Roger James: Documentary maker whose editing talents helped him become an acclaimed producer and television executive

His most high-profile film as an editor was Death of a Princess in 1980 which caused a rift between the British government and the Saudi royal family

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The Independent Online

Roger James worked on some of the finest documentaries to be screened on commercial television in Britain, first at Lew Grade's ATV, then its successor, Central Independent Television. He was a skilful programme-maker and executive who used the medium to great effect.

He cut his teeth as a film editor and one of his earliest documentaries in that capacity, To Be Seven in Belfast (1975), looking at how three Catholic and three Protestant children were affected by the Troubles, reflected the humanitarian qualities for which he was much loved and admired by the programme-makers with whom he worked – an illustrious list that ranged from John Pilger, Antony Thomas and Ken Loach to Adrian Cowell, Michael Grigsby, Charles Stewart and Brian Moser.

His most high-profile film as an editor was Thomas's Death of a Princess (1980), which caused a rift between the British government and the Saudi royal family and generated further ripples when it was shown in other countries. Through dramatised reconstructions it revealed the story of a young Saudi Arabian princess and her lover being publicly executed for committing adultery. James also edited Loach's 1980 television film adaptation of Barry Hines' book The Gamekeeper, which blurred the lines between drama and documentary.

Many of the films he subsequently worked on as producer (1981-84), executive producer (1984-91) or controller of features (1991-97) shed light on human catastrophes and injustices around the world, from Pilger's documentaries on Cambodia, East Timor and Burma to Grigsby's Too Long a Sacrifice (on Northern Ireland) and Living on the Edge (a searing indictment of poverty in Thatcher's Britain), to Sandy Gall's reports from the rebel mujahideen side inside Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and Latvian director Juris Podnieks's insights into the collapse of the Soviet Union. James also had a passion for environmental issues and oversaw Adrian Cowell's massive Decade of Destruction series (1980-90), which alerted the world to the ravaging of the Amazon rainforest and helped make the environment a political issue.

He saw himself as an enabler, getting the vision of his documentary-makers to the screen with maximum impact. His talents as a film editor meant that he understood the technicalities of putting a story together. Where he could find a way of enhancing his colleagues' work, he did, and they appreciated what he brought to their projects. In 1984, when Charles Stewart returned from Africa with harrowing film of the Ethiopian famine, James sat in the editing suite one day to switch around a few sequences in Seeds of Despair that made the pictures even more powerful.

As ITV adapted to a multi-channel age and Central was taken over by Carlton, James remained in charge of Central's documentary unit, but he was unfortunate enough to commission The Connection (1996). Carlton was fined £2m by the Independent Television Commission when it was discovered that director Marc de Beaufort had faked elements of the film about a Colombian drugs cartel. By the time these revelations surfaced, James – always revered for his honesty and integrity – had moved into independent production and continued to make documentaries.

James was born in east London, son of Reginald, who served in the Royal Navy on minesweepers during the Second World War before becoming a Greater London Council technical officer, and his wife, Dora (née Browne). He was an avid reader and developed a social conscience at a young age. When, at Cornwell School, Manor Park, a teacher fostered in him an interest in film-making, he edited Paperchase, which won a national competition.

Leaving school at 16, James found a job in the post room at ATV's London offices. Within a couple of years he was an assistant film editor and, moving to ATV's Elstree studios, worked on a wide range of programmes. In 1968 he became a fully fledged editor on regional productions in Birmingham – the city where he met his wife-to-be, Jo, a nurse. But keen to work solely on documentaries, he returned to Elstree in 1972. He became a producer, then executive producer, and Controller of features in 1991.

Most of his productions were broadcast in ITV's regular Viewpoint strand, while some were screened by Channel Four. When British TV entered a new era in the 1990s and ITV made fewer serious documentaries, James proved that he was able to produce programmes for the new market. The ITV docusoap Neighbours from Hell (1997) was the prime example.

Leaving Central, James ran Siguy then worked at Firecracker Films; he was responsible for the BBC series Neighbours at War (1998), fostered the talents of film-makers such as Johanna Schwartz, Sasha Snow and Kathleen Fournier and produced programmes for Discovery and other channels. One of the most challenging was the 10-part Rebuilding the Past (2003), recording the building of a Roman villa in Britain for the first time in 1,600 years.

James's new generation of directors featured an 11-year-old in The World's Strongest Boy (2004), women who had formed relationships with violent criminals in prison in Four Weddings and an Execution (2005), men who fantasised about strong women in Attack of the Giant Women (2005) and a 12-year-old Indian boy revered as a doctor and guru in The Seven Year Old Surgeon (2006).

In 2002 James experienced a sudden paralysis of the legs caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome but made a remarkably quick recovery. However, six years later he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, which eventually spread.

Despite illness he continued to encourage new talent by teaching at the National Film School. He was named in the United Nations Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour and was a founding member of both TVE (Television Trust for the Environment) and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, serving as its chair between 1997 and 2000. James's brother, Keith, was a film editor on Central's regional news programmes.

Roger Derek James, television producer, editor and executive: born London 13 June 1944; married 1973 Johanna O'Connor (one daughter); died London 25 January 2015

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