The BBC executive who talent-spotted Guy Burgess and David Attenborough

One of the most fascinating discoveries in the research which Jeff Hulbert and I conducted for our book ‘Guy Burgess-The Spy Who Knew Everyone’ was the story of a woman who talent-spotted the broadcasting potential of the young Cambridge graduate and after his defection had dinner with him in Moscow.

So who exactly was Mary Adams,who rose to become the BBC’s first woman TV producer despite the obstacles to married women having a career there ,a Socialist who was married to a Tory MP,  a ‘romantic Communist’ who ran wartime anti-communist propaganda campaigns, a member of the broadcasting establishment who had an MI5 file with the reference number PF.737,539 and who gave David Attenborough his first chance on television?

In the book we tell how in 1935 Mary Adams,then a BBC radio producer,booked Burgess to take part in a discussion about Russian communism. Burgess, already signed up as a spy for what became known as the KGB, was pretending to be a ‘liberal-minded Tory’. It was planned that he would debate with a young Russian but the broadcast was called off when the Soviet side,ironically,blamed Burgess for being too political.

Mary Campin was a research botanist at Newnham College, Cambridge, who gave talks on the radio .In 1925 she married Samuel Vyvyan Adams who five years later became Conservative MP for Leeds West. Her own politics were that she was a member of the Fabian Society and a friend of two of its early leading lights, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In the same year that her husband was elected,1930,she took a part-time job with the BBC Talks Department.

Mrs Vyvyan Adams, as she then became known, worked her way up the BBC hierarchy until the TV service closed for the war in 1939. She took the job of Director of Home Intelligence at the Ministry of Information. Her main job was monitoring domestic morale prompted by research done by the social research unit Mass Observation. The files reveal the full range of her work from asking people ‘Would you approve or disapprove if the British Government were to discuss peace proposals with Germany now?’ to typing up pages and pages of possible speakers for morale boosting broadcasts to America (she did some of the broadcasts herself) to working with MI5 writing papers on how to counter Communist Party activities in Britain.
It might therefore come as something of a surprise to read in the National Dictionary of Biography, that Mary Adams herself was ‘‘a socialist, a romantic Communist … a fervent atheist and advocate of humanism’. The author of the profile was her daughter Sally. One BBC colleague we talked to her about her immediately replied ‘Mary was very left-wing’.
At a Ministry ‘Morning Meeting’ in December 1939 it was recorded that although Mrs Vivian (sic) Adams argued that their anti-Communist messages couldn’t avoid ‘treatment of peace aims’ because this was a regular Communist theme  ‘the meeting in general was , however, not certain that would be the case’, a minute-taker’s code for ‘she was over-ruled’.After all in an overwhelmingly male world,Mary Adams was a woman -‘a tiny, vivacious, brainy blonde with bright blue eyes who always dressed very elegantly’, according to Angus Calder in ‘Gods, Mongrels and Demons’.

In 1941 she resigned from the Ministry of Information, feeling ‘practically obliged to go’ because she was so unhappy about what she saw as the lack of support for Home Intelligence within the Ministry of Information.When the war ended and BBC TV resumed she began a distinguished career in television production. She encouraged the career of David Attenborough despite noting after his first broadcast that ‘David Attenborough is intelligent and promising and may well be producer material, but he is not to be used again as an interviewer. His teeth are too big’.

After retiring in 1958 she worked at what was then called the Association for Consumer Research and became the Consumers Association. In September of that year she went to Moscow on what looks like a private visit rather than part of her new job. She was among a British delegation attending the congress of the International Scientific Film Association . The British Embassy kept a special watch because it was believed the Association was an off-shoot of the Association of Scientific Workers ‘and is slightly penetrated by Communists’.A report back to London said that half of the dozen strong British delegation ,including Adams,had security records, PFs or Personal Files, at MI5.
Mary Adams took the opportunity to visit her 1935 protégé . She wrote a letter about her visit saying that she’d telephoned Burgess, who’d come freely to her hotel and they’d gone to dinner  with a fellow delegate ‘and talked about old and new times’. Adams found Burgess ‘lonely and longing to set foot in England again. Very anxious to know what all his old acquaintances thought about him’.Burgess wrote to his mother that the visit was evidence that, ‘I seem to be not quite so unpopular as I thought’ with ‘v nice people like Mary Adams’.


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