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Muller, Robert (1925-1998)


Main image of Muller, Robert (1925-1998)

Robert Muller came to Britain in 1938, a 13-year-old Jewish refugee from Hamburg. He finished his education here, went on to a 20-year career in journalism, including entertainment editor of Picture Post, and then to theatre critic for the Daily Mail.

With the encouragement of producer Sydney Newman, Muller turned to full-time writing for television. His first work was for Newman's prestigious Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74) series with 'The Night Conspirators' (tx. 6/5/62), an offbeat story about a senile Hitler who had survived the Berlin bunker, 'Afternoon of a Nymph' (tx. 30/9/62), a talky drama set on the sleazy fringe of show business, and a battle-of-the-sexes piece, 'Thank You and Goodnight' (tx. 11/11/62). All were directed by the sure hand of Philip Saville.

From these apprenticeship years, he soon emerged as a talented dramatist and adaptor of classics. The tragic yet darkly comic 'Pirandello's Henry IV' (for Theatre 625, BBC, tx. 26/6/67) and his modern adaptation of Georg B├╝chner's Woyzeck, updated to the 'swinging sixties' and retitled 'Death of a Private' (for The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 13/12/67). Then the highly praised serial adaptations Nana (BBC, 1968) from Emile Zola, Bel Ami (BBC, 1971) from Guy de Maupassant, Man of Straw (BBC, 1972) from Heinrich Mann, and Vienna 1900 (BBC, 1973-74) from Arthur Schnitzler.

During the 1960s, Muller experienced something of an English-German cultural double life. In 1965 he collaborated (as adaptor) with writer Henry Kolarz on the three-part German TV drama Die Gentlemen bitten zur kasse (ARD, 8-10-13/2/66), a drama-documentary account of the Great Train Robbery of August 1963 (released later in a condensed film version as The Great British Train Robbery (US) in 1967 and as The Great Train Robbery (UK) in 1968). Two years later, he co-authored a stage play about German adolescents, which ran at the Bremen theatre, and in 1969 he took on an acting role in director Peter Zadek's German film Piggies (West Germany, 1970).

While he proved to be proficient at translating the science fiction genre to television, adapting the works of authors Isaac Asimov ('The Prophet' and 'The Naked Sun') and Clifford Simak ('Beach Head') for the BBC's Out of the Unknown (1965-71) anthology, it soon became apparent that he had a particular penchant for the gothic. For this genre Muller adapted chilling television versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Body Snatcher' (tx. 5/2/66) and 'The Suicide Club' (tx. 9/2/70), as well as a potent version of 'Frankenstein' (tx. 11/11/68), all for the Associated-Rediffusion collection Mystery and Imagination (ITV, 1966-70).

His talent for inducing an effective undercurrent of mystery and horror resulted in his particularly spooky eight-part collection of sinister stories, Supernatural (BBC, 1977). Set in a misty, dreamlike Victorian atmosphere, the concept involved the recounting of an eerie story by a guest of a peculiar society known as The Club of the Damned. Quirky tales relating to ghosts, doppelgangers and vampires were included among the genre themes. Two of the more chilling episodes, the two-part 'Countess Ilona' (tx. 18/6/77) and 'The Werewolf Reunion' (tx. 25/6/77), starred his wife of later years, actress Billie Whitelaw.

Muller's last serial adaptation, the pageantry life of King George IV, Prince Regent (BBC, 1979), while making an effort for an elegance just beyond its reach, remains, perhaps, the least memorable. Despite the performance talent (Susannah York, Nigel Davenport) and the Handelian music by Carl Davis, the over-embellished presentation was generally received as a case of spectacle overshadowing subject.

Muller's adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's short story An Incident at Krechetovka Station (1963), a sad little tale about putting ideology before humanity, was presented as the single play Russian Night...1941 (BBC tx. 23/10/82). This gripping 55-minute play, essentially a two-hander between a tense young railway transport officer (played by Nicholas Clay) and an easy-going soldier (Ian Richardson), came and went with little notice, being tucked away on BBC2 late on a Saturday night.

In his last year, Muller was driving himself to complete a TV series about being a European refugee (having finished four of the six episodes) when he suffered a massive stroke following heart surgery.

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

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

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Armchair Theatre (1956-74)Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

Hugely influential ITV anthology drama series

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)