Readers will be sad to hear of the death of Don Taylor , one of our best radio writers and producers, on 11 Nov 2003 at the age of 67. His Guardian obituary, by Philip Purser, made much of his television and theatre work but said less about his radio plays. This is surprising since his radio work is almost unmatched in quality amongst contemporary playwrights. There is also a considerable amount of it.
Don was born in Chiswick in 1936. He went to a local grammar school followed by Oxford University, and became a BBC trainee in 1960. He worked in TV from 1960 to 1990, directing many plays and thrillers. Throughout his writing career he wrote and directed radio plays including adaptations of his own stage plays. His versatility can be seen by looking at the listing below -comedy, (e.g. The Jacobean Box), historical (Daughters of Venice), supernatural (The Exorcism), a tour of Hell (Underworld), philosophical-drama-doc (Kill the Cameraman First)..........
In 1990, he quit television. In their spare time he and his wife Ellen Dryden (q.v.) had been running a children's theatre in Chiswick, where they lived. It was open to any child as long as he or she was committed to it.
They applied what they had learned to a company which they set up (First Writes) to produce radio plays for the BBC, as well as stage productions.
Don died of cancer of the colon which spread to the brain. He refused morphine until the last two weeks lest it impair his powers. He wrote 50 translations of Ovid poems, stage plays, many radio plays and a novel on the English civil war "God's Revolution" (see radio plays section). When he could no longer use a laptop he dictated. He was passionate about politics and history, and a radio playwright with few equals.
this short piece on Don Taylor was compiled by N.D. and includes information from the obituary by Philip Purser and Michael Billington, published in the Guardian in November 2003.
BBC RADIO PLAYS
1970 At Nunappleton House, dir. Richard Wortley.
Asterisked plays are known to exist in VRPCC collections.
NOTES ON SOME OF THE PLAYS
At Nunappleton House, dir. Richard Wortley. Play about Andrew Marvell, with modern overtones.
Flight into a Wilderness....1978
The Achurch Letters....1980
01 07.10.88 The fruits of victory
02 14.10.88 The soldiers' voice
03 21.10.88 Insurrection
04 28.10.88 Summer Manoeuvres
05 04.11.88 The power of the sword
06 11.11.88 Discussions at Putney
07 18.11.88 The logic of events
08 25.11.88 The disciplines of the war
09 02.12.88 The man of blood
10 09.12.88 England's new chains
11 16.12.88 The sea-green banner
12 23.12.88 For the agreement of the people
Cromwell - Bernard Hepton
Fairfax - Nigel Anthony
White - Graham Blockey
John Church - Eric Allen
Penelope - Deborah Makepeace
Reynolds - Kim Wall
Barrie - Paul Soeur (sp?)
Scroop - Cornelius Garratt
James Thompson - Simon Cough
William Thompson - Anthony Jackson
Stephen White - David March
Martha - June Barrie
Ireton - Bill Wallis
Whalley - John Hartock
Hatton - Alan Coveney
Everard - Jonathan Knibbs
Perkins, and Winstanley - Steve Hodson
Den - William Eedle
Sindercomb - John Baddeley
Betty - Zela Clarke
There were some requests (Dec 2005) for this to be repeated on BBC7 on the BBC messageboard; it's an excellent serial. I hope a repeat will be forthcoming.
.....Jun 2008- I now have a recording, thanks to Phil Bethell. It is an outstanding piece of radio work; one of the best radio dramatisations I've heard. I also have a "Kaleidoscope" review from 1988:
Kaleidoscope, R4, 1988; Christopher Bigsby interviewing Don Taylor and Antonia Fraser:
There was a remarkable moment in English history when for a few brief years all things seemed possible. The power of the king was set aside and for a moment the ordinary people of England seemed to hold their future in their own hands. With Charles 1st dispossessed it was uncertain whether control would move to Parliament or the people themselves as Cromwell's New Model Army showed signs of relishing its new freedoms.
This is the period chosen by playwright Don Taylor for a twelve part radio 4 series called God's Revolution. It's set in the pivotal years 1647 to 1649, when Cromwell and those he commanded had to decide just how radical this revolt should be.
What was Don Taylor aiming at in this series?
