Date of Birth: 6 May 1924, Vienna, Austria
Birth Name: Robert Alexander Baron Schutzmann von Schutzmansdorff
Nicknames: Bob Syme, Robert Symes-Shutzmann, Bob Symes-Shutzmann
Bob Symes’s inventive mind and considerable engineering skills made him a natural choice in 1965 to join the small team producing the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, the series about new developments in science and technology. Bob appeared on screen regularly, first of all assisting Raymond Baxter and, in later years, with a regular feature in his own right. He continued to contribute to the programme for more than 30 years.
His special interest was in metal engineering, including developments in plumbing. His Tomorrow’s World colleagues particularly remember his presentations of a device that automatically removed air from central heating systems, an innovative ventilator for bathrooms and a process for relining broken water mains without having to dig up the road.
Alongside this, he developed a parallel broadcasting and film-making career. Bob contributed to BBC Radio 4, the British Forces Broadcasting Service, LBC and numerous local stations in the UK and Europe. His many television credits included The Man Who Started the War (1965) and the 1986 series ‘The Strange Affair of...’ that investigated intriguing mysteries from his central European heritage. His love of railways was reflected in such programmes as Model World (1975), The Line That Refused to Die (1980) and Making Tracks (1993-95). His concern for the environment found an ideal outlet in 1990 in the BBC’s The House That Bob Built, a pioneer project demonstrating the ecological benefit of rethinking how we construct our homes.
When the Waverley Line rail route between Carlisle and Edinburgh closed in 1969, Bob set up and chaired the Border Union Railway, a company established to keep the line operating. Though he was unsuccessful then, he did live long enough to see the rebuilding of the route between Edinburgh and Galashiels, now recognised as a key transport artery in the Scottish Borders.
Bob always had a preference for travelling by train. On one filming expedition for Tomorrow’s World in 1977, he and his small team were welcomed at the railway station in Cologne by a local oompah band organised by admirers from the German broadcaster WDR, with whom he regularly collaborated.
Bob was born into an aristocratic family in Vienna, the son of Herbert and Lolabeth Schutzmann von Schutzmannsdorff, and was educated at the Real Gymnasium in Vienna and later at a school in Switzerland. He developed his interest in railways by operating the private line that hauled timber around the family estate, and helping to keep it in good repair. Bob’s father died in 1937 and, as the influence of the Nazis took hold in his homeland, he left for a new life in Britain; his mother and younger sister, Eva, settled in the US.
During the second world war, Bob served in the Mediterranean with the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, and took part in the landings that led to the liberation of Crete. In 1947 he visited the BBC to seek out Monica Chapman, who was responsible for producing the request programme Forces Prom. He wanted to thank her in person for playing the choices that he had submitted. The story goes that Monica’s mother gave up her ticket that evening to a Beethoven concert so that her daughter could invite this naval officer to join her. The two were married six weeks later, and they adopted the surname Symes, one of Monica’s family names.
Bob quickly realised that his languages, French as well as German, English and Arabic, could be valuable to the BBC. Following his wartime naval career, he joined the corporation’s Overseas Service in 1953, focusing in particular on the German service. His London-based work was interrupted in 1956 by a two-year assignment as district officer in the Eastern Region Colonial Office in Nigeria, where he was in charge of broadcasting.
Bob’s many other responsibilities and commitments included chairing the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, and he stood twice for parliament in 1974 as the Liberal candidate for Mid Sussex. He was made a companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1959 but perhaps the recognition of which he was most proud was being awarded the Knight’s Cross (first class) by the country of his birth, in recognition of his tireless work in promoting Anglo-Austrian relations.
At his home in Surrey, he built both a gauge 1 and a larger, 10.25in-gauge garden layout and regularly hosted steaming afternoons attended by admiring railway enthusiasts from all over the UK and northern Europe. At his 90th birthday party, he drove his pride and joy, his newest locomotive, a scale model of a Great Western tank engine, the Lady Melrose.
Monica died in 1998. While visiting the Ffestiniog Railway in north Wales in 2006, Bob met Sheila, a plant physiologist, who was works manager at the line’s locomotive depot at Boston Lodge. They were married within two months.