Giles Cooper


btvd_cooper_maigretGiles Cooper is widely recognised as having been Britain’s greatest radio dramatist. He was highly prolific, writing dozens of original plays and adaptations for radio across a period of around 13 years. He was responsible for many of the medium’s masterpieces during the 1950s and his accomplishments were acknowledged posthumously with the BBC’s radio playwriting award being named in his honour. He also wrote for the stage, having particular success with his 1962 play Everything in the Garden, a dark comedy of middle-class suburban hypocrisy and greed.

This work has unfairly overshadowed Cooper’s career as a television dramatist. Writing for both the BBC and ITV, Cooper was even more prolific in television than he was in radio, producing a large body of work in which his characteristic skill as a dramatist was evident. He would undoubtedly be better known today had he not died tragically young while at the height of his talents in 1966. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of his death, this article aims to highlight Cooper’s television career and argue that he deserves greater recognition as one of Britain’s most remarkable television dramatists.

Giles Stannus Cooper was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Carrickmines, Dublin, in 1918, but spent his early years in London. His father had been a naval officer in the First World War and then a barrister. The exact connection is unclear but he appears to have worked in this capacity for the Colonial Service, rising to become attorney-general of the Seychelles, where Cooper joined him and his mother for two years aged eleven. Cooper’s mother was a successful artist. Cooper was educated primarily at public school, including Lancing College. His father planned for him to join the British diplomatic service and sent him to Grenoble University to learn modern languages. Cooper also stayed briefly in St Sebastian in Spain around this time, studying Spanish, but left due to the Civil War, from which he was wounded when hit by a stray bullet. Spain would continue to hold a special appeal to him and featured in several of his plays. Instead of following his father’s plans for him, Cooper set his sights on an acting career and joined the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art.

In 1939, Cooper was conscripted into the Army, becoming an infantry officer with the West Yorkshire Regiment. In the Second World War he spent several years fighting the Japanese in Burma, a particularly gruelling theatre of war. In all, he spent seven years as a regular soldier. Anecdotal evidence suggests he conducted himself well as an ‘officer and a gentleman’, though he would later rarely talk about his war experiences. He was demobilised in 1946 with the rank of Captain and set about his much delayed career as an actor, while also being active in the Territorial Army. During periods of ‘resting’ he turned to writing and in 1950 had his play Never Get Out performed at Edinburgh’s Gateway Theatre. The same year his radio play Thieves Rush In was broadcast by the BBC.1 It was the start of a long and fruitful association with the medium.2

Thanks at least in part to the patronage of Donald McWhinnie, who would produce and direct much of Cooper’s work for both BBC radio and television, Cooper rapidly became a prolific and popular radio writer. After a number of original plays for the medium he turned his hand to writing adaptations of novels and short stories from diverse sources, including Kipling, Dickens and Henry James. This led to him being taken on as a staff writer by the BBC in 1953 and in this capacity he turned out a steady stream of radio adaptations.

After two years on the BBC staff, Cooper left to take up television work with ITV, but nevertheless continued writing radio plays. Amongst these were the plays that would cement his reputation as a radio writer of rare wit, insight and imagination: Mathry Beacon, about a strange closed community, the radiophonic spectaculars of The Disagreeable Oyster and Under the Loofah Tree, and the sinister Unman, Wittering and Zigo.3 His adaptations continued also, with successes including versions of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.4

There was considerable overlap between Cooper’s heyday as a radio dramatist and his early period as writer for television. His earliest television credit was for a 1951 BBC production of his stage play Never Get Out (it was produced again in 1954).5 He then wrote two adaptations in 1953: a six-part serialisation of Eric Ambler’s novel Epitaph for a Spy, and a version of Heinrich von Kleist’s play The Broken Jug.6 In 1955 Cooper was quick to find work with the new ITV companies, collaborating with Jon Manchip White on a dramatisation of Stefan Zweig’s story The Mossbach Collection.7

Late 1955 saw Cooper’s first original television work, with two plays for ITV in quick succession. The General’s Mess, subtitled ‘An Un-Military Escapade’ in the TV Times, was a farce about an ex-general, appointed Deputy Director of Inventions, coming into conflict with his family and his daughter’s admirers.8 The No-Man was a light comedy about a young man who is always agreeable until an attractive woman inspires him to assert himself, and events get out of hand when he becomes involves with the wrong woman.9

Cooper continued writing adaptations for ITV and had his first original BBC television play with Liberty Hall, a drama about middle-aged adultery.10 Inspired by their joyful times as childhood companions, the adulterous couple revisit the large house where they had spent happy hours as children. They find it converted into a country club and, with their romantic idyll ruined, conclude their affair. The Times found it “trivial… an unhappily managed trip down memory lane”.11 Cooper reportedly became a staff writer/adaptor for Associated Rediffusion during 1955 and 1956, but it is unclear which programmes he worked on.

