Piers Plowright obituary

Award-winning BBC radio producer whose fascination with people fuelled documentaries and drama

Though the radio producer Piers Plowright, who has died aged 83 of cancer, began his three decades at the BBC working on drama, he found his true voice with documentary features. His fascination for people and the situations they find themselves in sparked his flair for capturing voices and sounds.

The title of Nobody Stays in This House Long (1983) came from an estate agent’s warning defied by a London couple, and now leaving the Kensington residence they loved after more than half a century. Setting Sail (1985) gathered reflections from a variety of figures as they approached death. One Big Kitchen Table (1988) portrayed the life of the Famous Delicatessen, a home of Jewish food in Philadelphia.

Excursions with Ivor Cutler included the offbeat humorist’s encounter with a mermaid in 1980:

“Do a lot of sea people listen to the radio?”
“Oh, yes. Mostly nature programmes.”
“How about TV?”
“We think it’s a bit like sucking your thumb.”

There were many poetry programmes, too. Piers set the work of Philip Larkin alongside the jazz they both loved. When a personal letter arrived from the poet, it went straight into the producer’s diary.

Piers was a rare and good man, like no one else I have ever met. Our paths first crossed at Oxford in 1959, in a production of The Tempest that toured university cities along the Rhine. He was Caliban – casting against type, you might think, for that savage. But Piers found a poignancy in the character, and his performance was always the highlight of the evening.

He had a magnificent voice: clear, resonant, with a warm musicality. It was also well displayed when he vamped his favourite soul and blues numbers and sang along. We all thought he was bound to go into the theatre.

Piers Plowright in 2015.
Piers Plowright in 2015. Photograph: Alan Hall

Piers, the son of Oliver Plowright, “Hampstead’s doctor”, and his wife, Molly (nee Mary Eugster), was born in the north London suburb. His parents nurtured a love of culture, community and Hampstead, its celebrated heath and its history.

Piers, in turn, became “Hampstead man”. He broke the ice with the writer Al Alvarez to swim in one of the heath ponds; his interviews with local artists at Burgh House were packed out and erudite; his knowledge of local shopkeepers, not only their names but their family histories, was phenomenal.

On leaving Stowe school, in Buckinghamshire, he undertook national service in what is now Malaysia, and went on to study history at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating in 1962. Teaching overseas for the British Council took him to Sudan as radio and television officer (1964-67).

On returning to Britain, in 1968 he became a trainee producer for the BBC, working on English By Radio before moving into drama. From 1973 to 1978 he was the executive producer of Radio 2’s long-running soap opera Waggoners’ Walk, set in Hampstead. Thereafter his natural home was Radio 3 and Radio 4. His name recalled the 14th-century poetic dream-vision Piers Plowman by William Langland, which he realised in nine parts in 1981, with Hugh Burden voicing the poet.

By the time he retired from the staff of the BBC in 1997, Piers had won the Prix Italia for radio drama and documentaries three times, three gold and two silver Sony awards and the Sony special award for his continual dedication to the radio industry. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1998) and was hailed as a “radio luminary” at the Chicago radio festival.

In 1964 Piers married Lim Poh Sim, whom he had met on the steps of the British Museum. He always said that her work as a lecturer in Noh drama had closely influenced his radio work, especially in the use of silence. They had three children, Natasha, Matthew and Francesca.

When my family moved to Hampstead, we joined up with his as close neighbours. Piers was the engine in setting up the Gayton Road festival, at which he was extremely successful, though on fireworks nights he was a menace. More than once he set off a whole box of fireworks. It was magnificent, but it made for a very brief encounter with Guy Fawkes.

Piers Plowright interviewing Melvyn Bragg and producer Thomas Morris about the Radio 4 programme In Our Time at Burgh House as part of the Hampstead arts festival in 2014

He had no interest in sport, little in politics, none in gossip. Literature, radio, music and religion were his domain.

At one time a few of us would meet to read plays, and he greatly enlivened our house by painting vivid biblical scenes on the walls. He was always drawing, always carrying crayons. His numerous notes were never without a sketch.

He had been a devoted Anglican, but in later years converted to Catholicism, which he thought gave greater strength to his faith and also satisfied his love of the sacramental traditions. Talking about religions, their laws and promises, was a subject that always energised him.

After retiring he continued to make programmes, which latterly took the form of short features recalling sounds that had stayed with him: school theatricals, early morning Hampstead swims, the engine of his Morris Minor car, and a stick tapping on a pavement, recalling the Welsh village where he and his sister were evacuated during the second world war.

He also did more formal teaching and mentoring, patiently encouraging beginners. When we read poems, he would speak them from a vast storehouse of memory, and he was forever urging me to listen to radio programmes or download those I had missed. He was devoted to his radio work and took enormous pleasure in the achievements of others.

Poh Sim and his children survive him.

Piers Plowright, radio producer, born 10 December 1937; died 23 July 2021

Contributor

Melvyn Bragg

The GuardianTramp

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