stage productions as : "On most productions, most performers wear a wig because it's easier. (link) It stays the same and you have your mic pad in your head, so you can't wear a mic pad in your own natural hair, you see. So that is why wigs are used and also with a production, once you establish the whole look of the whole concept of productions, costume, lighting everything, then that has to be respected 8 times a week and its much easier to do it with a wig because people get caught in the rain and they've had a shower and they've got to blow dry their hair and then it just doesn't work and its just not the same because hair natural hair is not the same every day".

Paul said : "If an actor came in with a costume designer and they started to talk about various aspects of the play and what character this actor was going to be, it helped me a lot that I'd been an actor myself and was able to speak and had an opinion, of course, in what would be the right thing to do in respect of a wig or a hairpiece or a beard or moustache to transform them into the script of the play".

Of actors he said : "First of all when they're sitting in front of the mirror in the dressing room they only really see themselves from sort of half way and it's the face isn't it ? (link) And if they had their make up and their hair in the character they feel totally secure in, then they just go out and do it and that is a kind of therapy, I think, for them. They find that a kind of catharsis in a way. They feel totally secure when they go out there and you have to make them feel that". Paul used his ability to channel characters through their hair - his curls, waves and tresses.

After working on several films with Bette Davis, Paul offered to help with her personal appearance because he had noticed the synthetic store-bought wigs she wore on talk shows : “I used to say to her, "Why do you wear these terrible wigs? and she said, "All I do is I put them in Woolite, and I shake them out and put them on the line". I said, "Yes, but they look like very bad, cheap wigs"”. 

He became known for his patience in dealing with divas and used his ability to always keep things in perspective and said :  “We’re not curing cancer here. It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, "Oh well, what the fuck". You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think”.

In 1977 Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in 'The Gin Game' in the John Golden Theatre and Hume's signed photo gives a measure of the respect with which Paul was held by the acting profession :  'For Paul - Miracle Worker with admiration, affection, and respect'. 

In 1979 he designed Angela Lansbury’s orange buns in “Sweeney Todd”  (link) and also, in the same year, Patti LuPone’s ice-blond updo as Eva Peron in 'Evita'. When in rehearsals she inquired about being fitted by Paul, Hal Prince, the director, told her that he would not be working on the show. To which LuPone replied :“Well, Mr. Prince, I will not be able to wear any wig that isn’t Paul Huntley's, so I won't be wearing a wig.”  
                       
She got her way and was featured with Paul in an article in 'Life Magazine' and Paul's relationship with Prince, which had fractured after a miscommunication, was restored. Paul said that he : "loved that show very much. I just loved the look and I love the music. It was Patti LuPone, who I work with a lot, who always requested me". She said : "When I put on a Paul Huntley wig, I never felt anything but my character".

The following year year Paul worked on the Broadway production of 'Amadeus'  with Antonio Salieri played by Ian McKellen and said : "I preferred straight plays, like 'Amadeus' - the white powdered wigs, which I always loved. I think you could be more subtle, which is what I tried to do in my career : make things as real as possible. Whereas musicals, of course, it’s chorus girls and lots and lots of wigs".

By the 1980s Paul had built up a formidable reputation as the premier wig maker and when Paul assessed his contribution to wig making in the USA he said : "I personally brought a different type of wig to this country. (link) The delicacy of the temples and the sides of the wig made an enormous difference and so the wigmakers who were making wigs here, put far too much hair in a wig, which is always a giveaway. And so I started to create a much finer type of wig to be worn in movies and theatre. One of the things I specialise in is, that when the hair is threaded into the foundation I shade the colour with a different colour and we call that a 'root colour'. Its where the base of the wig is slightly darker than the base of the hair and that has influenced a lot of wig makers here in this country - they've started to do that". 

Paul paid deference to the importance of new technology : "What you must realise now is that those mike pads are worn in the hair,(link) that changed the whole purpose. It has to be a wig because it has to cover up that mic pad. They can't use that mic pad with their own hair - there's no way. Also they have to dance, turn upside down with this on their heads. But most dancers, particularly Broadway dancers prefer it in their head, because they don't have to have cords running down their bodies". 

