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Greatorex, Wilfred (1922-2002)

Writer, Script Editor, Producer

Main image of Greatorex, Wilfred (1922-2002)

Some 15 years before US television celebrated the primetime soap opera power and money machinations of Dallas (CBS, 1978-91) and Dynasty (ABC, 1981-89), Wilfred Greatorex had gripped the British television audience with the thrusting big business series The Plane Makers in 1963 - effectively creating the television boardroom drama.

Born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 27 May 1922, Greatorex served in the RAF before turning to journalism (the Blackburn Times, the Lancashire Evening Post). He then moved to London to join Reynolds News, eventually becoming Assistant Editor on the magazine John Bull. It was around this time that he made his first contribution to television as a writer, but he fell out with the BBC when an idea he put up for a series was accepted but passed on to another writer on the grounds that Greatorex was not sufficiently experienced to develop it.

The experience underlined his championing of ITV, insisting that the commercial channel gave far greater freedom to the writer. Concentrating more on television work, he wrote single plays and became a regular contributor of episodes to the youth-problem ATV drama Probation Officer (ITV, 1959-62).

His rather solemn 1961 play The Net (BBC, tx. 21/9/1961), a dramatised procedural about the immigration authorities and the people who pass under their scrutiny, led to a 1962 series of the same name. With its coldly realistic routine interrogation details the series prompted comparison with the BBC's recent Spycatcher (1959-61).

Created by Greatorex for ATV, The Plane Makers (ITV, 1963-65), about struggles for power in and around a fictional aircraft company, ran for three engaging series, during the course of which its dramatic focus evolved from the gritty setting of the factory floor (replete with its metals workers, shop stewards and works manager) to the commanding elegance of the executive suite.

The latter format became an instant hit with viewers and the second series introduced the single-minded character of John Wilder, the domineering managing director (played to viperish perfection by Patrick Wymark), and set the programme on its path to the even more intense series The Power Game (ITV, 1965-66).

For the most part, The Plane Makers/The Power Game was the collective work of producer Rex Firkin, principal writer Edmund Ward, and story editor Greatorex. Its shift from shop floor activities to the intrigues of high management (with its curious blend of private enterprise and public patronage and political manoeuvring) reflected Greatorex's own sense of left-wing politics ("Up North it's to do with fair dealing, but in London it's all to do with power.").

In the hiatus between The Plane Makers and The Power Game, producer Firkin and script editor Greatorex devised the Fleet Street newspaper drama Front Page Story (ITV, 1965). The 'power game' climate quickly affected the bustling offices of the newspaper, where "every working day is as pregnant with back-stabbing and betrayal as a paranoiac's birthday party" (as one contemporary critic observed).

The early 1970s was the time of the anti-hero in British drama series. Thames TV's ruthlessly ambitious Joe Lampton in Man at the Top (ITV, 1970-72) and BBC's aggressive tycoon Brett (1971) were joined by Greatorex's unscrupulous arms dealer Hine (ITV, 1971), a distorted romance of war and weaponry manipulated by a chillingly pleasant 'death merchant' (Barry Ingham).

The following year, Greatorex created the completely corrupt Man from Haven (ITV, 1972), a miniseries featuring a ferret-like Ian Holm as an out-of-work businessman who plans to make a quick million by blackmailing tax-dodgers with numbered Swiss bank accounts and something to hide.

Continuing his favourite theme of power and riches and the way they manipulate the lives of those who pursue it, Greatorex created the six-part saga The Inheritors (ITV, 1974) for HTV. Central to the individual stories was the sale of a vast estate, a £6 million tax bill, and the vulture-like gathering of would-be inheritors: newly-rich tycoons, property developers, business corporations, and others.

Planned originally as the first third of a 30-hour saga tracing an independent airline's progress from 1946 to the 1980s, Airline (ITV, 1982) lasted only nine episodes after Greatorex fell out with producers Yorkshire Television. The briefly popular series, about an enterprising Sir Freddie Laker-like operator who is determined to keep flying after the Second World War, was scrapped because of financial problems and a major row between Greatorex and YTV over unauthorised script re-writes.

The final straw in an increasingly frustrating business for Greatorex came when he was forced into a legal battle over the rights to his characters and the original idea for Airline: YTV had sold on rights to the British Airports Authority and their ad agency J. Walter Thompson, resulting in a series of unauthorised (Greatorex claimed) TV commercials.

The Greatorex maxim was: "I am opposed to soft-centred characters, which is why I don't create a lot of Robin Hoods. The world's full of hard cases, real villains. And they need to be confronted with other characters just as hard." (The Sunday Times, 1972).

Wilfred Greatorex died in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, on 14 October 2002.

Tise Vahimagi

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Thumbnail image of Plane Makers/Power Game, The (1963-69)Plane Makers/Power Game, The (1963-69)

Compelling boardroom intrigue, starring Patrick Wymark

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