Suffolk champion dies

Ivan Howlett, founding editor of BBC Radio Suffolk and EADT writer and theatre critic has died. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke reviews the life of a man who was passionate about Suffolk.

Andrew Clarke

Ivan Howlett, founding editor of BBC Radio Suffolk and EADT writer and theatre critic has died. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke reviews the life of a man who was passionate about Suffolk.

Ivan Howlett, one of the great champions of Suffolk, has died at home at the age of 66. Ivan was not only the EADT's theatre critic but was also an enthusiastic feature writer with a passion for the county, its history and its folklore. But this only covers part of Ivan's achievements - his major one was the founding of BBC Radio Suffolk in 1990 and his love for theatre saw him join the board of Eastern Angles theatre company while his commitment to education saw him become a governor of Suffolk College and was one of the guiding lights in the campaign for Ipswich to have its own university.

Ivan died at home in Swilland, aged 66, after a brave battle against cancer. Although he had been diagnosed with the disease a year ago, his death was still a shock to many because he refused to give in to it. His work with the EADT continued unabated. It was not unusual for him to deliver three or four theatre reviews one week followed by a two page feature, a New Wolsey review and a report from the Ipswich Regent the next.

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This was only part of his amazing workload. His passion for life meant that he was busy recording radio programmes for Radio Four and was battling behind the scenes, helping Eastern Angles in their successful struggle to keep their Arts Council funding.

Such was his commitment to everything he did, that during a recent medical emergency, he had his wife Lindsay phone up from Ipswich hospital to check whether we had all the photographs we needed for a feature he had submitted earlier that day for a feature on his home town of Lavenham.

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Needless to say we had more than enough material but it was indicative of Ivan's attention to detail that as he was wheeled into an operating room he was more concerned with his work than he was with his medical condition.

Ivan Howlett didn't start his career as a broadcaster or a journalist. He began his working life as a teacher in Brighton and it was through his interest in theatre and the arts that he started broadcasting on BBC Radio Brighton.

His wife Lindsey said: “He started life as an English teacher and lecturer in Brighton. He got into local radio through the back door as a gofer, as he called it. He got into broadcasting through the arts side of things, which was his love. The news room realised he had a talent for writing and, in the mid-70s, got a job as a reporter and ended up as news editor.”

It was while he was working as news editor that Ivan was offered the opportunity to return to his home county to set up BBC Radio Suffolk.

Lindsey Howlett said: “When he first arrived back in Suffolk, he had a small office on St Margaret's Green from where he put together the various people and elements that made up the station before they moved into the office on St Matthews Street roundabout which everyone now knows as Radio Suffolk.”

The station was launched in April 1990. Ivan himself wrote: “It was a pretty edgy business that we had a station at all. Suffolk's difficulty was that its main centres of population, except for Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket, were on or near the coast and the county borders. When stating our case we swept our hands across the county map and hid the parts of High Suffolk where the population was at its most sparse, and held our breath. Of course, the case was accepted and we prepared to go on-air in 1990.”

One of the achievements that Ivan was most proud of during his time as editor at BBC Radio Suffolk was securing the commentary rights to all Ipswich Town's home games. A recent phone-call from Ivan, following the announcement that SGR had now secured the broadcast rights, left me in no doubt that, even from his sick bed at home, he was not amused.

Having returned to Suffolk Ivan threw himself into local life. As well as joining the board of Eastern Angles he also became advisor to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket and a member of the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust.

After he left BBC Radio Suffolk in 1998 Ivan started producing freelance documentary programmes for Radio Four - producing two series that ran six months of the year each: Making History and Home Planet.

Lindsey said: “The work for BBC Radio Four took up a huge amount of Ivan's time when he left Radio Suffolk but like everything else he did, he was so proud of those programmes and so enthusiastic about. He was really proud that his work was being broadcast on national radio.”

Among the programmes he was most proud of was The Shanghai Sailors the story of Chinese sailors recruited by the British government during World War Two. After the war was over the majority were hurriedly repatriated and forced to leave behind their British born wives and children.

He also won the Spoken Word Gold Award for the Radio Four series The Century Speaks and was a features judge for both the Sony and the Frank Gillard Awards.

