David Wilson (1927-2000)

The BBC has an archive, some of which seems to be available online and on Facebook, and recently my cousin Calum Benison has been posting a few snippets showing 1960s news broadcasts about recent innovations in science. My interest in these has been mainly because the BBC TV Science Correspondent of that time was Calum’s grandfather, my uncle David Wilson. I apologise for two personal-story posts in a row, but I would like to commemorate this man here.

For twenty-five years David Wilson presented the science news to the nation. Eventually he was promoted to managing the then-new thing at the BBC, Teletext (Ceefax), which he ran until his retirement. He also found time to write several books, the most significant of which was a biography of the physicist Ernest Rutherford (MIT Press, 1984). (I haven’t read it, I’m afraid.)

His Guardian obituary is here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/sep/19/guardianobituaries2. By any standard this was a successful career.

Some years after his retirement he moved to Keswick in the Lake District, to enjoy gardening, scenery and birds, to offer hospitality to any passing friend or relative, and to volunteer at National Trust properties.

I naturally didn’t know much about his professional career, as he was my uncle, married to my mother’s sister Elizabeth, and father of my four London cousins.

He was our Famous Relative, the one who could even take us on a private tour of the Television Centre. (We got to watch a bit of Parkinson being filmed or prepared, which didn’t interest, and also Blake’s Seven, which did.) He and his family also lived in the leafy outer suburbs of London. Going to stay with them, observing the building of their extension, appreciating a house with a garden, were memorable aspects of the summer holidays. (It’s fair to say that my cousins also appreciated coming to the beaches of St Andrews.)

He was also a vivid personality, a great contrast to my quiet father. Uncle David was more extrovert, stricter, more mischievously teasing. I remember my cousin and I being ordered at bedtime to fall asleep as soon as our heads touched their pillows, worrying me somewhat because I didn’t think this was possible. He also smoked a pipe, unlike anyone else I knew. As I grew older, I appreciated his humour, and the deep affection that existed between the four adults, two sisters and their husbands, despite their different personalities.

Although he was restricted in any political activity by his work, it is perhaps noticeable that all four of his children (I think) became active in the Labour Party. My first experience of that modern delight, the Macdonald’s milkshake, was while taking part in a CND rally with my cousin Hatty.

In summer 1976 my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in October 1978 after a long struggle she died, her youngest child being aged 15, about a year younger than me. These two years were a terrible time for all the Wilsons, and unfortunately were made even harder by my grandmother, David’s mother-in-law. She had never found it easy to relate to sons-in-law anyway. Now, in her own understandable pain, she was completely unable to appreciate either that Elizabeth, David, and their children’s way of suffering and grieving might be different from her own; or that her own reactions were making things worse for them.

Shortly after my aunt’s death, my grandmother came to live with us in Scotland. Despite his busy lifestyle and the hurts caused above, David wrote to her, chatty friendly short letters, every week for the next nine or so years, and maintained a typically close relationship with my mother and all of us.

He remained a widower (I assume an extremely eligible one) until his death in 2000, from pancreatic cancer. He was a devoted father, father-in-law, grandfather and great-grandfather, always assuming that his children’s in-laws should become his own friends; and his relaxed but generous and entertaining hospitality was available as a matter of course to nieces or similar relatives visiting London or the Lake District. He went out of his way to help and support colleagues in times of difficulty – of course I don’t know much of the details.

He was a passionate lover of opera (but not live theatre).

Unfortunately I can’t now remember the details of his theory that women had been historically hampered in the field of literature by the difficulty of ironing shirts. He readily admitted that Jane Austen created difficulties for the theory. He greatly loved “Pride and Prejudice”, ranking it alongside “The Marriage of Figaro” and among modern novels “Catch—22” in his personal pantheon.

I have rarely known anyone who was so steadfastly kind and at the same time so constantly entertaining.

Throughout his life he remained a staunch Catholic, another contrast to my own humanist family. His fatal illness did not crush either his faith or his humour, and I remember his joking during a hospital visit. At his funeral his priest told the mourners that he had asked David if his illness had threatened his faith, to be told that on the contrary, it had been strengthened. His Christianity was unobtrusive, unpretentious and easygoing, with plenty of scope for laughter, generous indignation, and enjoyment of life.

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Matthew Perry

    25th May 2018 at 5:53 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Judith Leader

    25th May 2018 at 7:57 pm Reply

    What a touching and interesting story, thank you for sharing it with us. I wonder if anyone else has famous or infamous relatives or friends, people’s first hand stories are always so interesting. Thank you Penny. (No I have no claim to fame except when my uncle attempted suicide he ended up in the police cells because he had committed a crime hence the name ‘committed suicide’.)

  • Simon Watkins

    21st January 2021 at 6:51 pm Reply

    A clip showing your uncle from the 1980s show Open Air has been posted on Facebook by the BBC Archive account.


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