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Writer IAN CURTEIS

Ian Bayley Curteis
Born 1 May 1935 in London

Ian Curteis is a British television dramatist and former television director.

In a career as a television dramatist from the late 1960’s onwards, Curteis wrote for many of the most fondly remembered series of the day including The Onedin Line and Crown Court. In 1979, two television plays by Curteis were broadcast: Churchill and the Generals and Suez 1956. The Falklands Play, originally scheduled for production in 1985, was eventually broadcast in 2002.

He married Dorothy Joan Armstrong, 1964 (divorced, 1984); married Joanna Trollope, 1985; children: (first marriage) Tobit, Mikol; stepchildren: Louise, Antonia.

He is divorced from the popular novelist Joanna Trollope, his second wife whom he married twice.

His Agent: David Higham Associates, Ltd., 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London W1R 4HA, England.

Originally an actor, Ian Curteis graduated to BBC staff direction in 1963 and worked on episodes of Z Cars, Kipling, Out of the Unknown (William Trevor's Walk's End in 1966), and John Betjeman's Pity About the Abbey, before turning to full-time writing on the likes of Sunday Night Theatre (The Haunting, 1969), Doomwatch, The Onedin Line, and Thirty-Minute Theatre (A Distant Chill, 1971). Curteis' greatest talent is for biography and historical reconstructions, as reflected in his two contributions to Biography in 1970, Beethoven and Sir Alexander Fleming, which were followed by the somewhat dreary three-part Long Voyage Out of War (1971). In 1972 he wrote for another biographical series, BBC2's The Edwardians (Mr Rolls and Mr Royce).

1977's Philby, Burgess and Maclean was a reconstruction of the story of the three traitors (at a time when "the fourth man" wasn't yet known), directed by Gordon Flemyng for Granada. The late-70s were very much a boom time for Curteis, seeing him write People Like Us and Hess (1978), the six episode serial Rough Justice, The Atom Spies and The Prince Regent (1979). 1979 also saw Curteis' epic three-hour Churchill and the Generals for the BBC, with Timothy West as the Prime Minister and Ian Richardson as Montgomery. Later in the year, Suez 1956 was about the failed Anglo-French military attempt to take over the Suez Canal after the Egyptians nationalised it.

In late 1982 Curteis casually mentioned to BBC Director General Alasdair Milne the possibility of doing a similar play on the Falklands War and was surprised when Milne almost immediately commissioned it. Wary about the timing (the war had only ended a few months before), Curteis set to work, but because the BBC (with whom Curteis had a good working relationship, having most recently written Miss Morrison's Ghosts for BBC2 in 1981) was already under attack over its news coverage of the war, it was decided to shelve the project. Work re-commenced in 1985, the aim being to transmit the play on the anniversary of the Argentine invasion. Curteis began to sift through all the published sources of information, as well as interviewing top civil servants, military figures and politicians. The highly respected Cedric Messina was appointed as producer, he suggested David Giles as director, and studio time at BBC Television Centre was booked. Almost at the last minute, BBC Head of Drama Peter Goodchild (whose programme-making background was in documentaries rather than drama) suggested replacing Messina (who was in Kenya filming The Happy Valley at the time) as producer and requested - and then demanded - that alterations be made to the script to have ministers discussing the positive effect winning the war would have on the next election. Curteis was adamant that there was no evidence that such discussions had taken place, and as his contract (which also gave him right of veto on all major casting and production decisions) made him liable for the veracity of the play, he did not want to include such suggestions, which might be considered libelous. The play was cancelled, with the resulting controversy made worse when production of Charles Wood's Tumbledown went ahead. To date the only transmission of any part of the play has been the reading of a few excerpts in The Liberal Conspiracy in Channel 4's Banned season in 1991

In recent years Curteis has worked on The Nightmare Years (1990) for American television, the Channel 4/European co-production Mission Eureka (1991), and - marking a return to the BBC now under "new management" - the five-part adaptation of The Choir, from the novel by his then-wife, Joanna Trollope.

2002 finally saw the transmission of The Falklands Play - with Patricia Hodge as Prime Minister Thatcher - initially on the fledgling BBC4 satellite channel (a week after a audio version on Radio 4), which was almost immediately       followed by a terrestrial repeat on BBC2.  Many of Curteis' long-time supporters inevitably praised the quality of the play and inevitably claimed that it should have been transmitted at the time it was written.  What no-one mentioned, of course, was that not only had Curteis had more time to subtly polish the script, but also that as much as 40% of the original material was missing, largely the scenes which showed the Argentine fascist junta in discussion, and also all those involving Pope John Paul II.  It is ironic that the play's original production essentially stumbled to a halt because Curteis refused to "put words into the mouths" of British politicians, when in fact that's exactly what he did with the "foreign" characters in the material that was eventually discarded.

The following is an interview with Ian by BBC Four on an internet page that is no longer updated and may in the future be deleted, so it is replicated here.

Ian Curteis' acclaimed play tells the story of the three Russian spies who penetrated the British Foreign office. The play covers the period from 1945 - the date of the Volkov Incident - to 1955, when Kim Philby was cleared of being the Third Man in the Burgess and Maclean spy scandal. The distinguished cast includes Anthony Bate as Kim Philby, Derek Jacobi as Guy Burgess and Michael Culver as Donald Maclean.

Ian Curteis talks about why he thinks the play was such a hit in 1977 and why it's still relevant today.

Philby, Burgess and Maclean was a huge popular success when it was first screened 25 years ago. Its writer Ian Curteis thinks he knows why.

