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Alasdair Milne

Television producer and former director general of the BBC;

Born: October 8, 1930; Died: January 8, 2013.

Alasdair Milne, who has died aged 82, was a programme maker who served as director general of the BBC between 1982 and 1987. He was a passionately devoted Scot who strongly supported distinctive Scottish programming and Gaelic broadcasting, both as head of BBC Scotland between 1968 and 1973 and subsequently.

Mr Milne is best known for the turbulent period he spent at the helm of the corporation in London, and for his untimely resignation under pressure from a hostile board of governors, following a series of destabilising conflicts with the Government of Margaret Thatcher. However, Mr Milne had three great passions, the BBC, his wife Sheila and Scotland.

A lifelong lover of pibroch and a Gaelic speaker – he learned the language when invalided out of the Gordon Highlanders with a lung infection during National Service – he visited Scotland regularly and insisted every family summer holiday be spent in the Highlands and islands, South Uist being a favourite destination. The five years he spent as head of BBC Scotland, living in Campsie Glen, were the happiest of his life, personally and professionally.

Alasdair David Gordon Milne was born to an Aberdonian doctor, then working as a surgeon in India, and his wife, the daughter of a headmaster of George Heriot's School, Edinburgh. The young Alasdair spent his first six years living with his maternal grandparents in Morningside, Edinburgh, until his father returned and they moved to Kent. Schooled at Winchester, he went on to New College, Oxford, where he studied modern languages and classics. He met his future wife Sheila, a half-Danish English literature student, when they played opposite one another in an Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Troilus and Cressida; they married in 1954.

He beat hundreds of hopefuls to become a BBC trainee the same year and worked under current affairs producer Grace Wyndham Goldie, then with the dynamic Donald Baverstock and his associate Antony Jay, quickly proving himself as a brilliant new talent. Together, the trio created the early evening magazine programme Tonight, before launching the groundbreaking satirical show That Was The Week That Was. After a two-year spell with Mr Jay and Mr Baverstock running their own independent production company, Mr Milne came back into the BBC fold, becoming head of BBC Scotland.

He campaigned for BBC Scotland to make programmes reflecting Scottish values and culture, believing in its obligation to support the Gaelic language; among his innovations was a late-night opt-out from the London-based schedule to air a Gaelic current affairs programme, which he authorised in defiance of his bosses at Television Centre. After returning to London as director of programmes, his support for Gaelic broadcasting continued. More recently he chaired the Gaelic Broadcasting Task Force, which produced a report in 2000 laying the groundwork for the launch of BBC Alba.

Mr Milne was thrilled to be appointed director general in 1982, but the task of managing relations with an increasingly controlling Government required championship-standard diplomatic skills which Mr Milne had not had cause to learn.

The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a dim view of what she saw as inefficiency and editorial bias at the corporation. Its board of governors, full of Government appointees, took a similar stance. After some early skirmishes over coverage of the Falklands War and standards in BBC drama, matters came to a head over the proposed screening of a documentary featuring an interview with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, as well as Gregory Campbell of the Democratic Unionists. The interview was pulled by BBC chairman Stuart Young and the governors while Mr Milne was on holiday. The decision provoked a strike by BBC journalists and was later shown following some small edits, but the breakdown of trust between Mr Milne and the BBC governors was all but irrevocable. Further ill- feeling arose between No 10 and the director general over the airing of a Panorama programme alleging links between some Conservative MPs and right-wing extremists which led to an out-of-court settlement.

Mr Milne oversaw the launch of breakfast television and the soap EastEnders, commissioned by his appointee, Michael Grade. Trouble with the Government flared again, however, over a BBC Scotland programme which was supposedly going to expose the Government for developing a new satellite warning system, Zircon; in fact, Mr Milne had already decided not to show the episode. Nevertheless, new BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey, appointed by Mrs Thatcher, invited Mr Milne to resign, telling him it was the governors' decision.

Unlike other BBC director generals, Mr Milne never received a knighthood, not even after Mrs Thatcher's departure in 1990.

Alasdair and Sheila Milne were famously devoted to each other and known to friends for their enduring romance. Mr Milne would typically schedule the film El Cid on Christmas Eve in honour of his wife, as they had once seen it together on a date. He was deeply affected by her death in 1992. In later years, though living in London, he enjoyed regular trips to his beloved Scotland, to fish and play golf.

He had played pibroch since boyhood and practised assiduously as an adult.

Though perceived to be combative and abrupt by some, due to his liking for vigorous debate, he was known and loved by his friends as a kind and exceptionally loyal person. He will be interred at Kirkton of Durris in Aberdeenshire, beside his wife.

Alasdair Milne is survived by two sons, Seumas and Ruairidh, and one daughter, Kirsty.

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