It is with great sadness that we report the passing of two of our media family in December — Television sports editor Neil Mallard, a long-standing YJA committee member, and BBC broadcaster Dennis Skillicorn, long time friend of the YJA.
NEIL MALLARD. A personal tribute by Bob Fisher
Neil Mallard died three days short of his 87th Birthday. A career in journalism began with the Wembley News in 1946 and was interrupted by National Service two years later. Demobbed, he went to the Paddington Mercury, and from there to the Press Office in Wembley Stadium. At this time he moved frequently but always with personal promotion in mind. Fleet Street was an obvious aim. It came with a move to the Sports Desk of the News Chronicle.
Having made up his mind that the future of sporting coverage lay in film and television, he moved to Paramount Newsreels. Paramount moved out of Britain without Neil who stayed at the studios to assist in the formation of a new consortium. The BBC, together with ABC Australia, CBC Canada, NBC of the United States, the Rank Organisation and shortly after, Reuters, formed the British Commonwealth International News Agency (subsequently Visnews, the largest of its type in the world.) Neil’s part in this was to establish bureau throughout the world with camera crews working with local broadcasters. These now form part of Reuters Television and are a lasting tribute to Neil, who became the first Sports Editor of the agency.
He covered every sport, none more so than football, and it was this sport in 1970 that brought me close to Neil. I was sent to Mexico by the BBC to gather promotion material for the forthcoming World Cup. England were the holders and my job was to counter the general feeling that it was going to happen in Wembley. My first need was a film crew and my contact for this was Neil, who, at the time, was busier than a flea on a new dog. I found him (or was it the other way around?) when I was in a police cell reporting the theft of some stills cameras. Neil helped me successfully in that situation and also provided me with a film crew for a week.
The cameraman was one Antonio Halik, who Neil chose because of his wide-ranging contacts (starting with the President of Mexico!) With Halik, I only had to suggest a move and it happened – Neil’s choice of man-for-the-job proved perfect. And I was only one of a multitude of short-term film producers with similar needs. Little wonder that Neil had no time to communicate with home – my call to his wife, Ros, when I returned was the first she had had for some time.
Neil and I kept in contact for years after as his career continued to blossom in sports in which I was directly, or indirectly connected. He was into sailing with events ranging from the Whitbread Round the World Race – his Chilean contacts resulting in film of boat rounding Cape Horn — and that in the 1973/4 race – to the Admiral’s Cup (and with it the 1979 Fastnet disaster) and the America’s Cup, where, in 2013, we met with Stan Honey who explained clearly what the graphics he had devised could do for the television coverage of the Cup. Neil listened carefully and relayed the opportunities to television stations all over the world — the coverage was sensational. He was at it again in Bermuda last year.
Neil’s own love of motor racing quickly put him in touch with Bernie Ecclestone and began a friendship and working partnership that lasted until his death. FOCA TV was the result of this liaison — possibly the most watched television sport today.
His first involvement with coverage of the Olympic Games was at Wembley in 1948 and he never missed another together with the spin-offs like the Commonwealth Games, or the Paralympic Games, whose television coverage he pioneered when there was no international interest. That may sound strange today, but Neil had a deliberate campaigning spirit throughout his 73 years in the business.
When Neil said: “Leave it to me.” he meant it and one could do just that knowing that an answer would be forthcoming very shortly.
Neil Mallard is survived by his wife Ros and three sons, Tim, Duncan and Giles who all followed their Father into broadcasting.
Dennis Skillicorn. Born 24.1.32 died 21. 12. 17 aged 85 Tribute by Barry Pickthall
Broadcaster Dennis Skillicorn was the first journalist to be embedded on round the world race yacht, bringing alive the trials, triumphs and tribulations of watch routines and rushing downwind through plumes of spray. He joined the crew of Creighton’s Naturally in the 1985/6 Whitbread round the World Race and later aboard the British Steel Challenge yacht Commercial Union Assurance.
Creighton’s Naturally was one of the last to finish, but with Dennis reporting live from the Needles all the way to the finish line in Southampton Water, the yacht received the biggest welcome home. After that, the potential for embedding a journalist within the crew was fully appreciated and led to the video feeds that now reach our computers every day from the current Volvo Ocean Race yachts.
Ali McKichan, a crew member on Commercial Union Assurance during the 1992/3 British Steel Challenge, recalls the warm, kind-hearted side of Dennis Skillicorn’s character. “He always had an amusing story to get us through the long night watches. I particularly loved it when it was his role to wake the ongoing watch. Unlike others, Dennis would say softly. “Good morning Ma’am. The sun is shining, the wind is fair and I have a wonderful cooked breakfast ready for you in the saloon” – all delivered in that beautiful lilting voice of his. We all knew none of it was true, but it definitely made it easier getting out of our bunks!”
Born in 1932, Dennis grew up the Northwest shipbuilding town of Burrow-in-Furness and began an apprenticeship there until called up to do his National Service in the Royal Navy. Much of his time was spent working in Portsmouth Dockyard and he stayed rooted in the South of England for the rest of his life.
A born optimist and opportunist — he never turned down the chance of reporting live aboard a yacht however far it would take him — and treated life in exactly the same way. In 1953 when working as a salesman peddling gaskets to the big liners coming in and out of Southampton, he met his wife Marie at a friend’s wedding and proposed the same weekend. They were married a year later and enjoyed a fulfilled life together.
Their daughter Jane, who followed in her mother’s foot-steps as a teacher, recalls the day her dad decided he wanted to become a broadcaster. “He had read about plans the BBC had to start a series of regional radio stations and came home to tell us that he was going to become a journalist with BBC Radio Solent. We didn’t think too much of it at the time but he began volunteering on local hospital radio before starting to submit stories to the BBC. He was lucky to have a really understanding boss who allowed him time off to develop his broadcasting skills.”
At the start of this career change, the family relied on Marie’s wages as a teacher to make ends meet, while Dennis carved out a niche within the BBC reporting on the unusual, often zany characters and their achievements rather than hard news. Starting with Radio Solent, he soon became a regular on BBC 4, Radio 5 Live and later on BBC South TV.
During the 1960s and ‘70s Dennis became the voice of Cowes Week, reporting directly from the decks of the 1930s J Class yacht Velsheda and anything else he could hitch a ride on. His first regular programme on BBC TV was ‘Country Diary’, followed by the sailing programme ‘Open Waters’.
He travelled widely and enjoyed a lifetime of wonderfully risky and exhilarating experiences. He flew in a Harrier jump jet, lived in a snow hole with the SAS, did a parachute jump into the sea with the Parachute Regiment and stood atop every Needle at the western end of the Isle of Wight suspended from a helicopter.
In later years, Dennis took up rowing his 9ft inflatable dinghy, going out with the first lock opening at Hythe Marina each morning in an effort to keep fit. He ventured as far as Portsmouth and Lymington, before announcing in 2001 at the age of 69 while suffering a double hernia that he would attempt to row around the Isle of Wight. He did so that August, completing the 60 miles in 19 hours. He did it without fanfare or publicity simply to prove to himself that he could, but was rewarded at the following Boat Show in London when Avon presented him with a new replacement for his aging Redstart dinghy.
Dennis had a knack for getting on with people from any social group. His warm-hearted broadcasts turned Theo the tramp into something of a local celebrity, and he recorded the moving accounts of those who survived the sinking of the Titanic and D-Day landings. He made a TV series driving a horse-drawn gipsy caravan along the Pilgrim Way from Winchester to Canterbury recording the memories of travellers past, and built up a great personal relationship with Lord Mountbatten, often sharing a whisky and a few tales at his Lordship’s stately home at Broadlands near Southampton.
When the BBC tried to introduce a retirement policy at the age of 75, Dennis joined a group of fellow pensioners to form ‘The Zimmers’ to voice the feelings of isolation and imprisonment suffered by the elderly. They recorded a cover version of the Who’s ‘My Generation’ at the famous Abby Road studios in London and the record climbed to No 26 in the UK Singles Chart in May 2007 Go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqfFrCUrEbY
His last interview, conducted at the age of 80, was with the Duke of Edinburgh. The two got on so well that Dennis ended up helping Prince Philip mend ornaments while they chatted.
Sailing TV broadcaster Matt Sheahan says of Dennis. “He was an absolute gentleman and a great reporter. He had a gentle but informed style that kept me thinking about the intelligent side of journalism.”
Dennis supported his two children Roger and Jane in achieving their dreams and goals. Jane became a teacher of disabled children and he took a keen interest not only in her vocation but supported other disability organisations including the Solent Dolphin charity, for which he skippered the MV Allision McGregor, catamaran based close to his home in Hythe Marina, Southampton, providing trips for people with disabilities. He was just as supportive for Roger’s desire to reach for the skies and equally proud when he rose to the ranks of Senior Pilot with British Airways.
Dennis Skillicorn’s extensive library of radio interviews and broadcasts has been saved for posterity and will be archived at the Wessex Film and Sound Archive based in Winchester. www3.hants.gov.uk/wfsa.htm
Dennis is survived by his two children Roger and Jane and two grandchildren. He died peacefully on December 21stsurrounded by his family and close friends. His funeral will take place at Romsey Crematorium at 16:00 on Wednesday, January 10.