Americans, by Desmond Wilcox [1978]


Thursday 7 September 2000 01.40 BST

Desmond Wilcox

A documentary innovator, his work explored the joys and fears of people who had previously been overlooked by television

Desmond Wilcox, who has died aged 69 after suffering from heart disease for many years, was a key innovator in what might be called the humanisation of current affairs television, dwelling on the joys, fears and problems of ordinary people rather than on the politicians and pundits who shape or meddle with such circumstances. Which said, Wilcox and his wife and professional partner, Esther Rantzen, cannot be altogether cleared from a shred of blame for the later debasement of this branch of television, when compassion turns into exploitation. Born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, and thus into the heartland of early 20th-century social idealism, the young Desmond attended schools in Cheltenham and London before going to the Outward Bound Sea School, and thence into the merchant navy in 1948 as a deckhand. His National Service soon afterwards, however, was in the army, as a lieutenant. He had already fitted in a bit of local-newspaper reporting. On release, he was briefly an agency reporter, and from 1952-60 on the staff of the Daily Mirror. To augment his salary, he did extra Saturday stints for the Sunday Pictorial, the Mirror's then stablemate.[...]
In 1965, Wilcox moved to the BBC's newly-established second channel to present and edit, with Bill Morton, the first current affairs series, Man Alive, avowedly devoted to such human predicaments as agoraphobia or the search for an ideal partner. "They wheel a plague cart through the world," I wrote at the time, "crying 'Bring out your dread.' " But there were some powerful episodes, and, within three years, the Man Alive Unit was a little free state within the BBC empire.
In 1972 Wilcox was promoted to be the BBC's head of general features, where he stayed until 1980. One of his tasks was to have to tell the patrician journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, after Perry had just become the second luminary to pronounce the f-word on television, that a projected series he was to write and present would no longer be going ahead.
Wilcox was still able to conduct occasional projects of his own. Americans (1978), a series of 13 profiles of unsung, ordinary citizens, would have been a classic if only Wilcox had not succumbed to temptation or pressure from above and included two wretched celebrities, child film star Jodie Foster and the then First Lady, Rosalynn Carter.[...]
Behind the scenes, Wilcox remained an able and creative broadcaster, and the head of his own production company. Over the years he also won a number of Bafta awards .
He published several books related to his TV series, including Americans and Return Visit, and, with Esther Rantzen, Kill the Chocolate Biscuit, a light-hearted collection of mostly funny things that had happened to them on their way to becoming one of television's most celebrated and most durable husband-and-wife teams.
He is survived by Esther Rantzen, and their three children; and three children from his first marriage.


While the book does surface every now on then on the usual sites, the 1978 TV documentary seems 'lost' in BBC's archives.

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