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Lord Reith remembered (Read 3713 times)
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Lord Reith remembered
Sep 3rd, 2006, 7:22pm
This is taken from the Daily Telegraph, September 2, 2006:


As the founder of the BBC, he still stands for integrity and rectitude - but as a parent, Lord Reith was a tyrant. Now his daughter Marista Leishman, who has just written a book about him, reveals the family secrets - including his utter disdain for TV - to Elizabeth Grice

Lord Reith often looked like thunder – it was his default mode – but on the day of his only daughter's wedding, he is captured in an attitude of such jaw-clenching grimness that he might have been pallbearer at a funeral.

There are two possible explanations for his black mood as he escorts Marista out of a Rolls-Royce and into church, both of them revealing in a freakish sort of way. First, the former director-general of the BBC hadn't spoken to his daughter for two years because he regarded her marriage as a monstrous act of betrayal. And second, his shirt cuffs were almost certainly causing him some anxiety.

Realising the sleeves were too short to show correctly beneath his morning coat, he had seized a pair of scissors, cut off the cuffs in a moment of inspired annoyance and was wearing them detached at the wrists. A very Reithian solution.

In public life, Reith was a colossus: as architect of the BBC, he had become synonymous with integrity and rectitude. But in private, he resembled a blasted upland thorn: leafless, stunted, prickly, bent one way and sometimes poisonous to touch.

Today, his daughter reveals, for the first time, the gulf between his public image and his tyrannical regime at home. His paternal bullying and coercion, she says, reached its volcanic peak when she left home and then announced she wanted to marry.

Reith was apoplectic. He even bought his daughter a one-way ticket to Bermuda to try to avert the nuptials.

Until the last minute, no one had any idea whether he would turn up at St John's Kirk, Perth, though they guessed correctly what his mood would be if he did. Tight-lipped and glowering, he managed to perform his part on the day without actually communicating with the bride and groom.

As a friend of the couple remarked: "Only the fourth person of the Trinity would have been good enough for a daughter of Reith."

Though he showed her little affection, Reith's daughter was a prized possession and his reaction to having her snatched away from under his patrician nose was to put his future son-in-law – a minister of the Church of Scotland at the time – on his list of the seven men he most hated. Being Reith, he had no hesitation in telling him so.

As time went by, the hate list was updated and revised: some people disappeared, others moved up according to the degree of loathing. Murray Leishman was in a distinguished company that included Churchill, Montgomery, Earl Mountbatten ("playboy, fraud, counterfeit"), Anthony Eden ("a hollow third-rater") and Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945 ("couldn't have been more civil – nor less sincere.")

As Reith continually reshuffled his seven original hate figures, Murray ("whom we all so much dislike") rose higher in the ratings.

"When Murray and I were getting engaged, my father's behaviour was despicable," says Marista, who recalls ambushing him at Euston Station early one morning to introduce her fiancι, knowing that he would shun any arranged meeting.

They were waiting by his chauffeur-driven car as he stepped off the Edinburgh train but, granite-faced, he pretended not to have noticed them until the chauffeur intervened with: "There are people here hoping you will recognise them, my lord." Murray held out his hand interminably before Reith stonily accepted it.

"His attitude was intended to blight our relationship but, of course, it had the opposite effect," says his daughter. "One might say it was quite pitiable. I mean, poor guy, to get in such a muddle. It was more damaging to him than to us. The benefits were the tremendous amount of laughter it generated.

"Oh, it was wonderful. There was no reason on earth for this kind of thing except sheer selfishness: 'Home is to be sufficient. I am all-sufficient.' It was inexcusable. His determination to control other people's lives was so blatant that it was paramount to walk in the opposite direction. My ambition for my own children was that they should be free."

At first, the young man hoping to marry Marista was non-plussed: he had never encountered hostility on such a lunatic scale. "He explained the hate list to me on my first visit," Murray recalls. "It was grotesque. A friend warned me: 'Don't worry about Reith – he's impossible, you know.'

"My approach to him was: 'Sir, Marista and I intend to be married and we would very much like your approval.' He took it as a personal slight and said: 'So you're saying to hell with me, are you?'

"When our engagement pictures appeared in the press, and I was seen in a polo-necked sweater, he fired off a telegram: 'Can Mr Leishman not learn how to dress properly, even if only as a Minister of the Gospel?' I wrote a stinging letter back, but a friend told me to put it in a bottom drawer for a year. He said I could afford to be generous. 'After all, you got the girl.'

