Ian Curteis obituary | BBC


Ian Curteis, who died at the age of 86, was a television playwright of some distinction who launched the charge of left bias against the BBC long before it was fashionable to do so. when his documentary drama The Falklands Play, which the company commissioned in 1983, was postponed, then rescheduled, and ultimately postponed indefinitely. A heavily cut version of the play was finally released in 2002, with Patricia Hodge as Margaret Thatcher sympathetically portrayed and James Fox as Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary. But the damage, for Curteis and many others, was already done.

Overall, the play showed Thatcher was doing the right thing for the nation at a personal cost and therefore, Curteis believed, did not match what he saw as the political position of the BBC. But CEO Alasdair Milne’s view was that the description of events surrounding the Falklands War was too sensitive to air in the run-up to the 1983 general election. And by the time the play was rescheduled, there was another election around the corner. In 1986, Anglia Television expressed interest in producing the play, but the BBC refused to release the copyright; Michael Grade, the director of programs, rubbed the wound by announcing that production had been halted due to the poor quality of the script.

At this point, Curteis allowed himself to be seen as a victim of political censorship – a charge strongly rejected by the BBC – and delivered a speech at the Edinburgh Festival televised conference in 1987, widely reported as a repeat of his “well-known attack on the left wing.” drama. “The right-wing label stuck. Curteis has become a fixture in media debates and has been regularly asked about his Christian beliefs and his aversion to” strong “language on television.

His cause was not helped when, in 1988, the BBC broadcast – provocatively, he thought – Charles Wood’s Tumbledown, directed by Richard Eyre, in which Colin Firth played a crippled Falklands Scots Guards officer. by a sniper in the head. This superb film did not, inconveniently for Curteis, promote a leftist view of the conflict; instead, he underscored the indifference of the government and the public to the plight of wounded soldiers returning home.

Churchill and the Generals, starring Timothy West as Winston Churchill, aired on BBC Two in September 1979. Photograph: Zuma Press Inc / Alamy

Curteis, the son of a bank manager, was educated at Slough High School. He was injured during his national service and spent three years working at a factory in Slough while studying for college entrance. After a year at Queen Mary College London, also working as a part-time stagehand in Joan Littlewood’s left-wing theater studio in Stratford East in 1956, he left to become an actor. He worked in theater in Great Britain, as an actor and director, before joining the BBC as a trainee director in 1962.

He directed episodes of Z Cars and Pity About the Abbey (1965), a satirical play about developers and planners by John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar, which suggested that Westminster Abbey was about to be demolished for make way for a ring road. Other forays into the cinema have not been successful; veteran BBC producer Irene Shubik said Curteis was “a desperate director… he literally didn’t know how to run the studio”.

So in 1968 Curteis became a full-time writer and wrote a television trilogy for the BBC, under the generic title Long Voyage Out of War (1971). He has also written biographical dramas about Beethoven and Alexander Fleming and has become a regular writer of series such as the BBC’s Doomwatch, ITV’s Crown Court and the BBC’s The Onedin Line.

But he established his reputation with Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977), which starred Anthony Bate and Derek Jacobi and won two Bafta nominations. Hess (1978) recreated Hitler’s deputy landing in Scotland in 1941 in an unlikely attempt to negotiate peace. Atom Spies (1979) recounted how German physicist Klaus Fuchs passed secrets of atomic research to Russia in the 1940s.

A play on Suez (1979) was postponed for being “too expensive and controversial” while Churchill and the Generals (1979), which starred Timothy West as Churchill, Eric Porter as Sir Alan Brooke and Arthur Hill as Roosevelt, was a successful blockbuster for the BBC and was nominated for a Bafta.

Two of his most important and successful projects will follow. Lost Empires (1986) for ITV was a seven-hour, hour-long adaptation of JB Priestley’s novel with a young Firth experiencing the world of variety behind the scenes on his uncle’s traveling show as World War I unfolded. profiled; Laurence Olivier, in an award-winning performance, played comedian Harry Burrard, an older version of his acclaimed Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

The Nightmare Years (1989), for the American channel HBO, was another great miniseries, this time based on the account of an American journalist working in Germany in the 1930s and having lived the beginning of the war with his wife. German ; Anthony Page directed two of the eight segments, starring Sam Waterston, as journalist William Shirer, and Marthe Keller.

A great drama which, Curteis said, intended to rehabilitate Oswald Mosley’s reputation “to some extent” was scrapped, and the Falklands Play controversy erupted again when, in 1995, his draft documentary drama on the Yalta’s conference, scheduled for the 50th anniversary of the event, was also canceled.

The BBC said it could not raise the required co-production funding and Curteis reiterated its view that the BBC was “in informal opposition to the government”. In turn, the BBC stressed that it had wanted Curteis to write the play (and allegedly paid him £ 55,000 to do so), but that many other dramas had recently been dropped due to a large budget deficit.

That same year, he also wrote a successful BBC miniseries adaptation of his second wife Joanna Trollope’s novel The Choir, starring David Warner, Fox, Richenda Carey and John Standing, which lifted the veil on politics and scandals in a cathedral choir school.

Curteis seemed to keep a low profile for a few years, then suddenly reappeared as a stage playwright with The Bargain (2007), a speculative recreation of an actual meeting in 1988 between publisher Robert Maxwell (Michael Pennington) and Mother Teresa. of Calcutta (Anna Calder-Marshall). In a winding conversation, led by James Roose-Evans, each side was keen to strike a deal: Maxwell cash to solve a housing problem for India’s poor, in return for approval of a religious publishing project. designed as a money-whistling whistle. Things got more complicated when each discovered the other’s haunting secrets. The play, while static, received fairly good commentary on tour but never made it to the West End.

Curteis was married three times, first to Joan Macdonald in 1964, then to Trollope in 1985 (both marriages ended in divorce), and finally to Lady Deirdre Hare, widow of the 7th Lord Grantley, in 2001, with who he continued with the restoration of the Grantley family home, Markenfield Hall, in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

She survives him, as well as two sons from her first marriage, two daughters-in-law from her second and two sons-in-law from her third.

Ian Bayley Curteis, playwright, born May 1, 1935; passed away on November 24, 2021

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