Herbert Wise: Director of innovative television drama, including 'Z Cars', 'The Verdict Is Yours' and, most memorably, 'I, Claudius'

The bewitching saga marked his zenith as a studio director

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The Independent Online

The director Herbert Wise, who has died just shy of his 91st birthday, made an outstanding contribution to television drama. Cherished by actors and one of the great innovators in television’s salad days, he was a craftsman who helped to forge the drama that made it such an exciting medium throughout the 1960s and 70s.

He reached his zenith as a studio director with all 13 episodes of I, Claudius (1976), commissioned to mark BBC television’s 40th anniversary, a saga that bewitched millions with its feverish decadence and elegant depravity. At its centre was a brilliant performance from the young Derek Jacobi, an excellent example of Wise’s gift for talent-spotting.

Herbert Weisz was born in Vienna on 31 August 1924. At 14 he was rescued from the Nazi occupation by the Kindertransport rescue effort, and, unable to speak a word of English, was taken in by the family of a wealthy accountant in Surrey. He and his younger brother believed their parents to be dead, but they had in fact managed to escape, first to Italy and then to South America, and were reunited with the two boys many years later.

He was determined to contribute to the war effort, and so after spells in an engineering training centre and a chemistry laboratory, he joined the RAF, working in military intelligence after colour blindness put paid to his ambition to become a pilot.

After the war was won, he took a theatre course at the New Era Academy in Hampstead, then in 1949 joined High Wycombe Rep as an actor. He made his directorial debut in Shrewsbury in 1950 with Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines; in Dundee, he livened up the theatre’s traditional programme successfully enough to be asked to stay for three years.

With the arrival of commercial television in 1956, he won a place on a training course set up by Granada. He was frustrated, however, to be placed on outside broadcasts, so when a contract was offered to him, he took a risk and refused to sign unless he was moved into the studio. It worked – but spitefully, the company saddled him with directing a quiz show, the first live transmission of which panicked the host into getting drunk before going on air. Wise took the wrap but survived, and two years later finally established himself in the drama department with the hugely successful The Verdict Is Yours, a series of unscripted trials for which the writers gave each actor a back-story for their character, but left the rest to improvisation.

But the relationship with Granada was always fraught, and after his contract failed to be renewed, he left for Germany in 1960, where he spent nine months helping to set up a second television channel. More new ground was broken on Z Cars (1962), a powerhouse of experimentation, Wise pioneering traits that quickly became traditions. It was here that he worked again with John Hopkins, a writer who, when a floor manager at Granada, had handed him a short script entitled Break Up. Wise had been sufficiently impressed to have it broadcast locally, launching the career of one of the future giants of the medium in the process.

Anyone who needs proof of Wise’s skills need look no further than the BBC’s civil-war drama The Siege of Manchester (1965), which Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by that he requested Wise bring him a copy in the hope that he could learn how to get such strong performances from actors. Wise always prioritised performance, refusing to stay in the gallery during a recording and never marking camera positions on the floor, believing that the cameraman’s job was to get the shot, wherever the actors might have placed themselves. Among those he gave breaks to were John Hurt, Keith Barron and future BBC Head of Plays Christopher Morahan.

As well as triumphing both on film and in the studio, Wise was also dexterous with his subject matter: opulent productions such as Elizabeth R (1971), Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) and Walk with Destiny (1974), which starred Richard Burton as Churchill, were as good an example of his skills as comedies like Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests (1977).

He fought hard for the BBC to produce Hopkins’ formidable A Story to Frighten the Children for Play for Today in 1976. The resultant film, about the police investigation into a noisy murder on an estate which somehow seems to have been seen and heard by no one, delivered 12 and a half million viewers and an opening eight-and-a-half minutes of sheer terror that showcased just what a giant of the small screen he had become.

The same year, there was brutality on a different scale with I, Claudius. But sadly, with a few fine exceptions such as a splendidly spooky version of The Woman in Black (1989), most of Wise’s subsequent work was in long-running series such as Inspector Morse and The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, where he did excellent work, but had fewer opportunities to startle.

His career is a perfect diagram of the story of television drama, from boundless innovation, through high-quality and diverse treasures, to profligate genre serials. His final work was on The Bill, then long past its heyday; by this point he was no longer given a free reign with casting, one of the skills he was always celebrated for. By the end of his career, television quite simply didn’t deserve him any more.

Herbert Wise, director: born Vienna, Austria 31 August 1924; married 1962 Moira Redmond (marriage dissolved), 1988 Fiona Walker (one daughter, one son); died London 5 August 2015.