JEROME KUEHL 1931-2018

Jerome Kuehl (known universally as Jerry) died on 16 September 2018 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. Jerry was a unique figure who spanned the worlds of academia and television production where he worked on three landmark series The Great War (BBC, 1964), The World at War (Thames Television, 1973-74) and Cold War (Turner Productions, 1998).

Jerry was born in December 1931 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He read History at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he developed an interest in the history of newsreels. In the late 1950s he moved to the UK as a post-graduate at St Anthony’s College, Oxford. While at Oxford he met Jeremy Isaacs, an undergraduate at Merton College.

In 1963 he was asked by historian Corelli Barnett to help research a major production the BBC was preparing for its new channel, BBC2, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War. The 26 part series, The Great War, transmitted first in 1964, pioneered the use of veterans’ testimony added into the mix of archive film, music and commentary.

As a fluent French speaker, Jerry then went on to work for the NBC European Production Unit in Paris where among other things he organised coverage of the 1968 ‘Evenements’. He was still working with NBC in early 1972 when Jeremy Isaacs asked him to take a look at the first four rough cuts of his new series on the Second World War at Thames Television. Jerry viewed the cuts and was disappointed. He wrote a critical memo pointing out the misuse of archive film. He ended his memo with the words: ‘I’m afraid [this] sounds rather sour and carping. I’m sorry about that but I thought it would be more helpful to be critical, rather than make a lot of flattering remarks.’

Isaacs, at least, was impressed and asked Jerry to join the production. He played a variety of different roles over the next three years. He finished production of one episode, Stalingrad, in which he made clear the propagandist nature of some of the Soviet archive footage. He wrote and directed the penultimate episode, Reckoning, in which for the only time in the series he persuaded Isaacs to allow a historian to appear, Stephen Ambrose, who summed up the broader consequences of the war.

However, mostly Jerry acted as the ‘conscience’ of the production, as a sort of internal quality-control officer, constantly pressing the case for the authentic and accurate use of archive film and of historical sources. Some of the team were infuriated by his criticism and ignored it. Others, used a memo from Jerry as an opportunity to take another look at a sequence to try to improve it.

When the 26 part series The World at War was shown on ITV from October 1973 to April 1974 it created a sensation. The programmes generated immense critical acclaim and attracted big audiences. Thames sold the series to 50 countries around the world. In the US it proved even more popular and won an Emmy and a Peabody award. It has been repeated so many times that for more than forty years it has always been on a television screen somewhere around the world.

In addition, Jerry became the outward face of The World at War. He wrote articles and gave lectures about making the series. He became well known among the film archivists who had supplied material for the programmes. He moved smoothly between the world of television production and the academy. He extended this to write more generally about the role of the television historian, for instance in ‘History on the Public Screen’ in the seminal The Historian and Film (ed. Paul Smith, 1976) and in the first edition of the History Workshop Journal (Vol 1, issue 1, spring 1976). As a bon viveur, Jerry became well known for his fine lunches, his taste for good wine along with his wonderful sense of humour and his wide-ranging knowledge of 20th history and culture.

Jerry extended this in 1981 by joining a consortium to rescue History Today that faced collapse when Longmans decided to abandon the monthly magazine that made historical scholarship available to a wide readership. He remained a director of History Today Ltd for three decades providing a benign oversight without interfering in editing the magazine.

In 1987, Jerry started working with Sebastian Cody, head of production company Open Media, on a radical discussion format for the new Channel 4. The programme, After Dark, consisted of a group of intelligent, well-informed people sitting on sofas discussing the topic of the week. The programmes were transmitted live and, late night, had no fixed closing time. Fascinating discussions ensued on political, economic and cultural subjects. There were 90 episodes over four years. It all seemed very much like a Jerry programme.

Jerry and the ‘Office Cat’ © Vincent Yorke

There were several other aspects to Jerry’s professional life. He was Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In 1991 he produced a 4 part series La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée for France 3. He also wrote The Office Cat, a regular column published in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the IAMHIST Blog, and in the FOCAL magazine that pointed out the terrible abuse of archive film by television producers. And for many years he was a Council member of the organisation that publishes the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, IAMHIST, until 2015.

In the mid 1990s, Jerry was asked again by Jeremy Isaacs to contribute to another major television series, Cold War, a 24 part series produced for Turner Broadcasting. Jerry eagerly took up his role of quality control officer once more but it was a sign of how production attitudes had changed that by now he was not a lone voice but there were many on the production team, including Isaacs and series producer Martin Smith, who argued equally strongly for the accurate use of all evidence, film and other documentary sources, throughout the series.

I have a personal debt to Jerry because in the aftermath of The World at War, I was a post-graduate at Bristol university. I had read history as an undergraduate at Cambridge and was then studying film wondering how on earth I could combine these two interests. Then, one Friday afternoon, Jerry came to give a lecture about the making of The World at War and the penny dropped. Inspired by Jerry, a year after leaving Bristol I managed to get a job at Thames Television in the unit that made historical documentaries. For me, the rest was Television History.

In 1976 Jerry married Adele, a psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. Their marriage was very happy and over the decades has included sharing time in houses in southern France and in Puglia, Italy.

In 1985, Jerry suffered a heart attack and had his first bypass operation, aged 54. For the rest of his life he would suffer from a series of severe cardiac ‘adventures’ as he called them and over recent years was in and out of hospital so regularly that he became close friends with his cardiologists. Throughout the thirty years of treatment despite the enforced slowing down of his irrepressible life style, Jerry remained staunchly positive, cheerful and always entertaining.

Jerry urged television historians to think critically about their work and the sources they used. He openly criticised producers who failed in this. He argued that television history should be taken seriously by historians and the wider public. He was a familiar figure in the debate about history on television and was a friend, guide and inspiration to many.


Taylor Downing

taylordowning@flashbacktv.co.uk

www.taylordowning.com

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2 Comments

  1. How good to read about Jerry, who I knew for nearly 40 years. However I would not be Jerry’s friend if I did not correct a couple of small points.

    My company Open Media (of which Jerry was a director until his death) was indeed responsible, among other shows, for the television series After Dark. And we did indeed make 90 episodes of this programme. However – as the useful list on Wikipedia shows – 78 episodes were made in the first four years; the rest only emerged sporadically over the next twelve years.

    As to After Dark guests being “intelligent” and “well-informed” I am not sure even they would all make that claim (there were other programmes on Channel 4 in the 1980s where intelligence was a necessary condition for participation, for example those produced by our friend Udi Eichler). Our criterion was rather that all the guests had some personal experience of the topic under consideration, which is not quite the same thing.

    Over the years After Dark welcomed more than six hundred individual guests, from homeless drug addicts and illegal immigrants, to terrorists and reclusive billionaires. Jerry once crafted a job description for potential staff working on the programme. It required, he wrote, “considerable experience of current affairs television, versatility, good humour and, above all, sympathy with and knowledge of many different viewpoints and people, not all of them sympathetic.” Jerry was of course describing himself.

  2. I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to Jerry. A real shame we only met in 2017. Despite his great age, he helped me a lot during the final stages of post production on my documentary film, Lady Lovely Lute. I had hit a bit of a stumbling block but with his support and insightful criticism of the edit, I was able to make progress which eventually led to the completion of the film. I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the misuse of archive film through reading excerpts of The Office Cat. There are many fond memories of Jerry, but nothing beats his irreverent wit.

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