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Obituary: Tom Clarke

Richard Eyre
Monday 18 January 1993 01:02 GMT

Tom Clarke, screenwriter and playwright, born 7 November 1918, married 1945 BD Gordon (one son, three daughters), 1953 JI Hampton (two sons), 1960 Ann Wiltshire (one daughter), died London 15 January 1993.

A GOLDEN Roman chariot enters a television studio drawn by two white horses, driven by a large, bald man with a high forehead, a nose that suits his vehicle, and a manner that is a mixture of self-aggrandisement and self- mockery. 'The name's Tom Clarke,' he bellows to the camera, 'and I'm a writer]'

This was the beginning of what was to have been an autobiographical series whose protagonist appeared to have lived several lives; like much of Clarke's work the project remained unfinished. In a sense the same was true of his life, and was part of his charm: he was always beginning something. He appeared to plan his life haphazardly, but actually he was directed by a succession of enthusiams, of crazes or passions, that accrued like the layers of clay on a maquette, each addition bringing him, at least in theory, nearer to the form he was seeking.

Clarke had an American father, went to a prep school in Dorset, to public school at Tonbridge, left school early to be an electrical apprentice, became a call boy in a variety theatre, and, briefly, an actor in the West End. His anecdotes were alluring and inventive, but I don't think I'm imagining (or that he was) that he once had one line in a scene with Alec Guinness.

Clarke's War was a 'good' War - a satisying amalgam of high comedy and high adventure. He claimed to have spent much of it sitting in a deck-chair in the desert reading a book and suffering from dysentery while shells fell all around him, but more of his time was spent in an aircraft spotting for bombers, and on one occasion being shot down. He was not seriously injured, and paradoxically, given his natural allergy to any form of authority, he became a captain in the Royal Artillery.

After the War he studied law, and was called to the Bar in 1951. He became impatient with the legal world, and left for Brazil, where he worked as a film editor, and documentary director. When he returned to London, he started to write for television.

In the late Fifties television drama was in a state of innocence, uncorroded by habit, cynicism or opportunism. Clarke became a member of the Langham Group, a collection of writers and directors (including James McTaggart and Troy Kennedy Martin) who were keen to develop the singular propeties of the new medium, to divorce it from its theatrical origins, and to use it as expressively, imaginatively, and entertainingly as possible.

The Langham Group lasted only a few months but Clarke's belief in the power of television drama never diminished. He frequently described the BBC as a cross between the Church and the Post Office, but he never lost his optimism that television drama could regain the buoyancy of its youth, and his belief in the BBC's duty to nurture Utopian projects. In the last months of his life he was corresponding combatively with John Birt about the BBC's Drama output. 'The three main problems', he wrote, 'are a rigid and restrictive policy, the misuse of mangagement, and failure to explore ways of reducing costs.' His lifelong view of the BBC's bureaucracy was triumphantly vindicated, when, after a meeting with the Director-General and more correspondence, he received a letter from an apparatchik which began: 'I am sorry that you feel our television drama is disappointing . . .' To which he replied: 'Let me say that 'your' television drama is also mine, as a glance at my entry in Who's Who will confirm.'

A glance at his CV will tell you that his work included Mad Jack (1971), Billion Dollar Bubble (1975), Muck and Brass (1982), Past Caring (1986) and many other televison plays and series over three decades; it will not tell you that his work was among the best that has ever been seen on television in Britain, and that to anyone who cares about the future of televison drama, his work, and his spirit, should be an inspiration; and it will not tell you that he could be the best company that anyone could hope for.

His work was characterised by an idiosyncratic choice of subject matter - Siegfried Sassoon, computer fraud, a strike in a tin-mine, civic corruption, geriatric sex - and an equally idiosyncratic cast of mind that never accepted any received view of institutions or of individuals. He was satirical, witty, anarchic, subversive and humane. He was often generous to his peers, but just as often eloquently and energetically dismissive. He could be irascible, opinionated, self-contradictory and exasperating: 'You can depend on me', he said to me once, 'to be undependable.' But for all his gruffness, his scathing indictment of the bogus, the pretentious, the pompous, and the powerful, he was not a cynic, and he was not a pessimist. Clarke was a realist, but a romantic one.

There's a speech he wrote in one of his scripts for a rather faded good-time girl:

I mean, say you go round thinking things are getting better, like people do. And say it looks as though things are getting better. Then, when you think they have got better you turn round and . . . well, it seems like they haven't after all.

That's Tom's voice, and I miss it now; for all his illnesses of the last years, he was forever young.

(Photograph omitted)

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