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Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)

Producer, Director, Actor, Writer, Executive

Main image of Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)

Shaun Alfred Graham Sutton was born 14 October 1919 in Hammersmith, son of schoolmaster and novelist Graham Sutton and an actress mother. Educated at Latymer Upper School (where his father taught) he had ambitions to act, and attended London's Embassy Theatre School. At 16 he was learning the trade of stage management, performing tasks from scene-shifting to directing in the West End but this was interrupted by the outbreak of war. He served in the Navy for six years, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

Post-war he worked at the Embassy Theatre, met and married actress Barbara Leslie and toured South Africa. His mother advised that he favour writing, directing and producing over acting and he approached BBC Television with his behind-the-scenes credentials in 1952.

The BBC Children's Department was barely two years old when Sutton was appointed to a producer/director role, overseeing scripted comedy and drama. He learned the ways of live television, working in the cramped confines of the Lime Grove studios, gaining assistant producer credits on serials Huckleberry Finn (BBC, 1952), The Silver Swan (BBC, 1952-3) and Seven Little Australians (BBC, 1953).

Sutton's acting days were not quite behind him - lack of resources meant he took six small parts in The Silver Swan and even the lead (Silas Sutherland) in The Cabin in the Clearing (BBC, 1954). He later joked that "financial limitations often led to bad casting".

His first writing credit was for The Gordon Honour (BBC, 1955-56), stories of a candlestick handed down through generations of adventurers, a series he also produced. Further producer credits came with literary adaptations like Huntingtower (BBC, 1956) and wartime 'quest' saga, The Silver Sword (BBC, 1957-58). Queen's Champion (BBC, 1958) wasn't an adaptation but an ersatz 'classic' set at the time of the Armada written (and produced) by Sutton himself and later novelised.

Sutton handled comedy also - he was a producer on Billy Bunter (BBC, 1953-61) and wrote and produced Bonehead (BBC, 1960-62), about a gang of bungling crooks. While he would later suggest that "complicated personal relationships, Freudian obsessions and the darker sides of human nature are better left out" of children's drama, he wrote and produced groundbreaking serial Paradise Walk (1961), a tale of vandalism and thuggery amid Britain's immigrant urban population - tough stuff for its time.

Soon after came the politically motivated break-up of the Children's Department. Drama productions were removed from its control in late 1961 but Sutton's career thrived by his becoming a director in BBC Drama per se. Despite this, he would remain active in children's and family programmes, including WWII action serial The Last Man Out (BBC, 1962) and fun gang drama Adventure Weekly (BBC, 1968-69).

Sutton earned acclaim as one of the first staff directors on influential police show Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78). Other director credits took in episodes of sleuthing anthology series Detective (including first episode 'The Moving Toy Shop'), The Troubleshooters (BBC, 1966-72) and Z Cars spin-off Softly, Softly (BBC, 1966-76), including its opening episode.

Sutton's ascent was rapid, and in 1966 he was installed as Head of Drama Serials, where he approved adaptation of The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967), John Galsworthy's novels of a powerful Victorian family, as an epic 26-part serial that gripped the nation. He also supervised BBC2's first colour productions including Vanity Fair (BBC, 1967).

Sutton was promoted to Head of Drama Group in 1969. Historical biographies like The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970) and Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971) soon dominated, as did literary period sagas such as The Onedin Line (BBC, 1971-80) and Poldark (BBC, 1975-77). Sutton also encouraged producer David Conroy to adapt modern literary standards, begetting the Jean-Paul Sartre serials grouped as The Roads to Freedom (BBC, 1970).

Fairly conservative, with a penchant for the classics, Sutton nonetheless encouraged strong and sometimes controversial new drama writing. "Let dramatists call a spade a spade," he said. "But the point can usually be made without calling it a four-letter shovel." He was nonetheless keen to prevent censorship: "The decisions of drama should stay in drama hands [within the department] and reference outside is an admission of failure - an invitation to future interference." Sutton presided over arguments concerning Scum (BBC, 1977 ntx; 1991) and Brimstone and Treacle (BBC, 1976 ntx; 1987).

Retiring his executive post in 1981 (he was awarded an OBE in 1979), he paused to write memoir The Largest Theatre in the World (1982), musing on increasing costs in drama, and how moves towards producing drama on location and on film might one day render electronic studios as white elephants. Of his beloved Play For Today (BBC, 1970-84) he worried "the menacing graph showing high cost and low audience renders [it] vulnerable".

Sutton was far from retirement, next taking the producer's role on the remaining 14 instalments of the BBC's ambitious Shakespeare cycle (BBC, 1978-85), beginning with King Lear (BBC, tx. 19/9/82) and completing the Folio with Titus Andronicus (BBC, tx. 27/4/85). He next produced several modern classic single plays including Ayckbourn works Absurd Person Singular (BBC, tx. 1/1/85) and Relatively Speaking (BBC tx. 24/12/89) and several entries in BBC2's Theatre Night strand (BBC, 1985-91).

Sutton's career then came full circle - his final producer's credit was on a Sunday family serial, Arthurian saga Merlin of the Crystal Cave (BBC, 1991). Sutton retired to Norfolk thereafter, where he died on 14 May 2004 after a short illness.

Alistair McGown

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BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation with Roger Daltrey

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BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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Leonard Rossiter's last screen role, as Shakespeare's 'bad king'

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Oddly low-key BBC adaptation of Shakespeare's rollicking English farce

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Biting Alan Ayckbourn drama about a disastrous family Christmas

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The final BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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Shakespeare's great political drama, with Alan Howard in the title role

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Near-complete BBC version of Shakespeare's tale of villainy

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BBC version of one of Shakespeare's least-known plays

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Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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