Betty Davies obituary

One of the main producers of the popular radio soap Mrs Dale’s Diary

Betty Davies, who has died aged 100, was one of the last of that great generation of women writers, directors and producers to emerge from BBC radio during the second world war. Her name would become well known to listeners for her years as the main producer of the popular and once innovative radio soap Mrs Dale’s Diary, and for her productions and adaptations of the crowd-pleasing crime dramas on the long-running strand Saturday Night Theatre. But she was also one of the most adventurous of directors.

Probably more in mockery than admiration, she was known by some colleagues during the 1960s and 70s as Black Betty, for her work with black writers and actors. For others, it was her glamorous presence that gave her another name, Betty the Hat, for her fetching headwear, described by the actor and director Martin Jarvis as “soft, velour, broad-brimmed, outlandishly wide, rakish green, dazzling scarlet”. Some 20 years after retiring, she still cut a memorable figure in Broadcasting House, arriving to discuss her latest adaptations of Dickens or Mary Wesley.

Glamour and grit were hallmarks of Davies’s work in radio for more than 50 years. It was no surprise that she formed a bond with the playwriting powerhouse at the Royal Court theatre. She took Michael Abbensetts’ play Sweet Talk, looking at the pressures on a West Indian family living in London, from the Court’s Theatre Upstairs to Radio 3 in 1974. Mustapha Matura’s vibrant carnival comedy, Play Mas, set in Trinidad, went from the Court to Radio 4 in 1975.

New work from Samuel Selvon, the Trinidadian novelist and playwright, had already found a welcoming home with Davies. Selvon’s 1967 play Highway in the Sun, adapted from his novel A Brighter Sun, featured the singer and actor Nadia Cattouse. In an interview with the historian Stephen Bourne, she said: “We understood some people in the BBC renamed her Black Betty because she was always producing plays with black actors in the cast. If it wasn’t for people like [Davies], we wouldn’t have worked.”

Davies continued to expand the range of radio drama years after her retirement from the BBC. Working with Capital Radio in London, she was one of the judges who chose the script Pravina’s Wedding, in a competition and then directed SG Ghelani’s play in 1984, in one of commercial radio’s rare commitments to drama. Zia Mohyeddin, who starred, was to take the prizewinning play to television as producer.

With so much work achieved in her career – some 1,300 titles can be identified in the BBC Genome archive and there were more – it would be difficult to confine Davies to any category. Her work with Welsh writers, reflecting her heritage, was certainly distinctive. She directed at least a dozen plays by the prolific Welsh dramatist and actor William Ingram. Elizabeth Morgan speaks of the miracle in sound worked by Davies in her 1974 production of According to the Regulations, which was about the 1911 rail strike when the arrival of the Worcestershire regiment in Llanelli led to deaths and the shooting of an innocent boy. With just 10 actors, they recreated the 2,000 voices at the funeral procession in a spine-tingling rendition of Bread of Heaven.

Elizabeth Gwladys Davies – known as Betty – was born in Aberystwyth, to a Welsh mother, Esther (nee Warrington), and an English father, Percy Davies, a civil servant. After the end of the first world war the family moved to London, where Betty was raised, and where she took a degree in English and Latin at University College. She joined the BBC in June 1939, and initially worked as a secretary, gradually contributing scripts to radio programmes from 1943, such as The Telephone, a “story with a surprise by Betty Davies” for Forces Radio.

It was through Mrs Dale’s Diary, the benign middle-class tales of a doctor’s wife, that she firmly established herself as a producer. Joining the programme in 1953 as assistant to the “main producer” Antony Kearey, she became the main producer in turn when Kearey left in 1955 and she produced the 2,000th episode on 14 November that year.

In 1962 she left Mrs Dale and joined the drama department as a producer with a much wider brief. As was common then, her talent as a writer was displayed in her own productions, demonstrating a flair for adaptation of crime and classics. Typical of the period was a Saturday Night Theatre: The Snake is Living Yet – “the novel by Susan Gilruth adapted for radio by Betty Davies”.

Davies’ “cessation date” is recorded by the BBC as 24 February 1977, which is when she retired. But many BBC and independent audio programmes continued to carry her name well into the 90s, such as The Vacillations of Poppy Carew by Wesley, dramatised by Davies in six parts and broadcast on Radio 4 in 1994.

Until the middle of 2017 Davies continued to live alone in the flat in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, that she had occupied for many decades. Her long relationship with the Australian actor and writer Bruce Beeby continued until his death in 2013. She is survived by cousins and more distant relatives who cared for her until her death.

• Elizabeth Gwladys “Betty” Davies, dramatist and radio producer, born 24 February 1917; died 27 January 2018

Ned Chaillet

The GuardianTramp

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