Cape Town Press Club mourns the death of Nigel Murphy
Obituary for The Late Nigel Murphy
An earlier obituary published last week prematurely announced his passing to Anglican heaven. His friend, journalist Gorry Bowes-Taylor reported: “Nigel is not dead!” I’ve just spoken to him!” Bowes-Taylor later reported: You did exactly the right thing, writing that wonderful eulogy which I’m taking to him today. He’ll be very chuffed. It’ll probably keep him going a tad longer!” When this author brought Nigel some humble pie – in the form of snacks and wine – he announced himself “very grateful” that so many friends had said “such kind” things about him. Bowes-Taylor had indeed read the obituary – which we had rapidly withdrawn from the Press Club website – to him.
Nigel stayed with us for another week. His friend Dr Brian Greaves confirmed that Nigel had definitely “gone” this time.
Murphy was a consummate journalist. He loved the cut and thrust of the game and he regularly put people on the spot – something which he achieved with great skill as presenter of The Editors and Microphone-In on SAFM.
After doing broadcasting work in Rhodesia and the UK, he came back to South Africa in 1976, at the height of the anti-apartheid unrests to look after his father, a former army officer who had taken ill. He had freelanced for the British Broadcasting Corporation for 17 years.
Born in the UK on 24 April 1937, Murphy came to South Africa with his parents in 1939, the year “the war” started. He was educated at Wet Pups (Western Province Preparatory School), the Diocesan College (Bishops) and – later after his parents divorced – at Grey College in Bloemfontein.
After school, he joined the SABC where he worked as a radio technician before spending some years in the then Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland for the Rhodesian Federal Broadcasting Corporation at its Bulawayo office.
By the late 1950s he moved back to England. Nigel apparently did innumerable tours of duty in Cyprus which was fighting for its independence from Britain in the 1960s. TV broadcaster Charl Pauw remembers when he turned up at the SABC. “I remember thinking what is this cocky guy doing here?” But Charl and Nigel became the greatest of friends. Charl said: “He was completely professional when dealing with people on and off air. He was special like that. I was very fond of him.”
He chaired the Press Club in the run-up to the first democratic elections and interviewed – or, better put, interrogated – such people as FW de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Eugene Terre’ Blanche. After serving as chair of the Press Club, he remained on the committee for many years. He enthusiastically always asked the question about a potential speaker: “Will he (or she) put bums on seats?”
I phoned him up recently to ask him how he was – he moved to a new flat in Kenilworth about a year ago – and he immediately asked me if I had managed to get President Donald Trump to speak at the Press Club. I said I would try my best… I joked that his old mate Robert Mugabe was now retired, perhaps we should invite him…
As a journalist who regularly appeared on The Editors – which at that time was at 12.30pm on Sundays for half an hour – I was invited to enjoy some snacks and drink loads of wine with him and the other guests in his office at the Sea Point SABC building. I recall emerging from there with my head spinning.
Nigel’s tenure with the SABC ended abruptly in 2003 – he was replaced by Dianne Kohler-Barnard as presenter of The Editors in May that year. A few Press Club buddies of Nigel’s – including (now late) Barry Streek, (also recently late) Brendan Boyle and I took him to lunch after his last show – which must have been at the end of April of that year. It was a sad end to a long career. Although he did a few ‘gigs’ for Fine Music Radio and other freelance work, he slipped largely from public view.
Tony Grogan, the Cape Town Press Club’s resident cartoonist, perhaps captures the essence of the man. “I have fond memories of the important part he played in the early days of the Press Club (the Club was founded in 1976).” Grogan noted that he inevitably asked “feisty” questions of the Press Club speakers. He was a real professional journalist, Grogan noted.
Former Cape Times editor John Scott, with Nigel a founding member of the Cape Town Press Club says Nigel was a professional radio broadcaster “to his fingertips, with a silky voice to match”. On Microphone-in – normally on prime time on Friday evenings – he tackled the issues of the day head-on, no holds barred, with listeners invited to question his guests. On The Editors, John noted, Nigel invited panels of senior journalists whom he prompted into expressing controversial opinions. It was so controversial that the SABC eventually fired him, reported John. Pauw says of Nigel that he pioneered interactive broadcasting in South Africa. He was effectively the founder of talk radio which is today the norm. “He was the absolute pioneer of the phone-in radio in South Africa. It was a concept that was not acceptable to the SABC … to put people on the air and not have a buffer between their opinions and the air. Most of the programs those days were packaged. That is his lasting legacy.”
After his forced retirement, Nigel appeared to exist “on the smell of an oil rig, though that never stopped him whenever you met him, from hospitably insisting you call in for a ‘gargle’,” said Scott. Fortunately, Nigel had very generous friends including Georgina Clarke, who bought him the Kenilworth flat, and Dr Brian Greaves, who managed his limited finances and ensured that he had plenty of gin to drink. Greaves looked in on him every day. Nigel never looked completely well and was painfully thin, particularly in the last months of his life. Nigel suffered from emphysema in recent years and was on an oxygen support machine but remained at home with the support of a day nurse, Thandeka Qhele, and night nurse, Pretty Cebibokwe.
Scott, a former chairman of the Press Club as well, said that Nigel reminded him of Jeffrey Bernard, who wrote the Low Life column in the Spectator and died young. Nigel “by some sort of miracle, lasted into his eighties”.
Former Cape Town Mayor Clive Keegan described Nigel as “an exceptionally able and intelligent radio man”.
Nigel was a pillar of the Press Club even after he left the committee. He regularly attended functions, continued to ask pertinent questions of our speakers and supported the efforts of the committee to bring a range of speakers to the Press Club table.
Gloria Barrett, former press club secretary said from Australia that Nigel’s death was the “end of an era”. Another former Press Club secretary Muriel Hau Yoon described Nigel as being “generous to a fault”. When he was elected chairman of the Press Club, his first task was to review the secretarial fee which had fallen hopelessly behind inflation. Muriel added: “He also had the tenacity of a bulldog in pursuing any perceived act of unfairness or injustice. Rest in peace, dear Nigel, a jeroboam of the best bubbly is awaiting you on the other side.”
Dr Greaves said Nigel had been found dead in his bed on Tuesday morning by Qhele, his day nurse. He will be cremated. His ashes will be scattered in Kirstenbosch Gardens near to where his mother’s ashes were spread in 1995. His mother, Faye Longhurst Murphy, was a noted landscape artist. She held 60 solo exhibitions in her life – and paid for Nigel’s schooling. Nigel’s father died in 1976 at Booth Memorial Hospital, run by the Salvation Army. Greaves reported that the bulk of Nigel’s estate would go to the army. Nigel kept his parents’ clothes as well as his grandmother’s Victorian dresses from the late 1800s.
No memorial service will be held, but a wake will be held at the Rambling Rose, in Meadowridge, within three weeks.
Rest in Peace Nigel Murphy.
Tribute by Donwald Pressly, deputy chairperson of the Cape Town Press Club.
Cape Town Press Club Committee