Peter Luke was a writer, story editor and producer on several of British television’s most influential drama anthology series, working at both ITV and the BBC, during a period of particular creative development for the medium. His television work was, however, only one part of a varied life.
Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke was born on 12 August 1919, the son of British diplomatic Sir Harry Luke. The Luke family was originally of Hungarian descent (the name Lukach being Anglicised to Luke) and Luke’s upbringing was cosmopolitan. In his younger years he accompanied his parents on his father’s postings around the world, during which he learned about language, culture, art and literature, before returning to England to be enrolled at Eton. On completing his schooling with the minimum of academic rigour, Luke decided he wanted to become a painter and went to art school in London and then studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. He enlisted in the British army shortly after the Second World War began, leading him to Egypt and combat on the first day of the second battle of El Alamein, in which he was wounded. After recovering he was deployed in the European theatre of war, serving in Italy, France and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy following D-Day. He ended the war a Major, acting Lieutenant-Colonel.
Following his demobilisation after the war, Luke worked as a sub-editor for the Reuters news agency but he was soon let go. A winter of unemployment followed, ended only by a temporary position as a guide at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He then found a position with a wine merchant in 1947, which took him to Portugal, Spain and France to learn the trade. He spent the next nine years as a wine salesman travelling Britain, leaving the company following a bad year for the business.1
For some time Luke had been trying to write books, stories and journalism, though only a little of the latter was published. His career changed when a mutual friend showed his short story ‘Small Fish Are Sweet’ to Sydney Newman, who had recently become drama supervisor for ABC Television. Newman recognised that the story would make a good teleplay, leading to him taking Luke on as an assistant story editor in 1958. In his memoir, Newman explains that he was in a hurry to recruit a new story editor and how, surprisingly, he was swayed in Luke’s favour by some inegalitarian factors:
While he knew nothing about play writing, he seemed amiable enough … I was impressed that not only was his father an ex-colonel governor (whose name I had come across in a biography of T.E. Lawrence when he was deputy governor of Jerusalem), but Peter was an old Etonian. I also liked the fact that he, like me, had once aspired to become an artist… My meeting Peter Luke was the beginning of a solid friendship, one that professionally was to enhance the latent qualities we each possessed.2
Newman tasked Luke with finding more new British writers for Armchair Theatre, ITV’s leading drama anthology. At this he had great success, and he helped to mould Armchair Theatre into a showcase for new television writing with contemporary relevance. Newman later recalled:
At first, television drama was a mystery to him but, as well as his good nose for wine, he had an unerring eye for good and original writing. Thanks to him I commissioned the first television plays of Harold Pinter, Alun Owen and many others. His charm and empathy with the writer and directors, say, Philip Saville, Ted Kotcheff, Charlie Jarrott, made it easy for me to hold the loyalties of fine writers such as Clive Exton, Hugh Leonard and Angus Wilson.3
Luke considered himself privileged to be learning the new craft of television drama under Newman’s guidance but also found his boss infuriating.4 He is credited as the origin of the much quoted description of Newman as “a cross between Genghis Khan and a pussy-cat”.5 Luke soon found himself overworked, recalling later that he was working 16 hour days, seven days a week, leaving him little time for his own writing. Even so, three of his plays were seen in Armchair Theatre in the space of two years.
