Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, KCMG, OBE

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Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, KCMG, OBE

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England
Death: February 19, 1987 (76)
Westminster, London, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Charles Henry Greene and Marion Raymond Greene
Brother of Graham Greene; Herbert Greene; Raymond Greene; Molly Greene; Elizabeth Greene and 2 others

Occupation: Director-General of the BBC
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, KCMG, OBE

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene KCMG, OBE (15 November 1910 – 19 February 1987) was a British journalist and television executive. He was the Director-General of the BBC from 1960―1969, and is generally credited with modernising an organisation that had fallen behind in the wake of the launch of ITV in 1955.

Early life and work

Hugh was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, one of the four sons and two daughters of Charles Henry Greene, the then Headmaster of Berkhamsted School. He was the brother of the famous writer Graham Greene and Raymond Greene, a distinguished physician and Everest mountaineer. (The eldest brother, Herbert Greene, was a relatively little-known poet recruited in 1933 as a Japanese spy and now perhaps best remembered for leading a march at BBC Broadcasting House in protest against one of his brother's actions as Director-General.)

After education at Berkhamsted School and Merton College, Oxford, Greene came to prominence as a journalist in 1934 when he became the chief correspondent in Nazi Berlin for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. He and several other British journalists were expelled from Berlin as an act of reprisal for the removal of a Nazi propagandist in England. Greene, however, went on to report from Warsaw on the opening events of the Second World War and continued to follow its progress through the early stages. He served briefly with the Royal Air Force in 1940 as an interrogator, but was encouraged by the military authorities to join the BBC later that year.

Wartime and post-war work

Greene entered the BBC as head of the German Service at the age of 29. He made significant improvements to their transmissions following a risky flight in a De Havilland Mosquito aircraft over occupied Norway to study the effects of Nazi radio jamming. He also presented news and discussion programmes and became fairly well known in Europe for this role. From 1941, Greene also helped to smooth the relationship between the BBC and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) whose goals were somewhat at odds (the BBC strove for accurate, unbiased journalism whereas the PWE was largely concerned with propaganda).

Following the war, Greene helped with the rebuilding of German broadcasting infrastructure in the British Occupied Zone. As the Cold War got underway, he was given the task of leading the BBC's East European service and later produced propaganda for the British Army in Malaya during the Communist uprising of 1947 (see History of Malaysia).

Greene returned to the BBC in the 1950s where his reputation and ability caught the attention of Director-General Sir Ian Jacob. (It was probably during this period that he began using his middle name, Carleton, presumably to distinguish him from the popular ITV presenter Hughie Green.) He started as Director of Administration but in 1958 he swapped jobs with the unpopular Tahu Hole to become Director of News and Current Affairs. He succeeded Jacob as Director-General two years later in 1960. Mere days after his promotion, Greene made arrangements for Hole to receive a golden handshake to persuade him into early retirement. Indeed, according to one of his biographers, Greene thought one of his greatest contributions to broadcasting was the restoration of order to Hole's austere news department, which had come to be known as the Kremlin of the BBC. It later materialised that Hole had leaked a secret BBC document to the competing Independent Television Authority (ITA) in which concerns were voiced about the financial interests of newspapers in ITV companies. Greene learned of the leak from a displeased Ivone Kirkpatrick, then chairman of the ITA. (Kirkpatrick had previously been a member of the Political War Executive, Head of the BBC's wartime European Services and High Commissioner of the British Occupied Zone in Germany and had worked with Greene many times before.) The leak would have led to Hole's immediate dismissal but actually it was only detected shortly after his retirement.

Director-General of the BBCGreene kept the BBC in pace with the major social changes in Britain in the 1960s, and through such series as Steptoe and Son, Z-Cars and That Was The Week That Was, the BBC moved away from the ethos of Reithian middle-class values and deference to traditional authority and power. Controversial, socially concerned dramas such as Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home were broadcast as part of The Wednesday Play strand, which also gave Dennis Potter his breakthrough as a dramatist with, among other works, the "Nigel Barton" plays. Directly though, Greene is thought to have directly suggested only two programmes, the imported American series Perry Mason and Songs of Praise which began in 1961.

