Grace Wyndham Goldie: the woman who changed British television

BBC executive used restaurant tablecloth to draw up plan to reform election coverage

British television producer Grace Wyndham Goldie. Getty Images
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In an industry and era dominated by men, it is hard to believe that one woman was the driving force behind the BBC that exists today.

Grace Wyndham Goldie, known as the first lady of British television, worked to shaped the broadcasts produced by the BBC, which on Tuesday celebrates its centenary.

From overhauling British politics by putting politicians on TV to launching the first live coverage of a general election in the country, Goldie was the mastermind behind many of today's current affairs programmes in the UK.

She once said she knew her efforts to push the boundaries of broadcasting would make her employers' “hair stand on end”.

She started working for the BBC in 1935 as a radio drama and entertainment critic for their weekly magazine, The Listener.

She was among a few hundred people present for the world’s first trial of a publicly transmitted television broadcast in 1936.

“Among those watching it taking shape in the studio was a young radio critic, Grace Wyndham Goldie. By the time she retired from the BBC's Television Service, less than 30 years later, television programmes were dominating the leisure hours of the majority of the British population,” her biographer John Grist wrote.

“It was Grace who influenced to an extraordinary degree what it was they watched.

"She supervised the gestation and birth of the first regular arts programme, the first nightly magazine programme, the first topical satire programme.

“She devised the ground rules governing the ways in which politicians presented themselves to the electorate

"She also selected and fostered the careers of a succession of young programme makers, many of whom went on to occupy the most powerful seats in British broadcasting.”

Deborah Turness, chief executive of BBC News, outside St Mary Abbot's Court in Kensington, London, where  Grace Wyndham Goldie lived for more than 50 years. PA

Television dominated her career from then on as she rose to the highest echelons of the BBC, becoming one of its first female executives.

She became assistant head of talks and later head of the current affairs group at the BBC. Presenter Sir David Attenborough once described her as "one of the most influential of television's pioneers”.

“Grace Wyndham Goldie was a true pioneer – not only as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but as someone who quickly recognised the potential of a radical new technology: television,” said Deborah Turness, chief executive of BBC News.

“All of us involved in making news on TV and all other platforms are following in Grace’s footsteps.”

In 1950, Goldie changed political reporting in the UK as she convinced the BBC to carry out its first live broadcast of general election results with commentators.

The BBC had previously been cautious about its political reporting over fears it could influence the results and breach laws surrounding election coverage.

British producer and television executive Grace Wyndham Goldie in 1977. Getty

She later said in a radio broadcast that the idea was hatched over lunch at a restaurant with Australian war correspondent Chester Wilmot.

“He said surely I could put on the [election] results as they came in and have a commentator. So we sat down there and then and cooked up a plan over lunch, drawing pictures on the tablecloth of where we should have things, where we should have cameras,” she said.

“Inspired by Chester’s enthusiasm I put up a plan, because at the time we were simply thinking of outside broadcast cameras in places where they counted votes.

"We thought of an enormous map where Chester could point out results as they came in. I have learnt enough to know one had to be detailed and technical and know what one was talking about in terms of practical things, not just ideas.

"We had decided there would be a presenter and we ought to have some informed commentator.

“I knew perfectly well that Broadcasting House, if they accepted the plan, would not accept Chester as a commentator. He was Australian, he knew about British politics but such was the delicacy of the situation then, as always, between broadcasters and politicians, the idea of having a running commentary on the results of a general election, I knew it would make people’s hair stand on end at Broadcasting House.”

BBC through the years - in pictures

Their plan led to a running commentary on election nights and by 1955 the authorities were holding vote counts immediately after the polls shut so the results could be announced in the early hours, rather than the following day.

David Hendy, an emeritus professor at the University of Sussex and author of The BBC: A People’s History, said Goldie was described as “dominating, quixotic, prejudiced, sharp-witted, perfectionist, practical, something of a bully – and, above all, obsessed with both television and the workings of government".

“She believed politics was important – and that standards mattered on the BBC. Being in charge of general election broadcasting suited her down to the ground,” he said.

“It was as assistant head of talks and then head of talks and current affairs, she recruited a remarkable team of producers, directors and reporters who would later become household names – and helped to forge techniques and rituals of political television that would last well beyond her retirement in the mid-1960s.

“It was a formidable achievement, especially for a woman in the very male-dominated world of news and current affairs.”

In 1952, she launched a new programme, Press Conference, based on a US model in which leading politicians were interviewed on television. The first was Rab Butler, the UK chancellor of the exchequer at the time.

After the first broadcast, her manger Cecil McGiven sent her the following note: "You did not invent the idea, my dear, of press people questioning politicians; this has already been done in the States. So you have not changed the nature of television, but by God you have changed the whole future of politics in Britain.”

She relaunched Panorama in 1955 with Richard Dimbleby as the main presenter and was associated with the Tonight programme. She retired from the BBC in 1965 at the age of 65.

To commemorate her achievements, English Heritage has placed a blue plaque on her former London home to mark the centenary of the BBC.

“The very first televised election broadcast was almost entirely Grace Wyndham Goldie’s concept and, while the ‘swingometer’ and giant maps have advanced with technology, the format itself has not changed,” said Anna Eavis, English Heritage curatorial director and secretary of the blue plaques panel.

“Though her name is perhaps not as widely known as it should be, her legacy is in every current affairs programme and I hope that this well-deserved plaque might inspire passers-by to learn more about her.”

Ms Turness said the plaque was a fitting tribute.

“It’s very fitting this plaque will mark her role in television history as the BBC celebrates its centenary year,” she said.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 10:22 AM