In the period 1956 to 1958 Cooper wrote prolifically for ITV but largely in partnerships with other dramatists under the collective pseudonym ‘Peter Key’. The writing team changed but – as far as it is possible to tell – Cooper was the constant in it. It seems likely therefore that Cooper was, in part at least, behind The Handshake, a short play that formed half of the second instalment of ABC’s Armchair Theatre in 1956.12 More certain are details of the ‘Peter Key’ partnership which wrote the five-part mystery serial Death to the First Lady, an instalment of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, and a serial adaptation of the science-fiction horror The Trollenberg Terror.13 In these three projects Cooper was joined by George Kerr and Jack Cross. It seems likely that Cooper was contracted to Associated Rediffusion during at least some of these projects and the use of the pseudonym may have been intended to disguise this ‘moonlighting’ for the competition, although this is speculation only.

‘Peter Key’ was also credited with writing an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood and an adaptation of the thriller play The Rossiters for Play of the Week, though in these cases it is unknown which writers were using the pseudonym.14 A little clearer is Cooper’s role in Mary Britten MD, a Southern TV serial about the then seemingly still novel concept of a female Doctor, in 1958.15 Although it was ultimately credited to ‘Peter Key’, industry press reported while it was in development that the series was being written by Kenneth Hyde, Stanley Miller and Cooper. ‘Peter Key’ seems to have been retired thereafter.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the earliest examples of a practice which would become commonplace for Cooper: the dramatist adapting his original work from one medium into another. This started with his radio plays Dangerous Word and Without the Grail being seen on television.16 The former’s eponymous word is ‘justice’ and the play examined the resentments and violence caused by attempts to impose it in a British colony in Africa. Although finding the script “uneven”, leaving “actions and motives unexplained”, The Stage newspaper concluded that “there was some good character-drawing and a real attempt to show the pull of the opposing forces of idealism and practical behaviour. On the whole, this was a play to be applauded.”17

Without the Grail concerned a British tea-planter and the feudal kingdom he had created for himself. The Observer thought it “adapted very successfully… a delightfully lively thriller of ideas.”18 Calling it “an unusual and exciting play”, The Times commended Cooper’s adaptation, noting how he had “swung this play round from a dependence upon images heard to an eloquent use of symbols seen. Enough of the original remains to give Mr. Donald McWhinnie, who produced both the sound version and last night’s television performance, a motive for always inventive use of sound to create atmosphere and suspense.”19 Later, Cooper would reverse the process, adapting some of his television originals for radio.

In 1957 Cooper had dramatised Georges Simenon’s detective story Maigret and the Lost Life for a BBC radio production.20 Two years later he provided a new and highly successful adaptation of the same story for television.21 The Times praised how “the adaptation worked with the smoothness of a precision instrument. Mr. Cooper has an infallible instinct for the right length and shape of a scene, and his script was rich with visual puns which enable one episode to comment dramatically on the one that follows”.22 As a result of the play’s success, the BBC recognised Simenon’s Maigret stories as the perfect material for a popular series. Cooper was appointed script editor, though he only stayed for the first series, disliking office work, and wrote numerous episodes himself. Legend has it that following his increasingly infrequent trips to his BBC office, he once arrived there to find it had disappeared altogether in a bureaucratic reorganisation.23 Running for four series between 1960 and 1963, Maigret proved a hit and won a number of awards, including a Guild of Television Producers and Directors award for Cooper in 1961. It wasn’t his first award; he had received the OBE the previous year for ‘services to broadcasting’.24

The Maigret pattern recurred a few years later. Cooper’s successful dramatisation of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band, for the BBC’s Detective series, resulted in a full Sherlock Holmes series, for which Cooper wrote a number of episodes (although in this case he did not script-edit).25 His dramatisations for the series were frequently lauded by critics, with the following from The Guardian’s review of The Devil’s Foot being typical: “It was extremely well adapted by Giles Cooper and the play could not be faulted on its treatment of the plot.”26

The early 1960s was a particularly productive time for Cooper, with a series of imaginative original dramas, interspersed with a steady stream of adaptations. Where the Party Ended used a seemingly small incident to conflate fears of ‘the bomb’, both big and small, and create a highly suspenseful drama.27 A bank heist is interrupted by an unexploded Second World War bomb which falls into the tunnel dug by the would-be robbers and starts ticking. One of the gang, Jack, was a bomb disposal engineer in the war, but lost his nerve, resulting in forty deaths when he denied the presence of a bomb rather than face it. He flees the scene but meets up with a teenage ‘beat’ girl, Clare, who has seemingly lost her grip thanks to the ever looming threat of atomic war. With Clare’s support, Jack is able to defuse the bomb. Where the Party Ended is indicative of Cooper’s ability to create imaginative scenarios that hint at greater things than what can be seen on the surface, and draw in characters of diverse backgrounds.

Point of Honour was, as the name suggested, an exploration of differing concepts of honour, notably the romantic and violent versus the conventional and pragmatic.28 Edmund is travelling in a remote part of Spain with his wife and the man with whom he thinks she is having an affair. When the car breaks down Edmund finds himself in the same hotel as outlaw El Cazador, who is there to assassinate a man who dishonoured his daughter. Edmund is temporarily drawn to his violent code of honour but ultimately baulks at its consequences.

