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Hopkins, John (1931-98)


Main image of Hopkins, John (1931-98)

The world of John Hopkins, with its extraordinary intimacy of characterisation and observation, found its perfect expression in 1960s television drama with the Z Cars series (BBC, 1962-78) and the quartet of plays 'Talking to a Stranger' (BBC, 1966) - the latter work lauded by critic George Melly in The Observer as "television's first authentic masterpiece".

Hopkins was educated at Raynes Park Grammar School in south London and St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he studied English Literature. After National Service in the Army he joined BBC Radio and for 18 months produced the popular daytime serial Mrs Dale's Diary. When he failed to get a job as a trainee director of plays with Granada Television, frustration drove him to write his first play, Break Up (tx. 1958), about the collapse of a young couple's marriage, which was accepted but shown only in the Granada (Manchester) area.

He wrote another half-hour play, After the Party (Granada TV, tx. 1958), as well as devising a few episodes of the Assizes Court drama The Verdict is Yours (ITV, 1958-59; 1962-63) for Granada, before moving over to the BBC to do adaptations of novels for television.

At BBC Television from 1959, Hopkins adapted the Nigel Balchin novels 'The Small Back Room' (tx. 5/4/1959; for Sunday-Night Theatre) and Mine Own Executioner (tx. 4/8/1959) for producer-director Harold Clayton. Hopkins had been married to Balchin's daughter, Prudence, since 1954 and it was the author who had encouraged his son-in-law to take on the adaptations.

Hopkins followed this work with two well-received serialised adaptations of the Margery Allingham mysteries Dancers in Mourning (BBC, 1959) and Death of a Ghost (BBC, 1960), marking the TV debut of Allingham's diffident private detective Albert Campion (played in both six-part stories by Bernard Horsfall).

'Through a Glass Darkly' (BBC, tx. 19/12/1959; for Saturday Playhouse), a mystery story adapted from the work of another crime novelist (Helen McCloy), the marital crisis drama 'A Woman Comes Home' (BBC, tx. 15/1/1961; The Sunday-Night Play) and the study of personal relations in a family business, By Invitation Only (BBC, tx. 3/7/1961), followed.

He returned to serial work with his own six-part assassination thriller A Chance of Thunder (BBC, 1961) and served as script associate on novelist Ivan Roe's manhunt serial Crying Down the Lane (BBC, 1962).

"Everything, for me as a writer, began with Z Cars," recalled Hopkins in a 1969 Radio Times interview. From the day in 1962 when he joined the Z Cars team as a writer, Hopkins devoted himself to the series for two-and-a-half years, often working seven days a week, writing a total of 57 episodes, and eventually becoming story editor for the programme.

The early Z Cars succeeded both as fast-moving popular realism and as a thoughtful and moral examination of a society under stress. The honest framework of the stories about the North Country patrol-car policemen gave a documentary veracity to the efficient scripts composed by Hopkins, Allan Prior, Alan Plater, Elwyn Jones and others.

While Z Cars was the first drama of its type to humanise the police, Hopkins' stories commanded attention for the psychological depth of his themes whatever the storyline: a brutal shooting in a shopping centre ('Centre of Disturbance', tx. 13/5/1964); the confrontation of a black man attacking a white man with an axe ('A Place of Safety', tx. 24/6/1964); an outbreak of warehouse robberies ('What a Main Event!', tx. 16/9/1964); an apparent case of shoplifting ('Charity Begins...', tx. 21/10/1964).

Hopkins's burglary-and-espionage story, 'Choose Your Partners' (tx. 27/11/1963) displayed a fine sense of humour alongside the drama (as Frank Windsor's Sgt Watt says, sourly: "Scotland Yard - Special Branch - M.I.5 - James Bond on the next plane from Jamaica!" - in reference to the intrusive higher-ups - "Makes us all look like a right load of village idiots."). While the human story of an old vagrant in his 'Finders Keepers' (tx. 23/9/1964) who is found one day wearing an expensive overcoat and a businessman's bowler hat showed the more sensitive aspects to a police life.

He returned to mystery adaptations once again with Edmund Crispin's baffling crime puzzle 'The Moving Toyshop' (tx. 30/3/1964), which served as the opening episode of the highly regarded Detective anthology (BBC, 1964; 1968-69), as well as his own drug trade thriller 'The Pretty English Girls' (tx. 16/2/1964) for ABC's Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74); the latter play ranking third in the viewing figures of 1964's Top Twenty plays.

