Born: 15 February, 1947, in Dundee. Died: 13 February, 2012 in London, aged 64
Jim O’Brien found international fame when he worked with the distinguished director Charles Morahan on the epic Granada television series The Jewel in the Crown in 1984. With a superb cast, the 14-part series became one of the landmarks of British television drama and captured with much style and scrupulous accuracy the last days of the British Raj. O’Brien’s sympathetic direction did much to enhance its spectacular and thrilling nature.
In 1986, O’Brien was involved in another TV blockbuster, The Monocled Mutineer, set during the First World War. The piece caused considerable controversy, but again O’Brien’s dignified direction won much praise.
James O’Brien was born into a family with strong left-wing views which was experiencing straightened circumstances: his mother was a jute weaver and his father a building labourer. The family lived in a tenement, but when O’Brien was still a baby the family moved to south London, where Jim was educated at a school in Lambeth.
After school, O’Brien took on casual work until he was accepted to train as an actor with the Guildhall School in London.
His first jobs were with repertory companies and he displayed a special talent in contemporary plays, winning a critics’ award for Most Promising Newcomer. O’Brien then trained as a director and built up a deserved reputation for staging new writing in fringe theatres.
Granada asked O’Brien to co-direct with Charles Morahan a film version of Paul Scott’s novels The Raj Quartets in 1984. The series was titled The Jewel in the Crown and proved a huge undertaking. Morahan and O’Brien not only cast the series with immense skill but also delivered one of the most highly regarded series of UK drama.
It was to prove one of the most expensive television series ever made at the time and required a massive logistical organisation and a cast that could maintain the dramatic thrust of the story.
The filming took almost two years to complete and involved shipping the actors plus a large technical crew and back-up production staff to India for six months. That was followed by more than a year’s work in the Manchester studios and on location in Wales.
The Jewel in the Crown won numerous awards and O’Brien was much praised for his contribution to a series that is often considered one of the finest dramas seen on British television.
Art Malik, whose character Hari Kumar was caught up in the rapidly changing society, won acclaim, as did Geraldine James, Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Piggott-Smith, Eric Porter and Charles Dance.
O’Brien had earned a reputation for being able to control and develop a large-scale drama with an imaginative authority. The BBC asked him to direct their next major project, The Monocled Mutineer, in 1986 starring Paul McGann as Percy Toplis.The four-part series was adapted by Alan Bleasdale and told the story of an officer who in 1917 led a mutiny of British and Australian soldiers at the training camp at Etaples just south of Boulogne.
The series was much praised for its realism and the stark representation of the conditions in the trenches.
O’Brien was keen to show the dreadful fighting and living conditions at the camp which would thus provide a realistic dimension to the story. But the BBC’s publicity had billed the series as a “true-life story” and although based on facts there was a certain licence taken with the story-line that angered many. The BBC was accused of distorting history to serve their own agenda with the Daily Mail branding the series “a tissue of lies”.
The Monocled Mutineer has never been repeated and the BBC had to admit that “small examples of dramatic licence” had been taken with the script, but they concluded that the series showed “the greater truth”.
O’Brien’s skilful depiction of camp life and the persuasive performances he got from McGann and Timothy West were much admired.
Other credits for O’Brien included The Dressmaker in 1988 which was a powerful adaptation of a novel by Beryl Bainbridge, set in wartime Liverpool starring Jane Horrocks, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Plowright and Pete Postlethwaite.
One critic wrote that O’Brien made the film “a riveting Victorian morality tale” and he was particularly pleased when it was chosen to open the 1988 Edinburgh Film Festival.
His last major work was a two-part television version adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1996) starring Charles Dance, Emilia Fox, Faye Dunaway and Diana Rigg.
Throughout his career O’Brien brought to all his cinematic work a vibrant sense of drama and colour. The latter was seen to particularly good effect in capturing the magical open spaces in The Jewel in the Crown while the intensity O’Brien gave the script, however accurate or otherwise, of The Monocled Mutineer showed a rare dramatic cunning.
Jim O’Brien is survived by his wife, Christine, and two sons.