Vatican News

A tribute to Jill Tyler-Bevilacqua (1933-2018): historic voice of Vatican Radio

A voice beloved by countless listeners to Vatican Radio around the world, our friend and colleague, Jill Tyler-Bevilacqua, passed away in Rome this week. She would have turned 85 on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption.

By Seàn-Patrick Lovett and Philippa Hitchen

She liked adhesive tape. She used it to stick together the bits and pieces of information (usually quotes and random lines of poetry) that she gathered from the most unlikely sources (typically out-of-print books and tattered magazines). She never used a computer in her life. She did make abundant use of coloured marker pens and eraser liquid: which meant her scripts were practically unreadable. But the content and style of her radio programmes were sublime, unique, and unrepeatable.

The old-fashioned way

Nowadays, when we call someone old-fashioned, it’s almost an insult. But Jill was old-fashioned in such a quintessentially old-fashioned way that she totally redefined the term. She was a trained actress who had attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Which is why she spoke with the clipped, elocution-perfect delivery listeners once associated with the early years of the BBC. 

Her curiosity was boundless, especially when it came to history, literature, and just about every form of art and culture. Days before she died she was searching for a book about the Ballets Russes. She loved music and would often arrive in the recording studio with battered gramophone records from her own collection, quite forgetting that CD players and digital systems had long since replaced record turntables.

From the Dolce Vita to the Vatican

Jill arrived in Rome at the height of the so-called Dolce Vita, when the city was a crucible of creativity and a playground for the world’s jet-set. In fact, her very first job was as script supervisor at the famed Cinecittà film studios for the blockbuster production of “Cleopatra”, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

But her love of words, and the Catholic Church, found a new focus during the Second Vatican Council when she started reporting for the Catholic weekly, “The Universe”. It was a small step from there to Vatican Radio where she became one of the first English-language “speakers” tasked with translating a daily bulletin of papal activities from Italian into English and broadcasting it live on air.

Her heritage in sound

Over the years, Jill created an archive of radio dramas and feature programmes that have entertained and inspired generations of listeners. To name just a few: “Witness”, a dramatization of the lives of the martyrs; “Creation”, a soundscape combining poetry, music and reflections; “The Vatican Centuries”, a monumental production bringing 2,000 years of Church history to life. Her last series, “There’s More to the Sunday Gospel than Meets the Eye”, accompanies the Church’s liturgical readings throughout the year.

Thanks to the generosity of her three children, Luca, Michele and Prisca, her programmes will continue to be made available, both as digital podcasts, and as traditional rebroadcasts, on local radio stations all over the world. Hopefully new generations of listeners will be able to benefit from Jill’s deep faith, thoughtful insights, and gentle humour.

Because one of the best things about her particular style of old-fashioned – is that it is timeless.

27 July 2018, 12:37