Monday, 21 March 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to its old and avuncular radio and tv broadcaster, Cliff Michelmore

Cliff, who has died at the age of 96, was born just a year after the end of the First World War in 1919 and had his longevity and staying power emphasised by his 59 year old son, Guy, who has said that his Dad had driven himself to his local Waitrose just six weeks ago. He had his career summed up by Nick Higham on the Radio 4 Today Programme last week as : "For years the avuncular, balding Michelmore with his round face, his spectacles and his comb-over was one of the best known presenters in Britain. He was genial and apparently unflappable, the anchor man who guided viewers with a mixture of informality and authority much prized in television, to everything from moon landings to general elections."

What you possibly didn't know about Cliff, that he :

* was born Arthur Clifford Michelmore in Cowes, Isle of Wight, the son of Albert and Ellen who had moved there before the First War in the vain hope that the fresh air would relives his father’s tuberculosis, but which carried him away before Cliff was two, leaving Ellen to bring up their six children alone in a terrace house near the boatyards and then with the additional sadness of also losing her daughter, Ivy, to TB.

* through family poverty was boarded with his elder sister who was married to  farmer and had to forgo a place at Newport Grammar School for Boys since his mother could not afford the bus fares and went instead to Cowes Senior School, where he became Head Boy and Cricket Captain, was a self-declared 'hearty' and 'joiner' rather than a 'swat' and apparently alarmed the staff with his eagerness to organise everything and everybody.

* briefly considered training for ministry in the Methodist Church, before he left school at 15 and took himself to the mainland and Loughborough College followed by Leicester College of Technology to train as an engineer before joining the RAF in 1937 and after initial training at RAF Halton, in Buckinghamshire (left) and with the outbreak of the Second World War when he was 21, was based in France as part of the 'Advanced Air Striking Force', which he later described as “a stirring title for a far from stirring force.”

* found that his indifferent eyesight which led to him to crash an aircraft in a ditch, ended his career in the air and after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, worked on the ground, at air stations, group and command headquarters and the Air Ministry and at the end of the war, at the age of 26, was sent to Denmark on an 'Air Disarmament Wing' and on the strength of having done some radio commentaries on 'Inter-Service Games', was sent to Hamburg with the rank of 'Squadron Leader' and the grand title of  'Officer Commanding Royal Air Force Element, the British Forces Network in Germany' and work in an organisation where he was in his element with everyone  expected to do everything : write scripts, act in plays, announce concerts and give talks.

* remembered with special affection Trevor Hill's adaption of  'The Adventures of Robin Hood', where he played with future stars of theatre, radio, tv, opera and film in the shape of himself as 'Little John' with Nigel Davenport in the lead as 'Robin', Raymond Baxter as 'Guy de Guisborne,' Geraint Evans as the minstrel, 'Blondel', Brian Matthew as 'King Richard', Keith Fordyce as 'Will Scarlet' with the 18 and 19 year-olds, Roger Moore and Bryan Forbes bringing up the rear as 'foresters'.

* was assigned the duty of hosting, 'Forces Favourites', the Sunday lunchtime link between the Armed Forces personnel in Germany and their families in Britain, after the regular presenter was taken ill and was sometimes drafted in for Network reportage, with his own not always meeting with approval, after the occasion when he filled in a muffed time-junction with some facetious banter heard by a BBC Light Programme executive who recorded : 'This man must never be let near a microphone again' and no doubt would have said the same about 'a television camera again' had he seen him ten years later on the 'Tonight' Programme with a clip of himself cutting his toenails in imitation of the  camera switch which had caught the great Richard Dimbleby combing his hair on 'Panarama.'

