Susan Rae was the voice of the Shipping Forecast for decades and said the BBC was her family…But now she has dementia she feels they have ‘cut her adrift’
The irony is that in the great list of things BBC broadcaster Susan Rae has lost — her career, her home, great swathes of her memory — her voice does not feature. The thing that defined her has survived, beautifully.
You will have heard it. It may have soothed you to sleep. Only a handful of radio announcers over the years have been entrusted to deliver Radio 4’s iconic Shipping Forecast, the closest thing we have to a national lullaby. Some think Susan has done it best.
Today, as her distinctive Scottish lilt floats over the sofa, for an audience of two (me and her son Rory, 31), I think how lovely it would be if she stopped talking about horrible things — Alzheimer’s, nearly setting the house on fire, feeling abandoned by her former employers — and just delivered a calming ‘Rain, then squally showers. Moderate, becoming poor’.
If you were a Susan Rae fan, you may have wondered why she suddenly disappeared from the airwaves after 30 years of quietly dedicated service.
Susan Rae, a BBC radio presenter who has Alzheimer’s has had to move into sheltered accommodation
There was no great farewell, no announcement that she was retiring. She just slipped off into the night. Or, as she puts it, hurt laid bare, ‘they just took me off the air. I was troublesome for them’. Well, now we know, and in this room the sense of relief that everyone can be honest is palpable.
This week Rory announced that, a year ago, Susan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of just 65. She had been forced to bow out of broadcasting prematurely. Her career was over. Her life, as she had known it, was over. Actually, her whole family’s life had been irrevocably changed.
He tells me today that he made his mother’s predicament public out of ‘desperation’ and a cold, hard need for cash.
After years as a freelance, there had been no pension to cushion the blow of sudden enforced retirement. Unable to afford her rent and not having a nest-egg saved for such a calamity, Susan found herself in dire straits financially, as well as medically. The family learned a harsh lesson: Fall and break your hip in Britain today and your immediate care needs will be covered.
But develop dementia and, as Rory says, ‘you soon learn the hard way that you are on your own’. Even if you are adored by millions. Rory, a sound engineer and actor whose own career has been put on hold as he tried to navigate the care system, swallowed his pride and set up a JustGiving appeal, asking for help to meet the terrifying costs of his mother’s care, likely to run into the tens of thousands per year, ‘and possibly for the next 20 years’.
The response has been overwhelming, and has made Susan cry. She went back on Radio 4 this week — as a guest, rather than for a work shift — and was blown away by the love that has been showered on her since.
When I arrive at the sheltered accommodation block where she now lives, in South London, well-wishers — including fans and former colleagues — have donated £50,000.
Her children Rory and Finn launched a fundraiser to help to pay for her care, writing that her needs had recently increased and become ‘unaffordable’ for the family
A scroll through the messages reveal household names among the donors. Sandi Toksvig and Jim Naughtie send their regards — and undisclosed sums. Alan Titchmarsh has sent £1,000. She and Rory are beyond grateful. ‘I can’t believe how kind people have been,’ says Susan. They will now be able to pay for a carer every day, rather than once a week. Susan can pay someone to do her grocery shopping, rather than them all muddling through with her attempting to do it online and her sons despairing of the outcome.
‘No more carrots, Mum!’ says Rory, laughing. ‘Mum ordered 100 carrots the other day and they’d arrived before I could stop it,’ he explains. ‘She gets it into her head that she needs to bulk buy. I think we had 200 bananas recently.’
He opens a drawer underneath the TV. There must be a dozen boxes of tissues in there. ‘I have access to her bank account but I don’t have Power of Attorney yet — I can’t tell you how difficult that process is; it has taken months — so although I try to return what I can, I can’t stop her.’ Susan looks mischievous. ‘I like carrots.’
For around three years now, Alzheimer’s has been tightening its grip. Our interview exposes how.
This is a good day. For some of our conversation she chats eloquently and engagingly about her days as a rookie journalist in Dundee, her move to Broadcasting House — which made history.
