Ron Smedley obituary

·5 min read

Ron Smedley, who has died aged 92, made a significant contribution to three spheres of artistic life: folk dance, the Royal Ballet School and television.

Ron described himself as “bored witless” while studying at the London School of Economics in the 1940s, until a friend invited him to the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s (EFDSS) 1947 Stratford-upon-Avon festival, where he met his life partner, Bob Parker. Released from wartime restrictions, Ron and a group of similarly enthusiastic and energetic young people took the festival on to the streets, filling the town and Bancroft Gardens with music, colour and dance.

He was quickly recognised as a talented dancer and was invited by the director of the EFDSS, Douglas Kennedy, to join his “nursery class”: young dancers being nurtured to spearhead a new-look style based on simple, traditional country dances to appeal to a wider audience. Ron and Bob were also founder members of the Beaux of London City morris men, one of the first such groups to become established after the second world war.

After national service, Ron joined the staff of the EFDSS. Based at first in Devon, he quickly discovered that, although he could dance well, teaching dance was a different matter: he called it a “baptism of fire”. Almost immediately, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were photographed square dancing in Ottawa, and there was a tremendous boom in folk dancing, with crowds of people turning up for the public dances Ron was leading.

After a few years at the EFDSS base in the north-east, Ron got a job at the BBC. He continued his involvement in folk dancing, however, and when Kennedy retired in 1961 he passed the leadership of the EFDSS Sunday dance club to Ron. This became a leading folk dance display company, London Folk, which Ron led to success at festivals in Romania, Israel and Spain as well as in Britain, where the group played a central role in the EFDSS’s annual Royal Albert Hall festival, which Ron produced on seven occasions.

He brought flair and imagination to the festival to appeal to a more general audience, and was not afraid to incorporate themes from popular culture. In 1964, there was folk dancing to Beatles songs; a sequence called the Camden Town Sound featuring sword dancing to the theme tune from a television hospital drama, Dr Kildare; and clog dancing to the Z Cars theme, which was based on a Liverpool folk tune. That year, the festival was televised.

It was Dame Ninette de Valois who insisted that children at the Royal Ballet School should know their national folk dances. Ron and Bob taught morris, sword and country dancing at the school from 1959, enthusing generations of young people, some of whom became friends. One group continued their interest as members of the Royal Ballet and performed as the Bow Street Rapper sword dancers at English festivals, an annual tour of Covent Garden pubs. They also performed on the streets during the company’s international tours, from Moscow (without official permission) to New York. Ron’s involvement ended only in 2018.

Ron’s career at the BBC, which he had joined in 1955 prompted by the radio producer and presenter Charles Chilton, started as an assistant studio manager in radio. In 1959 he moved to the newly created BBC Schools Television team, eventually becoming its deputy head of department. He had a knack of making films that appealed to young people by addressing their concerns. In 1968 he created the series Scene in preparation for the raising of the school-leaving age in 1972. The series, which combined documentaries and drama aimed at stimulating classroom discussion, always made with respect for the pupils, ran for more than 30 years.

The first Scene drama, Last Bus, about teenage violence, won the Japan prize, an international award for educational broadcasting. Ron’s radical and successful approach meant he was able to commission plays from major writers such as Alan Plater and Peter Terson. Plater’s play Terry, with Dennis Waterman, and produced by Ron, won a Bafta award in 1970. His 1973 production of John Bowen’s Heil Caesar!, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, was also shown to an evening audience, and won a Bafta and a Japan prize.

Fools Rush In, a 1973 programme about the making of a Morecambe and Wise show, was shown first on Scene and then on the evening Omnibus arts series. Ron also produced programmes such as Terson’s football hooliganism drama Zigger Zagger (1975), Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1976) and GB Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (1983), starring Billy Connolly.

Having retired early in 1985, Ron returned to produce Grange Hill, the BBC children’s television flagship school drama, during the programme’s heyday when controversial storylines included drug addiction. Ron and the Grange Hill cast were entertained in the White House by the first lady Nancy Reagan, to help promote a US anti-drugs initiative. As with Scene, Ron and his directors took episodes of Grange Hill into schools to discuss the series and gauge reaction: on one occasion, they went to a tough Stoke Newington comprehensive in the morning and Eton college in the afternoon, with similar reactions from pupils.

Ron was highly regarded by his colleagues as a supportive manager and mentor. After Grange Hill, he formed his own production company, making programmes such as the children’s series Magic Grandad. In 2002, he received a Bafta lifetime achievement award.

Ron was born in Charlton, south-east London, the only child of Eleanor (nee Knowles) and George Smedley, a lathe operator, and educated at Colfe’s grammar school, Lewisham Hill, during which time the school was evacuated to Somerset. In later life, he was involved with many organisations in and around Hampton, south-west London, where he lived, and was a trustee of Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare on the bank of the Thames.

Bob died in 2012. Ron is survived by a number of second cousins.

• Ronald George Smedley, television producer and folk dancer, born 22 June 1928; died 5 May 2021

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