True Vision

films that make a difference

Co-Founder of True Vision, Deborah Shipley, remembered

Deborah Shipley – 13/11/55 - 22/11/15

Deborah Shipley, the bold and passionate BAFTA winning documentary maker, died peacefully at home on Sunday November 22nd after a long and brave dance with cancer. Co-founder of True Vision Productions with husband Brian Woods, Deborah was involved in numerous ground-breaking documentaries, directing BAFTA nominated Lost Girls of South Africa, and co-directing the BAFTA winning Orphans of Nkandla among many others.

Born in Kisumu, Kenya, on the banks of Lake Victoria and raised there and in South Africa, Deborah later became active in one of the first multi-racial theatre companies in South Africa with whom she performed anti-apartheid plays in different communities in Natal, South Africa. She developed a life-long love of theatre and a passion for exposing injustices and advocating for social change.

Deborah moved to the UK in the 80s to pursue an acting career and expand her experience in multi-cultural community theatre. During this time she also developed her business skills in various sectors, including managing one of the first centers for alternative medicine in England. In 1995 she and Brian co-founded True Vision Productions. The company’s first film was the policy influencing film The Dying Rooms.

As well as directing a BAFTA winning film herself, Deborah also worked on most of the company’s productions as a roving troubleshooter – covering a variety of roles across research, administration and production – and was a fierce advocate for producing only films that had a strong social purpose. She was acutely sensitive to injustice, and strived to ensure the company produced only hard-hitting, revelatory films that gave a voice to those seldom heard in their own words. Throughout her illness she continued to demonstrate her great determination and remained unstintingly passionate about global causes.

In early November 2015, after winning a Grierson for the Channel Four film Curing Cancer, Brian Woods dedicated the award to Deborah in a profoundly moving acceptance speech (below).

And anyone who knew her will also remember her wry humour,her passion for life, social grace and love for a bit of fun. She was living right to the very end - she celebrated her 60th birthday at home with friends, at a Mad Hatter’s tea party, just a week before she died. She was dressed as Alice. And a week before that, with a little help from some morphine and a wheelchair taxi, she was at the Royal Opera House to watch Carmen.

Apart from Brian and her beloved cat, Harry, Debs was devoted to her brother, David and the family - Heather, Callum, Gareth, Olympia, Nuum, Oscar & Ralph.

If you would like to make a donation to The Aletheia Foundation, the charity we set up to support those in need whose lives we highlight in our films, please feel free, and please add your own memories of Debs below.

Read the most beautifully written reflection on Debs' friendship from the lovely Thembi Mutch, here

One of the contributors to a recent True Vision film said of Debs:-

There are few people in this world that get to make a difference and change peoples perceptions and together you both achieved this on many occasions. Her legacy is not measured by the awards won or indeed the films you've made together but by the actions of those who were inspired by your work to make a positive contribution to the world.

Charlotte Moore, Controller of BBC ONE said:-

It has been a privilege knowing Debs over the years. She has always been an extraordinary person, full of kindness and generosity alongside an impressive strength and resilience, and above all a force for good in everything she's done. She has always been a real inspiration in the world of television, in the way she dealt with colleagues and contributors, in her commitment to the art of documentary-making and in the way she felt driven to give a voice to the vulnerable and disadvantaged and to out the injustices of the world so often on our doorstep. And for the last 15 years she has been an inspiration to all of us whose lives have been touched by cancer. She was a remarkable woman and I feel lucky to have known her - and spent so many enjoyable awards evenings in her company. She will be truly missed by many.

Brian said:-

I was very lucky to find someone I could love so completely, and who loved me in return in the same way. That seems to be so rare these days. I fear the road of grief I have to walk - so much harder because for the first time in 25 years I walk it alone. But every iota of the pain in the days and moths to come I would endure a thousand fold for the deep joy and love we shared for the last quarter of a century.

My darling Debs, my soulmate, moral compass of True Vision, and the inspiration for anything good and worthwhile I have done in and with my life, I will miss you as long as I live.

