Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Bush House’

John Tusa Making a Noise ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2018

John Tusa bookWithout a doubt, my favourite period during the 20 years I was based at BBC World Service at Bush House was when John Tusa was its Head. Having worked there in more junior roles at earlier stages in his career, he understood what made the place tick. The basement canteen was an extraordinary meeting place of resident experts and guests from all over the world, and he made a point of spending time there, chatting to everyone. As his autobiography, Making a Noise (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), makes clear, he would have loved to go on to be the BBC’s Director General, but there were powerful forces who were determined not to let that happen. Instead, the Corporation was landed with John Birt (or “the Dalek”, as we called him without affection at Bush), who wanted to bring about a revolution of management systems and efficiency measures which leeched much of the soul out of the institution. Fortunately for John Tusa, he had other fish to fry, not least as a TV presenter, not just on international affairs but also covering music and the other Arts — a passion shared with his wife Annie, with whom he has enjoyed a close partnership ever since they met as students at Cambridge. They went back to Cambridge, briefly, when he was appointed Principal of Wolfson College — an unmitigated disaster, as he recounts it, that lasted barely a year. That didn’t turn him completely off academe, however, as later, after a long, productive period running the Barbican Centre in the City, he would become Chairman of the University of Arts London, juggled along with being Chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme. Though now officially retired he is still full of beans, as I discovered when I went to see him being interviewed about the book by Robin Lustig at New Broadcasting House recently. All in all, he has had what is often tritely called a “glittering career” and not one many would have predicted when his father took him and the rest of his immediate family out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, to run a Bata shoe factory in Essex. Oddly, John Tusa never lived abroad himself again, though his broadcasting and Arts careers led to many short foreign assignments. He was thus a witness to important moments of history, including events in Poland in 1989, when Communism started to crumble in central and eastern Europe. There is therefore much that is fascinating about this book, though perhaps inevitably the later sections about Arts and academic administration are maybe less appealing to the general reader than earlier accounts of his work with the BBC. I would have liked more detailed pen portraits of some of the significant figures he encountered; instead there is a pot-pourri of amusing short memories in an “Envoi” at the end. Throughout, however, the author comes across as a man of great decency and discernment and a champion of several of the very best things about British and European civilization.

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Tales from Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 2nd January, 2014

Tales from Bush HouseThe 20-odd years I spent working in Bush House as a freelancer for the BBC World Service were undoubtedly the happiest period of my diverse journalistic and writing career. The place was in some ways like an Oxbridge graduate college, only with the added verve of immediacy, in that its occupants were producing and broadcasting news and current affairs material, as well as cultural output,  in over 40 languages, as well as the 24-hour English language service. There were some brilliant men and women working in the place, as well as some who were a little bit crazy. The windowless canteen in the basement, where people sat wherever there was a space at a table, was one of the most convivial and stimulating eating places I have ever experienced. Like many, I was saddened when Bush House closed down — though I had long since moved on — and the World Service and a much reduced group of language services was integrated into New Broadcasting house. So it was an excellent idea of a small group of former Bush House employees to invite past colleagues from Central Asian language services and other sections to send in short reminiscences, with a special emphasis on amusing anecdotes. The result, Tales from Bush House (Hertfordshire Press) is an engagingly eclectic collection that will bring many a smile of recognition to those of us who worked in Bush, as well as lifting some of the veil of mystery that surrounded it in the minds of millions of listeners round the globe. Much emphasis is put on the mishaps and near-disasters — particularly in the days when programmes were put together on tape, sliced with razor blades — and the bumps in the night in the dormitories in North East wing, as well as memories of such oddities as the Lamson Tube, Bush’s equivalent of the Paris pneumatique system that sent petits bleus whooshing to their destinations around the compound. But due tribute is also made to the huge respect with which the World Service was and to a large extent still is regarded, not least by listeners in countries where there is no free media on which to rely.

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Farewell to Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2012

This week, the BBC World Service completed its move out of Bush House in the Aldwych to the state-of-the-art new news and current affairs HQ attached to Broadcasting House in Portland Place. As I drove past Bush House yesterday afternoon, a lump stuck in my throat. This was not just nostalgia for an iconic building, whose name and role as the voice of Britain were known throughout the world but also because of fears that I — and many others who worked there — have for the future of the World Service. During the 20-odd years I was based there, the whittling away of European language services began and staff cuts became ever more severe. There was a certain logic to the argument that previously Communist states of central and eastern Europe no longer needed Auntie to tell them what was going on in the world (including inside their own country) once they had their own free media, but the arguments for cutting some of the more exotic services were far less evident. Moreover, from the time John Birt took over as Director General of the BBC it became clear that the Corporation’s top brass did not value the World Service as much as its listeners or those who worked there did. That trend has alas continued, whatever Mark Thompson said in his valedicory broadcast. Moreover, as the World Service is now no longer funded by the Foreign Office, but instead by the general BBC licence fee, its “value” to those paying for it is bound to be further questioned. Worst of all, instead of having World Service radio, with all its different language services and regional departments, all under one roof in a building that was almost like an Oxbridge college in atmosphere and range of expertise, instead now World Service employees will hot-desk with other BBC staff, I understand, and technical resources will be pooled. This doubtlkess makes a lot of sense to accountants, but very little to those of us who treasured what had become during and after the Second World War, one of Britain’s greatest assets.

