N. J. Crisp
TV dramatist, playwright and novelist
Thursday 18 August 2005
Bringing alive the sometimes unexciting world of business, by focusing on the trials and tribulations of the people who make the cogs turn, was a hallmark of N.J. Crisp's long career as a successful writer for television.
Typical of his work was the boardroom-to- bedroom drama The Brothers (1972-76), which he co-created with the producer Gerard Glaister. It followed the squabbles resulting after three brothers inherited part of their father's haulage firm - the eldest had expected to have it to himself - and the old man's secret mistress was also bequeathed a share in it.
The family-business saga proved compulsive Sunday-evening viewing, attracting audiences of up to 11 million, with many divided over their sympathies for the domineering women - Jennifer Wilson as the school-marmish mistress, Jennifer Kingsley, and Jean Anderson as the matriarch, Mary Hammond.
Born in Southampton in 1923, Norman James Crisp served in the RAF from 1943 to 1947, then went through a string of jobs - taxi-company manager, Marks and Spencer management trainee and typewriter salesman - while trying his hand at writing. He had short stories accepted by Reveille, John Bull and the Saturday Evening Post, and a television play, People of the Night (about a radio cab company, 1957) broadcast by the BBC.
This encouraged him to go full-time as a writer in 1959 and he subsequently wrote a dozen plays for the BBC, including The Dark Man (about a black taxi driver facing problems at work, 1960), and several for the ITV company Anglia, before being told that television's future was in series and serials.
As a result, he wrote scripts for the BBC soap opera Compact (1963-64), set in the offices of a women's magazine, then became story editor for the first series of R3 (1964), a drama about the professional and private lives of research scientists.
Then, he was one of several writers recruited by Ronald Marsh, the producer of Dixon of Dock Green (1965-75), to rid the popular series of its "cosy" image by writing "tougher" scripts, with rougher criminals and less emphasis on the policeman's home life. Crisp contributed Dixon of Dock Green scripts for 10 years, in between other work, which included writing for Dr Finlay's Casebook, in one episode tackling the taboo subject of euthanasia.
With Gerard Glaister, Crisp co-created The Expert (1968-69, 1971, 1976), which combined George Dixon and Dr Finlay by following the day-to-day activities of a forensic scientist, Dr John Hardy (Marius Goring). It was the first BBC2 drama series to be made in colour.
Even during the five-year run of The Brothers, the prolific Crisp wrote scripts for Colditz (1972-74), the wartime prison-camp drama produced by Glaister. The pair then devised Oil Strike North (1975), about the crew and their families on a North Sea oil rig, for which the creators spent two years researching in Scottish coastal towns and on rigs and supply vessels. Glaister also produced Buccaneer (1980), a series created by Crisp and Eric Paice, about a small air freight company.
In a different vein, Crisp scripted the feature-length television drama The Masks of Death (1984), starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and John Mills as Dr Watson, and the horror film Murder Elite (1985), featuring Ali MacGraw.
A prolific writer in all mediums, Crisp published several novels including The Brink (1982), Yesterday's Gone (1983), In the Long Run (1988) and The Ninth Circle (1988). He also wrote the stage play Fighting Chance (Apollo Theatre, 1985), set in a residential rehabilitation centre for neurological patients and based on his own illness, a malformation of the spinal cord diagnosed in 1975, which left him partially disabled. (Failing eyesight also led him to be registered blind eight years later.)
Another of his plays, the thriller Dangerous Obsession (Apollo Theatre, 1987-8, and Fortune Theatre, 1988), was turned by the writer John Howlett into the 1999 feature film Darkness Falls, starring Sherilyn Fenn and Ray Winstone.
A founding member of the Writers' Guild in 1959, who later served as its chairman from 1968 to 1971, Crisp negotiated the first £1,000 fee to be paid to a writer for a television drama and persuaded the ITV companies to make a pension contribution with each script commissioned.
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