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Pulman, Jack (1925-1979)


Main image of Pulman, Jack (1925-1979)

Often referred to as 'adaptor-extraordinary', Jack Pulman brought a quality of literary and historical integrity to the task of adaptation. He wrote his first play for television, 'You Can't Have Everything' (Television Playhouse, ITV, tx. 2/5/58), a slice-of-life drama about the miseries of a young couple living in a bed-sitter, in the evenings while by day training as a lecturer in economics. (Pulman's play was later bought by American anthology series The US Steel Hour and adapted by James Yaffe)

Later in 1958, he contributed three episodes to the ABC/Ziv Television crime drama series Dial 999 (ITV, 1958-59), starring Robert Beatty as a Canadian detective assigned to Scotland Yard. The last two of Pulman's episodes were credited to 'Paul M. Jack'.

Returning to the TV play format, he followed with the Sunday-Night Theatre presentations 'All You Young Lovers' (BBC, tx. 21/6/59), exploring the awkwardness of adolescence, and 'Echo from Afar' (BBC, tx. 13/12/1959), in which a German refugee's past catches up with him. His 'Nearer to Heaven' (BBC, tx. 1/1/1961, for The Sunday-Night Play) dealt with hope and despair in an old people's home, and A Book With Chapters In It (BBC, tx. 8/12/1961) observed the complications of adult life through the eyes of a lonely young boy. The last of his sequence of original plays for television was Still Life (BBC, tx. 15/3/1963), a show business drama featuring Elizabeth Sellars, Peter McEnery and Peter Vaughan.

Revealing an unexpected flair for comedy, Pulman wrote a try-out episode (under the name 'Paul Jackman') for a possible sitcom series to feature actor David Kossoff called A Little Big Business (ITV, tx. 8/8/1963). Kossoff, who had concentrated on stage work and films since (temporarily) finishing his run in the popular sitcom The Larkins (ITV, 1958-60; 1963-64), was tempted back to television this time as a sagely Jewish furniture craftsman continually at loggerheads with his commerce-concerned son. Two series followed (ITV, 1964-65), all written by Pulman for producer Peter Eton at Granada Television.

Pulman's first serious critical success came with his celebrated seven-part adaptation of Thomas Mann's German family chronicle Buddenbrooks (BBC, 1965), cited as a perfect example of the art of balancing fictional against dramatic values.

This led to the adaptation of two works by Henry James. The first, The Portrait of a Lady (BBC, 1968), was an elegant six-part story of an American heiress and her tireless train of suitors, starring Richard Chamberlain and Suzanne Neve. That the serial premiered just a few weeks after BBC2 launched its colour TV service added to its allure, with designer Roy Oxley's vibrant late Victorian sets and costumes enhancing Pulman's screenplay.

Some four years later Pulman returned to the turn-of-the-century world of Henry James with the six-part serialisation of The Golden Bowl (BBC, 1972), the author's last novel. The theme was again innocence betrayed and Pulman, once again, managed to strip the musty atmosphere from the published original and convey a version whose literary complexity was thought to be far beyond the television range.

In the years between the Henry James adaptations, Pulman found time to complete screenplays for the American made-for-TV films David Copperfield (NBC tx. 15/3/1970) and Jane Eyre (NBC tx. 24/3/1971), both directed by old-hand Delbert Mann, and the theatrical features The Executioner (d. Sam Wanamaker, 1970) and Kidnapped (US, 1971), the latter again for Mann.

With his remarkable facility for catching the style of some of the world's leading authors, Pulman was engaged next on perhaps his most ambitious project, the 20-episode serialisation of Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace (BBC, 1973). While most contemporary TV critics were at first apprehensive about television adapting such a colossal classic for the small screen ("the danger of condensing a book crowded with character and incident"), the viewers' expectations of the serial were met with some fine performances (Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood) and with some colourful and exquisite battle and ballroom sequences.

Having shown that he could bring his dramatic talent to shape even Tolstoy's grand story for television's small screen, Pulman was engaged to contribute two episodes to a dramatic account of the last days of the great European dynasties, the 13-part Fall of Eagles (BBC, 1974). Tracing the fall of the all-powerful Romanov, Hohenzollern and Habsburg families in the years leading up to the First World War, this proved to be an ideal project for a writer like Pulman, since history on television tends to deal in personalities rather than events.

Continuing with period personalities and history, Pulman wrote the opening four episodes of the romance-drama Poldark (BBC, 1975-77), an 18th century costume piece set against the Cornish background of smuggling, wrecking, gambling, famine and riot, before embarking on his most memorable work, the ancient imperial Rome saga I, Claudius (BBC, 1976). Once again, Pulman's narrative skill captured perfectly the gossipy, almost soap-opera flavour of Robert Graves' novels (I, Claudius and Claudius the God). As a tale told in flashback by Derek Jacobi's wily old Claudius, Pulman's scripts were noteworthy for their irreverent wit and sophistication (as well as a clever combination of modern idiom and period expression).

Returning to the comedy field after some 13 years, Pulman created the marvellous six-part Private Schulz (BBC, 1981), starring Michael Elphick as the sympathetic Schulz in a delightfully screwball plot based on an actual Second World War German counter-espionage plan to flood Britain with forged £5 notes. In 1983, Keith Waterhouse adapted Pulman's first stage play, The Happy Apple, into a seven-episode sitcom of the same title for Thames TV (ITV, 1983). Pulman's play, revolving around an advertising agency secretary who is discovered to be the perfect embodiment of the buying public, was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1967.

The three-part presentation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (BBC, 1979), from Pulman's taut adaptation, was a meticulous production, making use of British locations with great resourcefulness to conjure up St Petersburg in the 1860s. A large part of the credit for its commendable economy goes to Pulman's adaptation, while John Hurt described one of the screen's most memorable Raskolnikovs.

In early 1978 Paramount TV producer Stanley Kallis and author Herman Wouk approached Pulman to write a treatment (to be followed by a screenplay) for Wouk's sweeping World War Two novel The Winds of War. In September 1978 producer-director Dan Curtis (having replaced Kallis) conferred with Pulman on the progress of the treatment; everything was going smoothly. But then, on the 27th May 1979, Pulman suffered a heart attack and died. With Pulman having solved any problems in making the adaptation, Wouk himself completed the screenplay. Produced at a staggering cost of some $40 million, The Winds of War (ABC-TV, 1983) was presented in seven instalments (totalling around 18 hours). Its success led to an even longer sequel, War and Remembrance (ABC-TV, 1988-89).

Much of Pulman's spare time was devoted to the work of the Writers' Guild as a long-serving member of its executive council, and as chairman of its film committee. In May 1982 Pulman's widow, actress Barbara Young, accepted a posthumous writers' award from the Royal Television Society for her husband's series Private Schulz.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of Private Schulz (1981)Private Schulz (1981)

WWII comedy drama about a reluctant SS soldier with big dreams

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