Saturday, September 16, 2006

Up Into The Blue, One Last Time ...

As a lad, joined in the living room by my Father, we would sit in front of the family's black & white and watch the (then) annual Farnborough Airshow on the BBC.

We loved the event, the latest technology flying for the appreciation of the general public. The commentators voice would chip in with an air of friendly authority and tinged with that of your favourite uncle, informing the viewers as to the gross weight, speed and overall capabilities of whatever was currently batting around the skies. For years we watched this televisual spectacle which was normally aired on a Sunday afternoon. The voice belonged to Raymond Baxter, the BBC's 'man-in-the-know'. Baxter was also the BBC's 'technology king', presenting 'Tomorrow's World' for 12 years, a television show presenting new and often strange developments in the world of science and technology.

During World War Two, Baxter was a Spitfire pilot, taking part in raids against V1/2 missile sites deep inside occupied Europe. He rose to the rank of Squadron Leader. Following the War, he joined the British Forces Network and reported on the Berlin airlift. Shortly after that, he joined the BBC's Outside Broadcast Unit.

He shone in the field of aviation and technology. He described, with an unprecedented passion, the inaugural flight of Concorde. He also was the first person to broadcast live from an aeroplane, an ocean-liner and a submarine. The Exec Prod of the BBC's events department said of Baxter: "Raymond was without doubt a British television pioneer, whose groundbreaking outside broadcast work for the BBC, beginning in the 1950s, set standards for the industry." Baxter also interviewed Dr Christian Barnard live by telephone from South Africa, one hour after Barnard had completed the world's first heart transplant.

Indeed, groundbreaking stuff back then.

In May 1940 the British and Allied Forces were desperately fighting to stop the German advance through Europe. But Hitler's Armies had swept westwards from Germany through France and the Low Countries, forcing the British & French to retreat. The German spearhead reached the sea and cornered them in the small coastal town of Dunkirk. To the rescue came civilians in small craft, setting out from the south coast of England. Fishing vessels and pleasure cruisers set off to recuse the military personnel who were being bombarded on the beaches.

In 1964, Baxter bought one of the little boats ('L'Orage'). He formed and presided over 'The Association Of Dunkirk Little Ships', where flotilla used on the famous evacuation are restored and rallied for the enjoyment of their owners and the public. It was at one of these events, in the late 70's, where I had the chance to meet him.

I was helping out with a summer-time 'Son et Lumiere' on the banks of the Thames near Henley, where a number of Baxter's Little Ships were taking part in an historical re-enactment. One evening, I was invited to a picnic on one of the boats. I walked along the towpath looking for the right vessel. It was Baxter's. I was welcomed aboard and soon this childhood hero of mine was making sure I had enough to eat and drink.

It is worth noting that Baxter was probably responsible for nurturing my love of aviation. It was the yearly Farnborough Airshow which was the clincher, but this charismatic man and his instantly recognisable voice certainly pushed me on.

He died yesterday, aged 84, on September 15th ... Battle Of Britain Day.

Stu

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