Ian Curteis obituary

·6-min read

Ian Curteis, who has died aged 86, was a television dramatist of some distinction who initiated the charge of leftwing bias against the BBC, long before it was fashionable to do so, when his documentary drama The Falklands Play, which the corporation had commissioned in 1983, was postponed, then rescheduled, and finally deferred indefinitely. A heavily cut version of the piece was eventually broadcast in 2002, with Patricia Hodge as a sympathetically portrayed Margaret Thatcher and James Fox as Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary. But the damage, as far as Curteis and many others were concerned, had already been done.

Broadly speaking, the play showed Thatcher doing right by the nation at some personal cost to herself and thus, thought Curteis, did not chime with what he took to be the BBC’s political position. But the director general Alasdair Milne’s point was that the portrayal of the events surrounding the Falklands war was too sensitive for broadcast with the 1983 general election looming. 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 programmes, rubbed salt in the wound by announcing that the production had been halted because of the poor quality of the script.

At this point, Curteis allowed himself to be seen as a victim of political censorship – an accusation strongly rejected by the BBC – and gave a speech at the 1987 Edinburgh festival television conference widely reported as a repeat of his “well-known attack on leftwing drama”. The rightwing label stuck. Curteis became a fixture in media debates and was regularly canvassed on his Christian beliefs and dislike of “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 Scots Guards officer in the Falklands paralysed by a sniper’s shot to his head. This superb film did not, inconveniently for Curteis, promote a leftwing view of the conflict; instead, it highlighted the indifference of the government and the public towards the plight of wounded soldiers returning home.

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

Curteis, the son of a bank manager, was educated at Slough grammar school. He was injured during national service, and spent three years working in a factory in Slough while studying for university entrance. After a year at Queen Mary College, London, working, too, as a part-time stagehand in Joan Littlewood’s leftwing Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in 1956, he left to become an actor. He worked in the theatre around Britain, acting and directing, before joining the BBC as a trainee drama director in 1962.

He directed episodes of Z Cars and Pity About the Abbey (1965), a satirical play about developers and town planners by John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar, which suggested that Westminster Abbey was about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. Other forays into film-making were not successful; the veteran BBC producer Irene Shubik said that Curteis was “a hopeless director … he literally didn’t know how to cope with the studio”.

So in 1968 Curteis turned full-time writer and wrote a trilogy of teleplays for the BBC, under the generic title Long Voyage Out of War (1971). He also wrote biographical dramas about Beethoven and Alexander Fleming and became a regular writer on 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 gained two Bafta nominations. Hess (1978) recreated the landing of Hitler’s deputy in Scotland in 1941 in an unlikely attempt to negotiate peace. Atom Spies (1979) told how the German physicist Klaus Fuchs passed atomic research secrets to Russia in the 1940s.

A play about 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.

There followed two of his biggest and most successful projects. Lost Empires (1986) for ITV was an adaptation in seven hour-long episodes of JB Priestley’s novel with a young Firth experiencing the world of variety backstage in his uncle’s travelling show as the first world war loomed; Laurence Olivier, in an award-winning performance, played the comedian Harry Burrard, an older version of his clapped-out Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

A big drama that planned, Curteis said, to rehabilitate Oswald Mosley’s reputation ‘to some degree’ was abandoned

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

A big drama that planned, Curteis said, to rehabilitate Oswald Mosley’s reputation “to some degree” was abandoned, and the Falklands Play controversy flared up again when, in 1995, his project of a documentary drama about the Yalta conference, slated for the 50th anniversary of the event, was also cancelled.

The BBC said they could not raise the required co-production funding and Curteis reiterated his view that the BBC was “in unofficial opposition to the government”. In turn, the BBC pointed out that they had wanted Curteis to write the play (and reportedly paid him £55,000 to do so) but that numerous other dramas had lately been dropped due to a large budget deficit.

In the 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 lid on the politics and scandals in a cathedral choir school.

Curteis seemed to be lying low for a few years, then suddenly re-emerged as a theatre dramatist with The Bargain (2007), a speculative recreation of a real-life 1988 meeting between the publisher Robert Maxwell (Michael Pennington) and Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Anna Calder-Marshall). In a sinuous conversation piece, directed by James Roose-Evans, each side was keen to strike a deal: Maxwell cash to solve a housing problem for the poor of India, in exchange for an endorsement of a religious publishing project designed as a money-laundering wheeze. Things became more complicated when each uncovered the other’s haunting secrets. The play, though static, was fairly well reviewed on tour but never reached the West End.

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

She survives him, along with two sons from his first marriage, two stepdaughters from his second and two stepsons from his third.

• Ian Bayley Curteis, dramatist, born 1 May 1935; died 24 November 2021

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