Dick Gilbert

Versatile BBC journalist who rode the British mid century jazz boom


the long-serving BBC journalist Dick Gilbert, who has died aged 82, was a lifetime jazz fan who loved pubs and a flutter on horseracing. His friends all recognised a mischievous streak in him, the quality Sir Hugh Greene, director-general of the BBC in the 1960s, insisted every true journalist should have, evident in a mean impersonation of Groucho Marx on the prowl whenever a cigar was to hand.

Gilbert joined the BBC in 1963 as a radio producer in what was then known as Overseas Regional Services. He moved from there to Radio 4 where he showed unusual versatility by producing a range of totally different broadcasters, from Marghanita Laski to Kenny Everett, and documentary programmes, notably Start the Week and the arts programme Kaleidoscope.

Later he moved to The Listener where he was deputy editor in its final years of publication. He then switched to BBC Information Services as head of corporate publicity up until his retirement.

A BBC colleague noted that as a journalist Dick had “a mole’s ear for the quirky revelation, the compelling oddities, the tantalising tangents of life.”

The compelling oddities were in evidence in the contrasts he found in Los Angeles where he spent a year before joining the BBC as a teaching assistant, filling the gaps in a basic course in Western Civilisation at the UCLA, California. This experience he distilled in a book, City of Angels, much of it still relevant today, 60 years later.

Dick Gilbert was born in 1937, the son of Bertram Gilbert, a dentist, and Olga Hicks, home-maker. His grandfather, Simon Gelberg (1869-1946), was a native East Ender and journalist who became deputy editor of the Jewish Chronicle and famously the last newspaperman to interview William Gladstone, Britain’s Liberal Prime Minister from 1868-1894.

It was from his grandfather, who was active in Liberal Party politics, that Gilbert inherited his abiding interest in the political world of campaigning and protest.

One of the last of his generation to do National Service, he took time out from the Russian course he had embarked on and, wearing his RAF uniform, took part in the November, 1956 anti-Suez demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Other demonstrations would follow.

His year at UCLA was one of ferment, sandwiched between the Soviet Union’s resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests and the revelation that Russian missiles were sited in Cuba. He would later, at Oxford University, take his keen interest in politics into the anti-nuclear CND demonstrations and Aldermaston marches, at their height at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s.

Gilbert was a boarder at Midhurst Grammar School in Sussex and then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduating in 1961 with a first class degree in modern history.

A fellow Midhurstian who joined him at Corpus recalls “the fastest talker I knew who, impressively, read the New Statesman.” He also remembers that in the sixth form Gilbert had enjoyed an opportunity to act at Shepperton Studios as the understudy to the boy star Jonathan Ashmore in the Wolf Mankowitz film, A Kid for Two Farthings, directed by Carol Reed, and had spotted both Laurence Olivier and Margaret Rutherford from a distance.

Gilbert’s abiding passion was jazz in all its forms, but mainly the jazz he heard from the marching bands in New Orleans and in Preservation Hall, set up to keep alive the pure New Orleans style in the city only a year before his arrival at UCLA.

He rode the UK trad jazz boom of the late 50s and 60s at the Carfax Assembly Rooms in Oxford, in the 100 Club on Oxford Street and the Marquée in Soho. There he discovered groups such as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, billed as “Britain’s zaniest trad band,” before they became generally popular. He wrote about these bands as a freelance journalist and doubled as a travel writer as a marginally profitable sideline.

Dick Gilbert married Nicholette Hicks in 1974. She danced on the stage and ran ballet and creative music classes for young children from their home in North London, and at schools in Hampstead, St John’s Wood and Stanmore, Middlesex. “Not a day went by without listening to jazz with a glass of Scotch in his hands,” she testifies.

His death followed a 12 year decline into vascular dementia. Nicholette survives him with their two sons Ben and Sam, and his younger brother, Chris.

John Aeberhard

Richard David Bertram Gilbert: born October 4, 1937. Died April 4, 2020

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