Obituary: Dorothy Smith

Biddy Baxter
Friday 07 August 1992 23:02

Dorothy Elsie Smith, historian, lecturer and television script-writer, born Tanworth-in-Arden Warwickshire 18 December 1921, married 1950 Edward Barnes (one son, two daughters), died London 7 August 1992.

'I LIKED the story best,' an eight-year-old wrote to Blue Peter after watching the exploits of Judy RN, the only dog ever to be listed as an official prisoner of war - she won the Dickin medal, the Victoria Cross of the animal world, during the Japanese invasion of Sumatra.

The weaver of that and hundreds of other tales was the historian Dorothy Smith, who contributed to the children's television programme from 1963 to 1989, when she suffered the first of the strokes that ended her life so cruelly.

It was largely thanks to Smith that there was always an element of mind-stretching grit amongst the candyfloss of 'easy' items that made up the twice-weekly editions of Blue Peter. That millions of children, many of whom would only have had the Beano as their staple reading material, chose to stay tuned to stories about the Tolpuddle martyrs, Samuel Pepys, the Birth of the Co-op or the Burghers of Calais was a tribute to the prowess of her storytelling.

Her output was prodigious and she always had the knack of ferreting out elements in the lives of great men and women that would specially appeal to children. Charles Dickens's detestation of the blacking factory where he was forced to work as a nine-year-old, for example, chilled the hearts of children whose out-of-school working lives consisted of paper rounds and Saturday morning car-washing. And how many children knew that the great Admiral Lord Nelson was a weak, sickly child who was so lonely and homesick when he was sent to sea, aged 12, everyone called him 'Poor Horace'. She had a magical knack of finding little-known anecdotes and off-beat stories like that of Dolly Shepherd, who pioneered the sport of parachuting for women, and the Great Stink, in 1858, when the River Thames smelt so disgusting that Parliament had to be suspended.

The fact that all children see history in black and white - baddies and goodies with no shades of grey - exacted a severe discipline, but Dorothy Smith never compromised her credibility as a historian.

These historical documentaries were always illustrated with specially commissioned drawings by the artist Robert Broomfield. He and Smith became a remarkable team. Broomfield would prepare a meticulous storyboard from her script. There were between 60 and 80 pictures, some very large so that they could be used for plot points, since the narrator - usually the actor John Nettleton - was never in vision. The pictures were animated by expert camera-work - so there was an illusion of constant movement to match the pace of the story. And sometimes specially shot film would be included and archive photographs and engravings from the libraries of Hulton and the Illustrated London News.

Smith's output was imaginative and varied. One week there would be 'The Long Drag', the story of the Settle-to-Carlisle railway line. That might be followed by Grace Darling, with a studio display of memorabilia including material from the very dress Grace wore when she helped to rescue the survivors of the Forfarshire in 1838. Touches like these, making history really come alive, were a mark of Smith's great talents. Her documentary on Marks & Spencer's rise from their penny bazaars to a great multi-national retailer prompted Lord Sieff of Brimpton to write saying it was the best portrayal of the Marks & Spencer story that had ever been broadcast.

Long before the days of women's lib, Smith had a special talent for portraying women pioneers - aviators like Harriet Quimby, Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Scientists like Marie Curie, nurses like Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, and doctors like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. One fan letter from a female GP said: 'I became determined to be a doctor when I was a small child after seeing Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's story on Blue Peter.'

Dorothy Smith was born in Tanworth-in- Arden in Warwickshire in 1921. Her parents were Percival Smith, a pioneer of vocational guidance testing, and Charlotte, a silversmith of great distinction. Dorothy and her younger sister, Barbara, were brought up in the King's Heath area of Birmingham in a world that revolved around the church - All Saints - where her father was Warden. This laid the foundations of her unshakeable faith which was rooted in the Anglican Church.

After her years at King Edward VII School, Dorothy read history at Birmingham University, where she graduated with honours and proceeded to do her bit for the Second World War in 1942 by becoming Personnel Officer at Lucas, a factory making electrical components for aircraft.

Just after the end of the war, in 1945, came a change in career that began a lifelong love of travel. She joined the YWCA as an executive helping to manage the All Ranks Leave hotels in Naples, Rome and Vienna. Vienna was redolent of Harry Lime and The Third Man - a hotbed of intrigue and espionage, and it was while taking part in a British Forces Network Radio music programme that she met the station announcer, Edward Barnes, whom she later married.

Smith left Vienna for Edinburgh in 1948, where she became Warden at the university's Balfour Hostel for students, moving in 1950 to be Club Leader at the YWCA's Great Russell Street headquarters in London.

