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Ursula Vernon Eason (1910 - 1993):
Broadcaster; campaigner for the non-hearing

Ursula Vernon Eason was a broadcasting executive especially well known for producing radio and television programmes for children and for the young hard of hearing, whose long BBC career began and was built up in her eighteen years working for BBC Northern Ireland. Her two most famous creations, designed for children, Vision On (a dedicated programme for non-hearing children) and The Magic Roundabout were outstanding and popular contributions to broadcasting by any standards, and had an enormous appeal to all ages.

Eason was born in Streatham, London, daughter of Edward Eason, an auctioneer; her mother was from a well-known family of auctioneers from Gloucester. She attended Mount Nod School in Streatham and went from there to University College, London where she graduated in English. She worked for a time for the Times Book Club, but her interest in the theatre impelled her to look for a post at the BBC. She was interviewed by Lord Reith, no less, and was offered, and accepted, a position in Belfast as organiser, producer and presenter of "Children's Hour" slot. This may have been based on her interview report which described her as "practical, sensible, [and] nice-looking", whatever the relevance of the latter for a radio broadcaster.

The BBC Northern Ireland which welcomed Eason in 1934 was still at an early stage of development. The radio signal from Belfast originally had a radius of only 30 miles, so that not one of the six counties of Northern Ireland was entirely covered by it, County Fermanagh not at all, and Londonderry, the second city, likewise. It was a BBC in which dinner jackets were worn at all times; each member of staff (there were not many) kept their own dinner jackets at BBC headquarters in Linenhall Street, Belfast, as it was considered rude not to wear one. But a new Regional Director, George Marshall, arrived in 1932 and a more powerful transmitter installed.

One of Eason's first hurdles related to her being English. There was from the beginning considerable debate and argument about what kind of voices, and particularly accents, should be used over the airwaves, and Ulster listeners were very sensitive to this. Marshall's first St Patrick's Day broadcast, entitled "Turf Smoke", and broadcast to mainland Britain and parts of the Empire, drew considerable ire from members of the listening public in Northern Ireland with such complaints as "the worst result comes when an uneducated English accent tries to assume an Irish brogue". Worse, apparently, was the Christmas message: "It was not Ulster dialect at all, it was an imitation of the dialect of the Free State." The Englishwoman Eason received letters of complaint relating to her own accent, the writers telling her she was difficult to understand and asking why she could not speak "plain English". She was of the view that, while she would use local words such as "throughother" and "scunner", she felt it very wrong to try to imitate a local accent.

Another feature of BBC broadcasting at the time was that each and every word spoken on air had to be scripted, Children's Hour included. For Eason this was a two-edged sword. One the one hand, it was a kind of "tyranny" as she put it, resulting in poor broadcasting. Conversely, however, for Eason herself it initially it served as a kind of lifeline, as she, an outsider, needed time to get acquainted with and sensitive to the various problems and divisions in Ulster society, and that before she became acclimatised, as it were, she confessed to having been rather nervous about this.

The Second World War drew heavily on male BBC manpower, and so Eason had to shoulder more responsibilities, becoming Acting Programmes Director, planning and producing the entire output for Northern Ireland. This was rather the opposite of what she wanted, being keen to get back to England and to the BBC in London. Just before the War, she had been nominated to a position in Schools Radio there, but Marshall, the Regional Director in Belfast, insisted on retaining her, giving as his reason that he considered her too indispensable for her work. No doubt for this reason London acquiesced. Eason became Acting Programme Director in an organisation with a greatly reduced staff, some technical problems as a result of the War, and a political three-way tension between London, Belfast and Dublin. The BBC in London, to a large extent directed by the British Government, leant towards a friendly attitude to the Irish Free State for certain political-military reasons (the Free State's geographical position with its long Atlantic seaboard, and the desire that Free State listeners should be encouraged to listen to BBC broadcasts, especially news bulletins). Marshall in Belfast followed the line of the Northern Ireland Government in Belfast which, not least due to popular opinion and certainly also to its own, was very hostile to the Irish Free State, regarding its neutrality in the War as nothing less than treacherous. 

One example of the headaches this could cause Eason was the planning for the 1941 St Patrick's Day broadcast; she was in charge of the programming, but Marshall as usual insisted on absolute final say anything with an "Irish" element. The Ministry of Information in London told the BBC there that it wanted a programme which would appeal to listeners all over Ireland; Marshall in Belfast was opposed to this. Eventually a joint broadcast was planned, to include live links from the Empire Theatre in Belfast with (southern) Irish favourite Jimmy O'Dea, and from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin where a Northern Irish play was scheduled. This proposal was heavily criticised in the Belfast (Unionist) press, with one coruscating editorial likening it to the Munich Agreement of 1938; on the night, though, the broadcast went rather awry, which did not displease Marshall at all. However, Eason received something of a snub at much the same time, when her plan, to which she was strongly committed, to make a programme to mark the 20th anniversary of the existence of Northern Ireland, with a broadcast by the Prime Minister, was rejected by London for the sake of avoiding offence to the Free State.

