Obituary: Dorothy Grenfell Williams

Dorothy Louise Grenfell Williams, radio producer and broadcaster: born Johannesburg 4 April 1934; Head, BBC African Service 1988-94; married 1957 John Allen (marriage dissolved), 1971 Geoffry Powell (one son); died Petersham 11 August 1994.

IN 1992, towards the end of her career as Head of the BBC's African Service, Dorothy Grenfell Williams summed up the coming months' task in these words:

In a year which will see an acceleration in Africa's struggle to find its place in a more just world order, it is our aim to strengthen and reinforce the BBC's role as a leading provider of free and untainted information to the continent.

In referring to the BBC's impact in Africa in these terms, she was not exaggerating. Research shows that in Nigeria and Kenya, for instance, around one-third of adults listen regularly to the BBC World Service. The BBC has, over the years, achieved a remarkable standing in the continent.

There was, however, still some way to go when Grenfell Williams first joined the African Service as a programme producer in the late Fifties. The wind of change was already gusting through Africa, and it was a moment when the BBC's programmes to Africa like Calling the Gold Coast and Calling East Africa, which had served well in the colonial period, were no longer in tune with the times.

The BBC needed to devise a new approach and Grenfell Williams was one of a small team charged with doing that; at speed and with limited resources. She was the true creative programme maker on that team, insisting always that the listener came first.

Throughout a long career as a producer, mostly for an African audience, this was her guiding principle. She took the listener seriously, serving their particular needs and tastes. In 'Dear Dorothy', a long-running slot which she presented on Network Africa, offering advice to those who wrote, she achieved a remarkable rapport with her listeners, insisting always that however naive a question might be, each deserved a considered answer. The warmth of her personality came through.

For her, life was meant to be fun. She even found fun in the more bureaucratic aspects of management in the latter-day BBC, when, quite late in her career, she moved from the production studio to editorial and management. In 1988 she became Head of the African Service, a post held with distinction by her father, John, during the Second World War.

For many years, both before and after her 10-year career break to bring up the son of her second and supremely happy marriage, to the architect Geoffry Powell, she convinced herself and those around her that her role was at the creative end of broadcasting. By the mid- Eighties the BBC was, at last, taking seriously the lack of women in top management. She accepted the role of chairing a group in the World Service to devise ways of extending equal opportunities in this field. From this experience, perhaps, came a change of heart and she agreed to move into

management.

There she was a great success. Possessing a good mind, she mastered the skills of management and, through strength of personality, she inspired and led her team. Grenfell Williams set out her approach to broadcasting for her programme makers in a paper that was pinned to every door:

Wherever our sympathies may be as individuals, our aim must be to give our audience a balanced and impartial picture of all the significant aspects of the subjects we cover . . . This can be hard work, but it has to be done if we are not to distort the truth, lose our credibility and finally produce boring programmes.

To be boring was perhaps the cardinal sin in her view of life.

There were pleasing contradictions in her personality. She was an intellectual who loved the teenage romances of American 'B' movies. Her sparkling watercolours showed refinement and taste, yet she collected the more florid examples of Victoriana. She was an immensely sociable person but had a horror of the diplomatic party. Her technique was to make a big splash on arrival - and this her striking appearance and idiosyncratic dress sense enabled her to do - and then disappear. Seven minutes was said to be her average turn-round time.

Dorothy Grenfell Williams was a person of great vitality and energy, yet averse to such physical activities as gardening, organised games, or even walking very far. For many years her ancient Morris Minor ferried her from door to door, collecting more than its fair share of parking tickets. The interior was said to be even more chaotic than her desk at the BBC, yet her mind was tidy and her conversation not in the least disorganised.

She was a person of great courage who fought hard against her final illness. She brought pleasure and inspiration to many through their radios, and to all who knew and worked with her.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain