This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


He is one of the forgotten characters of British journalism.

In his day he was a power in the nation, a fan of new media and a manipulator of the old. A friend of the BBC general manager John Reith (until the boss fired him) but a friend mostly of the reader, the listener, the folks at home. He was a popular journalist in the days when most journalism was still stuffy. In that respect, he set us all free.

When Reith asked Leonard Crocombe to set up The Radio Times, he was making quite a statement. Crocombe was already a hugely successful editor of an outlet he was turning into one of the most recognisable brands on any pre-war news stand.

Tit-Bits dealt in titbits; competitions, slices of life and contributions from readers for which they could be paid. There were adverts for life insurance, biscuits in those tins we now regard as collectors’ items and tonics with various supposed but unproven benefits.

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Crocombe brought this zest for real life and real people's concerns to the new magazine for radio listeners – from the outset, Radio Times was about you, the listener.

He would have loved the magazine's adaptation to TV, just as he would have welcomed digital TV, podcasts and whatever comes next. In the photograph he might look a tad fusty for modern tastes, but that's how cutting-edge chaps dressed then.

And he really was at the forefront of any innovation going. In October 1922, he became the first Fleet Street editor to make a gramophone record – as a stand-up comedian. To Make You Smile cost three shillings and sixpence. In March of the following year, he was the first editor to make a radio broadcast, from the London station of the Marconi Company.

British politician, doctor and television executive Charles Hill, Baron Hill of Luton (1904 - 1989, left) with Herbert Bowden (1905 - 1994, next to him) after opening the 1st International Broadcasting Convention at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London, 20th September 1967. On the right is the new Marconi Mark VII colour television camera.
British politician Charles Hill with Herbert Bowden. Peter King/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Why is he not more famous or, indeed, famous at all? I wonder if the English class system played a part. Crocombe wasn’t exactly working class himself – he lived in comfortable Home Counties suburbia and employed cooks and maids – but the path he trod was of mass appeal, and in those days, mass appeal was not exactly the done thing.

He was no Orwell. He leaves behind no essays on politics, no work of literature worthy of the name. Only a book of jokes and two jolly travelogues whose titles tell you all you need to know: An Editor Goes West: a Holiday Notebook, and Slow Ship to Hong Kong, the last after he took the eponymous vessel, postwar, to observe the east.

He wrote those books after Lord Reith got rid of him following just three years at the helm of RT because the pace of change – what we would now call a move downmarket – was too much for the austere Scottish director-general to bear. But Crocombe had made his mark and secured the future of Radio Times.

Did I mention that Leonard Crocombe was my grandfather? My mother took me to see him when he was dying in a Bournemouth nursing home in 1968 when I was just seven years old. I remember little of him beyond the elderly hand that reached out and ruffled my hair before I was ushered out of the room.

But did that hand, metaphorically, reach out during the rest of my life? It did, I reckon: something of his literary lightness has been passed to me, for sure.

And if we are to wonder about genes for a moment: how about this for a more upscale family literary bent? My cousin Gregory Woods was the lucky inheritor of Crocombe’s typewriter, a Remington portable. Greg is emeritus professor of gay and lesbian studies at Nottingham Trent University and a brilliant poet.

And my own son, Sam, is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia and intending to make a living as a writer. We are the heirs of Leonard Crocombe, just as readers of today’s Radio Times still benefit from his early stewardship of the title.

He was described by the broadcasting historian Asa Briggs as "a figure of some importance in the whole story of the development of 'mass communication'". True: not exactly a legend in his own lifetime or in ours, but a man worth remembering and celebrating, who brought into the world a magazine that has stood the test of time.

He would be proud and pleased to be mentioned in the centenary edition.

Radio Times 100 years cover
Radio Times 100 years issue.

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