Sheila Hodgson

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The Independent Online

Ruth Sheila Hodgson, scriptwriter and dramatist: born Beckenham, Kent 22 December 1921; married 1971 David Middleton; died South Newton, Wiltshire 25 December 2001.

Sheila Hodgson was a prolific writer of radio and television dramas at a time, the 1950s to the 1980s, when actually making a living out of such an occupation was rare. She was a pioneer who contributed greatly to the entertainment of the nation, and was (though more by luck than judgement) directly responsible for a startling transformation in the life of the clarinettist Acker Bilk. But her most lasting fame came late in life and in a wholly unexpected manner, when she turned her considerable talents to the supernatural.

In the realm of the wireless she was a purveyor of light fictions: thrillers, tales of adventure, detective stories. On occasion a superior piece of psychological suspense would pass through her typewriter – This Line is Now Closed (1978), for example, a chilling old-lady-in-peril tale which was written expressly for the distinguished, and elderly, radio actress Grizelda Hervey (generally agreed by most critics to have had the best, most terror-filled shriek in the business). But in the main Hodgson aimed to quicken the pulse in as diverting a manner as possible, as in The Long Drive Home (1967; directed by the legendary Betty Davies), which featured a clever murder plot set in the world of golf-bores with a cast (Timothy West, William Fox, Peter Howell, the inimitable Rolf Lefebvre) you could only have afforded on the radio.

Sheila Hodgson was born, in Beckenham, Kent, in 1921 into a family close to the hurly-burly of radical politics; her father Stuart Hodgson was the last editor of the great campaigning left-wing newspaper the Daily News. She went to school in Broadstairs, then attended Brighton and Hove High School before joining the Michel St-Denis Stage School. During the Second World War she toured with Ensa, later gaining invaluable stage experience with a variety of small repertory companies.

Her first plays were performed in London theatre clubs on Sunday afternoons (you didn't need a licence from the Lord Chamberlain) – The Gates of Brass at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue in 1950, My Friend the Enemy, with a young Miriam Karlin in the cast, at Bolton's Theatre Club in 1953. She joined the BBC as a scriptwriter at Television Centre, then, after six years, moved to ATV, where she became part of the team of writers concocting medical tear-jerkers for Emergency Ward 10 ("One of the bonuses," she used to say, "of writing a twice-weekly serial is dreaming up an impossible cliffhanger and then passing it over to the next writer with a sweet smile").

In 1961 she wrote a children's thriller serial for ATV about sinister goings-on along the South Coast. She called it Stranger on the Shore. ATV used a moody piece, "Jenny", by the jazz clarinettist Acker Bilk as the serial's theme which, when released as "Stranger on the Shore", spent nearly a year in the pop charts including three weeks at No 2 (only Cliff Richard's excessively jaunty "The Young Ones" kept it from the top spot), and transformed Bilk's career.

Towards the end of her own career Hodgson became fascinated by the supernatural, successfully adapting for radio's Midweek Theatre (a showcase series which featured the early work of writers such as Andrew Davies, R.D. Wingfield, Frederic Raphael and N.J. Crisp) several of Algernon Blackwood's "Dr John Silence: psychic detective" stories, with the sinister-voiced Malcolm Hayes in the title role.

Even more popular was her next venture, the fleshing-out of many of M.R James's "Stories I Have Tried to Write" (i.e., plots which had misfired, and which James had then put aside and never used) into full-blown weird dramas, and utilising that great radio actor David March as James himself, a character in his own stories. Hodgson then reprocessed them into narrative form; many were subsequently published in Blackwood's and in Richard Dalby and Rosemary Pardoe's 1987 collection Ghosts and Scholars. A full collection of these uneasy tales, The Fellow Travellers, came out in 1998, a fitting monument, now that little of her work is left in the radio and television archives, to a writer with a talent to amuse and to chill.

Jack Adrian