Jack ASHLEY MP (1922-2012)

Jack Ashley
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THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Jack Ashley, politician, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews while playing badminton in the back garden of his home in Epsom.


Jack served in the army in the Second World War, studied at Cambridge University, and worked for the BBC before entering politics. He was elected MP for Stoke-on-Trent South in 1966.


He became profoundly deaf as a result of complications from a routine ear operation in 1967, and following a crash course in lip-reading, became the UK’s first totally deaf Member of Parliament - working tirelessly as a campaigner for the disabled.


This edition of This Is Your Life was billed as an Election Night special, being broadcast on the day of the United Kingdom's General Election of 1974, and shown several weeks before series 15 began properly. And in a change from the usual set-up, our subject is seated stage left, due to his deafness.

Screenshots of Jack Ashley This Is Your Life (click images to enlarge)

Jack recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography Acts of Defiance, reproduced here with kind permission of the Ashley family...


In September 1974, I received a telephone call from a friend who was a press officer with the Labour Party. Would I take part in a party political television programme? I readily agreed, and she suggested that we use the natural setting of the garden of our home in Epsom. We arranged that I should be filmed playing badminton with my daughters before the interview. The film crew arrived. I began playing with Jackie and Jane as Pauline watched from the sidelines, when suddenly Caroline appeared hand in hand with Eamonn Andrews holding his famous big red book This Is Your Life.


I was taken totally by surprise, and the cameras caught my expression. What they did not catch was my puzzled look at Pauline and her amused answering smile. Some years earlier she told me she had been approached by the producers who wanted to feature me but she declined. I was glad about this, so I had confidently assumed she would decline any further invitations.


When approached a second time she felt the time to be right and, using her own good judgment, accepted and kept it secret from me. I feared that the programme would be sentimental and embarrassing - but it turned out to be a happy occasion with my family and friends from all periods of my life. All my family were there and close friends came from Widnes. Norman St John Stevas spoke of my Cambridge days, the Cohelans flew in from the United States, and Barbara Castle and Michael Stewart talked about my Parliamentary career. It was also humorous. Michael Barratt got the biggest laugh of the evening when he recalled the time when as a television producer I sent him to Sweden to do a story on their shipyards: 'Well, would you believe, in one week in a year, the shipyards are locked, shut - everyone's gone off to the islands ... that's the week he sent me to Sweden.' He also said I sent him with just £56 and booked him into the most expensive hotel in Europe so he could not afford food. 'I desperately wanted money, rang him up at the BBC, and of course he wasn't there. Where was he? In Widnes.'


The programme was transmitted on the night of the October 1974 General Election, a pleasant ending to electioneering...


Surprise of your Life book

Eamonn Andrews and producer Jack Crawshaw recall the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in their book Surprise Of Your Life...


Our tribute to Jack Ashley was a very special programme. The man who fights for others in a world of words could hear no words when I told him, “This Is Your Life”… because Jack Ashley, champion of the underprivileged is deaf. And I mean, totally deaf.


But the obvious difficulties we faced in our plans to tell Jack’s story were minimal in contrast with the fearsome task he had set himself to overcome the blow that had threatened to end his political career in its prime.


Jack Ashley’s story was remarkable. And with the support of his family we wanted to tell it.


Born the son of a nightwatchman in Widnes, Lancashire, Jack had been a fighter all his life. He was only five when his father died, leaving him the only man in the tiny two-up, two-down household.


At 14, he left school to work, first as a labourer in an asbestos factory, and later, loading furnaces at a copper smelting pot. His first fights were as a trade unionist on the shop floor and, at 22, he became the youngest borough councillor in Britain.


After winning a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, he moved on to Cambridge where he became the first working-class President of the University’s Union Society. After Cambridge, he joined the BBC, first in radio then later as a reporter and a producer in television. But he yearned for a career in politics and in 1966 won Stoke-on-Trent South for Labour.


He stood on the threshold of a most promising political career and was soon tipped for Ministerial office when he was hit by the staggering blow of total deafness. He fought back and won. He learned to lip read and held his place in the Commons, fighting campaign after campaign for the underprivileged. He fought the successful fight, in and out of Parliament, for 400 children who were victims of the drug Thalidomide.


Jack had been helped by many friends. But by none more than the girl he met at Cambridge when she was a reporter on the University newspaper, Varsity. She went to interview him and later became his wife, Pauline.


I had met Pauline during an interview I did with Jack when he was making his fight back against deafness. I remembered how she had sat in front of him just out of camera range, helping him with re-assurance and confidence as he shaped words he could not hear, and guided him to modulate his own voice.


I knew that, if we were to attempt Jack’s story, we would need Pauline’s full backing.


After lengthy chats, she agreed that the best place to surprise Jack would be right on his own doorstep at home with the family in Epsom.


