David Waine, who has died at the age of 76, had a career with the BBC spanning 30 years ending as Head of Broadcasting at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham.
(Below is Michael Wearing’s obituary written by Simon Farquhar, for The Times. Thanks to Simon for allowing the obituary to be shared here.)
When Michael Wearing gave screenwriter Andrew Davies a copy of Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards in 1989, suggesting he dramatise it for the BBC, he said, intuitively: “it’s not very good but it’s got a great plot. It wants a bit of tweaking. Think Jacobean”.
With ideas now flourishing in his mind of a charismatic villain who talks directly to the audience, Davies was on his way to creating three series of immaculate drama that proved so popular that they even inspired a surprisingly successful American incarnation. Wearing’s was a masterful piece of guidance that exemplified what made him one of the most incisive and supportive drama producers in the BBC’s history, a man who skilfully fought to tell stories he felt were worth telling, a man undervalued by the broadcaster who he had provided with some of its greatest successes during some of its most troubled times.
The single play, which Wearing had learnt his craft working on, traditionally the space that allowed original voices the freedom to say original and often radical things, had been a threatened institution for twenty years, due to its habit of upsetting the apple cart. Finally, in a new, nervous and more accountable BBC, it was a form that would gradually be abandoned in favour of genre serials. But, despite his frustrations, Wearing’s superb record of creating sophisticated popular successes showed that stimulating television could still be made if producers had his blend of courage and good taste.
As well as the knavish House of Cards, which he saw as “a racy story about power, money and sex, and one I thought the BBC should tell”, two other wildly different works stand as a testament to those qualities: Troy Kennedy Martin’s nuclear conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness (1985) and Alan Bleasdale’s savage, funny and despairing Boys From The Blackstuff (1982). Each of the serials were political to a greater or lesser degree, each boldly reimagined traditional storytelling techniques on television, and each was a phenomenally successful exploration of something that was wrong with Eighties Britain.
Wearing was a man of pleasing contradictions, affable without being easy, earthy yet elegant, as distinctive for his graceful hand gestures as for his gravelly laugh, an admirer of the bon mot whose eyes would light up if he inadvertently coined one. He enjoyed good wine and good company, but unlike many in the convivial atmosphere of the BBC bar in the 1970s, he was also disciplined and quietly determined, more interested in those who created drama than those who caused it, not a man who went out of his way to please people or to mollify those who supposedly needed mollifying. Those traits won him passionate admirers and dangerous enemies.
Even his much-imitated working-class accent, incongruous in the hushed upper echelons of the BBC, made him instantly recognisable as a different kind of animal. He was a grammar-school boy, the son of Douglas, a Stock Exchange clerk, and Molly (nee Dawson), born in Southgate, North London. His performance at Dame Alice Owen’s school in Islington earned him a place reading anthropology at Durham University. He then worked as a research assistant at the University of Leeds, during which time his fast and funny production of Max Frisch’s The Chinese Wall took the Sunday Times Cup at the 1967 National Student Drama Festival and landed three nights at the Garrick. The production starred his future BBC colleague, Alan Yentob, but the judge, critic Harold Hobson, was decidedly grumpy when announcing their victory. Wearing, with a candour and irreverence he would later become celebrated for, told the press: “Hobson could have been more constructive in his criticism. It’s a bit much when five universities spend hundreds of pounds and he finds more to say on a fellow journalist than on the plays”.
The triumph was enough of an encouragement for him to quit his research job for the theatre, first working as an assistant stage manager at Bromley Rep, impressing with Muck For Three Angels at the Traverse, then being invited to direct at the Royal Court. The attitude of a theatre dedicated to new writing was one which Wearing thrived on, and he carried its mentality with him throughout the rest of his career, even if directing wasn’t his best expression of it. He helmed the eagerly-awaited but disastrous follow up to Hair, Isabel’s a Jezebel (1970), and later directed a couple of television plays, but the producer’s chair would prove his natural home.
His route to it came via one of television’s great impresarios, David Rose, in his new role as the BBC’s Head of English Regions Drama. Rose was impressed by Wearing’s touring (via transit van) production of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, and brought the production to television. The piece stunned the critics, and led Rose to invite Wearing to join the team as a script editor.
Initially a quiet and tentative member of this creative powerhouse, he worked diligently, gradually growing in confidence, and upon becoming a producer, inherited a gift of a serial in Malcolm Bradbury’s concupiscent The History Man (1981), a campus saga of gross moral turpitude that had already outraged as a novel and which vividly established Wearing’s credentials as a producer unafraid of whipping up a storm. Boys From The Blackstuff, with its confrontational depiction of a Britain crumbling both spiritually and economically under the weight of unemployment, was again a project which guaranteed controversy and governmental displeasure.
Wearing then took over as producer for the final season of Play for Today in 1984. The strand had been dying of neglect since the turn of the 1980s, lacking the innovation and courage that had made it such a force for good throughout the previous decade, but under his command there were some final triumphs, such as Barrie Keefe’s King, exploring the exploitation of the Windrush generation as they neared retirement age, and Doug Lucie’s horrifying study of a spiteful, privileged metropolitan elite, Hard Feelings.
Wearing was never afraid to make life difficult for himself if it might yield good work: Edge of Darkness meant having to rely on a writer as unpredictable and undisciplined as Troy Kennedy Martin, whose original pitch was “detective who turns into a tree”. The finished work perfectly expressed Britain’s growing fear that the Cold War might be hotting up for a nuclear winter. Another BAFTA winner was First And Last (1989), Michael Frayn’s story of a retired everyman (Joss Ackland) walking from Land’s End to John O’Groates. A road movie on foot and a long-distance love story, the huge production was hit not only by inconsistent weather but by tragedy when its original star, Ray McAnally, died half-way through shooting, but the finished film remains a gentle masterpiece.
As Head of Serials, as well as inevitably controversial works of the highest quality such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), he became a late convert to period drama, overseeing the BBC’s massive renaissance and reinvigoration of the genre after the success of Pride and Prejudice (1995).
An executive role thankfully never smoothed his rough edges: at a weekly programme review meeting, after listening to two senior BBC figures dissing a recent and challenging serial, Grushko (1994), Wearing, rather than disassociating himself from the production, told them “you’re both completely wrong. I think it’s a really important piece that is very well made and one that isn’t easy with its audience”.
He was awarded BAFTA’s Alan Clarke Award in 1997 and the RTS Cyril Bennett Award the following year, but with the arrival at the BBC of John Birt, an invasion by consultants, an obsession with ratings and the centralisation of the decision-making process, Wearing was driven disgustedly to resign and set up his own production company. Within a few hours of the announcement, 300 people signed a petition of support for him. A former colleague later bumped into him in Soho and “he said to me: ‘one day I’ll talk to you about betrayal’”.
Wearing was modest in his achievements, a gregarious but unpretentious character who lived at arm’s length from the showbiz world, in Peckham, where he shared a home for over twenty years with the artist Karen Loader. They had two children, Ella, an artist, and Benjamin, a cinematographer. He was previously married for twenty years to Jean Ramsay, with whom he had two daughters, Sadie, an academic, and Catherine, herself an exceptional television producer, who predeceased him.
Although there has been a flowering of impressive drama again at the BBC in the last two years, Wearing remained justifiably angry that “there is now nowhere for new, original voices to be heard. New writers are trained on how to write EastEnders instead”. There remains an unjustifiable gap in the schedules for the kind of work he believed in. As producer Kenith Trodd said at the time of Wearing’s resignation: “the symbolism of the BBC becoming a place where Michael Wearing cannot exist is very, very ominous”.
Michael Howard Wearing, producer, born 12 March 1939, died 5 May 2017
Director of Boys from the Blackstuff, Philip Saville died on 22nd Dec 2016. Here is an excerpt from his obituary in ‘The Guardian’ from January 2017, written by Toby Hadoke:
The director Philip Saville, who has died aged 86, was an important figure in British television drama – an innovative practitioner who brought Alan Bleasdale’s 1986 Boys from the Blackstuff to the screen. The series, which concerned the harrowing effects of unemployment on five Liverpudlian men, had a difficult gestation – the BBC was not easily persuaded to allow a supposedly “arty” director to convey the reality of disenfranchised working classes. While he greatly admired Bleasdale’s scripts, Saville suggested rewrites, notably expanding the role of Angie, the wife of one of the men, Chrissie (Michael Angelis). This added a strong female element to an otherwise male-dominated piece and provided Julie Walters with a breakthrough role.
One episode, Yosser’s Story, featured the broke Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill) desperately asking “gissa job” as his sanity was eroded along with his self-respect. By shooting Yosser’s Story on film, Saville gave it a haunting grandeur (the other episodes benefited from the immediacy of being made entirely on videotape, unusual for the time). The series won the Bafta award for best drama serial.
The full obituary is available on this link: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/01/philip-saville-obituary
A further obituary was published by The Telegraph in February. Here is an excerpt:
Filmed with recently introduced lightweight cameras, Saville’s Boys from the Blackstuff caught the punch-drunk spirit of the industrial north-west during the early Thatcher years with its highly stylised portrayal of a gang of out-of-work tarmac-layer in Liverpool.
Saville had been parachuted in at the eleventh hour after the original director withdrew, and shot four of the five episodes on outside broadcast (OB) video, working on location in derelict docks and factories in and around Merseyside, exploiting video’s greater flexibility over film.
Rapturously acclaimed by critics, Boys from the Blackstuff transferred from BBC2 to BBC1, secured one of the swiftest repeat runs in television history and earned Saville two Bafta awards in 1983.
This article is from the Forgotten Television Drama website: https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/michael-wearing-1939-2017/ by permission of Lez Cooke
Michael Wearing (1939-2017)
Michael Wearing, who died on 5 May 2017, was one of the talented people David Rose brought into television in the 1970s. Following the recent deaths of Barry Hanson, also recruited by Rose, Philip Saville, with whom Wearing worked on Boys from the Blackstuff, Rose himself in January and Christopher Morahan in April, the last few months have seen obituaries of some of the leading producers and directors from the so-called ‘golden age’ of British television drama.
After studying Anthropology at Newcastle University, where he was involved with a theatre group, Michael Wearing got a job as an assistant stage manager at Bromley before moving to the Royal Court Theatre, where he did his first directing. While touring a stage version of Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman, which he directed, Wearing met David Rose, then head of English Regions Drama in Birmingham, who subsequently directed a television version of the play at Pebble Mill, dramatized by Wearing and Victor Henry, who played the eponymous madman. Three years later, Wearing joined Rose’s regional drama department as script editor. In 1979 he directed Jack Shepherd’s Underdog (BBC2, 4 May 1979) for W. Stephen Gilbert’s The Other Side series, but was otherwise a script editor for four years at Pebble Mill, working with writers such as Alan Bleasdale, on Scully’s New Year’s Eve (BBC1, 3 January 1978) and The Black Stuff (BBC2, 2 January 1980), and Ron Hutchinson, on The Out of Town Boys (BBC1, 2 January 1979), writers with whom Wearing developed a particular rapport.
The following year he produced Stephen Davis’s Trouble with Gregory (BBC2, 23 February 1980) and Ron Hutchinson’s six-part Bull Week (BBC1, 1980), a social realist drama set in a factory in Birmingham, but it was Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (BBC2, 1981), adapted by Christopher Hampton, that confirmed Wearing’s penchant for progressive TV drama. The History Man was a four-part serial, a form with which Wearing was to excel as the single play gave way to the authored serial on British television in the 1980s. Ron Hutchinson’s four-part contemporary thriller Bird of Prey (BBC1, 1982) was followed by Alan Bleasdale’s five-part Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC2, 1982) which Wearing guided to the screen after a protracted production period. Wearing suggested Bleasdale write The Muscle Market (BBC1, 13 January 1981), originally intended to be part of the series, as a separate Play for Today, in order to keep him on board at a time when the BBC was prevaricating about commissioning a more expensive regionally base drama series. Wearing recruited Philip Saville to direct Boys from the Blackstuff, shooting four of the five episodes on video to keep costs down – a decision which arguably enhanced the contemporary realism of Bleasdale’s ‘state of the nation’ drama.