Romanticism and pragmatism were again in conflict in Cooper’s next play, this time in the arena of marriage. Love and Penguins concerned Jane, widowed from her polar explorer husband Vincent before she really knew him.29 She has remarried the boringly prosaic Adam but upon their return from honeymoon she starts receiving letters from Vincent, written before his death and posted in sequence by his explorer comrade Parsloe. It was Vincent’s dying wish that Jane would marry Parsloe after his death. Jane begins to fall in love again with the romanticised image of her dead husband and is drawn to the excitement of the explorer’s lifestyle. Ultimately, however, she opts to stick with the unheroic and conventional Adam.

In The Lonesome Road, a stranger inveigles his way into the home of a married couple, his baleful presence drawing out long buried secrets before his own violent past is revealed.30 It was an effective parable about duality and the malevolence beneath the respectable facade of conventional lifestyles. One newspaper critic reported: “It would take a long time to remember a play for television which was written with a sharper or more confident understanding of what TV drama is about… [Cooper’s] construction is masterly in the way the opening suggestion of fantasy deepens and clarifies into a study of a marriage on the rocks.”31

The Power of Zero was one of Cooper’s many comedies of victimisation.32 Rocket-research mathematician Frant is menaced in his lodgings by illusionist Beltane, seemingly with the aim of sabotaging the secret project Frant works on. Their landlady’s intervention saves the day. It was likened to early Pinter by several critics but was not considered successful. Although noting how “the writing, particularly of characters with pronounced idiosyncrasies of speech like the scientist and the landlady’s old mother, bears witness to Mr. Cooper’s acuteness of ear”, The Times concluded that the play was “superficially gripping but ultimately unsatisfactory.”33

The Freewheelers was a study of youthful rebelliousness turned sour by jealousy and betrayal.34 A gang of upper-middle-class teenagers indulge in a game of ‘borrowing’ sports cars and racing them to random locations. This is all done for fun until the group is infiltrated by petty criminal Sid, who shows them how to profit by their thefts. The gang’s leader, Jeremy, eventually betrays Sid – much to his comrades’ revulsion – by setting him up with a bet to steal a hearse, and he goes to prison. Critical opinion was mixed but few came down wholly in the play’s favour. “The sharpness of observation and the distinction of dialogue were there,” said The Times, “as was the originality of mind which can treat a fairly conventional subject with the freshness that finds novelties in it. What seemed to be missing was the sinister quality by which [Cooper’s] comedy is shadowed”.35

Cooper’s next play was a departure for him. “I have always wanted to write a conventional romantic story about ordinary people”, he told a reporter.36 The result was True Love and Limbeck, a contrived romantic comedy about the eponymous British mining engineer in Spain and his chaotic entanglements.37 The Daily Mail found it a “smooth running high comedy”, while the Telegraph complained that its opening situation “promised well but it took Mr. Cooper nearly an hour to bring his comedy fully to life.”38

The Double Doll was a dark comedy of menace about a couple and their slow-witted maid, who becomes the worm-that-turned after an episode of marital strife.39 Its masterful construction and development was much admired. Dennis Potter reported how “Cooper allowed events to thicken almost imperceptibly. Nothing was hurried. Even the sense of menace gathered as slowly as a blind boil.”40 The BBC’s ITV monitor was equally impressed: “Written with beautiful economy. A subtle plot which seems to meander like life: one is never sure where it is going, though by the end it is clear that everything has happened just as it should.”41

Cooper’s next play took him into outright science-fiction, though with a playful edge, showing television itself used as a weapon. In Loop, a village becomes the bridgehead for an invasion of the present from a debased humanity of the far future seeking to avoid cosmic destruction.42 Those watching television at a specific moment are sent into a state of suspended animation, ready for occupation by another intellect. Unaffected villagers mount resistance, in true British style, from the pub. When the threat is resolved, time appears to reset itself back to the beginning of the story, but leaves those who were involved with a hazy image of their experiences.

“A spine-chilling opening and a well-sustained investigation of circumstances and motivations”, reported the BBC’s ITV monitor. “Only at the end were we allowed a Wellsian glimpse of future humanity (Gremlin-like creatures existing in isolated cells).”43 The Daily Telegraph noted its “light touches of humour” and found it “fascinating viewing, even though the last few moments were rather head-spinning.”44

The nature of the world as seen through fresh eyes, and the contrast of optimistic dreams of space exploration with the sordid realities of everyday life, were the subjects of A Wicked World.45 Roland starts the day playing at spacemen with his son, pretending to be arriving on Saturn. He leaves for work in a mind-set to see the world around him as if he were exploring an alien planet. He looks at his workplace anew and his inquisitiveness draws him to a competitor’s office across the road. From this vantage point he witnesses his assistant seducing his secretary, and is then accused of spying both there and back at his own office. To extricate himself, he throws blame on the assistant, who kills himself. Roland returns home, angry and disgusted, and finds his son has given up his game having learned that Saturn cannot support life.