If you knew Debs and have memories or thoughts to share, then please feel free to do so below.

Brian’s speech about Debs at the Grierson Awards.

And the film of Debs Brian made for her 60th birthday... (quite long!)


Jezza Neumann
24th Nov 2015
Wherever Debs spirit skips and dances is a lucky place indeed. In Life she was a dear friend, someone I could turn to for advice in both my professional and personal life. She has been there for me on many occasions and supported me right to the end. Asked to describe Debs with two words I'd have to say "compassionate" & "Fair". There was no one who took fairness more seriously than her. Whether that was injustice in life or a staff pay rise, it was Debs who was at the forefront of "doing the right thing". She was loved by many and will be missed by more but her spirit will live on through the work True Vision and the Aletheia Foundation continues to do by burning that single candle and not cursing the darkness. Miss ya Debs x
Ian Roberts
24th Nov 2015
I only met Debs a handful of times, and we never had the time for those deeper conversations. But I have an abiding memory of her. When Brian last brought his Mum and Dad to our home in the Lake District the extended family came in a mini-bus taxi with a driver. Everyone came inside except the driver who stayed in his vehicle. At some point I went out to see if he needed a cup of tea and Debs was there with a plate of food for him. She had been thinking about him and decided to do her best for him. I was struck by her kindness and sensitivity …. and here clear conviction that everyone counted. What a very special person.
Khaled Abo Ghali
24th Nov 2015
I'm sorry for loosing her.She is a grate person.
Lizzie Saunders
24th Nov 2015
Dear Debs always pleased to see you, gracious and blessed with a zest for life. Despite all in her last months she maintained an interest in those around her. I remember sitting out with her on a hot day, a sun hat thoughtfully provided for me, when the chair she was sitting on collapsed. She laughed mightily and heartily reflecting her happy cheerful spirit which I am sure lives on free of all suffering. I shall miss her.
Nick Read
24th Nov 2015
Dear Debs you will be so sorely missed. I have never had the pleasure of knowing someone so dignified, so principled. You were always note perfect when it came to fairness, decency and simply doing the right thing – both professionally and personally. To combine wisdom & grace in equal measures is a rare thing. Inspiring in life, you leave us infinite riches as your legacy, and beautiful memories of a life well lived. Sleep well my dear friend.
Elaine Boardman
24th Nov 2015
Debs, brave of spirit and bold of heart. I've always considered True Vision one of my telly homes. Working at True Vision is like being part of an extended family and Debs has always been there at the beating heart of it. You will be greatly missed. Sending you, Brian and your family much love. xx
Gillian White
24th Nov 2015
Dear Debs I haven't seen you for so long, life just got in the way but I always remember you, charismatic, beautiful, loving thinking of others and meeting everything that life threw at you with such grace and dignity. Even though I didn't see you I always knew you were still my friend and the world is a little less bright now you are no longer in it, lots of love Gillian xxx
Gary Rimmer
24th Nov 2015
I realise this page is for Debs. But it is also impossible to think of Debs without thinking of Brian. I was with Brian when he first met Debs. We were in Belfast. He went home for a weekend and when he came back he had met her. At a party I think. And from that moment on he was absolutely ever and unswervingly smitten; their partnership forged from day one. But one of my enduring memories is being with the pair of them at an airport in Boston. Brian striding off, Debs hurrying to keep up. No point to this story really. Just that somehow, however great their film making became they were always a couple first and their mutual support an object lesson.
Thembi Mutch
24th Nov 2015
What a wonderful woman. What a tour-de-force, a bringer of life, warmth, humour, care, creativity and sexiness. What an amazon warrior goddess who didn't limit herself, who thought big, who was resilient, brave and real.And in being so gave us all permission to shine and be amazing too. What a wonderful combination of worldly and naive.
Bernard Lyall
24th Nov 2015
I can't claim to have known Debs closely, but over some years of acquaintance she always struck me as a kind, graceful, perceptive and beautifully spoken woman; one of those people who change the air around them so that it seems softer, friendlier, and more filled with light. The world feels a bit darker and colder without her in it.
