Bennett Maxwell

Published April 1, 2020

Bushmen will be saddened to hear that former Chairman Bennett Maxwell died this morning, aged 85. Michael Kaye writes:

We have lost a brilliant, gentle, positive force for good with the passing of Bennett Maxwell.  In his quiet way Bennett infused his life with joyful enthusiasm.  If on first meeting he seemed to be an unassuming presence, his conversation soon corrected that misapprehension.

Bennett was the most skilful anecdotalist I have ever known. Whether serious, humorous, flippant or curious, Bennett could hold interlocutors enthralled.

One thread of his memory concerned his family. He could trace his ancestors back to 16th century Prague. But the man Bennett most admired was his doctor- father.  He would often quote his father’s opinions. Oddly, he never discussed his mother.

In admiration and emulation of his father Bennett devoted himself to science subjects in secondary school. As his ‘A’ level examinations approached, Bennett had a radical change of heart. He spent two years cramming the humanities. I am unsure about his exam results but the academics at Oxford were clearly intrigued and impressed by this radical student. He was offered a place at Magdalen.

After graduation he made his way to London where he found employment as an assistant stage manager under Peter Hall’s direction at the Arts Theatre.  Here Bennett was introduced to the plays of Beckett and Pinter.

The role of ASM in such a prestigious theatre served Bennett well when he applied for a job with the BBC.  Naturally he took up residence in Marylebone, a short stroll from Broadcasting House.

As a broadcaster Bennett continued along less frequented paths. He joined a group which dabbled, among other things, in plays with no words. Noises and silence engaged the listener’s imagination. At a later date he embarked on a solitary journey to create a radio version of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The budget was minimal; his ambition maximal. Over another period of two years he first persuaded a composer to write original music for his ambitious programme. The conductor of the Halle Orchestra then got wind of the project and offered his orchestra’s services gratis when next they journeyed to London. Finally, John Gielgud stepped into the leading role.

Bennett, with judgement, persistence and a certain amount of luck, created one of the most remarkable pieces of radio ever.

By this time Bennett had created an equally remarkable position for himself at the BBC.  The doors of Television Centre opened and Bennett added another string to his bow.

Bennett had won licenses to perform a number of production roles. He even worked in Bush House.

So now we have the Bennett of all trades. He was in a perfect position to impart his knowledge to others. He joined Radio Training.

This department was run by John Turtle, an energetic, effusive man, many inches taller than his deputy, Mr. Maxwell. Bennett devised courses and ensured that they stayed on course.

As if training in the BBC were not enough, Bennett taught radio at Morley College with a World Service SM, Andy Popperwell. Somehow I was invited to join them.

It was at this point that I was introduced to the power of Bennett’s memory. I attended one of his one-day courses on the subject.  His final demonstration involved inviting a student to unravel a rolled list of numbers. As the unravelling began Bennett, his back towards the student, called out the digits. Not one mistake.

There are many once forgetful broadcasters who still speak fondly of Bennett’s instruction.

While at Morley we were invited to guide a group of students on a trip to Paris. This led in turn to many further excursions to European capitals for museums, places of worship and galleries. Bennett administered brilliantly.

In another guise I had presented a series on the ‘History of British Theatre’ for World Service.  Once more a course was launched at Morley to explore the subject.  At the end of the year the students demanded more.  I had no more to offer. They persisted. So I persuaded Bennett to lead the group on Sixties theatre.

Once again the group wished to continue.  The college demanded extra students or else they would close the course.  None could be conjured up, so Bennett and I launched a free theatre group to see plays and meet to discuss them. The group – with sadly depleted numbers – is still in existence. That’s twenty years of upholding the British theatre.

It was at a meeting of the group a few years ago that Bennett began to lose the thread of his anecdotes.  Names and dates went awry.  Slowly that majestic memory was failing its creator.

Finally Bennett would, by courtesy of his daughter, Harriet, arrive in a chauffeur-driven car at 2, sit in silence and at 4 p.m depart in the same vehicle.

Andy Popperwell and I had a final meeting with Bennett in his home.  We did our best to entertain the silent audience of two. Harriet oversaw the occasion.

Bennett did not say a word until I took his hand to bid him farewell. Then he gave me a kindly smile and murmured, “Thank you very much.”

No, Bennett. Thank you.

Michael Kaye

1 Response to “Bennett Maxwell”

  1. Richard Heller April 1, 2020

    Bennett was a great support to me and to the club generally after he stepped down as chairman. It was always a pleasure to see him and talk to him at matches, dinners and committee meetings while his health allowed this. I cannot speak of his work for the BBC but he was a wise, gentle person who delivered his insights and frequent dry wit in a soft-spoken style.


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