Obituary: Olive Shapley

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The Independent Culture
OLIVE SHAPLEY was one of the first radio broadcasters and producers to take the microphone - sometimes accompanied by the seven-ton recording van - to people in the streets, in their homes, and at work: a startling departure from the studio-based broadcasting which was the norm. She herself remarks in her autobiography (Broadcasting a Life, 1996) that "despite the apparent problems posed by some `ordinary' English people in communicating with their fellow countrymen, I believed passionately that broadcasting was at last on the right track".

When Shapley first broadcast Yorkshire and Lancashire accents and took the unmistakable sound of the Scouser and the burr of the Bolton mill worker into the nation's parlours and front rooms, the reaction was mixed. The Listener radio critic, referring to one of Shapley's programmes, was "prepared to swear that very few Londoners understood more than one word in six". Shapley herself admitted that there "were some strong dialects" and "was not certain whether this should have been a cause for celebration or despair given our country's confusion and contradictions (still) about dialects and accents." The debate she helped start still continues.

Olive Shapley was born in Peckham in 1910 into a lower-middle-class family. Her father was a sanitary inspector and later chief inspector of the Public Health Department. Young Olive saw for herself the squalor and poverty of the homeless poor and the plight of people sleeping under railway arches. Her concern for the underprivileged, her belief in the potential of the ordinary person and her abhorrence of injustice and inequality were to be a driving force for the rest of her life. Together, of course, with an irrepressible sense of fun. She had a huge, generous but unpretentious personality with a charm that all, male and female alike, found utterly captivating. She was also a good listener.

She went up to Oxford in 1929 and before long found a soul-mate: Barbara Bells (now Baroness Castle of Blackburn). Holidays were spent together, with politics the main source of conversation. Olive Shapley's socialism developed, although in those formative years she indulged in a brief flirtation with Communism. The Establishment did not forget. Even in her sixties she received regular visits from MI5, but looked forward to the officer's visit and "always made him a pot of tea".

In 1934 she began her career with the BBC as Children's Hour organiser, with the responsibility of producing five hour-long programmes every week. These included at least two full-length live plays a week and often one of the announcers, Wilfred Pickles, soon to become famous, would read some of the parts.

Much of the Children's Hour material originated in Manchester. At that time the programme director in the BBC North Region was another left-wing radical, Archie Harding, who had gathered around him a group of talented people producing a range of innovative features including Cotton, Steel, Wool and Coal by the aspiring poet and writer Geoffrey Bridson. It was a creative environment entirely suited to the skills and personality of their newcomer Oxford graduate.

With Joan Littlewood, Shapley produced The Classic Soil which purported to show that little had changed since Friedrich Engels described Manchester as "the classic soil . . . where capitalism flourished". Her other documentaries, including Homeless People and Miner's Wives, further reflected Shapley's concern for the disadvantaged to whom she increasingly offered the freedom of the air. She never exploited the interviewee. Not for her the glib soundbite. And when the microphone had been packed away she often remained in contact with the interviewees, many of whom benefited personally from her acts of kindness.

In June 1939 Shapley and John Salt, the BBC's north regional programme director who had replaced Archie Harding, announced their engagement and were married on the following Bastille Day. John Salt was the great-grandson of Sir Titus Salt, one of the great textile paternalists who founded Salts Mill and the model village of Saltaire on the outskirts of Bradford. As the BBC's policy was not to employ staff married to each other, Shapley resigned from the BBC and instead operated as a freelance. The couple spent two years in London before moving to New York, where John took up a post as deputy North American director of the BBC.

During the Second World War the couple rented Alistair Cooke's spacious Fifth Avenue apartment at a "decidedly uncommercial rent". Through the influence of their friend Mabel Dobson, their part-time maid from Harlem, Shapley was able to gain access to the black community and move around safely in gathering material for programmes. A feature of her work during the war was a Fortnightly Newsletter for Children's Hour in which children spoke about their everyday experiences. Thirty-eight newsletters were broadcast up until April 1945.

The couple's return to England coincided with the launch of Woman's Hour and Shapley became the programme's third presenter. It was an association with the programme which was to last for 20 years, during which time she helped shape its reputation for tackling sensitive issues and pushing boundaries.

Personally she suffered her full quota of misfortune. During her early days in Manchester she became pregnant and had a difficult abortion which had a traumatic effect on her. While in America and before the birth of her two sons, Daniel and Nicholas, she had two miscarriages. On returning to Manchester she gave birth to her third child, Christina, only a short time before the death of her first husband John in 1947. She later married Christopher Gorton, who was 15 years older than her and who died in 1959.

Living in a huge rambling mansion called Rose Hill with its own orchard and stables in the leafy and cosmopolitan Manchester suburb of Didsbury, after Gorton's death she formed the Rose Hill Trust for Unsupported Mothers and Babies (she refused to use the expression "unmarried mothers"), providing mothers and babies with accommodation, food and clothing. But, after 14 years and by the beginning of 1979, demand was waning. The trust was wound up - only for the house to be used again for another of Shapley's causes, this time as a reception centre for Vietnamese "boat people", refugees from Hong Kong.

Olive Shapley never lost her interest in broadcasting and one of the last posts she held was membership of BBC Radio Manchester (GMR)'s Radio Council. While in her seventies she was a frequent broadcaster with the station and as a youngish station manager of Radio Manchester, I always appreciated her encouragement, commitment and sheer ebullience.

In the early Eighties the station was involved in launching "experimental" local stations, including a station in Wigan, within Greater Manchester. The idea was to get closer to people and give them more access to the airwaves than was possible with Radio Manchester. Situated in a caravan close to Wigan market, the station opened at 7am on a rainy morning in 1985 and a crowd of well-wishers including a children's brass band had gathered to wish the station luck. Among the small crowd was Olive Shapley, who was not in good health at the time but had insisted on making the 20-mile journey from Manchester.

As the first sounds of the station came over the loudspeakers and local people were waiting outside the caravan to be interviewed, she looked at me and said: "This is great. It takes me back to the beginning."

Olive Mary Shapley, broadcaster and documentary producer: born London 10 April 1910; married 1939 John Salt (died 1947; two sons, one daughter), 1952 Christopher Gorton (died 1959); died Rhayader, Powys 13 March 1999.