My best teacher

22nd February 2002 at 00:00
Dewar McCormack was head of the English service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Cape Town, where I was PA to the woman who ran their version of Woman's Hour. When my boss suddenly left, he took a huge chance and gave her job to me. At 20, I was thrown in front of the microphone, on a live programme, five days a week.

Until then I had been doing secretarial work, wandering around Europe, but apart from recording a couple of interviews for a teenage radio programme, I'd done no broadcasting. I only had a few weeks to prepare for working on a 45-minute programme, live every day, and not only did I have to present it, I also had to collect the material, do the interviews and edit them. It didn't seem nearly as daunting as it might be to me now.

Dewar was a good-looking man in a craggy, Robert Mitchum sort of way, a part-Irish South African who had travelled around and done a stint broadcasting in New Zealand. Although he was my boss for five years, I always called him Mr McCormack. I was never invited to call him Dewar. He was very bright but, like me, had not had a university education. He had learned everything by doing it. I briefly went to Cape Town University at 16 but decided the academic life was not for me.

Dewar taught me what would now be considered the old-fashioned way of broadcasting: don't rustle your script, don't sniff, don't cough and don't say "Mm, mm" when somebody is answering your questions. He also taught me to do my homework, get all my pronunciations right in advance and to treat the listener with respect. I was very lucky. Colleagues who now come into broadcasting from the world of journalism don't have somebody to sit down and tell them how to do it. They have to find out for themselves, and they sink or swim.

Unlike some bosses, Dewar was a regular broadcaster himself, so he knew what it was like to sit in front of a microphone and try to sound natural and relaxed. He taught me all sorts of tricks about taking deep breaths, treating the microphone as a friend and to think not of millions of people out there listening, but one person. Even so, I remember being terrified when I did my first programme. It took me about six months to be even half relaxed in the studio because I was conscious of him listening to me up on the third floor.

Every day Dewar would give me a critique of how I had performed. He was friendly but stern and you had to get it right. He went on at you until you did. He was rather dour. If there was a lot of larking about, he would stalk the corridors and tell us we weren't here to enjoy ourselves, we were here to work.

I think he hoped I'd stay in South Africa, but I wanted to go back to Europe, where my roots were. I got a contract from the BBC as a current affairs producer but was plucked off that to be a reporter on World at One under Andrew Boyle and William Hardcastle. They were ahead of their time in that they thought women should be among the six young reporters working on the programme (those were the days before women were allowed to read the news).

Dewar was an enormous influence on my career. On the Today programme we broadcast with a lot of people in the studio. When colleagues read newspapers noisily next to me I can feel Dewar McCormack's spirit hovering saying, "Don't do that, it's distracting."

Broadcaster Sue MacGregor was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1941 Born in Oxford

1951-57 Educated at Herschel school, Cape Town, South Africa

1960 Secretary, BBC Light Programme

1962-67 Works at South African Broadcasting Corporation

1967-72 Reporter on World at One, BBCRadio 4

1972-87 Presenter on Woman's Hour

1987-2002 Presents Today

1992 Awarded OBE for services to broadcasting

1998 Radio personality of the year

Currently Visiting professor of journalism, Nottingham Trent University

February 27 Final broadcast on Today

March 4 Autobiography published, Woman of Today (Hodder Headline)

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