Hugh Greene

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene KCMG OBE (15 November 1910 – 19 February 1987) was a British television executive and journalist. He was director-general of the BBC from 1960 to 1969.

Hugh Greene
Greene in 1968
Director-General of the BBC
In office
1 January 1960  March 1969
Preceded bySir Ian Jacob
Succeeded byCharles Curran
Personal details
Born(1910-11-15)15 November 1910
Berkhamsted, England
Died19 February 1987(1987-02-19) (aged 76)
London, England
Helga Mary Guinness
(m. 1934; div. 1948)

Elaine Shaplen
(m. 1951; div. 1969)

Tatjana Sais
(m. 1970; died 1981)

Sarah Mary Manning Grahame
(m. 1984)
RelativesRaymond Greene (brother)
Graham Greene (brother)
EducationBerkhamsted School
Alma materMerton College, Oxford
OccupationTelevision executive, journalist

After working for newspapers in the 1930s, Greene spent most of his later career with the BBC, rising through the managerial ranks of overseas broadcasting and then news for the main domestic channels. He encountered opposition from some politicians and activists opposed to his modernising agenda, but under his leadership the BBC was recognised to be outperforming its commercial rival, ITV, and was awarded a second television channel (BBC 2) by the British government and authorised to introduce colour television to Britain.

After retiring from the BBC, Greene published several books, including a collaboration with his brother, the novelist Graham Greene, and made television programmes both for the BBC and its commercial rival.


Greene was born on 15 November 1910 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the youngest of four sons and the fifth of the six children of Charles Henry Greene, headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and his wife (and cousin), Marion Raymond, the daughter of the Rev Carleton Greene, vicar of Great Barford.[1] Among the couple's other children were Graham Greene, the novelist, and Raymond Greene, a Doctor of Medicine and a mountaineer. Greene was educated at Berkhamsted School and at Merton College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in classical moderations (1931) and English (1933).[1][2][3]

Before his undergraduate years at Merton, Greene had spent some time in Germany and, after graduating, he returned there, beginning his career as a journalist. He worked in Munich for the British publications The Daily Herald and the New Statesman,[1] and in 1934 he joined the Berlin office of The Daily Telegraph, becoming its chief correspondent in 1938.[4] The writer of his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, Colin Shaw, comments that Greene's direct witnessing of the Nazis deeply influenced him for the rest of his life, "teaching him to hate intolerance and the degradation of character to which the loss of freedom led".[1] He was expelled from Germany in May 1939 in reprisal for the expulsion from London of a journalist and Nazi agent, Rudolf Rösel.[5]

The Daily Telegraph sent Greene to Warsaw but his time there was brief. In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and he was forced to leave. As the war spread in Europe he reported from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and finally France, returning to Britain in June 1940, narrowly escaping the German army's arrival in Paris.[6] After a few months in the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer in intelligence, he was released to join the BBC's German service, becoming its news editor. Throughout the war, the BBC remained committed to impartial and accurate reporting to enemy-occupied territories.[1] In 1940, Greene was one of the first to undergo security clearance vetting by MI5 while working at the BBC, as MI5 suspected Greene was a communist.[7]

Early broadcasting career

At the end of the war the British government asked Greene to return to Germany as controller of broadcasting in the British-occupied zone. He established a peacetime radio service, Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk, served as its first director-general and gave it a charter on the lines of the BBC.[6] In 1948, the station was handed over to the German authorities and Greene returned to England.[1] He was appointed head of the BBC's eastern European service in 1949, just before the Russians began to jam its broadcasts.[6] In 1950, he was again seconded for government service, this time as head of emergency information services for the Federation of Malaya, helping to combat the efforts of communist insurgents. Among his assistants was the future prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, who became a close friend.[6]

On his return to London, Greene resumed his work at the BBC. First, in 1952, as assistant controller of overseas services,[1] and then, in 1955, as controller.[8] In 1956, Sir Norman Bottomley, director of administration and deputy to the director-general, Sir Ian Jacob, retired.[9][10] Greene was appointed to succeed him; Shaw comments that this temporarily distanced him from any direct involvement with programmes, but clearly identified him as the potential successor to Jacob, who was due to retire in 1959.[1]