The play version of Small Fish Are Sweet appeared in November 1959 and was a modest success. Mixing comedy and pathos, it was the story of Arthur, a ladies’ underwear salesman, and the lonely widow from whom he wants an order, ending with their marriage. Aided by the work of director Alan Cooke and actors Donald Pleasence and Katharine Blake in the lead roles, it was considered “a delightful play tenderly written and beautifully acted”, by The Stage and Television Today.6
Pig’s Ear with Flowers was another small-scale comedy. Italian domestic help Maria causes havoc in the home of a genteel civil servant. With her foreign food and singing she falls foul of the housewife but finds herself admired by the local butcher, in whose shop she ends up working. Suggesting it was more fantasy than comedy, The Guardian found it “light and amusing, an extravaganza upon ordinary life with characters and settings just that little exaggerated to bigger and funnier than life size.”7 The Times concurred, noting that Luke had mixed his ingredients with a “light hand” to make “a more than usually agreeable comedy of eccentric character”.8
Perhaps Luke’s years as a travelling salesman had helped him create Arthur for Small Fish are Sweet and it’s probable that his time in Italy informed the character of Maria in Pig’s Ear With Flowers. However, there can be no doubt that his experiences as the leader of combat troops were the basis of his final Armchair Theatre play, Roll on Bloomin’ Death. The action is set in Europe and 1944 and concerns a naïve newly-posted British Lieutenant learning to lead his war-weary platoon. Although they found the officer’s ultimate success entirely predictable, television critics praised Luke’s characterisation of the varied men at war.
Luke’s frustrations on Armchair Theatre couldn’t be assuaged forever and, as he later recorded in his memoir, after three years he felt “sick of nurturing other writers’ talents and pandering to their egos” and oppressed by the struggle to produce good material to crushing deadlines.9 He resigned and went to live in the country to write a stage play in 1961. However, Luke’s career changes in the early 1960s are more complicated than his straightforward account suggests.
Industry reports indicate that Luke initially resigned as a story editor around April 1960, in favour of a period as a writer contracted to ABC, returning as story editor towards the end of the year.10 This may have been to overcome the contractual or procedural barriers to him contributing scripts to Armchair Theatre whilst simultaneously working as the series’ story editor. He was reportedly an Armchair Theatre story editor still in 1962, when he moved across to ABC’s features department to edit the arts series The Book Man and Tempo.11 The television correspondent of The Times found Tempo “a great deal smoother” under Luke than under his predecessor, Kenneth Tynan.12
In 1963 Luke returned to drama, this time at the BBC, where he became head of drama. Luke became a producer, turning out a string of television plays under the series title Festival from October 1963 to September 1964. Introducing the series in the Radio Times, Luke explained that it would be “a programme of drama for people ‘in the know’. It will be for people who are curious and interested in the arts, in history, in our cultural evolution.”13 It was a ‘high brow’ series for people like Luke himself, in other words.
He went on to state that it would include drama from Greek classics to the modern Theatre of the Absurd, and new works, but all its plays must have a “particular meaning to us today”. The series was also to explore the hitherto unexplored possibilities of television drama. Although Festival wasn’t long-lived, Luke certainly made progress towards these goals with an eclectic programme. At the high-brow end were versions of stage plays by Beckett, Ibsen, Brecht, Ionesco and Pirandello, with Aristophanes’s Lysistra representing the ancient Greeks. Of a more populist character were the Noel Coward comedy Fallen Angels, with which the series started, and David Turner’s humorous original teleplay Trevor, about a working-class man’s sexual neuroses.
Although many of the plays were conventional productions, a few tested the limits of what was feasible. Under the director Rudolph Cartier, Stalingrad was largely successful in depicting the range of horrors of the Second World War’s eastern front. TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination of Thomas Becket, became the first broadcast BBC television drama to be recorded entirely on location. Luke had taken an Outside Broadcast (OB) unit to the drama’s true setting of Canterbury Cathedral where the play was recorded in the cathedral’s largely unaltered 12th century sections under director George Foa.
Recorded first but broadcast after Murder in the Cathedral was the even more ambitious OB drama Hamlet at Elsinore. It was another Peter Luke production for Festival, although it was ultimately broadcast independently of the series. The mammoth endeavour, with a running time of nearly three hours, was a co-production between the BBC and a Danish broadcaster recorded entirely at the ‘true’ location of the play, Kronborg castle at Elsinore in Denmark, under the direction of Philip Saville. The production was a vast logistical exercise, with Luke reporting complications caused by the location such as the noises generated by the busy shipyards and shipping lanes nearby.14
A reorganisation of the BBC’s drama scheduled in 1964 resulted in the premature termination of Festival, with several of Luke’s already recorded productions being broadcast at the end of the year under the new banner of The Wednesday Play. The following year Luke produced the new drama anthology series Londoners for BBC2. Contrasting with Festival, Londoners contained new works only with a contemporary (London) setting. Most were by writers new to television and directed by freshly trained directors.15 A notable instalment was Pity About the Abbey, a satirical story about the plan of a property tycoon and scheming civil servants to demolish Westminster Abbey to make way for an office block, co-written by Sir John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar.
