by Oliver Wake
Ian Curteis is an interesting figure in the world of British television drama. He made a name for himself as a writer of drama documentaries in the 1970s but thereafter either suffered political censorship and bureaucratic frustration of his work, or acted the martyr over productions cancelled for valid reasons as frequently happens in the television industry, depending on one’s viewpoint.
Iain Bayley Curteis, born 1935, was originally an actor, having joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1956. He later acted in, directed and produced plays at a variety of theatres across the UK. Industry press reported he’d been working for the BBC in 1962, but it is not known on what.1 In early 1964 he reportedly took on a number of writing projects for both television and radio, with the BBC and Granada, before joining the BBC as a trainee drama director for six months.2 Towards the end of 1964, after this trainee period expired, he directed episodes of Z Cars (1962-78) and an instalment of anthology series Kipling for the Corporation.3 The following year he directed John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar’s satirical television play Pity About the Abbey and took freelance work with ITV, directing episodes of Front Page Story (1965).4
In 1966 Curteis made an abortive entry into film directing with the science fiction feature The Projected Man. It was a difficult production with Curteis reportedly unable to stick to the shooting schedule, resulting in his replacement for the final days of filming.5 In the same genre he directed Walk’s End for the BBC’s Out of the Unknown (1965-71) anthology series and it too was a fraught production.6 Despite a studio over-run, a substantial sequence was left unrecorded and another director was brought in to complete it later. In correspondence, Curteis referred to “the greatest catalogue of technical catastrophes in the lurid history of the BBC”.7 However, the blame was laid squarely at his door, with producer Irene Shubik later recalling that Curteis was “a hopeless director … He literally didn’t know how to cope with the studio.”8
Curteis appears not to have directed for the BBC subsequently, and only directed episodes of the ITV children’s serial The New Forest Rustlers (1966) before making writing his full-time occupation.9 In 1968 he wrote The Folly for ATV’s Love Story (1963-74) anthology and The Haunting to their Saturday Night Theatre strand (1969-71).10 The latter concerned a man haunted by memories of his marriage and dead wife that may be more illusion than reality. Critic John Lawrence felt that the play’s “second half was a tremendous let down after the promise of the first.”11
Over 1966-68 Curteis had written, under commission from the BBC, a trilogy of teleplays under the collective title Long Voyage Out of War (1971), which went into production in 1970.12 Curteis believed that: “For ages, there have been plays without a proper ending, no third act, if you like”.13 His trilogy was an attempt at combating this. He suggested the reason for the recent dearth of plays with “a proper ending” was “because nobody, writers included, could see how to work things out – religion, ethics, all the rest – against the hopeless background of the Bomb, the Cold War, Cuba, Vietnam. Now I think there is hope. We have learnt something from coming so close to destruction.”14 His trilogy therefore followed a path from the destruction of the old social order in the darkest days of the Second World War, through the spectre of nuclear devastation and a search for new values in ideological conflict, and out into a new and quietly optimistic future.
The trilogy opens with The Gentle Invasion, set in Kent’s Romney Marsh in 1940.15 A German bomb breaches the sea defences, flooding the village. A group of locals bicker and fight while they shelter in the ruined church, fearing invasion. To the characters the world seems to be ending around them but it is the destruction from within their society – the young against the old, and the immigrant against the native – that is the basis of the drama. The second play, Battle for Tematangi, is set in the Philippines in 1954.16 Turk Godfray, who had appeared in the first play but not as its lead, has joined a band of mercenaries fighting in a local revolution. Some fight for money, others for a better world. The band is routed and flees by boat, passing symbolically through the fallout of the first H-bomb test at Bikini.
The Last Enemy concludes the trilogy in the Britain of 1976.17 Turk leads a charity finding homes for orphaned refugee children. He takes a young girl into his own family and struggles with her autism. In an afterword to the published script, Curteis suggests a religious impulse underlined the trilogy, drawing parallels with the Old Testament story of the flood and the ark.18 He also suggests it represents the death of God as “a separate authority” and his rebirth in the actions of man, although this point is certainly not obvious from the text itself.19 Sadly the plays are now lost but the scripts suggest that the trilogy was an impressive achievement, with the middle instalment being particularly effective.
Curteis’s talent for biographical drama emerged with Beethoven and Alexander Fleming (both 1970) for the BBC’s Biography series.20 Curteis followed these with Mr Rolls and Mr Royce (1972), about which The Times wrote: “The basis of Ian Curteis’s script was clearly researched in minute detail but on this occasion the documentary accuracy became almost a drawback; it kept catching round the ankles of the dialogue and tripping it up.”21 This drawback is the occupational hazard for drama documentary writers, who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t stick closely to the facts. Curteis has often insisted that he doesn’t write what he calls ‘dramatised-documentaries’, only plays: “Confusion between those two distinct categories has caused untold anger and distress. It need not be”, he remarked later.22 Even so, being based on known events and his own rigorous research, such plays appear to be drama documentaries to broadcasters and audiences, making Curteis’s distinction moot.
In the 1970s Curteis contributed scripts to a variety of established television series, including Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72), Crown Court (ITV, 1972-84), Sutherland’s Law (BBC, 1973-76), The Onedin Line (BBC, 1971-80), Hadleigh (ITV, 1969-76) and Barlow (BBC, 1971-75). In 1976 he wrote the documentary drama The Portland Millions for Granada’s Victorian Scandals (1976) and the following year devised the legal series Rough Justice for the BBC.23
Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977) was the first of a run of substantial drama documentaries by Curteis dealing with 20th century events.24 As the title suggests, the play was about the ‘Cambridge spies’ who worked in high government positions during the 1940s and ‘50s before their discovery and defection to the USSR. It was a highly polished production which became Granada’s entry into the 1978 Monte Carlo Festival and was a BAFTA Best Play nominee. It was subsequently broadcast in 48 counties, with an estimated audience in excess of 100 million.
Produced by Scottish TV, Hess (1978) recreated Nazi deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess’s landing in Scotland in 1941 in an unlikely attempt to negotiate peace between Britain and Germany.25 It was a topical drama, with calls being made earlier that year to release Hess from prison. In a similar vein to Philby, Burgess and Maclean, The Atom Spies (1979) was another ITV play about a famous Soviet spy.26 The play dramatised the case of the German physicist Klaus Fuchs, who had passed atomic research secrets to the USSR during the 1940s. Curteis’s BBC drama Churchill and the Generals (1979) depicted Winston Churchill’s often stormy relationship with his top military commanders during the Second World War.27 It was another nominee for the Best Play of the Year BAFTA award and later won the Grand Prize at the New York International Film and TV Festival.
Suez 1956 (1979) followed, again for the BBC.28 The play depicted the political machinations of prime minister Anthony Eden and his cabinet during the crisis over the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez canal in 1956. It had been written five years earlier but had been postponed as “too expensive and too controversial” to be produced then, according to director Michael Darlow, who anticipated it causing upset.29 Curteis asserted that he had written not a dramatic reconstruction of history, but a play, containing a mix of “detective work, speculation, personal assessment and authenticated fact.”30 He suggested that at least half of his play was invention and that it was inevitably a personal view of how the events all fitted together.31
In 1980 Curteis planned a biographical drama about Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists. The project was abandoned following the Home Office’s refusal to release documentation to Curteis.32 Given comments we’ll cover later, it seems likely Curteis’s play would have attempted to rehabilitate Mosley’s reputation to some degree. The same year he was involved in a bid for an ITV licence as a director of Television South-East when regional broadcasting contracts came up for renewal.
Curteis’s ITV drama Miss Morison’s Ghosts (1981) was loosely based on an eerie experience reported by two Oxford academics on a visit to Versailles in 1901.33 It was regarded highly enough to be submitted into 1982’s Monte Carlo International Television Festival. Around the same time Curteis wrote Private Affairs, a play inspired by the 1931 scandal of the Liberal Party leader Lord Beauchamp, which was seen on stage in 1982.
In 1983 Curteis was commissioned by the BBC’s Director General Alasdair Milne to write a documentary play in the mould of Suez 1956 dealing with the political and diplomatic processes of the previous year’s Falklands war. After Curteis experienced resistance during his initial research, The Falklands Play, as the project came to be known, was postponed and rescheduled for broadcast in 1987, the fifth anniversary of the conflict. However, at a late stage in 1986, the BBC suddenly deferred its production.
The play showed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a positive light and Curteis suggested the postponement (or cancellation as it in effect became) was because the BBC didn’t wish to broadcast such a portrayal due to its left-wing bias. He alleged that Peter Goodchild, the BBC’s Head of Plays, had instructed him to revise his script to show Thatcher less sympathetically and to depict the cabinet making military decisions with an eye on the government’s prospects at the next general election. He reported he had refused to make these changes, pointing out that there was no documentary evidence to prove that the latter ever occurred.34 Curteis and Goodchild had clashed previously, most notably when Goodchild had cancelled production of his 1920s globe-trotting trilogy BB and Joe with, Curteis claimed, a rationale of “breathtaking inadequacy”.35
The BBC denied Curteis’s allegations and countered that it would be irresponsible for them to produce The Falklands Play in the run-up to the looming general election, and maintained that it was only postponed until after the election, pending script approval.36 Michael Grade, the BBC’s Director of Programmes, put forward the argument that the production hadn’t proceeded because of the poor quality of the script.37 Anglia Television expressed an interest in producing the play and made contact with Grade who, Curteis reported, refused to release the BBC’s remaining copyright on the play.38 The play was not rescheduled after the 1987 general election.
