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Owen, Alun (1925-1994)

Actor, Screenwriter, Playwright

Main image of Owen, Alun (1925-1994)

One of the more original talents to emerge from the new wave of British playwrights in the late 1950s, Alun Owen (b. Menai Bridge, Anglesey, Wales, 1925. d. London, 1994) gave British television drama the distinctive shape it took in the 1960s.

Born in rural North Wales, of Welsh parents, his family moved to Liverpool when he was eight and he was brought up in that city. He served in the Merchant Navy and, later, worked for a couple of years in the coal mines as a 'Bevin Boy'. Following that he joined a northern repertory company as assistant stage manager.

His ambition, however, was to be an actor and, after an introduction to the stage through pantomime, he started with the Birmingham Repertory Company in the 1943-44 season. Thereafter he progressed to Sir Donald Wolfit's Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic Company and with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court.

By the mid-1950s he had small roles in films (Valley of Song, d. Gilbert Gunn, 1953), narrated Lindsay Anderson's Covent Garden Market life documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and appeared in bit parts on television: The Grove Family (BBC, 1954-57), The Granville Melodramas (ITV, 1955-56), The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (ITV, 1955-56).

Although he enjoyed a spell as a comedian, doing bits in The Dick Lester Show (ITV tx. 23/12/55), Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (ITV, 1956) and Son of Fred (ITV, 1956), the latter two series directed by Lester, and playing stooge to Arthur Askey in Before Your Very Eyes (ITV, 1956-58), it was becoming clear to him that writing was his true vocation.

His first scripts for the BBC were for radio: Two Sons in 1957, It Looks Like Rain, 1959. His first full-length play, Progress to the Park, about four friends who pass from youth to manhood during a warm summer weekend in Liverpool, began as a radio production, was staged in 1959 by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, and at the Royal Court, before reaching the West End at the Saville in 1961.

Although his second play, The Rough and Ready Lot, dealing with Irish, Welsh and English guerrillas in 19th century South America, was presented on television (BBC tx. 22/9/1959) by director-producer Casper Wrede from an adaptation by Charles Lawrence, Owen's first work directly for the small screen was the highly successful, Liverpool-set slice-of-life drama 'No Trams to Lime Street' (tx. 18/10/1959) for ABC's Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-69; 1970-74).

Owen followed with the popular Armchair Theatre productions 'After the Funeral' (tx. 3/4/1960), an entertaining commentary on Welsh ancestry, 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960), a pithy story of a naive Liverpool student and his love for a North Country factory girl, 'The Ways of Love' (tx. 9/4/1961), starring Kenneth Haigh as a young Welsh writer discovering literary fame in London, and 'The Hard Knock' (tx. 8/7/1962), revolving around a tough Liverpudlian merchant seaman; all directed by the proficient William (Ted) Kotcheff.

In 1963 Owen returned to acting, briefly, as the curate in Joseph Losey's account of patrician degradation, The Servant (1963), from a script by his old friend Harold Pinter. Some three years earlier Owen had written the screenplay (from a Jimmy Sangster story-line) for Losey's The Criminal (1960), a gritty picture of English prison life.

When American producer Walter Shenson was assigned to produce the first Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night (1964), he brought in Dick Lester as director. Lester, in turn, hired Owen to write the screenplay that, in its frantic combination of music, fashion culture and madcap humour, established the notion of 'Swinging London' in the middle 1960s. Owen also wrote the 'book' for Lionel Bart's boisterous musical story of Liverpool's dockland, Maggie May, which opened at London's Adelphi Theatre in September 1964.

In 1965 BBC2's prestigious Theatre 625 (1964-68) presented Owen's trilogy of Liverpool-Welsh plays in which, for the most part, an emotional journey ends in anticlimax: 'Progress to the Park' (tx. 14/3/1965), 'No Trams to Lime Street' (tx. 21/3/1965) and 'A Little Winter Love' (tx. 28/3/1965).