In between the crime-mystery scripts, Hopkins found time to write the scenario (with choreographer Peter Darrell) for Houseparty (BBC, tx. 7/6/1964), an experimental BBC2 ballet based on Francis Poulenc's musical score for Les Biches (first staged by Diaghilev in 1924). For a later work he wrote the libretto (with composer Christopher Whelen) for the opera Some Place of Darkness (BBC, tx. 23/1/1967) which used the techniques of television to achieve a sense of intimacy not usually associated with conventional opera.

Hopkins' adaptation of the novels by Ford Madox Ford into the trilogy 'Parade's End' (1964) for Theatre 625 (BBC, 1964-68) was one of the new BBC2 channel's first big productions. Produced by Cedric Messina, the dramatic offering set around the First World War starred Ronald Hines and a young Judi Dench.

His controversial Wednesday Play, 'Fable' (BBC tx. 27/1/1965), delayed by a week in transmission to avoid coincidence with by-elections, proposed the parody of apartheid in Britain, but turned upside-down with a black republican dictatorship and whites treated as a slave race. Viewed by most contemporary critics as an ineffectual political tract, the consensus was that the overall effect was nowhere as disturbing as it ought to have been - despite the BBC's cautious pre-transmission announcement that: "We want to make it clear that 'Fable', as its title suggests, is in no way a forecast of what could happen in this country. What you are going to see is a play against prejudice and intolerance."

Hopkins' second Wednesday Play, 'Horror of Darkness' (tx. 10/3/1965), was a minimum-dialogue piece featuring the impressive line-up of Alfred Lynch, Glenda Jackson and Nicol Williamson as a complex trio seemingly unable to escape their interpersonal tangle. The difficult triangular relationship between young artist Lynch, his analytical mistress Jackson and their friend Williamson, a pathetic, disturbing homosexual in love with the young artist, was, in its almost harrowingly detailed study, a prototype of Hopkins' later 'Talking to a Stranger'.

On a revisit to Armchair Theatre, he composed 'I Took My Little World Away' (tx. 14/3/1965), starring Susannah York and John Ronane in a story that was (as one critic observed) a "viewable but utterly unbelievable blend of party and encounter between depressed girl and actively suicidal man." A later Hopkins Armchair Theatre play, 'The Dolly Scene' (tx, 3/11/1970), offered something of a similar theme and featured Sinead Cusack, this time as the emotionally vulnerable young woman proceeding towards self-inflicted despair.

Generally regarded as the high point of Hopkins' career, 'Talking to a Stranger' (tx. 1966), produced by Theatre 625 (BBC, 1964-68), presented a sequence of four intense plays all dealing with the same weekend in the life of a family - mother, father, son and daughter - in which the same events are shown from the point of view of the four different protagonists.

This was a virtually archetypal Hopkins play (or serial-play, in this case) on the theme of the loneliness of the individual in a cold and indifferent world. It was worked out in terms of troubled relationships - between parent and child, between self-pitying sister and over-dependent brother - and the pressures of the past determined the actions and feelings of the main characters.

The approach was sharply realistic, at times verging on drama-documentary, and it was this anti-romantic, unsophisticated hardness of background and problems that lent the plays their powerfully expressive flavour.

The on-screen performances were little short of brilliant - Judi Dench's mockingly defensive daughter, Maurice Denham's old and tired father, Michael Bryant's dutiful son, and Margery Mason's disillusioned mother - and confirmed 'Talking to a Stranger' as a grim but uplifting experience, rich in imagination and humanity.

However, with the possible exceptions of the two-part The Gambler (BBC, 1968), starring Edith Evans as a Queen of Spades matriarch in Hopkins' adaptation of the Dostoevsky story, and 'Beyond the Sunrise' (tx. 11/9/1969), the latter for BBC2's Plays of Today (BBC, 1969), with a theme pitting traditional values against political expediency in an emergent African state, by the end of the decade it seemed that Hopkins' best work was behind him.

His first stage play, This Story of Yours, dealing with the moral disintegration of a failed police sergeant, had opened to mixed reviews at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1968. The play later became the film The Offence (d. Sidney Lumet, 1972), from a screenplay by Hopkins, and starred Sean Connery and Ian Bannen.

