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Morahan, Christopher (1929-)


Main image of Morahan, Christopher (1929-)

One of British television's most accomplished directors, Christopher Morahan has enjoyed an enormously varied career spanning five decades, from the live drama of Emergency - Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-59) to the expensively glossy The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984) and several collaborations with Simon Gray. He has also directed numerous acclaimed stage productions.

Born in London on 9 July 1929, he was educated at Highgate School, where he acted in the dramatic society's production of 'The Doctor's Dilemma'. Abandoning an early ambition to become an architect, he studied at Michel Saint-Denis's Old Vic Theatre School before becoming a stage manager. Disillusioned with the state of early 1950s British theatre he switched to television, first as an assistant floor manager for the BBC and then at ATV, cutting his directorial teeth on the popular medical soap Emergency - Ward 10.

During the early 1960s he directed plays for the likes of Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1963-64) and episodes of Z Cars (BBC, 1962-64) before directing the three-part World of George Orwell (BBC, 1965), including a re-working of '1984' (tx. 28/11/1965), with Nigel Kneale updating his own script for 1954's Rudolph Cartier production. Morahan's long-missing version was among some 70 British dramas rediscovered at the US Library of Congress in 2010, and was marked by imaginative use of studio sets.

More remarkable, though, was the four-part Talking to a Stranger (BBC, 1966), written by John Hopkins and charting the gradual disintegration of a dysfunctional family from the perspective of each of its four members. Morahan's harrowing production was heralded as a coming-of-age for television drama, while its largely theatre-trained cast - including Maurice Denham, Judi Dench and Michael Bryant - re-awakened the director's interest in the stage. With encouragement from Peter Hall he embarked on a dual career in the theatre, with successful engagements at the Royal Court and the National Theatre.

As the BBC's head of plays from 1972 to 1976 he championed the work of Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke and Alan Bennett. Perhaps the boldest of his commissions was Jim Allen's Days of Hope (BBC, 1975), a fiercely revisionist historical serial directed by Ken Loach, which detailed the lives of a working-class family between WWI and the 1926 general strike. For the remainder of the 1970s he concentrated mainly on stage work, but returned to television to produce and co-direct the much-feted Raj drama The Jewel in the Crown. Morahan's unlikely follow-up to that success was his first feature film, the madcap Clockwise (1985), starring John Cleese.

His 1987 stage production of Simon Gray's 'Melon' began a fruitful collaboration which extended into television. 'After Pilkington' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 25/1/1987) saw two childhood friends reunited in the search for a missing archaeologist; its blend of mystery and black humour won it the best fiction prize at the Prix Italia. 'Old Flames' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 14/1/1990) was followed by 'The Common Pursuit' (Great Performances, BBC, tx. 8/3/1992), an adaptation of Gray's earlier stage success tracing the lives of six Cambridge undergraduates over two decades. Morahan and Gray's last television project was the two-part Unnatural Pursuits (BBC, 1992), with Alan Bates as self-destructive playwright Hamish Partt - a character loosely based on Gray himself.

In the meantime Morahan chilled audiences with Paper Mask (BBC, tx. 14/9/1990), in which Paul McGann's hospital orderly impersonated a recently deceased doctor to deadly effect, while Ashenden (BBC, 1991) added a mounting sense of ennui to David Pirie's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's WWI espionage tales.

Later work included The Peacock Spring (BBC, 1996), featuring the screen debut of his daughter Hattie, and A Dance to the Music of Time (BBC, 1997), co-directed with fellow veteran Alvin Rakoff. Feature-length works included Hitchcockian thriller Element of Doubt (1996) and medical satire HR (BBC, 2007). He has continued to work regularly in the theatre, and in 2011 was made a CBE for services to drama.

Richard Hewett

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Clockwise (1985)Clockwise (1985)

John Cleese-starring comedy about a headmaster having a very bad day

Thumbnail image of 1984 (1965)1984 (1965)

Long lost remake of Orwell's classic dystopian nightmare

Thumbnail image of Ashenden (1991)Ashenden (1991)

Spy drama adapted from Somerset Maugham's stories

Thumbnail image of Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

British TV's first long-running medical drama series

Thumbnail image of In the Secret State (1985)In the Secret State (1985)

Gripping thriller about intelligence and counter-subversion

Thumbnail image of Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)

Acclaimed drama series set in the 1940s Indian Raj

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 Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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Thumbnail image of Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer