Obituary: Robert Banks Stewart, TV writer

Robert Banks Stewart, TV writer who created Bergerac and produced The Darling Buds Of May. Picture: Contributed
Robert Banks Stewart, TV writer who created Bergerac and produced The Darling Buds Of May. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 16 July, 1931, in Edinburgh. Died: 14 January 2015. Aged 83.

In the numerous tomes chronicling British television over the past five decades, the name of Robert Banks Stewart invariably earns the epithet of the man who broke the mould of early popular TV thrillers, re-energising them for the screen rather than, as they had been, mainly derived from radio.

It was certainly true at the BBC, which he joined in the mid-Seventies to produce all-film series. Hitherto, most BBC episodic dramas, other than costume classics, had been made on video tape with film inserts, with consequent restrictions in locations and production values.

Although he was a highly successful writer who had written dozens of episodes in so-called action series, Stewart, when he was invited to create and produce a new series to replace Target, said he wasn’t interested in doing another straight cop show. He argued that if the BBC was prepared to invest in more expensive film production (with potential overseas sales) why not try to match to American single character-based series such as The Rockford Files and Columbo?

Somewhat audaciously, considering it was the BBC, he came up with the idea of a private eye employed by one of the new commercial radio stations. Working on the development with his friend, TV writer and West End playwright Richard Harris, the result was Eddie Shoestring, a shambling but shrewd figure, played by a newcomer, Trevor Eve. The Shoestring stories were as varied and eccentric as its hero, always human and above all humorous, setting a new style and rhythm. Shoestring was a smash hit, for two years dominating Sunday night viewing and was nominated for a Bafta award, the first detective thriller to be nominated in the TV drama series category.

Born in Edinburgh, the son of a master printer, who was also a part-time end-of-the-pier Pierrot, Robert Banks Stewart’s path to prominence in his television career was eclectic, to say the least.

At the tender age of nine he wrote his first play at Moray House, an experimental primary school attached to the teacher training college, and was spurred on as a writer by winning a national Burns Essay prize. By his early teens he was contributing stories to local newspapers, and left school at 15 to become an office-boy on the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch. After National service – when he served on Field Marshal Montgomery’s peacetime staff in Fontainebleau, and subsequently gained a commission – he resumed his journalistic life as a reporter, then as a sub-editor on The Scotsman. Later, only 24 years old, he became new editor of the same Evening Dispatch where he started.

Along the way he wrote several stage plays, radio talks, and managed to fit in being a BBC Scotland radio soccer commentator. But Stewart’s real driving force was as a writer; he left Scotland for a post in the story department of the Rank Organisation, where he cut his teeth as an uncredited rewrite man on several major Pinewood films, then as a story editor and writer on Rank’s one and only TV film series, Interpol Calling. It was a lively baptism, turning out 39 half-hour episodes. But working with a string of top Rank contract directors, including Charles Frend, Charles Crichton and David Macdonald, he reckoned he learned a lot about film production. After that he became a leading writer on Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan, which led to him being hired by Twentieth Century Fox to script the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, to star McGoohan as Bond. Alas, the producer, Gregory Ratoff, died midway through pre-production, and the project was shelved. Dr No, with Sean Connery, came first, and that was that. Stewart remembered, ironically, that he and Connery had been teenage acquaintances in Edinburgh, when Connery was briefly a swimming pool life-guard in Portobello.

Turning full-time to television, Stewart created his first series, Undermind, co-created The Human Jungle, starring Herbert Lom, served as story editor on Van der Valk and Armchair Theatre. He wrote some of the initial scripts for the original BBC Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Avengers with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg; and series like Callan, The Saint, Public Eye, The Sweeney, Sutherland’s Law and The Legend of Robin Hood which earned the BBC an Emmy nomination. He won a British Writer’s Guild award for the children’s series Arthur of the Britons, and also wrote several television plays. Also, to please his young family, he wrote two series of Doctor Who – The Seeds of Doom and The Terror of the Zygons, with Tom Baker, both now regarded by Doctor Who fans as classics.

Hollywood beckoned for an American version of Shoestring, and he wrote introductory script. But it got nudged out of the US pilot season and never went into production. Stewart was afterwards astonished to see a new series, Midnight Caller, whose main character had a radio show as a private detective who solved listeners’ problems. To his chagrin it was made by NBC, the same network who had failed to make The Private Ear (his version of Shoestring) just one year earlier.

After Trevor Eve elected not to do a third series of Shoestring, Stewart was asked by the BBC to suggest a replacement.

He had long had an idea to use, as a location, the island of Jersey, the tax-haven tucked close to France. And so he created Bergerac, and an outfit called the Bureau des Etrangers. D/Sgt Jim Bergerac, played by John Nettles, was a slightly flawed, if redeemed, character – a divorced loner, a recovering alcoholic, who liked to drive his own vintage sports car around the island while solving a whole range of crime thrillers. It was an instant success for the BBC, again a Sunday night number one, and ran for ten years,

As well as a frustrating spell at LWT as an executive producer of film series – the company’s finances had shown a loss, and no new filmed drama would be made – Stewart was made several offers to change jobs. He decided, to the surprise of many, and certainly as a native Scot made good, not to accept the offer of head of drama, BBC Scotland, and returned instead to Television Centre in London to produce the hit series, Lovejoy, subsequently creating and producing Call me Mister and John Buchan’s Hannay with Robert Powell, for Thames.

But then came probably one of the biggest successes of his career – the opening series of HE Bates’, The Darling Buds of May, which gained one of the highest ratings for a new series in the history of British TV.

As both producer and one of the adapters of Bates’ novels, he gave the final casting vote for Catherine Zeta-Jones to play David Jason’s (Pop Larkin’s) daughter, Mariette, in the series.

Stewart is survived by his three sons from his second marriage, and a daughter from his first.