I must have been 11 or 12 when I first came across Brian Cleeve. During the 1960s he was a familiar face on Telefís Éireann, Ireland's national television station. His programme, Discovery, came on just after tea. 

Every week Brian would explore some facet of Irish life, such as Dublin Airport, fish-farming, or a major waterway like the River Shannon. Occasionally he would delve into more serious issues, like the plight of Ireland’s Travellers (or Itinerants as they were known then). But mostly Discovery was uncontroversial television broadcast between the early evening news and the latest hit show from America.

Brian’s work on Discovery was recognised in December 1964 when he received a Jacob’s Television Award for his scripts and narration.

In 1966, two years after Discovery was launched, Brian was dropped from the programme. The news hit the papers, but like many causes célèbres, the story vanished after a few days. Years later I looked into the affair that caused so much trouble to Brian at the time. I wrote about it in Faithful Servant: A memoir of Brian Cleeve, from which this edited extract is taken.

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On Tuesday 11 January 1966 the Evening Press featured a photo of Brian on its front page under the headline ‘Voice wrong Telefís Éireann tells Brian Cleeve’. The article stated that Brian had been dropped as narrator on Discovery ‘because his voice is not considered suitable for broadcasting’.[1] In the course of an interview with the paper, Brian revealed that he had been told by a colleague that his accent was ‘similar to that of the ascendancy class’. This was a reference to the ruling British class prior to Irish independence. 

When Brian told his wife Veronica that he had lost his job, she was furious. Unbeknownst to him, she phoned the Evening Press, Brian’s former employer, and told a reporter what had happened. As far as she was concerned, Telefís Éireann was not going to shaft her husband without a fight!

On the day after the Evening Press broke the story, The Irish Times threw its weight behind Brian’s case when it thundered “Is it not now permissible to speak like Erskine Childers? And I mean the father of our present minister. Or to speak as Parnell spoke?”[2] That evening the Press kept the story alive by featuring a vox pop on its front page. Representatives from across the social spectrum voiced their support for Brian. An Irish nobleman, a docker, a dentistry student and a publican expressed unanimous disapproval of Telefís Éireann’s decision. Ann McKevitt, a sales assistant, summed up what seemed to be a popular view: 

Why spend money on elocution lessons if correct delivery of speech is to become a national crime? I’m not in the modern context a fan of Brian Cleeve but I do delight in listening to him. For me he projects the image of the cultured Irishman. This is something we need if we are to correct the stage Irish conception of our men and women abroad.[3]

If that were not enough the Press devoted its letters page to the controversy with ‘Disgusted Parent’ of Mount Merrion and ‘Cleeve Fan’ from Drumcondra adding their voices to the seeming hordes of viewers aghast at Brian’s dismissal. 

By Thursday it was all over. The Evening Press reported the latest developments under the headline, “Brian Cleeve is back in favour”. It seemed that Telefís Éireann was surprised by the media campaign on Brian’s behalf and issued a statement designed to clarify its position. If anything, it increased the confusion.

The decision (to drop Brian as narrator) was taken on purely technical grounds as it was considered that Brian Cleeve’s voice was too light in tone for off-camera narration, and Telefís Éireann is satisfied that it can find a stronger and more satisfactory voice for such narration.

Telefís Éireann wishes it to be known that it is completely satisfied with Brian Cleeve’s appearance on screen and interviewing technique, and has every intention to continue to use him on screen but not as an off-screen narrator.[4] 

Next day, the TV critic of the Irish Press, Tom O’Dea, reflected the general feeling of bemusement in the wake of this statement:

…it seems decidedly odd that Mr. Cleeve should have been allowed to do the narration on Discovery for a year and a half before it was realised that his voice was “too light in tone for off-camera narration”. In that year and a half, Mr. Cleeve has spoken tens of thousands of words – all of them written and delivered by him under contract. Before that, ever since he first appeared on Broadsheet on the day after the station went on air, he had spoken hundreds of thousands of words, as interviewer, commentator, or narrator on several other programmes, both on TV and radio. Presumably his voice is no lighter in tone now than it was when he was put under contract for the Discovery series.[5] 

Anyone who continued to follow this story after all the fuss had died down would have realised that the decision to drop Brian had nothing to do with his accent, or with his lightness of tone. Within two months, he was delivering voiceover narration on Discovery once again. Not long after Brian’s association with the programme ended later that year, two Englishmen, Bruce Arnold and Michael Viney, took over as presenters. Each of them spoke with a distinctive middle class English accent. So what really lay behind this utterly bizarre episode?

It is true that the sound of Brian’s voice was not universally liked by his colleagues. One man made a point of telling Brian from time to time that his voice made him ill. A producer with whom Brian worked later described his vocal delivery as ‘saccharine’. Perhaps these comments masked deeper-seated resentments towards Brian among certain of his colleagues. 

In its early days, Telefís Éireann was a deeply political organisation. The capacity of television to influence Irish life and culture had been well sign-posted in the opening-night speeches when the station was launched. Conservative Catholic organisations like the Knights of Columbanus and Opus Dei were trying to exert their own influence internally and it was rumoured that some Telefís Éireann personnel were among their members. There was also a ‘Gaelic’ faction within the station whose aim was to promote a pure form of the Irish language, and who castigated anyone who fell short of their ideals. Then there were the radicals committed to social and political change and who saw television as the perfect instrument to bring about the kind of Ireland they wanted. 

Perhaps Brian fell foul of one or other of these cliques and had to be got rid of? We will probably never know the truth. What we do know is that the reasons given at the time for Brian’s dismissal were completely bogus. 

Only for his doughty wife, Veronica, Brian’s dismissal might have passed under the national radar and not been rescinded. Thanks to the publicity her intervention garnered, Telefís Éireann backed down and he got his job back.

[1] Evening Press, 11 Jan. 1966.

[2] Irish Times, 12 Jan. 1966 (Charles Stewart Parnell and Erskine Childers were Irish political leaders who supported Nationalism, even though they both came from a Protestant background.)

[3] Evening Press, 12 Jan. 1966.

[4] Ibid., 13 Jan. 1966

[5] Irish Press, 14 Jan. 1966