Obituary: Peter Morley, television documentary-maker

Director of some of televisions landmark factual programmes. Picture: PA
Director of some of televisions landmark factual programmes. Picture: PA
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Born: 26 June 1924 in Berlin, Germany. Died: 24 June in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, aged 91.

A Jewish émigré who fled Nazi Germany as a child in the year that Hitler came to power, Peter Morley revisited the horrors of the Holocaust to make one of British television’s most acclaimed documentaries, Kitty: Return to Auschwitz

Morley’s grandmother, aunt and uncle died in Theresienstadt concentration camp. For the moving 1979 ITV film, he took Kitty Hart, a Birmingham radiologist, back to the notorious death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau – which she survived – with her son, David, and directed in an observational style.

“I did not speak to Kitty once during the three days of filming – she was oblivious to the camera,” Morley recalled. “We simply followed her. With memories flooding back, she impatiently described to her son every minute detail of what happened to her 35 years earlier. Time and again, she surprised him – and us – with the most dreadful revelations.”

Kitty: Return to Auschwitz won the Royal Television Society’s Best Documentary award, the Prix Futura at the Berlin Film Festival and other international honours.

Morley had earlier returned to his homeland to make Tyranny: The Years of Adolf Hitler (1959), ITV’s first hour-long documentary. The live studio programme included a film insert that he shot in Munich of the German chancellor’s sister, Paula Wolf – the only interview she ever gave – in which she revealed that her brother adored his mother and was always the leader in children’s games.

In the studio again, Morley directed ITV’s first opera production, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (1959), screened without commercials.

He was in charge of outside-broadcast units to direct Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s enthronement a year later and ITV’s first coverage of a state occasion, Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, which finished with a famous shot – taken from the top of the Shell Centre building on London’s South Bank – of the steam train carrying the coffin as it made its slow journey out of the city. The live, five-hour broadcast, with 45 cameras, won the Bafta Outside Broadcasts Award and the Cannes Grand Prix.

Morley was born Franz Peter Meyer in Berlin, the son of Alice (nee Altheimer) and Willy Meyer, a wholesaler and exporter of women’s clothes, who had two older children, Anne and Tommy. In 1933, when he was nine, his father’s work premises were burned down by a Nazi mob following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and the three children moved to Britain with their father. Meyer’s mother made a new life in France with Harry Kahn, a playwright and screenwriter whose many visits to the family home had made Meyer intent on a career in films.

Meyer attended New Herrlingen School, at Bunce Court, Otterden, Kent, relocated from Germany by its founder following the rise of anti-semitism. After the outbreak of war, it moved to Shropshire.

On leaving in 1940, Meyer took several jobs before joining the Dominion Cinema in London’s Tottenham Court Road as a rewind boy assisting the projectionist and later became second projectionist.

Although technically an enemy alien, Meyer was in 1943 allowed to join the Royal Armoured Corps alongside his brother, who was instructed to change his surname and picked Morley out of a telephone directory – so he took the same name and joined the 8th Hussars as a gunner and wireless operator.

Switching to the 7th Armoured Division following the Normandy landings, the two brothers arrived in the city of their birth in July 1945 for the Allies’ victory parade. In Berlin, Morley bought his first film camera, a Magazine Ciné Kodak.

Demobbed in 1947, Morley became an assistant projectionist at the offices and preview theatre of the Film Producers Guild, a collective of documentary-making companies.

Privately, he made his first film, Once upon a Time (1947), about his remarkable school at Bunce Court. It earned a special commendation from Amateur Cine World magazine.

In 1950, with his attempts thwarted to get a job as a film editor at the Film Producers Guild because of a union closed-shop agreement, Morley became a tea boy with one of its members, Verity Films. He was soon running errands to the cutting room and allowed to help there. Eventually, he became an assistant film editor, then a writer and director of public information films.

When ITV was launched in 1955, Morley joined Associated-Rediffusion, the London weekday franchise holder, as a director. He started on advertising magazines, then progressed to outside broadcasts and documentaries.

One of his early successes, screened on the day of Liberace’s arrival in London, was Fan Fever (1956), about stars of the new rock ’n’ roll phenomenon causing mass hysteria among girls. A scene from a Dickie Valentine concert of a girl ripping off her bra and throwing it on to the stage was banned by the Independent Television Authority before broadcast.

Morley was also producer of the ITV current affairs series This Week from 1960 to 1963 and directed the documentaries The Two Faces of Japan (1960), Black Marries White: The Last Barrier (1964), the Royal Television Society Silver Medal-winning series The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten (1969), Prince Charles’s investiture (1969) and Twenty-Five Years (1977), marking the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

On a brief contract at the BBC, he made The Mighty Continent (1974-5), a history of 20th-century Europe. He returned to ITV to make documentaries for Yorkshire Television – portraits of British Prime Ministers (1977-8), Kitty: Return to Auschwitz (1979) and the Women of Courage series (1980), featuring four of those who risked their lives to save others from the Nazis. He then became programme controller of Thorn-EMI Videodisc (1981-90).

Morley’s autobiography, A Life Rewound, was published in 2006. He was a council member of the Society of Film and Television Arts from 1958 and a trustee of its successor, Bafta, from 1975 to 2004. He was made an OBE in 1969.

In 1962, Morley married Jane Tillett, a production assistant at Associated-Rediffusion, who died in 2013. He is survived by their two sons, Jonathan and Benjamin.