In 1982 Paul created the wavy reddish bob that Dustin Hoffman wore in the film 'Tootsie'. Paul recalled : “He had very definite ideas of what he wanted it to look like”. As a result they experimented over a period of months: blond, straight, long, short. “What he did not want : It must not look like drag”. Finally, at Paul's suggestion, they settled on auburn with thick bangs to cover the tape that Hoffman used to arch his eyebrows. Hoffman, Paul recalled, promised that he would be listed in the credits, but, when Paul saw the final film, his name was absent. “I got grumpy and thought, Well, there you go”. He ribbed Hoffman about it later, when he designed the actor’s thinning hair for 'Death of a Salesman'.

It was also in 1982 that Paul worked on the original Broadway production of 'Cats' and when it came to the the eighties-punk fur, Paul said he adored it "because it was so very different from what I was used to doing". "The kind of work I like to do and prefer to do is natural. (link) I don't like people to know they're wearing wigs and I don't like them to be alluded to wigs in a way, I just like it to be the character and no one questions that they've got a wig on. But with 'Cats', of course, you couldn't really do that and for me, who was such a purist about doing natural, it was something very exciting in a way because of those extraordinary colours and it wasn't made with human hair it was made with yak". 

Glen Close had Paul's services written in to her contract and he made her wigs for her character Norma Desmond in the musical 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Minskoff Theatre in 1985 and and in 1996, he created the black-and-white tangle of hair for her as Cruella de Vil in the film of '101 Dalmatians'.  

Paul's output was prodigious and he typically worked on several shows at once. In 2011, when Paul was 78 years old he said : "This year I've done, I should think, about 20 shows, (link) but driving my creativity - I think I've just disciplined myself to do that and I never think of doing anything else. This is who I am actually. This was meant to be, obviously for me". 

In 2013 for the film biopic, 'Phil Spector' he constructed, for Al Pacino, the outsize 'fright wig' Spector insisted in wearing during his trial for murder. The following year he turned out 48 wigs for Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' and more that 60 wigs and facial pieces for the Shakespeare Theater Company's two-part 'Henry IV' in Washington. In the same year but he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for the film 'Master Class' which was to be the feature film she directed and based on the biopic of the great 20th century opera singer. 

In 2018 Paul said : "A costume designer can hire me. (link) A director can hire me and a director can certainly hire me, because he is the one whos going to be paying the pennies. I have certain demands. I always say : 'Well I'm too old and too famous, so I can ask this'. Which I do. I get a design fee on a production I do and if they're generous I get a royalty. per week. That's the business side of it". Paul had travelled a long way from his early days and recalled : “I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped”. He knew that in his latter years, his reputation preceded him, but still said that, in the theatre world, he remained the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff”. 

In 2020, the Broadway musical 'Diana : A True Musical Story' based on the chronicles Lady Diana Spencer’s royal romance and marriage, was to be his last show. He said : "We had to make sure that we captured her in as short a time as possible, because it is, after all, a show. So she, in fact, has four wigs. When she started out, as a pudding face, she had a mousy look at the beginning and then gradually it got more flamboyant and windswept and windblown and the colour changed, of course, all the time. I was very fond of her and this was a tribute. I quite like the musical". Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic forced the show to close after only two performances. 

Paul lived alone after his partner of 21 years, Paul Plassan, had died in 1991 and was alone when interviewed at his home by the New York Times in February this year. In the resulting newspaper feature was titled : 'Exit interview. Broadway’s Hair Master Puts Away the Wigs', Paul said that he had been forced to sell his Upper West Side home-studio townhouse in New York because : "I am struggling financially. It’s been very difficult. And the fact that I’m not well doesn’t please me". In fact a fall in his house had left Paul with a fractured hip and not long after the interview he left his adopted USA and returned to his native Britain, where he died at the entertainment industry care home, Denville Hall in London. He didn't get to see the 'Diana' film version neither stream on Netflix in October, nor reopen on Broadway in November.

Paul said : 

"There were certain projects that, aesthetically, I may not have thought much of. But generally speaking, I enjoyed the rush".

Paul made a wig every month for free for chemotherapy patients who had lost their hair, his friend James M. Kabel said when one recipient asked : "What do I owe you ?", Paul replied : “What do I owe you? Just get well.” In gratitude, the woman had a plaque with Paul’s name installed on a park bench at 82nd Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan.


A celebration of Huntley hair :  Rebecca Luker as Maria, surrounded by the von Trapp children in the 1998 Broadway revival of 'The Sound of Music'.