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BBC World Service at 80

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2012

The courtyard at Bush House in London was transformed tonight thanks to a very high-tech marquee and a full-on operation by an Events Management team, complete with atmospheric coloured lighting, bars with chilled cabinets full of beers and white wine, and a modern pop music band playing well, but too loud for an event which should all have been about networking. The excuse for a party was the BBC World Service’s 80th anniversary, but this was also a funeral reception, as this month sees the beginning of the physical move of the iconic BBC World Service brand out of Bush House into “state-of-the-art” facilities in the new expanded Broadcasting House off Portland Place. Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, was predictably upbeat about the change, eulogising the integration of news and current affairs output, though as someone who worked at Bush House for almost 20 years, I was as sanguine as many of my former colleagues present about this (and also wondered how someone could have reached the pinnacle of a broadcasting career while uttering so many umms and errs when he speaks). Actually, this evening was the first of two parties: tonight targetted the great, the good and the has-beens. Current World Service staff were, by-and-large, channeled towards a ballot for tickets for a second event, to be held in the marquee tomorrow. (Former World Service head an all-round good egg, John Tusa, boycotted this evening’s reception in protest at this segregation, and the failure to invite all staff.) Yet it was still an impressive crowd tonight. Apart from diplomats and members of the House of Lords, who were there in profusion, we were graced by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has truly found his niche, having previously bombed so tragically as Conservative Party Leader. He praised the work that the World Service has done over the past 80 years, and pointed out that just the other day London hosted a major international conference on Somalia, which is one country where disparate groups tune in religiously to the BBC to find out what is going on in their own country. Lord Williams of Baglan (my former BBC colleague and later UN official, Michael Williams, standing in for Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, who had to be at a House of Lords debate on BBC funding) was reassuring as he presented himself as the man on the BBC Trust who has a particular brief regarding international services. Moreover, there were some living legends present at the party, such as Hugh Lunghi, interpreter for Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Yet this evening’s bash did feel like the curtain call for a wonderful institution and the people who worked in it. A goody-bag for guests contained a brochure which boasted that the BBC broadcasts in 27 languages; when I first started working in Bush House in 1983, this was over 40. Yes, there has been a welcome boost to the Arabic and Persian services in particular in recent years, not least in TV output. But much else has been lost. Not least of the losses is the unique Bush House ethos: that wonderful combination of expertise and truth-seeking. And as we guests were chased out of the marquee at 8.40, after the bars stopped serving drink (how different from the bacchinalean 70th event in 2002!), I couldn’t help thinking that I had been at not so much a celebration as a wake.

Link: www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice

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In Memoriam Anna Politkovskaya

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th October, 2009

Anna PolitkovskayaShe was deeply committed to Truth. Following in the fine tradition of Quakers and other Christian radicals, she believed in Speaking Truth to Power.  Anna Politkovskaya was indeed a Christian, as Lord (Frank) Judd emphasised in his tribute today at the thanksgiving service at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, for the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but above all else she was a campaigning reporter. What more fitting place  in London to celebrate her life, on the third anniversary of her assassination by persons unknown, than the journalists’ church? There was sublime music for violin and piano byRachmaninoff and Prokofiev, as well as Anglican  hymns and renderings of both English and Russian choral music by St Bride’s exquisite singers (surely one of the best choirs in London). Elena Cook, who often acted as Politkovskaya’s interpreter, and Christopher MacLehose, her original English-language publisher, both gave addresses. I never met Anna, but like many people working in Bush House for the BBC World Service in the 1990s, I felt I knew her intimately, as she filed her press reports about extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuse in Chechnya. During the last few months of her life, I sometimes felt physically sick, as she stuck her neck out, probing into places the Kremlin and others wanted left dark, and I thought, ‘They will kill her!’ As indeed, they did.

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Makers of the Modern World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2008

This lunchtime I was at the Imperial War Museum in London for the launch of a new series of biographies called ‘Makers of the Modern World’ — leading figures from the Paris Peace Conferences of 1919-1923 and those conferences’ aftermath and legacy — being brought out by the independent publishers Haus (who will issue my new book on T.E. Lawrence next year). As Haus’s Director, Barbara Schwepcke, explained, the inspiration for the series came from a picture in the War Museum’s collection showing figures at one of the Paris conferences. The series editor is Alan Sharp, who is also author of one of the volumes, on David Lloyd George: Britain. Others in the series that I will be particularly looking forward to include Jonathan Clements on Wellington Choo: China, my old Bush House colleague Andrew Mango on From the Sultan to Ataturk: Turkey, and Hugh Purcell’s Maharajah of Bikaner: India.

Link: www.hauspublishing.com

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