Although the result of lengthy research, Curteis never denied his play was partisan. He had approved of the government’s actions over the Falklands and described his play as “a celebration of what this nation achieved” in the conflict.39 “I am sad beyond words that a great institution like the BBC should be reduced to cancelling meticulously researched historical plays because they do not coincide with the political views of the television establishment. There can be no other explanation for their decision”, he said.40 He went on to state that “In my opinion all BBC drama is now heavily biased against the Establishment and particularly against this government”.41 Curteis’s allegations were seized upon by opponents of the BBC and the debate about the BBC’s alleged anti-Establishment left-wing bias ran and ran. Oddly, when the play’s script was published, it revealed that Curteis had included a sequence in which Thatcher looked to the next general election after all.
After his involvement in a debate at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 1987 was reported as a repeat of “his now well known attack on left-wing drama”, Curteis responded that it was actually “a plea for a richer democracy in drama, including left-wing drama. It was a plea I’ve been arguing in public for eight years at least”.42 Regardless, he had already been reported as describing himself as representing the “centre-right” of politics and the right-wing label stuck.43 His conservative views subsequently made him a handy participant for media debates, with his comments sought on his Christian beliefs and antipathy towards strong language on television.
By the time of the Falklands Play fiasco, Curteis had notched up a number of unrealised projects, though this is nothing unusual for a professional television writer. These included film and television dramas about, amongst others, Stalin, the eighteenth century political revolutionary Tom Paine and spy George Blake, about whom he later wrote a radio play.44 Immediately before the Falklands Play debacle Curteis had, he reported, been discussing with Alasdair Milne potential dramas about the 1938 Munich crisis, to tie in with its fiftieth anniversary, and about the life of Cecil Rhodes, but these came to nothing.45
Curteis returned to the BBC in 1995 with a new drama documentary project as ill-fated as his last. This play was to have dramatised the Yalta conference of 1945, at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin planned the post-war reorganisation of Europe. When the project was cancelled the Falklands Play controversy replayed itself in miniature, with Curteis complaining that the BBC had axed the drama on political grounds, due to his right-wing presentation of events.46 The BBC denied this, stating that the required co-production funding could not be raised in time for the conference’s fiftieth anniversary, for which the play was to be timed.47
“The BBC is in unofficial opposition to the government”, Curteis said, “You never see any programmes on the BBC arguing the case for hunting, for instance, or capital punishment, or suggesting that Oswald Mosley was not a villain but a mistaken man.”48 Calling him “the whingeing playwright”, The Guardian queried why the BBC would have paid Curteis (reportedly £55,000) to write the Yalta play if they had so objected to his politics and pointed out that the Corporation had recently cancelled numerous dramas due to a large budget deficit.49
1995 did however see one Curteis project reach transmission on the BBC: an adaptation of his wife Joanna Trollope’s novel The Choir.50 Between the Falklands Play debacle and this point, Curteis had written a lengthy adaptation of J B Priestley’s Lost Empires (1987) for ITV, the opening of the mammoth Mission Eureka (1991), a co-production between Channel 4 and various European broadcasters, and dramatised William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years (1991), about Germany in 1934-41, for America’s HBO.51 Thereafter there is no indication that he wrote anything further for television, though he has mentioned that he was once in talks about a possible Gulf war drama that came to nothing.52 Curteis reported in 2002 having been asked to write something about “the Afghan war”, but this also has not materialised.53
The Falklands Play was finally produced by the BBC simultaneously for television and radio to mark the twentieth anniversary of the conflict in 2002, following Curteis’s suggestion to the BBC’s then Director General Greg Dyke.54 It was a streamlined script, reduced by half to 90 minutes. All the sequences depicting the Argentine political processes were lost, as was a lot of early material of the US diplomatic team. As such, the play concentrated on the British side of the war, albeit with room to depict the UN and American attempts at intervention. The scene of Thatcher suggesting that a lack of action over the crisis may see the government lose the next election remained, as in the published script. “So much for the claim that she was not portrayed as thinking of her electoral prospects”, noted one reviewer.55
Curteis now seems to be in semi-retirement, writing only the occasional radio play, although a stage play was seen in 2006. In a return to documentary drama, albeit with a large element of speculation, The Bargain told the story of what may have been said at the unlikely but true meeting of Mother Teresa and Robert Maxwell in 1988.
Ultimately, Curteis was a skilled writer of biographical and documentary plays – even if he would not agree with this term – and original television dramas. His outlook, as manifested most obviously in his dramas about twentieth century figures and events, was conservative and largely supportive of the Establishment line. This was a relatively rare trait for drama of the 1970s and ‘80s, when dramatists tended towards the left-wing. Curteis claimed that similar political bias at the BBC resulted in the cancellation of his work in the 1980s and ‘90s, and even if it seems a stretch to except that this occurred quite as Curteis’s reports, he certainly appeared to be treated poorly over The Falklands Play. It’s sad that his successful career was so frustrated by such petty squabbles.
© Oliver Wake, 2009, 2012
Originally posted: 28 May 2012.
Philby, Burgess and Maclean is available from Network DVD
The Falklands Play is available from BBC DVD.