“It showed to a remarkable degree Mr Cooper’s gift for finding the strangeness in familiar things and people”, noted The Guardian, “So nothing in the play was quite naturalistic and everything was a little bent to suggest an odd dimension of greater significance than what we could see.”46 The BBC’s ITV monitor was impressed: “A light comedy turns by neat surprises and reversals into savage satire. The plot is perfect of its kind, unpredictable until the final minute, yet every surprise seems inevitable on recollection. Characterisation, theme and atmosphere are all integral to the story. Without a hint of didacticism, we have been made to look at part of our own world from a new, critical angle, and been disturbed, as well as vastly entertained, by what we saw.”47

the-other-man-titles-adjustedCooper’s television magnum opus appeared in September 1964. The Other Man had originally been pitched to the BBC as a three-part drama but ultimately was accepted by Granada as a vast single play.48 At two-and-a-half hours, with around 60 speaking parts and 200 extras, The Other Man was one of the most ambitious television drama productions seen up to that point. In an exploration of the nature of free will, Cooper presented an alternative timeline in which, following Churchill’s death in 1940, Britain made peace with Germany, becoming a Nazi puppet state. This scenario is dramatised via the career progression of ambitious British Army officer George Grant, played by Michael Caine. He starts off a seemingly decent officer, with the prospect of a good army career ahead of him. But progressively he makes compromises to advance his career that push him ever further in the direction of fascism.

caine-in-the-other-manTowards the play’s conclusion, Grant breaks down under his guilt and tries to get himself killed while on the Eastern front in the Axis powers’ war against Russia. In one of Cooper’s characteristically macabre turns of events, Grant survives – just – and wakes in a military hospital much later to learn that he has been patched up using organs transplanted from prisoners of war thanks to the same advances in Nazi medical science that have guaranteed Hitler’s longevity. In a final twist of the knife, he is to be paraded as a hero of the Reich for his actions on the Eastern front, a pretence his estranged wife is forced to maintain with him to present the proper wholesome image of a Nazi idol. The play ends where it began, with Grant in the present giving a speech at the opening of his old regiment’s museum, in both the real and alternative timelines, and there is little to distinguish the two. Cooper seems to be saying that for all Britain’s pride at resisting Nazism, the nation’s present vales and lifestyle may not be so different from what they would have been had it not prevailed in the Second World War.

Despite its heavyweight theme and grotesque elements, The Other Man is also not without a streak of Cooper’s signature comedy, notably in the sadly short-lived character of officer ‘Nanny’ Norris, who maintains an amusing British gentility in the face of Nazi officiousness. A large chunk from the middle of the play is missing from the archive but the surviving portions are enough to show The Other Man to be a compelling and fascinating drama, exploring a theme somewhat ahead of its time. The critics were generally impressed, albeit with reservations. Some objected strongly, however, to the play’s theme. “Certainly it held the attention throughout with its steady corruption of British Service life”, noted the Daily Mirror, “But in doing so it stank of bestiality and distortion of the British character.”49 Cooper also wrote the story as a novel of the same name which was published on the day of the play’s transmission.50

The following month the BBC broadcast Carried by Storm, a rare historical subject for Cooper, and one which he had written as early as 1959, inspired by a series of Goya paintings.51 It concerned the capture of Badajoz in Spain, where Cooper had researched the play, by the British in 1812 during the Peninsular War against France. While the city falls into chaos, English soldier Dick Jervis hides away in a bolt hole, where he makes a personal truce with Franco-Irishman Louis Dillon. They plan to sit out the carnage and then desert but, seemingly corrupted by the life of violence to which they have been conditioned, Jervis ultimately betrays Dillon, leading to him being hanged for a rape he didn’t commit. “A splendidly written play with a well-projected message”, said The Stage and Television Today.52

unman-wittering-zigoIn 1965, the BBC recognised Cooper’s status as probably television drama’s leading serious writer with a trio of productions in the Theatre 625 anthology, which specialised in drama with ‘depth’ and aimed for the profound exploration of dramatic themes.53 Introducing the plays for the Radio Times, Cooper denied they formed a trilogy, having “nothing in common except their author”.54 He went on to find some rather opaque thematic similarities, with the characters all standing “in a curious relationship to the outside world” and belonging to closed groups. He expanded: “Perhaps, though, the worlds of these three plays do have something in common. They have all stopped moving and are therefore ripe for dissolution.” Cooper concluded on a morbid note, conceding one concrete similarity: there was a corpse in each play.

The first of these plays was actually an adaptation of one of Cooper’s most successful radio plays, the sinister and subversive Unman, Wittering and Zigo.55 Writing about the original radio version of the play, Cooper reported: “Sometimes I dream that I am back in my kindergarten being taught how to site machine-guns – in Latin – by a bearded French professor.”56 This association of an educational establishment with nightmarish absurdity and potential violence strongly informs Unman, Wittering and Zigo. Set in a nondescript public school, the play follows the early days of new master John Ebony as he slowly comes to learn that his pupils have murdered his predecessor, Pelham, and that he features in their further plans. The Daily Mirror wrote that: “this was the well-balanced work of a master craftsman. It showed how closely farce and drama really are… For tension, writing, acting and directing I give this play ten out of ten.”57

The play is widely regarded as one of Cooper’s greatest achievements, and aside from its radio and television versions, it has been adapted for stage and film. The Theatre 625 production became the BBC’s drama entry for the European Broadcasting Union’s Italia Prize the following year.58 Amongst Cooper’s many influences in writing the play was his experience in adapting Lord of the Flies for radio, which made him think that “evil might be imposed and not natural”.59 In Unman, Wittering and Zigo Cooper suggests that power corrupts not just those who wield it, but also those it is wielded over. It’s the hierarchies of power and obedience that form the bedrock of such institutions as public schools that allow – even encourage – group crimes like Pelham’s murder.

