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Brum Henderson (1929 - 2005):
Broadcasting executive


Brum Henderson

Universally known simply as "Brum", Robert Brumwell Henderson was a founder, Managing Director and later Chairman of Ulster Television, the Northern Ireland commercial television station, which he dominated for several decades; so well-known was he in this regard that his numerous other public activities could pass relatively unnoticed, from inland waterways to drama to tertiary education to transatlantic fundraising.

He came from two noted Ulster families; the Hendersons were for several generations owners of the Belfast News Letter (which claims with justification to be the oldest daily newspaper in the English-speaking world). His father was Commander Oscar Henderson CVO, CBE, DSO, a former Royal Navy officer and veteran of the famous Zeebrugge raid in 1918, who was private secretary to the Duke of Abercorn, the first Governor of Northern Ireland (1921-1945), and subsequently Comptroller in the Governor's household. As such, he had a suite of rooms in the resplendent Government House, Hillsborough, County Down (now known as Hillsborough Castle; it is the official residence of the Sovereign in Northern Ireland and the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), where his second son Brumwell was born. Brum's maternal grandfather Robert Boyd Henry was a successful architect and builder, active in Belfast (his firm constructed the Albert Bridge). The name Brumwell was that of a family friend, another architect, Sir Brumwell Thomas, who designed Belfast City Hall; Brum's grandfather, Sir James Henderson, the first Lord Mayor of Belfast gave Thomas the commission. Living at Government House, Brumwell came into contact with the cream of society up to and including the King and Queen.

The young Brum attended Brackenber House preparatory school in south Belfast, Bradfield School in Berkshire, England, and the University of Dublin, where he was an enthusiastic member of the drama club the Dublin University Players, enjoyed golf, engaged in student journalism and obtained a degree in History (one teacher was TW Moody). He considered and rejected taking a law degree, declined a post at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, as he found the salary inadequate, and a stint on The Irish Times was unsatisfying.

He returned to Belfast to join the family firm, the Belfast News Letter, in 1951. It was run by his uncle, Sir James Henderson, whom Henderson claimed firmly denied him any favouritism. After basic training, including spells on the Glasgow Herald and the Liverpool Daily Post, he took up a low-paid night-shift job and marriage to a Dublin University friend. His News Letter career encompassed a variety of roles, including producing special supplements, reviewing books, and one night, as duty editor, adjusting the copy to accommodate the breaking news story of the death of Stalin.

It was expected that he would remain at the paper indefinitely but in 1958 he was approached about the upcoming franchise for a commercial television station in Northern Ireland under the aegis of the Independent Television Authority in London. This body had come into being partly to provide competition to the BBC, which was state funded, and partly to exploit a gap in the broadcasting market: for example, at the time the populist and commercial Radio Luxembourg was broadcasting all over the British Isles from a studio in the municipal park in Luxembourg city centre. Three consortia bid for the ITA franchise. One was initiated by William MacQuitty, the eminent film-maker, writer and photographer, who had just produced the famous film about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember, and was currently concerned with organising its premiere in Belfast.  Keen to have local media involvement he contacted amongst other the news Letter; James Henderson demurred, but Oscar Henderson and Brum were interested, and after a knife-edge few weeks the consortium managed to complete a bid, which was written over the space of an intense two days by Henderson and a colleague of MacQuitty; and although the smallest of the consortia their bid was accepted.

The consortium chose as their chairman Randall MacDonnell, Lord Antrim, and included "star" names whom MacQuitty knew from the arts and entertainment world in London including Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, and Sir Laurence Olivier, the actor. MacQuitty agreed with some reluctance to be Managing Director, though he stipulated that he would not remain long, and nominated Henderson, who had returned to the News Letter, as General Manager under him. Initially reluctant, Henderson accepted.

Many organisational problems remained, and Henderson, who had his full notice period to be worked at the paper at the insistence of his uncle, finally occupied the "hot seat", as MacQuitty put it, in May 1959, with basically an entire television station to build for a launch deadline of 31 October the same year. With considerable energy and commitment Henderson managed to meet the deadline; not for nothing did MacQuitty later write that Ulster Television owed its existence to Henderson. Some appointments were almost last minute: for example, Eric Caves, who eventually became Chief Engineer at Ulster Television, was a young engineer at the BBC Glencairn transmitter, the first television transmitter in Northern Ireland, when in spring 1959 he saw a series of job advertisements in the local press for Ulster Television. He applied and was successful; the engineering team started on September 14, six weeks before the new station went on the air. A tight schedule.

