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Shubik, Irene (1935-)

Writer, Director, Producer

Main image of Shubik, Irene (1935-)

Irene Shubik began as a documentary scriptwriter in the US for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films after failing to find work with BBC Television in London. On her return to England in the mid-1950s, she contributed news items to the early Associated-Rediffusion current affairs series This Week (ITV, 1956-92) before joining the ABC Drama Department in 1960 as story editor on producer Sydney Newman's Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74) anthology, where she worked with such writers as Harold Pinter, Clive Exton, Ray Rigby and Len Deighton.

In early 1962, Shubik created and started work on British television's first science fiction anthology series, Out of This World (ITV, 1962). Working as story editor for producer Leonard White, Shubik brought on board TV writers she had worked with on Armchair Theatre to adapt a cross-section of science fiction classics. John Wyndham's 'Dumb Martian' was used as the series' introductory episode when it was shown (tx. 24/6/62) the previous weekend as a part of Armchair Theatre.

Aimed at a late-night adult audience, the works included 'The Yellow Pill' (tx. 30/6/62), adapted by Leon Griffiths from the Rog Phillips story, 'Little Lost Robot' (tx. 7/7/62) by Leo Lehman from the Isaac Asimov story, 'Impostor' (tx. 21/7/62) by Terry Nation from the Philip K. Dick story, and 'Target Generation' (tx. 15/9/62) by Clive Exton from the Clifford Simak story. The series was hosted by Boris Karloff (a rather unlikely presence since the actor was associated more with horror-fantasy than with science fiction), whose introductions were all written by Shubik.

When Sydney Newman moved to BBC Television in 1963 as Head of Drama, he took Shubik with him, promising her a job eventually as a producer. For a while, however, she continued her work as story editor on the first drama series shown on the newly launched BBC2, Story Parade (BBC, 1964-65). For this anthology series, exploring the field of the modern novel, Shubik first introduced the work of such writers as Paul Scott (with 'The Bender', tx. 31/7/64; dramatised by Jeremy Paul), Tony Parker ('The Unknown Citizen', tx. 21/8/64; dramatised by Philip Broadley) and William Trevor ('The Old Boys', tx. 29/4/65; dramatised by Clive Exton).

In 1965 she became a producer, but continued to be her own story editor. Her first production (for BBC2) was the classic science fiction anthology Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-71), something of a continuation of her pioneering ITV series while also being the last of the prestigious British TV science fiction anthologies. To the delight of the corporation's executives the series drew a relatively large audience for the BBC's new second channel.

The noted science fiction authors and their works represented here included John Wyndham (with 'No Place Like Earth', the opening story, tx. 4/10/65), Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard and Frederick Pohl. Shubik produced only the first two series (1965-67) of this successful programme.

Between June and September 1966, before she embarked on series 2 of Out of the Unknown, Shubik produced a fascinating limited series of post-Maigret stories by the celebrated crime author Georges Simenon, Thirteen Against Fate (BBC, 1966). The mood-drenched dramas ranged in time and location (from Russia in the wake of the Revolution to Brussels in the 1930s), with Shubik's careful production hand ensuring a scrupulous fidelity to period detail and atmosphere.

In 1967 she became co-producer (with Graeme McDonald) of the highly rated and often controversial The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70). Among the notable productions during her term (1967 to 1970) with the anthology series were Tony Parker's 'Mrs Lawrence Will Look After It' (tx. 21/8/68), an alarming study of an unofficial child-minder, William Trevor's 'A Night With Mrs Da Tanka' (tx. 11/9/68), featuring a sweeping performance by Jean Kent as a brassy, drunken widow ("oozing a sort of Mayfair gone-to-seed charm", as a contemporary critic put it) in hot pursuit of a reclusive middle-aged bachelor, and Peter Terson's charming observation of the weekend pilgrimage of an ardent, spotty train buff to witness 'The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel' (tx. 1/10/69).

When The Wednesday Play segued into Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) Shubik continued as co-producer, as well as story editor, with such televisual treatments as John Osborne's poignant drama of a middle-aged, married couple enrolling as boarders at a boys' public school, 'The Right Prospectus' (tx. 22/10/70), Peter Nichols's grimly accurate observation of a suburban family funeral, 'Hearts and Flowers' (tx. 3/12/70) and, perhaps the most celebrated play of its time, Jeremy Sandford's 'Edna, the Inebriate Woman' (tx. 21/10/71), a compassionate portrait of the deprived and the desperate.

