Lord Jack Ashley of Stoke: The Measure of the Man

Lord Jack Ashley of Stoke, courtesy of Rex Features

F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: ‘There are no second acts in American lives.”

He never met Jack Ashley, an Englishman who had a second, third, fourth, even fifth act in his life. He was a man who came from a Widnes slum to sitting in the House of Lords. It was a life very well lived, right up until he passed away earlier this year.

I wish I’d met him, myself. Instead, I was given the opportunity to make a 30 minute tribute to him for the BBC. We started by filming at his public memorial service in the summer, which was attended by the great and the good of British Labour Old and New. The Miliband brothers were there. Lord Kinnock was there. Alf Morris, Bernard Donohue, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Baroness Betty Boothroyd and many more. They were all there to celebrate someone whose passing also felt like the end of a political era.

I interviewed Lord Kinnock, the Milibands, and his three daughters Jackie, Caroline and Jane. I viewed dozens of tapes of archive material of Jack’s life, as a young TV producer for the BBC, as an MP, as a campaigner, as a TV presenter, through all this, a clear picture of the man himself started to emerge.

The hardest part wasn’t working out what to put in the finished programme, but what to leave out. The 30 minute running time was nowhere near enough to do him justice. The programme is really an extended highlights reel of his life, celebrating the man and his achievements.

Lord Kinnock, when I interviewed him, talked laughingly about how the two of them would get together and try to one up each other, Four Yorkshiremen style, about their impoverished upbringings. But Jack, Kinnock admitted, really had it difficult. They lived in a house in a slum area of Widnes shared with another family, and with a leaky roof. They would become adept at scraping the last dregs from a jam jar, making the most of what they had. It was this background which led him to fight for other people’s rights – starting with a battle against the local slum landlord, improved working conditions at his factory, then on to a local council seat.

He then worked as a BBC Producer, making several documentaries. After 15 years he informed the BBC of his intention to stand as an MP, winning Stoke South for Labour.

It was at this point, with a promising career ahead of him, and whispers of a ministerial role, that he went totally deaf due to an otherwise routine operation. People who had previously been close allies in Parliament wouldn’t give him the time of day. Following debates was impossible. He was devastated, and decided to stand down. The public outcry that followed in the press, the public, and even the intervention of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, led him to reconsider.

Learning to lipread, and with the help of fellow MPs and from his wife, partner and close ally Lady Pauline, he forged a career that spanned decades, as the first Deaf MP in Parliament at first, but also as a campaigner on disability, for the rights of the downtrodden, for those who didn’t have a voice.

He also smoothed the way for huge technological advances for deaf people – increased subtitling on television, live captioning through palantype, increased in vision signing on TV, campaigned for better provision of hearing aids… and was one of the first people to have a cochlear implant. He described the implant as sounding like ‘A Dalek with Laryngitis’, but it restored some hearing for him, if not, according to Lord Kinnock, his singing voice!

He went on to become a Lord, and to enjoy life with his grandchildren – but in everything he did, in everything he achieved, there was always that sense of putting things right, of justice for all.

The memorial service, and also the programme I made, ended with David Miliband reading a poem, The Measure of a Man. In making this programme I came to the conclusion that Lord Ashley was no ordinary man, but a great one.

I also owe my career, at least in part, to Lord Jack. Back in 2001, I was given funding by the NDCS’s Jack Ashley Millennium awards to develop my own short films. That early funding, and those early short films I made, were my first steps along the path I’m on today, as an award winning filmmaker and as a producer/director for the BBC.

Thanks for everything, Jack. You’re very much missed.

The Jack Ashley tribute special on See Hear airs at 11am on Wednesday 5th December, BBC TWO.

Further Reading:
Lord Jack Ashley Memorial Site http://www.lordjackashley.co.uk/
The Measure of a Man http://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/26887/374.html

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