* continued to host 'Two-Way Family Favourites' after the end of the War and before the programme began, used to chat on the 'closed line' to the presenter at the London end, Jean Metcalfe, four years his junior and with a vast public following, in whom he detected a distinctly flirtatious tone which he later described as "love at first hearing" and having wed a nurse in a ill-fated wartime marriage, who he divorced in 1949, conducted his clandestine affair with Jean, with no hint allowed to surface and even the official announcement of their marriage, in 1950, postponed until he had left the programme and reprised his role with Jean when the cost of sending a postcard had reached 7p :

* like ex-RAF Flight Commander Raymond Baxter, who had also not gone to public school and university and was not a 'BBC type', he began doing freelance radio work, then got his first paid job on 'Design for Dancing', with 'Geraldo and His Orchestra', scripted it for eight guineas and was hailed as 'Britain’s first radio square-dance caller' :

* at the age of 31 in 1950 made his first television appearance on Children's Television, billed in the 'Radio Times' as : 'Cliff Michelmore explains the rules and scoring of tennis and introduces the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships from Wimbledon' and honed his skills as an interviewer with kids' sporting heroes : Stanley Matthews, Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans and although, at this stage still mainly a producer, on occasion proved the Michelmore art of improvisation when once asked to put together a magazine programme on 'lacrosse', a game he had never seen.

* got his next break in 1955 and for two years worked on the programme 'Highlight' on which he interviewed, André Maurois, Louis Armstrong and Spike Milligan and Krishna Menon, a Minister in the Indian Government, who was in London to have talks with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and had caused ructions at the UN over India's stance on Formosa and met each of Cliff's questions with the rebuke : "That question is not cast in the mould of my thinking" and apparently taught him the valuable lesson , as he later said : "You cannot go into any interview over prepared. Under prepared yes, but never over prepared".

* received his breakthrough into mainstream broadcasting in 1957 after the Government
extended the hours available to television following pressure from the new commercial channels by opening up the closed hour between 6 and 7pm, the so-called the 'Toddlers Truce' and it was proposed that the Highlight team, bridge the gap with a nightly show called 'Man Alive' a title dropped in favour of 'Tonight' and at the age of 38, found himself the anchorman of the first nightly 45 minute tv programme to blend current affairs with light entertainment and featured short and snappy items aimed at an audience whose attention span was presumed to be limited, with dads coming home from work and mums putting children to bed and dipping in and out of the programme as household tasks permitted.

* introduced the first edition of Tonight on Monday 18 February 1957 with its specially composed signature tune, 'Tonight and Every Night' written by Felix de Wolfe and a packed running order : the draw for the FA Cup; Cy Grant with a topical calypso penned by Bernard Levin; actor Derek Bond telling the story of 'Bulbous Betty' the statue of Aphrodite that was offending people in Richmond Park ; Derek Hart interviewing the great Ed Murrow and Jonathan Miller (right), giving his impressions of shops in Charing Cross Road.

* for eight years with a peak audience of 8 million and in well over 1,500 editions, was clearly the confident, calm, unhurried and unflappable captain of a team of talented idiosyncratic reporters, like him, making their way in the new medium of television with Fyfe Robertson, Trevor Philpott, Alan Whicker, Macdonald Hastings, Polly Elwes,  Julian Pettifer, Magnus Magnusson as well as  Derek Hart.

* in his tenure at 'Tonight' conducted a range of interviews ranging from Sophia Loren in 1958 talking about her looks and film career and 1964, a teenage David Bowie with : "It's all got to stop. They've had enough. The worms are turning. The rebellion of the long hairs is getting underway. They're tired of persecution. They're tired of taunts. They're tired of losing their jobs. They're tired of being sent home from college. They're tired even, of being refused the dole. So with a nucleus of some of his friends a 17 year old Davy Jones has just formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men' :

* was no doubt pleased when 'The Evening Standard' likened him to 'the John Bull of the Small Screen' and spoke affectionately of him as having a 'pink-faced middle-brow with middle-class accent, occasional squeak in the voice and mild-as-cocoa manner has a very warm place in the hearts of millions of Britons' and at the end of 1957 when The Daily Telegraph’s L Marsland Gander had no hesitation in naming him as 'The Television Personality of the Year' with : 'He radiates unaffected friendliness and good humour. Being entirely natural and unselfconscious are his great attributes. Moreover there is real intelligence and wit behind his spontaneous interviewing.'