MacQuitty had agreed a one-year contract from January 1st, the second six months to be part time. The question of who he was to choose as his successor he described as his "most daunting task"; he nominated Henderson, still only 29, partly because of his local knowledge generally, partly because of his appreciation, as an Ulsterman, of local sensibilities. MacQuitty completed his one year contract and Henderson duly became Managing Director.

One of the first problems he had to tackle was a particularly serious one: his consortium had secured the franchise partly on the undertaking that, to fulfil its terms, there would be a certain level of local public service programme making including news coverage. (At first, most of Ulster Television's broadcast content would be from the main Independent Television network.) However for a variety of reasons, the new station was unable to meet this commitment beyond a planned magazine programme to be called Roundabout. Henderson described this programme as "putting all our eggs in one basket"; this newspaperman envisaged the programme as a complement to the local press. He told the board of directors that the programme would convince the viewers, the staff, and advertisers. This was described later as "Brum-speak" in that there were virtually no staff, viewers would have very little to compare the new station's output to as the only other local television was BBC Northern Ireland who still had minimal programming of their own, and advertisers would not be concerned as they were interested only in networked programmes during which to advertise.

However, it was the Independent Television Authority which Henderson needed to convince, and they were particularly concerned at the lack of proposed local news coverage as their terms required and as had been agreed. Henderson had a nerve-wracking (they always would be for him) meeting with Sir Robert Frazer of the Authority, who was initially unimpressed with Ulster television's Roundabout. But as luck had it, the BBC had just launched a new programme, Tonight, which was a great success; Henderson argued that his version was merely a local version of this, that it contained serious items as well as light, and that no other Independent network station made anything comparable. Frazer effectively agreed to let Ulster Television some breathing space, but the Authority would be watching closely for the new station's development of Ulster news programmes.

Another early series made by Ulster Television (Henderson forbade the short form "UTV") was Midnight Oil, in which experts would give a talk on some special topic within their expertise, perhaps in science, perhaps arts; for example, he engaged a lecturer from Queen's University with a doctorate from Yale to present programmes about the Law.  Henderson was very supportive of such serious programming, as far as commercial realities allowed. He could also be far-sighted: William MacQuitty had bought the television rights for Somerville and Ross's popular The Irish RM books and Henderson kept renewing this option. Later, Ulster Television co-produced a highly successful television version, featuring some of the leading British actors of the time. Ulster Television also supported the theatre in Belfast, including the Arts Theatre and Lyric Theatre. Henderson saw this as mutual co-operation, as advantages lay for theatres and actors in financial and other support, while Ulster Television could keep its eye open for new talent.

Henderson initiated the Ulster Television Art Collection, which he began by purchasing two paintings by the prominent Ulster artist William Conor, from the artist himself. He was supported in this by Angela, Lady Antrim, wife of Lord Antrim of the original Ulster Television consortium and herself a painter and sculptor.  Two rules for the collection were laid down: that the artist had to be from Northern Ireland (though there was occasional Southern representation) and the relevant picture was displayed in the station's headquarters, Havelock House. The Collection would later be toured, to the pleasure of the art-lover and the promotion of the station; it grew to number some 260 artworks, mostly pictorial in almost every form though also sculpture, some of them specially commissioned, by some 170 artists, and contains work by artists such as Basil Blackshaw, Gerard Dillon, George Campbell and FE McWilliam. For many years its curator was Theo Snoddy, the leading historian of Irish art.

Henderson was said by some to have had two weak points at Ulster Television. He was undoubtedly always concerned closely about the station and what it broadcast; some saw in him in this as increasingly invasive or over-authoritative. Additionally, industrial relations were, according to one senior manager, less than ideal. Henderson had tended, it was said, to back the unionised workforce over the management, possibly because an industrial dispute could (and did) take the station off the air. Some say it was concerns such as these which led to his ultimately being edged out of the company completely. When their franchise was due for renewal in 1991, Ulster Television had two competitors, both with strong bids. A majority of the board of directors decided that he was a liability in the application process, partly due to factors which had emerged during a previous franchise renewal, partly because the majority felt that even if Henderson had been able to remain, the Independent Broadcasting Authority would nevertheless have been aware that it would have been as head of a split board.  Henderson for his part felt that the bid drawn up by Ulster Television was seriously flawed commercially. He decided to stand down as Chairman, which he did in November 1990, not without regret and resentment at his "graceless" treatment. One historian of the company wrote of him that he "had been a good and faithful servant" of Ulster Television from its earliest days, "a giant of a man, and when he fell UTV shook." However, Henderson, the keen golfer who entitled a chapter of his autobiography "Never a Dull Moment", always had plenty of other clubs in his bag outside of broadcasting.

