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Wearing, Michael (1939- )

Producer, Director, Writer, Executive

Main image of Wearing, Michael (1939- )

Michael Wearing has been responsible for producing some of the most progressive drama seen on British television in the last thirty years, including Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982), Troy Kennedy Martin's Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985) and Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996). After entering television in 1976 he worked almost exclusively for the BBC as script editor, director, producer and executive producer, until a series of disagreements with BBC management in the 1990s, when he was head of Drama Serials, led to his resignation in 1998.

After studying anthropology at Newcastle University, where he was involved with a theatre group, Wearing got a job as an assistant stage manager at Bromley before moving to the Royal Court Theatre, where he did his first directing. While touring a stage version of Gogol's The Diary of a Madman, which he directed, he came into contact with David Rose, then head of English Regions Drama in Birmingham. Rose subsequently directed a television version of The Diary of a Madman (tx. 23/8/1973) at Pebble Mill, dramatised by Wearing and Victor Henry, who played the eponymous madman. Three years later, Wearing joined Rose's regional drama department as script editor. In 1979 he directed Jack Shepherd's 'Underdog' (tx. 4/5/1979) for W. Stephen Gilbert's The Other Side series but was otherwise a script editor for four years at Pebble Mill, working with writers such as Alan Bleasdale, on 'Scully's New Year's Eve' (Play for Today, tx. 3/1/1978) and 'The Black Stuff' (tx. 2/1/1980), and Ron Hutchinson, on 'The Out of Town Boys' (Play for Today, tx. 2/1/1979), writers with whom Wearing developed a particular rapport.

The following year he produced Stephen Davis's 'Trouble With Gregory' (tx. 23/2/1980), for BBC2's Playhouse (1974-83), and Ron Hutchinson's six-part Bull Week (1980), a social realist drama set in a factory in Birmingham. But it was Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man (1981) that confirmed Wearing's penchant for progressive TV drama. The History Man was a four-part serial, a form with which Wearing was to excel as the single play gave way to the authored serial on British television in the 1980s. Ron Hutchinson's four-part contemporary thriller Bird of Prey (1982) was followed by Alan Bleasdale's five-part Boys from the Blackstuff, which Wearing guided to the screen in 1982 after a protracted production period. Wearing suggested Bleasdale write 'The Muscle Market' (tx.13/1/1981), originally intended to be part of the series, as a separate Play for Today (1970-84), in order to keep him on board at a time when the BBC was prevaricating about commissioning a more expensive regionally-based drama series. Wearing recruited the accomplished television director Philip Saville to direct Boys from the Blackstuff, shooting four of the five episodes on video to keep costs down - a decision which arguably enhanced the contemporary realism of Bleasdale's 'state of the nation' drama.

Following the departure of David Rose to Channel Four, BBC English Regions Drama gradually declined as an important producer of regional drama; indeed, Boys from the Blackstuff represents the department's last great achievement. Wearing subsequently left Birmingham, but such was his reputation by now that he was subsequently re-engaged by the BBC to executive-produce the final series of Play for Today in 1984. Later in 1984 he produced Alan Clarke's last studio play, Stars of the Roller State Disco (tx. 4/12/1984). In the same year Wearing was invited to produce an as yet unfinished contemporary serial, then entitled Magnox, which Troy Kennedy Martin had been working on for some time. Wearing brought in Martin Campbell to direct and they both worked with Kennedy Martin to realise his vision. The convoluted nuclear thriller which emerged, re-titled Edge of Darkness, was one of the seminal dramas of the decade, proving such a success on its transmission on BBC2 that it was immediately repeated on BBC1. Edge of Darkness won six BAFTA awards in 1986, including Best Drama Series/Serial.

After a production of Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange fell through, Wearing moved to ITV for the first time, producing the feature film Bellman and True (d. Richard Loncraine, 1987) for Euston Films/Thames TV/Handmade Films, subsequently shown on ITV in a longer three-part version in 1989. He returned to the BBC to produce Blind Justice (1988), a five-part drama about two radical barristers written by Peter Flannery. The two would collaborate again on Flannery's BAFTA-winning epic Our Friends in the North.

In 1988 Wearing returned to Birmingham as head of Drama, producing several films for series such as Screen One and Screen Two, including Michael Eaton's Fellow Traveller (tx. 10/2/1991), about American writers working anonymously in Britain at the time of the McCarthy witch hunts. As an indication of his propensity to speak his mind, Wearing drew an analogy between the subject of Fellow Traveller and contemporary developments in British broadcasting, with new government proposals threatening the future prospects of radical television drama. Such pronouncements only seemed to enhance his reputation, however, and Wearing was recruited by BBC head of Drama Mark Shivas to become head of Drama Serials. As the BBC entered a more competitive era, Wearing believed that quality drama could be the corporation's chief weapon; among the many serials he was responsible for in the 1990s were classic literary adaptations such as Middlemarch (1994), Martin Chuzzlewit (1994), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Nostromo (1997) and Our Mutual Friend (1998), as well as original authored serials such as Paula Milne's Die Kinder (1990), Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), Our Friends in the North, Dennis Potter's Karaoke (1996) and Cold Lazarus (1996) and Tony Marchant's Holding On (1997).

Throughout this period, Wearing was an outspoken critic of BBC management, especially following the appointment of John Birt as director general in 1992. Wearing believed that Birt's policies were stifling creativity and, after threatening it on more than one occasion, he resigned in February 1998. There was much industry sympathy for his position and, shortly after announcing his resignation, he was awarded the Royal Television Society's highest accolade, the Cyril Bennett Judges Award, having received BAFTA's Alan Clarke Award for outstanding creative achievement in television in 1997. He subsequently took up a position as an executive producer with Irish Screen. In August 2008, filming began on a feature film version of Edge of Darkness with Wearing as co-producer, Martin Campbell directing and Mel Gibson in the lead role.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bird of Prey (1982)Bird of Prey (1982)

Paranoid drama of computer conspiracy and European intrigue

Thumbnail image of Blind Justice (1988)Blind Justice (1988)

Radical legal drama for the late Thatcher era

Thumbnail image of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Pivotal drama about unemployment and desperation in 1980s Liverpool

Thumbnail image of Buddha of Suburbia, The (1993)Buddha of Suburbia, The (1993)

Hanif Kureishi's ambitious Anglo-Asian rights-of-passage drama

Thumbnail image of Edge of Darkness (1985)Edge of Darkness (1985)

Masterly anti-nuclear drama by Troy Kennedy Martin

Thumbnail image of History Man, The (1981)History Man, The (1981)

Antony Sher excels as a radical but egotistical Sociology lecturer

Thumbnail image of Holding On (1997)Holding On (1997)

Epic, multi-stranded drama series set in late 1990s multicultural London

Thumbnail image of Our Friends in the North (1996)Our Friends in the North (1996)

Epic portrait of four Newcastle friends, spanning the 1960s to the 1990s

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1995)Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies' memorable Austen update

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Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

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