In his autobiography Sir Peter Hall records: "I once asked
the distinguished film and television writer Ken Taylor how he
had developed such a strong sense of narrative in his scripts.
He said he had been on the book as stage manager for many long
years, so was at once aware when a play lost its audience. The
narrative sense he gained from this gave us The Jewel in the
Ken Taylor has written the scripts for almost a hundred hours
of television drama in a career spanning more than four decades,
starting with the broadcast of his first radio play in 1941 as
he was embarking on an RAF troopship for service in India. Born
on 10 November 1922, the seventh child of a Lancashire cotton
mill owner, he was brought up in a wealthy Bolton family, where
the sight of unemployed workers sitting idle on the streets set
the stamp on his political sympathies from an early age, working
in recent years with the Liberal Democrats.
His first work for television in the early nineteen-fifties was
for the developing "mid-Atlantic" market established
by canny American producers exploiting the undeveloped wealth
of talent available in Britain, before the advent of commercial
television in the UK created a rich new opportunity for home based
television drama. Though his public school background scarcely
qualified him, he succeeded with plays in the then fashionable
"kitchen sink" vogue such as One of Us, dealing
with immigrant labour conflict in a cotton mill, and The Long
Distance Blue, which provided James Bolam with his first
starring role as a northern pigeon fancier and was directed by
Christopher Morahan, who later produced and co-directed The
Jewel in the Crown.
The nineteen-sixties became dominated by the availability of
nuclear weapons and their threat to destroy the world, leading
Ken Taylor to re-examine his view on the nature of the human animal
and its propensity for violence with his plays Into the Dark
and The Slaughter Men, the last starring the young Tom
Bell. The Devil and John Brown, which won the 1964 Writers'
Guild award as best original teleplay, was based on a real life
event in 1849 and dealt with a Scottish collier trapped by a pit
fall, who survived for three weeks alone in the dark, reviewing
his own existence in the vicious struggle for life in all creation.
This phase culminated in the commissioning by Sydney Newman of
a trilogy of 90-minute plays The Seekers concerning the
problem of human evil, written for the opening of BBC2 and featuring
Michael Bryant in a variety of roles across three periods of history
- The Heretics set in the Middle Ages, The Idealists
in the French revolution and The Materialists in Auschwitz.
A further historically-based trilogy The Magicians followed
with Dr Dee, Kelly and the Spirits, The Incantation of Casanova
and Edmund Gurney and the Brighton Mesmerist.
These preoccupations were unlikely to go down well as popular
entertainment and Taylor wisely now decided to leave humanity
to solve its problems without the help of television drama, but
it is interesting to consider what chance any of these ideas would
have of surviving the commissioning process of today, though winning
for him the (pre-Bafta) Guild of TV Producers and Directors award
as Writer of the Year in 1964. They were produced in the golden
age of television when the writer was supreme.
Future original drama from Ken Taylor continued to be factually
based with biographical plays on the life of the children's writer
E Nesbit and three plays for the suffragette series Shoulder
to Shoulder - The Pankhursts, Christobel and Sylvia
Pankhurst. These were followed by a 3-part dramatisation
of the famous Victorian political scandal surrounding Sir Charles
Dilke in The Member for Chelsea and an equally famous
Victorian mystery in the 3-part serial The Poisoning of Charles
Bravo, later adapted for the stage.
Alongside his original work for television Ken Taylor also worked
extensively on adaptations from writers including Somerset Maugham,
H G Wells, Thomas Hardy, Rebecca West, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark
and Mary Wesley. He contributed to the Granada series based on
the stories of D H Lawrence and adapted for television Lawrence's
play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, which first drew attention
to Lawrence's neglected skill as a playwright. But the adaptation
which made the greatest impact both here and in America was his
fifteen-hour adaptation of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels -
The Jewel in the Crown.
As well as its vast scope, Scott's masterpiece presented a special
challenge with its complex story told from a variety of perspectives,
moving freely back and forward in time. The problem was not (as
has been suggested) to reorganise the material into chronological
order, but how to do so without destroying the impressionistic
echoes and reverberations which Scott's genius had evoked. The
impact of the series proved that this transition to the television
screen had been successfully achieved - thanks to Christopher
Morahan's masterly production and direction with his co-director
Ken Taylor's most distinguishing feature as a wr
iter has been
his ability to create complex dramatic roles for women, and women
also feature prominently in the list of writers he has adapted.
He states: "I have always preferred the company of women
to that of men. I could not write a play without a major female
role and have most enjoyed my contacts with living female writers
and with the actresses whose talents have brought my work to life.
The human race is now in crisis and I believe the evolutionary
imperative of the male drives for competitiveness and aggression
must give way to the female instincts of nurturing and social
bonding if we are to have the smallest hope of surviving the threat
to our species posed by global warming.