Trina Laydon-Walters
24th Nov 2015
I first met Debs many years ago when I was staying with her sister-in-law Gill, my closest and dearest friend. I was immediately struck by Debs' presence and grace and found myself a little unsure around such poise and confidence. Gill had known Debs a long time and told me what a gorgeous, strong, amazing woman Debs was. I had several opportunities to meet Debs with Brian when I was at celebratory family events at Gill's and I soon came to know a beautiful, deeply wise woman with great gentleness of spirit who expressed a profound thoughtfulness of care for others and a wonderful generosity of perspective. A very special person. Debs had the most expressive eyes and at times they were dark pools of compassion and at others bright and shining with humour and fun no matter how unwell she felt. Debs will now always dwell in a special place in my heart alongside my eternal friend Gill. My thoughts are with you Brian and family and friends.
Dougal Murray
24th Nov 2015
I had the great pleasure of getting to know Debs whilst working at True Vision. She was a real firecracker with a wicked sense of humour, but more importantly a real supporter of her staff and team. She was without doubt the matriarch of the company and I remember hanging out with her in their basement kitchen desperately searching for anything other than that bloody rice milk to put in my tea, our eventful road trips to hospital and being ticked off by her for general idiocy on various occasions with great fondness. Debs, you are truly missed. x
Jo Grace
24th Nov 2015
I'll always remember Debs as an amazing force of nature - a woman who cared so passionately about human rights and giving people a voice who were never heard. She was also an amazing mentor who gave brilliant opportunities to her staff, with the true belief they would do her proud. It was an honour to work for such a distinguished company with her at its heart and I'll always remember my time there with pride. Through True Vision's films she's changed so many lives. She'll never be forgotten by people all over the world - what a legacy to leave. Thinking of you Brian and family, and sending lots of love, Jo xxx
Carolyn Boyes
24th Nov 2015
I first met Debs twenty years ago with Brian coming to stay in our flat in Hong Kong. I have many happy memories of the simple things - sitting in the garden, having a meal, playing with the cats, playing stupid games, shopping for Deb's dress for the Bafta's. Dear Debs. I will always think of your great tenacity, deep empathy, sensitivity and beauty. You were an extraordinary and courageous soul. Xx
Mitch Turnbull
24th Nov 2015
Dear Brian, We met many years ago during the early years of our careers. I've never forgotten you and have admired your unforgettable films from afar. Now I know that those films were born from a very special partnership with an incredible person. My thoughts are with you. It will be a painful path, but know that you will grow strong again in months to come and that Debs' spirit will be with you forever. Mitchx
Chris Eley
24th Nov 2015
True Vision is a unique institution. One could believe that this is down to Brian and Jez. The fact is, though, that both of them, if left to their own devices early on, might well have found themselves making ads. She never made a fuss about it, but the ‘vision’ part in the name was always Debs. Even when she was laid up in bed, we would regularly receive emails from Debs with a link to a news story or an NGO campaign saying “We should make a film about this”. Whether or not it was something we’d be able to pitch, it was always something that spurned a little bit of outrage in you about suffering and injustice in the world. Debs was there to remind you what documentary making is and always will be about- people. Her position was clear- if you have the power to tell stories there should always be a responsibility to try and use that power to help those whose voices need to be heard. I will miss those emails. Its strange to think I won’t receive them anymore. She taught me a lot.
Maria and Stefan Sharkovs, Bulgaria
25th Nov 2015
Stefan and I were privileged working with Debs even from a long distance in Bulgaria. And we'll still remember smiling wonderfl Debora at Chiswick on a pint of bear and goat cheese. Thank you, Brian and Debs for awarding us with the opportunity to know you.
albert Jimwaga
25th Nov 2015
Dear Debs You will always be remembered. I met Debs when true vision team came to Tanzania for a documentary “the world without water’ some years back. I was truly struck by her kindness, wisdom, humor, professionalism and generosity. She gave voice to voiceless through deeds she gave courage and loved everyone particularly the poor African women visited. You will be missed Debs – “Tutakukumbuka"
