Gavin Weightman obituary

The documentary film-maker, journalist and author Gavin Weightman, who has died aged 77 after a long-term illness, was one of a number of talented young programme-makers who were recruited in the late 1970s and early 80s to work in the current affairs and features departments of London Weekend Television. As producer and director, Weightman’s outstanding contribution was The Making of Modern London (1983-85), a long-running series that documented the social history of the capital from 1815 to the then present day. What made it stand out was its extensive use of living memory to drive the narrative. Since then, testimony or oral history has become a common feature in documentary TV film-making.

The first series, Heart of the Empire, covered the London of Dickens, Queen Victoria and the Edwardians. In one episode, a 90-year-old Lady Charlotte Bonham Carter recalled the terrible mess horse-drawn traffic made in London’s streets, and how she suffered the indignity of wading through rain-soaked manure to attend a lunch at St James’s Palace. By contrast, Eastender Ted Harrison remembered family “holidays” spent hop-picking in Kent, leaving home at midnight to be there on time. The programmes used extensive archive film, often unearthing unseen footage, innovative rostrum camera work and specially written music to bring each individual memory to life.

Born in Gosforth, Northumberland, Gavin was the son of Doreen (nee Wade), a teacher and translator, and John Weightman, a broadcaster and later professor of French. During the war, John had been the only non-French newsreader for the BBC French Service. The bulletins he delivered sometimes carried coded messages and he often transmitted from the same studios as Charles de Gaulle. Gavin’s love of French food, wine and culture was passed on through his parents. The family lived in West Hampstead, London, but, spending summers near the Northumberland hills, Gavin also learned to love the outdoors and appreciate wildlife.

At primary school Gavin was captain of football and cricket. His secondary education began with a scholarship to Haberdashers’ boys school, Hertfordshire. By all accounts he did not thrive there and left aged 17 to begin a career as a journalist on local papers – first a stint on the Brighton and Evening Argus and then the Richmond and Twickenham Times (or the “Ricky-Twicky Times” as he fondly called it). Half a dozen reporters and editors would be crammed together in a tiny newsroom, all hammering away on 30s-era typewriters amid a dense fug of cigarette smoke. Standing out was Gavin, a tall and decidedly crumpled figure. His old friend the Canadian Broadcasting journalist Brian Stewart recalled Gavin “pouring out copy with ease, offering advice to everyone else on their writing and generally keeping everyone in stitches with gossip”.

After five years on local papers, in 1967 he began a degree course in sociology as a mature student at Bedford College, London University, where he developed a keen interest in social and economic history, especially the Industrial Revolution.

On graduation he spent time working for a newspaper group, writing for local papers. In 1974 he joined the staff of New Society magazine, writing features on a huge range of subjects. He was simply interested in everything – from Industrial Revolution housing to nudist camps in the postwar era and even the history of poaching.

While there, he happened to answer the phone to somebody from LWT current affairs calling to invite another journalist to apply for a job. Gavin took the message, then said, can I apply? He did and got the job, as reporter on The London Programme (1978-82), then, for a year, as its presenter. I was working there as a reporter at the time, and he and I became great friends. His voice was perfect for narration, but getting a man accustomed to a crumpled look to trade up to the suit and tie then required of presenters was always going to be an uphill struggle. What is more, by his own admission, Gavin never really mastered the technique of being able to walk and talk at the same time – another essential for being on screen.

After a brief spell on The Six O’ Clock Show, he gradually devoted more of his time to producing and directing films for the features department. His interest in social history made him the ideal choice to produce, direct and narrate not only the first 12 films of the Making of Modern London series (1983-84) but subsequently two wildlife series – City Safari (1986) and Brave New Wilderness (1990) – and a series on the history of the River Thames (1990), all of which had accompanying books.

When Gavin left LWT in 1991 to set up his own production company, he made more social history programmes for Channel 4, but increasingly concentrated on writing. He wrote more than 20 books ranging from Signor Marconi’s Magic Box (2003) to The Industrial Revolutionaries (2007). His most successful, The Frozen Water Trade (2003), told the history of exporting ice around the world from a frozen Massachusetts lake. It was serialised on Radio 4.

To his many friends Gavin was great company, loved for his ready wit and easy charm. Many a meal round his kitchen table ended with him playing a mean blues on his vintage Gibson guitar.

Gavin’s first marriage, to Myra Wilkins, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Clare Beaton, a children’s author and illustrator, whom he married in 2009 after a long-term partnership, their son, Tom, his children, Lucie and Ben, from his first marriage, two stepchildren, Jack and Kate, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and his sister, Jane.

• Gavin Weightman, documentary maker, author and journalist, born 4 March 1945; died 18 December 2022