Valerie was an actress. She was RADA-trained (1955 – 1957) and worked in the theatre initially. She later worked at Tyne Tees Television as an announcer and interviewer for the regional news magazine programme North East Roundabout (1959 – 1960); she left the programme in 1960 to marry James Sargent, who was stage manager of the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. Valerie also worked at Granada Television, Associated Rediffusion and Anglia Television during this period.
Valerie joined the BBC in 1960 as an in-vision BBC TV announcer, working alongside Judith Chalmers, Meryl O’Keeffe and Sheila Tracy in the evenings. She later introduced the first space flight with Yuri Gagarin (12th April 1961) and was on duty when the first satellite pictures from the USA, via Telstar, were received to Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall (12th July 1962). She went on to present regional news programme South Today (1964) and the arts magazine programme Town and Around which would lead to her famous marriage. She interviewed a variety of people including Rudi Lance and his chimps from the Bertram Mills Circus, and the Russian clown Oleg Popov (1930 – 2016).
Valerie was a friend of Carole Ward (Play School presenter 1964 – 1971 and who later directed the programme) from their RADA days and had been working on various ITV networks when Carole recommended her to Play School founding producer Joy Whitby. Joy recalled that Valerie arrived at her audition in an elegant, all-black plastic mac. Valerie told her that she wanted to diversify and do more than just introduce programmes as an announcer. In late-1965 she would leave announcing to become a popular Play School presenter (September 1965 – December 1969), appearing in 131 editions. Ex-Play School presenter Gordon Clyde thought she and Carole Ward had tossed a coin to see who would go and interview the Hungarian conductor, Sir Georg Solti and that Valerie won.
Paul R. Jackson met Lady Valerie Solti in December 2008 at her London home when writing his Play School books and asked her if this was true – and she said only partly: “In September 1964, a planned item on an American film failed to arrive for review, so I rang friends and asked if Sir Georg would talk about his current production of The Ring at the Royal Opera House. He agreed to be interviewed, romance followed and we married in 1967.” Paul then asked for her memories of working on Play School and she came up with three: “I once met my bank manager and he asked whether I deliberately sang flat? That made me laugh; I was doing a Hallowe’en programme with Rick Jones in October 1966 and I was cutting a pumpkin and slipped with the knife. We had to stop recording due to my finger bleeding profusely and Katoo, the cockatoo, once flew into the rafters and we had to wait for him to come down. I am particularly interested in primary school education and the vital role a first-class education plays in the early years of a child’s life, so was pleased to be part of Play School.”
Paul contacted Valerie again at her London home in September 2017 and she was delighted to talk about the pioneering days of television: “I had been acting and then got an audition at Tyne Tees TV on the 31st December 1958 with a chap who called everyone ‘mate’ and thankfully I passed and joined the news magazine programme North East Roundabout. My mentor whilst I was there was the head of features, H. K. Lewinhat. I recall various interesting interviews including a de-skunked skunk, a female car mechanic, walking to the causeway to interview the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury and meeting Paul Robeson in his big dark coat and hat off the train and taking him to the best hotel, The Station Hotel in Newcastle, where he sang Sweet Charity unaccompanied.
“I worked with Tom Coyne, Jack Clark a freelance journalist who had a news agency, and impresario George Black who put on variety shows for Tyne Tees. Granada then took me on to work on People and Places, taking over from Judith Chalmers, who had moved to work for BBC TV. I was not very good at interviewing, as I wasn’t a journalist, but it gave one a fantastic experience and a learning curve. When we were announcing, we didn’t have tele-prompters. TV Centre was a new building and I’d never seen any studios like it – they had a lovely new smell to them and the round corridors, so you didn’t get lost. The BBC Club was on the 4th floor and we had Pres A and B on the same floor. Trevor Maskell also worked on Town and Around and all the men were out-of-vision. We had the use of the newly bought Hulton Picture Library to use stills and we wrote our scripts and then it went up the ladder via the duty editor, presentation to the editor then finally to Rowan Ayres for approval.
“Once the television service closed down, during the middle of the night, we went off on foot to Lime Grove Studios and did colour tests and tried PAL (German), NTSC (USA) and Secan (French). We wore bright coloured hats and clothes – Sian blue didn’t work and we couldn’t have any drink, as it would show up on the veins of our face.” Paul asked if there were any memorable announcing broadcasts: “Seeing the flickering image of Gagarin’s face from space was amazing and we stayed up all night to see the first satellite pictures at Goonhilly Downs –this new technology was exciting and I was tremendously privileged to be there then! When I married Solti, he said to me ‘we can’t have two prima donnas in the family’, so I offered my resignation to Joy but continued for a few more years.”
Valerie also made a film appearance in Dentist on the Job (1961).
Valerie then retired from regular TV work, but made occasional appearances including as a panellist on Face the Music (BBC Two and BBC One, 1972 – 1976, 1978 – 1979, 1981 and 1984). Other television credits include: Animal Magic (BBC One); What’s My Line? (BBC TV, 1962); Going for a Song (BBC One, 1965 – 1966); interviewer on Lucky Dip; children’s series Gammon and Spinach (1977 – 1978 and 1980 – 1984); Extra Ordinary – a series for older children at Granada TV (1979 – 1980). Valerie returned in November 1986 as an in-vision announcer on BBC Two to celebrate TV50, the 50th anniversary of BBC Television. Paul asked Valerie for her memories of doing the TV50 night: “Sorry I have no recollection of that at all!”
In 2014, Valerie attended the 50th anniversary reunion of Play School’s first broadcast, at Riverside Studios.
Valerie is the patroness of the World Orchestra for Peace, which her husband founded; he also conducted the first concert at the United Nations. In addition, she devoted time to other cultural organisations, including: the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Trust; the Mariinsky Theatre Trust; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Musica Nel Chiostro; Battignano Italy; the Hungarian Cultural Centre (London); Liszt Academy (Budapest); the W11 Opera children’s opera company in London. After Solti’s death in 1997, she set up The Solti Foundation to assist young musicians, and in 2002 a website dedicated to the Hungarian orchestral and operatic conductor.
Video Clips on the Internet
Here we present a selection of video clips featuring Valerie which we found on social media sites or have made available from our own archive. The clips are presented here for additional reference. Inclusion of a video does not constitute an endorsement of the hosting site/channel/user. If you find any broken links below or are aware of an additional clip(s) which you believe may be a useful addition to this profile, please get in touch with us via our Contact page.
PICTURED: Valerie Pitts. SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: BBC.