* presented an altogether different picture of himself  when in a mock obituary after a suspected heart attack in 1984, he wrote that he : 'found criticism hard to accept and could be intolerant even when proved wrong. His temper was combustible, on a short fuse, but, to be fair, he would quickly forget the cause of his anger when it has passed' and he was 'slow to make friends. Popularity was not important to him. He was not afraid of losing favour in what he considered a good cause. At times he lacked concentration and the persistence to see a project through to its conclusion. Direct rather than subtle, he never claimed to be a patient man.'

* in November 1963, had given British viewers the first news of President Kennedy’s death and in 1964 introduced the General Election results with : "Good morning. I hope there's somebody there because we're all here again. I tell you it doesn't seem long ago since we were last here either. I have made the most startling discovery. There is a bird which sits in the middle of Television Centre at White City and sings its head off from four o'clock until six. It was my boon companion for an hour o two two, brief, fleeting hours of rest. Now let us get back to where we were at, whatever time it was we left you."

* soon after 'Tonight' came to an end in 1965 and for thee years, with Kenneth Allsop, took up a late-night slot with '24 Hours' and covered the Aberfan mining disaster in 1966, when a slag heap engulfed a junior school, killing 116 children and 28 adults and clearly moved with emotion reported ; “I don’t know how to begin. Never in my life have I seen anything like this. I hope I shall never see anything like it again.”

* had a stormy relationship with the producers at '24 Hours' to the extent that, on one occasion in 1967, he walked out after being asked to to discuss the question of Stansted Airport with a studio audience with :  “I will not be associated with a third-rate Palladium show” and left the show the following year, partly because of the daily demand of current affairs and partly because, as he wrote : 'There comes a time, even in television, when you begin to feel that it has gone on rather too long for your own comfort. There are those who play the games of power and stay the course far longer, almost for ever... I left that to others.'

* entered the record books when chosen to anchor the programme with the biggest worldwide audience at the time, the 'Our World' satellite link-up of 25 June 1967 with an estimated 400 million viewers.

* turned down the opportunity to take over from Freddy Grisewood on radio’s 'Any Questions'  and replace Eamonn Andrews on 'This Is Your Life' but was back on the box again in 'British By Choice' in 1969, a programme which gave emigrants an opportunity to explain why they had settled in Britain and in 'Across the Great Divide' in 1970 investigated Britons living in America until he settled with 'Holiday' in 1969 which ran for 17 years and involved travelling around the world investigating the offerings of the leisure industry and 25 years later in the Azores reflected that : "In 1969 Clarksons, who brought people here to this hotel had a different job to do. They had to persuade them not to be scared, the flying, the funny foreigb food, the language the fear of getting lost and they had to convince them they could afford it."

* continued in parallel with his series of interviews, 'With Michelmore' with Matt Busby and Ginger Rogers who told him in 1968 : "It's the most satisfying experience to be an amateur painter" and graced the studio with some of her art and Field Marshal Montgomery, who confessed that his favourite tv programme was 'Come Dancing' :  “the one with all those pwetty girls in pwetty fwocks dancing in formation”.

* with Jean published a joint autobiography, 'Two-Way Story' in 1986 and reflected back 30 years to his time on the Tonight Programme : 'The concept of the programme was that it should be on the side of the audience. It would look at people and events as ordinary people looked at them, and take the attitude and ask the questions that ordinary people would ask. At no time were we to give the impression that we were superior. All these years later it seems strange that we had to be so conscious of the patronising attitude which had been so prevalent in many BBC programmes' and at the end of his career, he returned to radio at the age of 77 for 4 years in 1996 with 'A Year to Remember' on Radio 2.

* said with perfect self-effacement :  "They might say I had been extremely fortunate to have achieved a measure of success in broadcasting in spite of lacking the intellectual powers and education of some of my contemporaries and the physical attributes of others."

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