Obituary: Olive Shapley

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit