Obituary: Graeme McDonald
Wednesday 08 October 1997
Graeme McDonald's long, distinguished and sustained career in British television was essentially a triumph of style. It reached its zenith in 1983 when he became Controller of BBC2, a position which he held until 1987. Shortly after leaving BBC2 he was appointed OBE for services to broadcasting.
McDonald had begun his television career in 1960 as a trainee director at Granada, where he remained for five years before joining the BBC, as a producer in 1966, and where he went on to become head of BBC Television Drama Series and Serials and then, in 1981, the head of Television Drama Group before taking over BBC2. His years at the BBC, however, will be best remembered for his great contribution to The Wednesday Play and Play for Today.
These two series, which he produced during the decade between 1967 and 1977, contained several plays which have become BBC classics - Colin Welland's Kisses at 50, Arthur Hopcraft's The Reporters, Peter McDougall's Just Another Saturday, the harrowing story of an Ulster march (which won the Prix Italia in 1975) and Jack Rosenthal's heart-warming Bar Mitzvah Boy (which won the 1976 Bafta Award for Best Play). Other writers to contribute were Christopher Hampton, Peter Nichols, John McGrath, Howard Brenton, David Mercer and William Trevor.
After leaving the BBC McDonald was appointed managing director of Film and Drama as Anglia Television, and then, in 1994, joined Ardent Productions, the film and television company set up by Prince Edward; there he spent his last, enjoyable working years.
If his rivals and sometimes his friends may have been in awe of his seemingly effortless rise in a notoriously bumpy and precarious profession, its cause was not hard to find. It probably lay at the start of his television career. It was at Granada that he came to realise that the visionary ardour and creative edge which are the essential requirements of a good director were not the first properties of his own make-up. Instead he presented himself to the world in an attitude of unruffled poise, stylish to a fault, bringing to bear a sophisticated detachment and an unsparingly discerning eye for all work which had quality, originality and flair.
His elegant and civilised approach, backed up by a natural bent for orderly administration, and a gift for staff relations, made him ideal for the role of a BBC producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. If the first requirement of a producer is necessarily his ability to make the right choice McDonald swiftly made his mark and his change of role from director to producer was in every way fortuitous.
Graeme McDonald was the youngest of three children of a Lloyd's underwriter. He attended Colet Court before going on to St Paul's School. After completing his National Service he underwent a trainee management course at Shell, where the management obligingly offered to send him to London University. But McDonald persuaded his benevolent employers that Cambridge would be far nicer and he duly went up to Jesus College to read Geology and Physics.
Science soon bored him, however, and he resolved to study for an Arts degree instead. In the meantime he had discovered Cambridge life, become vice-president of the Footlights and president of the University Players and made friends within a lively circle which included Timothy Birdsall, the artist, and the writers Robin Chapman and William Donaldson.
After leaving Cambridge without a degree McDonald declined to return to Shell and instead got a job at James Garrett Associates, where he worked on the production team making television commercials for breakfast foods, dog biscuits and chocolate bars. It was that fine documentary maker Frank Cvitanovich who found him languishing in a milieu which held little appeal and who was instrumental in introducing him to Granada, which he joined in 1960 as a trainee director.
In a memoir of that time he has written with typically wry amusement of his work on such mundane programmes as Railway Police and Criss Cross Quiz and how the light in the eye of his mentor Denis Forman (then Granada's chief executive) quickly dimmed after McDonald's directorial debacle with a misguidedly experimental production of J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner.
Invited to the BBC as a producer by Gerald Savory, who had become Head of Serials, McDonald began a series called Thirty Minute Theatre and never looked back. After his 10-year tenure looking after single plays he took over as Head of Series and Serials and showed his flair with a whole stream of notable successes including John Le Carre's Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and R.F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days.
His keen appreciation of more popular drama meant that he also gave warm support to series like Bergerac, featuring the Jersey private eye, Juliet Bravo, about the travails and triumphs of a perky London policewoman, and James Herriot's vet saga All Creatures Great and Small for which his own passion for animals gave him a natural affinity.
After briefly heading the BBC's Television Drama Group he received the crowning accolade when he took up his appointment as Controller of BBC2. Here again, within the relaxed and privileged remit of that channel, and comparatively free from the pressures of ratings and pre-emptive scheduling, he soon became much at home, able to apply his skills of selection, taste and the fostering of creative talent within a much broader stream of programming.
After leaving the BBC he joined Anglia in January 1988 as managing director of Anglia Films, where he produced Goldeneye, a fictionalised biography of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and, as a co-production with David Puttnam, a film portrait of Lawrence of Arabia entitled A Dangerous Man and starring Ralph Fiennes. He also produced The Chief, a television series about the turbulent times of a chief constable, and a film, The Story of Josephine Baker, about the black French cabaret star who became a heroine of the French Resistance.
On leaving Anglia, McDonald was invited by Eben Foggitt, an old friend of BBC days, to join Prince Edward's newly founded production company, Ardent, and for the first time experienced the harsh realities of working as an independent producer, far removed from the bounteous resources of the big companies. However, he took to the rigours of this life with a mixture of determination and elan, and was much gratified when Ardent's first drama series was transmitted by Channel Four. Annie's Bar was a comedy about a rowdy and conspiracy-rife bar-room in the House of Commons. The 10-part series was his swan song.
McDonald had a strong sybaritic streak and relished the good things of life - beaches, clothes, fast cars, restaurants, food and wine. He was the first person I remember to use the word "sexy" to describe anything from a typeface to a car chassis, a relic I supposed of his flashier advertising days. I first got to know him shortly after he arrived at Granada when he benignly forgave me for asking him to direct a hopelessly unsuccessful series I had concocted entitled Bulldog Breed.
He was an extraordinarily handsome man, and was always beguiling company, an intriguing mixture of great reserve and exceptional tenderness. Although he seemed to view his friends with the same air of cool appraisal that he directed at every aspect of life which engaged him, those who knew him well remained the friends of a lifetime, unperturbed by his enigmatic quality, which they rightly judged to mask a deep residue of feeling and emotion.
- Derek Granger
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