Chris Drake, who has died aged 77, was an exemplar of an endangered species in British national broadcasting: the reporter. As the era loomed in which everyone would become a specialist or an editor, Chris distinguished himself at BBC News, at home and abroad, as a newsman with a fast and coherent way of transmitting a story, skilled not just in delivery and content but in the transmission itself – he was a technical wizard.
He joined the BBC in the late 1960s and was soon making his name on such programmes as The World at One: he interviewed Paul McCartney, who wished the world to know that he was not, as had been reported, dead; and he was part of the reporting team in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the Troubles, for instance getting on tape a Parachute Regiment officer giving the reasoning, such as it was then, for Bloody Sunday.
It was in Belfast that Chris revealed his technical knowhow, rigging a local studio so that the new audio cassettes could be fed directly to Broadcasting House in London. A Walkman was a much handier device for skipping around the hazardous estates and streets of Belfast and Derry than the cumbersome reel-to-reel machines favoured by the BBC and laughingly termed “miniature recording devices”.
In the early 1970s Chris was posted to New York, where he quickly became immersed in Watergate’s complexities, with the chief Washington correspondent, Charles Wheeler. Both men were at the 1972 Republican national convention in Miami, when Chris snaffled a guide to the next day’s ceremonies, President Richard Nixon’s address to the throng, a script complete with pauses for standing ovations, which was duly broadcast by the BBC despite Republican officials’ best physical efforts to recapture it in a chase round the press room.
So far, the good-looking and witty young Chris had cut a dash, in London and the US, with his skills, his predilection for fast cars and a glamorous young woman never far away – but in 1975 he was posted to Beirut, just as the city was consumed by civil war and divided into a series of fortified warring districts. The glamour quickly evaporated.
Across these hazardous streets Chris made his way daily, reporting the bewildering rivalries, fighting, shelling and massacres back to Britain, but also, via the World Service, back to the baffled and beleaguered expatriates in Lebanon, often enabling them to know what and where might be safe when. For this last service alone, Chris was appointed MBE in 1977 on the advice of the British ambassador.
Even Beirut, though, had its lighter moments, and the famed Commodore hotel, refuge for visiting newsmen (memorialised so acutely by the Doonesbury comic strip in the early 80s), was home to Chris’s pet African grey parrot, Coco, which sat unperturbed in his cage by the bar doing its renditions of the Marseillaise and Beethoven’s Fifth. Coco also did “Incoming”, which sent unwary visitors diving for the floor as Coco’s descending shells whistled in.
It was Chris’s technological fixations that nearly got us both killed. One afternoon in 1975, Chris took me to his apartment block in West Beirut. The street, we found out later, was being “looked after” by PLO guerrillas. One of them, with the inevitable Kalashnikov, stopped us at the lobby and through the concierge told us that there was an illegal broadcasting station in the building. “No, no, impossible,” said Chris. “I’ll show you …” When we entered his apartment, there, in the spare room, was a compendium of tape decks, microphones, sound systems, flashing lights, faders and headphones. If ever anything looked like a makeshift radio station, this was it. I thought matters would not end well. Chris somehow talked us out of it. He was good at that sort of thing.
In 1977 he was made BBC TV Middle East correspondent and settled in Nicosia, but his Beirut days were by no means over. In 1984 he bravely crossed to a Beirut again consumed by civil strife to rescue Lynn Butt, the stranded wife of the new BBC radio correspondent, Gerald Butt, and their two small children. They were taken by RAF helicopter to the British base in Cyprus.
The son of Miriam (nee Knill) and Peter Mylverton Drake, Chris started at 18, straight from school in his native Exeter, as a reporter on the North Devon Journal Herald, in Barnstaple. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a reporter on the Daily Express and then an executive answerable to Lord Beaverbrook himself (the Express was a considerable organ in those days), Chris became a reporter on the Daily Mirror, the other popular daily that was such a dream in the provincial journalist’s heart. He joined the BBC news team in the 60s under the go-ahead former Fleet Street editor Peter Woon, who was looking to put edge into BBC coverage by bringing in recruits from his old manor.
Chris left the BBC in the early 80s to set up in Nicosia a business servicing visiting journalists, Memo, which became one of the main bases of Middle East reporting when kidnapping had forced most westerners out of Beirut. It was a success, housing the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Swedish and Danish Radio, the camera crews of Newsforce and many newspapers. Chris’s skills as a news manager, supplying equipment, research documents, broadcast facilities and staff, were flawless. But in the early 1990s the circus left town. Peace had come to Beirut, and after the Oslo accords of 1993, Jerusalem and to a lesser extent Cairo became the Middle East news bazaars.
Chris eventually retreated to Kolossi, a suburb of Limassol, where he tinkered with his boat and lived alone in a small flat. He had been on the surface gregarious, chatty and likable, never pompous, like so many at the top of his trade. But there was something of the loner about him. At social gatherings he would not so much leave as evanesce. In Limassol he seemed in the late 90s to cut himself off from his old world. Or, maybe, life by the shore was the perfect antidote to a hectic career.
He is survived by his nieces, Louise and Zoe.
• Christopher Hallam Mylverton Drake, broadcaster, born 29 April 1942; died 28 August 2019