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Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)

Producer, Director, Writer

Main image of Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)

Although many of Rudolph Cartier's productions are lost - "gone with the speed of light" as he wrote in 1958 - whether transmitted live or wiped by the BBC, what remains in recordings and testimony is enough to see that his work in the 1950s and '60s was ground-breaking both in style, form and subject. He was a true pioneer of television, who, when he wasn't pushing the technical limits of the medium, was presenting new and original stories or bringing recent history to life, often from surprising perspectives.

He was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1904, and studied drama under distinguished director Max Reinhardt before moving into the German film industry, scripting early 'talkies' and later directing. His first solo directing credit was the thriller Unsichtbare Gegner, produced by Sam Spiegel in 1933. Soon afterwards he fled the Nazis, eventually settling in Britain and establishing contact with the film industry and fledgling television service. He contributed scenarios for several minor British features in the 1940s, and later produced a short Sherlock Holmes film.

In 1948 he involved BBC producer Michael Barry in a film project. Although it came to nothing, in 1952 Barry, now head of drama, granted Cartier an interview at the BBC. Cartier criticised the department's output as staid, stage-bound and too reliant on adaptations, advocating "a new approach, a whole new spirit". Initially as a freelancer, then as a staff producer (a role which then also encompassed that of director), Cartier quickly came to represent this "new spirit", challenging established television conventions and introducing new methods and material. He would stay with the BBC for almost 25 years, resisting the lure of commercial television.

Cartier exploded the myth that television was by its nature small-scale, having to aspire to the 'intimate'. He excelled in staging wide-ranging stories, large vistas, and crowd scenes in the studio, spectacles hitherto believed inimical to television. To do this he often inserted extensive pre-filmed sequences into his live productions. While other directors used such inserts as little more than filler material or for scene setting, in Cartier's hands they brought the story to life, allowing it to expand beyond the cramped studio. He took his film crews as far afield as the Swiss Alps and the ruins of the Reichstag to realise the often ambitious sequences he required.

This highly visual aspect of his work has led some to call Cartier's style 'cinematic'. However, his large-scale images were not big pictures as for a big screen, but images that challenged the confines of the domestic screen. As such, his work is essentially 'televisual'.

Yet there was more to his style than mere visual impact. His famously controversial version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (tx. 12/12/1954) was a large-scale production, but it was the powerfully acted scenes of Winston and O'Brien in the almost bare torture room set that horrified viewers. This is indicative of the way the director enticed with spectacle but delivered his punches with the closely-studied performances of his cast, invariably seen in television's more traditional close-up.

Although he would return to film production once, directing the 1958 melodrama Passionate Summer, Cartier was never a frustrated film director 'slumming it' in television. He loved the medium and recognised its immense potential, writing in 1958 that "If the T.V. director knows his medium well and handles it skilfully, he can wield almost unlimited power over his mass audience; a power no other form of entertainment can give him - not even the cinema."

As well as pioneering a visual style, he was innovative in his choice of material. He was keen to introduce contemporary European drama to the screen in place of the regular 'classics' and West End transfers, and in the 1950s he produced plays by the likes of André Obey, Ugo Betti and Jean Anouilh. He was understandably drawn to Austrian and German dramatists, televising works by Arthur Schnitzler, Fritz Hochwälder and Carl Zuckmayer. He also encouraged new material specially commissioned for television, and had particular success with Nigel Kneale. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the pair's three Quatermass serials became landmarks of television. "I don't think any of the things I wrote then would have come to anything much in other hands," said Kneale in 1990, "in his they worked".

Cartier's love of opera expressed itself in several lavish productions that did much to popularise the form. The Saint of Bleecker Street (tx. 4/10/1956) apparently moved many to tears, and his productions of Strauss's Salome (tx. 26/9/1957) and Arthur Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities (tx. 2/10/1958) proved that spectacular musical productions were achievable on the small screen. Tobias and the Angel (tx. 19/5/1960) and The Rebel (tx. 4/4/1969) were original commissions for television.

