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Bird, Michael J. (1928-2001)


Main image of Bird, Michael J. (1928-2001)

Although he provided episodes for series as varied as Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-71) and The Onedin Line (BBC, 1971), Michael J. Bird is best remembered for the quartet of Mediterranean serials he penned for the BBC in the 1970s and 80s. Who Pays the Ferryman? (1977) and The Aphrodite Inheritance (1979), in particular, blazed the trail for international co-production, their popularity abroad outstripping even the acclaim they received at home in Britain.

Born Michael John Hereford Bird in London on 31 October 1928, he later claimed to have gone through 19 jobs in seven years - including hearse driver, lab assistant and bouncer in a Texan brothel - before turning to journalism. Initial attempts to break into radio proved unsuccessful, but a pass into television arrived with colleague David Stone's invitation to write the Danger Man episode 'Judgement Day' (ITV, tx. 11/11/1965).

Other work followed, including an unofficial script-editing stint on Hammer's anthology series Journey to the Unknown (ITV, 1968-69), before his first serial was accepted by the BBC. The Lotus Eaters (BBC, 1972-73) starred Ian Hendry and Wanda Ventham as ex-pats Erik and Ann Shepherd, whose taverna in Crete provided the series' focal point. Each episode interwove the story of a different bar regular with the saga of the Shepherds' disintegrating marriage; the result was an instant hit with viewers, and a second series was swiftly commissioned. Bird followed this with probably his best-remembered creation, Who Pays the Ferryman?, which consolidated his reputation for compelling, character-driven drama while maintaining the Cretan tourist boom sparked by The Lotus Eaters.

Cyprus provided the setting for The Aphrodite Inheritance, his first fully-fledged thriller; the supernatural elements that emerged at its conclusion were central to follow-up The Dark Side of the Sun (BBC, 1983), a dark tale of murder and demonology on Rhodes. At the same time Bird collaborated with former Lotus Eaters director David Cunliffe, now head of drama at Yorkshire Television, on The Outsider (ITV, 1983), a primetime drama based round the offices of fictional Dales newspaper 'The Micklethorpe Messsenger'. His next BBC project, Maelstrom (BBC, 1985), exchanged the Med in favour of Norway while revisiting Ferryman's theme of undisclosed parentage. Following its lukewarm reception Bird spent two years preparing Hotel Armageddon, an ambitious script about terrorists hijacking a Greek hotel, only to see it abandoned by the BBC as too expensive.

Frustrated with the BBC, he re-joined Cunliffe for the feature-length West of Paradise (ITV, 1986), whose story, about voodoo in the Seychelles, harked back to the supernatural themes of his earlier work. 'Out of the Shadows' (Romance, ITV, tx. 2/9/1988), from an Athens-set romantic novel which Bird was called in to adapt at the eleventh hour, meant a return to Greek location filming, but due to failing health it became his last televised work. In later years he felt out of the step with British television's increasing preference for downbeat realism as exemplified by EastEnders (BBC, 1985-), the schedules no longer seeming to hold a place for the exotic fictions at which he excelled.

Richard Hewett

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Danger Man (1960-67)Danger Man (1960-67)

TV spy thriller series with Patrick McGoohan as agent John Drake

Thumbnail image of Out of the Unknown (1965-71)Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

BBC sci-fi anthology of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Thumbnail image of Secret Army (1977-79)Secret Army (1977-79)

Gripping WWII drama about the Belgian resistance

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