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David Plowright

DAVID PLOWRIGHT CBE Television executive

Born: 11 December, 1930, in Scunthorpe. Died: 24 August, 2006, in Manchester, aged 76.

DAVID Plowright was one of the most innovative and imaginative television executives of the Sixties and Seventies. As head of drama at Granada Television, he set a standard for high-quality dramas and plays that outstripped the BBC. Until then, the BBC had considered grand drama their province. Plowright set up productions that laid to rest the image of independent television as purely the home of game shows and soaps. With programmes such as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, Plowright demonstrated that by choosing a first-class story, casting it from strength and keeping a tight control of the finances, drama could bring more than prestige to a commercial company.

Plowright had one major extra asset. His sister, the actress Joan Plowright, was married to Laurence Olivier and this enabled him to produce some hugely prestigious programmes under the banner "Laurence Olivier Presents". Plowright oversaw some of the most historic productions that television has ever broadcast. Olivier was not always the lead in all the programmes but he either directed them or played a cameo role that gave the dramas a definite charisma.

David Ernest Plowright was Scunthorpe-born, but made his career in Lancashire. His blunt and no-nonsense northern manner was to remain with him all his life. He was educated at Scunthorpe Grammar School and after completing his National Service, he followed his father into journalism. After periods with the Scunthorpe Star (where his father was editor) he joined the Yorkshire Post as their equestrian correspondent in 1954. In 1957, Plowright joined Granada as a local news editor.

In the early Sixties, Plowright worked on the award-winning flagship programme World in Action. Involving such future television stars as Jeremy Isaacs, World in Action became essential viewing. It dealt in depth with a single item and did not - like Panorama - try to cover several subjects. The eclectic nature of the programme (one programme dealt with ballroom dancing) allowed a flexible schedule and the programme often found itself making, rather then reflecting, the news.

In 1969, Plowright was appointed director of programmes at Granada and in 1975 became the joint managing director. His progress up the commercial ladder had been rapid but his ability to appoint bright young assistants showed just how shrewd a television man Plowright had become. He appointed John Birt as his successor at World in Action and helped the early careers of Germaine Greer and Kenny Everett, among many others.

Another wise move was to invite Derek Grainger to direct Brideshead Revisited and John Mortimer to adapt the Evelyn Waugh novel. The casting was inspired throughout - Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons delivered spellbinding performances - and Plowright's negotiations in securing Castle Howard for many of the locations gave the series a definite sheen. At one stage, however, the project nearly collapsed. ITV was closed for several months in 1979 and many Granada executives were keen to close down the production - it would have improved the cash flow considerably. Plowright insisted Brideshead was completed and the budget showed no visible sign of reduction. The finished product was shot in some of the grandest locations, not least Olivier in a beguiling scene in the Grassi Palazzo, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.

The programme gained huge audiences, won numerous awards and a quarter of a century on, it remains a gem of a drama and a huge achievement by Granada and Plowright.

It was followed by another dramatic blockbuster. Plowright commissioned an adaptation of Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet. The television version, titled The Jewel in the Crown, was transmitted in 1984 and scored another huge success. The cast was again handpicked (Geraldine James and Charles Dance acted superbly and were greatly assisted by a magnificently dotty Peggy Ashcroft). Chris Morahan's direction was ideal throughout and again the series won many awards and made Granada a genuinely international company.

His sister had married Olivier in 1961 but it was not until the late Seventies that the three worked together. Initially, the series was called Best Plays and concentrated on a particular year. Joan Plowright enjoyed a success in James Bridie's melancholic comedy Daphne Laureola with her husband directing. However, Olivier arrived in the last scene in the cameo role of the long-lost husband. The final scene of the couple being reunited was particularly moving. Other memorable productions included a tempestuous King Lear with Olivier (it was one of his last appearances) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

But independent television was changing rapidly and budgets could no longer afford such grand projects. Plowright had become chairman of Granada in 1987 and he had to face competition not only from more terrestrial channels but the advent of satellite. Granada was a member of the successful bid (but commercially disastrous) for UK Direct Broadcasting, that was soon swallowed up by Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. However, Plowright shrewdly renegotiated Granada's franchise in 1991. With much foresight he said that if Granada didn't retain the franchise, they would sell Coronation Street to a satellite channel.

However, the following year, the commercially orientated Gerry Robinson arrived at Granada to improve its profitability. Robinson viewed the future very differently from Plowright (he merged the company with Carlton in 2000) and Plowright left Granada among some acrimony in 1992. As a reflection of the regard Plowright was held, letters of support were sent to the national press from such luminaries as Harold Pinter, Alec Guinness and Alan Bennett. John Cleese faxed Robinson in vitriolic language and called him an "upstart caterer".

Plowright was vice-chairman of Channel Four from 1992-7 and held many appointments in Manchester (serving on the committee for the city's unsuccessful Olympic bid in 1988) as well as acting as visiting professor of media studies at Salford University. He was appointed a CBE in 1996.

Known with much affection throughout television as "The Plow" he had, throughout his career, envisaged programmes on a grand scale. Such plans are rarely possible today. Timetables, schedules and finances have made television drama a very different world. Typically "The Plow" was found collapsed over his typewriter - working on yet another epic series with stars to match.

Plowright married Brenda Key in 1953. She and their son and two daughters survive him.

 
 
 

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