The tone of BBC radio overall changed less radically in the Hugh Greene era than that of BBC television, with full reforms of the networks not coming until 1970 (by which time Sir Charles Curran was Director-General). However it was in 1967, under Greene's directorship, that the corporation embraced pop radio for the first time with Radio 1, taking most of its DJs and music policy from offshore radio (on the notorious pirate ships), which had just been banned by the government. Hugh Greene also strongly resisted pressure from the 'clean-up TV' campaigner Mary Whitehouse, a policy not always followed by future directors-general.

Greene's undoing followed the appointment of the former Conservative minister Lord Hill as chairman of the BBC governors from September 1, 1967, by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had criticised Hill's appointment as chairman of the Independent Television Authority by a Conservative government in 1963. A more cautious and conservative atmosphere then took hold in the corporation, typified by the axing (until 1972) of Till Death Us Do Part, one of the series most despised by Mary Whitehouse, but conversely one of its most popular in the ratings. In July 1968 the BBC issued the document Broadcasting In The Public Mood without Greene's significant involvement, seeming to question the continued broadcasting of the more provocative and controversial material (one of Greene's allies at the top level of the corporation described this document as "emasculated and philistine") and in October 1968 Greene announced that he would be retiring as Director-General. He was succeeded the next year by the more conservative Sir Charles Curran. This move was welcomed by a great many MPs, Governors of the BBC, Churchmen and Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association, as Greene was regarded, by the conservative minded, as a man of low moral fibre and as the person responsible for the increasing volume of sex and violence on television.

Echoes of the removal of Hugh Greene could be heard in the departure in 2004 of Director-General Greg Dyke in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry.

Other roles

Hugh Greene then became one of the BBC governors, a position he held until 1971. He has remained a divisive figure in what have been called the British "culture wars" (after the American term for the liberal-conservative divide in US society); he has frequently been attacked by those of a conservative bent, especially the writer Peter Hitchens, for his part in the erosion of, what they see as, a better Britain. But he has been praised by some of liberal and Leftish leanings for opening up an, as they claim, ossifying institution, and creating a more tolerant and open-minded society. The fact remains that one's opinion of Sir Hugh Carleton Greene can depend entirely on one's opinion of the social changes—less deference to traditional authority and the traditional establishment—that are most frequently associated with the 1960s. Sir Hugh Greene's influence on British society—both on those who approve of what he stood for and on those who despise it—remains, as does the influence of those social changes more generally. Recently, in the wake of the Hutton Report, there has been some further debate about the relationship between the government, the Establishment and the BBC.

In 1985 he received the Eduard Rhein Ring of Honor from the German Eduard Rhein Foundation.[3]

Beyond his broadcasting and journalistic work, Greene was also known for his appreciation of beer and eventually became a director of the Greene King Brewery, originally established by his great-grandfather, Benjamin Greene, in 1799. He also once bested his famous brother Graham in a writing contest to parody the novelist's writing style in the New Statesman.

Personal life

Sir Hugh Greene was knighted in 1964. He was married four times: to Helga Guinness, Elaine Shaplen, Tatjana Sais and Sarah Grahame. He had two sons by each of the first two marriages.

He died in Westminster, London, of cancer aged 76.

Portrayals in popular culture

In 2008 the role of Greene was played by the actor Hugh Bonneville in the BBC drama Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story. The play focused on Greene's war with Whitehouse (played by Julie Walters) and latterly with Lord Hill (played by Ron Cook) in the period while he was BBC Director General in the 1960s. The script, and Bonneville's performance, brought out many of the character's personal eccentricities, as well as his firm - and confessedly lustful - principles in withstanding calls for censorship.


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 (1971)

Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)

The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973)

The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1979),40460

Greene, Sir Hugh Carleton (1910–1987), journalist and broadcaster, was born on 15 November 1910 at St John's, Chesham Road, Berkhamsted, the youngest of four sons and the fifth among the six children of Charles Henry Greene, headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and his wife, Marion Raymond (a cousin), the daughter of the Revd Carleton Greene, vicar of Great Barford. The novelist Graham Greene was his brother. He was educated at Berkhamsted School and at Merton College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in both classical moderations (1931) and English (1933).

