Aubrey Singer, whose death was announced today, was your archetypal old school BBC mandarin: stubborn, garrulous, indiscreet and decidedly eccentric, but was repeatedly unimpeachable thanks to the way he turned departments into fiefdoms, and could exact revenge upon his critics by spreading scurrilous gossip about them around the BBC club.
An epic 13-year reign at the head of the science and features department established Singer’s profile at the BBC, as had the flagship programmes – Tomorrow’s World, Horizon, Chronicle – he’d both coaxed and bullied the Corporation into making.
Another of those post-war recruits who’d started out serving time in the organisation’s lowest ranks before steadily climbing upwards, Singer was desperately ambitious, and it was a shameless stitch-up that got him into the dream job of BBC2 Controller in 1974: the newly-appointed Director of Programmes, Alasdair Milne, was one of Singer’s cronies and sweet-talked the Governors into ensuring his friend was handed the job without even an interview.
Singer ran BBC2 as if a High Commissioner of the Indian Empire, planning programmes in conspiratorial conversations behind closed doors before nipping out to a nearby restaurant to entertain high-flying celebrities and noted intellectuals to lavish five-course banquets. If he did invite someone from outside his tight circle of friends for an audience, it was more likely to demonstrate a new gadget he’d bought from his local electrical shop than to discuss ratings.
But there were plenty of hits: I, Claudius, Men of Ideas, The Body in Question, Inside Story, Arena, Newsday, Fawlty Towers, One Man and His Dog, Gardeners World, Face the Music and Six English Towns.
Still, all too often Singer’s personal obsessions bubbled over from being a healthy influence to a positive curse. He introduced the idea of BBC2 running thematic “seasons” of programmes, but then proceeded to dictate their content. The somewhat unwieldy and overbearing Russia Week and China Week ensued (reflecting Singer’s preoccupation with foreign travel), but worse of all was Opera Month: an endless stream of ponderous productions choking up the airwaves for hours every evening.
As much to keep the man quiet as anything else, in 1978 the new Director-General Ian Trethowan dispatched Singer to Broadcasting House in the unlikely guise of Managing Director of BBC Radio. He proceeded to sulk for four years in-between bungling attempts to reduce the number of BBC orchestras.
He frantically wanted a shot at being Director-General, and contrived to get the latest BBC Chairman, George Howard, to promise him the Managing Director of Television job the next time it came up. Sure enough when Alasdair Milne replaced Trethowan as DG and came to pick his new team, his choice of Bill Cotton for MD was overruled and Singer landed the post (plus the title of Deputy Director-General) instead.
Singer promptly converted his new office annexe into a gargantuan private dining room, from where he preferred to conduct all business with a select few over a generous quantity of port and cigars (“It’s not my personal dining room,” he would insist to junior colleagues, “I don’t want that appearing in Private Eye.”)
Milne ordered him to quit in early 1984 as the pair returned from a pheasant shoot. “It’s been a rum old year so far,” Singer reflected. “On January 1st I was awarded the CBE, on the 7th I was asked if I wanted early retirement, on the 23rd I was asked to act as Director-General for two weeks, and in February I pick up a newspaper to read what my plans are.”
Inevitably the severance deal was generous: Singer received £500,000 to launch his own company, which he cheekily titled White City Films, the name he knew the Beeb had planned for their own film offshoot. He was supposed to deliver a number of agreed projects, but after two documentaries on China and Vietnam he blew half of his funds on a show reel for a helicopter-borne history series that was too expensive to be commissioned. He remained boss of White City Films until 1994, then retired. His son, Adam, went on to run Flextech and Telewest.
Aubrey Singer, RIP; best remembered for stealing cigars from the BBC boardroom cabinet and nicking unopened whisky bottles from the BAFTAs.