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Barr, Robert (1909-1999)

Writer, Director, Producer

Main image of Barr, Robert (1909-1999)

A former newspaper reporter and BBC war correspondent, Robert Barr wrote and produced the first television documentary for BBC Television, Germany Under Control (tx. 18/9/1946), a short report based on an eight weeks' tour of the British zone in post-war Germany. Two years later, he produced the BBC's first full-length (45 mins) documentary, Report on Germany (tx. 9/7/1948), using film specially shot by German cameramen. He was the BBC's first TV documentary writer and producer and established the corporation's Documentary Section.

Barr's early career moved easily between documentary and drama during these live broadcast days. In January 1949 he adapted and produced an hour-long dramatic version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (BBC, tx. 25/1/1949), featuring Russell Napier as the time traveller. Some three weeks later, he wrote and produced the opening segment ('Inside Scotland Yard', tx 7/3/1949) of the documentary series London After Dark (BBC, 1949).

Just two months after that, Barr produced the special film programme The Blockade Ends (BBC, tx. 15/5/1949), commemorating the official ending of Russia's 1948 blockade of supplies into Berlin (which had resulted in the Berlin Airlift). The documentary, filmed by BBC TV newsreel cameramen, showed the airlift in operation, as well as scenes shot just three days before transmission as goods from Berlin began to move by road, rail and canal.

While he continued with documentary work, he was increasingly drawn to what would become the TV genre of the 'dramatised documentary'. War on Crime (BBC, 1950), opening the casebooks of Scotland Yard, and the drama-doc series Pilgrim Street (BBC, 1952), the story of a London police station written by Jan Read (who co-wrote the film The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1950)), were early attempts to portray the day-to-day routine of London police.

As well as military and police subjects, Barr's drama-documentary interests also embraced the medical services. One of his earliest successes was Medical Officer of Health (BBC tx. 21/9/1954), a documentary 'drama' following the procedural containment of an imaginary smallpox epidemic in a small Midlands town (with film sequences directed by John Oxley). Flying Ambulance (BBC, 11/9/1958), written by Barr and produced by Gilchrist Calder, told the dramatic story of the Air Ambulance Service and, in this instance, focused on one of their emergency flights to the islanders of the Outer Hebrides. With Medico (BBC, tx. 7/1/1959), an exciting drama-doc story about maritime emergency medical services, he won the Prix Italia for live documentary.

Generally regarded as Barr's most significant dramatic work for television was the 1959-61 espionage series Spycatcher (BBC), based on the wartime exploits of counter-espionage chief Lt.-Col. Oreste Pinto (played by the granitic Bernard Archard). An intense dialogue drama, for the most part between Pinto and the person he is interrogating, the tension in the characters' faces supplied as much action as the viewer could want. Barr followed this with another World War Two espionage drama, Moonstrike (BBC, 1963), this time featuring the special operations of Allied agents dropped into Nazi-occupied Europe. He would return later to espionage drama with the sequence of mini-serials about Cold War trickery, Spy Trap (BBC, 1972-73; 1975).

It was during the mid-1960s that he became involved with (what would be) the long-running police drama Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) as writer and executive producer, continuing in a similar capacity with its various spin-offs: Softly Softly (BBC, 1966-70), Softly Softly: Task Force (BBC, 1970-76) and Barlow at Large (BBC, 1971; 1973).

During the late 1960s he devised Gazette (ITV, 1968) for Yorkshire TV, a domestic drama series about the running of a local newspaper that eventually became the popular Hadleigh (ITV, 1969-76), featuring Gerald Harper as the eponymous country squire and owner of the Yorkshire newspaper.

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Thumbnail image of Enemy at the Door (1978-80)Enemy at the Door (1978-80)

Powerful drama set in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands

Thumbnail image of Secret Army (1977-79)Secret Army (1977-79)

Gripping WWII drama about the Belgian resistance

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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