Sipping champagne in St Tropez during the summer of 1965, Anthony Cornish was thrilled to read a small item in an English newspaper reporting that the football drama he had dreamed up with a fellow BBC Birmingham radio producer was to be launched as a new television serial. Beginning that October, a year before the England team's real-life World Cup victory, United! followed the ups and downs of the fictional Midlands club Brentwich United as a new manager tried to pull the team up from the depths of the old Second Division.
Cornish and Brian Hayles had conceived United! as a serial of six 50-minute episodes focusing on the action on the pitch. But, following the axing of the women's-magazine soap Compact and the stop-gap serial 199 Park Lane, set in a fashionable London apartment block, the BBC saw the soap potential in United!, which they launched alongside another new serial, The Newcomers - both to be made by BBC Birmingham. Hayles was commissioned to script the first eight episodes of United!, before storylining future episodes for a team of writers, and Jimmy Hill, the Coventry City manager who later became a television football presenter, was appointed technical adviser to ensure authenticity. Authentic or not, though, the BBC insisted that players wore swimming trunks for the post-match showers.
The actor-director Bernard Hepton was producer for the first three months, but Cornish then stepped into that role for half of the serial's entire run, also directing a handful of episodes. One of his first tasks was to replace the actor David Lodge, who played Brentwich's manager, Gerry Barford, and had asked to be written out. Much of the initial action had revolved round Barford's clashes with the club chairman, Ted Dawson (Robin Wentworth), his awkward captain, Jack Birkett (Bryan Marshall), womanising goalkeeper Kenny Craig (Stephen Yardley) and striker Jimmy Stokes (George Layton), as well as his relationship with his upper-crust wife, Clara (Joyce Latham). Under Cornish, the team's assistant manager, Bob McIver (John Breslin), moved up to the top job and his replacement was Mark Wilson, played by Ronald Allen, who went on to find soap fame as David Hunter in Crossroads. Cornish also axed seven characters and brought in new writers such as Dick Sharples to make the serial harder-edged and less cosy. However, two other producers succeeded Cornish and United! finally bowed out in 1967, after less than 18 months, many viewers dissatisfied with the balance between on-pitch and off-pitch action.
Born in Walthamstow, east London, in 1935, the son of a dance-band pianist, Anthony Cornish was assistant librarian in the BBC's music record library at Broadcasting House in London, before presenting and producing for the British Forces Broadcasting Service while doing National Service in Austria. He began his theatre career as a stage manager with Gainsborough Rep in 1955, then directed at Chesterfield Civic Theatre. When he switched media to become the BBC's head of radio drama in the Midlands (1964-74), as well as producing scores of programmes, he directed episodes of the long-running serials The Dales and The Archers.
After leaving the BBC, he returned to the stage, directing classical plays at the Bristol Old Vic and a revival of The Wesker Trilogy at the Shaw Theatre, London (1978). For a while was also head of the now forgotten drama department at Capital Radio, in London, attracting James Mason, Beryl Reid and many other big stars - as well as a young Tracey Ullman - to "Capital Playhouse" productions .
Cornish also had a 30-year association with Tufts University, in Massachusetts, where he taught acting and directing. He began with its Tufts-in-London programme and was artist in residence in its drama department in the United States, 1991-2002.
Anthony HaywardReuse content