For her next venture, as a BBC/Time-Life co-production on film, Shubik produced a visually stunning series of six stories adapted from the works of Thomas Hardy, Wessex Tales (BBC, 1973). Hardy's sombre world of late 19th century poverty, repression and superstition, of despondent country folk controlled by the passage of the seasons was depicted through some extremely impressive photography by Brian Tufano (who would become Director of Photography on the successful British features Trainspotting, East is East and Billy Elliot), Peter Bartlett (who had photographed 'Edna, the Inebriate Woman'), Peter Hall (who had photographed Ken Russell's 'Dance of the Seven Veils' for Omnibus, BBC tx. 15/2/70) and Ken Westbury (who had started out at Ealing Studios as clapper/focus puller, 1944 to 1956).

For Playhouse (BBC, 1974-76; 1979-82) she produced two remarkable stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 'The Joke' (tx. 6/8/74) and 'The Cafeteria' (tx. 13/8/74), the first of Singer's work ever to be filmed. During this (mid-1970s) period she went on loan for three months from the BBC to Israeli TV. There she wrote and directed an hour-long documentary, Scrolls from the Son of a Star, based on an archaeological expedition by Yigal Yadin, later shown (tx. 12/2/76) as a part of the history documentary series Chronicle (BBC, 1966-91).

Her Playhouse production 'Mrs Acland's Ghosts' (tx. 15/1/75), a spooky ghost story by William Trevor, inspired the short-run collection Playhouse: The Mind Beyond (BBC, 1976). For this anthology of six original plays looking at paranormal phenomena from different perspectives, Shubik drew on such writers as Brian Hayles, Evan Jones and, again, William Trevor to convey the eerie atmosphere.

While working on Play for Today Shubik had commissioned a play by barrister-turned-playwright John Mortimer called 'Rumpole of the Bailey' (tx. 16/12/75), featuring Leo McKern as the wily old barrister Horace Rumpole. When McKern expressed an interest in playing the character again, Shubik commissioned six more scripts from Mortimer. The germ of Rumpole may have been seen in Mortimer's earlier Wednesday Play entry for Shubik, 'Infidelity Took Place' (tx. 8/5/68), in which a middle-aged, mother-dominated divorce lawyer (played by John Nettleton) sets out to rescue his attractive client from her cruel husband. Unfortunately, due to a change of heads of departments at the BBC, the proposed six-part series was shelved.

In 1977, Shubik left the BBC and went to Thames Television, where she produced the first series (1978) of Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-79; 1983; 1987-88; 1991-92), starring, of course, Leo McKern. While at Thames, from 1977 to 1979, she set up and commissioned all the scripts for the second Rumpole series (but did not produce).

She left Thames for Granada TV in 1979 to produce Paul Scott's four novels, The Raj Quartet. At the same time, director Waris Hussein was due to direct Scott's Staying On for Anglia TV (to star Wendy Hiller) but Anglia was not prepared to spend the money to go to India, preferring instead a studio production. When Shubik learned of this she informed Granada, who suggested that she produce the story as a pilot for the Raj Quartet project.

Staying On (ITV tx. 28/12/80), a sensitive post-British Raj story about an elderly couple who decide to live out their remaining years in a small Indian hill station, starred Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson (together again after the 35 years since Brief Encounter). Silvio Narizzano replaced Hussein as director and the production was, eventually, filmed in India. The success of Staying On paved the way for Granada's enormously popular The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984; formerly The Raj Quartet).

Shubik wrote the format on which the Jewel scripts were based, and worked on the latter with writer Ken Taylor, as well as researching the background and locations for the 14-part series. She left the production before filming commenced to work for Columbia Pictures on writing the screenplay for Girl in a Swing (UK/US, d. Gordon Hessler, 1989). Shubik's eventual credit on Jewel in the Crown was "series devised by".

Tise Vahimagi

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)

A young actress learns the dark side of showbiz

Thumbnail image of Chariot of Fire (1970)Chariot of Fire (1970)

Unusually complex portrait of a child abuser

Thumbnail image of Edna the Inebriate Woman (1971)Edna the Inebriate Woman (1971)

Powerful drama about society's indifference to the destitute.

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 Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)

A trainspotter's day trip becomes a voyage of discovery

Thumbnail image of Out of the Unknown (1965-71)Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

BBC sci-fi anthology of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Thumbnail image of Staying On (1980)Staying On (1980)

Moving drama about an ageing Colonel and his wife in post-Raj India

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

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