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Social Documentary Maker

In 1937, Olive Shapley was promoted from Children’s Hour to a new role in Manchester as a documentary feature maker. Archie Harding, the Director of Programmes for the North Region, had begun experimenting with new programme techniques and styles, working with the producer Geoffrey Bridson. 1 12 Shapley joined this small team where she would become the queen of ‘actuality’ broadcasting. The way in which she created her programmes, using a mobile recording unit, is vividly described in her autobiography. First used by Bridson, this was a large lorry packed with technical equipment which, for the first time, made it possible to record on location. It was Shapley, however, who realised its full potential, using it to bring to the microphone men and women who would never have entered a BBC studio. The scope of Shapley’s work would be remarkable. Scannell and Cardiff, in their history of broadcasting in the interwar years, devote several pages to her pioneering work.[1] Through her novel recording technique, she made trail-blazing programmes such as ?.s.d. where she visited local shops in the Calder Valley to learn how people spent their money. For Night Journey she delved into the lives of the long-distance lorry driver, travelling for hours in unsavoury conditions and even spending the night in a ditch. When the engineer who was with her learned that her next assignment would be down a mine his response was, ‘with any luck, I shall be on holiday’.[2]

Other documentaries she made included Canal Journey (recorded on the Leeds-Liverpool canal)i Hotel Splendid (a snapshot of a luxury hotel in Scarborough) and The First Five Years. This was a dramatic interpre?tation of nursery schools with recordings made at the Rachel McMillan Nursery School, where Shapley had originally trained. Amongst the cast were Joan Littlewood and James Miller, who later gained fame as Ewan MacColl.[3] [4] In September 1938, under the headline ‘Producer in Search of a Programme’ Radio Times included a full-page article by Olive Shapley in which she described her adventures gathering material for Homeless People.116 Traversing the north of England she had visited a Hospital for Incurables and Cripples run by French monks in the Yorkshire Dales, met abandoned youngsters in a Children’s Garden Village near Manchester and encountered a school for young tramps near Durham. The evidence of distress, of grinding poverty had never seemed so apparent, she declared. Later, she would describe how the programme had been a ‘rude awakening’ for her, and for listeners.[2]

In March 1939 Shapley broke new ground with her documentary Miners’ Wives. After recording interviews at the Cragshead colliery in County Durham, she had the inspiration to take Mrs Emerson, the wife of a checkweighman, to meet her counterpart at Marles-Les-Mines, a mining village near Bethune. Shapley and Emerson stayed with a mining family for a week. When the programme was aired, Mrs Emerson was in the studio for the second half, to recount her impressions of how the two communities compared.[6] [7] Shapley’s seminal production work, broadcast in 1939, was The Classic Soil. Conceived and written by Joan Littlewood this was an update on Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. It was described in Radio Times as ‘comparing the life of the Manchester working man and his wife today with the life lived by their ancestors a hundred years ago’. 1 19 Looking back at the programme 60 years later, Shapley reflected that it was ‘probably the most unfair and biased programme ever put out by the BBC’ but this indicates the autonomy within which she worked.[8]

Shapley left the permanent staff of the BBC shortly before war broke out in 1939. She had married a colleague, John Salt, and found she was unable to continue in an established role because of the marriage bar rules. It is not quite clear why she did resign, as she should have been eligible for retention under the new marriage bar rules.[9] [10] [11] There is no indication that she was resentful about this as she continued on a contract basis. Neither is there any sign that during her BBC career she had felt hard done by in terms of promotion or pay. In fact Shapley faced ‘hidden’ discrimination, as did many other of the Corporation’s salaried female staff.

  • [1] Scannell and Cardiff, pp. 344-9.
  • [2] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, p. 52.
  • [3] Radio Times. 6 February 1938. Along with Wilfred Pickles, Littlewood and Miller regularly presented Shapley’s programmes.
  • [4] Radio Times, 2 September 1938.
  • [5] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, p. 52.
  • [6] Shapley, pp. 53-4.
  • [7] Radio Times, 23 June 1939. Also in 1939, Shapley made They Speak for Themselvesabout the work of Mass Observation.
  • [8] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, p. 54.
  • [9] During the Second World War, Shapley went to the US with her husband and developed the programme Fortnightly Newsletter.
  • [10] Mary Agnes Hamilton, ‘Changes in Social Life’ in Ray Strachey, ed. (1936) OurFreedom and its Results by Five Women (London: Hogarth Press) p. 264.
  • [11] This necessity to constantly prove oneself was true of many professional women at thistime. See, for example, Oram, Women Teachers, p. 84. Alix Meynell (1984) Public Servant,Private Women: An Autobiography (London: Victor Gollanz) p. 86.
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