Brian Waddell, 1934-2009

Executive chairman of Waddell Media and former UTV controller passes at age 75

With the sudden death of Brian Waddell in the week before Christmas, the television industry in Northern Ireland and far beyond has lost a hugely influential and highly regarded figure.

When his production company Waddell Media celebrated its 20th birthday just over a year ago, tributes poured in from friends and colleagues all over the world, praising his integrity, vision and uncanny ability to turn work into fun.

Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, who had spent his formative television years with the company, wrote about how Waddell taught him that it was OK to mix work with pleasure and acknowledged the way in which he had successfully positioned his Northern Ireland-based company at the forefront of the industry worldwide.

'A decade before the rest of the country caught on, Waddell’s was selling its programming all over the world and was at the forefront of creating whole genres of programming,' wrote Williams, before declaring, 'I’m very proud to have been around for a small part of the Waddell Media story.'

Pat Loughrey, recently retired as director of BBC Nations and Regions, wrote: 'Under Brian’s expert guidance, the company forged an identity and a solid production base during fraught and uncertain times for the sector. Brian’s experience of institutional broadcasting at the highest level was an undoubted asset.'

John Brian Waddell was born in Ballymena in 1934 and attended Ballymena Academy and Queen’s University Belfast. A keen rally driver and car enthusiast he took part in the Monte Carlo Rally – along with his old friend, the legendary Paddy Hopkirk - and joined the Belfast Telegraph as a motoring writer, before moving into television.

Waddell worked as a reporter and then a producer for Ulster Television for almost 20 years and was appointed its controller of programmes in 1976, a post he held until 1988. During that time, he was responsible for iconic programmes like God’s Frontiersmen, as well as for a raft of fine television dramas by distinguished local writers like Graham Reid and Christina Reid.

In 1988, as the concept of independent television production slowly came to be accepted by the BBC and ITV, he was one of the earliest players in Northern Ireland to dip a toe into the water. He set up Brian Waddell Productions Ltd in a small suite of offices in Holywood, County Down and then, by his own admission, he and Linda Stewart, his former PA at UTV, 'sat and looked at each other and waited for the phone to ring'.

An early opportunity arose to make a music special with singer Roger Whittaker, an old friend, who was on a European tour. Waddell and musical director John Anderson, another former UTV colleague, set out for Copenhagen and put together a deal with Danmarks Radio for outside broadcast facilities in return for Scandinavian rights. The result, Roger Whittaker Live at the Tivoli, was the first of the company’s many ventures into independent television production and the international marketplace.

It was then considered a huge risk to launch a production company away from the media hub of London. To do so in Northern Ireland, several years before the end of the Troubles, took courage, imagination and an exceedingly sure touch. There were many days, even as the company grew into a major production force, that Waddell himself wondered about the wisdom and sanity of such an undertaking, but his vast experience, combined with the huge respect in which he was held by his peers, would see him and his intensely loyal staff through the difficult days.

Waddell was responsible for bringing Paul and Jeanne Rankin into the spotlight and for turning Gourmet Ireland into a household name. Under his direction, the company developed an enviable reputation for leisure-lifestyle programming and when the Washington DC-based National Geographic Channel commissioned the first series of Chasing Time, a travel challenge show in some of the world’s great cities (devised and produced by his son Jon-Barrie), another significant step was taken onto the world stage. Then came Future Weapons, one of the Discovery’s Channel’s biggest hits, and many more successes at home and abroad.

As the younger members of the clan – daughters Nicola and Jannine, son Jon-Barrie and son-in-law David Cumming – started to make their mark on the family business, Waddell’s constant guiding presence, quiet wisdom and irrepressible interest in the industry he loved remained very much at the heart of its burgeoning success.

Jannine is now the company’s managing director; Jon-Barrie its creative director and head of its New York office; David its head of development and Nicola is an executive producer in London. Waddell always said that his wife Audrey had the good sense to stay out of it all, while in reality knowing more about television than all of them put together, as a result of having lived so long with this remarkable dynasty. He was also intensely proud of his children and three grandchildren Orla, Finn and Lorcan - and they of him.

The broadcast media is much the poorer for his unexpected passing. His staff, past and present, will be devastated, as will the many people in the industry, who owe so much of their career development to his kindness, encouragement and influence.

Jane Coyle