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Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)

Writer, Producer, Designer

Main image of Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)

John Hawkesworth began his career in the film industry in the late 1940s in the art department at London Films. He became assistant to art director Vincent Korda, working on Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) and Outcast of the Islands (1951), and David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952).

Later, as an independent designer, he worked on such films as The Man Who Never Was (UK/US, d. Ronald Neame, 1955) and The Prisoner (d. Peter Glenville, 1955). He joined Rank as a trainee producer before qualifying as associate producer on Windom's Way (d. Ronald Neame, 1957) and eventually producer of J. Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay (1959), for which he also composed the screenplay.

In the mid 1960s he turned to television work, initially as a writer, scripting for producer Stella Richman's Rediffusion series The Hidden Truth (ITV, 1964), Blackmail (ITV, 1965-66) and Half Hour Story (ITV, 1967-68; 1971).

In 1967, following the success of the BBC's 1965 Sherlock Holmes adaptations, Hawkesworth created for the BBC the 13-episode series The Short Stories of Conan Doyle (tx. 1967), all adapted by Hawkesworth and focusing on the rest of Conan Doyle's story output.

For LWT in 1969 he wrote and produced the thirteen-week series The Gold Robbers (ITV, 1969), about an airport robbery of £5 million worth of bullion and the subsequent hunt for the robbers (shades of the 1963 Great Train Robbery). The cumulative tension of the series kept Friday-night viewers hooked throughout the 1969 summer months.

While the original idea for Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1971-75) came from two actresses, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who saw it as a vehicle for themselves, it was the narrative construction work of Hawkesworth (as writer-producer), writer John Whitney and script editor Alfred Shaughnessy that developed the idea into, perhaps, the decade's most popular drama series.

The BBC may have prepared the way for the popular costume drama with its epic serialisation of The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967), with each episode of the serial also serving as a self-contained piece, but Hawkesworth edged this narrative concept a step further when he produced The Gold Robbers and, ultimately, with the 68-part Upstairs, Downstairs.

The tremendous international success of Upstairs, Downstairs during the early 1970s led Hawkesworth back to the Edwardian era with The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-77). Starring Gemma Jones, the opulent-looking series was based on the real life of Rosa Lewis, a below-stairs cook who became the owner of the posh Cavendish Hotel in London in the early part of the last century.

With British TV happily immersed in cosy nostalgia during the latter half of the 1970s with stories of 'fondly remembered' yesterdays such as When the Boat Comes In (BBC, 1976-77; 1981), All Creatures Great and Small (BBC, 1978-90) and Pennies from Heaven (BBC, 1978), Hawkesworth embarked on a series of historically based dramas.

He developed, produced and scripted Danger UXB (ITV, 1979), about a bomb disposal unit in London during the blitz; The Flame Trees of Thika (ITV, 1/9-13/10/81), set in 1913 East Africa; By the Sword Divided (BBC, 16/10-18/12/83; 6/1-10/3/85), an English Civil War romance; and Oscar (BBC, 26-27-28/3/85), a trilogy of plays observing the decline of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s.

Some eighteen years after his 1967 BBC series, Hawkesworth returned to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and developed for Granada Television what is perhaps the finest Sherlock Holmes screen presentation to date, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1984-85). Jeremy Brett featured as the Baker Street sleuth, commanding the screen as an aloof, distinctly lonely, vulnerable, steely and often quirky Holmes. Three further Holmes series were produced - The Return of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1986-88), The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1991) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1994) - as well as five two-hour special episodes.

This latter period is perhaps Hawkesworth's most brilliant, featuring the most faithful and fullest literary adaptations of the Holmes stories to favour the small screen. Technically these series were expertly produced, with exceptional (muted colour) photography, assured evocation of the Victorian era of gaslight London, and a gallery of compelling guest performances (especially with the recurring characters of Eric Porter's Moriarty and Charles Gray's Mycroft Holmes). The entertaining enigma of the Holmes character and ethos remains secure.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Fallen Idol, The (1948)Fallen Idol, The (1948)

Classic child's eye story from Carol Reed and Graham Greene

Thumbnail image of Outcast of the Islands (1951)Outcast of the Islands (1951)

Underrated Joseph Conrad adaptation directed by Carol Reed

Thumbnail image of Sound Barrier, The (1952)Sound Barrier, The (1952)

Little-known David Lean film about ambition, courage and jet aircraft

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

Thumbnail image of Tiger Bay (1959)Tiger Bay (1959)

Melodrama starring Hayley Mills as a seven-year-old witness to murder

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)

Jeremy Brett's classic characterisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective hero

Thumbnail image of Danger U.X.B. (1979)Danger U.X.B. (1979)

White-knuckle drama following a bomb-disposal unit in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)

Epic drama of English settlers in 1910s Kenya, starring Hayley Mills

Thumbnail image of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)

Hugely popular drama about life in an early 20th Century London household

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