Sean & Debbie Gogarty
25th Nov 2015
Brian and Debs have achieved more in terms of justice and progress for the world than anyone else I know. Very few people can point to such achievements. Debs did not compromise, she stuck to her principles in all cases, even recently in a milchlin starred restaurant where they tried to fob her off with somthing that did not meet her requirements - she was having none of it! The way she bore her suffering with cancel with such dignity and patience was an inspiration to us all. As others have mentioned Debs would not like to miss out on a party and we were delighted to welcome her to our 50th this July wheelchair and all! We remember Brian's 50th with the great Bond theme and Debs amazing outfit, a great occasion and memories of a happier time. If anyone can claim to have lived a life well lived it must be Debs, such a successful marriage, exceptional contribution to society and grasping every bit of fun to be had whilst remaining true to her principles throughout.
Patricia Edwards
25th Nov 2015
I have only known Debs a few years. We first met in the Savoy in London,which was my first introduction to the Edwards family. It was quite a frightening experience, meeting both Shirley and Deb’s for the first time, but also very inspiring to meet Deb’s such a remarkable woman , strong , gracious with a manner that quickly made me feel welcomed. Debs 15 year fight with cancer is an inspiration to all, a real soldier with the heart of a lioness. Debs and Brian attended our wedding in April 2013, Debs had recently undergone surgery on her leg and was being supported with crutches, to everyone's shock she threw away her crutches and burst into a full blown Gan Man Style dance, this demonstrated great courage and her love for life and fun. She will be sadly missed.
Jason Barden
25th Nov 2015
I taught Debs Pilates for the last 6 years. Her courage and determination to do whatever she could to retain mobility whilst in pain was an inspiration to me. I also witnessed Brian doing an incredible job loving and caring for Debs. Sad news of a well lived life. Love Jason
Xoli Moloi
25th Nov 2015
I am deeply saddened by the passing of Deborah Shipley. Rest in peace Dear Debs, I knew you for a very short time but you left a lasting impression on me – I learnt a lot from you. You will always be in my heart & memories. Xoli Moloi- Johannesburg, South Africa
Jason Barden
25th Nov 2015
I taught Debs Pilates for the last 6 years. Her courage and determination to work against low energy levels and pain in order to try everything possible to stay mobile was remarkable and an inspiration to me. I saw Brian do an amazing job supporting and caring for Debs. Miss you xxxx
Sara Grenfell
26th Nov 2015
I first met Debs in London in 1991. We were both cast in Orestes, we became instant friends. I was from Australia and it turned out we knew the same people.I learnt so much from her about humanity and what it is to sacrifice. I was there when she fell in love with' this remarkable man from Belfast.' Brian and Debs were extraordinary together, they completed each other. For a few years when i returned to london i would stay with Brian and Debs, i would cook dinner and we would talk endlessly. I treasure those times. We have always stayed in touch and i have followed there remarkable progress with True Vision. Very recently Debs emailed me. We hadn't communicated for a long time. I realise now she was saying goodbye. I am so grateful to have known you. You will always have a place in my heart. Beautiful Debs. xxx Sara.
Joe Smith (and Renata Tyszczuk)
26th Nov 2015
It is quite right that most of these comments focus on the lovely individual qualities of the person of Debs. But what that misses is one of the first things that struck me when meeting Debs and Brian years back, and that was how they had so purposefully gathered a team of people that would help change the world by telling important stories. That careful, quiet, probably often unconscious work of bringing people together and making change in the world is something that lives on in the existing amazing achievements of the Truevision team, but also in the capabilities they have - including those who have moved on to do other work in other places. All of that nurtured talent and skill will be put to work for many years to come. That is a lot to celebrate, and I think Debs was the kind that would want you all to be celebrating not 'her' the individual, but all that you have achieved together and will in the future.
Lorne Magory
26th Nov 2015
I am speechless. William Blake says it better. Can I see another's woe, And not be in sorrow too? Can I see another's grief, And not seek for kind relief? Our thoughts are with you. love Lorne & Cathy
