Don Taylor

Exponent of live television and theatre
Click to follow

Donald Victor Taylor, director, writer and producer: born London 30 June 1936; married 1960 Ellen Dryden (one son, one daughter); died Banham, Norfolk 11 November 2003.

In the days of live television, Don Taylor established himself at the BBC with productions of early works by great playwrights such as David Mercer and Hugh Whitemore, and favoured the traditional"proscenium arch" approach to television drama that was being challenged by a new breed who advocated a move away from simply shooting a play as if it were being performed on a stage. He supported the BBC's post-war ideal of making its drama department "the National Theatre of the air" and despised "mass-consumption rubbish".

Taylor will be best remembered for producing and directing Mercer's "Generations" trilogy, an ambitous attempt to chart the rise and fall of socialist idealism in Britain over the previous 60 years as seen through the eyes of three generations of one family.

It started with Where the Difference Begins (1961), the story of two brothers, one who has abandoned socialism, the other a Labour intellectual; continued with A Climate of Fear (1962), about a nuclear scientist confronting the revelation that his children are CND members; and concluded with The Birth of a Private Man (1963), which portrayed a young man's disenchantment with protest and the struggle to sustain a left-wing vision in the new "affluent" society. The final play ended, dramatically, with its leading character dying at the Berlin Wall in a hail of bullets from both sides.

Mercer joined the new wave of writers and directors who were looking for a fresh "language" for television drama - although he was rigid in his belief that his words were sacrosanct and not open to improvisation - but Taylor was not so amenable.

When Sydney Newman became the BBC's head of drama and restructured that department, dividing the roles of producer and director, Taylor left the corporation after falling out with his new boss and the producer James MacTaggart, who launched the groundbreaking "Wednesday Play". Although he continued to work occasionally as a freelance television director, for both the BBC and ITV, he spent much of his subsequent career as a writer and director of stage plays.

Born into a working-class London family in 1936, Taylor had passed the 11-plus to attend Chiswick Grammar School, then studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford. He directed the world premiere of John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon (1957) for the university's Experimental Theatre Club.

On graduating, he joined the BBC as a trainee and progressed to the drama department under Michael Barry, producing and directing some of the earliest television plays written by N.J. Crisp (The Dark Man, 1960) and David Turner (The Train Set, 1961), as well as David Mercer. A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962), in "The Sunday-Night Play" series, was Mercer's harrowing examination of psychiatric practice. (The writer himself had suffered a nervous breakdown.)

Taylor thrived on the unpredictability and heart-stopping moments that could befall a director in those days when almost all programmes were transmitted live. Just before one of his final live broadcasts, N.J. Crisp's The Alderman (1962), Camera One's mounting stopped functioning and music was played to viewers for five minutes before a replacement camera was found. However, it was unable to move in exactly the same way as, or reach the height of, the original, which was on a dolly, so the cameraman had to improvise some shots under the instructions of Taylor, who gave him a running commentary on what would happen next. The director recalled in his 1990 memoirs, Days of Vision:

The play went extremely well, and probably had an extra edge that it would have lacked without the crisis that preceded its transmission. The story makes a kind of wry epigraph on live television drama, so thrilling a medium to work in, simply because it is fraught with the possibility of disaster, as every performance in the theatre is, every night.

Others welcomed the move to recording on tape and Taylor found himself going against the grain. Although he directed George Target's Workshop Limits and Hugh Whitemore's The Full Chatter under the restructured drama department, disagreements with his new bosses led him to be moved off new plays.

Sydney Newman offered him a job as producer of a new series, Doctor Who, which was being launched as an education programme for children, about past ages and the physical sciences, but he declined and left the BBC. Taylor recalled

I told him I'd never had the slightest interest in science fiction, and if I wanted to do plays about the past, I didn't need a time traveller to take me there. I'm sure neither of us thought of it then as the kind of national comic strip it was to become.

As a freelance, he returned to the BBC to direct two 1965 "Wednesday Plays", Hugh Whitemore's Dan Dan the Charity Man and Mercer's And Did Those Feet?, about illegitimate twins, unwilling heirs to their aristocratic father, taking refuge in the animal kingdom, as well as Mercer's Find Me (1974) and For Tea on Sunday (1978).

He also made drama documentaries for the arts programme Omnibus, notably The Confessions of Marian Evans (about George Eliot, 1969) and Paradise Restored (on Milton, 1972), and wrote and directed a ghost story, The Exorcism (1972).

He directed classics such as The Crucible (1980) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1983), and his own new verse translations of Sophocles's "Theban Plays", Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, all screened in the same week in 1986. His final television works were studio productions of Edward Bond's Bingo (1989) and his new translation of Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis (1990).

But much of his last 35 years was spent writing and directing for the theatre. Although Taylor had been writing stage plays from the age of 20, it was 1967 before the first was performed, a Traverse Theatre production of his comedy Grounds for Marriage. One of his early successes was The Roses of Eyam, first staged at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, in 1970, and directed by Anton Rodgers. A television version was made three years later and, after the play was published, it was widely performed.

From 1990, his directing was solely for stage and radio. After his translations of Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis, The Women of Troy and Helen were published as War Plays in 1990, The Women of Troy was premiered at the Belgrade Theatre Studio, Coventry (1991) and ran for a short season at the Finborough Arms, London (1991). His radio play When the Barbarians Came (1992) was performed at the New End Theatre, London (1994). His dramatist wife Ellen Dryden's original scripts and adaptations were among the many plays he directed for BBC radio.

Anthony Hayward