Inventive and eloquent television dramatist
Monday 31 May 2004
Jack Morris Rosenthal, writer: born Manchester 8 September 1931; CBE 1994; married secondly 1973 Maureen Lipman (one son, one daughter); died London 29 May 2004.
Jack Rosenthal, whose rich and varied achievements stretched over a career of 40 years, was one of a bright and ambitious group of young writers who learnt their craft in the early years of television, but no other was to emerge from that increasingly crowded and noisy medium with quite such a distinctive and original voice.
After first honing his writing skills in the early Sixties, contributing to some 150 episodes of Granada's Coronation Street, he emerged from this exacting apprenticeship to produce a body of work of rare and haunting quality marked, always, with a wry, rueful sense of the sad and comic absurdities of humankind.
As E.M. Forster once observed of the Greek poet Cavafy, Rosenthal seemed to stand at a slight angle to the universe, a vantage point that best enabled him to explore the still, sad music of ordinary, humdrum lives, yet always to portray his characters with unfailing humour, affection and compassion. Such qualities became his unmistakable signature and were particularly present in those plays in which he explored the interaction of his characters in particular and peculiar social worlds - the travails of a desperate football referee in Another Sunday and Sweet FA (1972), the depiction of childhood pangs of isolation experienced in The Evacuees (1975), the agonies of a film extra who ignominiously fails to deliver his one line in Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (1976), the fraught but momentous family celebrations in Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), the destructive forces of circumstance engulfing the naïve young female pools-winner in Spend, Spend, Spend (1977) and the exploration of the arcane world of the taxi-driver in The Knowledge (1979).
An inventive and prolific writer in a thriving new medium, Rosenthal worked in many genres. He originated several series, including Red Letter Day for Granada, tales of big events in a very small village hall, and created many episodes for the situation comedy The Dustbin Men, revealing the surprising, vivid lives of refuse collectors. In 1993 he originated the series Moving Story about the dramas of moving house. But the most successful series he created was undoubtedly London's Burning, inspired by the family au pair, whose boyfriend was a London fireman. Made for London Weekend Television, the series, which started in 1986, continued to earn huge ratings for a run of nearly 16 years.
Rosenthal wrote the scripts for several feature films including The Lovers in 1973 and P'Tang,Yang, Kipperbang, a comic and touching story of the desperation of schoolboy love made for Goldcrest in 1982. The following year he joined Barbra Streisand in Los Angeles to collaborate with her on the screenplay for Yentl. The experience won him the Golden Globe award and also rewarded him with a large fund of wry anecdotes about life in Hollywood.
Jack Morris Rosenthal, the younger of two brothers, was born in Manchester in 1931, the son of Sam and Leah Rosenthal, themselves the children of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, who endured hard times and much poverty, worked in a raincoat factory, but it was his mother, Rosenthal claimed, whose zest for life and unconscious gift for comic timing gave him his sharp ear for dialogue.
At the age of two and a half, Jack was sent to the Derby Street Jew School in Manchester, where he remembered a sadistic teacher, who wielded a cane called Charlie. In the Second World War years, he was briefly evacuated to a chillingly inhospitable family in Blackpool. The petty tyrannies that he suffered there became the subject of The Evacuees (his material was nearly always in part autobiographical).
After his family moved to Colne, Jack Rosenthal attended Colne Grammar School, where he excelled at sports and had already begun writing comedy monologues, one of which he submitted to the BBC, who promptly rejected it. Later, he went on to Sheffield University, where he graduated with a BA in English and languages. After undergoing his National Service in the Navy as a Russian translator, he joined Granada Television in the late Fifties to work in the promotions department, writing catchy trailers for future TV broadcasts.
When Coronation Street was launched in the winter of 1960, Rosenthal offered himself as one of the writers. His flair for the comic potentialities of northern dialogue was acute and he became a permanent member of a gifted team of some half dozen writers who helped to propel what had begun as quite a small-scale venture to dizzy popular heights. Among those writers was Peter Eckersley, who later became Granada's head of drama and who, in taking television plays out of the studio and pioneering the total use of film, did much to foster Rosenthal's remarkable early television output.
As producer, I worked with Rosenthal on three shows, Coronation Street, Bulldog Breed, and Pardon The Expression, a situation comedy starring Arthur Lowe. Rosenthal was always a delightful colleague, companionable, warm, funny and with a precious gift for intimacy. His handsome looks, with their slightly lugubrious cast, seemed designed to go with a self-deprecating shrug, but when enthused his face would suddenly crease into smiles and the jokes and laughter would flow without stopping.
Rosenthal's marriage in 1973 to the actress Maureen Lipman was one of immense closeness and sympathy. Rosenthal, who had been briefly married to a model, met Lipman in a pub in Manchester when she was appearing in a local theatre and he was still writing for Coronation Street. Rosenthal bet a friend a pound that he would marry her. Their marriage took place four years later and Rosenthal remembered, "It was like coming home." In the large family house in Muswell Hill, north London, Rosenthal found a mode of operation which perfectly suited his essentially modest and diffident personality. While his talented and energetic wife was out at work, Rosenthal would stay cosily at home not only tirelessly engaged in writing, but also doing the domestic chores and getting his wife's supper ready for when she returned from the theatre.
This homely way of life was to form the basis of two of his most poignant television plays, Eskimo Day (1996) and Cold Enough for Snow (1997), about the extraordinary degree of pain and deprivation which parents experience when their offspring finally leave home and which Rosenthal himself had suffered when his own children, Amy and Adam, went to university.
Over four decades of writing, Rosenthal became a favourite both of critics and directors and was garlanded with honours, including four honorary degrees from northern universities and a clutch of awards from Bafta and the Royal Television Society. In 1994 he was appointed CBE for services to drama, an honour much deserved.
In these coarse, dumbed-down television days, his work will be remembered as an example of one of the most eloquent and human voices of the TV era.
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