Christopher Wenner, former Blue Peter presenter who, as Max Stahl, became an acclaimed war correspondent – obituary

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Christopher Wenner in his Blue Peter days – Ken Towner/ANL/Shutterstock

Christopher Wenner, who has died from throat cancer aged 66, spent two years as a Blue Peter presenter before making his name as the war correspondent Max Stahl, a variation on his mother’s maiden name; he covered conflicts in Lebanon, Chechnya and Serbia, was interrogated on several occasions and spoke of having once being involved in “a James Bond chase”. He was best known, however, for filming the massacre of at least 250 peaceful protesters in East Timor in November 1991, an atrocity that eventually led to the former Portuguese colony’s independence from Indonesia.

Wenner had entered East Timor with the documentary maker Peter Gordon to film a diving video, but learnt that there would be a pro-democracy demonstration during a funeral at the Santa Cruz cemetery in the capital, Dili. He described a crowd of about 2,000 people making their way through the streets “waving the flags and banners of the occupied colony’s independence parties”.

“They were almost all students and young people,” he said. “There were women and even some children protesting against the invasion of their country 16 years ago and its subsequent bloody and illegal ‘integration’ into Indonesia at a cost of 200,000 Timorese lives.”

The Indonesian military had also been tipped off about the demonstration and were lying in wait among the tombstones. When the protestors arrived, the troops opened fire. Wenner, who was knocked to the ground, scrambled for cover among the graves and began filming. “I was just getting my camera ready when there was a wall of sound, at least 10 seconds of uninterrupted gunfire,” he said. “The soldiers who arrived fired point blank into a crowd of a couple of thousand young people.”

He recalled the protesters screaming as they fled towards the cemetery gate, creating a bottleneck in the entrance: “Then the wedge broke, and the people poured screaming through the gap, trampling over the bodies, the wounded and the whole alike.” Expecting to be arrested, he buried his footage in a grave. After being questioned for nine hours he returned at night to exhume his film under the cover of darkness. The next day Saskia Kouwenberg, a Dutch reporter, smuggled the tapes out of the country.

Wenner’s subsequent documentary, Cold Blood – The Massacre of East Timor (1992), for a Yorkshire Television First Tuesday documentary, discredited the Indonesian government’s denials that an atrocity had occurred. He insisted that the episode had not, as the authorities claimed, been a bureaucratic accident, adding that relatives who came to inquire about the missing and the dead were detained and interrogated.

Despite the slaughter, Wenner reported that the following morning “there were smiles on the faces of many Timorese”, because not only had foreigners filmed the event, but some had also been beaten up, which would draw the world’s attention to the genocide: “This, they believe, may lift a little the curse which is worse than oppression and death for Timorese, the curse of their total and relentless isolation in their struggle.”

Christopher Max Wenner was born in Kensington, west London, on December 6 1954, the third of four sons of Michael Wenner, a wartime commando and subsequently British ambassador to El Salvador, and his Swedish wife, Gunilla (née Stahle). He followed his father to Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, and while at Balliol College, Oxford, was a member of the dramatic society, playing Orestes in Electra.

Christoper Wenner (left) with fellow Blue Peter presenters in 1979 – Alamy

He worked as an actor and director before joining Blue Peter in September 1978 as successor to John Noakes, who had left three months earlier. He was given some Noakes-style assignments, including abseiling down the east tower of Television Centre and working as a steeplejack. In January 1980 he was involved in an innuendo-laden exchange with Simon Groom after a report about a pair of “knockers” that had been restored at York Minster. Addressing the programme’s young viewers, Wenner said: “Why not go along to the cathedral and see if you can’t have a look at the knockers side by side.” The camera cut to Groom, who leered: “Mmmmm, what a beautiful pair of knockers.”

Wenner left the show in June 1980, the same day that his fellow presenter Tina Heath also departed, with the production team declaring him “deeply unpopular with the viewers”. He returned in 1983 and 1998 to take part in anniversary editions, including a cameo part in the 1998 Blue Peter pantomime, “Back in Time for Christmas”, and appeared as a trooper in the 1984 Doctor Who adventure “The Awakening”. Meanwhile, he had set off for Hollywood on a motorbike hoping to become a film star, but broke down and was held by border guards after crossing into Mexico.

Increasingly he turned to journalism. Dressed in worn brown corduroys, hiking boots and an Indiana Jones hat, he ventured into some of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world, reporting from Guatemala on the government’s anti-guerrilla campaign in 1982. Three years later he was in Beirut making a documentary on the Lebanese drugs trade for Channel Four when he disappeared for 18 days, though it was unclear whether he was kidnapped or simply became so absorbed in work that he failed to keep in touch.

Max Stahl receiving an award in East Timor in 2019 – Presidency of East Timor

Wenner, who spoke Spanish, Swedish, German and French, visited Chechnya in 1992 just as tensions were erupting in the break-away republic, making The Hunt for Red Mercury, about the smuggling of nuclear weapons, for Canadian television. Seven years later he was beaten up by Serb civilians while covering protests over Kosovan Albanians.

He won several honours for his work in East Timor, including the Amnesty International UK Media Award. In 2000 he received the Rory Peck award, named after the freelance cameraman killed in Moscow in 1993, and in 2008 he spoke about his work in East Timor at the Frontline Club in London.

The international outrage over the Santa Cruz cemetery massacre eventually led to a UN-supervised referendum in 1999 in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Defying the Indonesian military by island-hopping on hired fishing boats, Wenner arrived just in time to record their fury, including an attack by 100 Indonesian marines on women and children in a refugee camp.

The country, now known as Timor-Leste, officially became independent in 2002, making it the first new sovereign nation of the 21st century. Stahl made his home there, learning the language recording its history and creating the Max Stahl Timor-Lester Audiovisual Centre in Dili, which contains thousands of hours of footage.

He sometimes told how when things get tough, broadcasters rely on freelancers like him rather than their big-name stars. “The TV companies treat it like stacking supermarket shelves – they have to fill the shelf, but they don’t want to pay out the big money for insurance, or to put their own people at risk,” he told The Guardian. “You never get the money or time upfront from TV companies – maybe you can get an aid agency to give you some help, but the backing is not there from the big corporations.”

Christopher Wenner’s first marriage, in 1984, to Liz Trubridge, a television producer, was dissolved. Latterly he was living in Brisbane, Australia, and is survived by his wife, Ingrid (née Bucens), a paediatrician, and his four children.

Christopher Wenner, born December 6 1954, died October 28 2021

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