Obituary: Dorothy Grenfell Williams
Tuesday 30 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
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.
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