Obituary: Bob Symes, TV presenter and rail campaigner

Bob Symes: Tomorrows World presenter who campaigned for a Galashiels-Edinburgh railway line in 1969Bob Symes: Tomorrows World presenter who campaigned for a Galashiels-Edinburgh railway line in 1969
Bob Symes: Tomorrows World presenter who campaigned for a Galashiels-Edinburgh railway line in 1969
Born: 6 May, 1924, in Vienna. Died: 19 January, 2015, in Wales, aged 90

With his sea-captain’s beard and broad, friendly smile, Bob Symes was an instant success on Tomorrow’s World. He was a scientist with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject which he communicated to generations of listeners and viewers. What Patrick Moore did for the universe and the stars Symes did for science and engineering. Both these delightful eccentrics sported monocles with a grand flourish. Symes complemented Raymond Baxter’s rather formal delivery on Tomorrow’s World with an authority and much practical knowledge.

He was fascinated by railways and this brought him to Scotland where, in 1969, he campaigned to have the Waverley Line re-opened between Edinburgh to Carlisle. The line had been axed by Dr Beeching earlier that year. Syme’s imaginative proposals involved a freight and passenger link with an oil pipe line along part of the route.

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Despite support from the local MP, David Steel, and such important local dignitaries as the Duke of Buccleuch and the ornithologist Henry Douglas Home, the brother of Sir Alec, the scheme failed.

Central government considered it financially unsound despite Symes arguing convincingly in its favour. “It was going to make its living off freight,” Symes had claimed. “The plan was to run the line through the Kielder Forest and then transport the timber.”

To Symes the logistics were self-evident. It would provide work for more than 900 people and cut the journey time from 90 minutes by bus or car to 45 minutes.

Lord (David) Steel spoke warmly of his association with Symes. He told The Scotsman at the weekend: “Bob was a great character: always genial and entertaining. Maybe the scheme wasn’t so practical but thanks to Bob it got lots of publicity. He was way ahead of his time.

“We had a dinner in Newcastleton last year and he was fondly mentioned in dispatches. Bob would be so pleased that at last the line is to be opened.”

Robert Alexander Baron Schutzmann von Schutzmansdorff (which he shortened to Symes, although some studio colleagues called him “Baron Bob”) came from an aristocratic Austrian family who left Vienna for Britain before the Nazis arrived.

Symes joined the Royal Navy, serving in motor torpedo boats in the Mediterranean, and reached the rank of lieutenant-commander. Symes had had a request played on a BBC radio programme and visited Broadcasting House to thank the producer, Monica Chapman. He took her out that evening and they were married six weeks later.

After the war Symes joined the BBC as a television assistant, making short films. He was a fine linguist – speaking fluent French, Arabic, German and English – and produced many of the first Horizon documentaries.

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He was involved in innovative history and science programmes and produced The Man Who Started the War, about the SS officer who staged the fake raid that gave Hitler the pretext to annex Poland.

Symes also made the Doomsday Prophecies, which forecast the end of the world. In 1956 he joined Tomorrow’s World and for three decades fronted programmes dealing with science, engineering and technology.

He also was able to bring his own brand of passion for hobbies to Model World and Making Tracks. Both often included news of model railways and items about restoring vintage steam engines.

Railways remained a passion throughout his life and he had two mini-steam engines chugging round the garden of his Surrey home. They were his pride and joy and he spent many hours servicing them and giving rides to local children. He hosted open days for Children in Need and after the trip round the garden his wife served home-made cakes.

Symes was a skilled engineer and the inventor of an efficient lavatory ventilator. He formed the Association of Invention Management to help inventors find financial backing to develop their products. Symes offered practical help to engineers with ideas and was keen that the phrase “mad professor” should be banned.

But Symes rather enjoyed preserving the image of the genial English eccentric. He roamed the countryside collecting nettles, dandelions and wild mushrooms and then concocted a stew whose recipe he expounded on The Ad Hoc Cook on Radio 4.

Symes was a passionate environmentalist and an early supporter of a cleaner world. In the 1990s he presented a television series The House that Bob Built, in which a “green” dwelling was constructed at Milton Keynes. It proved a fascinating insight into some of the irregularities of the building industry and Symes demonstrated how a well-designed house could be more energy efficient.

His first wife died in 1999 and in 2007 he married Sheila Gunn. She and a daughter from his first marriage survive him.

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