Towards the end of his career, my father was a TV producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation, also known as the BBC. He produced popular UK science and technology shows like Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. His hobby was drinking. He died one day, from a stroke, at age 45.
According to his new wife of only one year, who seemed to encourage his “drinky poos,” that happened while he was sitting on his bed, playing with the remote control for a new TV. I was eight. Nobody hugged me.
Now I’m 45, the same age that he was when he died.
I remember him taking me to work at the BBC, where I met his secretaries. Apparently he had sex with at least one of them. At least that’s what he revealed to my mother after she informed him that she had started a relationship with their friend whom he had met in rehab, their friend whom they allowed to live in our house rent-free, their friend who later installed himself as our family’s live-in psychopath.
In those days, it was possible to hold down a job at the BBC while drinking so much that stopping suddenly would cause a life-threatening seizure. Apparently, he had production assistants who knew what to do. At work, he showed me the grey, metal stationary cupboard filled with pens and neatly sliced slabs of fresh, clean paper. Since then I have always loved stationary.
He had a briefcase and I always wanted a briefcase too, a briefcase like his. I have a weird memory of having a briefcase as a kid; perhaps I did, perhaps I just fantasized about having one, or perhaps I was just the kind of kid who would have had a briefcase if he could. It’s strange that I don’t have a briefcase now.
I remember our house in Kingston-upon-Thames, the garden of which was adjacent to Richmond Park. It was a big, grand house in my memory but turned out to be a relatively small and strange-looking place when I visited it as an adult, with its audacious bay windows and pebble-dashed facade. My mother and father used to collect firewood from the park and pass it over the tall brick wall using a large tarpaulin with handles that they called a “humper dumper.” They put us kids in it and somehow threw us over the wall too.
In my memories, my father is often more of a presence than a person; I cannot see where he is, but know that he’s around somewhere. While my parents were still married and living together, he was probably in his study after work, presumably drinking Scotch.
A lot of the memories of my father come from my mother, from the stories she told me of his life. For example, after graduating from Oxford University, and not knowing what to do with his life, he stuck a pin in a map of the USA and followed it to St Louis, Missouri, where he met my mother at the insistence of her parents, who assumed that he knew the queen.
After teaching English at Washington University in St Louis, he returned to the UK with my mother. While she also attended Oxford University, he started his career as a journalist and, as a professional obligation, attended the pubs along Fleet Street in London. That’s where he began his gradual decline into alcoholism.
I’m looking at the Wikipedia page for Tomorrow’s World and, at the time of writing, he’s not listed as a producer. Maybe my mother got it wrong, I wonder, and so I google and I find evidence of his existence, a page on the BBC’s website about an episode that appears to have aired on 19 September 1974, not long after I was born. Here I am scratching around for memories. Did he even really exist? This brings tears to my eyes. It seems that knowing my parents, or at least knowing of them, is so fundamental to my sense of belonging.
I know he existed. I remember receiving cockpit plans for the Space Shuttle when he returned from covering its launch. I don’t even remember him giving them to me, just having them. I remember these big sheets of glossy paper folded into a booklet. It was completely impenetrable to me and I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t understand it then and I now realize that I never really could have. It was a mystery, like him.
Another gift I remember receiving from him was one of a pair of thick, woolly ponchos that he brought back for me and my older brother when he visited Mexico. It was another unusable present for a little kid. I’m not complaining; I’m just realizing as I write this how he didn’t seem to know what kids really need. Just thirty minutes answering questions about his trip would have sufficed.
Also, at the time of writing, he’s not listed on the Wikipedia page for the Horizon TV show, but he is listed as presenting episode 19, from May 12, 1965, in the list of episodes and in a Horizon at 50 article from the BBC. I also found that he was mentioned, as being the producer of Young Scientists of the Year, in three different issues of New Scientist (though not on the Wikipedia page). He contributed an article about it to the September 14, 1978 edition of New Scientist.
I believe that he had a lot of watches. I notice that he’s wearing a watch in the first photo I included with this writing. I always wished that I could have inherited one of his watches. When he was little, I remember saying to my son, “I’ll give you one of my watches when you’re older.”
My son responded, incredulously, “I already have a watch, Dad!” Then he held up his tiny wrist and showed me his brightly colored Micky Mouse watch. My pain is not his pain.
I remember my father coming to collect us from our ancient house in the out-in-the-sticks West Country of the UK. He arrived, proudly, in his black Ford Capri and I remember standing between the front seats with my head sticking out of the sunroof as we barreled down tree-lined country roads.
One time, when he visited when I was about six, his new wife was with him. She pulled me aside to show me a diagram of our out-building, which was next to our straw thatched house (okay, the thatch was buried under tiles). She had generously hatched a “business plan” that involved converting that building into a structure to smoke fish. All I had to do was hang some fish from the rafters and light a bonfire on the floor. I knew that something smelled fishy, so I never executed that plan.
I’ll wrap this particular exploration up by referencing a mention of him that I found in a memoir titled Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant by Barbara Hosking, published in 2017. It contains a strange story about my father arranging to have alcohol delivered to the rooms of his colleagues in an alcohol-free hotel in Edinburgh. The author says that she particularly liked, “Colin Riach at the BBC, and Angela Croome with the Daily Telegraph and The New Scientist. They were both extremely good at their work and asked some very difficult questions.”
I’ve realized that I get overwhelmed dealing with this. Part of me wants to investigate further and another part doesn’t seem to be able to handle the intensity of the emotions that the investigation evokes.
Some friends and family have begun to help me gather and organize more information. I’m going to make some rough notes here that I can come back to:
- The Horizon at 50 article, recounts that “for a couple of years from 1965, the producers did manage to make Horizon as a magazine programme, presented by the journalists Colin Riach and Christopher Chataway.” So, he was likely on air for Horizon in 1965 and 1966.
- A search on the BBC Genome project indicates that he introduced 28 episodes of Horizon, three of which can be found on Getty Images UK: A Man of Two Visions, Ten Thousand Tombs, and The Big Dishes and the Living Stream. You need to be logged-in to Getty Images to see these pages, and access to the footage must then be requested from their Analogue Archive.
- A search for just “Colin Riach” on the BBC Genome project website yields 158 mentions, which includes the 28 above as a presenter on Horizon.
- Searching on the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive Film and Television Works collection for “riach” yields 128 results, including Big on the Outside by Alastair Riach (Colin’s brother). Searching for “raich” (incorrect spelling) leads to another 16 results (most of them for “Colin Raich” or “Collin Raich” as a presenter or producer).
- There is a BBC Genome blog post titled Apollo 11: Listening to the landing, which includes, “Guiding radio listeners through the events of the Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin were presenters Arthur Garratt and Colin Riach with lunar experts including Eric Burnett, Dr Lionel Wilson and Dr Frederick Latham.” The player won’t allow me to listen to the audio from where I live (in the USA).