Died: July 23, 2021.
PIERS Plowright, who has died aged 83, was a radio producer whose documentaries explored the quietly extraordinary lives of what might be regarded as ordinary people.
He made programmes such as Nobody Stays in This House Long (1983), about an elderly Kensington couple who recalled their estate agent’s words 50 years earlier as they finally leave their house. Through this and others like it, Plowright tapped into people’s lives in a way that revealed something much bigger about society.
This was the case, too, in Setting Sail (1985), in which Plowright talked to various people about death; and in One Big Kitchen Table (1988), which showed off the life of the Famous Delicatessen, a Jewish food emporium in Philadelphia.
These seemingly small, everyday stories were put together with love and care, with Plowright’s sensitivity towards his subjects opening them up in a way that made for engaging listening without ever being intrusive or sensationalist.
He talked of his documentaries as looking at “the nobility of man”, in which his subjects were “suddenly coming out with things that stop your heart.”
Having begun his career in drama, he worked extensively throughout the 1980s with the late Scottish poet and humorist, Ivor Cutler, on a series of shorts for BBC Radio Three. These ranged from Ivor Cutler and… the Mermaid (1980), and Ivor Cutler and… the Princess (1980), to King and Cutler (1981), with Cutler and his poet partner Phyllis King, Prince Ivor (1983), and Cutler on Education (1989).
Plowright oversaw numerous poetry programmes, and set the work of Philip Larkin, a noted jazz fan and critic, to a jazz score. Plowright played jazz piano, and in a 1999 episode of Between the Ears, he looked at the life and work of Chicago blues pianist Jimmy Yancy.
His other programmes included A Fine Blue Day (1978), in which he spoke to former fighter pilot Douglas Bader and others about the Battle of Britain; A Bus Named Desire (1992), on the influence of New Orleans on Tennessee Williams; and After Neruda 1993), on the relationship between Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, and poet Pablo Neruda.
After retiring from the BBC in 1997, his work as a freelancer took a more personal turn. One programme looked at five points on the Thames where his life and the river intersected; another focused on sounds from his childhood that had stayed with him; and another saw him revisit the guerrilla war in the Malayan jungle, which he witnessed while doing his National Service there.
Oliver Piers Plowright was born in Hampstead to Dr Oliver Plowright, known as the ‘Hampstead’s doctor’, and Mary ‘Molly’ Eugster. He listened to radio drama from an early age, and lapped up European, American and Asian films at the local Everyman cinema. At Stowe School, Buckinghamshire, his resonant voice lent itself to acting.
After National Service, he continued to act while studying history at Christ Church College, Oxford, playing Caliban in a production of The Tempest, and Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral. He graduated in 1962, and taught overseas with the British Council. Between 1964 and 1967, he worked as radio and television officer in Sudan.
His radio career began in 1968 on the BBC World Service as a trainee producer, working on language programmes such as English By Radio. This led in 1970 to a collaboration with English Teaching Theatre, which similarly attempted to teach English to non-English speaking students abroad.
He produced several stage shows with the company, including one that featured a stripper getting down to her underwear as a teacher spelt out on the blackboard the name of each item of clothing she removed.
Moving into drama, from 1973 to 1978, he was executive producer of BBC Radio Two’s long-running Hampstead set soap opera, Waggoner’s Walk. In 1980 he started producing broadcasts of short stories for Radio Three, and made several radio plays, including a nine-part adaptation of William Langland’s epic medieval dream poem, Piers Plowman, in 1981.
It was making documentaries for Radio Three and Radio Four where Plowright’s voice came to the fore. This was done in part by way of his delicate handling of people not normally used to being heard.
By the time he retired, he had won three Prix Italia radio awards for both dramas and documentaries, three gold Sony awards and two silver, and a special Sony award for his life’s work in radio. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998
When teaching would-be radio producers, he compared documentary-making to dropping a stone in a pond. “The stone is small and the pond is small,” he said, “but the ripples go on and on. I would always suggest that making programmes about huge subjects may not be as effective as a small something that illuminates and spreads ripples through something much bigger.”
This piece of Zen-like wisdom may have sounded fanciful, but was a practical tool as much as a philosophical one that guided Plowright’s entire career.
He is survived by his wife, Lim Poh Sim, who he married in 1964 after meeting her on the steps of the British Museum, their children, Natasha, Fran and Matthew, and their grandchildren, Isabella, Louis, and Dexter.