Jack Gold obituary
Award-winning film and TV director known for Aces High and The Naked Civil Servant
By: Philip Purser and Brian Baxter
August 11, 2015
A well-worn path for bright young recruits to television in the 1950s to 1970s would take them from shooting little news and current affairs items to directing documentary features, thence to dramatised documentaries and finally into fully-fledged drama. Many trod this path, but few progressed more surely than Jack Gold, who has died aged 85.
Born in London, and having graduated from London University with degrees in economics and law, he entered BBC Radio in 1954 in the traditional apprentice role of assistant studio manager. After two years he transferred to TV as a film editor, and in 1960 joined Donald Baverstock’s revolutionary early-evening miscellany Tonight. Here, he duly started to make the programme’s brisk little trademark films starring its idiosyncratic reporters – Fyfe Robertson, Macdonald Hastings, Derek Hart, Alan Whicker and Trevor Philpott.
In 1964 came the break which made Gold’s name overnight. The Tonight team made occasional 40-minute specials devoted to a single subject. Death in the Morning was about fox-hunting, with Whicker in full cry after the Quorn but upstaged, for once, by the sheer brilliance of Gold’s film-making, notably a breathless pursuit sequence as seen and heard and suffered by the fox. It won him the first of his three Bafta awards.
Call the Gun Expert (1964), a whole series spun off from Tonight, gave Gold his first nudge towards dramatisation. The object of the programme was to demonstrate the forensic skills of a London gunsmith, Robert Churchill, whose expertise had been used by Scotland Yard in the successful prosecution of many armed criminals and a few murderers. Gold’s innovation – periodically reinvented ever since – was to have the reporter, Hastings, step in and out of re-enactments of the cases. In utter contrast, Ladies and Gentleman, It is My Pleasure (1965) followed a world-weary Malcolm Muggeridge as he trod the American lecture circuit while biting the hand that paid him.
It was 1967 before Gold directed his first out-and-out drama, for the BBC’s prestigious, if controversial, Wednesday Play spot. Much of the controversy was stirred up by the prevailing leftwing tone of the scripts, and on the surface Jim Allen’s The Lump was no exception – a grim exposé of unsafe practices and the exploitation of casual labour in the building trade. But instead of starting with the political premise and running up a suitable victim, as too many of the other tracts were doing, in his central character, Yorky, Allen created a true outsize hero whose destruction was just as much due to his own pride and stubborn beliefs.
Gold chose Leslie Sands to play the part and wrung an epic performance from him against a backdrop of scaffolding, mud and flooded workings. As if to balance this blunt tragedy with something more delicate, at the end of 1967 Gold directed The World of Coppard for the arts programme Omnibus. The virtue of this package of three dramatised short stories by a master of the form, AE Coppard, was not lost on the BBC’s great rival Granada, which five years later sustained a triumph with Country Matters, a 13-part series to the same prescription but drawing on the stories of HE Bates as well as Coppard’s.
Gold turned freelance, and proved to be at home with almost every kind of subject. Faith and Henry (1969) for LWT told a schoolboy and schoolgirl love story all the more touching for being played out amid decaying industrial landscapes they nevertheless find romantic. Mad Jack, written by Tom Clarke (Wednesday Play, 1970), gave a stunning account of the first world war soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon’s single-handed protest against the carnage of the Western Front.
Also from the pen of Clarke came Stocker’s Copper (1972), based on a forgotten, forlorn strike by Cornish china-clay miners in 1913. One masterwork in a very long list was The Naked Civil Servant (1975); Philip Mackie’s tender, brave and funny biopic of the “stately homo” Quentin Crisp was hailed by Kenneth Tynan as the best TV programme he had ever seen. Also memorable were two contributions to the then-new Channel 4, Praying Mantis (1983), an extravagantly Gallic murder serial, again from Mackie, and Red Monarch (1983), Charles Wood’s knockabout comedy, with deadly serious undertones, about Stalin and his henchman Beria.
Where Gold surprisingly faltered was in the mammoth BBC Shakespeare project of 1978-84. His Merchant of Venice (1980), with Warren Mitchell as Shylock, scored well, but his Macbeth (1983) was let down by Nicol Williamson’s sheep-like mien and bleating voice.
Many directors saw TV merely as a stepping-stone to making movies. Gold was not one of these, but inevitably he was drawn to a parallel cinema career. He retained his affection for TV and continued to work in it between films. As he collected his bus-pass and then entered his 70s he enjoyed directing episodes of the latter-day crime series which, in their reliance on character and dialogue, came closest to classic studio drama. He particularly admired John Thaw, whom he directed in episodes of Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC, and the TV movie Goodnight Mister Tom (1998), and in 2002 oversaw ITV’s tribute documentary after the actor’s death.
Gold married, in 1957, Denyse Macpherson, who survives him, along with a daughter, Kate, and two sons, Jamie and Nick, seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.
Brian Baxter writes: Jack Gold’s concerns in film were primarily social and personal, often on an intimate scale and with a regard for source material that suited the upstart medium of television better than the more flamboyant art of the movies.
His powerful debut, The Bofors Gun (1968), was a case in point. Adapted by John McGrath from his own drama set in an army barracks during the mid-50s, it became a blistering, claustrophobic portrait of men under stress as an “officer material” corporal has his authority undermined by a rebellious group dominated by a boozy Irishman (Nicol Williamson).
It led to The Reckoning (1970), which reunited Gold with both writer and actor in a trenchant depiction of a businessman who has hauled himself from the Liverpool slums at the expense of his moral standing. With The National Health (1973), adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play about life in a vast, decaying hospital ward, Gold completed a third, socially reflective work, in tune with the realist features that had dominated British cinema for 15 years.
As that “movement” drew to a slow close, Gold moved to a cold war thriller, Who? (1973), that went straight to BBC television. A take on Robinson Crusoe, under the title Man Friday (1975), proved despite an intriguing premise to be an unengaging blend of broad comedy and liberalism.
Gold’s attempts at commercial movies were only modestly successful. Aces High (1976) was another “updating” – this time of RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, set not in the trenches but in the skies. A piece of hokum, The Medusa Touch (1978), starred Richard Burton and showed the director working on a genre piece, in one of the ITC (Incorporated Television Company) productions that helped sound the death knell of British cinema.
The Sailor’s Return (1978) derived from David Garnett’s Victorian-set novel about an English mariner who brings home a black princess as his bride and weathers storms greater than any at sea. It was congenial territory for Gold, in its treatment of nonconformity. In lighter vein he directed The Chain (1985), an interwoven portrait of Londoners moving house on the same day. Jack Rosenthal’s screenplay suggested that it was in reality a television drama in search of a big screen.
Gold’s films were linked by a seriousness of purpose and unostentatious direction. Many collaborators returned to work with him, including the composer Carl Davis and editor Anne Coates, plus, most notably, the actor John Thaw, who had been in The Bofors Gun.
Born: 6/28/1930, London, England, U.K.
Jack Gold’s western – director:
The Rose and the Jackal (TV) - 1990