Obituary: Robert Barr
Wednesday 17 February 1999
Yet, although Barr defected to the junior medium almost as soon as it re-emerged from wartime cold storage, in 1946, he not only retained an affection for radio, but over the years enjoyed a kind of "dual nationality", writing prolifically for both. Indeed, it may be that he was even more of an innovator than is realised, since although his adaptations from Lt-Col Oreste Pinto's bestselling Spycatcher books first appeared on the small screen (1959 to 1961), he quickly rewrote the half-hour plays for the wireless (even retaining the actor Bernard Archard as Pinto), so that Spycatcher may well be the very first time a popular television drama series became a radio spin-off.
His successes as a writer for radio may not be burned into the national consciousness to the same extent as, say, Softly Softly (the odd surviving episode always good for Sixties' celebration nights on BBC2, or to be used in tandem with earnest lectures at the NFT). But to those who recall the truly great days of radio drama - forget the 1940s or 1950s: the real Golden Age ran roughly from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1980s - Barr's is a name to cherish.
He wrote at a time when commissioning editors were not hounded by pursed- lipped accountants and a good serial could run for rather more than the miserly four weeks (if you're lucky) accorded it today - his engrossing And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1966) extended to 13. Yet he could screw up the tension in far less time when necessary: in the six-part The Dark Island (1969; murder and espionage amongst the remote islands of the Outer Hebrides) he created one of the most memorable thriller serials ever broadcast (with surely one of the most evocative openings: the cries of the gulls, the keen of a single concertina).
He wrote two sequels, then, in the mid-1970s, a couple of serials featuring his quirky investigator Galbraith (The King of Diamonds and The Midas Touch). In his seventies, when most writers would be yearning to bury the typewriter under a dust-cover, Barr launched a superb series of tough police dramas. Detective ("Stories of crime and detection in London"), starring Ray Brooks as a ducking-and- diving CID sergeant at police-work's sharp end. In the end Detective ran to three long series as well as a gripping 10-part serial.
Barr was certainly a brilliant writer for television; but his work for the far more imaginative medium should not be forgotten.
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