A remarkable run of hugely successful and also highly respected television dramas populate the CV of Ken Riddington, the BBC drama producer who has died after suffering for many years with dementia.
Coming to prominence just as the Corporation was making a regrettable move away from single plays in favour of series and serials, Riddington made the most of a rather reactionary attitude in 1980s television, when tastes were influenced as much by Laura Ashley as Margaret Thatcher, giving the inevitable handsome Sunday-evening period dramas more than just the customary sheen of professionalism. More than anyone else he invested in a certain Andrew Davies, a writer whose skill at dramatising literature for television would grow into one of the BBC's greatest assets in the decade to follow.
Riddington's greatest achievement was the compelling House of Cards trilogy, now the subject of an equally successful US remake. With a punctilious central performance from Ian Richardson as the Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart, and Davies's typically exploratory attitude to a work's sexual undercurrents, the series was typical of the pair's collaborations: erudite, refined dramas that worked both at surface level, be they political thrillers or romances, and at a deeper level, as vivid journeys into our capacity for evil or love.
Born in Leicester in 1922, Ken Riddington began his career as an actor before moving to backstage roles. He became a stage manager at the Adelphi Theatre in 1950, then directed the musical Rendezvous at the Comedy Theatre in 1952. He went on to be company manager at the Palladium and Palace Theatre before joining the BBC as a floor manager in the 1970s.
His first work as a producer was a BBC dramatisation of Iris Murdoch's An Unofficial Rose (1974), which was followed by Dennis Potter's telling of Angus Wilson's Late Call (1975), an excellent matching of the writer to the text, brimming as it is with Potter obsessions such as class divides and the persistence of memory.
Although haulage firms don't instantly smack of good drama, The Brothers (1972-76) was an enormous hit in its day, a highly-strung soap about three sparring siblings running a trucking business. Riddington took over as producer at the peak of its popularity, although was on more familiar ground with Anna Karenina (1977), gloriously well-received and with a strong lead performance from Nicola Pagett.
Riddington was a great observer: actors testify to his quiet ability to monitor something they might do subconsciously in the rehearsal room, and then elicit it from them before the camera. Like many a great television producer of that era, he was an impresario.
The BBC fell in love with the novels of RF Delderfield at the end of the 1970s, and Riddington produced three major serials of his works, A Horseman Riding By (1978) starring Nigel Havers, To Serve Them All My Days (1980), which began his association with Davies, and most splendidly, Diana (1984). A cross-class love story which moved from Devonshire in the 1930s to occupied France, with a bewitching performance from Patsy Kensit as the heroine in her youth, and an exceptional one from Kevin McNally as the lover she constantly toys with, Diana was wondrous in its evoking of the trauma of a first love that has no worthy successor, and showed Davies's mastery at depicting sexual relationships on the small screen.
In a different theatre of war, Tenko (1981-84) was another major hit for the BBC, the story of life in a Japanese prison camp, offering a good array of meaty female roles. Similarly Mother Love (1989), a four-part thriller starring Diana Rigg as an obsessively jealous matriarch, was one of the televisual events of its year.
A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88), an original serial by Davies, was a world away from anything else the pair worked on in tone. With a career-best performance by Peter Davison as the jittery, diligent doctor who arrives at a university practice that is sick with incompetence, apathy and corporate self-interest, and saddled with a broken heart and a phobia of being touched, it was a sharp satire on Thatcher's Britain, all the more remarkable for its self-awareness of the times it was created in.
Riddington cast Davison again in the gentle detective series Campion (1989-90); at this time he was acting Head of Series and Serials, but shunned a managerial role in favour of the business of actually making programmes; he worked until the age of 75, in fact, with the House of Cards trilogy his final, and it's fair to say, his crowning achievement.
During his struggle with dementia, new technology empowered him to successfully unlock memories via audio and visual triggers, known as reminiscence therapy. And although he never got to enjoy the reimagining of House of Cards, he played no small part in instigating and conducting a success which has now begun all over again.
Kenneth Riddington, television producer: born Leicester 8 May 1922; married Elizabeth Chambers (one son); died London 26 December 2014.Reuse content