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DEATH OF TOM MEEHAN (article first published : 2003-01-2)

Veteran director, actor, writer and producer Tom Meehan died peacefully of heart failure this afternoon (January 2, 2003) at the age of 87. Up until the time of his death, he had been living with his daughter Judith and her family in the KZN Midlands.

Tom Squires Meehan was born of Irish descent on March 7, 1915, in Lower Darwen, Lancashire, England. His memoirs begin with: "Dig deep, deep down into the inner core of your memory, and there you will find the first sight or sound of your earthly existence. My first glimmer of consciousness was the sound of clogs - the sabot-type footwear with leather uppers and wooden soles studded with steel which were worn by most working-class people in the North of England at that time. I recall the sound now - hundreds of pairs of clogs clattering down the street past my birthplace, carrying their wearers to yet another long, long day from dawn to dusk in a Lancashire cotton mill."

Tom Meehan's early years were spent in a gas-lit, three-up, two-down terrace house which was home to his family of five. He went on to be educated at St Margaret’s and William Hulme Grammar School in Manchester, attaining his matric and higher school examinations with distinctions. Excelling in sport, he also played in the first teams of rugby, soccer, lacrosse and cricket, even appearing on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford.

He signed up at the outbreak of World War II, was sent to France and was part of the Dunkirk evacuation. "It brings back to my mind four days of fear and hunger," he says in his memoirs, "...of scrabbling a shallow trench in the sand, trying to find some kind of protection from the bombs and shells, of holding my ears against the deafening barrage of sound, of praying that I might survive." Fortunately for lovers of stage and radio theatre, he did survive - going on to do an officer's course at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Here he made a major decision to eliminate his Lancashire accent and by honing his ear and talents of mimicry, he created a new neutral voice without the flat vowels of the North. This was to pay off handsomely when broadcasting became his career.

He served in the 2nd/11th Royal Batallion of the Ludhiana Sikhs and saw action in Persia and the Western Desert. He was taken prisoner after the Battle of Mersa Matruh and was a prisoner of war at Chieti, Italy; at Mahrisch-Trubau in Silesia, and Brunswick until the end of the War. On returning to England he was then shipped off again to India. It was a momentous sea voyage because on board he met Betty Elsie Joy Mungavin and they were married at Fort William in Calcutta soon afterwards.

The young couple eventually moved to South Africa where Tom joined the sports department of the Johannesburg Star. He was then transferred to the Daily News in Durban as assistant sports editor. He wrote a weekly column in the Sunday Tribune titled The Gatepost and started broadcasting as a freelancer for the SABC, which was then based in studios in Aliwal Street.

"It was exciting broadcasting then, not like nowadays, when perfection can be achieved by editing tape recordings," Tom recalls in his memoirs. "In my early days, listeners heard everything that was said in the studio, including the occasional expletive. It says much for the standard of competence that enabled a 90-minute or two-hour play to be transmitted with hardly a mistake, and I have nostalgic memories of some truly marvellous broadcasters who were as good as any I have heard on the BBC."

Played the lead in Brave Voyage, a 500-part "soapie" opposite Yolande d'Hotman, marked a milestone in Tom's radio career and he eventually left the Daily News to go into broadcasting full-time. Lintas, the advertising agents for Lever Brothers, asked Yolande d'Hotman to produce a series adapted from Leslie Charteris's books about The Saint and Tom was cast in the title role as Simon Templar. He was still playing "The Saint" when the series ended about six years later.

By now a sports commentator, he had turned his hand to publishing and produced the horse-racing newspaper The Winning Post and Open House, a monthly magazine for the hotel industry. He joined Herrick Merrill Radio Studios and directed productions such as Drama of Medicine, Drama of Science, Pick-A-Box and The House That We Built. He presented Desert Island Date and interviewed 200 celebrities over four and a half years. In 1965, he started his own production company Tom Meehan (Pty) Ltd and two years later, became interested in scripts of a British radio programme titled The Men From The Ministry. Durban was considered the top source of radio comedy in the heydays of Springbok Radio and most of the shows such as Men from the Ministry, Father Dear Father, The Navy Lark and Friends and Neighbours came from his production house.

The South African version of "Men" was first broadcast on Springbok Radio 1968. Starring John Simpson, Roger Service, Maureen Adair, Tom Read and Tom Meehan, it went on to make broadcasting history in South Africa. Playing the roles of Number One and Number Two, John Simpson and Roger Service were close friends and colleagues of Tom Meehan for many years.

"The passing of someone who became a legend in the world of South African radio is not the end of an era because the name of Tom Meehan will live forever," says John Simpson. "Monuments to his unforgettable work were born when he graduated from being radio's most used romantic lead actor in 1947 to the time he captivated Springbok Radio's listeners with his numerous comedy programmes. In 1949, when Tom was well established and I was coping with five line parts in radio theatre productions in which he invariably had a leading role, I could see and hear that he was the master of his craft. In later years when I and radio colleagues worked under his direction, Tom Meehan commanded and got respect from all of us. Why? Because we all accepted the fact that his sometimes biting criticisms in the form of moulding the characters we were playing were not given without thought. The end result was for the good of the production in which we were always proud to be involved. His productions to this day are still discussed with great nostalgia. In the realms of South African radio, Tom Meehan and his productions will be etched in our memories for ever."

Roger Service feels the passing of this great man of radio very keenly: "Tom Meehan was more to me than this country's most prolific producer of classic radio comedy - he was not merely my mentor and the one who made the most of my own modest talents, he was the man who I could turn to at three am with personal problems and who would be there for me then and at any other time. In short, Tom was to me from 1960 the father I lost in 1945 - and as Number Two in his hit programme "Men from the Ministry" I'd like to be remembered or regarded as a surrogate member of his family, grieving at this time of irreparable loss. What hurts most is that I have been meaning to visit him recently, equipped not with a bowler hat but with a bottle of his favourite single malt. Stupidly I didn't get around to it – please let that be a lesson – and my only consolation is that he is now amongst those with superior intellects and talents than those he has left behind."

Apart from his daughter, Tom Meehan leaves two sons – Michael and Barry. Better known as Brian Squires to radio listeners, Barry worked closely with his father and his late mother, Joy Meehan, in the production of hundreds of radio plays as well as mini series and serials.

Robin Davis of the SABC, who was a sound effects operator during the days of Springbok Radio and worked for Tom Meehan on many occasions, has images of Men from the Ministry on his website (click on the link and it will take you to the site)

artsmart Editor's Note: Tom Meehan was a very strong guiding hand in my early days as an actress. If I have any talent at all, he was certainly one of the people who shaped it. Tom, I thank you for teaching me the finer points of drama, good comedy timing and the ability to be "real" on the microphone. These invaluable skills I try, in turn, to pass on to others. - Caroline Smart