She and Barnes were married in the same year and their three children were born in quick succession, Simon in 1951 followed by Rachel and Julia. Caring for three children prevented any full-time employment, but at home, between feeds and nappy-changing, Dorothy turned to writing. In 1958, her drama documentary The Fall of Robespierre was produced by BBC television with Donald Pleasance in the title-role. From 1960 to 1964 she lectured in history at Westminster College, where she became a friend of a fellow lecturer, the playwright NF Simpson. From 1964 onwards she lectured in history and current affairs for the Workers Educational Association and the Townswomen's Guild. In 1963, her first Blue Peter documentary was transmitted, 'The Great Fire of London', and she was also a regular contributor to Tony Jay's anthology series Dig This Rhubarb.

A committed Anglo-Catholic, Dorothy Smith was a frequent contributor to BBC Television's religious programmes with drama documentaries including a life of Cardinal Vaughan, praised by that doyen of critics Maurice Wiggin as 'an extremely lucid and vivid portrait', and Charles de Foucauld, the French explorer and Trappist monk, who was played by Robert Stephens. When Blue Peter decided to embark on a science fiction series - Bleep & Booster - Dorothy supplied many of the storylines and wrote the scripts. Booster the earth boy and Bleep, a friendly inhabitant of the planet Miron, became cult figures, the artist William Tymym providing the pictures and Peter Hawkins, of Flower Pot Men fame, the many voices.

But Dorothy Smith contributed far more than scripts. In many ways she was the programme's eminence grise, coming up with ideas that became integral parts of the programme's policy. Her children adored their mongrel dog, Duff. Smith's suggestion that Blue Peter should have a puppy to be a dog for all children stuck in the high-rise flats of the 1960s, unable to keep pets of their own, resulted in Petra, who took part in every programme during the 15 years of her life until her death in 1977, the first of many programme pets. Smith also suggested that a badge would help children feel they belonged to Blue Peter and when the programme held its appeal for Cambodia and the victims of Pol Pot's murderous regime, it was her idea for viewers to organise bring- and-buy sales to raise cash quickly rather than collect the usual scrap commodities.

There was one occasion, however, when a Dorothy idea backfired. Her family recipe for ginger beer was demonstrated during a stiflingly hot summer. There was an enthusiastic response from children followed by outraged letters from adults saying the drink was not only intoxicating and quite unsuitable for the thousands of children who had written in for the recipe, but it had caused a series of explosions from Land's End to John o' Groats.

In collaboration with her husband, who produced the series, Smith provided full- length, documentary scripts for the Blue Peter Special Assignments. There were five series in all and they included Valerie Singleton becoming the first British television personality to be presented to the Pope. Other highlights were programmes on Marie Antoinette at Versailles, St Therese of Lisieux, Rudyard Kipling, the Duke of Wellington and Charlotte Bronte.

This was also the team that created Treasure Houses, a series that explored museums, historic houses and Britain's industrial heritage. One of the most notable was 'The Power Houses', the story of the rise and fall of the tinning industry in Cornwall and the employment of young children as mine workers. This was all the more heartfelt as, since the late 1960s, Smith had lived part of each year in her cottage in Mount's Bay, near Penzance, surrounded by ruined engine houses and the ghosts of dead miners.

'Queen Victoria's Holiday Home' recaptured the idyllic summer days spent by Queen Victoria, her beloved Albert and their children, relaxing in Osborne House. The Queen was played by Joanna David, who later commissioned Smith to write a portrait of Charlotte Bronte, which she performed for the King's Lynn Festival of 1987. There was also a commission to write for the son et lumiere performances at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk.

Cornwall was probably where Dorothy Smith spent her happiest hours. She was a brilliant hostess and invitations to Rinsey were much sought after. Visitors arriving on the sleeper from London would be treated to her ritual British Rail breakfast - with new-laid Cornish free-range eggs, mushrooms from the fields, home-grown tomatoes, and fat local sausages. There were expeditions arranged - the gardens at Trelissick and Tregwainton, picnics on the moors, lazy mornings on the beach, mussel- collecting for her celebrated moules marinieres, forays to the chandlers in Porthleven and lunches by the harbour outside the Ship Inn, with pasties, crab claws, pints of bitter and schooners of sherry, watching the local fishing boats return with their catches. There were always grandchildren eager to explore caves and rock pools, just as her own children had done before them, and each evening she concocted a feast for her famished guests with seemingly effortless ease.

It was ironic that illness should strike when Dorothy was in greater demand as a writer than ever before.

Her writing gave pleasure to millions of children, undoubtedly helping to form what TS Eliot described as 'the good individual in the good society'. And the popularity of her work for children's television belies the current belief among some producers that younger viewers will only respond to a diet of pop, pap and cartoons.

(Photographs omitted)

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