William Mager: A tribute to Terry Riley, Deaf broadcasting pioneer

Posted on June 3, 2014

At the end of this month, Terry Riley celebrates two personal milestones. He will receive his OBE from the Queen for services to Deaf Broadcasting and Campaigning. He’s also stepping down as Chief Executive of the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust.

In his 30 year career in deaf television as a researcher, director, producer, series editor and chief executive, Terry’s achieved a lot. He’s always had a strong vision of what Deaf broadcasting should be, and could be in the future – made by Deaf people for Deaf people, and true to the heart of the Deaf community.

I’ve known Terry since I started working as a researcher for See Hear over ten years ago, and we’ve remained in contact, even as I became the Series Producer on See Hear last year. I was also one of several people who took part in the BSLBT Editorial scheme last year and observed their commissioning process from start to finish.

Making that recent step up and getting that insight into the BSLBT’s inner workings helped me to understand a bit more about the decisions Terry had to make, the pressures he might have been under, and the various reasons why it’s not always possible to take the most obvious course of action.

I also realise now how much of a pain I was to work with when I was young and thought I had all the answers – and Terry was my boss. I was always challenging him, questioning his choices and generally making his life difficult. It got to a stage where he had to drag me to the White City canteen and tell me – in no uncertain terms, and in pretty colourful language – to stop undermining him.

Terry as a boy

Terry as a boy

Earlier this year, I filmed an interview with him two days before he was supposed to be going into hospital for a major operation – for cancer of the pancreas and spleen. They’d caught it early, so his chances of survival were good. But at his age, there weren’t any guarantees. He was in a more reflective mood than usual as I pressed the record button.

The interview we filmed covered most of his life – losing his hearing after an operation, growing up in a deaf club, working as an employee of the gas board, becoming an activist with the BDA, changing career after 17 years to work for the BBC… and looking at the hardships and challenges he’d been through on that journey.

He was born mostly hearing to deaf parents in Manchester but lost a lot of his hearing when he was six weeks old. The Deaf club was his second home, and his own home was the location of many deaf club after parties, with him stepping over sleeping bodies of deaf people the morning after.

Terry had mastoiditis, a middle ear infection which spreads to the mastoid bones of the ear, causing damage. He had his first operation at six weeks, again at six years old, then again in his teens. This last operation affected his balance so badly that he was signed off his job as a grocer’s boy for two years. They operated again on his other ear which restored his balance, leaving him completely deaf in one ear and with some residual hearing in the other.

Terry when he worked for the gas board

Terry when he worked for the gas board

He started working for the gas board, checking meters at various houses and cutting off the gas supply if they hadn’t paid their bills. At the same time as this ordinary day job, Terry was becoming more and more active as a campaigner for the British Deaf Association in the North West.

Terry worked for the gas board for a long time. When he started the job, the gas was paid for in shillings and sixpences. They were using pound coins by the time he went out on his last house call. When he was held hostage for eight hours by a drugged up maniac with a screwdriver, he decided enough was enough.

He saw a job was being advertised at See Hear for a new researcher. He decided to apply. With the support of Doug Alker, he got in – and the next 15 years he rose from researcher, to director, to producer and finally to Series Editor – the first deaf person to hold that post.

Sadly, not long after Terry became editor, tragedy struck his family. One night, his son Robert never returned home. His scooter had swerved off the road, hitting a tree and killing him instantly.

Terry with his son Robert

Terry with his son Robert

His daughter Bernadette still gets emotional when she remembers how it affected her father. “I think he’s been strong for the family. You don’t see him crying a lot, my dad, but… you can see it in his face.”

Sarah Tavner, a See Hear producer at the time, attended the funeral. In his speech, he said that he never thought he would be carrying his own son’s coffin. When he left the church as one of the bearers of his son’s body, the whole congregation was in tears.

But Terry threw himself into his work, rebuilding See Hear to become a deaf led programme: “He encouraged the employment of deaf people. The titles were made by deaf designers, the music was created by a deaf composer. We started using deaf cameramen and using more deaf presenters,” Tavner says.

That was a policy Terry followed for several years. I remember at one time looking round the See Hear office and seeing the hearing staff outnumbered by deaf. That was a huge milestone.

Terry made a lot of allies in his time at See Hear – one of them being Director General Mark Thompson, who sat in on the occasional team meeting and described See Hear as a ‘jewel in the BBC’s public service crown.’ But the climate at the BBC was changing. Under pressure from commissioners and executives to make See Hear appeal to the nine million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK – Terry decided it was time to retire in 2008.

At his leaving drinks, deaf director Joe Collins and I asked him if he’d heard about this new job being advertised as Chief Executive of the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust. He hadn’t – but he was interested in finding out more. He soon made his mark there, with five years of award-winning factual and drama programmes.

Sarah Tavner went on to work for the BSLBT and Remark, and says “If we worked hard for Terry when we were at See Hear, we worked doubly hard for him when he was at BSLBT. He was really driving towards that vision of deaf-led programme making, and I think BSLBT has achieved a lot of what Terry wanted – really good quality programmes that address the sign language community.“

Terry looks set to leave deaf television behind when he steps down, but intends to remain active in deaf politics as Chair of the British Deaf Association, and as a board member of the World Federation of the Deaf. Will he even slow down at all? Unlikely.

David Buxton, the current BDA Chief Executive, has a story about Terry. They were rushing along a street, late for an important meeting. Terry was signing something to David when he tripped and fell on the pavement hard. His face was bruised and bloodied, and David was in shock – but Terry just got up, brushed himself off and carried on.

KhKP9GG84Z647eC0fSaCz-dKHji_Y_Z125JDz7VVdCATerry just keeps picking himself up and carrying on – through the death of his son, leaving the BBC, facing every new challenge head on. Others have fallen by the wayside but he’s still going. He leaves behind a legacy of many, many deaf people who are working in the media – people who were given that early support by Terry either as an Extend trainee on See Hear, as a Zoom filmmaker for BSLBT, or as a fledgling deaf media company looking for their first commission.

When I told him I was thinking of writing something about him, he had one request: “Don’t hold back. I was a bastard to work with, and a hard taskmaster. But it’s paid off. Look at all of these people I’ve worked with who have gone on to do great things. I’m proud of them all.”

In that interview we filmed, he looked back on his own life, balanced everything up, and decided that he had no regrets. “I am who I am. Take it or leave it.”

He’s earned the right to say that. Of all the bosses I’ve had in my 14 year career, Terry’s the one I’ll remember the most. He’s also one of the few who ever really ‘got it’ – what it was like for me to be deaf and working in television, and the fundamentals of making deaf television. Love him or hate him, there won’t be anyone quite like him again.

Here’s to you, boss.

You can see See Hear’s profile of Terry Riley on See Hear at 10.30am on Wednesday 4th June on BBC TWO (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zxxl3), and it will be on iPlayer soon after that.

William Mager is the Series Producer of BBC2’s See Hear. He is also an award-winning director for film and TV, who made his first film aged 14 when he “set fire to a model Audi Quattro and was subsequently banned from the school film club for excessive pyromania.” He’s made short films, dramas and mini-series. Find out all about his work at his personal website, and if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.

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