Following the departure of David Rose to Channel Four, BBC English Regions Drama gradually declined as an important producer of regional drama; indeed, Boys from the Blackstuff represents the department’s last great achievement. Wearing subsequently left Birmingham, but such was his reputation that he was subsequently re-engaged by the BBC to executive produce the final series of Play for Today in 1984, personally producing plays by Howard Brenton, Barrie Keefe and Davie Pirie. Later in 1984 Wearing produced Alan Clarke’s last studio play, Stars of the Roller State Disco (BBC1, 4 December 1984). In the same year he was invited to produce a contemporary serial, then entitled ‘Magnox’, which Troy Kennedy Martin had been working on for some time. Wearing brought in Martin Campbell to direct and they both worked with Kennedy Martin to realise his vision. The convoluted nuclear thriller which emerged, re-titled Edge of Darkness (BBC2, 1985), was on of the seminal dramas of the decade, proving such a success when it was broadcast on BBC2 that it was immediately repeated on BBC1, Edge of Darkness won six BAFTA awards in 1986, including Best Drama Series/Serial.
After a production of Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange fell through, Wearing moved to ITV for the first time, producing the feature film Bellman and True (1987) for Euston Films/Thames TV/Handmade Films. Subsequently shown on ITV in a longer three-part version in 1989. In January 1988 he returned to the BBC as head of Drama at BBC Birmingham, producing Peter Flannery’s Blind Justice (BBC2, 1988), a five-part drama about two radical barristers, and several films for series such as Screen One and Screen Two, including Michael Eaton’s Fellow Traveller (BBC2, 10 February 1991) directed by Philip Saville, about American writers working anonymously in Britain at the time of the McCarthy witch hunts/ As an indication of his propensity to speak his mind, Wearing drew an analogy between the subject of Fellow Traveller and contemporary developments in British broadcasting, with new government proposals threatening the future prospects of radical television drama. Such pronouncements only seemed to enhance his reputation, however, and in 1990 Wearing was recruited by BBC head of Drama Mark Shivas to become head of Drama Serials.
As the BBC entered a more competitive era, Wearing believed that quality drama could be the corporation’s chief weapon; among the many serials he was responsible for in the 1990s were classic literary adaptations such as Middlemarch (1994), Martin Chuzzlewit (1994), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Nostromo (1997) and Our Mutual Friend (1998), as well as original authored serials such as Paula Milne’s Die Kinder (1990), Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia (1993), Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996), Dennis Potter’s Karaoke (1996) and Cold Lazarus (1996), and Tony Marchant’s Holdings On (1997).
Throughout this period, Wearing was an outspoken critic of BBC management, especially following the appointment of John Birt as director general in 1992, Wearing believed that Birt’s policies were stifling creativity and, after threatening it on more than one occasion, he resigned in February 1998. There was much industry sympathy for his position and, shortly after announcing his resignation, he was awarded the Royal Television Society’s highest accolade, the Cyril Bennett Judges Award, having received BAFTA’s Alan Clarke Award for outstanding achievement in television in 1997. He subsequently took up a position with the independent production company Irish Screen, excutive-producing the feature films Human Traffic (1999) and When the Sky Falls (2000) and the six-part serial Aristocrats (BBC1, 1999). After Irish Screen was wound up Wearing produced Farrukh Dhondy’s Red Mercury (2005), directed by Roy Battersby, a feature film about three young Muslim men who form a terror cell in London. He was also co-executive producer on the feature film version of Edge of Darkness (2010), which he told me in 2009 was ‘kicked-started by 9/11’, the 2001 attacks giving him an idea of how re-work Troy Kennedy Martins’ masterpiece in the new ‘age of terror’.
Speaking about his new job with Irish Screen in 1998, Michael Wearing said his intention was ‘To have fun doing work that matters.’ As a mission statement it sums up his attitude towards producing drama throughout his illustrious career.
(This is a revised version of a biography written for BFI Screenonline in 2009).
Drama producer, Michael Wearing died from a stroke on the 5th May 2017, aged 78. Michael joined the English Regions Drama Department as a script editor in 1976, after working in theatre. He produced influential series like Boys from the Blackstuff, as well as Muscle Market, Bull Week, Bird of Prey, The History Man, Jake’s End, A Cotswold Death, Ice Dance, and A Master of the Marionettes. After a period at the BBC in London, and then ITV, he returned to Pebble Mill as Head of Drama, in the late 1980s, before becoming Head of Serials in London, although this isn’t mentioned in the obituary from the trade magazine Broadcast, below: http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/5117571.article?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletter134.
I recorded an interview with Michael in 2009, excerpts of which can be found on this site.