Below is an obituary which appeared in today’s copy of the Times of my beloved partner, Chris Underwood. If you are a subscriber you can also read the article from the Times website here.
Last week the Press Gazette also published an obituary of Chris which you can read in full here.
I hope to resume blogging again next week following Chris’ funeral. In the meantime thank you to everyone who has sent messages- it really has meant a lot during this difficult time.
Chris Underwood made his name as the BBC Radio News Home Affairs Correspondent during the 1970s and 1980s. He reported regularly on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and covered all the main criminal cases of the day including the trials of the serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Denis Nielsen.
Most notably, he contributed to the scoop in which the whereabouts of Sir Anthony Blunt were discovered after he had been unmasked in 1979 as the “fourth man” in the Cambridge spy ring. While interviewing Blunt’s friend Brian Sewell, a BBC radio reporter, Brian Pitts, noticed a telephone number written on the back of Sewell’s hand. He managed to decipher it upside down, memorised it and passed it on to Underwood. Through a police contact, Underwood traced the number to the West London home of the historian Professor James Joll, another friend of Blunt’s. Unfortunately for the BBC’s camera team, as it arrived at the house Blunt managed to scale a 6ft back fence and escape down an alleyway.
Underwood was of the old school and believed that no journalist was worth his salt unless he or she had spent an apprenticeship in a scruffy raincoat standing outside a police station or sniffing for stories and information. He became resentful of the graduates of journalism courses who increasingly populated newsrooms.
Born in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1937, Christopher John Underwood left Hinchley Wood Commercial School at 16 to work as a reporter on the Surrey Herald. He was soon promoted to features writer and sports editor. In 1959 he joined the Exchange Telegraph news agency as a parliamentary and industrial reporter. Three years later he became a features writer on the Daily Herald, the Labour-leaning national. He shared a desk with the playwright Dennis Potter, then the theatre critic. Underwood had developed a sharp eye for detail. He followed John Profumo and his wife to Sandown Park racecourse only hours after the former War Minister had resigned over the Christine Keeler scandal, reporting that he had backed a winner at 10-1.
In 1964 Underwood left the Herald for the Daily Mail as a Special Investigations reporter. Among his assignments was coverage of the Moors murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
He joined BBC news as a general radio news reporter in 1966 and soon began making frequent visits to Northern Ireland to report on the conflict that broke out in the latter part of the decade. He was present at the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in 1972 and with anti-BBC sentiment running high in Republican circles, had to be smuggled out of the Bogside area in the boot of a cameraman’s car. He struck up a warm relationship with Willie Whitelaw in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and subsequently as Home Secretary. The pair would share frequent glasses of whisky together and Underwood would often be granted the first interview. Underwood was promoted to Home Affairs correspondent in 1973. He developed impeccable police contacts, especially in the Met and particularly at Scotland Yard.
A colourful wit and raconteur, Underwood embodied the drinking culture prevalent in journalism at the time. A bottle of whisky was a permanent fixture in his office and he was a regular feature holding court, cigarette in hand, in the various pubs around Broadcasting House. His advice to cub reporters was never to take a drink before 1pm, and on the annual journalists’ jolly to Boulogne never to drink before Herne Hill. He was strong-minded and forthright, unrelenting and sometimes intimidating.
Occasionally drink got him into trouble. He was expelled from the Reform Club for laddish behaviour and on one occasion he gave a frank and pithy rejoinder to the occupant of a maroon-coloured Daimler outside Broadcasting House who had objected to his double-parking beside his car. When the man turned out to be the chairman of the BBC, Sir Michael Swann, a swift and grovelling apology of some literary merit saved his skin.
In 1977 he led a rebellion against the National Union of Journalists over its decision to hold a national strike over what he regarded as a trivial issue at a local radio station. He persuaded many of his colleagues to join the rival Institute of Journalists. When he took early retirement from the BBC in 1989, he became the IOJ’s general-secretary, a post he held for 14 years. Full retirement enabled him to indulge his greatest passion, cricket. He was a member both of the MCC and of Surrey Cricket Club.
He is survived by his first wife Jennifer, his partner Mary Honeyball MEP and by his two children.
Chris Underwood, broadcast journalist and union official, was born on November 22, 1937. He died of emphysema on August 31, 2012, aged 74