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16 February 1903|
Chelsea, London, England
|Died||22 August 1980
Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London, England
Norman Shelley (16 February 1903 – 22 August 1980) was an English actor, best known for his work in radio, in particular for the BBC's Children's Hour. He also had a recurring role as Colonel Danby in the long-running radio soap opera The Archers.
Perhaps Shelley's single best-known role was as Winnie-the-Pooh in Children's Hour adaptations of A.A. Milne's stories; for many British people of the mid-20th century, his is the definitive voice of Pooh. Other roles for Children's Hour included Dr. Watson (opposite Carleton Hobbs as Holmes) in a series of adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; Toad in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows; and the roles of The Magician and Captain Higgins in the specially written Toytown series. Shelley also played the parts of Gandalf and Tom Bombadil in the 1955-6 radio adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. In the 1973 BBC television series Jack the Ripper Shelley played Detective Constable Walter Dew.
Life and career
Shelley was born in Chelsea, London, the son of Frank Shelley, a painter, and his wife, Alice Campbell, née Glover. He originally intended to make a career as an aircraft designer, but took up stage acting on the advice of the actress and teacher Rosina Fillipi. His public debut was at the Old Vic in 1919, and in the early 1920s he toured with the Charles Doran Shakespeare Company, performing such roles as Trebonius in Julius Caesar and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. During the 1920s and early '30s he worked principally in London, and was particularly associated with Peter Godfrey's experimental productions at the Gate Theatre Studio.
Shelley's first BBC broadcast was in 1926, having earlier made a reputation in radio in Australia and New Zealand. By the late '30s he established a reputation as a respected and versatile British radio actor. In 1937 he married Monica Daphne, née Brett. During the Second World War he was a member of the BBC's wartime repertory company, but left to serve as a ferry pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.
In the 1930s and '40s he was a Children's Hour regular, famous as Dennis the Dachshund in Toytown, and as Winnie-the-Pooh, whom he first played in 1939. He played Dr Watson to Carleton Hobbs's Sherlock Holmes over a 25-year period.
In the late 1950s he took part in recorded dramatised versions by Argo Records of Alice in Wonderland (1958) and Through the Looking-Glass, both directed by Douglas Cleverdon and both starring Jane Asher in the title role. For the same company he also recorded his impersonation of Toad in Wind in the Willows (1960) with Richard Goolden as Mole.
Late in life he found new fame as Colonel Freddy Danby in the BBC radio serial The Archers. He was still recording episodes of The Archers at the time of his death. He collapsed suddenly at Finchley Road tube station, London, on 21 August 1980, and was declared dead in the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead. His wife had predeceased him; he was buried near her at Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, on 28 August.
A recurring rumour holds that, because the House of Commons was not at the time set up for location recording, some of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches to Parliament during World War II were subsequently recorded for radio broadcast not by Churchill, but by Shelley impersonating Churchill. The rumour has been promoted by David Irving to support his unflattering view of Churchill.
It is difficult to prove or disprove Irving's claims. Analysis of voice patterns in 20 of Churchill's recorded speeches show that three made in May and June 1940 do not match those provably by him, although Churchill might have recorded them after his voice had changed. Whether Shelley is the speaker and, if so, whether they were broadcast as allegedly by Churchill is unproven according to one source.
One report states Shelley did record a performance of Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, which is claimed to be one of the three non-matching speeches,. However Shelley's 78rpm record is dated 7 September 1942, whereas Churchill's speech was broadcast on 4 June 1940, key parts being read out by a BBC announcer. Shelley claimed that he did once voice Churchill for an introduction to a wartime propaganda film for distribution overseas with Churchill’s permission, as the Prime Minister could not find time for the necessary visit to the studio.
According to Shelley's great friend, former BBC radio and TV producer and presenter, Trevor Hill, Shelley did indeed stand in for Churchill on at least three occasions, specifically when Churchill was ill or out of the country. This would never have been divulged at the time of course. Shelley's party piece, often requested apparently, was for everyone to close their eyes while he impersonated Churchill when, according to Hill, it was impossible to tell the difference.
(Churchill did re-record most of his speeches at Chartwell in 1949. The EMI Engineer responsible has told the BECTU History Project that he used one of the then new BTR tape recorders and that Churchill usually did this in bed, so they have a more relaxed air than the original broadcast. These are often what are heard when played today.)
- East Lynne on the Western Front (1931)
- I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
- Strawberry Roan (1945)
- We of the West Riding (1945) - narrator
- I See a Dark Stranger (1946)
- Daughter of Darkness (1948)
- The Monkey's Paw (1948)
- Her Favourite Husband (1950)
- Blind Man's Bluff (1952)
- Strange Stories (1953)
- The Price of Silence (1959)
- The Angry Silence (1960)
- Very Important Person (1961)
- A Place to Go (1963)
- Otley (1968)
- Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
- Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
- Ian Hartley, Goodnight children...everywhere Midas Books: Hippocrene Books, New York: 1983; p. 42
- "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight". Diversity Website. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- "Alice in Wonderland: Wired for Sound". Retrieved 2009-11-15.
- Wenden, D. J. (1993). "Churchill, Radio, and Cinema". In Blake, Robert B.; Louis, William Roger. Churchill. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 236–239. ISBN 0-19-820626-7.
- Thorpe, Vanessa (29 October 2000). "Finest hour for actor who was Churchill's radio voice". The Observer. The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
- Robert Rhodes James (Autumn 1996). "Myth Shattering: An Actor Did Not Give Churchill's Speeches" (PDF). Finest Hour (The International Churchill Societies) (92): 23–25. Retrieved 2016-01-03.
- Robert Rhodes James (n.d.). "Myths - An actor read Churchill's wartime speeches over the wireless.". The Churchill Centre. Retrieved 2016-01-03.