Obituary: Colin Morris

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The Independent Online
Everybody knows the phrase "Whitehall farce". It is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and has been used in parliamentary debates, but few outside show business can name the author of Reluctant Heroes, the first of the Whitehall farces that launched the career of Brian Rix and ran for nearly four years at the Whitehall Theatre. Colin Morris not only wrote the play, but acted in the West End production and 1951 film, yet he should also be remembered as a television pioneer in the development of dramatised documentary.

Morris was born in Liverpool in 1916 to theatrical parents, Thomas Morris and his wife Kitty (nee Wicksteed). His father gave up the stage to sell tea but his mother wrote plays (sometimes with her only son) and her brother was a Shakespearean actor at Stratford. Both Wicksteeds were a strong influence on Colin's early life; they hoped he would carry on the Shakespearean connection, but he wanted to write. His first literary earnings, at the age of 10, derived from selling three copies of his own magazine, the Shark - all to his family. After leaving grammar school at 16 (his family were now living in Wallasey), he tried to find employment on his local paper but was turned down.

He went instead into the theatre, joining Frank Benson's company as a call boy (an occupation now made redundant by a modern backstage call system). He progressed to his first "walk-on", the Third Player in Hamlet, then to Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night in New Brighton. During rehearsals he wrote a mystery play, Spinners Wood, which obtained 10 curtain calls when it was produced in Hull. The local press said: "We are watching the budding efforts of a future playwright."

It was on a school visit to the Little Theatre in Hull that Brian Rix saw him across the footlights in a Shakespearean play. (The scenery collapsed around him.) After Morris wrote another play, The Ungrateful Heart, his connections with the theatre were severed by the Second World War and he was relieved to leave acting behind. A major in the Tank Corps, he crossed the North African Desert with a pistol and typewriter. He was a reporter for the 8th Army paper, describing himself as "the most shot at soldier in the British army".

His companion and subsequent friend was Edward Ardizzone, then an official war artist. It was in the desert that he encountered a lorry driver, later killed, who was the model for Gregory, the gormless Lancashire lad played by Brian Rix in Reluctant Heroes.

As the 8th Army progressed through Italy Morris acted as an entertainments officer in Ensa. While enjoying a solitary view of an open-air theatre in Italy, he heard a noise behind him, and, armed only with a pistol, accepted the surrender of 142 enemy soldiers. He rounded them up, then gave them tea. While in Milan he engaged Viera Huehn, a Yugoslav singer trying to earn her living as an entertainer singing to her guitar. Morris gave her a job touring the convalescent camps and returned to England, keeping up a correspondence. A year later he married her in Milan. He brought her back to London, where she scored an instant success in cabaret, at Quaglino's and the Savoy, while he returned to writing plays.

Before Morris married, Henry Sherek produced his Desert Rats, billed as "A Play of Adventure", on 26 April 1945 at the Adelphi Theatre, and including in the cast Richard Greene, later television's Robin Hood, Bill Owen (then Rowbotham), later of Last of the Summer Wine, and Larry Noble. Another play, Reluctant Heroes, was submitted to numerous managements before arriving in Bridlington, where Brian Rix was looking for plays for his production company.

Rix read Reluctant Heroes thinking it would be like Desert Rats, but apart from sharing the Army as a subject the two plays had nothing in common. He thought it hilarious, acquired the rights, and Reluctant Heroes opened at the White Rock Pavilion, Hastings, on 27 March 1950, with Rix, Elspet Gray and Larry Noble in the cast.

Morris himself returned to acting to take the role of Captain Percy. The play toured until 12 September 1950, when it reached the West End at the Whitehall Theatre, playing for 1,610 performances. After 14 first- night curtain calls, Morris thanked everyone for enjoying his "elongated music-hall sketch of army life". Everyone had served or had some friend or relation who had served in the recent war. It was good family entertainment and a film of the production retaining some of the original cast was made at Riverside Studios in 1951.

Following the financial success of Reluctant Heroes, Morris decided he wanted to do something for other people. During the run of the play he had trained as a marriage guidance counsellor. He had admired the BBC documentaries of Duncan Ross, who wrote about lorry drivers on the Great North Road and aged seamen who had sailed on Greenland whalers (the latter documentary directed by Gil Calder). In 1954 he undertook a BBC training course, together with David Attenborough and Huw Wheldon, who became a friend and an influence on him.

He then met Gil Calder, who had been working in television since 1948. Three days on Beachy Head together observing the everyday life of a lighthouse-keeper for the programme Sunk Rock founded a personal friendship, and a close professional team. Morris provided the script, based on his sympathetic observation of people and ability to write dialogue, while Calder's background in theatre and television production tailored it for the small screen. Their second show, The Unloved, was produced on 7 June 1955 with Rupert Davies (later famous as the detective Maigret) and Melvyn Hayes (later in It Ain't Half Hot Mum) as the headmaster and delinquent boy in a special school.

