Monday, 1 July 2013

Ivor Mills and the British Telecom Tower Logo

Ivor Mills, in his prime

I have been reading about the history of the British Telecom Tower, and this reminds me of one of my favourite anecdotes, of which I have a number, from my time working for British Telecom.  At the beginning of 1984 I joined the about-to-be privatised BT as a junior manager.  My first job was in the 150-strong Corporate Relations Department (CRD), which housed the press office, exhibitions, corporate hospitality and various in-house publications (including the unlovely Telecom Today, inevitably referred to generally as Telecom Toady).  I found myself in CRD Administration, and one of my tasks was to write the minutes for both the weekly departmental meeting of the senior managers, held every Tuesday, and the smaller press cuttings meetings which were held every other weekday.  This began before we were all crammed into the spanking new British Telecom Centre in Newgate Street, and I would walk across from our now-demolished office on the corner of Watling Street and New Change to where the nobs were ensconced in rather more comfy quarters in the also now-demolished 2-12 Gresham Street.

The Tuesday meetings were chaired by the Director of Corporate Relations, a rather bland man who was not often to be seen, but the press cuttings meetings were chaired by his deputy, Ivor Mills, a genial and well-regarded figure in the department.  Ivor, often just referred to as ’DDCR’, had been an ITN newsreader in the 1960s and 70s, and was always ready with an anecdote about his time there, which he clearly looked back on with nostalgia.  I quite enjoyed the press cuttings meetings because I heard a lot of gossip, much of it indiscreet, and it gave me a chance to sit in Ivor’s secretary’s office to write the minutes, which often took quite a time for some reason.

The press office was the hub of the department and was full of characters, a peculiar mixture of old hacks inherited from the Post Office (BT had only emerged as separate entity from the Post Office in 1981) and tired-looking graduates who always seemed fed up, as if they had come badly down in the world.  The former possessed a surfeit of self-esteem while the latter I always felt possessed a deficit, for which they compensated by looking down on anybody who didn’t work in the press office.  The Senior Broadcast Officer once found himself the subject of a story in Private Eye because he had taken a female journalist from a national paper to lunch where, by her account, he had got drunk, complimented her on her “outstanding attributes”, and ordered an extra bottle of wine on his expense account to take back to the office.  Long liquid lunches were frequent, and the press office, adhering to traditional Fleet Street ways, was often sparsely staffed well into the afternoon.

The senior press officers had extra lines installed at home to deal with urgent enquiries, and they could choose whichever telephone they liked.  The Senior Technical Press Officer said he wanted a hands-free instrument so that he could take calls while preparing vegetables, which raised the question how many journalists he expected to speak to with his hands in the sink.  In any case, there was a nice little flat nearby which was set aside for the use of a rota of night-time duty officers to take out-of-hours calls, which I’m sure came in very useful.  It was all a bit of a gravy train, soon to hit the buffers of privatisation.

So what is the link between ex-ITN’s Ivor Mills and the BT Tower?  For quite a long time a helicopter shot of the revolving section at the top of the tower featured in the opening credits of ITN‘s nightly ’News at Ten’ bulletins, which was excellent free publicity.  Then in 1985, after privatisation, the company decided to add a ‘British Telecom’ logo to the top of the building.  The matter of the suddenly out-of-date News at Ten footage was raised at a meeting and it was suggested that ITN should be asked to reshoot the tower, including the logo.  Ivor said he would get in touch with his contacts to expedite the matter.  There was no doubt among the senior BT executives present that this was a mere formality.  Ivor did his stuff, and ITN redid the opening credits – dropping the tower shot altogether.  So much for DDCR’s influence.  I sat there, as I often did, wondering how these hotshots could justify their salaries and generous share deals, yet be so ineffectual.

Later I moved from Admin to CRD’s corporate exhibitions unit, where the travel was fairly frequent and I was able to enjoy some decent meals on expenses myself, so I was no longer involved in press cuttings meetings.  BT Tower had been closed to the public for security reasons in 1980, following the 1971 bombing by either the IRA or the Angry Brigade – opinion is divided on which of them was responsible – but the restaurant section re-opened for corporate functions in the late 1980s, albeit with tight security, including metal detectors.  I went up to the revolving restaurant, renamed the Tower Suite, with my children in 1990, by which time I was working in BT’s International division.  We were given certificates to commemorate the building’s 25th anniversary, and I am indebted to Keith Ruffles for providing a scan of his copy, showing the tower sporting the classic dot-dash logo.

BT Tower Silver Anniversary Certificate

Ivor sadly died in 1996 at the early age of 66, and his obituary in the Independent was written by John Egan, another CRD senior manager who knew him well.  Egan acknowledged Ivor’s bonhomie, but paid him rather a backhanded compliment by starting with: “Ivor Mills in his prime was a good-looking fellow.”  And past his prime, John?  Ivor is buried in Highgate Cemetery, and his marker bears the appropriate, if slightly cryptic, inscription:


Journalist, Broadcaster,

Happy memories
of lunch and laughter

Farewell Old Bush