Ivan became the EADT's theatre critic in 2006 and quickly increased the number of reviews from Bury St Edmunds and began to expand the paper's coverage into Cambridge. He also began contributing freelance features which drew on his extensive knowledge of the country's historical and cultural heritage.

His final feature on composer, director and musician Stephen Pimlott ran last weekend.

Ivan leaves wife Lindsey and four children Adam, 25, Oliver, 24, Nancy, 22, and Tom, 21.

Ivan's death brought an immediate reaction from his many friends and colleagues.

Peter Cook, Editor, BBC Radio Suffolk: "Ivan was full of energy and passionate about radio, in particular speech based radio. He was a very talented journalist and broadcaster with enormous respect and remained a very good friend of the radio station, taking part in our 18th anniversary celebration recently.

“Ivan was a Suffolk boy through and through, born in Lavenham and delighting in any opportunity to celebrate the county he loved.”

Sharon Jenkins, New Wolsey Theatre: “I have known Ivan since I started working at the New Wolsey in 2001 and he has been a constant source of advice and inspiration. His enthusiasm was immeasurable and I was in constant in awe of his energy. I loved him for his passion and his support for the New Wolsey but on a more personal note I enjoyed his company and always looked forward to seeing him and Lindsey on press nights. Ivan was the loveliest man and he will be missed an awful lot by me and my colleagues at the theatre.”

Dave Müller, Suffolk New College: “Ivan Howlett was a uniquely talented man and one of the pioneers to help establish a University in Suffolk. As a member of the governing body of Suffolk College since 1993, he worked tirelessly using his terrific communication skills to cajole and encourage people to have the vision to take the bold step to commit funding to establish the university. At the same time, he never lost sight of the importance of further education where he himself spent some years teaching and today with Suffolk New College and University Campus Suffolk his memory will live on with these two educational institutions.”

Ivan Cutting, Eastern Angles: “Within days of arriving as the first managing editor at Radio Suffolk Ivan Howlett was on the phone to me. “I want to help you” he said, and within weeks he was doing that. Whatever Ivan said he would do, he did, and usually after he'd planted a whole stretch of new ideas in your head with various other stories and yarns slipping in between the business bits. “I know what I wanted to say to you…” was probably his catchphrase.

“His knowledge of this county was enormous, and he knew absolutely everyone. He was a one-man encyclopaedia who was always able to find the little man or woman at the bottom of most famous events. And he was passionate about seeing that history on stage or on radio and getting out into the wider world. His constant gripe was the suits who had taken over institutions like the BBC and the Arts Council, and the need to be ever vigilant against the dumbing down of life and culture.

“He served on our board and was well-known for high-jacking the meeting with a story, but then also pulling us up by our bootstraps with a challenge to our thinking. And even in the last few days he's been helping me secure the future of the company with strong-minded advice - “I can say what I like now,” he said.

“For years I dreamed of doing a two-man show with him, the two Ivans, although I know I would have ended up as the straight man and feed for his anecdotes. But it would have been worth it.

“Hello Ivan, it's Ivan” is how I'll remember him.”

James Hehir, chief executive, Ipswich Borough Council: "Ivan and I both served on the Suffolk New College Corporation and quickly became friends 19 years ago. Ivan was a remarkable man, infectious and the most enthusiastic person I have ever known, it was a privilege to be in his company. He always spoke from the heart and he loved his family. He will be greatly missed and Ipswich is a far sadder place without him."

Lynne Mortimer, East Anglian Daily Times: “Ivan was passionate about good journalism. His theatre reviews for the East Anglian Daily Times were knowledgeable and insightful; he adored the theatre. I often met Ivan and his wife Lindsey on first nights and, the next morning after filing his review, he would ring me to compare notes.

“With infectious enthusiasm he would also tell me about his features - he would ferret out the most extraordinary stories. One that particularly springs to mind the chap who, in the early 20th century, set off to walk round the world wearing an iron mask and pushing a pram.

“His story about the late theatre director Stephen Pimlott was published last Saturday, July 5. As with all his features, it was a finely crafted and beautifully written piece. The world of broadcast and print journalism is poorer without him but Ivan has left us an abundant legacy.”

For more tributes to Ivan Howlett see

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