More political interference from the Ministry of Information was to follow. They wanted programmes made of an "Irish" interest, in order to cultivate "the goodwill of Éire listeners", which was certainly not the policy of the Northern Ireland Government, nor of BBC Northern Ireland Director Marshall. Sometimes Marshall was able to block or keep to a minimum, involvement in Northern programmes by figures from the Free State, sometimes he was not successful. One example of the latter was a radio programme proposed by the British Cultural and Press attaché in Dublin, John Betjeman (later well-known as a poet), for St Patrick's Day 1942. This was to be an Irish (that is, all-Irish) version of a highly popular BBC programme, The Brains Trust, in which a cerebrally distinguished panel would attempt to provide answers to a wide range of questions submitted by the public. The proposed Irish Brains Trust programme was opposed by Marshall and the Government in Belfast, but the London Controller of programmes overruled Marshall, and Eason's proposed alternatives, including a talk by a Northern Ireland Cabinet minister, were rejected.

In July 1941 Eason suggested to the Controller of Programmes in London that there be a new short service programme, to be broadcast once every two weeks, comprising a bulletin explain official announcements and declarations, pointing out that similar programmes broadcast on the mainland were not suitable for Ulster, and that the recently launched Irish Magazine programme was in her opinion largely aimed at "Éire" listeners. Another reason she gave was the persistent plaint from Northern Irish listeners that they resented English announcers as being difficult to understand, even newsreaders. Her suggestion was accepted and a new programme, Today in Ulster, was launched in the autumn of 1941, with a ten-minute slot every two weeks as Eason had proposed. In 1942 she had a more advanced proposition, an Ulster version of the Irish Magazine. At the same time, the British Forces Overseas Service had invited BBC Northern Ireland to contribute a monthly half-hour programme aimed at Ulster troops serving in the Middle East and African theatres of war. This was duly produced and entitled Six Counties Half Hour. The Northern Ireland Government objected to this title, redolent as it was to it of the disparaging Irish nationalist nomenclature for Northern Ireland, and so the title was quickly changed to the more suitable Ulster Half Hour.

At the end of the War, Eason was made Assistant Programme Director despite frequent entreaties that she be relocated to London. These were turned down - the price of excellence - and it would be some time before she could leave Belfast. She would comment later that she did everything at BBC Northern Ireland except preach a sermon and give a football commentary.

In 1952, Eason was finally able to obtain the transfer to London she had been hoping for since before the War. One great difference was that BBC Northern Ireland would not have a television service until 1953; Eason entered television programme making at once in London, quickly transferring to Children's Programmes; after only a year was she was a junior producer and became Assistant Head of the department in 1955.

Of her two exceptional achievements at BBC Children's Programmes, the first arose from her own condition as someone hard of hearing, pioneering programmes for deaf children from the beginning of her time in the department and launching in 1964 Vision On. The aim was to make a programme for both hearing and non-hearing viewers, rather than for non-hearing alone. It was an almost totally visual programme with mime, animations, cartoons, paintings and drawings, from which later the British Theatre of the Deaf was developed by the first presenter, Pat Keysall. Tony Hart followed in her shoes, and this talented artist became one of the best-known television presenters in the United Kingdom. By 1977 the programme had been sold widely throughout the world, and there were two sequel programmes, Take Hart and Hart Beat. One of its innovative features was the use of signing; now widely accepted practice, it was frowned upon at that time by many teachers of non-hearing people but approved of by Eason.

Another brainchild of Eason was to have adapted a French animated puppet show, Le Manège Enchanté, for children's BBC; the Head of Children's Programmes, Doreen Stephens, had spotted this shoestring-budgeted show's possible potential, but when translated, the scripts were felt to be rather too dreary. It was Eason's masterstroke to add completely different scripts to them, developed especially by Eric Thompson, who also narrated. The Magic Roundabout became one of the most popular programmes on British television, attracting at its peak some eight million viewers - and hundreds of letters of protest when it was rescheduled an hour earlier. These were from adults who protested that such a slot prevented them from viewing. Its colourful and rather unearthly characters became something like household names, and the magical garden which they inhabited  evocative and attractive.

On her retirement, tributes paid to Eason included from David (now Lord) Attenborough, who spoke at her retirement party, saying: "'The generosity with which you have given your advice, your wisdom, your sympathy, time and labour has been enormous." Sir Huw Wheldon, sometime Controller of BBC1 and Managing Director, BBC Television wrote to her: "[the BBC] and therefore this country owes you more than it knows." Monica Sims, her last boss, said of her: "Her advice was always well-balanced, unemphatic and mercifully brief."

Eason continued her work for the RNID, giving talks all over the country, and also helped out with the voluminous correspondence received by the Children's Department at the BBC. However, she became more and more ill with Alzheimer's disease and died in a London nursing home on Christmas Day 1993.

Born: 19 August 1910
Died: 2 December 1993
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Rex Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region (Blackstaff 1984); The Independent obituary 15.1.94; Dictionary of Irish Biography