The cover story would be a documentary on Members of Parliament and we called on the services of another husband and wife team, Steve and Maggi Minchin as director and production assistant, to pull it off.


Steve, one of ITV’s leading producer-directors of outside broadcasts, set up his film cameras in Jack’s back garden after telling Jack that he wanted a sequence showing him playing badminton with his daughters, Jane, Jacqueline and Caroline.


I was to arrive outside the front door halfway through the game. I would ring the bell and Caroline would answer and lead me through the garage, into the garden, to her father.


Steve made sure that Jack was playing with his back to the house so that he wouldn’t immediately see Caroline and me. As we entered the garden we were followed by a second camera crew who had arrived with me and who were there to record whatever might happen, or fail to happen as we got close to Jack.


Caroline went first and stopped the game by tapping her father on the arm. When he turned round she pointed to me. And I, in turn immediately pointed to the book which I was holding up to show the printed words that I was actually saying.


The smile that creased Jack’s face – after that second or two that always seems a lifetime on “The Life” – told me he understood every word. As he flashed his eyes around the smiling faces of his family for confirmation of their agreement, I knew there would be no fighting from Jack that night.


There was no need because, in the televised tribute that followed back at the studios, the words that he read from the lips of his family and friends fought for him.

The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book This Is Your Life: The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book...


Amazing enough that Jack Ashley started out in life as a fourteen-year-old labourer, went on to become President of the Cambridge University Union Society, was elected to Parliament and became champion of the underprivikedge. Even more amazing was the fact that he carried on as a campaigning MP after becoming totally deaf at the age of forty-six when he was poised for ministerial office.


He was playing badminton with his three daughters in the garden of his Surrey home when Eamonn Andrews popped in to say 'This Is Your Life'. Knowing Jack Ashley could not hear a word, Eamonn was pointing to the printed words on the book, though there was little need, for Jack was by that time an expert lip-reader.


Jack Ashley was only five when his nightwatchman father died. The only man in the tiny cottage in Widnes, he went to work as a labourer in an asbestos factory at the age of just fourteen. At twenty-two he was the youngest borough councillor in the country.


He won a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and moved on to Cambridge where he had the proud distinction of becoming its first-ever working-class President of the Union. By 1966 he was MP for Stoke-on-Trent South.


He met his wife Pauline at Cambridge when she went to interview him for the University newspaper Varsity. Eamonn had interviewed Jack Ashley on television after he had been stricken with total deafness. Pauline sat out of range of the cameras. Because, obviously, he could not hear his own voice, a vital contribution of hers was to signal when to modulate his tones.


The then Shadow Minister for Education, Conservative MP Norman St John Stevas, had known Jack at Cambridge, and the Minister for the Disabled, Alf Morris, and the Secretary of State for Social Services, the Rt Hon Barbara Castle, all paid tribute to the MP who had fought for compensation for the children who were the victims of the drug Thalidomide.


Jack Ashley, with a little help from Pauline, lip-read every word on the programme. The fighting spirit of the former teenage labourer who became President of the Cambridge Union was still there.


Cabinet office may have eluded him; sheer guts didn't

programme details...

  • Edition No: 388
  • Subject No: 388
  • Broadcast date: Thu 10 Oct 1974
  • Broadcast time: 10.10-10.40pm
  • Recorded: Tue 3 Sep 1974
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 15
  • Edition: 1
  • Code Name: Extra

on the guest list...

  • Pauline - wife
  • Jacqueline - daughter
  • Jane - daughter
  • Caroline - daughter
  • Nell - sister
  • Mary - sister
  • Margaret - sister
  • Ken Merrifield
  • Nancy Merrifield
  • David Bleakley MP
  • Norman St John Stevas MP
  • Jeffrey Cohelan
  • Evelyn Cohelan
  • Michael Barrett
  • Michael Stewart MP
  • Arthur Challerton
  • John Wallis
  • Dick Topping
  • Alf Morris MP
  • Roy Davies
  • Nita Davies
  • Filmed tribute:
  • Barbara Castle MP

external links...

production team...

  • Writer: Frank Hayes
  • Director: Peter Webb
  • Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • Executive Producer: Malcolm Morris
names listed in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
Series 15 subjects: Jack Ashley > John Conteh > Jack Howarth > Chay Blyth > Bill Maynard > Richard O'Sullivan > Dick Francis > Arthur Askey > Jean Kent > Geoff Love > Ray Cooney > Queenie Watts > Harry Johnson > Leonard Rossiter > John Hanson > Denis Law > Ted Ray > Peter Butterworth > Nina Baden-Semper > Dickie Davies > Moira Anderson > Precious McKenzie > Mollie Sugden > Michael Bates > Willie John McBride > Petula Clark > Garfield Sobers