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date: 27 May 2020

Howard, George Anthony Geoffrey, Baron Howard of Henderskelfefree

(1920–1984)
  • Ian McIntyre

Howard, George Anthony Geoffrey, Baron Howard of Henderskelfe (1920–1984), landowner and chairman of the BBC, was born on 22 May 1920 at 32 Chester Square, London, the second of three sons of the Hon. Geoffrey William Algernon Howard (1877–1935) and his wife, Ethel Christian Methuen (1889–1932). His father was the fifth son of the ninth earl of Carlisle; his mother, the daughter of the third Baron Methuen.

Howard was educated at Eton College and spent a year at Balliol College, Oxford, before being commissioned in the Green Howards in 1940. Attached to the Indian army with the rank of major, he saw service in India, and in Burma, where he was wounded. His elder and younger brother were both killed in action in 1944, and it was upon Howard that the duty of managing the family estates in the post-war years accordingly devolved.

Castle Howard had been completed for the third earl of Carlisle in 1714. More than two centuries later, the stewardship of Vanbrugh's great pile presented problems of nightmare proportions. The upkeep of a large agricultural estate and the care of a great art collection both made heavy calls on family resources, and these were further strained by the need to restore the ravages caused by a fire in 1940; most of the south front had been destroyed, and the great dome, with its Pellegrini frescoes, had come crashing to the ground. Ably assisted by his wife—he was married on 11 May 1949 to Lady Cecilia Blanche Geneviève FitzRoy (1922–1974), daughter of the eighth duke of Grafton, with whom he would have four sons—Howard conducted a doughty holding operation. Eventually, when the burden became too great, responsibility for the preservation of the fabric passed to Castle Howard Estates Ltd.

Family responsibilities did not stand in the way of public service. Howard was active in the affairs of the National Trust and was a member of the National Parks Commission. He served as president of the Country Landowners' Association from 1969 to 1971 and from 1974 to 1977 he was chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission. He was also chairman of the Royal College of Art.

Howard became a governor of the BBC in February 1972, and although he had served as 'senior ordinary governor' there was general surprise when he was appointed to succeed Sir Michael Swann as chairman in 1980—he was believed to have lobbied his friend William Whitelaw, who as home secretary in Margaret Thatcher's administration had an important say in the matter. 'I knew that something had happened,' Swann said. 'When George came to tell me he was to be my successor, he had grown to twice his normal size' (Milne, 81).

That must have been a memorable sight, because in his prime Howard was a man of massive girth. He had a gargantuan appetite and smoked incessantly. He had a weakness for silk suits and vividly coloured shirts and ties; when taking his ease, he favoured more exotic attire, often sporting a kaftan—one of his favourites was silver, with a huge red bird embroidered across his chest. He was fond of the company of young women (he had been widowed in 1974); if they were would-be broadcasters, he was shameless in attempting to advance their interests with members of BBC staff.

Howard regarded the BBC very much as a personal fiefdom, and announced from the start that he intended to adopt a 'high profile'. He travelled extensively overseas, sometimes on business that would have been better conducted by a senior official more familiar with the issues involved. 'Would you like to see a picture of my place in England?' he enquired amiably during a lull in the conversation at a banquet in Beijing, and unfolded a glossy brochure with a panoramic view of Castle Howard. 'Is it all yours?' asked his wide-eyed Chinese neighbour (private information). The chatelain of one of England's stateliest homes had distinctly grand ideas about how he should be accommodated during these frequent peregrinations at public expense. In Venice for the prix Italia, only the Cipriani would do; on another occasion, he and his director-general were booked in at the sumptuously appointed Bel Air in Los Angeles. 'I don't like cottage hotels,' he rasped (Milne, 81).

Howard did not take a conventional view of how the affairs of the board of governors should be conducted, and could be both mischievous and manipulative—a marked contrast to the subtle, relaxed style to which the board had become accustomed during the tenure of the pipe-smoking Michael Swann. Stuart Young, Howard's successor as chairman, later told the director-general that it was at Howard's instigation that William Rees-Mogg, newly appointed as vice-chairman, had made an ill-informed attack, at his very first board meeting, on BBC management practices (Milne, 82).

Howard could point to a number of solid achievements, for all that. It was, for instance, greatly to his credit and to the BBC's advantage (the director-general at the time was Ian Trethowan) that together they persuaded the government to abandon annual negotiations over the licence fee and agree to a three-year settlement.

Howard's most important initiative as chairman was to put his weight behind an architectural competition for a new BBC building on the site of the Langham Hotel opposite Broadcasting House. The winner was Norman Foster. His team produced a brilliantly imaginative design which would have enhanced the reputation of the BBC as a discerning patron of the arts; it would also have done much to rescue John Nash's beautiful All Souls, Langham Place, marooned at the top of Regent Street amid much undistinguished post-war building. After Howard's departure in 1983, men of narrower vision—and possibly less extravagant tastes—decreed that it would cost too much. The national instrument of broadcasting opted instead to buy the site of a greyhound stadium at White City, and built a totally undistinguished new office block in the wastes of London W12.

As chairmen of the BBC often do, even when they have ostensibly been sent in ‘to sort the place out’, Howard developed an intense loyalty to the corporation. This was well demonstrated on the occasion he and Alasdair Milne were invited to meet the Conservative back-bench media committee. It was during the Falklands War, and an edition of the Panorama programme had explored the views of those who had reservations about British policy. Howard and Milne were given a roasting, and the temperature was not lowered by what Milne later described as 'George's occasional tendency to perform like a great Whig grandee addressing his retainers' (Milne, 92). As they left, a young tory MP approached and said, 'You, sir, are a traitor.' Howard, sweating freely and with thoughts only for the glass of whisky promised by Willie Whitelaw, jabbed a finger at him and growled, 'Stuff you!'.

For the last year and a half of his chairmanship Howard was a very sick man, and he did not long survive his retirement. He was created a life peer, and took the title of Baron Howard of Henderskelfe—the original name of the site on which Castle Howard now stands. In February 1984 he was appointed chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission, but he was to serve for only a few months. He died at Castle Howard from heart failure on 27 November 1984 and was buried in the family mausoleum there on 30 November.

Sources

  • A. Milne, DG: the memoirs of a British broadcaster (1988)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • The Times (28 Nov 1984)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

Wealth at Death

£25,781,615: probate, 17 June 1986, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)
British Library, National Sound Archive
(1803–) [sometimes ]