Obituary: David Cook, script writer

David Cook: Writer who penned Walter, which aired on Channel 4's first night of broadcasting
David Cook: Writer who penned Walter, which aired on Channel 4's first night of broadcasting
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Born: 21 September, 1940, in Preston. Died: 16 September, 2015, in Lancashire, aged 74

David Cook was an actor who found fame as a script writer of television dramas. He concentrated, initially, on writing about severely disabled people and gained a special renown for his drama Walter, which starred Ian McKellan and was aired on the opening night of Chanel 4 in 1982. Later he wrote the books on which the television series Hetty Wainthropp is based. Cook adapted the books for television and ensured that the central sleuth – ably played by Patricia Routledge – remained a formidable character. But Routledge subtly brought a different command to the role than she had demonstrated as the fearsome Hyacinth Bucket in the hit sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.

Many of Cook’s characters were isolated and on the fringe of society. Their life was handicapped and lonely – severely crippled by their illness. With great skill Cook never allowed the novels to become mawkish and the energy of his writing provided tension and a handsome dash of humour.

David Cook attended Rishton Secondary Modern School and in 1959 got a place at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to study for the stage. Cook was seen in such series as Z Cars, The Power Game and Coronation Street, with seasons at the Bristol Old Vic, a play in London’s West End called Little Boxes by John Bowen and understudying McKellan in a play in London.

In 1972 Cook was asked by Thames Television to present their midday children’s programme, Rainbow, which was in direct competition to the BBC’s popular Sesame Street.

While it aimed to develop the children’s minds it did, inevitably, result in some studio hijinks.

Cook felt, aged 32, he should concentrate on more serious challenges. In fact, Rainbow gave him time to start writing and his first television play, Willy, a grim drama about brain damage starred Christopher Gable and Anna Massey.

That year Cook also published his first novel, Albert’s Memorial, which was based on a meeting he had with a bag lady at South Kensington tube station.

“I did not write a story,” Cook recalled. “I wrote little pieces of what the details of what her life might be.”

It proved a charming story, carefully observed, and led to his second novel Happy Endings, which explored the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and a school teacher.

In 1978 Cook wrote Walter, about a kind-hearted autistic man. He lives a solitary life, ignored by his father, and his mother has tried to kill him. His lifestyle descends into total drudgery and he realises that it was a world that he would never get out of.

The book, despite its depressing nature, sold well but it was a brave choice for Jeremy Isaacs, the first boss at Channel 4, to commission Cook to adapt it for television.

It was mostly filmed in a derelict hospital in Islington and proved to be a harrowing experience for the excellent cast (McKellan and Barbara Jefford).

One reviewer wrote that it gave a “compassionate glimpse” into autism. The direction of Stephen Frears played a significant part in its success and Isaacs has written about how the scene with “pigeons filling the bedroom where the mother lay dead, the feathers fluttering over the corpse, sticks in the memory”.

Cook wrote a sequel in 1983, Walter and June, starring Sarah Miles, and a final novel, Walter Now, on McKellan’s suggestion had a more optimistic conclusion.

It was published in 2009 and won excellent reviews for Cook’s ability to tell an emotional story without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality. Again it centred on a contentious subject: the reproductive rights for people with learning disabilities.

Throughout the Walter books Cook presented the world through Walter’s autistic eyes – often drawing on his own experience in his youth as a nurse in a hospital.

Walter’s chronic disability is dealt with in a genuine manner. Indeed, all Cook’s central characters are dependent on others or institutions – otherwise they could not survive.

In 1994 Cook wrote the screen play Second Best which told of the problems a single man faced in trying to adopt a young boy. The film starred William Hurt and was directed by Chris Menges.

His career brought fresh fame in 1996 when he adapted, with his long-time partner John Bowen, his books on Hetty Wainthropp.

As the sleuth, Routledge delivered a fine portrait of a quick-witted investigator but Cook had created a comforting, homey, character who was not only credible but for whom the viewer had sympathy. Cook controlled the stories of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates with a skilled understanding of the characters and drew a fine balance between the investigations and the comedy.

Cook was writer-in-residence at St Martin’s College, Lancaster and given many literary awards including the Writers Guild Award and the American Academy EM Forster Award. He is survived by John Bowen.