A MAJOR figure in the history of Swindon’s arts scene has died.

Former Arts Centre director Shelley Sutton, 83, had been ill for some time and died at the Great Western Hospital.

During her long career she helped to shape the fortunes of theatres and the careers of performers and back room staff.

She was also an actress and dancer whose credits included TV appearances in fondly-remembered private detective series Boon and soap opera Crossroads.

Friends remember an elegant and bohemian woman with a deep passion for her work.

Among those friends was former Swindon Advertiser photographer Bob Naylor, who said: “She was certainly larger than life.

“She was a very good director, and if as a photographer I was covering a play she was directing it was a joy because she knew what was needed.

“So many directors know what’s going to look good on the stage but don’t know what’s going to make a good picture, but she was very aware of the value of publicity.

“She had worked in radio and had excellent news sense.”

Shelley was originally from Manchester, and at 16 went to train with the Rambert Ballet School, which has since become the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.

She worked for many years as a dancer and then as a BBC Radio Bristol presenter before coming to the Wyvern Theatre as community theatre director.

Shelley left the Wyvern as assistant director in 1984 to head the Arts Centre in Devizes Road.

An early advocate of partnerships between the arts and other organisations, she said at the time: “Sponsorship is vital if we are to give audiences the best of what is on offer, instead of just light, popular entertainment.

“Audiences are getting good value for money in terms of top names in light entertainment, but we should be able to stage top touring productions by, for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Shelley vowed to reclaim audiences tempted away to other theatres in other places: “We have got to get these people back by guaranteeing good plays in Swindon.”

Shelley ran acting groups and encouraged people of all ages and abilities to explore their artistic potential.

In 1992 she retired early to look after her ailing mother in Manchester, but later worked for London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) as an examiner. The role took her all over the world and allowed her to inspire generations of students.

Actor credits Shelley with first encouragement

A HEARTFELT tribute to Shelley Sutton has been made by actor Hadrian Delacey, who has appeared in countless successful shows in the West End and elsewhere.

He said: “There are three people who I credit with giving me my first encouragement to become an actor: Chris Scott at Churchfields, Sheila Harrod at Kentwood, and Shelley Sutton at the Old Town Arts Centre.

“Without these people I wouldn’t be enjoying nearly 30 years of a career professionally.

“I first met this formidable woman through Chris Scott, when she was auditioning teenagers for a musical called Move over Mozart. She had come to New College and Chris asked me to audition.

“Shelley gave me my first acting role outside of the safety of school halls. But I have to admit, at the time she terrified the life out of me. She was everything I thought a director should be: bohemian, a chain smoker, and a huge lover of life.

“Over the next few years I became good friends with Shelley through my involvement in projects at the Wyvern and also at the Arts Centre. Because of the opportunities she gave me I developed my confidence as an actor, a confidence that got me into the Bristol Old Vic a theatre School at 19 and started my professional career.

“Now at 47 and in Phantom of the Opera, I can look back today and thank my dear friend. without whom I doubt any of this would have been possible.

"Shelley leaves behind a huge legacy in both the arts in Swindon and the people who have known her and benefited from her wisdom and friendship both in the world of amateur dramatics, and the professional world where a lot of her ‘youngsters’ are having successful careers.

"I shall raise a glass to her in my dressing room tonight – and probably more than one.”