‘He was utterly devoted to radio' – Piers, by his peers
Dan Carrier looks forward to a Radio Four programme that celebrates the life and career of the celebrated broadcaster, Piers Plowright
Thursday, 23rd December 2021 — By Dan Carrier
Piers Plowright. Photo: Lucy Tizard
PIERS Plowright was described as the “Godfather of British Radio Features” – and now the life and work of the broadcaster and Review contributor, who died in July, has been celebrated by the radio station that brought his work to millions of people.
In Piers Plowright, Soundsmith, a host of colleagues, friends and admirers of the Hampstead-based Radio Four producer have lined up to discuss what made Piers such an exceptional broadcaster.
The show begins in a fitting place: the Highgate Men’s Pond, one of Piers’ regular haunts. “I’d hoped to hear the crackle of ice,” he jokes as he lowers himself into freezing water, the honk of ducks, the sharp intake of breath, and splashes heard as he dips under the surface. That he should have wanted to record such a sound – and understood its power to create an image in the listener’s mind – is at the centre of his work.
The subject matter he chose also stood out. He wanted to tell grand stories through recognising the everyday.
“I have got more and more interested in little things that reflect large things,” he says. “It is like dropping a stone in the pond. The ripples go on and on and on. Making programmes about huge subjects may not be always as effective as a small thing that illuminates and spreads ripples through something much bigger.”
Piers joined the BBC in 1968 as a trainee and this programme scours the BBC archive for some of his classic work and creates a picture of how he worked, his motivations, his aims and also unlocks some of the secrets of how to make really good radio.
Piers recalls how when he was leaving Oxford University in the early 1960s, a group of BBC big wigs visited.
“A lot of top brass in the BBC came down and said ‘oh why don’t you join us. It was like club,” he recalls.
Piers did not do so immediately – he spent some of the 1960s travelling the world – but would eventually join the Corporation and work for the BBC for the rest of his life.
His career was such that he won some of radio’s highest accolades. But as the programme shows, he was a modest man who had nothing to be modest about. He was a ground-breaking producer who had a tremendous understanding on the power of sound. His programmes were not simple or straightforward. Instead he built up meanings and created a range of storytelling tricks. Each sound was used to build a wider and more complicated picture that then was better understood.
Friend and colleague Matt Thompson believes Piers carried a strong sense of the BBC’s founding philosophy – to educate, inform and entertain.
Lord Reith set in place the founding ethic of the BBC and in 1924 he wrote a book Broadcasting Over Britain, and he wrote about “aloof and mysterious” radio producers. “In many ways,” he wrote, “it is desirable for them to continue in their comparative obscurity.”
Matt adds: “Piers reflected this. The subject was always the key and it was his job to tease out the meanings while letting the topic tells its own story.”
An early example of his craft is a series of interviews with the pilots who won the Battle of Britain. As well as the atmospheric noise of engines revving and talk between pilots and ground staff, he allows the pilots to speak personally about what they experienced.
“It was a radio ballad,” recalls Matt. “It is recollections of pilots, truly shocking moments of graphic descriptions about what a dog fight is really all about.”
Other programmes could be less dramatic, but as powerful. Radio presenter Dr Cathy Fitzgerald recalls a programme interviewing “Mr Fletcher, a poet,” who took Piers for a walk through his mining village and gave Piers the chance to create a programme about the butchering of a pig.
Dr Fitzgerald recognises Piers’ literary ability to presenting a topic that feels like a perfect example of how to use the English language.
“This was pure Thomas Hardy. Fletcher could have walked out of Jude the Obscure without batting an eyelid. Piers loved Hardy, and was completely aware of what he was doing.”
Melvyn Bragg, his Oxford contemporary and fellow broadcaster, said: “I met Piers when I was 19, towards the end of the 1950s. He was utterly devoted to radio. He was outstandingly conscientious. Piers was a great one for music analogies. Some of them were like a Brandenburg concerto, with lots going on, lots of things to be attended to.”
And Lord Bragg says it was Piers’ honest approach that made his subject matter respond positively.
“People trusted him. The subject was important to him, and so it was important to them.”
• Piers Plowright, Soundsmith, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on December 26 at 9am, and is also available on BBC Sounds.