A Fine Career

This week SDUK’s founder and former CEO, Piers Haggard pays tribute to Director Christopher Morahan, sharing his thoughts on this multi-award winning colleague and friend.

Christopher Morahan, who died last Friday aged 87, was a multi award winning director of TV and theatre, who also managed to fit five movies into his long and varied career. Michael Billington’s piece in the Guardian gives an excellent overview.

Though he continued working into his mid eighties, Christopher admitted to being a slow starter. Son of a film production designer who worked with Hitchcock, he decided at 20 that he wanted to direct films. The only training for directors available at that time was in theatre, at the now legendary Old Vic Theatre School run by Michel St Denis, which he attended from 1951-53.

Despite this fortunate start, he lacked the confidence to jump straight into a directing career, so worked in stage management for several years, moving into ITV when it launched in 1956. After a year as floor manager on Emergency Ward Ten at ATV he finally got to direct – albeit at the floor manager’s rate (some things never change!). 80 episodes of Ward 10 honed his TV craft. By 1963, when I observed him during my BBC Training Course, he was one of the top directors of studio drama. This is now a completely forgotten art of course, but it suited him. (And indeed me.)

The respect for accumulated craftsmanship never left him, and he was always impatient of amateurism. He was often just impatient, too, having quite a temper. Tall and upright, with an air of military authority, sometimes even bossiness, he could be terrifying to young actors or inexperienced technical staff. It was best if you stood up to him. I had to do this when directing in BBC Plays Department, which he ran from 1972-77, but it actually led to us becoming good friends.

Very early in his career, Christopher developed a knack of working with the best writers, including, in rough chronological order, Nigel Kneale, John Hopkins, Dennis Potter, Alun Owen, Peter Nichols, Harold Pinter (several projects), Simon Gray (ditto), Michael Frayn (ditto), David Mercer, Alan Ayckbourn, Nigel Williams, Hugh Whitemore, Howard Brenton, Ronald Harwood and John Mortimer: the list shows in what respect he was held by the top playwrights and screenwriters of the era.

I think this was key to his capacity to generate work for himself: he was never without a project or two in the pipeline. He was in fact a natural producer, his finest achievement being to set up and produce all 14 episodes of Jewel In The Crown, while directing half of them. The same qualities certainly led Peter Hall to invite him to become Associate Director at the National, where he had a string of successes, including Wild Honey, Michael Frayn’s version of Chekhov’s Platonov. Frayn also wrote the screenplay of Clockwise, Christopher’s most successful film. Comedy was, I would say, a particular skill of his; he understood how the machinery worked. He also really loved, and understood, the work of George Bernard Shaw.

Christopher was a force of nature and his death leaves a large gap. He achieved an extraordinary amount in his long professional life, for much of which he and I were friends. In the early eighties he was also active with me and others in setting up the Directors Guild, the predecessor of DUK and SDUK. My wife and I are close to his family, to whom we, along with many of you I know, offer our respects and condolences.

Written by Piers Haggard