Obituaries: Pat Walker, BBC Scotland executive behind The Beechgrove Garden
David (Pat) Walker, BBC Scotland executive. Born: 27 October 1927 in Glasgow. Died: 11 August 2022 in Dunfermline, aged 94
Barely months from the 100th anniversary of the launch of its first station, BBC Scotland has lost a unique link to its earliest days with the death of David Paterson Walker. Pat Walker, as he was universally known – a name first used by his family to distinguish him from his lawyer father David – was a former Assistant Controller of the service who used his last period on staff to research its first 50 years.
His interest in programmes never diminished throughout his long career, though his self-effacing personality meant it was frequently applied under the radar. On a visit to WGBH in Boston he noticed the way the station had used a section of its car park for a gardening programme. Back in Scotland, he pursued a project for a similar television series, making sure it was overseen by a local station manager whom he recognised as tough enough to make a regular weekly show happen despite any complaints about having to film in the rain. It resulted in Aberdeen’s enormously successful Beechgrove Garden, one of Scotland’s all-time favourites.
Pat Walker had links with the BBC from childhood as his mother was the well-known singer and actress Madeleine Christie. Pat himself once had a single line in a play broadcast in 1944. He always retained a strong family bond with Glasgow as a grandfather had led the Fire Service at a major incident where he contracted pneumonia after staying out on site to check the welfare of his men as heavy rain saturated the streets
A confident, independent-minded individual, Pat shocked his parents when on leaving Glasgow Academy he chose to join the navy as a volunteer, not as a part of National Service. He recalled being on HMS Vanguard with the then Princess Elizabeth when she flew home following a royal visit. He later described his naval experience as extremely useful in providing invaluable lessons on how to get on well with people from all backgrounds. They included a career burglar and the son of landed gentry. An accident with a towrope almost dragged him to an early death under water, but quick thinking by his galley mates secured his rescue
On returning to civilian life he contacted the BBC and landed a job in radio sound effects. One year later, financial cutbacks led to his departure – an experience he would recall that in many respects always seemed to have been the way things happened at the BBC – but he rebounded almost immediately on a freelance programme contract that paid him considerably more for much less effort.
Old school contacts resulted in brief spells with Glasgow-based Templeton’s Carpets, one of the UK’s leading manufacturers in the 19th and 20th century. A chance meeting with a former teacher resulted in the offer of another position on a mining project in the north-west, which he found less satisfying.
Back in Glasgow he secured a temporary contract as a junior programme engineer and subsequently worked as a staff studio manager. It was during this time he believed his career almost came to an end before it had started. On a late-night shift he placed the then vinyl disc of a Gaelic programme on the turntable. After taking his cue from the presenter in a distant studio, he watched in horror as machine vibration caused a small dust brush to drop down onto the disc. Taking a guess, he replaced the needle, but where, and at what cost to the programme? A sleepless night was followed by a chance encounter the next day with the show’s producer. As he felt a much larger object about to drop on his own neck, he was relieved to receive only a cheery wave.
Marriage to Lily followed in December 1949. He always called her “the girl next door”, which was almost correct as she was the daughter of a neighbour on a different floor of their building in Glasgow. Theirs was a long and happy union and she gave him great support throughout his career. His own creative talent flourished with a further promotion to radio producer before joining the new television service as an outside broadcast studio manager in 1952. This was viewed by some colleagues as a risk, with post-war radio audiences in the ascendancy and TV considered the “wee brother”. An alternative view was that these same colleagues had been waiting to be asked. Whatever, it proved a wise choice for Pat and he rose to become a director of film and studio programmes. One highlight was filming the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo and being obliged to take part in the daily “penguin walk” when a large member of the colony refused to leave his side. It prompted a life-long affection for the popular flightless seabirds.
In 1960 he moved to Northern Ireland as a TV producer and then Assistant Head of Programmes, running the TV service. The type of Glasgow-Belfast link he represented had been very strong for a considerable period, with an early UK management proposal actually suggesting Scotland assumed editorial control of both broadcasters, though this was not followed up in Scotland
It was during their time across the water that the couple adopted Jane, who greatly enriched their lives, and who took care of them in their final years. Pat revelled in the creative freedom of mixed programming in Belfast. He made a wide range of programmes, established a positive contact with Dublin, while Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor were just two of many familiar artists from Scotland who made visits to record in Northern Ireland. But he also recalled his “Pat” name causing some consternation in the ranks in his early days, and once being solemnly advised by an elderly secretary to avoid the canteen’s Friday fish and chips in favour of mince and tatties.
Pat returned to Scotland in 1970 with his family to take up the post of Assistant Head of Programmes in charge of radio. Although proud of Glasgow’s programme record, notably in light entertainment, he was concerned by the city’s overwhelmingly dominant media position and keen to develop Edinburgh as a programme base. He viewed No 5 Queen Street’s location as offering options for a better national balance, plus greater listener access to programming. The strategy included the transfer of radio news and current affairs – chipping away, as he saw it, at a perceived west of Scotland bias, notably in coverage of local crime and football. It was an initiative that came to an end down the line and was a source of disappointment, though Queen Street remained a popular venue for arts and music programming for many years, particularly the audience shows held during the Festival period.
He was involved in the creation of Radio Scotland, though the replacement of leading radio executives following the “Queen is Dead” incident (a story that was never actually broadcast) put great pressure on his time and energy. But he was able to draw on his experience during a difficult period for all concerned in order to ensure the future of the service was secured, and it subsequently prospered. In this respect he was helped by the strong links he maintained with members of the then Broadcasting Council for Scotland. Similar links with London had enabled him to gain regular commissions for Scotland’s TV productions
Pat Walker retired in 1983 having achieved the rank of Assistant Controller, recalling turning down an offer to become editor of the Radio Times. He was flattered, but with characteristic clear thinking did not feel it was right for him. But he was delighted when the former Controller of BBC Scotland and then BBC Director-General, Alasdair Milne, retained his services to pursue a project researching the history of the BBC in Scotland.
This work eventually turned into the book on “The First 50 Years” of the service, affording him the opportunity to contact many of the people involved from its earliest periods. It remains a unique record of broadcasting life and times from the first broadcasts through to the war and its aftermath – with startling revelations from Scotland including the world’s first spoof radio alarm (not an invasion from Mars, but a revolution in London) and the use of the popular Radio Padre’s talks to feed encrypted information to agents and the Resistance fighting in occupied Europe
It was part celebration, of course, but also an honest account of times when “things didn’t always go to plan”, of which he conceded there were quite a number. But following Alasdair Milne’s exit from the BBC, Pat was immediately informed that support for his research would stop. His contacts, however, ensured that he never really did
His retirement years were spent living in the New Town, taking pleasure in the fact that a near neighbour had been Lord Reith. He retained a keen interest in BBC matters, an institution for which he never lost a great but not uncritical affection, often helping out reporters and producers with their programming. He also made sure he took time to care for Lily – who predeceased him in 2013 – and enjoying time with his family, of whom he was particularly proud. He spent his final years in Dunfermline, where he lived with Jane and her family.
Pat Walker is survived by his daughter Jane, her husband Nick, grandchildren Emma, and Louise, a great-grandchild Noah, and his sister Amanda.
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