Death of TV historian who explained Ireland to British
Robert Kee, the British historian and television journalist whose work on Ireland explained the Troubles to a generation of English people in terms largely sympathetic to Irish sensibilities, has died aged 93.
Ireland – a television history was a 1981 landmark 13-part series made for the BBC by Kee and Jeremy Isaacs. Scripted by Kee, it was received to critical acclaim and was widely seen both in Britain and the US.
It was also broadcast by RTÉ and won Kee a Jacob’s Award. Kee followed the series with The Green Flag, a three-part history of Irish nationalism. It too was well received.
Kee never sought to propagandise but rather to explain Ireland to an English audience steeped in a mixture of ignorance or knowledge that was limited by the distorting lens of unquestioning assumptions laced with post-imperial incomprehension.
His interest in Ireland was life-long and he joined the campaign for the release of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, who had been convicted of taking part in the Guildford pub bombings in 1974. In 1986, Kee wrote a book about the case, Trial Error.
London-based Irish-born BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane said yesterday that Kee was “the most fair-minded UK observer of Ireland that ever lived”.
Robert Kee was born in Calcutta, then very much part of British Raj India, in 1919. Like many from such a background, he was sent to England for schooling, in his case to Stowe, a public (ie private) school in Buckinghamshire. He read history at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a pupil, then a friend of the historian AJP Taylor.
During the second World War, Kee was a bomber pilot with the Royal Air Force. He was shot down over the Netherlands and spent three years in a PoW camp – which gave him material for his first book, A Crowd is not Company, a memoir disguised as a novel set in a Nazi camp which The Times claimed was “arguably the best POW book ever written”.
After the war, Kee embarked on a career in journalism – working for The Sunday Times, the Observer and the Spectator before going into television. He worked for the BBC, Independent Television News and for Channel 4.
He was one of the original presenters of ITV’s first breakfast programme, TV-am, which launched in 1983 and featured Kee alongside Sir David Frost, Anna Ford, Michael Parkinson and Angela Rippon.
But despite its stellar cast of presenters, the programme struggled in the ratings against its BBC1 rival, Breakfast Time, which launched two weeks earlier. The TV-am offering was criticised for being too highbrow for breakfast TV viewers.
Kee is survived by his wife and three children.