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Russell, (Muriel) Audreyfree

(1906–1989)

(Muriel) Audrey Russell (1906–1989)

by unknown photographer, 1953

BBC Picture Archives

Russell, (Muriel) Audrey (1906–1989), radio broadcaster, was born on 29 June 1906 in Dublin, the only child of John Strangman Russell, director of the family woollen mill, of Dublin, and his wife, Muriel Metcalfe, sister of E. Dudley (Fruity) Metcalfe, the closest friend of the prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and duke of Windsor). From an Anglo-Irish protestant background, her parents were part of Dublin society, and her father led the life of a country gentleman. She was educated at home by governesses, and later at Southlands, a private boarding-school in Harrow, before going to a finishing school at the Villa St Georges in Neuilly, Paris.

Back in London, Audrey Russell trained as an actress for six months at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and then worked for several years as a theatre dogsbody, preparing stage meals, understudying, and taking walk-on parts. She was assistant stage manager for Rodney Ackland's play After October, which ran for a year in 1936, and then became stage manager for the Group Theatre, an avant-garde theatre club at the Westminster Theatre.

With the outbreak of the Second World War imminent, Audrey Russell joined the London Fire Brigade (later the London Auxiliary Fire Service). She fought fires throughout the blitz. Stationed in Manchester Square, she was close to the BBC, and after she had been interviewed on the effects of the air raids she was asked to do a series of broadcasts on the work of the Auxiliary Fire Service, which included a description of the worst night of the blitz, 10 May 1941, when the House of Commons was bombed. This led to a secondment to the Air Ministry for six weeks, to do a series of talks on the work of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

In 1942 the BBC asked to have Audrey Russell released from national service in order to join the magazine programme Radio Newsreel. For two years she travelled all over the country, broadcasting from army camps, bomb sites, and rescue stations, interviewing those whose homes had been destroyed, and reporting on the damage done by flying bombs and rockets. On D-day she was in Trafalgar Square interviewing people on their reactions to the Normandy landings. In 1944 she was accredited as a British war correspondent by the War Office, and went with the war reporting unit to Europe to send back dispatches from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway. Suffering from influenza she returned home in March 1945 and spent the rest of the war in London.

Determined to make a career in broadcasting rather than go back to the theatre, Audrey Russell accepted a post as a reporter in the new Home Service reporting unit, but she really wanted to be a commentator rather than a reporter. She was attracted by the tightrope quality of doing a live commentary, describing the action as it happens, which was very different from the work of a reporter, who could read from a script. She succeeded in 1947, when she was asked to join the outside broadcasts team commentating on the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, to cover the ‘women's angle’, describing the wedding dress and clothes worn by the guests.

Audrey Russell decided in 1948 to leave the news division and join the outside broadcasts department on a contract basis. She became one of the principal royal commentators on state occasions, covering eight royal weddings between 1947 and 1981. She covered the Festival of Britain in 1951, and went on the first of many royal tours in 1952. At the coronation in 1953 she was in Westminster Abbey to describe the processions, and then accompanied the six-month royal tour around the world by sea. Every year she broadcast from the royal Maundy service. She covered the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill and Victoria (Mary), the princess royal, in 1965, and described the silver jubilee in 1977 and the eightieth-birthday celebrations for the queen mother in 1980. In recognition of her work the queen gave her a hand-embroidered chair. Although she was never tempted to leave radio broadcasting for television, she did a series of programmes on BBC television in the 1960s on the opening of the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in 1962 and the first ten exhibitions held there.

Audrey Russell was the only woman to be an accredited war correspondent in the Second World War, and the first woman news reporter when she joined the Home Service in 1945. Her voice was instantly recognizable, and she was to radio coverage of state occasions what Richard Dimbleby was to television. She became a freeman of the City of London in 1967, and was appointed MVO in 1976.

Audrey Russell was tall, blonde, and elegantly dressed, with a beautiful, calm speaking voice, with the slightest tinge of an Irish accent. She loved painting in oils, and collected art, as well as lecturing on art and antiques. She was unmarried, having broken off her engagement to Brent Grotrian, the heir to a baronetcy. He was later killed in Burma, in 1941. She died on 8 August 1989 of Alzheimer's disease in Woking, Surrey.

Sources

  • The Times (10 Aug 1989)
  • A. Russell, A certain voice (1984)
  • L. Miall, Inside the BBC: British broadcasting characters (1994)

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1953, BBC Picture Archives, London [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in L. Miall, Inside the BBC (1994), facing p. 71
  • photographs, repro. in A. Russell, A certain voice (1984), including ‘The author as war correspondent’, p. 53

Wealth at Death

£427,795: probate, 9 Nov 1989, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]