Obituary: Dick Sharples, writer

Writer was a regular scribe on Dr Finlay's Casebook and found his niche in comedy. Picture: Contributed
Writer was a regular scribe on Dr Finlay's Casebook and found his niche in comedy. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 7 June, 1927, in Manchester. Died 19 October, 2015, in London. Aged 88.

Dick Sharples was one of that rare breed of wits who are just as satisfied entertaining themselves and a few select friends with a well-constructed joke as they would be when amusing millions. He was one of the regular writers on the popular Scottish period drama series Dr Finlay’s Casebook in the 1960s and he created the Thora Hird sitcoms In Loving Memory and Hallelujah! in the 1970s and 1980s.

But he probably derived just as much pleasure from A Year in Muswell Hill, a book he wrote while pretending to be a Frenchman who had moved from Provence to London. It was written in response to A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle’s 1989 best-seller about an Englishman moving to France.

Using the pseudonym Pierre La Poste, Sharples began his account: “As I stared down at my plate of fried eggs, fried bacon, fried bread, fried sausage and, as far as I could tell, fried baked beans… I could not help but reflect upon the train of events that had brought me from my home in the little village of Ménerbes in the South of France, to Sid’s Diner in North London’s Muswell Hill Broadway.”

Even before it was published in 2003, letters appeared in the local press complaining that the author may be slandering the area or alternatively praising Muswell Hill to the extent that there would be an influx of tourists who might overwhelm local services.

There was even a call for it to be banned. The letters were actually written by Sharples’s friends, who were in on the joke.

The national press duly picked up on the story.

The Daily Mail and Independent newspapers enthused about the book, which outsold Harry Potter five to one in one local bookshop.

Sharples pretended to be a friend and point of contact for La Poste and received invitations for him to do interviews with national papers and to appear on the Richard and Judy show. Sharples was eventually unmasked as the author by the Daily Mirror.

Writing was not however Sharples’ original career. He wrote in his amusing, and often self-deprecating autobiography: “I was originally a cartoonist who was often compared to Ronald Searle.

“As one magazine editor put it, ‘Compared to Ronald Searle, you’re rubbish,’” The book’s title I Found The Time poked gentle fun at all those who say they would write a book if they could find the time.

The son of two sales representatives and one of four brothers, Richard Milne Sharples was born in Manchester in 1927. He attended Manchester Grammar School, where he showed some ability at Art, but little else. He left at 15 without any qualifications. His careers teacher advised him to become a bus conductor.

His mother managed to get him a job as an office boy in an advertising agency and he studied art at night school. Towards the end of the Second World War he enlisted in the Royal Navy and served on a minesweeper.

Latterly he was stationed on Malta and wrote articles and drew cartoons for Forces journals and for the Times of Malta.

Returning to Manchester, Sharples resumed his career in advertising, working as a copywriter and illustrator. He also wrote his first novel, a western called The Man Who Rode by Night, though he had never been to America. After a move to London he continued working in advertising, while also drawing cartoons for newspapers and magazines and writing for radio.

In the mid-1950s he was delighted when one of his earliest scripts was accepted for the fledgling ITV, but less pleased when told that there was no money to pay for it. He asked why the actors were being paid and was apparently told it was because they had a union. Subsequently he helped set up the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, which serves as a union for writers.

He teamed up with Gerald Kelsey, a publisher who also had aspirations as a television writer, and they worked together on various drama and comedy series in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of their early successes was the live comedy series Joan and Leslie.

Starring real-life couple Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall, it was modelled on the American television show I Love Lucy, which starred married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Lew Grade gave Sharples and Kelsey a contract at ATV, enabling Sharples to give up advertising work and become a full-time writer.

In the 1960s and 1970s he also worked on several medical dramas, including Dr Finlay’s Casebook, an adaptation of the stories of Scottish writer AJ Cronin starring Bill Simpson and Andrew Cruickshank, with Callander doubling for the fictitious Tannochbrae. He also wrote for Owen MD and General Hospital. By this time he was writing solo.

But his greatest successes were in comedy. He learned about dealing with fragile comedy egos on A Little Bit of Wisdom, with Norman Wisdom. On one occasion Wisdom read a script and discovering that there was a page on which he did not feature he wrote on it simply “Where’s Norman?”

While Sharples found Wisdom challenging, he adored working with Thora Hird, who played an unlikely undertaker in pre-war Yorkshire in In Loving Memory, and a Salvation Army captain in Hallelujah!.

His comedy skills ranged from slapstick to witty wordplay, his most celebrated lines including “Death is just Nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” He also scripted the film George and Mildred and wrote the sitcom Farrington of the FO, starring Angela Thorne and Joan Sims.

When television commissions began to dry up in the 1990s he concentrated on writing novels and continued writing until shortly before his death. His wife predeceased him. He is survived by two children and by Marcia Saunders, his partner in recent years.