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Sir Charles Wheeler's love affair with Delhi

The Indian Journalists’ Association in London conferred a lifetime achievement award on Wheeler, who had been Delhi correspondent of the BBC in the early 1960s

Amit Roy   |   Published 16.12.12, 12:00 AM

Sir Charles Wheeler and dateline Delhi

When Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talks about “my Indian relatives”, he is referring to the fact that his barrister wife, Marina, is the daughter of the late Sir Charles Wheeler, and her Sikh mother, Dip Singh.

Last Friday in London, the Indian Journalists’ Association conferred a lifetime achievement award on Wheeler, who had been Delhi correspondent of the BBC in the early 1960s.

Wheeler’s widow, Dip Singh, was a little too frail to come up to London from her Sussex home but the award was collected by Marina and her elder sister, Shirin, until recently a BBC correspondent in Brussels.

Last year the award went to S. Nihal Singh, former editor of The Statesman, and in 2010 to cricket writer Dicky Rutnagur.

Wheeler didn’t like to be promoted to “management”, preferring to be on the road. Having joined the BBC in 1947, he became the corporation’s longest serving foreign correspondent. He had spells presenting Newsnight and Panorama.

Last Friday examples were shown of Wheeler’s works in India — he reported on the arrival of the Dalai Lama in 1959 and the Queen’s visit in 1961.

That was the year he married Dip Singh — he easily won over her family.

When Wheeler died in 2008, aged 85, The Daily Telegraph’s obituary said: “In 1962 he was posted to New Delhi as Asia correspondent... On one occasion he described the prime minister of Ceylon as ‘an inexperienced eccentric at the head of a cabinet of mediocrities’, a comment which provoked a row with the Ceylonese, who threatened to leave the Commonwealth. Wheeler’s editor stood by him, though Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, had to express his regrets before things calmed down.”

The paper described Wheeler as “the last working member of the stylish post-war school of television reporting and one of the few British television journalists to whom the term distinguished could properly be applied”.

Suite lord

At the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, bookings are up, I understand, for the sea-facing Ravi Shankar suite which commemorates the time in 1966 when George Harrison of The Beatles checked into the hotel under an assumed name to study the sitar under Ravi Shankar.

“There is even a dedicated library with a collection of concert recordings of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison,” I am told.

Harrison would always be present whenever we went round to the green room to meet Ravi Shankar after his numerous concerts in London. They were held either at the Barbican or at the Royal Festival Hall though I remember one at the Royal Opera House when it reopened after major refurbishment.

Over the years I talked with Ravi Shankar about just about everything including some personal aspects of his life which are best left to another day. But I remember the very first interview in the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge when he feigned irritation about American hippies taking drugs as an accompaniment to his music.

“My music should be like the drugs,” he protested.

He grinned and told me, Harrison has asked him: “Ok Raavi, how long will it take to learn the seetaar?”

“More than one lifetime,” the maestro had chided him.

I had a quick word with the actor Saeed Jaffrey who has much indiscreet gossip about Ravi Shankar in his autobiography, An Actor’s Journey.

“He was a lovely man!” enthused Jaffrey. “Lord Krishna!”

Lord Krishna?

“Yes,” declared Saeed. “He was so attractive to women.”

Bradford boy

Britain’s most successful (and generous) Pakistani businessman, Sir Anwar Pervez, has received an honorary degree of doctor of laws from Bradford University for “his contribution to commerce and philanthropy and for the values from which we can all learn”.

“It was wonderful,” Sir Anwar told me about the degree ceremony.

Sir Anwar, now 77, is no stranger to Bradford, 1,000 students at the degree ceremony on December 6 were told.

Reading the citation, Julian Rawel, director of executive education, School of Management at Bradford University, said: “Sir Anwar Pervez, the son of a Rawalpindi farmer, came to England in 1956 in search of a different, hopefully better life. His first home was here in Bradford where he worked as a bus conductor for four years.”

Rawel added: “Sir Anwar may today be the richest Pakistani in the UK and chairman of a group (Bestway) with a turnover in excess of £2.2 billion but when he first arrived in Britain in 1956 as a 21-year-old, he began by working as a bus conductor in Bradford.”

Ballet live

On a bitterly cold night last week my wife and I went to see a performance of The Nutcracker, which heralds the start of the new season at Covent Garden.

My wife loved the ballet.

“From the very first notes of Tchaikovsky’s overture to The Nutcracker, a sense of mystery and magic pervades the theatre as Herr Drosselmeyer sets in train the events that will see his beloved nephew, Hans Peter, freed from the enchantment of the evil Mouse King by the resourceful Clara,” said the programme notes. “Peter Wright’s classic production, first seen at Covent Garden in 1984, is an essential part of Christmas for audiences of all ages.”

Now comes the admission — we did not see The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where tickets can cost anything from £65 to more than £175 but “live” at the Apollo Cinema in Piccadilly. Cinema tickets cost about £12.

An arts correspondent friend of mine reported in The Daily Telegraph four years ago: “In a move to shake off its ‘elitist’ champagne-and-dinner-jackets image, live and recorded productions by the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet are to be shown regularly in 60 or more cinemas.”

In fact, the performance that we saw — and the cameras take you right into the stage — went out live to 600 cinemas in 30 countries. At the end, positive Tweets from cinemagoers were displayed on screen.

I am sure this is a good model to try out in India. The Royal Opera House would have an audience in India, especially among the culture vultures in north Calcutta.

Word picture

With England doing so well in the Test series, normally there would have been a feast of cricket photographs in the newspapers, including some on the front page.

However, since the British media are intent on teaching the BCCI a lesson over its ban of Getty Images and other UK agencies, there is a picture famine. The writers are having to earn their money by painting pictures with words. Also, some painters are painting pictures with watercolours.

Tittle tattle

The times they are a changing, especially in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace where Jatendarpal Singh Bhullar, 25, became the first guardsman in 180 years of tradition to wear a turban instead of the famous bearskin on parade.

Bhullar was eloquent: “Conducting public duties while being a practising Sikh and wearing my turban is a great honour for me... the regiment is full of history, as is my religion.”

Any more of this and who knows, we might even get a Sikh bowling England to victory against India.

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