Around this time Luke also produced a handful of early instalments of the prestigious Play of the Month series, before it was assigned a regular producer in Cedric Messina. The Joel Brand Story and Lee Oswald – Assassin were a pair of early documentary dramas dealing with notorious episodes of modern history, both under director Rudolph Cartier. The outstanding A Passage to India was a particular early Play of the Month success. It was adapted by John Maynard from Santha Rama Rau’s stage version of Forster’s novel, with Maynard adding additional material to open the production out for television. Because of this mixed authorship it reportedly took Luke a year to negotiate the television rights. For added verisimilitude Luke funded director Waris Hussein to film background location material in India while on a visit home.16
Luke followed Londoners by taking over the reins of producer of The Wednesday Play, succeeding James MacTaggart. Under MacTaggart the series had showcased primarily new, contemporary and often contentious plays, entirely unlike the Festival cast-offs it had started with. Although denying any “clean up” of the series was intended, Luke reported that “humour, wit, sophistication, and the use of the English language” would be the hallmarks of the series under his control.17 Although he stated that he would be “going for themes on the lively issues of the day”, he did not support the aggressive, almost interventionist, policy of his predecessor.
Later Wednesday Play producer Irene Shubik recalled that “Peter Luke frankly avowed that he did not consider television drama a suitable platform for politics; his approach, after the ‘raw’ season which preceded him, was that of a ‘scholar and a gentleman’.”18 When offered the script Cathy Come Home, he rejected it, stating: “One commends his [writer Jeremy Sandford’s] crusading spirit but this is documentary stuff … The “Wednesday Play” is not a political platform”.19 When eventually made by one of Luke’s successors it caused a public furore and has remained Britain’s most famous television play.
Luke’s series of The Wednesday Play kicked off with Clive Exton’s The Bone Yard and then A Man on Her Back, which Luke himself had dramatised from a story by William Sansom. The Bone Yard had an unusual history, having been produced by Luke for screening in September 1964 but dropped at the last minute due to coincidental similarities betwen the plot and matters under investigation in an enquiry into the activities of a corrupt police officer then much in the media.20 It was then recorded again in late 1965 with its broadcast held over to the following year. The reason for its re-recording is unknown.
Reflecting his own tastes, Luke took a more literary approach to the selection of plays than his predecessor. While original teleplays still featured, there were also a number of adaptations of novels by the likes of Aldous Huxley and Patrick White. Television critic Philip Purser’s adaptation of Vernon Bartlett’s novel Calf Love, a story of pre-First World War adolescent romance, was a particular success.
Of the original works produced by Luke for The Wednesday Play, some of the most notable were The Portsmouth Defence, the very popular first play in a loose law-themed trilogy by ex-barrister Nemone Lethbridge, and The Executioner, a psychological portrait of Trotsky’s assassin by Robert Muller, in the style of the earlier Luke-produced Lee Oswald – Assassin. Two plays by Hugh Whitemore taking place in religious communities, Silent Song (co-written with Frank O’Connor) and The Retreat, were somewhat unusual for television in being played largely in mime, with minimal dialogue. Silent Song went on to win several awards and was twice repeated, a great rarity for any programme at that time.
Luke’s series of The Wednesday Play concluded in mid-1966, with one final play held over until that September. He returned to write for the series the following year, adapting The Devil a Monk Would Be from a story by Alphonse Daudet. It was a comedy about monks rectifying their abbey’s financial woes by turning salesmen for a homemade liqueur.