After two years Greene was appointed to a newly-created post – director of news and current affairs. It was established in the wake of television's rise to overtake radio as the dominant broadcasting medium, and Greene's brief was "to secure overall co-ordination and editorial direction of topical output in both radio and television". In this role Greene encountered resistance to modernisation by key figures in the BBC news division, headed by Tahu Hole. The commercial Independent Television News (ITN), launched in 1955 was strongly outperforming the BBC in innovation, flair and audience numbers.[1] Jacob backed Greene's modernising approach, and moved Hole to be director of administration.[1] Among the reforms introduced by Greene was the abandonment of a restrictive and bureaucratic system for covering party politics. Before the 1959 general election he announced, "We are going to cover the election, nationally and locally, like any other news story – on the basis of news value", putting the BBC on a similar basis to ITN and the press.[11]

BBC director-general

Greene's appointment to succeed Jacob was announced in 1959. It was received with widespread approval by BBC staff, partly because Greene was the first director-general to have risen through the ranks of BBC management, and partly because his transformation of news and current affairs coverage had impressed the programme makers and made them feel valued as they had not felt previously.[1] He assumed the post on 1 January 1960.[12] Early on, Greene abolished the position of director of news and current affairs, and appointed himself editor-in-chief. In that capacity, Shaw writes, he remained "a working journalist capable, when the need arose, of dealing expeditiously with those editorial issues that were referred to him".[1] As director-general he led a modernisation of the BBC, increasing its audience after the creation of a rival commercial ITV television network (the first contractors were on air from September 1955) which had become much more popular than the BBC.[12]

Soon after Greene's appointment, the government set up a committee of inquiry into broadcasting, chaired by the industrialist Sir Harry Pilkington. Greene pressed the BBC's case, arguing that the interests outside television of the commercial franchise holders constituted a conflict of loyalties with their public service obligations, and that the quality of programmes from commercial television was greatly inferior to that of the BBC's.[1] The committee's report was highly favourable to Greene and the BBC, and despite pressure from the commercial television lobby, the government awarded the BBC the proposed third channel and introduction of colour television.[6]

In a short history of the corporation, the BBC says of Greene's tenure, "he encouraged programme-makers to reflect the social changes and attitudes of the Sixties":

After the arrival of That Was The Week That Was in 1962 ... the British Establishment would never be seen in the same light. ... Viewers enjoyed the portrayal of a new breed of gritty policemen in Z-Cars (1962), wept at the plight of the homeless in The Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home (1966) and were riveted by Doctor Who (1963), Top of the Pops (1964), Horizon (1964), Tomorrow's World (1965) and Dr Kildare, all attracting large audiences. ... Omnibus set a new standard for television arts programmes.[13][n 1]

Greene was more frank in private:

We are going to use this organisation to change the way the rest of the country thinks. We want them to see stuff they don’t like. We don’t really care if they complain.

Although under Greene's leadership the BBC caught up with and overtook commercial television in popularity among the British public as a whole,[1] there were dissenting voices. Harold Wilson, who became prime minister in 1964, was less tolerant than his predecessors of the BBC's satire and lack of deference,[15] and Mary Whitehouse, a campaigner who described herself as "an evangelical Christian and moral crusader", accused Greene of being "the devil incarnate" for allowing the broadcast of dramas with sexual content or bad language.[16][n 2]

Greene ignored Mary Whitehouse, but he was vulnerable to Wilson's hostility. When the chairman of the BBC, Lord Normanbrook, died in 1967, his successor Lord Hill, was appointed reportedly at Wilson's request.[12] Hitherto chairman of the BBC's rival, the Independent Television Authority, Greene at that point held him in contempt.[18] If, as was suspected at the time, Wilson's motive was to provoke Greene into resigning, the ploy almost succeeded, but Greene's advisers convinced him that if he resigned the whole board of management of the BBC would resign with him, leaving the corporation "at the mercy of its new master" as one colleague put it.[18]

Greene and Hill established a working relationship that was uneasy but viable. Nonetheless, after a year Greene began to look forward to retirement. After more than eight years in post he left in March 1969. To make it clear that the decision was his, rather than Hill's, the latter proposed that Greene should become a member of the BBC's board of governors. He did so, and served for two years before resigning, feeling that his presence was inhibiting his successor.[1]

Later years

After he left the post of director general, Greene made some programmes for the BBC and also – causing some disapproval at the BBC – for ITV. He edited several collections of stories about the rivals of Sherlock Holmes, collaborated with his brother Graham on Victorian Villanies (1984) and became chairman of Bodley Head, his brother's publisher. His lifelong hatred of totalitarianism and dictatorship led him to be active in campaigning against the military junta that ruled Greece after the coup of 1967.[6] After civilian rule was reestablished, Greene was adviser to the Greek government on the constitution of broadcasting.[4]