The other two plays in the sequence, Seek Her Out and The Long House, were new works for television.60 In Seek Her Out, a woman witnesses a man falling to his death beneath a tube train. She also sees who pushed him and in consequence is pursued across London by the killers. Reaching home, she summons the police but her story is not believed. The three villains – terrorists from an unnamed British protectorate – confront her at her home, putting her on trial for passing information to the police and sentence her to death. “There was an eerie quality about this play that kept me glued to the screen lest I miss one word”, wrote Bill Edmund in The Stage and Television Today, continuing: “On one level it was a neatly constructed thriller, on the other it showed how easy it is to have contempt for human life if your victim is unknown to you.”61 There was a hint of the comedy of menace about it, as is characteristic of much of Cooper’s work, with the killers’ dialogue reported to be cheerful in tone.

The Long House, named after and taking inspiration from a communal structure common to several pre-historic peoples, featured one of Cooper’s favourite themes: the closed community. Young couple Ben and Kathie leave the pretentions of Hampstead to live in south London. They discover that their neighbours have removed the internal walls that divide their terrace houses to live together in one ‘long’ house. Kathie is drawn to join them and, reluctantly, Ben knocks down their own separating wall. The reality of communal living proves unsustainable, with peer pressures, failures in collective decision-making and the threat of exposure to the outside world. The hiding of the death of an old man, so as not to reveal the commune to the authorities, creates a divide. Meanwhile, a deranged old lady attempts to murder a child’s visiting school friend to ensure his silence. Ultimately, inevitably, the dividing walls go back up.

It was a popular production which examined and neatly satirised the then-trendy notion of a return to communal living. The Daily Mirror found it “compulsive viewing”, while The Times wrote that the play: “shone out like a good deed in the world of television drama. It is not perhaps the most plausible of plays, but Mr. Cooper’s inventiveness and grotesque humour compelled us to accept it. Inevitably, a disturbing set of ideas found itself entirely embodied in a strange story.”62

The rest of 1965 and 1966 was filled with adaptations. Most notable of these were serial versions of Ernest Hemingway’s seminal novels of love and war For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell for Arms, for the BBC.63 Also screened in early 1966 were episodes for ABC’s supernatural anthology Mystery and Imagination.64 Cooper spent the rest of the year working on a handful of prestigious projects for broadcast the following year.

In what sounds almost like a device from one of his own plays, Cooper’s body was found by a railway line close to Surbiton on 2 December 1966. He had fallen from a fast moving train while on his way home from a writers’ dinner in London. He was aged just 48 and working at the height of his powers as a dramatist. As well as his prolific output for television and, decreasingly, radio, he had experienced some success in the theatre since Everything in the Garden in 1962. There have subsequently been unsubstantiated suggestions that his death was suicide, but the inquest heard that Cooper had been drinking that evening and returned a verdict of death from misadventure.65 Cooper left behind a widow and two sons. He also left a large number of completed but as yet unmade scripts, such that at least eight of his plays would be produced posthumously.

Cooper had spent much of 1966 writing a three-part dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy for BBC2’s Theatre 625.66 Following the aristocratic Guy Crouchback through the Second World War, Waugh’s story was a lengthy treatise on the pursuit of chivalry and the decline of aristocratic tradition. Sharing elements of Crouchback’s background and having also served as a British officer in the war, Cooper was well-placed to adapt Waugh’s novels to television. He provided a highly effective trilogy of plays, cutting or telescoping events as necessary for the screen time and production resources available, but always remaining true to the characters, spirit and central narrative of Waugh’s original.

Sword of Honour was a great success, thanks not just to its excellent script but also an impressive central performance by Edward Woodward as Crouchback and sensitive direction from regular Cooper collaborator Donald McWhinnie. “I doubt whether a more human play, at once compassionate and quietly sardonic, has ever been done on television”, wrote The Times of the first of the trilogy. “It is not merely that the late Giles Cooper, whose recent death deprives the medium of one of its foremost dramatists, was the obvious man to interpret the full range of Mr. Waugh’s masterpiece. The task has been illuminated by his own rare perception, above all by his strong sense of irony”.67 The trilogy was repeated twice the following year, once ‘promoted’ to BBC1 for the benefit of viewers unable to receive the still-new BBC2.

Written by the end of 1965 but only reaching the screen in 1967 was I Am Osango, a macabre and satirical original play for Armchair Theatre.68 Spot welder Aaron Tuft is confined to bed following an accident at work. Toft and his wife Hilda have not been speaking for years, using daughter Ivy as their intermediary. Suddenly stuck at home and dependent on Hilda, Toft reluctantly enters into dialogue with her, but only under the understanding that it’s because of this unfamiliar situation and the medication he’s taking. “You’re not yourself,” she agrees, setting the stage for the exploration of the unspoken question: so who is he?