After his BBC contract expired in 1967, Luke was offered one last project on a subject close to his heart. He had a fondness for Spain and its culture, likely acquired in part during his time there while learning the wine trade, and travelled to Andalusia with a BBC film crew to make the arts feature Black Sound – Deep Song about the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. He wrote, produced and directed the programme, which was co-produced by a Bavarian broadcaster.
Taking his leave from television, Luke and his family stayed on in Spain. He settled in a remote part of Malaga and took to farming. He considered it an “escape” from his career in television, which he seemed to look back on with little affection, although he confessed to having enjoyed it at the time.21 However, he continued to admire the position of the BBC, writing in 1968 that “under the present enlightened hierarchy” it was “the greatest organisation for good outside Oxfam and the Roman Catholic Church.”22 Around this time, Luke was employed by Sydney Newman, now at Associated British Pictures, to rewrite the screenplay for a comedy film about a cockney gangster on the run, but the project was ultimately cancelled following a company take-over.23
The play Luke had taken time off from ABC to write at the start of the decade was Hadrian the Seventh, a fantasy about an improbable new Pope, based on the book by Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo). No one would produce it at the time, a proposed 1966 production was cancelled following casting problems and when staged in Birmingham in 1967 the play flopped. It was revived in London the following year, shortly after Luke had installed himself in Spain, and was a smash hit. It played all over the world and made Luke a small fortune. He directed a production of it himself in 1970.
Further stage plays followed. 1974’s Bloomsbury was about the relationships of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury set and 1985’s Married Love depicted the life of birth control campaigner Marie Stopes. In 1969 he was reportedly writing a play about Sir Richard Burton, in which it was hoped Burton’s namesake would play the lead, but it failed to materialise.24 In 1977 he adapted Benedict Kiely’s novel Proxopera for the stage. His other non-original stage works derived from his passion for Spanish writers: a translation and adaptation of Antonio Gala’s Rings for a Spanish Lady in 1977 and a new translation of Lorca’s Yerma in 1987. In 1977 he left Spain for Ireland, taking on the directorship of the Dublin Gate Theatre Company until 1980, later returning to Spain.
In 1988 Luke wrote one final television programme, this time for Channel 4. Handel – Honour, Profit and Pleasure was a biographical drama about the eponymous composer co-written by Luke and Anna Ambrose, who also directed the production.
In the 1980s and ‘90s Luke wrote for BBC radio. His 1985 play Nymphs and Satyrs Come Away concerned Lytton Strachey’s relationships, as Bloomsbury had on the stage. His 1989 drama The Last of Baron Corvo was a pseudo-sequel to Hadrian the Seventh and in 1992 Luke wrote a 25-part radio adaptation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Luke’s fascination with the Catholic church was further evident from his final play, A Popish Plot, about the creation of the Papal Swiss Guard, which was broadcast posthumously in 1996. In the 1980s Luke wrote and presented a documentary about Lorca and featured in another about Corvo.
Luke was also a writer of prose, publishing two volumes of memoirs amongst other non-fiction. In 1984 he published the historical novel The Other Side of the Hill, about the Duke of Wellington’s campaign in the peninsular war, which he also dramatised for radio in 1991.
Peter Luke died in Spain on 23 January 1995. He’s best remembered for the huge success of Hadrian the Seventh, but undoubtedly his greatest impact on British culture was made in television, with its audience of millions. As a story editor and producer in television drama in the 1950 and 1960s, Luke helped direct and shape the medium during a crucial period in its development. Nurturing original television writing, he brought new writers and stories to the screen, while his productions of existing works made them accessible to vast new audiences.
© Oliver Wake 2018
With thanks to Mark Aldridge
Originally posted: 31 July 2012
31 July 2018: added material on Newman memoir; added accompanying endnotes; additional very minor amendments to main text: correcting one word, making a minor change to ‘mould’ sentence, and deleting half of one sentence.