Hopkins' first screenplay work (co-written with the director) had been for Two Left Feet (d. Roy Baker, 1963), a lightweight comedy-drama with Michael Crawford. He received co-screenwriter credit with Richard Maibaum for the fourth James Bond film Thunderball (d. Terence Young, 1965) and, in 1969, wrote the screenplay for Leslie Thomas' boys-in-uniform comedy The Virgin Soldiers (d. John Dexter).

His marriage to Prudence (Balchin) had ended in divorce, and in 1968 he married American actress Shirley Knight. The couple had met in 1967 when there were plans to put 'Talking to a Stranger' on in America with Knight playing the Judi Dench role. They came to live in England and the first piece he wrote for his wife - now Shirley Knight Hopkins - was the emotional tale Some Distant Shadow (ITV tx. 12/12/1971).

The following year Shirley appeared in his 'That Quiet Earth' (tx. 28/2/1972), which Hopkins also directed, for the series Thirty Minute Theatre (BBC, 1965-73) and Walk into the Dark (BBC tx. 29/2/1972), in which she performed with Jeremy Kemp and Keith Barron, and which was, by coincidence, broadcast the following evening.

For the overblown Divorce His; Divorce Hers (ITV, 1973), a sad attempt by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to rekindle the feisty spirit of their Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (US, d. Mike Nichols, 1966), Hopkins tried valiantly to construct a two-part TV drama out of what appeared to be an overlong TV movie (of nearly 3 hours). The result had an oddly embalmed air, as though copied out of some academic Virginia Woolf pattern book.

In the mid 1970s, Hopkins returned to the stimulating work expected of him with 'A Story to Frighten the Children' (tx. 3/2/1976), a disturbing rape-and-murder drama for Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84). Directed by Herbert Wise, the terrifying opening sequence (set in the night-time grounds of a tower block) where a girl is tracked by a rapist, escapes, is trapped again, then raped and murdered, established Hopkins' premise that, in the ensuing investigation, people were more prepared to talk to television reporters than they were to the police.

Replacing Play for Today for six weeks in early 1977 was Fathers and Families (BBC), in which Hopkins went back to the format of 'Talking to a Stranger'. This sextet of 70-minute plays, though loosely linked, featured several recurring characters and one, a solicitor to all the characters, in common throughout. While not as closely intertwined in form as 'Talking to a Stranger', Hopkins' astute observations of family relationships remained just as poignant.

His final works for series television were immersed in the espionage genre. Smiley's People (BBC, 1982), a UK/US co-production sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979) co-scripted by Hopkins with John Le Carré from the latter's novel, returned Alec Guinness' now-retired spymaster to the world of British counter-intelligence. Codename Kyril (ITV, 1988), a UK/Norway co-production, involved an espionage plot complex enough to frustrate a Russian chess player, and was written by Hopkins in four parts from a novel by John Trenhaile.

Hopkins' last television work was the award-winning docudrama TV film Hiroshima (Showtime, tx. 6/8/1995), a Canadian-Japanese co-production for which he shared writing credit with Toshiro Ishido. The 195-minute telefilm gave a harrowing and enthralling account of the events surrounding the dropping of the first atomic bomb to end World War Two.

A few years after his marriage to Shirley Knight the couple moved to America, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Hopkins continued writing (mainly screenplays) until his death at his Hollywood home in 1998.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Thunderball (1965)Thunderball (1965)

James Bond goes to Miami in search of stolen nuclear bombs

Thumbnail image of Fable (1965)Fable (1965)

Controversial TV drama imagining Britain under black rule

Thumbnail image of Horror of Darkness (1965)Horror of Darkness (1965)

Bleak Wednesday Play about an uncomfortable love triangle

Thumbnail image of Smiley's People (1982)Smiley's People (1982)

The sequel to 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', again starring Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Some Distant Shadow (1971)Some Distant Shadow (1971)

John Hopkins' drama of sexual and marital alienation

Thumbnail image of Talking to a Stranger (1966)Talking to a Stranger (1966)

Landmark drama of family tragedy featuring a young Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of That Quiet Earth (1972)That Quiet Earth (1972)

Poignant drama about a housewife and mother dissatisfied with her lot

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

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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