DT- the task I set myself here was to try to be meticulously accurate; to find out what happened, in great detail, from day to day, because with all political subjects, what is interesting is what goes on from day to do; how the balance of power changes between people. My ambition was to try to comprehend all that complexity but not to write a dramatic documentary; to write a real living, breathing play.
Captain (Kim Wall): You can't take the whole army with you.
Cromwell: I wouldn't want to. Let some other man do the Lord's business. I'm nearly fifty years old; I've done my share. I would like to live my last years in privacy and peace.
Captain: Mrs Lilburne is in the next room waiting for your answer......
Cromwell: There is always someone in the next room waiting for my answer.... but I have no answer. I don't know what to do more than any other man. Isn't it more honest to admit that? Take ship for America, and let some better man answer the questions.
Captain: If there is a better man.......
There comes a moment in God's Revolution when one of the characters announces 'we are living in one of the greatest ages of the world' - a judgement which Cromwell biographer, Antonia Fraser, is inclined to agree:
AF-I think that is true. I think these years from 1647 to 1649 are among the most fascinating years in our history. I've studied them three times for three books and I never get tired of them.
CB- Don Taylor says he was aiming at 'meticulous accuracy'. Did he achieve that?
AF- On the whole I think he did. There was one tremendous liberty with history in the extract we've just heard when Cromwell talks of going to America and finding freedom there. I believe Cromwell did do that, in the late 1630s. This ten year shift is unhistorical, and yet I think Don Taylor is quite justified in doing that, in order to explain this extraordinary man to us.
CB- one thing he set himself to do is to integrate these public events with a private world. It seems to me that the risk you run there is that either you end up with a cosy domestication of history, or you end up with an epic that's drained of human content. Has he managed to avoid both of those extremes?
AF- Almost avoided it. I think his fictional families are very good; the two fictional women.... both of them have plausible CVs for that time, and I think they illustrate a lot of facts about the lives of women. I think perhaps in his historical figures - in Cromwell, for example, he's perhaps left him too little private life....but it's not a carp, because I think it's an amazing job.
CB- He did a portrait of Cromwell here as a man who's very indecisive; at least, at this stage in the series....who's uncertain about his own direction, and the direction of public events.
AF- I don't think he was quite as uncertain as Don Taylor makes him at this point. I think his uncertainties occurred in the 1630s and later. I think Don Taylor is externalising a deep uncertainty (which we shall never know whether he had) . I think that's legitimate, though I think it's also slightly overdone for my Cromwell, but there's a Cromwell for every writer who's ever studied the man.
CB- The play's set in the middle of the seventeenth century. It seems to me that period and the issues it raises have an immediate bearing on our circumstances now.
AF- Yes, I think that's true. I think the whole question of freedom of speech - they all got freedom of speech - it would finally be taken away, later. This is very relevant for our own time, where we've taken for granted that freedom of speech is something that remains and is our birthright .... where many people feel that actually, recently, freedom of speech has been strongly threatened. It is a relevant series - probably more relevant than when it was first envisaged by Don Taylor.
A Suitable Case for Treatment....1992
The Jacobean Box....1993
Daughters of Venice....1993
When three roads meet....1998
The Servant's Room....1998
...............Don Taylor has also been busy. Readers may remember him as the author of the Christmas thriller "The Exorcism", a chilling tale of 4 adults unable to escape from a house which turns out to be haunted. He has had several plays transmitted so far this year. "The Seafarer" (R4, 1415 5 April) was based on an early Anglo-Saxon poem : a Saxon lord seeks the mysterious Seafarer, who may be his long-lost brother. "The Servant's Room" (R4, 1415 14 April) was a ghostly tale of a couple who find a cupboard plastered over in the attic room of their new house. "When Three Roads Meet" (R4, 2100 24 April) concerned a Church of England vicar who finds that he no longer believes in God. Taylor also did an adaptation of "Flight" by Bulgakov earlier in the year. (ND, VRPCC newsletter, Sep 98)
The Dreaming Woman....1999
Walking to Africa....2000
2002..........excerpt from VRPCC newsletter:....Later on we had Kill the Cameraman First, written and directed by Don Taylor (R4, 2102, 5Apr 02), more suited perhaps to the old Radio 3 . We had a narrator; calm, logical and unflappable, commenting on his perplexed alter ego as he encounters an over-eager market researcher encountering a philosophical lavatory attendant (Bill Wallis) in charge of some cubicles and a mirror which doesn't reflect what is in front of it; a gang of muggers, a nightmarish gameshow complete with studio audience; some refugees being machine-gunned, and assorted eccentrics who offer their views on life: ..."most conversation is to pass the time, which would have passed anyway..." ....".once upon a time when we all listened to poets and novelists and composers, they told us what was good and what was bad, and, lo, what was good was what they did.. ....they didn't care about the people in the street and in the factories, most of whom couldn't read, or if they could certainly they didn't read their stuff..." The plot defies description, but it was compelling listening. Something I did learn was that you shoot the cameraman first to stop him telling the rest of the world what's going on. There were echoes of John Arden's "Bagman" and Taylor's own radio play "Underworld" from 1994. A real surprise to have a play like this on radio 4.
