Kicking The Bar

By Wynn Wheldon

A brand new biography of the legendary broadcaster, Huw Wheldon


My father tapped me gently on my upper arm with the back of his hand.

“There you are,” he said. He was pointing to a paragraph in the Daily Telegraph in which he was described as “legendary”. He was clearly chuffed. I’ve no recollection of what the article was about, just Dad’s chuffedness. However, he then asked me whether really one ought to be dead in order to be legendary. I very likely ummed and ahhed, and may have pointed out that he wasn’t dead. Still, I have the distinct impression that despite being chuffed he was also a little discomposed. But only a little.

To be a legend in one’s own lifetime is usually the hyperbolic lot of sportsmen and pop stars, or occasionally individuals known to select coteries (Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, and I recently saw Adam Phillips described as “the legendary psychologist”), but there it was in black and white, ungainsayable.

So what is the legend that my father inhabits?

I wanted to call this book “Drunken with the Wine of a Noble Aim”, but it is rather mouthful, and perhaps doesn’t chime quite with the times. My father was occasionally drunk when a young man, but I never saw him so. People often thought him tipsy, but he was naturally ebullient, and could seem unnaturally cheerful. Was he then “Drunken with the Wine of a Noble Aim”? Speaking at its opening, this pentameter was part of an entreaty uttered by my great grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, to the first pupils of Wrexham Grammar school. It was what he wanted them to be. It was what he would have wanted his grandson to be. And I think it is what that grandson was close to being - a legend drunk on the wine of a noble aim.


In the November before Orson Welles’ Sketchbook, Dad had been the producer in Downing Street for a special programme celebrating Winston Churchill’s 80th birthday. Donald Baverstock, another inspiring Welshman in Talks, who was producing a news programme called Highlight and who would go on to become Editor of Tonight and eventually Controller of BBC1, suggested that the programme take the form of a party. Grace Wyndham Goldie, the overall producer, agreed. The great and the good from around the world would make toasts to the great man. The hope was that Churchill would respond. No-one knew whether he would or not. Dad, Lord Ismay and Wyndham Goldie planned for three endings to the programme. Years later Wheldon told his own version of the Churchill story to Frank Gillard:

Now Churchill had to be there of course watching in Downing Street [but] there wasn’t a television set there in those days… Grace asked me to go down there. Anyway, I went down there, and presently his family turned up… but no sign of the great man. And then, just before the programme was due to begin, he came in with his wife. I’d been told that he looked old, but I had simply not been prepared for the sight of this pterodactyl coming very, very slowly into the room. I mean, he looked about eight thousand years old… and his skin was like yellow leather. He shuffled to his chair, sat in the wrong one I need hardly say; anyway, there it was; and paid no attention to his children, all of whom said ‘Hello’, and paid no attention to them at all. Still less to me - he didn’t see me.

The News was on, and there was a camera, looking at him. He looked at the News and in a very, very broken, switched-off, childish voice, he said, ‘Is this the programme?’

And in a reverential bellow - because it was clear to me that you had to speak very loudly to get at the old thing at all – in a reverential bellow I said, ’No. This is the News. The Programme,’ I said, ‘will follow in a minute, and Lord Ismay will be there in Shepherd’s Bush talking to you.’ He said ‘Ismay is in Paris.’ And I said, ‘No, Ismay has come over especially for the programme, and he will be talking to you in a minute or two.’ Then I said, ‘You’ll be here watching the programme, and when at the end they… wish you God speed and best wishes… if you want to respond in any way, all you have to do is look into this camera over here, and you can speak directly to them, and I will give you a signal for doing that if you like.’ To which he paid no attention, none. So I was very apprehensive. I went round the back of the chair to Clemmie [Lady Churchill] and said, ‘Do you think he’ll say anything?’ And she said, ‘It’s very difficult to say. He’s very tired.’

…I rang Grace up in the studio and said I had no idea what was going to happen. He looked like an old tortoise – and it wasn’t at all clear to me that he would speak.

Cut to Grace Goldie at Lime Grove:

It was impossible to believe that he knew in the least what was happening. But when Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, at the end of her message, said “Courage, that is your greatest gift to those who know you”, I watched, unbelieving, on my gallery monitor the ancient head move slowly from side to side in a gesture of negation and tears rolling slowly down the leathery cheeks. Only we in the gallery saw this incredibly moving spectacle. And we were filled also with professional relief. He was registering something after all.

Back to Dad:

Anyway, the programme took place, and he betrayed no emotion of any kind, of pleasure or displeasure – except that whenever Clemmie was mentioned he looked slightly in her direction, but whether to say ‘How nice’, or alternatively ‘Why should that be said?’, it was impossible to draw any conclusion.

The programme came to an end, and I heard Ismay give his final speech, so I was alert and I was just preparing to signal Churchill towards the camera, Ismay having said ‘So best wishes for the future, dear Winston,’ or words to that effect, when I looked towards the great man. He was sitting up in his chair and his eyes were fixed on me, and it was exactly as if I’d come round a little bend in a Pembrokeshire hedgerow in 1934 in one of those little Austins, and run into a gigantic red lorry. It was like running into searchlights head on. In some curious way he appeared to have switched on. I nervously signaled him towards the camera, and he then moved his entire chair so that he was facing it, and instantly spoke in this enormous diapason, ‘I have been delighted’ and so on, ‘This remarkable ….’ And a great sonorous sentence came out, Gibbonesque, very, very good, very much to the point, extremely rounded, very masculine, very virile, very Churchillian. So he came to the end of his peroration and looked away from the camera to me, glared at me and said ‘Good night!’

Then I heard the trumpets blowing, so I knew we were off old Churchill. I rushed up to him, and so did his family, and everybody said, ‘You were wonderful,’ ‘You were marvelous,’ all that sort of thing, but he paid no attention, he’d switched off again. He said to his wife, ‘I hadn’t had time to prepare,’ and she said, ‘You were very good, Winston.’ He said, ‘But I hadn’t had time.’ He shuffled to the door, and then he did look round for a moment at his family – not at me, he never paid any attention to me from beginning to end – and he switched on for a minute. ‘I’m going to have a bath,’ he said, and pushed off. It was a memorable programme, beautifully done by Grace.

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