Alma Cullen obituary

·3-min read

My friend Alma Cullen, who has died aged 83, had a career as a scriptwriter spanning more than 40 years, with credits including Inspector Morse, and one of her plays won a silver award at the New York TV festival. This was no mean feat at a time when the industry was dominated by men.

Alma had tremendous empathy and concerns for children growing up in poverty, emanating from her own childhood. She was born in Prescot, Merseyside, daughter of Frank Fitzpatrick, a factory worker, and his wife, Elsie (nee Harrison), a shop assistant. At Childwall Valley high school for girls she was humiliated by a teacher because of holes in her shoes.

She studied English at Liverpool University. In 1960 she married James Cullen, a botanist, and they settled in Edinburgh. Later, she went back into education, obtaining a master’s at Edinburgh University in 1974.

Her first break came when she sent a play to BBC Radio Leeds. Soon after came scripts for Granada television: The Caledonian Cascade (1977) and A Hardy Breed of Girl (1978). For the BBC she wrote a film, Kay, the same year, and the following one ​A Degree of Uncertainty for the Play For Today series. Northern Lights (STV, 1982) was shortlisted for an Emmy award, and Off Peak (STV, 1984) was the winner of the silver medal at the New York TV festival. Her four-part drama series, Intimate Contact (ITV, 1987), starring Daniel Massey and Claire Bloom, was among the first to depict the Aids crisis.

We met when Alma and James moved to Cambridge in the late 1980s. Despite her success she was modest, but no pushover. When she and James attended high table at a college the fellows directed their comments to James, ignoring her. When she finally got into the conversation it was, “Oh, and what is it you do?” “I’m a writer,” she replied. “Oh? Well that can’t pay much,” a fellow chortled. “£30,000 the last script,” came the riposte. With academia not noted for its great pay, the smirk fell off his face.

In the 90s she wrote for A Touch of Frost and adapted works by Agatha Christie, Joanna Trollope and Joan Smith for the screen. In the late 80s and early 90s, working on Morse, she shared the Writers’ Guild award for best original drama two years in a row in 1991 and 1992. Her TV film All the King’s Men, starring David Jason and Dame Maggie Smith, won the former a best actor award in 2000.

As hard as Alma worked, she liked to have fun and wanted others to have fun too. She was endlessly kind, and supportive to other writers. “Wish me luck,” I’d say, going off to see a TV producer. “You don’t need luck,” she’d reply. “They’ll be lucky to have you.”

When James died in 2013, she moved to Edinburgh and returned to her earlier passion of stage and radio, writing plays for the Oran Mor theatre, touring her new Inspector Morse play, and writing Morse for Radio 4.

She is survived by her children, Patrick and Rose, and granddaughters Amy, Ellen, Louise and Julia.

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