Early career

Having spent some time in Germany before entering Merton, Greene returned there on leaving Oxford in 1933. From working as a stringer for the Daily Herald and the New Statesman in Munich, he joined the Berlin office of the Daily Telegraph, becoming its chief correspondent in 1938. However, he was expelled from Germany in May 1939 in reprisal for the expulsion from London of a German correspondent. The rise of the Nazis, witnessed at first hand, 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. The experience confirmed him in his career as a journalist. He was to say in 1969 that he had never considered himself an ex-journalist at any time after.

Greene's next posting, to Warsaw, was short-lived. Within a week of the German invasion, on 1 September 1939, he was forced to leave Poland. Equipped only with a bottle of beer and a gas mask, he travelled first to Romania, but, as the war spread, moved on to report from a number of other European countries. He finally returned to Britain in June 1940, escaping from Brussels and then Paris just ahead of the German army.

At the BBC

After a brief spell in the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer in intelligence, a series of delicate negotiations secured Greene's release to join the German service of the British Broadcasting Corporation in October 1940. For its commitment to impartial and accurate reporting and its avoidance of propaganda, the service, of which Greene became the news editor, was known as ‘white’ in contrast to the non-BBC service of ‘black’ programmes. Dedicated to undermining the faith of German listeners in their own domestic broadcasts, the latter proclaimed its motto as ‘Never lie accidentally, only deliberately.’

At considerable personal danger, and with hardly less physical discomfort for his large frame, Greene was flown to Sweden in 1942 to discover how badly intensive jamming by the Germans was affecting reception of the BBC's programmes. He reported on his return that, provided the broadcaster's speech was kept clear, measured, and simple, the results were not discouraging. While some of the changes he introduced on his return, including an increase in news broadcasts and a reduction in feature programmes, may have reflected a personal preference, they greatly increased the impact of the BBC's output on German audiences. Eventually those audiences numbered many million, many of whom regularly endangered their lives to listen.

The BBC's commitment to the pursuit of truth in wartime was to serve as a model in the reconstruction of German broadcasting when the war was over. Seconded as controller of broadcasting in the British zone of Germany from 1946 to 1948, Greene himself made an important personal contribution to the rebuilding process. He imbued a spirit of independence in his staff and, characteristically, tried to limit party-political interference in appointments, but in that, less characteristically, he was not entirely successful.

Following his return to Britain in 1948, Greene was appointed head of the BBC's eastern European service. Two years later he was seconded again: to the Colonial Office and the emergency information service in Malaya. There he oversaw the conduct of psychological warfare against the communist insurgents. Two senior appointments in external broadcasting followed: the first in 1952, as assistant controller, overseas services, and then, in 1955, as controller. Appointed to be director of administration in 1956, he was temporarily distanced from a direct involvement with programmes. However, it was recognized that Sir Ian Jacob, then director-general, was now identifying Greene as his successor.

Director, news and current affairs

After another two years, as an even clearer signal of preferment, Greene was appointed director, news and current affairs. It was a new post, created, in the BBC's own words, ‘to secure overall co-ordination and editorial direction of topical output’ in both radio and television. More directly, its purpose was to close the deep rift which existed between a highly conservative news division, which regarded the new medium as little more than an appendix to sound radio, and a television service eager to explore in news the full range of possibilities it was developing in other kinds of output. Greene came almost immediately into conflict with Tahu Hole, head of the news division. The two men differed profoundly in temperament and in their attitudes to broadcast journalism. Since the launch of Independent Television News in 1955, the BBC had been competing unsuccessfully in both innovation and audience numbers. Inside the BBC, Greene was not alone in attributing the poor performance of BBC television news to Hole's leadership. To resolve the hostility between the two men, Jacob accepted Greene's suggestion that Hole should be transferred into the now vacant post of director of administration, a prelude to his early retirement from the BBC on Greene's promotion as director-general in 1960.

