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Raphael, Frederic (1931-)

Writer, Director

Main image of Raphael, Frederic (1931-)

Frederic Raphael was born in Chicago on 14 August 1931, to an American mother and an English father, who worked in public relations at Shell Oil. The family were Jewish, and moved first to New York in 1934 and then to England in 1938, where Raphael was educated at Charterhouse and then St. John's College, Cambridge, where he read philosophy. He gained early journalistic experience working at the Sunday Express, before embarking on a glittering career as a hugely successful writer, of both screenplays and novels. His first novel was published in 1956, followed by a number of original plays, adaptations and episodes of series such as Probation Officer (ITV, 1959-62), for television. His first big-screen credit was for Bachelor of Hearts (d. Wolf Rilla, 1958), a comedy in which a miscast Hardy Kruger played a German student at Cambridge. Raphael has drawn on his experiences of the public school system and Cambridge ever since, constantly re-examining what such institutions do to the individuals who pass through them, especially those who consider themselves outsiders, through religion or class, as Raphael did himself.

His first major screenplay was the blackly comic social satire Nothing but the Best (d. Clive Donner, 1964), in which Alan Bates played an ambitious young clerk determined to let nothing - even murder - stand in the way of his rise to the top. The following year Raphael won an Oscar for Darling (d. John Schlesinger, 1965), a coolly detached study of the social rise of a '60s swinger, an iconic portrait by Julie Christie. Several more novels followed, as well as literary adaptations for the screen such as the ravishing Far From the Madding Crowd (d. John Schlesinger, 1967), a critical failure but a continuing popular success, starring both Alan Bates and Julie Christie.

Raphael returned to television in triumph in 1976 with The Glittering Prizes (BBC), a witty and compelling portrait of his Cambridge generation, told over six episodes, and now considered a landmark in television drama. He followed this with a well-received TV adaptation of the classic 1930s Geoffrey Household thriller, Rogue Male (BBC, 1976), which reunited him with director Clive Donner, but returned to familiar territory with another examination of the public school system in the chilling School Play (BBC, 1979). Richard's Things (d. Anthony Harvey, 1980), an enigmatic love story starring Liv Ullmann as a widow discovering her husband's past, was a rare example of Raphael adapting one of his own novels for the big screen.

He continued to plunder his past for Oxbridge Blues (BBC, 1984), adapted from a series of his short stories about two brothers, Cambridge graduates with literally differing degrees of success, but his next major television drama was the 10-part series After the War (ITV, 1989), which he considers among his finest work. It is also probably the most autobiographical. Joe and Michael meet as schoolboys in 1942, but while both are Jewish, Michael comes from a privileged background, while Joe and his mother are refugees from the war in Europe. The series follows them as they grow up and pursue careers in the media, another of Raphael's recurring themes.

Raphael has always been a fierce critic of the film industry both in Britain and Hollywood, and the relative paucity of his screen work since After the War probably reflects the problems he has encountered in the changing climate of the past fifteen years, although he did write the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's disappointing final film, Eyes Wide Shut (US/UK, 1999). He is outspoken in the columns he occasionally writes for the popular press, but the 30-page preface he wrote for the publication in 1967 of his original screenplay Two for the Road (d. Stanley Donen, 1966), in which he argues with all of his customary wit and erudition for a 'writers' cinema', remains his most cogent critique of the pretensions, shortcomings and absurdities of an industry with which he has always had an ambiguous relationship. It is a lament which has been voiced by writers ever since the advent of the talking picture, but Raphael has raised it to a high art, while at the same time acknowledging the reasons why things are as they are, by the very nature of large-scale commercial filmmaking.

Raphael has often suffered from the traditional British dislike of 'cleverness' and easy success, and his work has been criticised for being almost exclusively concerned with a bright, witty, Oxbridge-educated, middle-class elite, most of whom end up working in the 'media' - his own world, in other words. His work was certainly at odds with much of the screen drama of the 1960s and 1970s, with its grittily realistic portrayal of working-class life. In justification, he sees the history of the period, from the 1950s onwards, as very much concerned with the rise of the media and the notion of 'celebrity', with show business taking over as the dominant industry in Western culture. Despite living in England since the age of 7, he retains his American citizenship, and an ambiguous attitude towards an Establishment of which he has, nonetheless, become a part. That ambiguity, alongside a nagging obsession with the role of the Jew in a gentile society, continues as the main theme of his work.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Darling (1965)Darling (1965)

Julie Christie gives an Oscar-winning performance as an amoral socialite

Thumbnail image of After the War (1989)After the War (1989)

Drama series spanning 25 years after the end of World War II

Thumbnail image of Glittering Prizes, The (1976)Glittering Prizes, The (1976)

Acclaimed serial charting the lives of a group of Cambridge friends

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