‘I was the first continuity announcer with an accent,’ she recalls. ‘Some people loved it. They wrote to say they loved the wee Scottish lass — not realising I was just under six feet tall! But we got sackfuls of hate mail, too, from those who thought the BBC should be English!’
She’s sharp as a tack at the same time. She says she’s reading a book about Alzheimer’s
Rory asks if she remembers receiving excrement through the post. ‘No!’ she says. ‘Did I? I can’t remember that.’
This is repeated every few sentences. She tells a long lovely story about Naughtie, then in the next breath tells Rory she can’t remember ‘that Scottish man . . . do you remember him? What was his name?’
Rory talks about how his grandmother — Susan’s mother — also had Alzheimer’s, although not until she was in her 80s. ‘Did she? Why did I not know that?’ she asks. He takes a deep breath. ‘It’s the Alzheimer’s, Mum’. ‘Is it?’ ‘Yes.
She’s sharp as a tack at the same time. She says she’s reading a book about Alzheimer’s (‘it’s a hefty tome’). At one point she becomes hopelessly muddled and Rory patiently explains a point, saying ‘then [my brother] Finn and me . . .’ ‘Finn and I,’ she corrects. The part of her that is the stickler for grammar is intact.
We go through the tortuous timeline of when and how they realised — holed up together during lockdown in 2020 — something was terribly wrong. Susan, who split from her journalist husband Neil Cargill when the boys were little (he has always been in the picture), was renting a house in Crystal Palace and her sons had moved in during the pandemic.
With hindsight, there were signs that all was not well. Rory remembers the Hugh Grant documentary she argued that she had never seen before, when Rory knew they had watched it together a few nights previously. ‘I thought you were joking, having a laugh,’ he tells her.
A defining moment was when Rory put out a fire in their kitchen. ‘We’d had a takeaway and Mum went to put the bag in the oven, to keep the food warm for my brother, but she put the whole lot in — plastic, paper bag, everything. It hit the element and went up, whoosh. Luckily, I was there but it was one of those moments where you think “we cannot go on like this”. Susan gasps.
‘Jesus!’ she says. ‘That happened? I don’t remember that.’ She becomes upset. ‘You should not have had to go through that. I am sorry you had to go through that.’
The first alarm bells were sounded at Susan’s work, though. She came home from a shift upset one day, saying she had made a mistake with a fader — the sound desk control that fades voices in and out. ‘It led to dead air,’ Rory explains. ‘It hadn’t been the first time either and it was an unusual mistake for someone who had been doing the job for so long to make. Mum was quite upset over it. She’d been spoken to.’
Now at this point Susan had been a BBC stalwart for 30 years, but she’d mostly worked for the Beeb on a freelance basis.
‘There had been a couple of periods, when we were small, when she was on staff and later we did discover a small pension from that time — £4,000 — but mostly she’d worked on a freelance basis, just doing shifts on an ad hoc basis,’ says Rory.
Susan, whose father was also a journalist, wanted to be a singer growing up and studied music for seven years. However she ended up becoming a presenter
Not uncommon at the BBC and although her earnings varied wildly — ‘Some years £30,000. Some £60,000,’ says Rory — it would have been up to Susan to sort her own pension and insurance cover. Disastrously, as it would turn out, she had not. ‘I’ve never been good with money,’ she admits, fretting to Rory about how she should have bought a house.
‘Mum, you kept us fed and clothed,’ he says. ‘People think that if you work in broadcasting, you are a millionaire. Mum wasn’t. Part of the reason she was freelance was so that she could take other jobs to make ends meet. I remember her working in a care home. Later, she worked as a humanist celebrant.’
On her lack of pension, she says: ‘It wasn’t very grown up of me, was it? But I never planned to retire.’
Whatever, she was in a precarious position — legally, financially — when she started to falter. There was an assessment about her fitness to work, it seems. ‘She failed,’ says Rory. Then she met with someone from occupational health. ‘They suggested mum was suffering from anxiety. They got it into their heads that it was a mental health issue which was actually problematic for us because at the same time we were seeing the GP and had been referred to the memory clinic, because of the issues mum was having at home.’
The radio presenter went from working in Scotland to living in London as a BBC presenter (pictured)
They suggest the Corporation simply stopped asking Susan to come in for shifts. So, she was quietly faded out?
‘They took me off the air,’ Susan repeats. Rory nods. ‘At first we thought it was a temporary thing, but then they just didn’t ring again. There was one meeting and Mum actually thought she would be going back — not for live broadcasting, but a lot of Mum’s work had been recorded voiceovers anyway. But the phone didn’t ring.’
‘I was troublesome,’ says Susan. ‘And they could just get someone else.’
Such are the perils of working without even a contract. ‘Yes, but Mum wasn’t just someone who did casual shifts,’ says Rory. ‘She’d given her life to the BBC. She was the voice of the BBC! I’ve been really disappointed in how they’ve handled it because it left us in this limbo land where she hadn’t been sacked, she hadn’t retired, but where had she gone? On Twitter people were asking: “Why is Susan not on the air?” And we just didn’t know what to say.’
Legally, though, the BBC had no obligations towards her. ‘No, but I think Mum deserved better. They had a duty of care. She was just miffed at first over how they were dealing with it, but when it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to go back, it was heartbreaking. It still is.
‘It’s the thing she talks about most — more than the affliction itself, the loss of her home, her professional home, because the BBC was her family, too.’
Susan is listening intently. ‘Do I go on about it a lot?’ she asks.
‘Not in an annoying way, Mum,’ he replies. ‘But you can tell it’s at the forefront of your mind. I think you are more bothered about it than the Alzheimer’s.’
She concedes she has always been defined by her job. ‘I don’t want to sound cocky, but I have been doing this a long time. I am Susan Rae off the radio, or I was. If I am not her any more, who am I?’
It is desperately sad to see Susan in this continued limbo, one minute referencing Samuel Pepys, the next unable to remember moving into this small apartment (‘Did I make a scene?’ she asks when Rory says it was upsetting to leave her on the first night).
She admits to loneliness. She calls the other residents — all much older — ‘inmates’, then says: ‘I’m not allowed to say that. They don’t like it.’
The formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was devastating. So, too, was the realisation of how much this was going to cost. ‘I hadn’t realised how much the Alzheimer’s had impacted on her. She had completely forgotten her responsibilities. She couldn’t understand how to use banking apps, even read bills. She was behind with the rent.’
The formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was devastating. So, too, was the realisation of how much this was going to cost
At first, Rory assumed that there would be state assistance. ‘But there really isn’t. She’s fallen through the cracks with pretty much every benefit you can think of, as a lot of dementia sufferers do. You have to spend hours on the phone to all these different benefits agencies — there is no centralised system. Naively I thought that at least when Mum got the diagnosis, it would be on her GP notes and there would be some . . . system. There is not. I have no idea how people who do not have children are expected to cope.’
The saving grace, perhaps, is that they did secure Housing Benefit, which means the bulk of the £1,600-a-month rent on this tiny assisted-living apartment is covered. The carer fees are not and although Rory and his brother — who now live in Hertfordshire and North London respectively — try to see their mum every few days, they cannot be on hand 24/7.
‘And they shouldn’t be,’ says Susan. ‘They need their own lives.’
Still, Susan remains astonishingly upbeat. ‘One day at a time,’ she says. She breaks into song at one stage. ‘I was a singer, before. That’s what people always say about my voice — it’s melodious.’
Back to that voice. Rory has been setting her up with Siri on her phone, taking every form of ‘assistance’ available. ‘It’s the funniest thing. It won’t recognise her voice because every time she talks to it she puts on her best BBC posh voice, as if she’s still on air.’
A BBC spokesman said: ‘Susan is a much-loved and admired broadcaster. We have been in contact with her throughout this challenging period of diagnosis and are in ongoing discussions with Susan and her family.’
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