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Glaister, Gerard (1915-2005)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Glaister, Gerard (1915-2005)

Gerard Glaister was a director at Chesterfield repertory theatre in the late 1950s when he applied for a place on the BBC's training course for directors. Following the six months training period - during which he was given the opportunity to understudy Rudolph Cartier - Glaister was invited to direct his first TV play, the gentle comedy Romantic Chapter (BBC, tx. 17/1/57) starring Anthony Nicholls and Barbara Murray.

He moved north to the BBC's Manchester studios and directed another single play, Uncertain Honours (BBC, tx. 12/3/57), before embarking on his first thriller series as director, the six-part Wideawake (BBC, 1957), written by mystery novelist Michael Gilbert, author of prisoner-of-war camp murder mystery Danger Within (d. Don Chaffey, 1958).

Glaister's first role as producer-director came with the Scotland Yard thriller serial Big Guns (BBC, 1958), from another crime author, Berkeley Mather, and was broadcast live from Studio D at Lime Grove. Following this he produced 24 episodes of the BBC's first twice-weekly (live) serial Starr and Company (BBC, 1958), the six-part murder mystery The Widow of Bath (BBC, 1959 with an impressive cast headed by Fay Compton, Guy Rolfe and John Justin), and, in a return collaboration with writer Michael Gilbert, a series of two-part thrillers about undercover Scotland Yard officers, The Men from Room Thirteen (BBC, 1959-61).

The early part of the 1960s saw Glaister enjoying long spells directing BBC TV's excellent Maigret (BBC, 1960-63) adaptations, featuring Rupert Davies' flexible underplaying as the famed Surete inspector. The series' vividly realistic background managed to capture perfectly the flavour of French author George Simenon's grey world of police interrogations and underworld habitués, set against a Paris quarter of shadowy backstreets and bleak apartments.

During the middle part of the decade he directed the hugely popular Dr Finlay's Casebook (BBC, 1962-71) series, based on the Scottish small town doctor stories written by A.J. Cronin. Glaister would return to the Dr Finlay milieu again in the late 1970s, with stories focusing on a small Highland town veterinary practice in The Mackinnons (BBC, 1977).

He remained with the Scottish setting for the social drama This Man Craig (BBC, 1966-67), producing two series about the day-to-day activities of the staff and pupils in a comprehensive school in Scotland, with John Cairney in the title role. In a marked change of dramatic subject, his next project was the action adventures of The Revenue Men (BBC, 1967-68), a rather poker-faced procedural revolving around the investigations of Customs and Excise officers.

In 1968 Glaister and writer N.J. Crisp combined the popular television professions of the doctor and the detective in the intelligent crime-mystery series The Expert (BBC, 1968-69; 1971; 1976), a rewarding drama heightened by the proficient acting of Marius Goring as a freelance pathologist. (The Expert, incidentally, was the first BBC2 drama series to be made in colour.) Due to its meticulously researched narrative, it also helped popularise the crime/mystery sub-genre of the forensic whodunit.

With The Brothers (BBC, 1972-76), Glaister moved into the corporate soap opera genre (established by ATV's The Power Game in 1965), a television world of ruthless boardroom ambition, inter-family tensions and novelettish emotional entanglements. Rather sadly, this particular saga of a family-run road haulage firm concerned itself wholly with the tedious recriminations of family infighting, despite its ready-made opportunities for exploiting the province of the long distance truck driver.

Although Glaister would revisit the corporate soap format more than once before achieving a recognisable success with Howards' Way in the 1980s, he spent much of the 1970s on a tour of duty with the war story. As producer and co-deviser (with Brian Degas) of Colditz (BBC, 1972-74), initially a co-production with Universal Television, Glaister achieved a ratings winner - an audience record of some 19 million viewers during its 1st series - with stories set in Nazi Germany's prisoner-of-war 'escape proof' Colditz Castle. Eventually, however, when stock heroics took precedence over psychological insight, viewers abandoned their routes into this particular escapism.

Toward the end of the 1970s Glaister's Secret Army (BBC, 1977-79) continued the familiar theme of subterfuge and escape, this time focusing on the exploits of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Central to the series was the activities of an underground railway running escaped Allied airmen to safety. (Some five years later the format was cruelly - albeit hilariously - caricatured in the 1984-92 BBC sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!.).

As a sequel to Secret Army, the six-part Kessler (BBC, 1981), co-devised with John Brason and produced by Glaister, focused on the original series' Gestapo chief Sturmbahnfuhrer Kessler, played with an air of icy efficiency by Clifford Rose, and brought his story up to date as a wanted war criminal.

Brason and Glaister went on to co-devise another wartime drama serial, The Fourth Arm (BBC, 1983), dealing with a secret mission to sabotage a Nazi V1 flying bomb dump in France. Viewed as a predictable, old-fashioned adventure story, however, the 12-part serial presented only moments of modest tension and excitement.

Bringing his attention back to the adult soap opera-styled world of feuding family business interests, ostentatious characters, and storylines set against the luxurious backgrounds of the privileged classes, Glaister created and produced the popular Howards' Way (BBC, 1985-90). This surprisingly slick-looking serial - a confident advance from Glaister's earlier serialised struggles for power and money, Oil Strike North (BBC, 1975) and the air freight company drama Buccaneer (BBC, 1980) - portrayed the rich and glamorous lifestyles of the yachting and sailing set while preserving the textbook clichés associated with this sort of melodrama.

With the 1980s marking the peak of popularity for glossy, primetime soap serials (highlighted by the runaway successes of American TV's Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, Flamingo Road and others), it was not surprising that viewers found the machinations of the filthy rich in the marine world intriguing. By episode three, Howards' Way had 11 million viewers tuning in and had replaced Dynasty at the top of the UK ratings.

Just one year after the conclusion of Howards' Way, Glaister was back with a similarly styled serial - the affluent horse-racing world of Trainer (BBC, 1991-92). Yet somehow, despite an interesting cast of regular players (which included the quietly professional talents of Susannah York, David McCallum and Nigel Davenport), the saddles-and-stables serial failed to emulate the earlier series' success.

Although Howards' Way and Trainer never quite equalled the elegance and edge of the best US high-class pulp fictions (Dallas, Dynasty), it would be fair to observe that Glaister's characters offered a certain freshness and contrast in comparison to the hollow sophistication of their American counterparts.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Colditz (1972-74)Colditz (1972-74)

Tense drama about Allied captives in a WWII German prison camp

Thumbnail image of Dr Finlay's Casebook (1962-71)Dr Finlay's Casebook (1962-71)

Classic early TV medical drama set in the Scottish lowlands

Thumbnail image of Expert, The (1968-71, 1976)Expert, The (1968-71, 1976)

Medical/crime drama based on the cases of a pathologist

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

Gripping WWII drama about the Belgian resistance

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