Christopher Barry: Creator of hit series 'All Creatures Great and Small' and 'The Onedin Line' who ushered Daleks into British homes
Wednesday 19 February 2014
Cherished by Doctor Who fans for regularly upping the programme's fear factor, the television director Christopher Barry was, in truth, much happier far away from alien worlds and telling unsensational stories of everyday Earth folk. He ploughed a furrow fashionable at the time of low-key human drama, tales of wartime nannies, rustic vets and bobbies on the beat. He was one of the first BBC staff directors who hadn't come from the theatre, instead being poached from the world of film before he had had a chance to make one of his own, but despite television thwarting his real ambition, he dedicated his working life to it, in loyal service as an efficient and trustworthy small-screen journeyman, casting creatively and directing with composure.
Affectionately nicknamed The Mad Monk, Barry was a cool-headed customer: a typical example of his calm nature came when he was directing the Doctor Who serial "The Daemons" in 1971, a teatime Wicker Man set among rural May Day sacrifices to mythical deities. Barry drew back the curtains in his hotel bedroom on a morning when he was due to shoot lengthy outdoor sequences in a picturesque Wiltshire village (the appropriately named Devil's End) only to find a thick layer of snow coating the landscape. Natural disasters, small crews, low budgets and tight schedules were all in a day's work, though, and he still managed to get the whole thing looking like spring, in the can and on time. "The Daemons" remains to this day one of the most unnerving stories in the programme's long history. The only battle he did not win on that shoot was with his leading man, Jon Pertwee, who refused to sacrifice a cabaret engagement to allow Barry to reschedule filming and attend his sister's wedding.
Christopher Chisholm Barry was born in east Greenwich, south-east London, in 1925, the son of Gerald Reid Barry, a magazine editor who would go on to become editor of the News Chronicle, and who, after the paper folded in 1960, was appointed director-general of the Festival of Britain, for which he was knighted. Barry's parents separated while he was boarding at Blundells School in Devon. When he was evacuated to America, he spent three and a half years living with a family of Quakers. Upon returning to England, he joined the RAF.
The war was over by the time he was ready for active service. Stationed at Husbands Bosworth with little to do, he joined Leicester University's film society. This allowed him to indulge a passion that had begun when a nanny had taken him to see Hell's Angels (1930), an experience that so enthralled the tot that he had stood up on his seat screaming as planes zoomed towards him on the screen.
He was set on a future in films, and so his father, who belonged to the same club as Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, secured him an introduction. Barry joined other young trainees in the script department who were free to wander the building, and so watch dozens of directors in action. He assisted Alexander Mackendrick on The Man in the White Suit (1951), after which director Basil Dearden recommended that he join the BBC.
Every actor who ever scoffed a bacon roll from a catering van owes a debt to Barry, who appealed to the BBC while working as a production assistant on Jane Eyre (1956) to end the practice of cast and crew having to bring packed lunches on long and often freezing location shoots. His first job as a director was on the now forgotten soap opera Starr and Company (1958), but he soon became extremely busy in series television, his experience of the film world much in demand on productions that had a large degree of location shooting.
His first work on Doctor Who was directing the very first appearance of a Dalek, so catapulting the programme into British cultural history. He handled the debuts of both Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker in the role, and was at his fiendish best on the lurid "The Brain of Morbius" (1976), a fantastical Frankenstein homage dripping with gore and Gothic atmosphere that infuriated viewers' watchdog Mary Whitehouse. "Some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children's television," she wrote of bloody shootings and a disembodied brain quivering in a pool of green slime on a laboratory floor. "Personally I thought it looked rather comic," was Barry's gleeful opinion some years later.
Barry launched the hugely successful Poldark (1975) and turned in 35 episodes of Z Cars from 1967-78, a period in the programme's history when it had softened considerably from its tough and torturous beginnings but was still fine television storytelling. He especially enjoyed working on another BBC hit, the James Herriot veterinary memoirs, All Creatures Great and Small (1978), where he was in his element in gentle, bucolic fare. He was similarly at home with rural police drama Juliet Bravo (1981), Wendy Craig's Nanny (1982) and The Onedin Line (1977). He remained rightly proudest of his BBC dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby (1977), starring Nigel Havers.
Barry was a modest man whose work enjoyed giant audiences. He never returned to the film world, but he did bring something of the good-natured spirit of those Ealing classics into our living rooms.
Christopher Chisholm Barry, television director: born Greenwich 20 September 1925; married 1950 Venice (two sons, one daughter); died Banbury, Oxfordshire 7 February, 2014.
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