Richard Carpenter, who died this week, wrote and adapted some seminal TV programmes for more than 35 years, many of which have now been re-released to a new generation on DVD. In this article originally published in issue 15 in 2005, and slightly amended, John Connors looks at his career from Catweazle to I Was a Rat.
Richard Carpenter was born in 1933 in Kings Lynn in Norfolk and as he grew up became a great fan of seemingly opposite ends of the creative world; he loved comics but also Shakespeare while `The Beano` shared his reading time with tales from Greek mythology. It is easy to see how such disparate influences would later shape his writing and help him combine simple plotting with strong characters and a sense of history that grounded them. He went to the Old Vic Theatre School and learned the acting trade in repertory theatre going on to spend years as a jobbing actor appearing in many well known television series of the 1950s and 60s including Hancock’s Half Hour, The Strange Report, Knight Errant, The Baron, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. During this time he started to write short stories for radio and having experienced life in front of the camera, his writing was actor driven something that shows strongly in all his key series.
Carpenter later admitted that it was his own experience of receiving scripts that didn’t sparkle which encouraged him to write his own. As well as the childhood influences and his history as an actor, Carpenter thrived on certain limitations, which by chance would probably suit television’s budgetary considerations. “I always try and limit the number of characters I use” he said “because the more you limit it the more you are thrown back into interrelating those characters in an interesting way. Ultimately it isn't stories that are important, its characters, the way they react and the way that particular writer scripts that particular situation. Because all situations are common to drama, there are millions of the same situations appearing again and again, but it's the way the writer tackles it that makes it unique and gives it a stamp of personality.”
A notice he saw on a gate whilst on holiday in 1968 containing the word `Catweasel` inspired his first commissioned television work. Amending the spelling, he ended up with Catweazle, which gave him his break and also teamed him up with director Quentin Lawrence who brought a sense of realism to proceedings. The first series, broadcast in 1970 and consisting of thirteen episodes, proved enormously popular and the show won a Writers Guild Award in 1971.
Catweazle is as alien to 2012 as the world of 1969 was to its 11th Century character. Recently released on DVD (complete with comprehensive Making of booklet) the show’s simple premise- 11th century magician Catweazle is trapped in the 20th Century- is delightfully brought to life by director Lawrence. We are taken to a place of dreamy summer woods, childish shenanigans, solving simple problems and hiding out from adults. Its gloriously sunlit world is as encapsulated and remote from hectic modern life as the “Sun in a bottle” that Catweazle describes in the first episode when first encountering a light bulb. Can you imagine today’s kids even relating to something in which reaction to a light bulb or a telephone (or “telling bone”) is the fulcrum? The show could only have been written in those times; the very idea of a grubby old man – 11th Century or not- befriending a young boy just isn’t believable in our more paranoid society. It’s a shame because the series is never cloying; in fact the relationship between Catweazle and the 14 year old boy (the improbably named Carrot) is quite fractious and essays normal kids friendships with all the bust ups and misunderstandings that brings. Even at the end, when Carrot is quite emotional over his friend’s departure, the magician himself just sees it more pragmatically.
Catweazle is about magic but it truly is magic too, because it conjures something fascinating and when you’ve watched it, it seems like you were there; it is rose tinted memories made real, even though of course you weren’t there. I never saw an episode till 2005 but now the first season feels like some distant memory of an incredible summer. The casting of Geoffrey Blaydon was a masterstroke of course; he captures every nuance and makes us believe he is from another time. The series was so successful that a second series was inevitable though Carpenter wasn’t as happy with the follow up, largely because of format changes imposed from his bosses at LWT who saw transatlantic interest being drawn in if the location was changed from a farm in the first series to a country estate and the warm central cast replaced by stereotypical `English` characters.
Nevertheless he went on from here to contribute to The Adventures of Black Beauty a series developed by Ted Willis and very loosely based on Anna Sewell’s classic book. Set in 1887 in a fictitious village called Five Oaks (actually filmed in Hertfordshire) it featured the goings on of a doctor’s family and their associates and inevitably the titular horse would gallop to the rescue or occasionally need rescuing itself while there was always a moral to be learned. Undemanding yet stylishly produced and book ended by one of the best remembered TV themes of the 70s, it was a breezily filmed show with tight 25 minute long self contained episodes and some of the best are now available on DVD. Carpenter contributed eight episodes of the first season broadcast from autumn 1972 to spring 1973, some of which were directed by Charles Crichton. For the second series in 1973-74 he wrote nine scripts, three of which `The Medicine Man` (directed by Gerry Poulson who would helm Carpenter’s later series Dick Turpin), `The Escape` and `Game of Chance` are available on a `best of` compilation DVD.
During the early/mid 70s while working on other shows, Carpenter penned three stories for the BBC’s Look and Read, a series in which short episode storytelling was used to teach reading and observational skills. The series ran for a considerable time into the 1980s and beyond. Carpenter’s first story was 1971’s The Boy from Space also the one most remembered by adults terrified by John Woodnutt’s Thin Man character and later described by Carpenter as “about the most difficult thing I’ve ever written”. He followed that in 1976 with The King’s Dragon a more conventionally written tale of an ancient amulet that had belonged to King Harold and featuring 70s tellys’ favourite villains, smugglers! This story is notable for starring Sean Flanagan as the juvenile lead Billy West, at the time he was also playing Matt in The Ghosts of Motley Hall. Cloudburst was Carpenter’s final contribution and concerned the invention of a rain gun. For the intended young viewers this story had a strong moral that technology can be used for both good and bad reasons and Carpenter later commented: “I was getting at nuclear energy really.”
Invited by Quentin Lawrence to pen a series for Granada involving one set and a small cast, Carpenter was in his element with The Ghosts of Motley Hall, which ran for three series from 1976-78. Bolstered by a cast that included experienced character actor Freddie Jones, comedienne Sheila Steafel, former comic turned actor Arthur English and two unknown but talented new faces, theatre actor Nicholas le Provost and teenager Sean Flanagan, the light comic drama was a huge hit, receiving a BAFTA nomination and winning the `Look In`’ readers award twice. Like an inventive series of stage plays, The Ghosts of Motley Hall thrives on the interaction between the cast as they boisterously interpret Carpenter’s lively scripts. Carpenter’s scripts for the series are amongst the very best he penned, full of joi de vivre and yet tinged with the melancholy of the ghosts’ situation. They never shy from more mature dilemmas yet delight in the interaction between the characters and the hapless humans they meet. Beautifully constructed and mostly performed in a superb set, this is definitely one series you want to see if you haven’t already.
More Motley mayhem at http://www.livefrommars.co.uk/
Richard Carpenter’s next series was Dick Turpin, which ran for three seasons between 1978 - 81 and starred Richard O’Sullivan in the title role. An unlikely choice, O’Sullivan was known for light comedy series like Man About The House and Robin’s Nest but it turned out to be canny casting as he brought a casual likeability to a character that could be difficult to turn into a hero. Using such a well- known highwayman as the central character was a typical brave Carpenter gambit and in many ways the series is a dry run for the more lavish and even more popular Robin of Sherwood. