Happy Birthday to the leader with the golden touch

David Rose nurtured a generation of writers and directors; Jeremy Isaacs celebrates his career

Monday 08 November 2004 01:00

Anyone interested in comparing the range and quality of today's television drama with that of a previous age should consider the lifetime's achievement of the benign magus David Rose, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month.

Anyone interested in comparing the range and quality of today's television drama with that of a previous age should consider the lifetime's achievement of the benign magus David Rose, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month.

It is not just what David did that is instructive, but how he did it: no committees of consultants; no focus groups or market-testing. Just an eye for a situation, a nose for a script, and a mind of his own to make the critical judgement.

This shambling grizzly bear of a man, with pince-nez, was a product of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was no dancer, but early in his career he worked behind the scenes at the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, before joining the BBC in 1954.

The A to Z of David Rose's career in television begins with "Z": Z Cars, which he launched. It was the first convincing police series and owed more in its texture to the street and the pub than to West End theatre.

Troy Kennedy-Martin and John Hopkins cut their teeth on Z Cars, John McGrath directed and the powerful cast, including Stratford Johns, Frank Windsor and Brian Blessed, revelled in their parts. The screen came alive; viewers, summoned by the flutes of the Liverpool Philharmonic in Bridget Fry's arrangement of "Johnny Todd", were transfixed. The original recording of one of television's best-remembered theme tunes still rings out today at Goodison Park whenever Everton take the field.

But perhaps David's face did not fit at Television Centre, because he was later banished to a sort of BBC Siberia, as Head of TV Training. It was David Attenborough who came to his rescue, sending him to Pebble Mill, Birmingham, as Head of Drama (English Regions).

In the 10 years that followed he showed what he could do. He found regional talent in David Mercer, John Hoskins, Jack Rosenthal and Henry Livings. In 1972 Peter Terson's The Fishing Party put Pebble Mill on the map. But the range was vast and the style varied; from Willy Russell's Our Day Out, to David Rudkin's Penda's Fen, Alan Bleasdale's The Muscle Market, and Alan Plater's Trinity Tales. Not least among these was David Hare's directorial debut with his own script, Licking Hitler, notable also for Bill Paterson's commanding central performance. BBC drama on film was never better. And there were Gangsters and Empire Road (the first credible black series), and Malcolm Bradbury's acerbic The History Man.

No wonder Attenborough wrote that sending David to Pebble Mill was "one of the best things I have ever done".

In the late autumn of 1980, with The History Man sizzling on the screen, I was looking for someone to take charge of Channel 4's drama output. Due to launch in November 1982, Channel 4 had no studios. Our plan was to encourage independent film-makers by "offering them not only money, but the chance to exhibit their work in the cinema, where it might gain a reputation and an identity, before its television transmission." This notion I had included in my letter of application for the job. Rose, when I put it to him, concurred. Eighteen months later, we staggered together out of the viewing theatre, into the light of Wardour Street and across the road to the Intrepid Fox pub, after seeing the final cut of Neil Jordan's Angel; a major new film-maker had come our way.

If Z Cars was David's "Z" and Angel was his "A", Phil Redmond's Brookside - salty stuff in those days - was "B". It lasted 20 years.

Between 1981 and 1990, Rose and his associates, Karin Bamborough and Walter Donohue, gave the nod to 136 feature-length films, half of which got a cinema release. Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting was an early favourite; Colin Gregg, Maurice Hatton, Stephen Frears ( My Beautiful Laundrette), Michael Radford ( Another Time, Another Place) came on stream. Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies made their distinctive English contributions. The channel invested in Merchant-Ivory's Heat and Dust and A Room with a View, and helped finance international prize-winners, like Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas. These films won substantial audiences, and gave a jolt of life to British film-making. None of it would have happened without Rose.

David is totally without vanity, and never has very much to say. When I would ask him what he looked for in a subject, he would mutter something about "the rough edges of truth". But he always knows what he wants, and is respected by all who worked with him, as simply the best.

If he were starting out today, would he again be given such free rein? I doubt it.

Jeremy Isaacs was founding Chief Executive of Channel 4 (1981-1987)

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