Making Contact with Contact: From AFN Clarke to Alan Clarke

DAVID ROLINSON

Screen Two; Writer: AFN Clarke; Director: Alan Clarke; Producer: Terry Coles

The first production to be shown in the Screen Two strand, Contact was broadcast on BBC2 at 10.10pm on Sunday 6 January 1985.1 An account of British Army patrols around the border in South Armagh, Contact was an appropriate start for Screen Two given its contemporary concerns, politically sensitive subject matter and distinctive style. Filmed between 6 and 29 August 1984, Contact was directed by Alan Clarke.2 It is one of the highlights of Clarke’s astonishing body of work. Jim Naughton’s review of Contact is largely characteristic of the critical acclaim that it received: “a crisp, tight, elegant piece of work, wonderfully shot […] by Philip Bonham Carter and making brilliant use of sound”, the film “found a new angle on Northern Ireland, which is more than can be said for most programmes about that […] province”.3 Typically for a Clarke piece it achieved more acclaim abroad, winning the Golden Leopard’s Eye at the Locarno International Film Festival, where the jury praised the “intelligence and precision with which the camera describes the story of a British patrol in Northern Ireland while leaving the spectator free to judge”.4 Clarke described the win as a “high spot” of his career, “absolutely great”.5 However, there was another Clarke at work on Contact whose own contribution has been underexplored: its writer, AFN Clarke…

Level Seven (1966)

OLIVER WAKE

Out of the Unknown Writer: J.B. Priestley; Adapted from (novel): Mordecai Roshwald; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: Rudolph Cartier

BTVD_Level Seven_1
Set within a survival bunker and missile control base deep underground, Polish writer Mordecai Roshwald’s 1959 novel Level Seven was a grim depiction of the spiralling cold war leading to nuclear apocalypse. The story made no reference to specific nations engaged in the conflict but was cheekily dedicated “To Dwight and Nikita” in reference to Eisenhower and Khrushchev, then the premiers of the USA and USSR respectively.1 On publication, the novel was highly lauded by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Fred Hoyle, and J B Priestley called it “the most powerful attack on the whole nuclear madness that any creative writer has made so far” and began work on a film adaptation.2

Peter Luke

OLIVER WAKE

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.

Cedric Messina

OLIVER WAKE

Cedric Messina must be one of British television’s most prolific producers and directors of dramatic programmes, with at least 250 drama and opera productions to his name. He worked extensively in television for 25 years, always for the BBC as he was committed to the principle of public service broadcasting.

He was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Sicilian and Welsh immigrant parents on 14 December 1920. He was brought up and educated in Johannesburg while his father worked in the copper mines of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Messina joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1930s, initially working as a radio announcer and later as a producer. His broadcasting career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with both the British and American armies.

After the war, the SABC posted Messina to Durban to set up a drama unit, where he was responsible for producing a play each week and became the broadcaster’s head of drama. From around 1947 he spent a period on attachment with BBC radio in London, where he worked as both an announcer and producer before returning to South Africa. He had been promised a permanent position with BBC radio which he later returned to claim in 1958. As a BBC radio producer he produced a variety of programming, from popular series such as Mrs Dale’s Diary to adaptations of numerous classical stage plays.1

John Sullivan

DAVID ROLINSON


After passing away in late April, writer John Sullivan (1946-2011) was paid tributes by many people from different walks of life, who reminisced about his great shows and great moments. Inevitably the long-running Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003) was central to those tributes, as so many of us remember visits to the Nag’s Head like reunions with friends, and can trace our lives with memories not just of the show but of the circumstances in which we watched it. Sullivan wrote some of television’s finest and most popular comedy series, but even that isn’t high enough praise. Sullivan’s best work belongs in the lineage of the great writers who inspired him, such as Johnny Speight and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Like them, Sullivan reflected everyday life back at his audience with respect for their experience and intelligence, and the audience’s recognition of truth produced not only laughs for his one-liners and set-pieces but also an emotional commitment and sense of social awareness of the kind critics usually associate with genres other than this less critically-respected popular form. He was a television writer in its purest sense, and in the ways by which we define key television playwrights: he mastered a genre whilst refining its capabilities and playing to his audience’s awareness of its functions, and for a while became as visible a “name” – whose credit on a programme produced certain expectations – as any more vaunted auteur. At his peak – surely the 1980s, given that unbroken run of success that included the early years of Only Fools and Horses plus Just Good Friends (1983-86) and Dear John (1986-87) – he changed the way we speak to each other.