Alan Plater: Prolific screenwriter who scripted 'Z Cars' and adapted 'A Very British Coup'

Anthony Hayward
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:04

From his early scripts for the groundbreaking police series Z Cars to an adaptation of Chris Mullin's political novel A Very British Coup and his own comedy-drama creations such as his Beiderbecke Trilogy, Alan Plater was a prolific writer who brought to television a dry humour and the authentic conversation of ordinary people

"I discovered what, as a native Geordie, I should have known all along – that in everyday speech there is a richness and music that makes the voice the most powerful and sensitive instrument for human emotion, and that this exists as a tool for the dramatist at its most useful when the voice speaks with a local accent or dialect," Plater once said.

He joined Z Cars a year after the programme, set in Liverpool, thundered on to British television screens as an antidote to the homely Dixon of Dock Green. He contributed 18 scripts between 1963 and 1965, one particularly memorable for Det Sgt Watt (Frank Windsor) and PC Graham (Colin Welland) working a late shift that saw absolutely no criminal activity.

Plater also wrote for the Z Cars spin-off Softly Softly: Task Force (1966-71), set in the West Country, but he was at his best in bringing a Northern feel to television programmes. For his musical play Close the Coalhouse Door ("The Wednesday Play", 1969), which was originally written for the stage, he teamed up with the songwriter Alex Glasgow to tell a story about a Durham mining community.

Later came Land of Green Ginger ("Play for Today", 1973), a witty, poetic account of a woman's return to her hometown of Hull. The emotion of a visit to her bulldozed former home as she faced the dilemma of whether to stay was heightened by the folk music of the Watersons.

Music was also an ingredient of the jazz-loving Plater's Beiderbecke Trilogy (1985-88), three serials in which Frank Ricotti's tunes in the style of the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke provided a counterpoint to the humdrum tales of adventures undertaken by two teachers-turned sleuths, played by James Bolam and Barbara Flynn.

The writer's bulging CV was proof that Plater was loathe to turn down any offers of work. He contributed scripts to popular series such as the sitcom Oh No It's Selwyn Froggitt (1976-77) and crime dramas including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984), Miss Marple (1985), Inspector Wexford (1997 and Lewis (2007-10).

Then, there were adaptations such as The Stars Look Down (1974), adapted from AJ Cronin's novel about early-20th-century industrial unrest in the North-east, The Barchester Chronicles (1982), from Anthony Trollope's 19th-century stories about ecclesiastical characters displaying comic human failings) and the Bafta Award-winning A Very British Coup (1988), based on the MP Chris Mullin's book and starring Ray McAnally as a Labour Prime Minister under siege as he tries to run an open government and remove American bases from British soil.

"The phone rings, somebody asks me to do something, and I say yes," Plater told The Independent in 2004. "I never really meant to do anything. I've never had any sense of career. I've just gone from one gig to the next. You don't get better at writing by not doing it. And it's still a compulsion for me."

Born in 1935 in Depression-hit Jarrow-on-Tyne, where generations of his family had worked in the shipyards, Plater was three when his parents moved to Hull following their closure. His father then became the chain inspector at a blacksmith's shop that tested lifting gear from the docks.

Plater attended Kingston High School, Hull, where he enjoyed the friendship of Tom Courtenay. He then studied architecture at King's College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University), but was kicked off the course and took a job in an architect's office, as well as writing book reviews for the Yorkshire Post, until he was able to fulfil his ambition to write full-time. He was influenced by his childhood reading of books by the witty American author James Thurber and by Joan Littlewood, whose Theatre Workshop was an outlet for working-class and left-of-centre voices.

Plater's first television play was The Referees (1961), written for BBC North and telling the surreal story of a man getting a job in an unidentified "strange town", then realising he had no references to supply. This was followed by A Smashing Day (1962), starring Alfred Lynch and John Thaw, and described by one critic as "the voice of Coronation Street with the spirit of Chekhov".

Throughout the 1960s, Plater's work regularly appeared on both the BBC and ITV. During the following decade, when he was even more prolific, he wrote the six-part Trinity Tales (1975), an updating of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales featuring rugby league supporters travelling to Wembley for a cup final. Fortunes of War (1987) was Plater's seven-part adaptation of Olivia Manning's Balkan novels set in the Second World War, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

Music was a central ingredient again in Misterioso (1991), which took its name from a Thelonius Monk jazz album and told the story of a woman's hunt for her real father, and The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000), featuring Judi Dench as a saxophonist resurrecting an all-female Second World War band).

Plater's stage plays included the Northern parody The Fosdyke Saga, written with the cartoonist Bill Tidy and recreated for television in 1977. Confessions of a City Supporter (2004), first performed by the Hull Truck Theatre Company and updated last year, told of Plater's lifelong support for Hull City football club.

The writer's film scripts were few, but they included an adaptation of DH Lawrence's novel The Virgin and the Gypsy ( 1970), It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1975), based on James Herriot's books, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997), from the George Orwell story.

In 2005, Plater won Bafta's Dennis Potter Award. Two years later, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, of which he was co-chair (1986-87) and president (1991-95). He received honorary degrees from the universities of Hull, Newcastle and Northumbria, as well as the Open University.

Plater's last television work, the period drama Joe Maddison's War, starring Robson Green and Kevin Whately, and set in Newcastle, is yet to be screened.

Alan Frederick Plater, writer: born Jarrow-on-Tyne 15 April 1935; CBE 2005, FRSL 1985; married 1958 Shirley Johnston (marriage dissolved 1985; two sons, one daughter), 1986 Shirley Rubinstein; died London 25 June 2010.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments