Obituary: Desmond Wilcox

Article excerpt

AS A documentary-maker, Desmond Wilcox had a talent for telling stories of human courage and triumph over adversity with great respect for his subjects. Unlike the increasing number of "docu- soaps" that invaded television during his final years in the medium, his films never belittled those who took part or allowed them to play up to the camera. With Wilcox in control, he made them the stars, portraying the untainted, and often painful, everyday realities of their lives.

The Boy David (1983), in his acclaimed BBC series The Visit, featured an eight-year-old Peruvian Indian youngster whose face was being reconstructed by a Scottish plastic surgeon. The child had been discovered at the age of 18 months by the surgeon and his wife, abandoned in a paupers' hospital in Peru, with the centre of his face destroyed by a malignant disease. David had more than 30 operations behind him and at least 50 to go. Wilcox's moving film won five international awards.

Over the next 10 years, he updated the boy's story in occasional documentaries. "I had no idea what I was starting," Wilcox said. "I knew I was telling a remarkable story, but we had 8,000 letters in the first week." The programmes were a testament to Wilcox's willingness to stay with a story and portray the trials and tribulations of a human life.

Born in Hertfordshire in 1931, the son of an architect, Wilcox served as a deckhand in the Merchant Navy before entering weekly newspapers as a reporter in 1949. After serving in the Army during his National Service (1949-51), he furthered his journalistic career by working for a news agency, before joining the Daily Mirror as a reporter and, from 1952 until 1960, as foreign correspondent.

Wilcox switched to television as a reporter for This Week (1960- 65), ITV's first regular current affairs programme. In 1964, for a report on the increase in road accidents, he was seen speaking to motorists as they left pubs. He also reported for ABC at Large and ITN.

He left ITV to join the BBC in 1965 and, with Bill Morton, became co-editor of Man Alive, which featured ordinary people and the events that shaped their lives, including taboo subjects such as child molesting. This was a forerunner to the documentaries that Wilcox would later make. Responsible for 300 editions of the programme, he presented or directed 75 of them.

As a reporter, Wilcox also saved the day by interviewing Harold Wilson on general election night in 1966, when the BBC had built a special studio on a train due to carry the Prime Minister back from his Liverpool constituency to London. Shortly before Wilson was due to be interviewed, he told the interviewer John Morgan not to forget his "loyalty" to his Labour Party membership. When Morgan replied that his duty was as a journalist, Wilson stormed out, saying he would talk only to ITV. So, when the train arrived at Euston, Wilcox was waiting on the platform for the Prime Minister, who thought Wilcox was still with ITV and happily spoke to him.

In 1968, Wilcox and Morton launched Braden's Week, featuring the Canadian presenter Bernard Braden and his team reviewing events of the previous seven days and giving viewers consumer advice. Esther Rantzen, who had met Wilcox while working as a production assistant on Man Alive and later married him, became a researcher-reporter on Braden's Week, before she presented her own consumer watchdog series, That's Life.

In 1972, a year after winning the Richard Dimbleby Award from the Society of Film and Television Arts, for his contribution to factual programming, Wilcox became the BBC's head of general features, a post he held until 1980.

He was responsible for the Tuesday Documentary series and himself presented Cudlipp and Be Damned (1973), an appraisal of Lord Cudlipp, the great Daily Mirror editor for whom he had worked in his newspaper days, and Americans (1979). …