For me, 1956 was a year of contrasts. I was 30 and no longer the BBC’s youngest producer. I had stopped directing television programmes such as Dixon of Dock Green and Come Dancing and had become responsible for radio’s popular music output, timed nicely to prepare the way for the Beatles and Rolling Stones and giving me an excuse to produce a weekly Jazz Club broadcast. My wife and our small son were happy in our new house. Then the telegram arrived.
Egypt was threatening to nationalise the Suez Canal, arousing the patriotic ire of the prime minister, Anthony Eden. Nine years after being released from military service, I was being recalled as a reservist captain of a press communications team of Royal Signals. I had three days to buy some tropical gear and say goodbye to my family.
The long, hot summer was spent in a camp near the racing stables at Ogbourne St George, listening to reports of the ebb and flow of political posturing. Our mobile radio station, vehicles and equipment had departed on a mysterious Movement Order before we had time to discover whether any of them worked.
Lorry ferries on Irish Sea routes of the time were ex-navy landing ships. One of them, had, like me, been press-ganged into service and had spent the summer in the Grand Harbour of Malta (our vehicles baking in its hold). I joined it one autumn evening. The next morning we were sailing eastward at a snail’s pace in an armada stretching to the horizon. The temperature rarely dipped below 90 deg F, even at night. The BBC World Service was reporting widespread opposition to military action - and ministerial condemnation of the corporation for reporting it.
Sweating with me in the tiny ward-room were two infantry officers. Their theme was, “Why all this discussion? We need to teach the wogs a lesson. Let’s get on with it.” I suggested that it was patently a matter for the UN, and that intervention might be counter-productive and cause the canal to be blocked (it was), but their mindset was still in the imperial era. Seventy-four years earlier, our government had misguidedly sent troops to forestall the loss of British control of the Suez Canal, although as now, its users were unconcerned (and unconsulted).
We anchored off Port Said, and on Guy Fawkes night RAF jets blasted the town with a different kind of fireworks - rockets. Crouching in the darkness as the landing ramp swung down and the commandos swarmed on to the beach ahead of us, I was struck by the contrast with my showbiz life, coping with temperamental celebrities. A hail of bullets clattered around us, answered by tracers arcing back up to the snipers atop the many roofs.
My orders were to report to the Suez Canal Company office, but my Jeep came under fire. Seeking cover fast, I smashed my front teeth. I doubt that any vehicle had entered the ornate gates of our destination faster!
Unsurprisingly, our long-range transmitter was unserviceable. By the end of the second world war, several war correspondents had achieved legendary status for their bravery as well as their reporting, and they all seemed to be there. I was besieged by these daunting characters, each demanding a table and a typewriter - which we could give them - and communication with London and Washington, which we could not. I contrived a tempoolution involving me flying a “borrowed” aeroplane to a cable office in Cyprus. The less said about that the better.
With a radio link established, I visited one of the battleships offshore, where a naval dentist conjured up my first set of dentures, and I had my first shower in weeks. I was urged to stay for dinner, but one look at the room with its white-coated stewards and gleaming silver sent me, in my filthy battledress, back ashore to my hard-working colleagues and baked beans in a billy can.
Come the inevitable withdrawal, I escaped the rubble and fleas of Port Said to sail home in an almost empty luxury liner, the SS Asturias. The premier stateroom was a suite of generous proportions and as I sat on a terrace with a cold Daiquiri to hand, the danger and discomfort of the previous weeks began to recede.
After 30 years at the BBC, I left and spent the next 13 years creating new-media businesses worldwide. Being chairman of the Cabinet Office Information Industries Council and of an international group of companies impressed no one, but having once known the Beatles gave me star status!
Donald Hugh MacLean was the Army’s press communications unit commander during the Suez crisis, the head of popular music at the BBC and the initiator of “Come Dancing”.
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