Obituary: Constance Cox

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IN THE late Fifties and early Sixties, many television viewers who had come to enjoy the cosiness of the BBC's Sunday afternoon classic serials were unprepared for the shocking realism portrayed in Constance Cox's 1962 dramatisation of Oliver Twist. She adapted the Charles Dickens tale to reflect the gloom and depravity present in the backstreets of 19th-century London and when, in the final episode, Bill Sikes brutally murdered Nancy, a storm of protest followed.

The 13-part serial, which included in its cast Max Adrian as Fagin, Melvyn Hayes as the Artful Dodger, Peter Vaughan as Sikes and Carmel McSharry as Nancy, was a high point in the career of one of the pioneers of television adaptations. The response to Oliver Twist was not out of keeping with the criticism to which she had grown accustomed in becoming one of the first writers to turn literary masterpieces into dramatisations for the then fledgling medium of television, which some regarded as being trivial and unworthy of such material.

Later, she was one of those who turned John Galsworthy's epic novel The Forsyte Saga into a television serial that helped to give BBC2 a critically and publicly acclaimed programme of wide appeal in its early years on the air.

Born in Sutton, Surrey, in 1912, Cox wrote a costume drama for a local Women's Institute at the age of 16, before penning a three-act farce for the Brighton Amateur Operatic Society two years later. While working as a postmistress in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, during the Second World War, she found her first West End success with The Romance of David Garrick (St James's Theatre, 1942), charting the exploits in love of the celebrated 18th-century British actor-manager. It was staged by another famous actor- manager, Donald Wolfit, who accepted the play from Cox just a week after her husband, a fighter pilot, had been killed over the Channel.

Moving to Brighton, she helped her mother and sister in their tobacconist's shop but continued to write plays such as The Boy from Belfast (1944), Remember Dick Sheridan (1944) and Madame Bovary (1945) before her adaptation of Vanity Fair (Comedy Theatre, 1946) became a West End hit and enabled Cox to take up writing full-time.

Her many stage adaptations included The Picture of Dorian Gray (1948), Northanger Abbey (1949), The Count of Monte Cristo (1949), Mansfield Park (1950), The Woman in White (1952), Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1952), Quo Vadis (1955) and Wuthering Heights (1974), and she wrote the book for Two Cities, a musical version of A Tale of Two Cities (Palace Theatre, 1969), starring Edward Woodward as Sydney Carton.

Novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were Cox's favourites. Among the classic serials she wrote for the BBC were Jane Eyre, which she adapted both in 1956 and 1968, the first time winning the News Chronicle Award for Best Television Play, Pride and Prejudice (1960), Lorna Doone (1963), Martin Chuzzlewit (1964, winner of the Television and Screenwriters Award), and A Tale of Two Cities (1968). She also won an American Screenwriters Guild award for her television adaptations.

When, in 1967, BBC2 was looking for a television event to persuade more viewers to adjust their sets to receive the channel, which had started three years earlier, it decided to produce The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy's tale of a family of London merchants from the 1870s to the 1920s. Cox was one of the writers chosen to adapt individual episodes of the 26-part serial. It starred Kenneth More as Jolyon Forsyte, who walked away from his inheritance by leaving his wife for his pregnant mistress, Eric Porter as his cousin, the brutal lawyer Soames Forsyte, and Nyree Dawn Porter as Soames's first wife, Irene. Although all the episodes formed a long- running story, each was presented as an act in itself.

The programme was the most expensive drama the BBC had ever produced, with a budget of pounds 250,000, and became an instant hit. It was repeated on BBC1 the following year and enjoyed another two repeat runs. When it was screened in America, Time magazine proclaimed it "the greatest soap opera ever filmed". However, as the last major drama to be made in black- and-white, it did not become a long-term best-seller, although it opened the door to foreign sales of future BBC productions.

Cox also adapted several classics into radio serials, including War and Peace, The Barchester Chronicles and Pickwick Papers. Since her early days of dramatising much-loved novels for television, with many critics looking on sceptically, the medium has made some notable productions and, in recent years, period dramas based on literary classics have become an industry in themselves.

Constance Shaw, playwright and dramatist: born Sutton, Surrey 25 October 1912; married Norman Cox (died 1942); died 8 July 1998.