Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
McGrath, John (1935-2002)

Writer, Director, Producer

Main image of McGrath, John (1935-2002)

John McGrath was one of the most prolific and interesting figures working in drama in the second half of the 20th century. A man of great charisma and presence, a writer, producer, and director for stage and screen, and founder of the 7:84 theatre company in England and Scotland; a middle-class playwright who presumed to speak for the working-class; a man of the theatre who produced some of the most memorable television drama; a socialist criticised for his didactism, who demonstrated great compassion for his characters; McGrath was all of these. Above all, it is his writing which impresses - robust, poetic, vivid, moving - and often very funny. His brand of partisan, celebratory political theatre is now completely out of fashion, but on his death his longterm friend and associate Giles Havergal said "I've never met or worked with anybody who could blend art and socialism so successfully".

John McGrath was born in Birkenhead on 1 June 1935, to a lower-middle-class Irish Catholic family. When war broke out in 1939, the family moved to Mold in North Wales, where from 1946 McGrath attended the local grammar school, after which he did two years' National Service in the Royal Artillery. This experience informed his subsequent stage play 'Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun', set in the peacetime army in Germany in 1955 (and filmed by Jack Gold as The Bofors Gun in 1968).

McGrath went up to St. John's College, Oxford, in 1955, and he met Elizabeth Maclennan, who was to become his wife, his regular leading actress, collaborator and inspiration. McGrath's other contemporaries at Oxford included Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and future theatre director Giles Havergal, and he became heavily involved in university drama. He was set to become a teacher, however, when in 1958 he was invited by George Devine to move to London and write for the Royal Court Theatre. This was the first of McGrath's many journeys between north and south Britain, which mirror similar journeys made by northern lads in the drama and literature of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as featuring strongly in his own later work.

From 1960, McGrath spent five years with the BBC, writing, producing and directing a range of plays, including Johnny Speight's The Compartment (BBC, tx. 22/8/1961), which reputedly features Michael Caine's first substantial television role. It was with the pioneering and realistic police drama series Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978) however, that McGrath's career really took off. He co-created the programme with Troy Kennedy Martin, and it mixed strong narrative and popular appeal with social commentary, something which McGrath would continue to do in all of his subsequent work.

He teamed up with Kennedy Martin again to produce another landmark in television drama, the six-part series Diary of a Young Man (BBC, 1964), which was determinedly anti-naturalistic in its heady mix of theatrical stylisation, montage, song and documentary realism. McGrath continued to work in film and television throughout the 1960s, before disenchantment set in and his interest in radical politics grew ever stronger. He wrote a script for Ken Russell in 1964, Seven Lean Years, which was never made, and spent eight months toiling on a film adaptation of Malraux's La condition Humaine, which met the same fate. With Russell, he made a TV version of Diary of a Nobody (BBC, 1964), in the style of a silent film comedy, and he scripted Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (1967), as well as adapting his stage play as The Bofors Gun (d. Jack Gold, 1968). In 1970 and 1971 he used the funds he had earned scripting such films as the under-rated and seldom-seen The Reckoning (d. Jack Gold, 1970) and The Virgin Soldiers (d. John Dexter, 1969), to establish his theatre company 7:84, so called because McGrath had read that 84% of Britain's wealth was owned by just 7% of the population. Elizabeth Maclennan encouraged and inspired him to explore Scottish socio-political issues, and a Scottish version of the company was established in 1973. Its most celebrated show was The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, adapted for television under the direction of John Mackenzie (BBC, tx. 6/6/1974).

McGrath's personal journey had now taken him to Scotland and much of his subsequent work is set there, but in 1980 he returned to the fray with the anti-naturalistic TV drama The Adventures of Frank (BBC, 1980), in which another northern lad seeks his fortune in London. Blood Red Roses (Channel 4, 1986) was a three-part TV drama which McGrath adapted from his stage play for 7:84. Its Scottish socialist heroine, Bessy Gordon, rebels against the restrictive post-war class system. The Long Roads (BBC, 1993) was one of McGrath's most personal and deeply-felt pieces, again taking the main characters on a journey, both actual and metaphorical. McGrath then fell ill with septicaemia and was unable to work for a year, but he recovered, to produce Carrington (d. Christopher Hampton, 1994) and to turn out a number of essays, articles and lectures, including A Good Night Out (1996), as well as creating and directing a screenwriters' laboratory. Despite being diagnosed with leukaemia at the end of the 1990s, the treatment for which robbed him of his trademark shock of white hair, McGrath continued to work right up until his death on 22 January 2002.

Janet Moat

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blood Red Roses (1986)Blood Red Roses (1986)

Fictional biography of a working-class Scottish woman

Thumbnail image of Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)

Controversial, hard-hitting dramatised history of Scotland

Thumbnail image of Diary of a Young Man (1964)Diary of a Young Man (1964)

TV drama about two young Northerners in London, co-directed by Ken Loach

Thumbnail image of Long Roads, The (1993)Long Roads, The (1993)

Moving drama of an elderly couple on a voyage of discovery around Britain

Thumbnail image of Shotgun (1966)Shotgun (1966)

Poetic drama offering different perspectives on a love affair

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of MacTaggart, James (1928-74)MacTaggart, James (1928-74)

Producer, Director, Writer