David Butler

Writer of TV historical dramas

Thursday 08 June 2006 00:00

David Dalrymple Butler, writer and actor: born Larkhall, Lanarkshire 12 November 1927; married 1959 Norma Ronald (marriage dissolved 1966), 1969 Mary McPhail (two daughters); died London 27 May 2006.

Before Andrew Davies put upfront raunchiness into period drama, David Butler found his own way of portraying colourful characters during the first decade of colour television in Britain, scripting some of the small screen's most popular historical series.

With Edward the Seventh (1975), starring Timothy West as Queen Victoria's son and heir, he helped to create television's first royal soap opera. Based on the biography by Philip Magnus, it was a visually stunning, £2m production that won Annette Crosbie a Bafta Best Actress award for her portrayal of Victoria and attracted up to 20 million viewers.

The present Queen even approved the scripts - the writing was shared between Butler and the drama's director, John Gorrie - and allowed filming to take place at Sandringham, Osborne House and St George's Chapel, Windsor. It was, in the words of its executive producer, Cecil Clarke, "a programme the public would want to see week after week and not simply a 13-part history lesson", although Butler had a reputation for ensuring accuracy.

Francesca Annis, who played the society actress and king-in-waiting's first acknowledged mistress, Lillie Langtry, in the programme, went on to take the same role when Butler and Gorrie wrote Lillie (1978), based on James Brough's novel The Prince and the Lily, with Denis Lill this time as the Prince of Wales. It was another popular success, with colourful costumes and settings, and the challenge of making Annis appear to age from 16 to 70. "People remain absolutely fascinated by anything connected with royalty," said Butler:

One of the most remarkable events the series produced was a public acknowledgement by Earl Mountbatten about his father's relationship with Lillie [Prince Louis of Battenberg, Mountbatten's father and Edward's nephew, was revealed to be the father of Lillie's daughter Jean Marie]. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, royals never acknowledged anything, but we wanted to make everything as accurate as possible in Lillie and we got permission to use this part of the story.

Born in Lanarkshire, in 1927, the son of teachers, David Butler studied English at St Andrews University but left without a degree after immersing himself in acting with the university drama society. He then trained at Rada, before appearing in West End revues and playing a young prison officer in a 1956 Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop production of the Brendan Behan play The Quare Fellow.

Butler's face became well known on television as Dr Nick Williams, an anaesthetist, in ITV's first twice-weekly serial, Emergency - Ward 10 (1960-62), which was also Britain's first medical soap, set in the fictitious Oxbridge General Hospital. He seized the chance to write episodes of the programme (1963-64) and subsequently contributed scripts to the children's adventure series Orlando (1965-68) and The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74), as well as the police dramas Special Branch (1969-74) and Van Der Valk (1972-73)

After acting in episodes of Softly, Softly (1968), Sherlock Holmes (1968), Paul Temple (1971) and The Regiment (1972), and playing Christopher Mont in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Butler devoted most of his time to writing historical dramas.

First was The Strauss Family (1972), about the 19th-century composers, with music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1978 came his four-part mini-series Disraeli, starring Ian McShane as the flamboyant Tory prime minister, another success in the United States. Butler also contributed to the popular Edwardian period drama The Duchess of Duke Street (1976-77). His last notable solo success, Lord Mountbatten: the last Viceroy (1985), won him an Emmy award, at a time when the last days of the Raj became popular on screen.

Butler's Within These Walls (1973-78) originally starred Googie Withers as governor of the fictitious women's prison Stone Park, with Butler himself playing the prison chaplain, the Rev Henry Prentice, in some episodes. He also created the wartime drama series We'll Meet Again (1982) and wrote The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist (1980), The Scarlet and the Black (1983, another Second World War drama) and Blood Royal: William the Conqueror (1990).

Although his excursions into cinema were rare, Butler was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of Voyage of the Damned (1976), the true story of Jews leaving Nazi Germany on a ship bound for Havana - with Max von Sydow as the captain - but denied permission to land anywhere. Butler also adapted Alistair MacLean's thriller Bear Island into a 1979 film.

Anthony Hayward

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