Obituary: Cedric Messina
Monday 17 May 1993
CEDRIC MESSINA's great qualities both as a television producer and as a person were his joy of living and his creative enthusiasm, allied to a wonderful capacity for getting things done - it was entirely due to Messina that the BBC undertook the vast task of televising all of Shakespeare's plays in the 1970s.
Messina's ability to galvanise into action the sometimes slow-moving decision-making apparatus of the BBC, left me, as a director who worked with him over a considerable period of time, breathless with admiration. I well remember a lunch I had with Messina - indeed many memories of him are linked to wonderful food and even better drink - at which I happened to mention that I could not understand why there had never been a dramatised life of Gracie Fields. He picked up the idea at once, stormed the sixth floor and within two weeks he had plucked me out of rehearsals of Henry V, which I was directing for him at the time, and we were on our way to meet Gracie on Capri.
Our flight to Milan was delayed and it was imperative we catch the connecting plane to Naples that evening. Messina managed to get the pilot to radio ahead that we were on our way and to have the plane to Naples held up until we arrived breathless after a last-minute dash across the tarmac - he was the sort of person who got planes to wait for him. On the boat trip from Naples to Capri, I remember him repeating 'Signor Alvaropici' over and over to himself like an incantation; he knew that Boris (Gracie's husband) hated to be thought of as Mr Fields.
During our 24-hour stay on the island Messina charmed Gracie into not only giving her consent to a dramatisation of her life story but also to agreeing to introduce the programme herself. As we left she sang 'Volare' in farewell to us across the gardens of Canzone del Mare. We returned to London in triumph but sadly Gracie died six weeks later, there was a musicians' strike and the venture foundered.
Messina joined the BBC in 1947 as a newsreader and radio drama producer, and in 1963 transferred to BBC Television to direct Dr Finlay's Casebook. He was then put in charge of the BBC's prestigious Play of the Month. In the mid-Sixties Messina was known not only as a producer of classic drama, but as a successful producer of studio opera - his production of Rigoletto had an audience of 4 million.
It was the success of his 1972 production of the Merchant of Venice that prompted Messina to come up with the idea of televising all of Shakespeare's plays. He was given by the go-ahead, put in charge of raising money from the United States and ended up producing a third of the plays himself. Messina's interest in Shakespeare later redirected itself into his energetic campaign to rebuild the Globe Theatre.
Messina had a wonderful talent for friendship but was not afraid of making enemies. When his production of Ian Curteis's controversial Falklands play was cancelled by the BBC because it presented Margaret Thatcher as a heroine, he fiercely championed both author and play, discounting all personal consequences. He could not have been an easy man to live with, but his marriage to Ruth was an intensely happy one and his pride in their daughter, Oriane, shone through his every mention of her.
One of his most endearing aspects was his love of entertaining his friends to wonderful talk and delicious food. The range of guests was always fascinating and you could find youself sitting next to Penelope Keith at dinner, chatting to visiting American luminaries, or swapping recipes with Delia Smith. He was always intensely proud of being largely self-educated and was a voracious reader.
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