As production processes changed in the 1960s with the introduction of pre-recording, Cartier's relentless innovation was less frequently required. Sydney Newman's restructuring of the BBC drama department separated the producer and director roles, meaning that Cartier - now a director only - had to helm occasional episodes of popular serials, such as Maigret (1960-63), for which he had little enthusiasm. His surviving episode of Z-Cars (1962-78), 'Scare' (tx. 5/6/1963) is a lifeless affair, the director's naturalistic style sitting uncomfortably in a series that pioneered a form of fluid realism.

More notable productions during the 1960s were the lavish Anna Karenina (tx. 3/11/1961), with Sean Connery and Claire Bloom; 'Conversation at Night' (Thirty-Minute Theatre, tx. 8/5/1969), in which Alec Guinness made his television debut; documentary play 'Lee Oswald - Assassin' (Play of the Monthtx. 15/3/1966) and bleak nuclear-war drama 'Level Seven' (Out of the Unknown, tx. 27/10/1966).

The same decade saw Cartier produce numerous dramas depicting the Second World War from the German perspective, highlighting the difference between committed Nazis and ordinary Germans forced to play their part in the war. His first television production, Arrow to the Heart (tx. 20/7/1952), had been in the same vein, telling of a young German deserter's execution. 'Cross of Iron' (Sunday-Night Play, tx. 19/11/1961) dramatised the conflict between a moderate officer and hard-line Nazis in a POW camp; 'Stalingrad' (Festival, tx. 4/12/1963) depicted soldiers of all ranks caught in the horror of the Eastern front. 'The July Plot' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 9/12/1964), dramatised the famous conspiracy of German generals to assassinate Hitler, while 'Firebrand' (Theatre 625, tx. 2/7/1967) concerned itself with the burning of the Reichstag, an event the director had witnessed while in Berlin. Cartier looked a little further back for his instalment of Thirty-Minute Theatre's These Men are Dangerous trilogy about twentieth century dictators, exploring Hitler's early life (tx. 27/1/1969).

Inevitably, several of his plays dealt directly with the holocaust. 'Doctor Korczak and the Children' (Studio Four, tx.13/8/1962), performed without sets or costumes, was an unusual and compelling retelling of the tragic fate of the Warsaw ghetto orphanage in 1942. 'The Joel Brand Story' (Play of the Month, tx. 14/12/1965) reconstructed the circumstances in which Adolf Eichmann offered the British - in what Cartier called "the most monstrous transaction ever proposed by one man to another" - the lives of a million Jews in exchange for war supplies. Cartier himself had lost his parents in the Holocaust. While it would be crass to suggest that for this reason alone he was drawn to such drama, the personal connection does make it all the more laudable that his war plays show a determination to understand and explain rather than merely to condemn.

Anti-Semitism was also tackled in 'The Burning Bush' (Theatre 625, tx. 12/11/1967), about a nineteenth-century Hungarian murder trial sparked by the blood-libel against the Jews. "Theirs is a trial that will never end," says the successful defence counsel at its conclusion. It was one of numerous productions throughout his career which betrayed his interest in stories of persecution, injustice and repression. His ideological stance was apparent as far back as 1945, when he storylined The Man from Morocco (d. Max Greene) - "the British Casablanca" according to The Times - which celebrated the Spanish Civil War's International Brigades and condemned Vichy France. Following the Nineteen Eighty-Four protests, Cartier told the Daily Express that "it was right and wise to put this terrible vision before the largest possible audience. As a warning... against totalitarianism in all its forms such as Fascism, Nazism, Communism or McCarthyism."

Cartier continued producing drama for the BBC into the 1970s, albeit at a slower pace. He returned to his roots in 1976, producing a successful version of Gaslight at Vienna's English Theatre. He ended his career working with imported German and Russian programmes.

Oliver Wake

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