I first met David Rose, who died on 26 January 2017 at the age of 92, at a conference celebrating the work of John McGrath, at Royal Holloway, University of London in April 2002. David had, of course, worked with John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin, who was also at the conference, on Z Cars at the BBC in the early 1960s. At the time, I was writing my first book, British Television Drama: A History (BFI, 2003), which contained a section on Z Cars but not nearly enough on David Rose’s huge contribution to British television drama.
The following year I began research on regional British television drama and arranged an interview with David to talk to him about the ten years he spent as Head of English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. It was the first of four interviews I recorded with him about his work in British television: as a producer/director of dramatised documentaries at the BBC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the producer of Z Cars in the early 1960s, as Head of English Regions Drama in the 1970s and as Senior Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Channel Four in the 1980s (for a summary of David Rose’s career see my biography on BFI Screenonline).
The first conference paper I gave from my regional drama research was on the half-hour plays produced by English Regions Drama for Thirty-Minute Theatre and Second City Firsts in the 1970s. I sent David a copy of the paper and a few days later he telephoned me, leaving a message on my answerphone as I was not at home. Knowing it would be useful for my research I transcribed the message and, indeed, quoted from it in my PhD and in the book that was subsequently published: A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama, 1956-82 (MUP, 2012), the title of which I owe to David and his frequent reference in interviews to wanting to create a ‘sense of place’ in the dramas produced at Pebble Mill.
I reproduce the message here because it encapsulates David’s generosity in taking the time to leave a long message on an answerphone because he appreciated the research I was doing and wanted to help in any way he could. Later on this generosity extended to inviting me to a screening of his autobiographical film, My Journey Together, at Durlston Castle in Dorset, as part of the Purbeck Film Festival, all expenses paid by David, where I found myself in the company of Peter Ansorge, Barry Hanson, Tara Prem, Alison Steadman and Michael Wearing. Subsequently David repeated the invitation when the film was screened at Channel Four.
By a strange piece of synchronicity, I was re-reading the message from David on the day he died – who knows, possibly at the very moment of his passing – because I was in the process of writing a chapter on ‘Forgotten Drama from the English Regions’ for the book that John Hill, Billy Smart and I are writing for our research project on The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK. I wanted to remind myself of what David had said about the early days of regional drama at the BBC, before he was appointed Head of English Regions Drama. So this message forms one of my personal memories of David, a man who was a goliath of British television but who would take the trouble to leave a message on someone’s answerphone because they had shown an interest in his work.
Hello, this is David Rose, calling Lez Cooke. Thanks for your letter, very interested in how far you’ve got into the Thirty-Minute Theatre area, Pebble Mill, fascinating. I’m very much looking forward to having a chance to look at the further work you’ll do on Birmingham. I have one or two thoughts about your draft.
It’s really about the beginning of television drama in the regions. I think it would be important to reflect that work was being done in the ‘50s and just into the ‘60s at Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, I think. Manchester and the Dickinson Road studios, Birmingham in Aston Green I think it was [Gosta Green, in Aston, Birmingham], and Bristol. I’m less sure about Bristol. But the thing was that writers were certainly being given the opportunities in the regions as early as that. Alan Plater I believe did his first work at Dickinson Road, See The Pretty Lights [8 September 1963] I think was one of the first. I’m talking to him today so I’ll check on that, and possibly Charles Wood did perhaps work in Bristol, I’m not sure about Birmingham, I’ll try to get hold of Michael Simpson and talk to him about that, Peter Dews was I think in charge at Birmingham.
But Sydney Newman, the Canadian, who was running ABC Armchair Theatre, became Head of Drama at the BBC. He was certainly there when I ended Z Cars … but when he arrived he took one look at the regions and said with the coming of colour, editing and this that and the other and the cramped size of the studios he felt it was not the standard that he was looking for that was coming out of the regions and I think that was fair comment, the backcloths did wobble a bit! But my point is the writing that was emerging was of course then picked up again in ’71 when we started in Birmingham … with the opportunity for first-time writers. So I’d love to have a word with you.
And also I can reflect about a senior management course I was on in about ’69 where we were broken up into small groups – this was taking place at Uplands, the senior management conference centre at Uplands, High Wycombe, which the BBC ran – and I remember clearly that in our small group we proposed that the television drama should move back into the regions, we in fact identified Manchester as where it would be best placed, but happily went to Birmingham and happily I was identified as someone to do it. But I’m sure that other people were thinking along the same lines. We did a fairly clear presentation and proposal for regional drama and I like to think that it partly came from our happy fortnight at Uplands. However, I’m rambling on. It’s best to talk to you, but I do think that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten, the early days of the regions before they were stamped on by Sydney Newman and put out of existence for a decade. It will be good to talk.
Oh by the way, curiously I came by Artemis 81 tape the other day. I was sent one, unexpectedly, it had no sound! Well I said thank you but there’s no sound. I was sent another with the sound. I haven’t looked at it fully yet but you’re very welcome to share it and I will send it to you or you can pick it up or whatever. Okay, David Rose. (10 October 2003)
Artemis 81 (BBC1, 29 December 1981), written by David Rudkin and directed by Alastair Reid, was David Rose’s final production for BBC English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill. It was released on DVD by BBC Worldwide in 2007.