After Hilda has read to him from a newspaper about Aaron Osango, an African political prisoner (and one-time spot welder) condemned to death, Toft comes to believe that he is Osango, describing his prison conditions and developing the stigmata of bruising from wrist manacles. This seeming-delusion continues even after Osango escapes. Visiting Tuft, Osango reveals he had never been in real danger and had not been manacled. As Tuft nevertheless narrates the execution party’s arrival, Osango explains that there had been a petty criminal, “a nobody”, due to hang that day, and Tuft dies.

It is a highly effective play, with many more layers of meaning than a brief synopsis can convey. Cooper satirises the cynical reactions to far off injustices of politicians and journalists, who see Toft as merely a publicity gimmick, and uses television vox pops to suggest that despite the media scrum public interest in such distant events is minimal. Meanwhile, Osango himself becomes less sympathetic upon his escape, showing no interest in the real condemned man, who remains unknown to the world thanks to his lowly status. Like Toft before – and after – his brief period of newsworthiness, the hanged convict is just another little man in a world obsessed with celebrity.

Cooper’s final original plays to be produced on television were Kittens Are Brave and To the Frontier, in 1967 and 1968 respectively.69 Written in 1963, Kittens Are Brave concerned a television personality known for devastating honesty who tracks down and exposes a vicar who had sent him a poison pen letter, with unforeseen consequences for both men and their families. The play was seemingly a treatise on honesty, hypocrisy and the mutability of these concepts in public perception. The Stage and Television Today found it “a darkly entertaining play [but] by no means one of Cooper’s best”.70

To the Frontier was a Kafkaesque nightmare of a holidaying schoolmaster finding himself in the demilitarised zone between a British overseas territory and the ‘republic’, unable to gain entry at either border. The play “came over as a parable of lost innocence – a parable depicting present-day humanity struggling to remain sane and civilised in an insane uncivilised world”, wrote The Stage and Television Today.71

Cooper kept up writing adaptations until his death, the last being a version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for the BBC. Cooper had just started on episode four when he died, and Harry Green completed the 10-part dramatisation for broadcast in late 1967.72 Cooper had also adapted Lawrence Durrell’s Stiff Upper Lip for ITV and David Garnett’s A Man in the Zoo (which he had previously dramatised for radio) for the BBC, although the latter was not screened until 1975, nearly a decade after Cooper’s death.73 Cooper’s Madame Bovary script from 1964 was produced again, also in 1975.74

Like any dramatist, Cooper wrote a number of synopses and scripts which didn’t reach production. Amongst these were a bizarre thriller serial called Operation Cheeseboard and The Carboy, both proposed in 1965.75 The latter was an unusually philosophical play about a scientist who creates life in the laboratory, in the form of miniature humanity with greatly accelerated lifespan. Whilst inside the carboy the new society evolves rapidly through a variety of social and economic systems, outside of it the scientist becomes involved in an ultimately murderous love tringle. When a bullet smashes the carboy, the miniature humans escape into the wider world. Coming across a dead body, they can only speculate that this ‘giant’ lifeform became extinct as its body was too large for its brain. For a time after Cooper’s death The Carboy was under contract to Thames Television but it ultimately went unproduced.76

It is tempting to speculate as to what other works might have followed, or what his reputation might now be, if Cooper had lived, but this shouldn’t distract us from the fascinating body of completed works he left behind. Talking in 1961, Cooper referred to radio and television dramatists such as himself as “those whose names are writ in the air” and it is this perception of broadcast media as wholly ephemeral that is largely responsible for his present obscurity. Nevertheless, Giles Cooper has to be recognised not only as radio drama’s foremost practitioner, but also as one of British television’s most versatile, prolific and – in his time – celebrated dramatists.

Oliver Wake

With thanks to Nick Cooper, the British Film Institute and the BBC Written Archives Centre.

Originally posted: 30 September 2016.
8 October 2016: added three new images (in addition to existing ‘by Giles Cooper’ images)
16 October 2016: two minor typographical corrections
31 May 2024: amended (or added to) details relating to Cooper’s father’s work, Cooper’s time in Spain and Cooper’s army service. Added Radio Times coverage of the Theatre 625 plays and the radio Zigo. Brief addition to The Long House and an office anecdote relating to Maigret. Clarified Cleveland source and citation. Other minor prose and typographical amendments.

  1. Thieves Rush In, BBC Home Service, tx. 29 March 1950. 

  2. Biographical details in this and the preceding paragraph are drawn from the following sources: Barbara Bray, ‘Cooper, Giles Stannus (1918–1966), playwright’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, [accessed 25 March 2016]; Anonymous, ‘Mr. Giles Cooper’ [obituary], The Times, 5 December 1966, p. 5; Anonymous, ‘Giles Cooper’, The Observer, 18 March 1962, p. 26; Louise Cleveland, ‘Theatre Checklist No. 4 Giles Cooper’, Theatrefacts journal, Nov-Jan 1975 edition, p. 3. 

