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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Obituary: Bob Symes, TV presenter and rail campaigner

This was sad to read about. If you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s then he was the original "Uncle Bob" and if anyone influenced me to look at terrain work for layouts/war-gaming then it had to be him!  He was a wonderful engineer well, he was one of the Old School "all rounders" who had many interests and skills

And how did I hear this sad news? By glancing at the corner of a TV guide interior page. NOTHING on BBC News. That's the BBC for you.

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Bob Symes: Tomorrow s World presenter who campaigned for a Galashiels-Edinburgh railway line in 1969
Bob Symes: Tomorrow s World presenter who campaigned for a Galashiels-Edinburgh railway line in 1969

Robert Symes-Schutzmann with the actor Simon Channon In Frankenstein monster mask, launching the BBC programme The Strange Affair Of in 1985
Robert Symes-Schutzmann with the actor Simon Channon In Frankenstein monster mask, launching the BBC programme The Strange Affair Of in 1985 Photo: MALCOLM CLARKE/ASSOCIATED NEWS/REX
 

Robert Symes-Schutzmann, who has died aged 90, was an inventor, model maker and ecologist who communicated his enthusiasms over three decades through popular radio and television programmes, notably Tomorrow’s World. 
A serious engineer who could make almost anything himself, Bob Symes (as he was usually known) was a natural broadcaster with a gift for explaining complex projects or the simplest scientific proposition. Asked why toast always fell on the buttered side, he said: “It is gravity; the buttered side is heavier.”


Physically he resembled a bewhiskered Victorian engineer, with what The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Clayton reckoned “the baggiest trousers in television”. He presented Model World in the 1970s and Making Tracks with Mary-Jean Hasler in the 1990s. Dedicated to little-known steam railways everywhere, the series was made without background music for maximum effect.

Symes’s enthusiasm for railways first surfaced in 1969, when he co-founded the Border Union Railway in a bid to reopen the recently closed Waverley Line between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Despite support from the local MP David Steel and the Duke of Buccleuch, British Rail and Whitehall could not see the scheme as viable. Symes lived to see the reconstruction of 30 miles of the line, to be reopened by ScotRail later this year.

On a smaller scale he built a Gauge 1 and later a 300-metre-long 10¼in gauge railway in his garden at Honeysuckle Bottom, near East Horsley in Surrey. Symes hosted open days for Children in Need, when guests could ride on a steam train then enjoy tea and home-made cakes, or bring and run their own trains. He also restored vintage tractors.

Symes was also a pioneering ecologist. When he bought Honeysuckle Bottom it had no mains water or electricity; he insisted on sticking with a generator and a well. The techniques he developed for environmental living paid off in the 1990 series The House that Bob Built, in which a suitably “green” dwelling was constructed at Milton Keynes.
Likewise his enthusiasm for foraging for wild mushrooms, nettles and snails informed The Ad Hoc Cook for Radio 4. Nettle stew, nettle spinach and the like appeared regularly on the Symes family table.


Himself the inventor of an effective lavatory ventilator, Symes in 1989 formed the Association of Invention Management, so that inventors seeking financial backing to develop their products “would know they are not being ripped off”. For two decades he chaired the Institute of Patentees and Inventors; launching National Invent-A-Thing Week in 1992, he said that the image of the “mad professor” had to be discouraged.


The Vienna-born Symes exotically styled himself Baron Schutzmann von Schutzmansdorff, a title dating from 1407; friends shortened this to “Baron Bob”. On his visits to shoot videos of Austrian trains for his bilingual production company, he became accustomed to elderly Viennese bowing as he alighted from a tram.


Robert Symes-Schutzmann (POPPERFOTO/GETTY)

 
Robert Alexander Schutzmann was born on May 6 1924; his father Dr Herbert von Schutzmannsdorff was a lawyer and ardent Zionist, his mother Lolabeth Zipser a writer. He was educated at the Realgymnasium in Vienna and the Institut auf dem Rosenberg at St Gallen, Switzerland.


Robert’s father died just before Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Soon afterwards, his mother escaped with Robert and his sister to Trieste and from there to Palestine.


Determined to fight the Nazis, Robert contacted a former British diplomat in Vienna, a family friend who was stationed in Cairo. Robert’s fluent German, French and Arabic helped him to obtain a commission in the Royal Navy, the diplomat dealing with the formalities.
He was assigned to motor torpedo boats in the eastern Mediterranean, and before long was commanding his own. Symes – who throughout his naval service was clean-shaven – recalled close encounters with the Germans, and an incident when he was ordered to run the anti U-boat boom at Tripoli in the Lebanon, only to career into other MTBs moored at the jetty.



He regularly had requests played on the BBC’s Forces Prom, and after being demobilised called at Broadcasting House to thank the “old trout” of a producer, Monica Chapman. She invited him to a Beethoven concert that night; they were engaged in a week and married in six. She went on to be the regular producer of Desert Island Discs.


Taking British nationality, Robert adopted the surname of Symes, after his new wife’s uncle. Following several years in the Merchant Navy he became KLM’s press officer in London, then joined the BBC Overseas Service. In 1958 he travelled to Nigeria for the Colonial Office to install radio transmitters for Lagos and Enugu.

Moving into television, Symes joined the infant Horizon programme. His early documentaries included A Bit of an Experience, interviewing the survivors of brain surgery, and The Man Who Started the War, about Alfred Naujocks, the SS officer who staged the fake raid by Polish troops on Danzig’s radio station that gave Hitler the pretext to annex Poland.

He contested Mid-Sussex as a Liberal in February and October 1974, and later was selected by the Conservatives as a European parliamentary candidate. Symes held a long-service medal as a special constable, and the Knight’s Cross First Class, from Austria.

Late in 2012 he sold Honeysuckle Bottom and moved to west Wales. His books included Powered Flight (1958); Crikey! It Works (1992); The Young Engineer’s Handbook (1993); and Eureka! The Book of Inventing (1994, with Robin Bootle).

His first wife Monica died in 1999, and in 2007 he married Sheila Gunn, a botanist who had worked on the Ffestiniog Railway. He leaves a daughter from his first marriage, and two stepsons from his second.

Robert Symes-Schutzmann, born May 6 1924, died January 19 2015


 And what more fitting an extra tribute than one of his model rail programmes -plenty more on You Tube.  Bob Symes Tempus fugit


 

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