Richard Broke: Television producer who found himself attacked by the Tories for 'Tumbledown' and 'The Monocled Mutinee'
Wednesday 23 April 2014
As a television producer, Richard's Broke's greatest concern – and achievement – was to make good, challenging drama. Two of his BBC productions, The Monocled Mutineer and Tumbledown, also provoked the Tory government into accusing the Corporation of left-wing bias. Causing controversy was never Broke's aim, but he privately admitted to gaining satisfaction when the Daily Mail was whipped into a frenzy.
Four years after crystallising the tragedy of unemployment under the Thatcher government in Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Bleasdale adapted The Monocled Mutineer (1986) as a four-part serial from William Allison and John Fairley's book about the 1917 manhunt for Private Percy Toplis, who deserted during the First World War. Paul McGann played Toplis, allegedly the ringleader in a rebellion by troops in France before the battle of Passchendaele.
The most wanted man in Britain, he proved to be a master of disguise and the resulting drama was utterly compelling – but the Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit declared it biased and the Daily Mail described it as "a tissue of lies". Admissions of dramatic licence after the programme was promoted as a real-life story did not help the Corporation's case.
This followed Tebbit's attack on the BBC for allegedly being anti-American in its coverage of bombing raids on Libya launched from British air bases – the latest in a long line of Tory accusations of bias during the 1980s. (Tebbit had also claimed that Boys from the Blackstuff would reduce investment in Liverpool.)
In 1988, Broke was at the centre of more controversy. Tumbledown, written by Charles Wood, told the real-life story of Scots Guards officer Robert Lawrence, who was paralysed after being shot in the head by a sniper in the Falklands. Colin Firth played the lieutenant who feels abandoned by the Army and government in a production that raises questions about how Britain treats its war wounded. Directed by Richard Eyre, it earned the Best Single Drama award from the Royal Television Society, Bafta and the Broadcasting Press Guild – and a tirade of abuse in the letters columns of The Times and Daily Telegraph.
As the first executive producer of the BBC's Screen One drama slot, Broke commissioned A Question of Attribution (1991). Based on Alan Bennett's play and directed by John Schlesinger, it is about the interrogation of Anthony Blunt (played by James Fox), who was exposed as a Soviet spy while working as surveyor of the Queen's pictures. It was another piece of television that sat uneasily with the Establishment.
Broke had Establishment connections himself, having been educated at Eton. His family's involvement in amateur dramatics led him to become an assistant stage manager, first at the Oxford Playhouse in 1961, then for Laurence Olivier's launch of the first Chichester Festival Theatre season, when Broke also appeared as a servant in The Broken Heart. This was followed by a stint working on the Lionel Bart wartime musical Blitz! (Adelphi Theatre, 1962).
Broke joined the BBC as a trainee on productions such as the fantasy series Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67). In 1970 he broke his spine in a car crash that left him wheelchair-bound. Far from allowing this to end his career, he was soon back at the BBC and adopting a positive outlook that saw his fortunes soar. After working as a researcher on Dennis Potter's Casanova (1971), starring Frank Finlay in a contemporary take on the Italian lover, Broke was promoted to script editor, working on six plays (1972-73) in the Thirty-Minute Theatre series, including five by John Mortimer. Among other dramas he script-edited were Roy Minton's Funny Farm and an adaptation of 84, Charing Cross Road, both for Play for Today in 1975, and Frederic Raphael's The Glittering Prizes (1976).
Broke was given his first chance as a producer on episodes of the anthology drama series Centre Play (1973-76). He followed it with Play for Today and BBC2 Playhouse productions but significantly advanced his career by producing Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981) for ITV. The eight-part serial was based on Martin Gilbert's biography tracing the politician's exile, from losing office in 1929 until the start of war. In a master stroke of casting, Broke persuaded Robert Hardy to play Churchill. The actor had been reluctant but revealed that "several very good lunches" with the producer helped to change his mind.
Broke returned to the BBC for a golden period that included producing Dr Fischer of Geneva (1985), which he adapted himself from Graham Greene's novel, with James Mason in the title role. Untouched by the Monocled Mutineer and Tumbledown fall-out, he was put in charge of Screen One in 1989. Over the next five years he worked on nearly 50 productions, ranging from William Humble's Tony Hancock biopic Hancock and Willy Russell's stag and hen parties drama Dancin' Thru the Dark to Roy Clarke's A Foreign Field, starring Alec Guinness and Leo McKern as war veterans returning to Normandy to visit a the grave of a friend.
Broke's last major BBC drama was Cold Comfort Farm (1995), starring Kate Beckinsale and directed by John Schlesinger. He returned to ITV for two series (2000-01) of Where the Heart Is and one run (2002) of the hospital drama A&E. He was married to the film make-up artist Elaine Carew.
Richard William Broke, television producer and writer: born London 2 December 1943; married 1988 Elaine Carew (two daughters); died London 14 April 2014.
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