He set up the Ulster Waterways Group in 1993 to work for the re-opening of the network of rivers and canals both within Ulster and between North and South, seeing potential benefits for jobs, tourism and North-South co-operation generally. He was one of the first to take an interest in a new group - the Ulster History Circle, with its dedication to (at first) commemorative blue plaques. Always deep down the actor, he supported amateur drama as President of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals (1978-98; he was succeeded by Rowel Friers, whom he had once tried to coax to the News Letter from the Belfast Telegraph). Together with this organisation he set up the Brum Henderson Trust to organise events and activities ancillary and complementary to the drama festivals themselves, such as acting workshops, talks, and some performances.

For some years Henderson had a prominent rôle in Co-operation North, a charity founded in 1979 by a leading businessman in the Republic of Ireland, Dr Brendan O'Regan. The organisation, now known as Co-operation Ireland, is a charity dedicated to developing "mutual understanding and respect by promoting practical co-operation between the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland", which in the late 1970s was virtually non-existent. O'Regan was as keen to involve Henderson as the latter was keen to be involved, and, aided by business and personal connections on both sides of the Irish border as well as in the United States (including having a house in Florida) he worked assiduously at fundraising in America, this usually involving "working" wealthy businessmen, which he did with a good deal of success. He was made Vice-Chairman of Co-operation Ireland, a post created especially for him.

His involvement in tertiary education had already begun in 1964 when he was a member of the Lockwood Committee, which was convened to examine the provision of university education in Northern Ireland, particularly with respect to a second university. The committee recommended that another university be established, though its choice of site excited controversy. He served on the governing bodies both of the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic, which later merged. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Council for Continuing Education, and served on the senate of Queen's University, Belfast.

Henderson was often described as "larger than life". At six feet four inches and generous build he was certainly that. Many who knew him well described him as first and foremost an actor manqué, with all the instincts of one who enjoyed being on the stage. Even some of those who disagreed with him nevertheless liked him personally and Brum held few grudges - though he wrote of his tough uncle James, he nevertheless privately expressed his high regard for him and wore his uncle's ring after the latter's death, until his own. He was articulate - and, to the discerning, erudite and sophisticated - but also loquacious; he was once described as never using a short word if he could use a multisyllabic Latin composite and his conversation was described by a long-term friend and collaborator as having "words tumbling over each other in glittering cascades". It was said of him that in Northern Ireland, it was a measure of his standing that simply to refer to him as "Brum" was as sufficient an identifier as is "FDR" for President Roosevelt; his entitling his autobiography as simply Brum was quite adequate for Ulster readers (though the subtitle A Life in Television, spells out what he saw as his life's work).

Throughout his career he was variously a Director of Independent Television News and of Independent Television Publications 1969-1986; Chairman of the Publicity Association of Northern Ireland; President of the Radio Industries Club of Northern Ireland; President of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry; President of the  Northern Ireland Branch of the Institute of Marketing; a member of the Executive Council of Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund; a member of Council for Continuing Education 1975-1985; and a member of the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development.

A keen golfer, Henderson was friendly with Fred Daly, who was the only Irishman to win the British Open until 2011, Henderson having as a young man been coached by Daly. He co-authored a history of Royal County Down Golf Club, one of the world's leading courses.

Brum died at his home at Ballynahinch, County Down To the end, his innate actor's sense never left him and during his final illness he planned his memorial service, whose mise en scène he carefully choreographed. It took place in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, and was attended by many family, friends and luminaries: his brother Bill; Lord Eames, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland. His friend from University days, who was also his colleague on both the Queen's University Senate and the Ulster Television Education Advisory Panel, Sir Peter Froggatt, delivered a panegyric which Henderson had specially requested some time in advance.

Henderson was appointed CBE in 1979, and was awarded honorary doctorates by Queen's University, Belfast, and the University of Ulster. The annual Brum Henderson Memorial Prize, awarded to the most promising student of journalism at the University of Ulster, was established in his memory in 2006.



Born: 28 July 1929
Died: 29 July 2005
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann

Bibliography:

BRUM: A Life in Television (autobiography); Dictionary of Irish Biography; (online edition); Don Anderson: Fifty Years of UTV, 2009; http://www.utvmedia.com/; private information; personal knowledge