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Preston, Trevor


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Trevor Preston was brought up in South London, and this has informed much of his writing. By his own admission he was "a bit of a tearaway" when young, and, for a time, he had considered a career as a boxer. Instead, he trained at the Royal College of Art, and this indirectly led to him writing pieces for the arts programme Tempo (ITV, 1961-1968) alongside Jim Goddard and Mike Hodges, who would later collaborate on some of Preston's best known work.

He first made his mark as a writer with adaptations of children's stories such as Professor Branestawm (ITV, 1969), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (ITV, 1967), and later had a big hit with his own creation Ace of Wands (ITV, 1970-1972). This fondly-remembered fantasy show featured Michael Mackenzie as the mysterious Tarot, who fought evil with the help of his young companions. Preston was delighted to see children imitating the sinister character Mr Stabs (Russell Hunter), as it proved that his work was making a real connection with the audience, and he later commented that "working on Ace of Wands was the best time I had in television". Despite this Preston stepped down from scriptwriting duties on the show after the second series, and went on to develop his reputation as a writer with contributions to high-profile ABC/Thames series such as Callan (ITV, 1967-1972) and Public Eye (ITV, 1965-1975). The experience he gained on these and other series was a critical part of his development as a writer, particularly in light of Thames's decision to create Euston Films and usher in a new era of filmed drama.

Euston productions required a rapid turnaround of episodes, and script ideas that could be tailored to the restricted choice of filming locations. Preston had proven skills at writing to a tightly defined brief, and was an early contributor to Special Branch (ITV, 1969-1974) before being allowed a much freer hand when he became a core writer for Euston's blockbuster series The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-1978). Although Preston valued his work on The Sweeney, he increasingly wanted to write more personal projects, and this resulted in a treatment for the revenge drama Out (ITV, 1978) which was promptly commissioned by Verity Lambert a short time before she became Chief Executive of Euston Films. Preston did not want to leave thrillers behind but was "interested in taking conventional formats like the thriller and making them into something more. I think the audience deserves more." This confounded some critics at the time, but Out is now seen as an enduring and influential piece of television drama, and its success led directly to Fox (ITV, 1980) which was an even more ambitious attempt to stretch the serial form. Preston's achievement was rewarded when he went on to win the 1980 BAFTA Writers' Award.

Although Preston still provided occasional scripts for series such as Minder (ITV, 1979-1994) and The Racing Game (ITV, 1979) his elevated status led to some fascinating film projects. One of these, Parker (d. Jim Goddard, 1984), is a strikingly original film that blends familiar Euston settings with an existential storyline partly set in the Black Forest region of Germany. Preston then produced a fantastical variation on working-class life with the snooker hall musical Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (d. Alan Clarke, 1985), but unfortunately he had become prone to fits of depression: "I've been a manic depressive and that's why my career is so patchy. When I'm OK, I write a lot. And when I'm not OK, I don't write." Despite this, Preston continued to write for television, and adapted some of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (ITV, 1987-2000), 'Children Crossing' (Screen Two, BBC, tx.25/03/90), as well as creating The Negotiator (BBC, tx. 31/05/1994) which was controversially denied a series at the eleventh hour.

Over the last 25 years the changing nature of television production and (to a lesser extent) Preston's own barren periods have robbed us of the rich outpouring of original drama that was expected after the successes of Out and Fox. In 1985, Preston himself warned that: "'In five years' time, if we're not careful, we will have no Alan Platers, no Dennis Potters, no Alan Bleasdales, we will have only adaptors.", and it is therefore ironic that most of his post-1980 scripts have been adaptations. However, this changed again with the release of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (d. Mike Hodges, 2003), and although the film had mixed reviews, it has nonetheless allowed Preston back into the creative arena after too many years of unproduced work. As his range so far has covered high-quality studio dramas, filmed action thrillers and a variety of experiments with musical content and form, it's to be hoped that there will be much more to come.

John Williams

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)

The world's first (and for some reason only) vampire snooker musical

Thumbnail image of Ace of Wands (1970-72)Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Children's drama about a magician with telepathic powers

Thumbnail image of Callan (1967-72)Callan (1967-72)

Tough spy drama which made a star of Edward Woodward

Thumbnail image of Fox (1980)Fox (1980)

Ambitious 13-part drama following a South London family

Thumbnail image of Hazell (1978-80)Hazell (1978-80)

The cases of wisecracking cockney private eye James Hazell

Thumbnail image of Out (1978)Out (1978)

Gritty crime drama about a man seeking revenge on a police informer

Thumbnail image of Public Eye (1965-75)Public Eye (1965-75)

Life on the edge with a down-at-heel private eye

Thumbnail image of Ruth Rendell Mysteries, The (1987-2000)Ruth Rendell Mysteries, The (1987-2000)

Crime thriller series adapted from the novels of Ruth Rendell

Thumbnail image of Special Branch (1969-74)Special Branch (1969-74)

Crime/espionage drama series, the forerunner of 'The Sweeney'

Thumbnail image of Sweeney, The (1975-78)Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Tough 1970s police drama with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Goddard, Jim (1936-2013)Goddard, Jim (1936-2013)

Director, Designer

Thumbnail image of Euston FilmsEuston Films

Production Company