Alastair Reid: Director whose career highlights included 'Traffik' and 'Tales of the City'

Gavin Gaughan
Thursday 22 September 2011 14:12

The television drama output of the Scottish director Alastair Reid displayed a man in full command of his craft. His eye for striking compositions was allied to strong narrative skills, with a preference for shooting on film; his use of camera angles conveyed an inventive and sometimes mischievous spirit. It is to be regretted that his talents did not successfully expand to the cinema screen.

Near the end of one single play, The Silver Mask (LWT, 1973), a character approached the bedroom of a wealthy invalid. Reid's camera concentrated on a hammer in his hand – then revealed him placing the ornament of the title on her bedroom wall. In the first episode of Inspector Morse, "The Dead Of Jericho" (Central, 1987), the Bafta- and Emmy-winning drugs trade drama Traffik (Channel 4, 1989), and the Hitler Diaries forgers' story Selling Hitler (Thames, 1991), his director of photography was Clive Tickner. He recalled: "Alastair was big on tracking, we always took extra rails when working with him as he often worked out a whole scene in one shot, which required some neat moves to 'mop up'. Sometimes he would compose the action to fit into one long-lens shot. A very imaginative man, and a lovely person to work with."

Born in Edinburgh, Reid graduated from that city's College of Art before studying directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. His television directorial debut was a two-year stint on Emergency – Ward 10 (ATV, 1957-67), commencing in 1964. For the industrious producer Stella Richman, then Head of Drama at Rediffusion, he worked on two anthology series, Half-Hour Story (1967-68) and The Gamblers (1967-68), as did his contemporary, Alan Clarke.

Reid's cinema debut was an apparently unlikely one. Baby Love (1967), was a sexploitation film about a Northern Lolita in London. Rather than the expected smutty comedy, Reid gave proceedings a bleak tone and an awareness of the social divide; its sequences of nightmares invite comparison with an earlier venture of its producer, Michael Klinger, Roman Polanski's Repulsion. The Night Digger (1971), written by Roald Dahl and starring his wife Patricia Neal, was sparingly released in America and only seen in Britain years later, on late-night TV. Again for Richman, Reid deployed an opulent look, shooting in Milan and all on film, for Six Faces (BBC, 1972), starring Kenneth More as a businessman planning an Italian venture, observed by different participants in his life.

South Riding (YTV, 1974) had itsperfect adapter in Stan Barstow (who predeceased Reid by two weeks). Reid shared directorial duties with itsproducer, James Ormerod, and it won the Society of Film and Television Arts (later Bafta) award for Best Drama Series. However, it was overlooked in publicity for the BBC's adaptation earlier this year.

The character actor Aubrey Morris cites "Special Duties", (Thames, 1975), in the series Shades of Greene, adaptations of Graham Greene stories, in which Reid cast him alongside Sir John Gielgud, as a career highlight. On home ground, Reid's version of the Jacobite tale The Flight of The Heron (BBC Scotland, 1976) was shown in BBC1's Sunday early-evening slot.

Decades before Life on Mars, Philip Martin deconstructed the 1970s tough British crime drama with Gangsters (BBC, 1976 and 1978). Set in Birmingham, it contained, in the words of David Rose, Pebble Mill Head of Drama, "plenty of hokum", and references to the movie serials of earlier decades in its episodes' endings. Reid proved well suited to Martin's self-reflexiveness. In its home region only, its Pirandellian final episode was followed by Gangsters: Judgement Day, a live discussion in which Reid participated. He confounded viewers' expectations again with Curriculee Curricula (BBC, 1978), an Alan Plater play with interpolated songs that was simulcast on BBC2 and Radio 4. Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (BBC, 1980) was made on video, but Reid did not hold back from Victorian gothic, aided by David Hemmings' committed performance. On film, lasting for three hours, and again for Rose, the futuristic drama Artemis 81 (1981) demonstrated Reid's technical skills.

The television schedules for Christmas Day 1987 included two examples of Reid's work. His second Morse case, "The Wolvercote Tongue" (ITV, 1987) was followed by The Story of a Recluse (1987), based on the three pages ofan unfinished story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It began in black and white, until the writer Alasdair Gray appeared and explained his motivations withthe adaptation, at which point it went into colour; it concerned a student (a young Peter Capaldi) accused of cheating by a gambler (one of Stewart Granger's last roles).

The kaleidoscopic Armistead Maupin adaptation Tales of the City (1993) was another big success for Reid. Despite a mainly American cast, and filming in San Francisco, it was a British production, made for Channel 4 by Working Title. However, when Reid worked for the latter on What Rats Won't Do (1998), it was a rare example of an unsuccessful romantic comedy film from that company.

He succeeded where David Lean had failed by adapting Nostromo (BBC, 1997), albeit for the small screen.

Gavin Gaughan

Alastair Reid, director, producer and screenwriter: born Edinburgh 21 July 1939; married (one son, two stepdaughters); died Stoke St Gregory, Somerset 17 August 2011.

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