Norman Collins Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Although Collins wrote fourteen novels and one work of nonfiction in his lifetime (most of which were popular successes), as well as succeeding as a publisher, he is better known for his innovative programming at the British Broadcasting Corporation during the late 1940’s, and later for advocating and leading the movement toward commercial television broadcasting in Great Britain.

Early Life

Norman Richard Collins was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, on October 3, 1907. By the time he was nine years old at the William Ellis School in Hampstead, he displayed a talent for both writing and publishing. The school had no creative magazine, so Collins started one using his own essays (very often written under pseudonyms). He printed only two issues, however, before the school authorities, upset that Collins was charging a half-penny per copy, put a half to his project, but not to his ambitions. His parents were of modest financial means, so the idea of attending a university was out of the question. This did not deter Collins, however, for he went straight from the William Ellis School into journalism, at age nineteen, working as the publisher’s assistant at the Oxford University Press from 1926 to 1929. He then moved on to the Daily News, where he became the assistant literary editor. In this position, Collins developed his talents reviewing books and writing extra newspaper articles in order to make enough money to support himself and his wife, stage actress Helen Martin, whom he married in 1931. They would eventually have three children, two daughters and one son, of whom Collins said in a New York Herald Tribune interview in 1951, “Through my children, I am thus kept forcibly in touch with something better than half a generation of contemporary thought and rising opinion.”

At the time of his marriage, Collins, at the suggestion of the publisher Victor Gollancz, began writing his first book, The Facts of Fiction (1932), a rather ambitious and precocious undertaking for an unknown twenty-four-year-old. The book is a series of informal essays surveying English fiction writers and includes such names as Samuel Richardson, Charles Dickens, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Henry James, and D. H. Lawrence, to name only a few. The book received mixed reviews, some calling it a brilliant tour de force, others describing it as a less than serious work by a “skillful journalist” interested in his own version of the “facts of fiction.” Yet, it won for him literary fame and a position in the publishing house of Victor Gollancz, where he was vice chairman from 1933 to 1941.

During that period, Collins wrote and published several novels: Penang Appointment (1934), The Three Friends (1935), Trinity Town (1936), Flames Coming Out of the Top (1937), Love in Our Time (1938), and I Shall Not Want (1940). These works earned for Collins the reputation of a good story-teller and accomplished writer of popular fiction, if not the status of a serious novelist. The novels sold, however, and helped Collins earn a living and a name for himself above and beyond his work in the publishing field. A dark-haired, handsomely thin man who was described as dapper, energetic, and brilliant, Collins could have remained solely within the literary world and maintained his steadily growing success, but because of some left-wing political movements during the 1930’s within the Gollancz firm, Collins left the publishing world behind and took a job with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). What he could not have known at the time was that this career change would prove beneficial not only for Collins himself but also for television in general.

Life’s Work

Collins’ move into the BBC (which at that time was undergoing major changes in programming and policies) took him first into radio broadcasting, where he held the position of talks producer for the General Overseas Service (GOS) from 1941 to 1944. This was a shortwave broadcast devoted to providing radio shows for servicemen and newly headed by Sir William Haley, who recognized Collins’ talent and energy for the job but was wary of his ambition and foresight. On the other hand, Maurice Gorham, Assistant Controller of the GOS, felt no such reserve about Collins: “When I first met Norman he rather took me aback: he looked so exactly like an advertisement of a young business man who uses all the right products and is bound to become head of the firm. When I saw more of him I liked him and thought very highly of him.” Both men would play decisive roles in Collins’ nine years with the BBC.

In the meantime, Collins plunged into his job, pushing for program changes and trying to give the servicemen the type of popular entertainment they wanted, even if that included American and Canadian programs, a move the BBC was reluctant to make. As head of the General Forces Program in 1944, however, Collins (with the backing of Gorham and others, not to mention the direct order from Winston Churchill) was able to change the voice of radio programming, unknowingly foreshadowing his role in television ten years later.

Radio broadcasting was not Collins’ only interest. He was still a writer, and during his years at the BBC he managed to write two more novels, Anna (1942; published in the same year in the United States as Quiet Lady) and London Belongs to Me (1945; published two years later in the United States as Dulcimer Street). In speaking about Dulcimer Street, his most critically and commercially successful novel, he stated that it “was written in air-raid shelters, in Home Guard duty rooms, in aeroplanes and even on occasion under canvas during the course of two long tours that I made of the Near East, India and southeast Asia.” It seemed as if Collins were leading a dual life, with the BBC and the London blitz demanding much of his time and energy while he still managed to write between three and five pages a night, pulling together characters and scenes from the incidents and images he recalled of everyday life.

The war, however, was coming to an end, and in 1946, within three months after VE Day, Collins’ job at the BBC had changed to controller of light programming (at the request of and succeeding Gorham). This was one of the three divisions of the BBC’s postwar Home Programmes, which included the Home Service (shows reflecting the needs of the community), the Light Programme (shows providing news, lectures, and light entertainment), and the Third Programme (shows offering more serious musical and dramatic entertainment). Little did his colleagues and superiors at the BBC realize that it would be Collins’ Light Programme which would gain the widest...

(The entire section is 2822 words.)