"We were caught all the time between humour and pathos. I never once met my father-in-law without him addressing me as Mr Leishman – though there was eventually a spirit of reconciliation and he bought us a holiday cottage in Duror of Appin, in Argyll.

"We took the view that it was his problem, not ours. We wafted into the future hand-in-hand. We had won the war; we had married. So really, he couldn't harm us."

The Leishmans are sitting in the conservatory of their little cottage near Pitlochry, Perthshire, recalling events as distant yet as vivid, fierce and prolonged as the Wars of the Roses. Lord Reith died in 1971, but his name and the catchphrase "Reithian standards" are still evoked – almost weekly in some aspect of media reporting – as a lodestone of broadcasting quality and moral probity.

Yet this was a man of narcissistic extremes, a despot at home, a serial philanderer, as much a monster in his personal life as he was a revered innovator professionally.

"He believed the universe was created for him," says his daughter, now 74, "and there is no doubt that he was in many ways a great man – a man hung about with greatness but festooned with littlenesses."

Uniquely qualified to know, she has written a book about the unappeasable Reith – a man who, she reveals, found children distasteful, thrashed the dog with his leather belt and humiliated his emollient wife, Muriel, both in company and behind her back.

In his preface, Sir Michael Checkland, 11th director-general of the BBC, writes: "I knew a little about the difficult relationship she had with her father, but I had no notion of the length, breadth and depth of that estrangement that this book so honestly exposes."

Remote and prone to terrible rages – telephones would be hurled and coffee cups smashed – Reith couldn't love his children for their own sake, only for what they could contribute to his image. In his desperation to show the world that he had a prodigiously talented daughter, he exerted such pressure on Marista to become a concert pianist that it left her physically incapable of playing in front of anybody, let alone on a public platform.

Murray says that he sometimes hears beautiful music coming from behind her closed door and thinks there must be a concert on the radio. But his wife seldom plays for him, and, if asked, there can still be tears.

"My father would summon me to play in front of his guests and the keyboard would freeze under my fingers," she says. "In his determination that I would become an outstanding keyboard player, he took me on a kind of organised tour of musical celebrities, such as Sir Adrian Boult and Sir William Mackie, the organist of Westminster Abbey.

"To my mind, that is a form of pilfering, of burglary. My music was being taken away from me. You spend a lifetime trying to find your way back."

Significantly, she thinks, her brother Christopher became a farmer – a good way of distancing himself as far as possible from their father's malign sphere of influence.

"After such a start in life," says Marista, "you really have to work hard to break free of it and not only become your own person but discover who that person is. It takes rather a long time."

In some ways, the book is part of that process. While not bitter, My Father – Reith of the BBC is a coruscating memoir, all the more devastating to the old man's reputation because it is spiked with humour – an attribute that Reith himself didn't seem to possess. "If he did have a sense of humour, it was very hard to locate," is his daughter's wry opinion on the matter.

Perhaps one of the problems for Reith, who loved to exert control, was that his daughter was both too clever for him and not sufficiently frightened.

At one point, she refers to him as a gargoyle. Elsewhere, she likens his intellect to a street "made up of indifferent buildings with gaps in between and some very fine buildings among them".

Reith was a terrible snob, and there is a glorious account of his pomposity when he was called on to deputise for the Queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1967 at the annual general assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Her father was perpetually trying to scale some personal Everest, failing, and visiting his rampant frustrations on everybody around him, she says. He regretted leaving the BBC and lived in hope that he would be one day be called back, yet ranted about the corporation to the end of his days.

"You cannot discount the colossal distress the upheaval of leaving the BBC caused him," says Marista. "I don't think anyone knew whether he had left under his own steam or been pushed. There were rumblings in government circles that ministers had had enough of eccentric brilliance.

"He did resign, but at the same time he never wanted to go. That was his mantra ever after: 'the biggest mistake I ever made'."

His disdain for television was absolute. He simply could not grasp the significance of it and, when meetings were called to discuss the new medium, he would make a point of being somewhere else. In what sounds suspiciously like a black joke, he was presented with a prototype television after he had resigned as director general of the BBC in 1938, but never watched it because he had already made up his mind that television was a frivolity that would undermine the serious purpose of public service broadcasting.

"It was one of those extraordinary sets that you see now in museums," says Marista. "It had a lid and a mirror, and the image was upside down. My brother and I were allowed to look at it once. There was Sylvia Peters, one of the first announcers, and the big mast over Alexandra Palace radiating electronic circles. Then it was turned off.

