Obituary: Julia Smith
Saturday 21 June 1997
Despite its unrelenting doom and gloom, constant friction between the characters and lack of the cockney sense of humour that so many associate with the East End of London, EastEnders has become the BBC's only programme to challenge Coronation Street, its Northern rival, in the battle for viewers. Issues-led, not character-led, the soap has dished out murder, teenage pregnancy, cot death, homosexuality, Aids, drug addiction, racism, abortion and many other unpalatable facts of life.
As its original producer, Smith was dubbed "The Godmother" for the way she ruled the programme with a rod of iron. She left in 1988 and went on to become series producer of the ill-fated Eldorado, created by Holland. In less than 10 years, she experienced both extremes of television success after a career in which she had worked on dozens of popular dramas.
Born in London, she was the daughter of a musician father who taught at the Royal Academy of Music and cousin of the film director and lighting cameraman Chris Menges, who credits her with being an inspiration of his own career. Smith trained at Rada, before learning stage management with repertory companies around the country. After working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was asked to stage manage a play in Paris that the BBC was due to televise. When she arrived, Smith was asked to stage-manage the production for television, too.
She subsequently worked as assistant floor manager on many BBC programmes. Determined to become production manager, but with few opportunities in the Corporation, Smith decided to go back to the theatre, working with the RSC again at Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1963, the BBC asked her to return to the fold as a production manager. She accepted and worked on classic serials such as Pride and Prejudice. Again determined to further her career, Smith took a BBC directors' training course and was soon directing programmes such as Dr Finlay's Casebook, the popular series based on A.J. Cronin's stories, set in Scotland and starring Bill Simpson, Andrew Cruickshank and Barbara Mullen.
She gained her first taste of soap opera as director of Compact, the serial set in a women's magazine office, and The Newcomers, about Londoners settling in East Anglia, which included in its cast Wendy Richard, later to play Pauline Fowler in EastEnders. But the BBC did not take soap opera seriously.
In 1966, moving on to Doctor Who, which was produced on a shoestring budget but had become the backbone of British science-fiction television, Smith was responsible for directing the changeover of Doctors from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, who had played a local schoolmaster in Dr Finlay's Casebook. Doctor Who's first producer, Verity Lambert, teamed up with Smith almost 30 years later on Eldorado.
Other programmes Smith directed during the Sixties included an episode of Jury Room (1965) about the trial of the axe murderer Lizzie Borden and the popular 1968 series The Railway Children. Moving on to Z Cars gave Smith a chance to work on more hard-edged drama. When it started in 1962, Troy Kennedy Martin's creation revolutionised the public's perception of the British police force and destroyed the image of the friendly bobby on the beat created by Dixon of Dock Green. It proved a valuable breeding ground for writers such as John Hopkins, Alan Plater and Allan Prior and, by the time Smith became a director, the programme had switched to a twice- weekly format.
She subsequently directed Angels (1975-83), Paula Milne's serial following the lives of student nurses in a South London hospital. It was originally broadcast in weekly, 50-minute episodes but when, in 1979, it was relaunched with two half-hour episodes each week, Smith became producer. She then brought in Tony Holland, who had not only worked with her on Z Cars but had experience as a nurse in the Army, as storyline editor. The pair subsequently created District Nurse (1984), starring Nerys Hughes as a district nurse in the South Wales villages of the Twenties.
The BBC now asked them to devise a new, twice-weekly drama serial to run every week of the year. In a Shepherd's Bush wine bar, two weeks after the Corporation had bought the old ATV studios at Elstree, in Hertfordshire, they came up with a 300-word idea for a programme set in the East End of London, provisionally titled East 8. Jonathan Powell, the BBC's head of series and serials, accepted it and Elstree Studios was earmarked as the new serial's production centre, with an outdoor set of Albert Square and a street market specially built. Smith became series producer and Holland was both script and storyline editor.
EastEnders hit BBC1 screens for the first time at 7pm on 19 February 1985 with the words of the Queen Vic landlord Den Watts: "Stinks in here." "Dirty" Den, Arthur Fowler and Ali Osman were seen breaking down the door of Reg Cox's flat, where they found the old man slumped in his armchair, dead.
That first scene set the tone for what was to come. In 1988, the year she left EastEnders, Smith was presented with Bafta's Desmond Davis Award for outstanding contribution to popular drama. Six years later, her creation increased its output to three weekly episodes.
Smith and Holland teamed up again in 1991 to create a series for Swedish television about a private detective called Snoken ("Snoop"), which is still running, with Holland writing the storylines. Then, Holland was asked to come up with an idea for another BBC serial. The result was Eldorado, which he and Smith, as series producer, saw as a soap about British expatriates on a Spanish island, although it was changed to embrace a multinational community in southern Spain, where the programme was made entirely on location in a 25-acre production village specially built in the mountains above Malaga at a cost of pounds 1.5m. Smith explained her vision for Eldorado: "A soap about people learning to be real Europeans and watched by all Europe - that is my dream. Which could all go wrong."
Dubbed as a mix of "sun, sand, sangria and sex", Eldorado was launched in July 1992. Exactly a year later, it was over, with constantly dwindling audiences for its three weekly episodes. Smith had left after just a few months, complaining of exhaustion, following friction between those in charge about the direction of the serial.
She was not to work in television again but enjoyed travelling around giving lectures about television drama and production. Eldorado was an unfitting end to the career of a television producer and director who did much to push popular drama beyond the safe and conventional.
Julia Smith, television producer and director: born London June 1927; married David Geary (marriage dissolved); died London 19 June 1997.
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