Allan Prior

'Z Cars' and 'Howards' Way' writer

As one of the original team of writers on the television series Z Cars, Allan Prior helped not only to revolutionise the portrayal of the police on television but also contributed to a new era of gritty realism on the small screen, following a path mapped out in theatre, films and novels by Angry Young Men such as John Osborne and Tony Richardson.

The drama, set in the fictional Liverpool suburb of Newtown, to symbolise the housing estates that had grown up across post-war Britain, was created by Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath, and intended to update the homely image of the police as seen in Dixon of Dock Green. It brought with it warts-and-all policemen and a more authentic portrayal of low-life criminals.

Z Cars made stars of Stratford Johns as the tough Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow and Frank Windsor as the gentler Detective Sergeant John Watt, as well as Brian Blessed, James Ellis, Jeremy Kemp, Colin Welland and Joseph Brady, who played the police officers in the "Z Victor" patrol cars.

Prior was one of the first two writers taken on by Kennedy Martin and the script editor, John Hopkins, and such was the immediate effect of Z Cars that all three were jointly presented with the 1963 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Best Drama Award. In all, Prior wrote 78 episodes (1962-78) and, as the series progressed, he saw it as no longer just "police stories", explaining:

I prefer it to a prestige single play because it's topical and about the working class. Nowadays, TV is bigger and safer, and too conservative.

Barlow and Watt proved so popular that they were spun off into their own series, Softly Softly (1966-70) and Softly Softly: Task Force (1970-71), with Prior scripting almost 30 episodes. He also contributed to Barlow at Large (1971, 1973) and Barlow (1974-75), two more spin-offs.

Later, Prior swapped realism for gloss and glitz by creating, with the producer Gerard Glaister, Howards' Way (1985-90), a seafaring soap opera set among the "gin and Jag" sailing set on the South Coast. Maurice Colbourne played the redundant aircraft designer Tom Howard, who sank his money into the failing Mermaid boatyard, and Jan Harvey acted his glamorous wife, Jan, with Tracey Childs as their sailing-mad daughter, Lynne, and Tony Anholt as the smooth-talking entrepreneur Charles Frere, who fell for her. The stories switched between the boatyard, the boardroom and the bedroom, and the serial - dubbed "Dynasty by the Sea" - proved an instant hit, with audiences of up to 14 million over its six series.

Born in Newcastle in 1922, Allan Prior came from a music-hall background. His grandfather managed a hall in the North-East and his Aunt Clara was part of a double act with her husband. His own father took a variety of jobs and, when Prior was 10, he moved the family to Blackpool in search of work. On leaving the town's grammar school, Prior worked as a clerk in a mail-order firm. Then, while serving in the RAF (1942-46), he entered a short-story competition, won and eventually left a post-war civil service job in the Ministry of Agriculture to pursue a writing career.

The first results were radio documentaries for the BBC and the novel A Flame in the Air (1951), a tale of men returning from the Second World War to a Northern town. Then came his first documentary for television, The Blackpool Story (1954), about the growth of that town as a holiday resort, complete with illuminations, Tower Ballroom dancers, fun-fair and beach scenes.

Increasingly, Prior wrote radio plays, but the arrival of ITV's anthology drama series Armchair Theatre in 1956 - a year after the commercial channel's launch - provided him with a challenging outlet for his work. In a different vein, but harking back to music hall, he wrote most episodes of the BBC sitcom The Two Charleys (1959), starring Charlie Chester and Eleanor Summerfield as a husband-and-wife double act touring in the dying days of variety theatre.

Then, in 1961, Prior and Jack Rosenthal were among the first writers taken on by Granada Television to script Coronation Street once the new serial, created by Tony Warren, had survived the first dozen episodes. He also wrote his own, six-part drama for the BBC about another Manchester community, Magnolia Street (1960), following the lives of the Jewish and gentile residents in the early 20th century, with Edward Woodward as one of the stars.

After his initial success with Z Cars, Prior found himself increasingly in demand and, over the next 30 years, contributed scripts to series such as Detective (1964), Dr Finlay's Casebook (1965-67), The Onedin Line (1972-77), Sutherland's Law (1974), The Sweeney (1975), Secret Army (1978), Blakes 7 (1979-81) and Juliet Bravo (1982). His last major radio play was the two-part Führer (1995), based on his 1991 biographical novel of the same name, about Hitler.

Allan Prior's many novels won him the Crime Writers' Association Award twice. The daughter of his first marriage is the folk singer Maddy Prior.

Anthony Hayward

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