This won two awards and was subsequently published in The Television Playwright, plays selected by Michael Barry, in 1960. Donald Wilson noted in an introduction: "That television's insistence on `reality and immediacy' is satisfied fully by this genre [dramatised documentary] when handled with the skill of a Colin Morris is proved beyond doubt by its standing with the Critics and by popular acclaim."

Dramatised documentary was not new. It had its roots in scripts by Michael Barry and Robert Barr in Alexandra Palace productions of I Want To Be an Actor and I Want To Be a Doctor. Duncan Ross and Caryl Doncaster had also been associated with the genre, but the Morris/Calder team had bigger studios and better technical resources in Lime Grove.

Social problems were not discussed so openly then. There had been studio interviews but they were stilted and formal. Morris wrote about the problems of unmarried mothers, alcoholism, strikes, loneliness and, after the Wolfenden Report of 1957, prostitution - a hitherto taboo subject on the BBC. (The Wolfenden Report covered homosexuality as well as prostitution, but the BBC was not yet ready for that.)

A programme on declining membership in the Church of England was the cause of what would be ongoing confusion for Morris with another Colin Morris, the Rev Colin Morris, then a missionary in Africa and later with BBC Religious Programmes.

During the run of Reluctant Heroes the wives of both Colin Morris and Brian Rix entered Westminster Hospital on 1 December 1951. Julian Morris arrived safely, but two days later Shelley was born with Down's syndrome. Brian Rix has told the story of hearing the news in his dressing-room: Morris filled him up with alcohol and was "a lovely shoulder to cry on". This human tragedy was later to inspire a television script, With Love and Tears, but the BBC failed to find a place for it in the schedules.

Morris was given six months' leave to travel and he wrote Chasing the Dragon, about drug smuggling in Hong Kong. He had always been interested in police work and in the late 1950s he obtained permission to work with Liverpool police. He was present when Detective Sergeant Bill Prendergast interviewed three petty criminals suspected of robbery and the result was Who Me?, a programme subsequently used as a training film by the police.

Bill Prendergast, to become another close friend, had a fund of cases, four of which were dramatised and transmitted as a series called Jacks and Knaves, which won the 1961 Screenwriters' Guild Award for the best work in British dramatic television series and serials. This image of the police (different from Dixon of Dock Green) proved popular and the BBC asked for a weekly series. Troy Kennedy Martin, a young writer, went to Liverpool with Elwyn Jones, a BBC official, to consider it as a location. The result was Z-Cars. The series ran from 1960 to 1978, over 667 episodes; Morris later returned to it as producer.

As the Sixties progressed stock-piling for a second channel (which opened in April 1964) began and a request was made for a trilogy, three plays with some common theme. Morris used Woman in Crisis to cover With Love and Tears, the dormant script about mentally retarded children (he was aided in his research by the Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, the charity, later Mencap, with which Brian, now Lord, Rix has been long associated); another concerned the problems an elderly relative brings to a family; and the third, Husband and Wife, was about a professional woman who gives up her job and feels restricted by domesticity. Wendy Craig and John Ronane were the young couple.

Television in the Sixties differed from 1954 when Morris and Calder started their partnership. BBC 2 began. Commercial television had started in 1955 and was a competitor for material. Morris wrote The Reluctant Bandit, a serial based on his wartime experience in Italy, and then set up a new twice-weekly serial. He was told to investigate new towns. He found this dull and wanted to write about a seaport with defecting Russian sailors and punch-ups in the pubs. This proved too expensive. Instead he wrote the opening episodes of The Newcomers, set in an expanding town in East Anglia. It has been described as "the first soap", a debatable point, but it certainly appealed to a wide audience and made Wendy Richards a television personality as the young mother.

Less successful was The Doctors, about a GP practice. He also set up King of the River, based on Bob Roberts (played by Bernard Lee), who sailed one of the last Thames barges.

In 1968, Morris began to think of himself as an interviewer rather than a writer. This resulted in two series of People In Conflict, interviews to camera with people about their problems. Many thought this was an invasion of privacy but the interviewees were all volunteers and like Morris believed it would help other people in similar situations.

In the early Seventies, Morris wrote a play, Walk With Destiny (The Gathering Storm in the United States), based on Winston Churchill's life in the Thirties, with Richard Burton in the lead and Virginia McKenna as Lady Churchill. This was not top of the ratings in the UK but received the 1974 Edward L. Bernays Award in the US.

After retiring from the BBC in 1976, Morris worked part-time as an unqualified social worker, also appearing on Yorkshire Television as an interviewer in two series of Heart to Heart, a similar programme to People in Conflict. His work now was largely for Yorkshire Television, where his last series, Woman of Today, was recorded in 1988. This series was notable for the first televised interview with Alison Hargreaves, the woman mountaineer who died on Everest last year. He did write plays again during his retirement from BBC, but failed to find a producer.

Always looking forward instead of back, Colin Morris cheerfully settled down to work in his garden and edit the magazine of his local residents' association in Highgate, north London.

Colin Morris, actor, playwright, television documentary writer: born Liverpool 4 February 1916; married Viera Huehn (one son, one daughter); died London 31 May 1996.