Richard Carpenter: Actor and writer famed for 'Catweazle'and 'The Ghosts of Motley Hall'
When chided by Mary Whitehouse, he said to her, ‘I’m a professional writer –and you’re a professional what?’
Saturday 10 March 2012
In any list of the finest children's writers of the late 20th century, Richard Carpenter deserves to be included, and if it wasn't for the lingering prejudice against television as a medium the equal of literature and film, this would undoubtedly be the case. He was forever romantic without sentimentality, melancholic yet optimistic, mystical yet believable; his love of the English landscape and fascination with its folklore enchanted much of his work. A childlike sense of wonder without a hint of childishness made him for 20 years the master of that most tricky of genres: family drama.
Richard "Kip" Carpenter was born in King's Lynn in 1929, and enjoyed a country childhood reading "Shakespeare, Greek myths and The Beano" before training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic. From there he bounced around the reps and cropped up in films such as The Password is Courage (1962), alongside Dirk Bogarde, but it was television that provided both regular work and an excellent pupillage in writing convincing dialogue.
He appeared in everything from Hancock to The Wednesday Play, clocked up four different roles in Dixon of Dock Green and was one of the team of private detectives in Knight Errant (1959-61), a zany hokum which foreshadowed The Avengers and which promised its clients "quests undertaken, dragons defeated, damsels rescued!"
By the late 1960s, after a year in the West End production of Wait Until Dark, he was bored of acting. Then a weekend in the country changed his life forever. Driving back from his brother-in-law's turkey farm Carpenter decided to take the scenic route and ended up lost. He pulled over to consult a map and noticed on an old gatepost the word "Catweazle". The baffling name played on his mind, and when he later saw Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Crowning of Thorns, the wizardly old man with the pointy white beard on the bottom left of the picture chimed with the name.
Carpenter submitted an idea for a series about a medieval magus catapulted into the modern world who naturally sees all modern technology as masterly magic. With a tumultuous performance by Geoffrey Bayldon, electricity became "elec-trickery", a light bulb "the sun in a bottle" and the telephone "a telling bone", and the series, first broadcast in 1970, became one of the newly formed London Weekend Television's greatest successes and won Carpenter a Writer's Guild Award.
He then wrote and presented the BBC schools drama The Boy From Space (1971), before expressing his passion for the English landscape in more classical hues with LWT's sumptuous The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972).Perfect Sunday-afternoon entertainment, Carpenter's scripts were gutsy, rustic adventures enjoying guestperformances from the likes of John Thaw and majestic direction from old pros of the British film industry such as Charles Crichton.
It was another eccentric happening that gave Carpenter his next project. Thinking he had glimpsed a ghost, he was amused rather than alarmed by the experience, and so when Granada asked him to devise a Sunday-afternoon series with only one set, The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78) were evoked. Based inside an abandoned country house where five spectres from different eras of the family's reign pass eternity bickering, reminiscing and sabotaging the plans of any potential buyers who come their way, the series was masterly comedy with a genuine tinge of pathos, and featured uproarious turns from a spirited cast that included Freddie Jones, Arthur English and Nicholas le Prevost.
The romantic Dick Turpin (1979) was another hit for LWT, and an overture to Carpenter's magnum opus, Robin of Sherwood (1983-86), a true television success story that reinvented the legend for modern audiences as one of brutal Normans, Thatcherite politicians and defiant rebels unafraid to die fighting for the land they love.
Carpenter added sorcery and paganism to an already heady brew, and the series won hearts, its images of sunlight, Gothic horror and heroism brilliantly brought to life by passionate scripts and a strong cast including Ray Winstone as a psychotic Will Scarlet and Judi Trott as a Pre-Raphaelite but liberated Marian. Robin of Sherwood's only critic, it seemed, was Mary Whitehouse, who objected to the relentless slaughter and blasphemous religious elements, but was deftly silenced by Carpenter in public when he introduced himself to her and the audience by saying "I'm Richard Carpenter, and I'm a professional writer. And you're a professional... what?"
Even in the exasperatingly managerial television landscape of later years Carpenter still triumphed with the Bafta-winning The Borrowers (1992) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1998) starring Richard E Grant. In person Carpenter was charming and twinkle-eyed, a born storyteller with the curiosity of a child and the wisdom of a grandfather. He is survived by his wife, the actress Annabelle Lee, and their children, Tom and Harriet.
Richard Carpenter, actor, writer and producer: born King's Lynn 14 August 1929; married Annabelle Lee (one son, one daughter); died 26 February 2012.
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