Robert Winston: a career in television

From IVF to BBC...
26 September 2023

Interview with 

Robert Winston


retro television


Chris - Let's talk about your broadcasting career for a minute, because that sprung up alongside doing all this amazing fertility work as well. I know what my story is. It was right place, right time, opportunity meets potential. Was that true for you? What happened? How did you end up on the big screen?

Robert - First of all, I was working at the RPMS, the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith, which was run by a man who I think was massively misunderstood. Professor John Brown, who was very supportive of me. He was a very good reproductive clinician and he used to have visitors from all over the world and he would always tell visitors coming here 'you go and see the lab down the road and see what Robert Winston's doing.' And he was amazingly supportive. And you know, I didn't really justify that. But the fact of the matter is, I worked in the environment, which really was very, it was unprescriptive and what you did in your spare time was, you know, if it was interesting and it might support other things. And so getting involved with television, which I did initially in 1974, I did a program with John Mansfield called 'Predictions', which looked at what the health service might look like in 25 years time in the year 2000.

Chris - Were you right?

Robert - No <laugh>. Do you know what? The program won the Prix Europa Award in Berlin. It's a big prize. And it was celebrated by the BBC, it was complete rubbish <laugh> and I presented much of it. And looking back at it, that's too embarrassing to watch, you know, it was not great stuff.

Chris - But did they come to you or did you actively sort of solicit that?

Robert - John was running Horizon at the time and the early days of Horizon, or he was certainly running science. I think he was running Horizon already or certainly was involved with it. And John was one of these people who would constantly be reading the medical journals and he'd read something I'd published and he thought, let's go and have a chat. And he came and he, he walked into the laboratory and he said, 'of course the great thing about you is, busy people have always got time to see each other.' But of course, I was sitting there idly doing nothing at all, working with some rabbit of something, with my mind off it really. No, John was great. He was a very interesting director and he did two things for me. He'd stand me in front of a camera, we came to do 'Your Life in Their Hands.' And I was presenting it and he'd say, 'stop, Robert, you sound pompous.' Or 'Robert, I don't understand a word what you said.' And he kept on battering me until I suddenly thought, and I listened. He was great because he was quite brutal. So I started to think about trying to work out how you have quite complicated things to explain. And that I think really did stand me a good stead. And although I wasn't great at your life in their hands, it did encourage the BBC to consider, to re employ me in due course. But by that time I was really trying to develop my career. So I didn't do much research, the only thing I was really doing about was trying to defend reproductive medicine in the media because we were concerned about what you were talking about earlier, about the terrible comments being made about IVF, but then I got much later on to the human body, I suppose was, for me, quite a big breakthrough because that did sort of, by that time, I felt I probably did have something was worth saying about something quite simple and yet very complicated, the body. And actually I was very lucky there because I had another director who was like John Mansfield, utterly brilliant, Richard Dale. And there I was very lucky because the BBC had a big budget then and they assembled the most amazingly talented production team. And of course I owe so much to that. Really.


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