Obituary: Gerald Savory

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The Independent Online
One of the great impresarios of television, and certainly one of the wittiest and most self-deprecating, Gerald Savory was curiously undervalued in his time. Amongst other achievements, his first stage play, written at the age of 27, ran for two years; he worked for Alfred Hitchcock and was taken by him to Hollywood; he gave Grace Kelly her first job in Chicago; directed live television in New York; adapted classics for television and spent eight years at BBC television as a drama executive at a boom time in the 1960s and 1970s.

His first and second jobs were as stockbroker's clerk and private tutor, but in 1931 he started acting, against the wishes of his mother, Grace Lane, who was herself an actress. The first play he wrote, George and Margaret, ran 799 performances in the West End and was filmed in 1940, by which time Savory had become an American citizen, rewriting other people's scripts in California.

He was unceremoniously fired from MGM after he refused to work on Ninotchka because he couldn't stand "the Swedish cow", as he referred to Greta Garbo. After directing summer stock in Chicago, he was introduced by Grace Kelly's father to directing television in New York, including The Robert Montgomery Hour. He told me how when he directed Lon Chaney Jnr on television, Chaney had mistaken the transmission for a dress rehearsal with hilarious results.

I met him at Granada in 1964 where he was on a regular writer / producer contract, adapting Saki, J.B. Priestley, Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams with great elegance, producing Giles Cooper, Philip Mackie and many others. He had been persuaded to join the company, as had many at the time, as a result of his experience in American television. Silver-haired, softly spoken and urbane, Giles Savory was considerate even to lowly beings, as opposed to the macho, shouting, drunken style of many Granada producers of the day.

He left Granada in 1965 to go to BBC Television as Head of Serials. By 1969 he was Head of Plays and, to my enormous surprise, asked me to produce for BBC2. It didn't matter to him that I'd never been near a television play before, so I accepted. The first job was a 1970 series entitled The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 540 minutes and BBC2's first in colour.

He kept the lightest of hands on the tiller, but the Seventies were a boom time for him. From his department came Cathy Come Home; Edna, The Inebriate Woman; In Two Minds (Mercer); Mad Jack; The Lie (Bergman); and Cider With Rosie. Henry VIII was a hit and for a while he refused to consider the obvious sequel. "The best sequel," he decided, "is no sequel." Eventually he relented. "I can be as small-minded as the next man," he said, and Elizabeth R followed. Then came Dennis Potter's Casanova in 1971, which he agreed to in a matter of minutes, though it was a risky project even for the Seventies. He wrote me a rare memo to protect himself. "You assured me," went one paragraph, "that the naked nun in Episode 5 would be shot with circumspection".

You might meet Vincent Price or Louis Jourdan at the parties he and his delightful wife Sheila would give in their Mayfair flat, but there was no doubt of the people he really didn't care for. He had a low tolerance for pretension and a then unfashionable wish to entertain rather than improve his audience. But he let producers get on with what they wanted to do without much interference. Stopping one in the corridor, Gerald asked how the producer's new show had turned out. "Well," said he, "when it's been shortened a bit and has all its effects and music, it'll be fine." "Bad as that, eh?" said Gerald.

Gerald Douglas Savory, playwright and television producer: born 17 November 1909; four times married; died 9 February 1996.