Director of radio programmes and most senior woman in the BBC
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