For producer Stella Richman's Rediffusion series Half Hour Story (ITV, 1967-68; 1971), Owen wrote 'Shelter' (tx. 19/5/1967), 'George's Room' (tx. 30/8/1967) and 'Stella' (tx. 19/6/1968), all directed by Alan Clarke. He also composed three comedy scripts for Rediffusion's The Ronnie Barker Playhouse (ITV, 1968), a David Frost executive-produced showcase for the multi comic character talents of the always-dependable Barker.

In 1969, in an attempt to revive the television single drama, a series of self-contained plays was devised by the various ITV companies under the collective banner Saturday Night Theatre (ITV, 1969-70). For ATV's contribution to this collection, Owen wrote the triangular love story 'Park People' (tx. 11/1/1969), followed by a trilogy of half-hour plays introduced by Sir Laurence Olivier: 'MacNeil' (tx. 1/2/1969), starring Sean Connery as a womanising master carpenter, 'Cornelius' (tx. 8/2/1969), with Michael Caine as a concupiscent cockney draughtsman, and 'Emlyn' (tx. 15/2/1969), featuring Paul Scofield as an amorous barrister.

A later work, the six-part Yorkshire Television serial Forget-Me-Not (ITV, 1976), featuring a couple of modern-minded women journalists in a Fleet Street newspaper setting, was, unfortunately, considered a resounding flop. Critics savaged Owen's series for failing to depict accurately the career-based newspaper background while creating what many saw as unbelievable women characters (Cyd Hayman's worldly women's page editor and Patricia Brake's capricious young reporter) going about their news gathering business in a wholly unrealistic fashion.

He made a rare return to acting in the second series of the psychiatric hospital drama Maybury (BBC, 1981; 1983), playing an unemployed Scottish welder on the brink of madness in Shane Connaughton's three-part story 'Alice' (tx. 1983).

Among Owen's last works for television were the adaptations 'Unexplained Laughter' (tx. 25/4/1989) for The Play on One (BBC, 1988-91), a dark comedy from the novel by Welsh writer Alice Thomas Ellis, starring Diana Rigg and Elaine Paige as a couple of friends sharing a remote holiday cottage retreat in Wales, and the three-part lust-and-greed drama set in 1930s Wales, Come Home Charlie and Face Them (ITV, 1990), from the novel by R.F. Delderfield.

It has been observed that as a television playwright Owen had the remarkable talent for being able to write idiomatic dialogue that, while sounding authentic, was actually carefully constructed heightened realism.

As one of the leading voices of 1960s British television, when it was a writers' medium, it was appropriate that his last television appearance was as an interviewee for presenter Richard Lester on the documentary Hollywood UK: British Cinema in the Sixties (BBC, 1993), a five-part series charting the fluctuation of British films and filmmakers (as well as television) during that decade.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Criminal, The (1960)Criminal, The (1960)

Joseph Losey's fascinating portrait of a changing criminal underworld

Thumbnail image of Every Day Except Christmas (1957)Every Day Except Christmas (1957)

Classic Free Cinema doc about Covent Garden market

Thumbnail image of Hard Day's Night, A (1964)Hard Day's Night, A (1964)

The Beatles star in one of the defining films of the Swinging Sixties

Thumbnail image of Servant, The (1963)Servant, The (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde's savage attack on the British class system

Thumbnail image of George's Room (1967)George's Room (1967)

A young widow has a revealing conversation with a prospective lodger

Thumbnail image of Grove Family, The (1954-57)Grove Family, The (1954-57)

Britain's first true soap, which counted the Queen Mother among its fans

Thumbnail image of Lena, O My Lena (1960)Lena, O My Lena (1960)

Alun Owen-scripted TV play about a naive young factory worker

Thumbnail image of Rose Affair, The (1961)Rose Affair, The (1961)

Witty drama updating the Beauty and the Beast tale

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Armchair Theatre (1956-74)Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

Hugely influential ITV anthology drama series

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Thumbnail image of Beatles, TheBeatles, The


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