......Music at Night....2002
Living alone in his Norfolk cottage, a man has got into the habit of walking after dark. One night he hears music, a solo violin, coming from a remote cottage. He has to investigate. With Timothy West, John Wood, Patience Tomlinson, and Benedict Martin.
On This Shaven Green....2003
The Great Ovid Mystery....2004
A Nice Little Trip to Spain....2004
....I thoroughly enjoyed this eccentric adaptation - Don Taylor's characteristic robust style takes all sorts of liberties with the original script (http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/helen.htm), and this accentuates the lighthearted comedic elements, which in large part are driven by the device of mistaken/disguised identities that runs throughout the play. The big problem is that Taylor’s naturalistic dialogue lies uneasily alongside the poetic myth, and we are left with a humdrum story amounting to not much more than a rediscovered romance, played in nearly knockabout farce mode, plus lots of stuff about how untrustworthy, capricious and inconsistent the gods are. I think it holds together because of the strength of the writing, the good pacing, and the excellent production by Ellen Dryden - the late playwright’s wife, as it happens, so this is at least authentic Don Taylor.
Does it have contemporary resonance? I tend to think not, although the BBC blurb might like us to think so, presumably on the grounds that the play’s portrayal of the entire Trojan War being waged over a silly mistaken premise (and yes, that background does intensify the tragi-comedy) makes it equivalent to the now infamous absence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
The acting was excellent - the women are wise or manipulative (not uncommon in Euripedes) and the men are gullible but brave, and Frances Barber camped it up well as Helen.
(reproduced by permission - many thanks)
Tribute to Don Taylor, Jan-Feb 2004
A short season of Don Taylor's plays was broadcast on successive Wednesday afternoons, as follows:
28 Jan 04: A Visitation
DON TAYLOR SEASON, BBC7, FEB 2008
(summarised from Mary Kalemkerian's BBC7 newsletter, 2 Feb 08. Good to see she's found this site, and quotes from it!)
Don Taylor was a prolific playwright and director, well-respected not only for his stage and television work, but also as the author of 23 excellent radio plays. Don died 5 years ago, November 2003, at the age of 67. One of his obituarists wrote of him " he was….a radio playwright with few equals". We have been able to clear Don's work for BBC 7, so next week you can hear four of his radio plays, all of which I highly recommend.
New to BBC7
Out-of-work advertising copywriter, Harry, is paid a surprise visit by the poet Milton, who proceeds to escort him around the Underworld in Don Taylor's 1994 play. Produced by Jeremy Howe, it was first broadcast on Radio 4 and has been described as 'expert use of radio. They can't do this on television'.
Kill the Cameraman First....2002
New to BBC7
Another offering written and directed by the late Don Taylor, a man finds himself in a strange city, where he is quickly projected into a series of bizarre situations over which he has no control. Starring Anton Lesser, Michael Pennington and Edward Petherbridge, Kill The Cameraman First was first broadcast in 2002 on Radio 4.
New to BBC7
Victor is ashamed of one incident from his past life, an incident which is about to resurface and force him to re-examine everything - even his shame. Written and produced by Don Taylor and first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2000, it stars Julian Glover and Prunella Scales.
On This Shaven Green....2003
New to BBC7
A disturbing visitor from the woods interrupts a couple enjoying their garden on an idyllic summer's day. John Wood, Barbara Jefford and Edward Petherbridge star in Don Taylor's poetic drama, first heard on Radio 4 in 2003. The producer was Ellen Dryden.
Nigel Deacon, Diversity website
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