  3. Mathry Beacon, BBC Third Programme, tx. 18 June 1956. The Disagreeable Oyster, BBC Third Programme, tx. 15 August 1957. Under the Loofah Tree, BBC Third Programme, tx. 3 August 1958. Unman, Wittering and Zigo, BBC Third Programme, tx. 23 November 1958. 

  4. Lord of the Flies, BBC Third Programme, tx. 28 August 1955. The Day of the Triffids, six episodes, BBC Light Programme, tx. 2 October to 6 November 1957. 

  5. Never Get Out, BBC tv, tx. 18 July 1951 and 19 October 1954. 

  6. Epitaph for a Spy, six episodes, BBC tv tx 14 March to 18 April 1954. The Broken Jug, BBC tv, tx. 24 August 1953. 

  7. Theatre Royal: ‘The Mossbach Collection’, ITV, tx. 30 October 1955. 

  8. London Playhouse: ‘The General’s Mess’, ITV, tx. 8 December 1955. The General’s Mess listing in TV Times, 2 December 1955, p. 29. 

  9. Theatre Royal: ‘The No-Man’, ITV, tx. 11 December 1955. 

  10. Television Playwright: ‘Liberty Hall’, BBC tv, tx. 3 June 1958. 

  11. Anonymous, ‘Liberty Hall on B.B.C. Television’, The Times, 4 June 1958, p. 4. 

  12. Armchair Theatre: ‘The Handshake’ (part of a double-bill of short plays along with ‘Bid for Fame’), ITV, tx. 12 August 1956. 

  13. Death to the First Lady, five episodes, ITV, tx. 11 August to 8 September 1956. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot: ‘The Bridge’, ITV, tx. 2 March 1957. The Trollenberg Terror, six episodes, ITV, tx. 15 December 1956 to 19 January 1957. 

  14. The Adventures of Robin Hood: ‘The Friar’s Pilgrimage’, ITV, tx. 30 December 1956. Play of the Week: ‘The Rossiters’, ITV, tx. 12 March 1958. 

  15. Mary Britten MD, 12 episodes, ITV, 13 September to 29 November 1958. 

  16. Armchair Theatre: ‘Dangerous Word’, ITV, tx. 14 December 1958. Without the Grail, BBC tv, tx. 13 September 1960. The original radio presentation of these plays had been in both cases on the BBC’s Home Service, broadcast 12 May 1958 and 13 January 1958 respectively. 

  17. Margaret Cowan, ‘Our View, The Stage, 18 December 1958, p. 6. 

  18. Maurice Richardson, ‘Only Connect … What With?’, The Observer, 18 September, 1960, p. 24. 

  19. Anonymous, ‘Effective Transfer from Sound to Vision’, The Times, 14 September 1960, p. 13. 

  20. Maigret and the Lost Life, BBC Home Service, tx. 9 December 1957. 

  21. Sunday-Night Theatre: ‘Maigret and the Lost Life’, BBC tv, tx. 6 December 1959. 

  22. Anonymous, ‘Maigret Makes Good Viewing’, The Times, 7 December 1959, p. 14. 

  23. Cleveland, ‘Theatre Checklist No. 4 Giles Cooper’, p. 4. 

  24. Barbara Bray, ‘Cooper, Giles Stannus (1918–1966), playwright’. 

  25. Detective: ‘The Speckled Band’, BBC1, tx. 18 May 1964. Sherlock Holmes, BBC1, 1965. 

  26. Mary Crozier, ‘Sherlock Holmes on BBC Television, The Guardian, 1 March 1965, p. 7. Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Devil’s Foot, BBC1, tx. 27 February 1965. 

  27. Where the Party Ended, BBC tv. 19 January 1960. 

  28. Suspense: ‘Point of Honour’, ITV, tx. 10 April 1960. 

  29. Drama ‘61: ‘Love and Penguins’, ITV, tx. 6 August 1961. 

  30. Drama ’62: ‘The Lonesome Road’, ITV, tx. 21 January 1962. 

  31. Unknown newspaper review (most likely the Daily Herald) following the play’s repeat on 25 August 1962, retained in the BBC’s Giles Cooper file, BBC Written Archives Centre T48/172/1. 

  32. Drama ’62: ‘The Power of Zero’, ITV, tx. 17 June 1962. 

  33. Anonymous, ‘A Victimized Scientist’, The Times, 18 June 1962, p. 5. 

  34. Drama ’63: ‘The Freewheelers’, ITV, tx. 5 May 1963. 

  35. Anonymous, ‘Round Trips in Borrowed Cars’, The Times, 6 May 1963, p. 6. 

  36. Cooper in Anonymous, ‘Another Briers collection in August’, The Stage and Television Today, 20 June 1963, p. 11. 

  37. True Love and Limbeck, ITV, tx. 25 June 1963. 

  38. Adrian Mitchell, ‘True Love and High Comedy’, Daily Mail, 26 June 1963; and L. L., ‘Hour to Bring Play to Life’, Telegraph, 26 June 1963. In both cases the page numbers are unknown as these cuttings were found in the BBC’s Giles Cooper file, BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  39. Drama ’63: ‘The Double Doll’, ITV, tx. 6 October 1963. 