Anna Hall
26th Nov 2015
This time last week I was having dinner with Brian and Debs. Debs was lying in bed interested, thoughtful, kind and welcoming even in such a private space saying how I should have told her that I was coming and then she could have prepared the room for me. The first time I met Debs was 5 years ago at C4, when we pitched some access I had on CSE. I had already made one film on this subject that was harrowing and difficult. Debs looked at me and said simply "Anna why do you want to do it again?" I said " because it's still happening and I care about these girls". She smiled and looked at me very directly with those piercing eyes and said " yes, we do too". I have often thought about those simple words as they sum up the fighting spirit and compassion Debs brought to her work and to the 'vision' in True Vision. I am so grateful for the unique and special space she has built in the documentary world - and Debs - I promise to keep Jez and Brian out of ads for as long as I can. X
Sue Innes
27th Nov 2015
Dear Brian So sad to hear that you have lost your beautiful Debs. Have such fond memories of fun in France all together.... I am in retreat in India in a Tibetan Nunnery built by Jetsumma Tenzin Palmo and I have just made an offering for prayers to be done by the 100 nuns here. It is so amazing she died at peace so precious.... I will also dedicate my practice to her. Thinking of you. So sorry I can't be at her memorial. Love Suex
Jack Fox
27th Nov 2015
I'd the pleasure of working with Debs in True Vision last year and in her I found a caring, loving and resilient woman who not only fought bravely against her illness but fought with even more vigour for those who didn't have a voice, through her work with Brian, Jezza and the rest of the team. I'll truly miss Debs but wherever she is, I'm sure she'll be looking down on the True Vision team making sure there's plenty of Almond milk in the fridge, that the magazines are in proper order but most importantly, that everyone's ok. We'll miss you Debs.
Sue Robinson
27th Nov 2015
I too was shocked and saddened to hear about Debs this week. So many people have talked about her compassion, her sense of justice and fairness and her great sense of fun. I will also remember her beauty, her determination and strength, combined with grace and gentleness, and a deep capacity for love. I know how happy you were together, Bri, and my heart is with you at this time.
Sue Robinson
27th Nov 2015
So many comments about Debs' compassion, sense of justice and desire to do something to change the world... I will also remember her for her beauty, her strength and determination, beautifully balanced by her gentleness and grace. She also had a deep capacity for love - for the "human family" and at a more personal level. I know how happy you were together, Bri, and my heart goes out to you at this time.
Pippa White
27th Nov 2015
The toughest and coolest chick I have ever known! Debs, we will miss you so much. I know how much True Vision was your Baby and us, your Family. It's with the greatest honour we are here to carry on your legacy of fairness, justice and making the kind of films we all want to make and watch. Yes, we promise to keep Brian and Jezza on the straight and narrow in that respect! px
Anne Morrison
28th Nov 2015
Debs had a wonderful combination of compassion, tenderness and fierceness. She was outraged by the injustice of the world, instinctively on the side of the dispossessed, the people least able to speak up for themselves. She refused to turn a blind eye to unfairness but brought it to the attention of the world. Her legacy is not just in True Vision's films with all their awards, but in the inspiration she has given to aspiring documentary makers, and to all of us who are encouraged to become wiser, kinder people and to take action as a result of understanding the human suffering at the heart of news headlines. She was the visionary of True Vision and a dear friend - thoughtful, insightful and caring. Debs, you shone like a star. X
Miriam Escofet
28th Nov 2015
I first met Brain and Debs at Saturday morning yoga self practice many years ago, and although I did not really get to speak to them or know them properly for a while, they immediately struck me as incredibly interesting and whole people, that was just in their aura! I have not had the good fortune of working with them and being part of their groundbreaking and important documentary work and I feel slightly envious of people who have. Debs always struck me as an incredibly passionate and uncompromising person, and many people have spoken far more eloquently than I can on her qualities and impact on the world around her. But above all of the awards and amazing work, what really struck me about Debs and Brian was their unbreakable love and care for each other, which surely speaks volumes about their qualities. Debs, you will be missed by everyone who knew you and remembered with great love.