Soon after taking over as director of news and current affairs, Greene instituted a review by three senior television programme makers of the shortcomings of BBC television news and of how it might be transformed into a service worthy of the BBC's traditions. Two of the three belonged to the television talks department, which, from beyond the reach of Hole's news division, had established an independent reputation for its treatment of current affairs, including levels of political discussion news division had not achieved. The group made a series of radical criticisms, and their report found a receptive response. Although Greene considered the criticisms more valuable than the proposed remedies, the report led to profound changes in both management structures and style—fresh evidence of the dynamism of Greene's attitude towards programme making.


Formal confirmation of Greene's appointment as Jacob's successor in 1960 was received with general delight among the corporation's staff. Particular pleasure was felt at the appointment of a director-general, the first in the BBC's history, who had made his career very largely within the corporation. To programme makers Greene's transformation of news and current affairs in both television and radio had clearly demonstrated his belief in them as the BBC's foremost asset. Jacob, as a long-serving military man, had been said to treat them as if they were junior officers to be assigned the duties devised by their superiors.

On taking office Greene abolished the post of director of news and current affairs, retaining for himself the functions of editor-in-chief. He remained a working journalist capable, when the need arose, of dealing expeditiously with those editorial issues that were referred to him. To do so, however, meant keeping closely in touch, as his instinct already was, with the thinking of producers and editors, for whose ideas he retained a ready ear and much imaginative sympathy.

Greene's appointment was rapidly followed by the creation of a committee of inquiry into broadcasting, chaired by W. H. Pilkington. Greene's approach to the committee was combative, reflecting techniques learned in psychological warfare during and after the Second World War. Objectives once defined were frequently restated, enemies rattled, and friends rallied. A ‘black book’ recording the interests outside television of the commercial franchise holders was intended to show that they had loyalties conflicting with their public service obligations. In a report which came embarrassingly close to overpraising the BBC, the Pilkington committee recommended that the BBC should be given a second television channel and an opportunity to develop local radio stations. For its part, Independent Television was rewarded with swingeing criticisms of undemanding programme standards and a call for a more forceful assertion of its responsibilities by its regulator, the Independents Television Authority.

Developments in television

During the two years taken by the Pilkington committee to complete its report, the BBC's hand had been greatly strengthened by an upturn in the fortunes of its television service. Greene had inherited a situation in which BBC programmes were viewed by barely 25 per cent of all viewers (a fact which weakened the effect among some politicians of the committee's strictures on Independent Television). Shortly after the report was published, however, the BBC could point, for the first time since 1955, to a quarter in which it had a majority of the audience. Its revitalized television schedules had wide popular appeal. A variety of light entertainment and drama series, documentaries, and current affairs programmes attracted audiences from across the whole of society. Many of the single plays were written by contemporary writers and, while dismissed as ‘kitchen-sink drama’ by their critics, often dealt with characters and themes neglected in the commercial theatre. A sure-footedness, owing much to Greene's support, was discernible almost everywhere in the output, not least in areas where Independent Television had been expected to dominate. In a benign economic climate, with a less deferential mood among the generation then reaching maturity, and, at least until the mid-1960s, a tolerant government, the challenges Greene encouraged to many of the orthodoxies of British society could count on favourable responses.

Inevitably, however, the new spirit which Greene had set at large within the BBC met opposition, especially, but not exclusively, over television programmes. Strong language in comedies, supposedly overexplicit portrayals of sexual activity in single plays, the undermining of authority figures in Z Cars, a long-running series about northern policemen, and ridicule directed at politicians and the church all stirred up intense controversies, short-lived in themselves, but contributing, despite the praise which the same programmes drew from other sections of the audience, to a persistent current of unease about the direction in which its director-general might be leading the BBC.

However, despite differences with some members of the board and influential critics outside the BBC, Greene maintained a strong defence of the corporation's duty to deal responsibly, but vigorously, with major issues in society. He held that provocation could be socially imperative, though outrage was not. By the time he resigned as director-general in 1969, after twenty-nine years of serving the BBC, he was acknowledged by both admirers and critics to have been the most influential director-general since John Reith a generation earlier. For his admirers, he was the champion of liberal values and a great liberator of talent. He himself wished to be remembered as the man who had turned down the central heating at the BBC and opened the windows. For his critics, not all politically on the right, he had been one of the principal agents in what they regarded as the widespread destruction of traditional values throughout the 1960s.