  40. Dennis Potter, ‘That boring Doll suddenly shocks’, Daily Herald, 7 October 1963, p. 3. 

  41. Arnold Hinchliffe, ‘ITV Monitoring Report’ for The Double Doll, BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  42. Drama ’63: ‘Loop’, ITV, tx. 20 October 1963. 

  43. Lena Larson, ‘ITV Monitoring Report’ for The Loop, BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  44. L. L., ‘Transfer of a World’, Daily Telegraph, 21 October 1963, page unknown, from BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  45. Studio ‘64: ‘A Wicked World’, ITV, tx. 8 March 1964. 

  46. Mary Crozier, ‘A Wicked World on ITV’, The Guardian, 9 March 1964, p. 7. 

  47. Arnold Hinchliffe, ITV Monitoring Report for A Wicked World, BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  48. Letter from Giles Cooper to Sidney [sic] Newman, 30 March 1963, BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  49. Richard Sear, ‘Epic? A sick nightmare’, Daily Mirror, 11 September 1964, p. 18. 

  50. Giles Cooper, The Other Man (London: Panther Books, 1964). 

  51. Theatre 625: ‘Carried by Storm’, BBC2, tx. 25 October 1964. 

  52. Susan Kay, ‘Carried by Storm’, The Stage and Television Today, 29 October 1964, p. 12. 

  53. Anonymous, ‘The Seekers’, Radio Times, 30 April 1964, p. 16. 

  54. Giles Cooper, ‘Unman, Wittering and Zigo’, Radio Times, 24 June 1965, p. 13. 

  55. Theatre 625: ‘Unman, Wittering and Zigo’, BBC2, tx. 27 June 1965. 

  56. Giles Cooper, ‘The Teaching is Said to be Good…’, Radio Times, 21 November 1958, p. 7. 

  57. Clifford Davis, ‘A great bill from Blackpool’, Daily Mirror, 28 June 1965, p. 12. 

  58. Anonymous, ‘Entries for Italia Prize both from BBC-2’, The Stage and Television Today, 22 July 1965, p. 9. 

  59. Cooper in Anonymous, ‘Busiest of British Dramatist?’, The Times, 12 October 1961, p. 18. 

  60. Theatre 625: ‘Seek Her Out’, BBC2, tx. 4 July 1965. Theatre 625: ‘The Long House’, BBC2, tx. 11 July 1965. 

  61. Bill Edmund, ‘Cheerful dialogue adds nightmare touch’, The Stage and Television Today, 8 July 1965, p. 12. 

  62. Clifford David, ‘Mr Lee Gives Us A Preview of His Policies…’, Daily Mirror, 20 June 1967, p. 14. Anonymous, ‘Startling Ideas in Odd Story’, The Times, 12 July 1965, p. 6. 

  63. For Whom the Bell Tolls, four episodes, BBC2, tx. 2 to 23 October 1965. A Farewell for Arms, three episodes, BBC2, tx. 15 February to 1 March 1966. 

  64. Mystery and Imagination, two plays: ‘Lost Hearts’, ITV, tx. 5 March 1966; and ‘The Canterville Ghost’, ITV, tx. 12 March 1966. 

  65. The suggestion of suicide came from Cooper’s sister-in-law and is reported in Humphrey Carpenter, The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946-1996 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996), p. 213. The inquest verdict is reported in, amongst others, Anonymous, ‘High alcohol level in author’s blood’, The Times, 15 December 1966, p. 12. 

  66. Theatre 625: ‘Sword of Honour’, three plays: ‘Men at Arms’, BBC2, tx. 2 January 1967; ‘Officers and Gentlemen’, BBC2, tx. 9 January 1967; and ‘Unconditional Surrender’, BBC2, tx. 16 January 1967. 

  67. Anonymous, ‘Waugh trilogy given a rare perception’, The Times, 3 January 1967, p. 6. 

  68. Armchair Theatre: ‘I Am Osango’, ITV, tx. 15 April 1967. 

  69. Theatre 625: ‘Kittens Are Brave’, BBC2, tx. 26 November 1967. Theatre 625: ‘To the Frontier’, BBC2, tx. 4 March 1968. 

  70. J. D. S. Haworth, ‘Too ambitious for its seventy minutes’, The Stage and Television Today, 30 November 1967, p. 12. 

  71. Marjorie Bilbow, ‘Cooper parable of lost innocence’, The Stage and Television Today, 7 March 1968, p. 14. 

  72. Les Miserables, 10 episodes, BBC1, tx. 22 October to 24 December 1967. 

  73. The Sound of Laughter: ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, ITV, tx. 26 February 1967. A Man in the Zoo, BBC2, tx. 12 March 1975. The reason the production was so delayed is unknown. The previous radio production had been broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service, tx. 19 January 1959. 

  74. Madame Bovary, four episodes, BBC2, tx. 22 September to 13 October 1975. 

  75. The synopses for these proposals can be found in BBC WAC T48/172/1. 

  76. Cleveland, ‘Theatre Checklist No. 4 Giles Cooper’.