BBC Four: The play was incredibly popular when it was first shown in 1977. What do you think its appeal was then?
Ian Curteis: I think its theme was then novel to a British audience: do we owe a loyalty stronger and deeper than to our own country? In the case of the three spies it was to the USSR. This rather haunted me and I wrote the play to underline that in 1977 we were facing exactly the same dilemma. We had just started to be told that we owed a greater loyalty to Europe than to our own nation. This touched a nerve with ordinary people and I think that is why it's particularly relevant today.

BBC Four: Will today's audience get something different from the play now that the Cold War is over?
IC: No. I'd like to think that what did make it enormously popular will work again. And I mustn't miss out the fact that there are four marvellous performances, Anthony Bate as Philby, Derek Jacobi as Guy Burgess, Michael Culver as Donald Maclean and Arthur Lowe, from Dad's Army, as the Home Secretary, who was terribly good and terribly funny. I was marvellously served. Like a lot of things I write it is a serious theme but written like a real hum-dinging piece of fictional drama.

BBC Four: Do you find it difficult to deal with facts, which obviously have to treated very carefully, and combine them with a sense of heightened drama?
IC: I stick to the facts but I also try to write it as exciting drama, and that really is quite a tightrope to walk. But one hopes it occasionally comes off like this.

BBC Four: Where is the excitement for you in this particular play?
IC: There's a novelty in the actual story. It was 1951 when Burgess and Maclean defected and were discovered to be spies. What was new was that they were highly placed and brilliant officials in the heart of Whitehall, which was an entirely new type of spy. Until then, as one characters says in the play, "We always thought that spies were the type of people who emptied the wastepaper basket." But here were people actually in the machine - high up. And then a few years later when Kim Philby joined them he was head of the anti-Soviet department in the Foreign Office. At the same time he was a full colonel in the KGB. It's the sort of the stuff that if I'd written a fictional novel on those lines you'd say "Come on, you're pulling my leg."

BBC Four: How do you think audiences today will respond to it?
IC: I hope it will touch the same nerve now. It presents the three spies and tries to understand them. It doesn't condemn them. It's very easy to condemn and present them as two-dimensional people but it tries to let you into their heads and see how they thought. And almost that the audience should be haunted by the idea that in that situation, "I might have done the same thing."

Doomwatch Filmography

Flood (1972) TV episode (writer)

Other Filmography

The Falklands Play (2002) (TV) (writer)

"The Choir" (1995) TV mini-series (unknown episodes)

"The Nightmare Years" (1990) TV mini-series (story) (teleplay)

"Lost Empires" (1986) TV mini-series (unknown episodes)

Miss Morison's Ghosts (1981) (writer)

Suez 1956 (1979) (TV) (writer)

"Prince Regent" (1979) TV mini-series (unknown episodes)

Atom Spies (1979) (TV) (writer)

Churchill and the Generals (1979) (TV) (writer)

"Parables" (1 episode, 1978)

   - Neighbours (1978) TV episode (writer)

"People Like Us" (5 episodes, 1978)

   - Another War (1978) TV episode (adaptation)

    - The Biter Bit (1978) TV episode (adaptation)

    - Re-Arrangements (1978) TV episode (adaptation)

    - Breakout (1978) TV episode (adaptation)

    - The First Lessons in Love (1978) TV episode (adaptation)

"The Onedin Line" (4 episodes, 1976-1977)

   - Coffin Ships (1977) TV episode (writer)

    - Rescue (1977) TV episode (writer)

    - Uncharted Island (1976) TV episode (writer)

    - Quarantine (1976) TV episode (writer)

Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977) (TV) (writer)

"Crown Court" (6 episodes, 1974-1977)

   - Home Sweet Home (1977) TV episode (writer)

    - Hunger Strike (1975) TV episode (writer)

    - The Hunt (1974) TV episode (writer)

    - Minnie (1974) TV episode (writer)

    - Nuts (1974) TV episode (writer)

      (1 more)

"Victorian Scandals" (1 episode, 1976)

   - The Portland Millions (1976) TV episode (writer)

"Barlow at Large" (3 episodes, 1974-1975)

... aka "Barlow" (UK: new title)

    - Rat Run (1975) TV episode (writer)

    - Bullion (1975) TV episode (writer)

    - Corruption (1974) TV episode (writer)

"Childhood" (1 episode, 1974)

   - A Great Day for Bonzo (1974) TV episode (dramatisation)

"Sutherland's Law" (1973) TV series (unknown episodes)

"The Regiment" (1 episode, 1973)

   - Riot (1973) TV episode (writer)

"The Edwardians" (1 episode, 1972)

   - Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce (1972) TV episode (writer)

"Spy Trap" (1972) TV series (unknown episodes)

"Thirty-Minute Theatre" (1 episode, 1971)

   - A Distinct Chill (1971) TV episode (writer)

"Biography" (2 episodes, 1970)

   - Alexander Fleming (1970) TV episode (writer)

    - Beethoven (1970) TV episode (writer)

"ITV Saturday Night Theatre" (1 episode, 1969)

... aka "ITV Sunday Night Theatre" (UK: new title)

    - The Haunting (1969) TV episode (writer)

"Love Story" (1 episode, 1968)

   - The Folly (1968) TV episode (writer)

Director

The Projected Man (1967)

"Out of the Unknown" (1 episode, 1966)

   - Walk's End (1966) TV episode

Pity About the Abbey (1965) (TV)

"The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling" (1 episode, 1964)

   - Watches of the Night (1964) TV episode