Di­rec­tor of ra­dio pro­grammes and most se­nior woman in the BBC

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Anne Karpf

At her re­tire­ment from the BBC in 1984, Mon­ica Sims, who has died aged 93, was the first fe­male di­rec­tor of ra­dio pro­grammes and the most se­nior woman in the cor­po­ra­tion. Her ca­reer, also span­ning the posts of head of chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion and (also first fe­male) con­troller of Ra­dio 4, was tri­umphantly bi­me­dial before the in­ven­tion of the term.

Sims, who be­gan work­ing at the BBC in 1953 as a pro­ducer in ra­dio and then its ex­pand­ing tele­vi­sion ser­vice, fre­quently found her­self the only woman at the weekly pro­gramme re­view meet­ings with con­trollers and heads of de­part­ment – at one stage in her ten­ure there were 159 men to six women in the top man­age­rial grades. The at­mos­phere at the BBC of the

1960s, she said, “was of a civilised man’s club in which women were cour­te­ously ac­knowl­edged, but not pro­moted to real po­si­tions of power in the or­gan­i­sa­tion”.

As editor of Woman’s Hour for three years from 1964, her first ma­jor role, Sims con­sol­i­dated the pro­gramme’s rep­u­ta­tion, break­ing taboos by broad­cast­ing provoca­tive items about women’s phys­i­cal and men­tal health, re­li­gious doubts, fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, the do­mes­tic di­vi­sion of labour, child­care and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

The pro­duc­tion team was left largely alone be­cause few of the male “bosses” heard Woman’s Hour, which went out live at 2pm on the Light Pro­gramme, a fore­run­ner of Ra­dio 2.

As head of chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming from 1967, she re­vived morale in a flag­ging, un­der­val­ued sec­tion whose staff were split be­tween adult de­part­ments.

She re-es­tab­lished drama and ex­tended the out­put, and un­der her aegis a stream of in­no­va­tive pro­grammes fol­lowed, in­clud­ing the first chil­dren’s news bul­letin, News­round, in 1972, a risky ven­ture at the time.

She caused a row the same year by lam­bast­ing the Amer­i­can pro­gramme Se­same Street for “its mid­dle-class at­ti­tudes” and its ap­par­ent aim “to change chil­dren’s be­hav­iour”. “This sounds like in­doc­tri­na­tion and a dan­ger­ous use of tele­vi­sion,” said Sims at the time. Life mag­a­zine re­sponded by de­scrib­ing the BBC’s main of­fer­ing for the un­der-5s, Play School, as

“so dreary it’s no won­der Miss Sims wor­ries about Se­same Street”.

Sims was un­flinch­ing in her sup­port of the ground-break­ing Grange Hill, which faced con­tro­versy on its launch in 1978 but reg­u­larly drew more than half the chil­dren in the coun­try as view­ers. “Chil­dren need to be stretched,” she said, in a pre-mer­chan­dis­ing era.

Made con­troller of Ra­dio 4 in 1978, she worked to en­sure the net­work’s sur­vival amid wave­length changes, the ex­pan­sion of com­mer­cial ra­dio and swinge­ing bud­get cuts. Her pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to tra­di­tional pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing was in­creas­ingly at odds with a creep­ing ob­ses­sion with news, some­times to al­most com­i­cal ef­fect: when, in a jour­nal­is­tic coup in 1982, the

BBC was ap­praised early that the Falk­lands war had ended, Sims re­fused (de­spite pres­sure from the di­rec­tor of pro­grammes) to in­ter­rupt the af­ter­noon play to an­nounce the fact. The cam­paign to launch a news net­work (which later be­came Ra­dio 5 Live) has been dated to that re­fusal.

Unafraid to take un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions, she also ended the 32-year run of Lis­ten With Mother in 1982 (for which she was de­monised in the press), and re­duced Yes­ter­day in Par­lia­ment. Pre­sciently she had be­lieved that by sub­sum­ing the ra­dio li­cence fee into the tele­vi­sion one in 1971, ra­dio would be­come in­creas­ingly de­val­ued in the pub­lic mind.

In 1983 Sims was pro­moted again. As BBC Ra­dio’s di­rec­tor of pro­grammes un­til she re­tired the fol­low­ing year, she was re­spon­si­ble for the en­tire out­put in a rapidly dereg­u­lat­ing broad­cast en­vi­ron­ment.

Mon­ica was born in Glouces­ter to two teach­ers, Eva (nee Preen) and Al­bert Sims. An in­spir­ing talk by an el­derly suf­fragette vis­it­ing the Den­mark Road high school for girls made her aware of women’s po­ten­tial, and in 1943 she went to St Hugh’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, where she read English, but spent much of her time act­ing with the Ox­ford Univer­sity Dra­matic So­ci­ety and the Ex­per­i­men­tal Theatre Club. Though she wanted to be­come an ac­tor, she could not af­ford life as a stu­dent in rep, and in­stead taught lit­er­a­ture and drama to adults at

Hull Univer­sity. She worked in rep in Wind­sor in the hol­i­days un­til she joined the BBC in 1953.

After re­tir­ing, Sims was asked to in­ves­ti­gate the shortage of women in BBC man­age­ment. Of the 19 rec­om­men­da­tions in her 1985 re­port, which in­cluded flex­i­ble work­ing hours for women with chil­dren, part-time work­ing, job-shar­ing, and pro­mo­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for sec­re­taries (she had rued the re­place­ment of fe­male clerks and sec­re­taries and their ad­min­is­tra­tive skills by highly paid con­sul­tants with in­tru­sive man­age­ment prac­tices), all but one (parental leave for fa­thers) was ac­cepted, though this too was later adopted.

She came out strongly against pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion, and was crit­i­cised both for not tack­ling the is­sue of in­di­rect sex dis­crim­i­na­tion and for sug­gest­ing that the most im­por­tant rea­son for the lack of women in se­nior man­age­ment was “a care­fully con­sid­ered de­ci­sion” to have chil­dren and look after them.

When, 15 years later, she ar­gued that “many out­stand­ing women pre­fer to stay at the level where they feel they can use their tal­ents with­out de­stroy­ing their pri­vate lives”, some read an oblique ref­er­ence to her­self – Sims never mar­ried or had chil­dren. Oth­ers felt that though Sims was im­por­tant to women as a pi­o­neer, she was n0t es­pe­cially help­ful to other women.

When Jenny Abram­sky was made editor of PM in 1978, the first woman to edit a BBC ra­dio daily news pro­gramme, Sims told her, “You may be able to do this with one child, but you’ll never be able to do it with two.” In fact Abram­sky did, and later be­came, in turn, di­rec­tor of ra­dio pro­grammes. Yet Sims’s words were per­haps less an ex­pres­sion of anti-fem­i­nist schaden­freude than an early real­ism about the im­pact on fam­i­lies of de­mand­ing jobs.

At the BBC Sims had headed a team draft­ing guide­lines on the por­trayal of vi­o­lence on tele­vi­sion and, after re­tir­ing, be­came vi­cepres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Board of Film Cen­sors, where she helped es­tab­lish a clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem for “video nas­ties”. She was also di­rec­tor of pro­duc­tion at the Chil­dren’s Film and Tele­vi­sion Foun­da­tion.

She was made OBE in 1971.

Mon­ica Louie Sims, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tive, born 27 Oc­to­ber 1925; died 20 Novem­ber 2018

She broke taboos by air­ing items about women’s men­tal health, the do­mes­tic di­vi­sion of labour and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion


Sims in 1964, when she was editor of Woman’s Hour

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