In 1967 Lord Hill, then chairman of the Independent Television Authority, was appointed chairman of the BBC. In those days of still aggressive competition between the two sets of broadcasters, his transfer was compared in the BBC to the appointment of the German general Rommel to the command of Britain's Eighth Army at the height of the desert war. Greene himself felt affronted, believing, rightly or wrongly, that the appointment was intended as a warning shot across the BBC's bows. As a result, he never settled into an easy relationship with his new chairman. In 1968 Greene, facing his second divorce, proposed that, after more than eight years in office, it was time for him to move on. To make clear that the board had not forced the director-general's hand, Hill suggested that, after a short break, Greene should become a governor. The offer was accepted, and Greene left office on 31 March 1969, flattered at the honour of becoming the first member of staff to reach the board.

His short period as a governor was personally unsatisfactory. Although the tensions in his relationship with the chairman had eased during his final months on the staff, he was conscious of his waning influence in a BBC that was changing as society changed and of a growing awareness that his presence inevitably complicated the life of his successor. Before two more years had passed he had left the board.

In retirement Greene made some programmes for the BBC and for Independent Television, the latter arousing criticism from some BBC contemporaries opposed to the idea of so senior a BBC figure working for its competitors. He wrote several books on the rivals of Sherlock Holmes and became chairman of Bodley Head, the publishing house of his brother Graham Greene. Recognizing the totalitarian character of the colonels' regime in Greece, he became active in the opposition being organized against it.

Honours and assessment

Greene was appointed OBE in 1950 and KCMG in 1964. He was given an honorary DCL by East Anglia (1969) and a DUniv by York (1973). In 1973 he also received a DUniv from the Open University, in whose establishment he had played a considerable part, despite opposition among some BBC staff who feared that educational interests might exercise an undue influence on programmes. Germany honoured him with the grand cross of the Order of Merit (1977).

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Greene resembled his predecessor Lord Reith, but there, with the exception of a mutual commitment to the BBC's independence and the licence fee as the means of securing it, resemblance ended. Reith was an upholder of the establishment, frustrated that, after leaving the BBC, the establishment had not taken him at his own valuation. Greene, however, was anti-establishment. He could be cavalier towards critics, sometimes displaying an impatience which lacked his usual political acuity. A strong element of mischief in his make-up encouraged him to mock the pompous and the pretentious. It was a characteristic which his features could sometimes give away. Ruskin Spear caught the mood so triumphantly in his official portrait of Greene that, on its unveiling in the council chamber in Broadcasting House, the painting drew a gasp of delighted recognition. When necessary, he could be incisive to the point of ruthlessness. An aloof personality, attributed by some to shyness, brought him few close friends and may partly explain the failure of his first two marriages. His first wife (whom he married on 24 October 1934) was Helga Mary (b. 1916), the daughter of Samuel Guinness, a banker, of London. They had two sons, but were divorced in 1948. Three years later, on 24 September 1951, he married Elaine Shaplen (b. 1920), the daughter of Louis Gilbert, an accountant, of New York, and the former wife of Robert Shaplen. Two more sons were born, but the marriage was ended in 1969. On 11 May 1970 Greene married Else Neumann (1910–1981) (the German actress Tatjana Sais, with whom he had lived in the late 1940s), the daughter of Martin Hofler of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. She died in 1981, and on 19 December 1984 he married Sarah Mary Manning Grahame (b. 1941), a script supervisor and the daughter of David Grahame, a concert manager of Brisbane, Australia. Greene, who should not be confused with his near-contemporary, the entertainer Hugh Hughes (Hughie) Green, died from cancer in the King Edward VII Hospital, London, on 19 February 1987.

Colin Shaw

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Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, KCMG, OBE's Timeline

November 15, 1910
Hertfordshire, England
February 19, 1987
Age 76
London, England