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Barry, Michael (1910-1988)

Producer, Director, Writer

Main image of Barry, Michael (1910-1988)

Although often overlooked, Michael Barry is an important figure in the development of British television drama. He joined the BBC as a television producer in 1938, when just to be working in television was to be a pioneer. He produced 21 plays, most performed live at least twice, before leaving in 1939 to serve in the Second World War. Returning in 1946, he produced his own adaptation of The Silence of the Sea for the television service's re-opening night (tx. 7/6/1946). Giving a sympathetic portrait of a German officer in occupied France, it was a brave choice for its time.

Over the following years, he strove to bring a depth and vitality to his productions, making early use of back-projection and models. He had an important role pioneering drama documentary, producing Robert Barr's I Want to be an Actor (tx. 6/10/1946) and his own teleplay I Want to be a Doctor (tx. 20/5/1947), which became an early classic of the medium. He had successes working with novelist Charles Terrot, crafting The Passionate Pilgrim (tx.7/8/1949), about one of Florence Nightingale's nurses, and Shout Aloud Salvation (tx. 15/4/1951), depicting the roots of the Salvation Army, from Terrot's historical research.

He was appointed Assistant Head of Television Drama in 1951, becoming full head the following year. His priorities as head were to attract new writers to the medium and to improve the general quality of the department's output. He created the Drama Script Section and engaged writers keen to create plays specially for television, such as Nigel Kneale and Iain MacCormick. He also vastly expanded the pool of producer/directors, hiring those, like Rudolph Cartier and Don Taylor, who would create some of the department's best work.

Under Barry's leadership, the Drama department expanded to the point that it produced over 200 hours of original drama in 1961. It was a period of "drive, organization and artistic skill", as The Times wrote upon Barry's death, which bred such innovative programming as An Age of Kings (1960) and popular series like Maigret (1960-63). In 1956, Barry was awarded the OBE in recognition of his work.

He resigned suddenly in 1961. Ever the gentleman, he never commented publicly on his reasons, but it was rumoured that he was unwilling to follow the instruction to take a more populist line in drama. He briefly became programme controller to Irish Television before teaching at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Oliver Wake

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