Personal life

Greene was married four times. In October 1934, he married Helga Mary (b. 1916), the daughter of Samuel Guinness, a banker, of London. They had two sons; the couple divorced in 1948. In September 1951, he married Elaine Shaplen (b. 1920), the daughter of Louis Gilbert, an accountant, of New York. They had two sons, and divorced in 1969. In May 1970, Greene married the German actress Tatjana Sais (1910–1981); they had lived together in the late 1940s. She died in 1981, and in December 1984, he married Sarah Mary Manning Grahame (b. 1941), a script supervisor from Australia. There were no children of the third and fourth marriages.[1]

Greene died from cancer in King Edward VII's Hospital, London, on 19 February 1987.[1]


Greene was appointed OBE in 1950 and knighted (KCMG) in 1964.[4] He received honorary degrees from the University of East Anglia, the University of York and the Open University.[4] The West German government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in 1977.[4] In 1985 he received the Eduard Rhein Ring of Honour from the German Eduard Rhein Foundation for outstanding work related to the promotion of scientific research and of learning, the arts and culture.[19] The road where the German radio station he helped to organise is located is now named after him (Hugh-Greene-Weg).


  • The Spy's Bedside Book (ed., with Graham Greene, 1957)
  • The Third Floor Front: A View of Broadcasting in the Sixties (1969)
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories (ed., 1970)
  • Cosmopolitan Crimes: More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes; US edition Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ed., 1971)
  • The Crooked Counties: Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ed., 1973)
  • The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1976)
  • The Pirate of the Round Pond and Other Strange Adventure Stories (ed., 1977)
  • Victorian Villainies (ed., with Graham Greene, 1984)
Source: Who's Who.[4]


  1. Greene is thought to have directly suggested only two programmes, the American courtroom drama series Perry Mason and the Sunday evening religious feature Songs of Praise.[14]
  2. Greene was deeply suspicious of anybody insisting on "family values" as Whitehouse did; it reminded him of Nazi Germany, and he refused to have anything to do with Whitehouse, although his successors were less firm.[17]


  1. Shaw, Colin. "Greene, Sir Hugh Carleton (1910–1987), journalist and broadcaster". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40206. Retrieved 22 March 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Fowler, Glenn (21 February 1987). "Sir Hugh Greene, 76, Dies in London". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 September 2019.
  3. Levens, R. G. C., ed. (1964). Merton College Register 1900–1964. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 207.
  4. "Greene, Sir Hugh (Carleton), (1910–19 Feb. 1987)", Who's Who & Who Was Who, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 March 2019 (subscription required)
  5. "More Expulsions By Nazis", The Times, 4 May 1939, p. 16
  6. "Sir Hugh Greene", The Times, 21 February 1987, p. 14
  7. Hollingsworth, Mark; Norton-Taylor, Richard (1988). Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting. Hogarth Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-7012-0811-0. Relevant excerpt available on Hollingsworth's official website here.
  8. "News in Brief", The Times, 3 December 1954, p. 5
  9. "B.B.C. Appointments", The Times, 27 June 1956, p. 6
  10. Briggs, p. 115
  11. "New B.B.C. Freedom In Election News", The Times, 18 September 1959, p. 14
  12. Vahimagi, Tise (2003–2014). "Greene, Sir Hugh (1910-1987)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 27 September 2019.
  13. "From Cathy Come Home to Doctor Who" Archived 17 April 2018 at the Wayback Machine, BBC. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  14. Briggs, p. 334
  15. Briggs, p. 548
  16. "Mary Whitehouse" Archived 21 January 2019 at the Wayback Machine, The Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2001; and Anthony, Andrew. "Ban this Filth" Archived 21 March 2019 at the Wayback Machine, The Observer, 11 November 2012
  17. Fletcher, Martin. "Ban this Filth" Archived 21 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine, The Independent, 10 November 2012
  18. Tracey, Michael. "Greene, Mrs Whitehouse and the BBC", The Observer, 14 August 1983, pp. 21–22 (subscription required)
  19. "The Eduard Rhein Ring of Honor Recipients". Eduard Rhein Foundation. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 5 February 2011.

Further reading

  • Briggs, Asa (1995). The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume 5. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-215964-9.

External sources

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