"That was the end of television. It just sat there. I suppose my father was so proud of his ignorance that even if he had looked at it, he would never have owned up."

For the next 20 years, while television permeated and revolutionised other people's lives, he simply blanked it out. "If you don't want to see something or know about it, it's quite easy, isn't it?" says his daughter. "That was his course of action."

He was equally blinkered about his own menopausal extra-marital dalliances, allowing himself a succession of "compliant women", while running an organisation that froze out divorced employees and believed that anyone reading the Epilogue on the radio should be of unblemished character.

"It was ghastly, absolutely ghastly," Marista recalls. "He was quite blatant about it, as if he were persuading himself that [each dalliance] was something else. My father was at the centre of his world and believed that whatever he did was right – right for him was what mattered. He would endlessly pronounce that life was for living, as if he had only just discovered it.

"It was so hard for my mother and she was such a stoic. In a topsy-turvy way, perhaps he had to rebuke her for her very constancy.

"She once wondered out loud to me where it was all going to end 'with this friendship between Joyce [Wilson, his secretary when he was with the Navy during the war] and Daddy.' His expectations of my mother were cruel.

"Her lonely anxiety brought the scales tumbling from my eyes. Joyce would come round every weekend, and she accompanied him on a world tour.  It was an infatuation.

"Then there was a string of them, just one after the other. I tend to think they were innocent [of full sexual relations] but maybe that's an easier thing for me to think. The public who looked on at his infatuations would probably not have shared this view."

She remembers how, as rector of Glasgow University, he "made an ass of himself" dancing with pretty girls. "Muriel was taken home to spare her humiliation. She never talked about his behaviour. She didn't deal with him as a phenomenon but as part of the landscape she had taken on when she married him. In a quiet way, she was heroic."

Sometimes, says Marista, she wishes her mother had stood up to Reith more – if only because her own four children would have had a less bumpy ride from him. "But that is easy for me to say. The material she had to resist was more than she could manage.

"One can never underestimate the emotional confusion under which my father lived. It must have been awful to be John Reith. He was always looking for something and not finding it. Murray sees him as the man who is forever looking for his mother – a mother who was always out doing good works in the parish."

Murray Leishman left the church to become a psychotherapist and has spent half a lifetime trying to understand the workings of his father-in-law's vast and irritable ego. "It gave us a new, broad perspective", says Marista. "We were better placed to deflect the brickbats that came our way."

Reith was brought up in an austere Scottish manse – where he was the last, by 10 years, of six children. Both his mother and father, a minister, were too preoccupied to take much notice of him, and his siblings treated him as an interloper, resenting him for taking what little parental attention was going.

When he was 23, he formed a homosexual attachment to a 16-year-old boy, Charlie Bowser ("very good-looking, with awfully pretty eyes") and was desolated when Bowser's family moved to London. The First World War intervened and Reith, who had a habit of walking about in full view of the German trenches, received a ghastly facial scar which usefully augmented his imposing physical presence.

Later on, Charlie became friendly with a shy girl called Muriel Odhams and there was a strange triangular relationship between them before John Reith finally poached Muriel for himself. "In some crazy way," says Marista, "he thought if he was married to her, it would regularise what he had with Charlie."

The Leishmans chuckle over some of their memories of the flawed man.  "Our key to managing him," says Murray, "was to treat him as if he were a big baby. I never broke into open warfare with him. He was the father of the woman I love, and that takes you a long way."

They give affectionate glimpses of Reith, the amusing eccentric. He enjoyed being preposterous and would sometimes ride on the bonnet of his Austin Seven, with his umbrella fully open. On another occasion, he rowed a small boat into the middle of the pond and then spun it round so much that it capsized.

"He sat there in the water," says Marista, "heaving with laughter while the waves made their way in circles to the shore."

Once, the Reiths had distinguished guests to dinner and Lord Reith was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, he emerged from the coal cellar, black from head to toe, fulminating about how disorganised it was. "It was another trick," says Marista, "for drawing attention to himself. Poor Mama. She was out of her depth in company, anyway."

Despite his personal failings and contradictions, his daughter believes that "Reithian standards" are still a valid concept. "His aspirations for broadcasting went way beyond anyone else's idea of converting a business with commercial interests into something that would be a power for opening people's minds.

"His achievement at the BBC was prodigious. And there was a magnificence about him – he was a courageous and energetic man – but he had no sense of his personal confusions or the upset he caused others."
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