Obituary: John Hopkins

Anthony Hayward
Friday 31 July 1998 23:02

WHEN Z Cars began in 1962, it brought to television screens a "socio-realism" that was already being seen in the stage plays of writers such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney, by portraying the police in a grittier, down-to-earth style than had previously been evident in the more homely environment of Dixon of Dock Green.

The series, which captured the public's imagination and ran until 1978, started in the same year as other notable programmes such as That Was the Week That Was and Steptoe and Son, and proved a launching pad for John Hopkins, as well as other great writers, including Allan Prior and Alan Plater. It also made household names of the actors Stratford Johns, Frank Windsor, James Ellis, Colin Welland, Joseph Brady and Brian Blessed, while Ken Loach and John McGrath gained early directing experience on the programme.

Created by Troy Kennedy Martin and set in the fictional Newtown, based on Liverpool, Z Cars was in the Sixties and Seventies a "warts and all" forerunner of The Bill, which has survived almost as long. Hopkins wrote 53 scripts for Z Cars, including one of the most watched episodes, "Centre of Disturbance" (1964), a shocking story about an afternoon shooting in a shopping centre. It was the Sixties equivalent of plane crashes in Emmerdale and Casualty, and sieges in Brookside.

Other memorable Hopkins- written episodes included "A Place of Safety", which tackled racism in a non-patronising way when the Newtown police were confronted by a black man attacking a white man with an axe. Hopkins insisted that one of Z Cars' greatest achievements was taking "the crime story out of the safe vacuum of unreality and setting it where an action causes reaction and, as the circle widens out from the initial explosion, has its consequences".

Born in south-west London in 1931, Hopkins had worked in television production after graduating in English from St Catharine's College, Cambridge. One of his first opportunities to write came with an adaptation of Nigel Balchin's novel The Small Back Room, screened in the BBC's "Sunday-Night Theatre" slot in 1959 (Hopkins's first wife, Prudence Balchin, was the novelist's daughter). He also adapted Margery Allingham's novels about the private detective Albert Campion into two six-part serials, Dancers in Mourning (1959) and Death of a Ghost (1960), as well as a series of Rosamund Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets (1961). He wrote his own thriller series, A Chance of Thunder, in 1961.

With the launch of Z Cars the following year, Hopkins - who started on the series as script editor - found himself at home writing original screenplays for television and discovered that it was at the time a perfect medium for exploring human emotions and relationships.

However, he returned to adaptations to turn Edmund Crispin's novel The Moving Toyshop into the first story in the "Detective" series (1964), before penning his single plays Fable (1965), a controversial parody that the BBC postponed in case it influenced a by-election, and Horror of Darkness (1966).

Then came his acclaimed quartet of original plays that made up Talking to a Stranger (1966) in BBC2's "Theatre 625" slot. Each play, featuring Maurice Denham and Margery Mason as husband and wife, and Judi Dench and Michael Bryant as their grown-up children, was a complete story in itself but told the tale of a family in crisis from the viewpoint of each member. Hopkins received great acclaim for Talking to a Stranger, which won him the top writer's award from the British Directors' Guild.

As well as making a foray into the cinema by co-scripting the screenplay for the James Bond film Thunderball (1965), he wrote his first stage play, This Story of Yours, in 1968, but its tale of a burned-out police sergeant murdering a suspect arrested for the rape of a child drew poor reviews when it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre. However, Hopkins later revived it as the feature film The Offence (1973), starring Sean Connery as the policeman and Ian Bannen as the suspect. By then, the cinema had given the writer an enduring success with the comedy-drama The Virgin Soldiers (1969), based on Leslie Thomas's sharply observed novel about the adventures of British army recruits in Singapore in 1960.

Hopkins's other stage plays included Find Your Way Home (Open Space Theatre, 1970) and Next of Kin (National Theatre, 1974), but the theatre never proved to be the natural outlet for his work.

By the early Seventies, Hopkins's most significant contributions to British television were almost finished, although he adapted Dostoevsky's The Gambler for the small screen, starring Edith Evans and Philip Madoc, and was writer of the two-part ITV play Divorce His; Divorce Hers (1973), the story of a marriage under stress, which will be remembered best as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's first television performance together.

A decade later, Hopkins made a small-screen comeback by co-scripting with John le Carre the award-winning series Smiley's People (1982), based on le Carre's sequel to his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

By then, following his wedding to the actress Shirley Knight, Hopkins had moved to America and the pair scripted some plays together. He also wrote the screenplay for the film Murder by Decree (1979), with Christopher Plummer and James Mason playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson on the trail of Jack the Ripper, and many American television films and mini-series.

The first of two final notable contributions to television came with Hopkins's adaptation of the novelist John Trenhaile's Cold War espionage thriller Codename Kyril into a mini-series (1988) starring Edward Woodward, Ian Charleson, Denholm Elliott and Richard E. Grant, telling the tale of a Russian agent pretending to defect to Britain in an attempt to flush out a KGB traitor in the Kremlin.

Then, in 1995, Hopkins co- scripted the award-winning television film Hiroshima, a shocking, 50th- anniversary account of the dropping of the first atom bomb, on Japan at the end of the Second World War, with a cast that included Timothy West as Winston Churchill.

Anthony Hayward

John Richard Hopkins, writer: born London 27 January 1931; married first Prudence Balchin (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), second Shirley Knight (one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Los Angeles 23 July 1998.

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