frédérique sardais
29th Nov 2015
Deborah Brian you have both been in my heart and my thoughts over the last 4 or 5 years that I've had the pleasure and privilege of knowing you both. I have left the house rocked to my core many a time as Debs would share about a new stage of the advancing cancer. Many times we got to the point where as her Yoga teacher I would think "I don't think I know enough to carry on, to be of help, I can't do it (as I also lived through losing my dad to the same battle )", but in my heart I knew I would never quit unless she said stop.... Her resilience, her smile, our chaotic creativity at times allowed us to share a weekly practice that she loved till a few months ago. I feel richer for the shared times. I feel deeply blessed to have had a chance a few days before Debs passed away to say goodbye and will never forget our last conversation. Brian, know that I am here in my humble way, if you need anything today, next week in the years to come. With all my love for you both xxxx. Fredee
Lottie Gammon
30th Nov 2015
I met Debs last year when I started working at True Vision. She was still well enough then to make it to every single Birthday cake ceremony in the office (a True Vision staple) and the wrap parties in the local pub. Debs made a big effort to get to know me in those moments and figure out how I tick, something I was very touched by. I remember a particularly passionate chat about Naomi Klein's book on climate change that we'd both just read. I'm sad our friendship was cut short but know that the True Vision team will keep Debs' spirit alive and keep making films she'd be proud of. xx Lottie
Alastair Rolfe
30th Nov 2015
Debs had such courage and fortitude, a quiet, determined sense of justice and a lovely manner. I got the sense that she was a perceptive observer and knew her personally as an intent listener, always humble and gracious. When we experience love and are motivated to carry that love into others’ lives, amazing things happen around us. People change, situations change – little by little, the world changes. Debs and Brian, together with the wonderful people who joined TrueVision, you merged that love with an extraordinary gift of film-making, of telling stories, seeking out the truth, always with compassion and respect. You have given voice to so many in pain and inspired more people than you can ever begin to know. Thank you, Debs, for achieving so much for the world.
Caroline Haydon
2nd Dec 2015
Four particular memories that I think will remain with me about Debs as the years go by. One, the very beautiful person who stepped out of the edit suite the first time I came to TrueVision to talk about working there. It wasn't immediately explained Debs was married to Brian, so it took a few minutes to work out. Two, her extraordinary and very lovely peal of laughter ( on so many occasions). Three, her insistence when I was leaving the company that I was meticulous in carefully handing over all the work we had been doing on FGM together. Because she cared about getting the topic to the screen. And she was meticulous. And lastly, the last time I saw Debs in a cafe in Chiswick, brandishing a walking stick, but standing out amongst the drab surroundings in a brilliant bright blue raincoat, elegant, uncomplaining. Thank you for the experience, Debs.
april de angelis
8th Feb 2016
I was at E15 theatre school with Deborah and was lucky that our paths crossed a fair few times after that. Compassionate, talented, full of integrity, strength, humour, perceptiveness, kindness and lovely beauty. I last wrote to her after I had seen two True Vision films which she gave me to watch; The Lost Children Of Zimbabwe and the film about rape of girls in South Africa. Both films were devastating, moving, immensely powerful and transforming. This is an incredible legacy. I feel proud to have known her.
Trevor Whittley
30th Apr 2016
Dear Brian, it is with very deep shock and sadness that I learned only today of Deborah's passing. I remember you both very well when I came to visit you at your home in West London when Sister Hedwig came over with the Orphans from Nkandla. Debs made a deep Impression on me: she was a very fine woman, a human being with tremendous compassion and drive. Inspired by your work I continue ten years on to help the orphans in Nkandla: the Vision you shared, and the work you did together, continues to make great impact in and around Nkandla and for that many needy people are very grateful.

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