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Obituary: Dorothea Brooking

June Averill
Tuesday 06 April 1999 00:02 BST

THE WORK of Edith Nesbit, the turn-of-the-century children's author, is known to generations of 20th- century children not only through the printed word but through television, film and video. The first British television version of her 1906 story The Railway Children was adapted and produced by Dorothea Brooking, and transmitted by the BBC as an eight-part serial in February-March 1951. Edward Barnes, former Head of Children's programmes, states that through her realisation of the books of E. Nesbit, Brooking "conjured up a world of Edwardian childhood that has never been surpassed".

Young viewers of today, accustomed to multi-channelled coloured television, would find it difficult to imagine the media in March 1950 when Brooking transferred from the BBC overseas service at Bush House to be a producer in the newly formed children's television department at Alexandra Palace. The black-and-white BBC channel was the only one available, and only to people living within range of the London and Sutton Coldfield transmitters. The July 1949 mass observation report on television had found that only one in 50 interviewees had a television set, and one in three had never seen television. Expansion came rapidly in the 1950s.

Brooking was born Dorothea Smith Wright in 1916, to a family with theatrical connections. One ancestor was the 19th-century actor Charles Mayne Young (died 1856), who performed at Drury Lane, and Dorothea's brother was also an actor. Educated at boarding school in England and finishing school in Montreux, Dorothea studied acting at the Old Vic - her stage name was Daryl Wilde - where she met and married a fellow student, John Brooking, whose stage name was Franklin.

After the birth of her son, Timothy, the family went to Shanghai where Dorothea spent two years working in Shanghai radio. Escaping before the Japanese occupation in the Second World War she joined the BBC on her return to England, one of seven producers - four women and three men - who were chosen from over 100 applicants.

The department soon left the confines of two tiny studios at Ally Pally for the larger studio reserved for children's programmes at the former film studios in Lime Grove, West London. This was hardly luxury by present- day standards as there were only three cameras, very few film facilities and a limited pool of actors with television experience, until commercial television started in 1955.

In spite of the high cost of sets, many families bought one in order to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By 1955 more children were watching television than listening to children's radio programmes. Everybody was expected to be versatile, and Dorothea Brooking's early programmes covered such diverse subjects as HMS Worcester and agricultural implements.

In 1951 came her adaptation of The Railway Children, with Carole Lorimer, Michael Croudson and Marian Chapman playing the children. This was transmitted live, and appealed to adults and children alike. It was followed in 1952 with another huge success, the first of Brooking's three BBC productions of another children's classic, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, starring Elizabeth Saunders as Mary Lennox. Also in that year, Brooking made a programme for younger children entitled Meet The Penguins, which was written by her sister Josephine. The penguins, drawn by Bill Hooper, were like animated puppets.

Brooking's talent for children's serials had by now been established, and the remaining years of the decade saw her productions of Gentle Falcon, Benbow, The Angels, The Prince and the Pauper, Black Brigand (based on a Dumas story), Little Lord Fauntleroy and Louisa May Alcott's Good Wives, with Phyllis Calvert playing Mrs March.

By 1959 television was no longer "the rich man's toy", and the term "children's television" was dropped from billings. Brooking's production of Great Expectations with Dinsdale Landen playing Pip was seen as the Sunday serial, by many who had never read Charles Dickens's novel.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer followed in seven episodes from July 1960, and the second BBC production of The Secret Garden with Prunella Scales playing Martha repeated the original success to an increased audience. Brooking then adapted The Treasure Seekers, another Nesbit novel (first published 1899) with Philip Latham. The Phoenix and the Carpet followed in 1974

Other 1960s productions included The Rackety Street Gang, Katy (based on Susan Coolidge's stories of a girl in late 19th-century America), and in 1963 Eric Ambler's Epitaph for a Spy. In 1964 the children's department amalgamated with women's programmes to form a short-lived department entitled "Family Programmes". Brooking spent some time in schools broadcasting where her notable programmes included a play about the Bronte Sisters, before returning to children's programmes.

In the late 1960s she retired early from the BBC and went freelance. Television had changed enormously in just two decades. A television set was now "part of the furniture". Commercial television had brought a second channel in 1955 and BBC2 started up in 1964.

Noel Streatfeild had long been a favourite with children. Her novel Ballet Shoes had first been heard on radio Children's Hour in 1947 and had had three subsequent sound productions. Streatfeild was a friend of Brooking, who directed an adaptation of her 1970 novel Thursday's Child, reputedly with the author playing a small part. Rumer Godden was another friend who worked professionally with Brooking. The adaptation of her 1972 Whitbread award- winning book The Diddakoi was transmitted on 27 December 1972 as Kizzy, the name of the heroine. Nineteen seventy-five saw Brooking's third adaptation and production of The Secret Garden for the BBC. The video of this production was sold not only in Britain but also in the US.

Although she worked on other serials until her last in 1981, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer by Vivienne Alcock, Dorothea Brooking will be remembered for her talent in bringing to life childrens classics.

Anna Home, in her book Into The Box of Delights (1993), a history of children's television, paid tribute to Dorothea Brooking as "one of the most influential makers of drama from the early Fifties onwards". A vision mixer from early days remembers her as "very serious but good to work with, very combatant at a time when many were not; she was outstanding in that way".

The respect and affection of those who worked with her extended to her friends and neighbours in Sussex. Dorothea Brooking acted with the Nutley local drama society (and was its president when she died) and worked for the church.

Dorothea Smith Wright, television producer and director: born Slough, Berkshire 7 December 1916; married 1936 John Brooking (died 1984; one son); died Haywards Heath, West Sussex 23 March 1999.

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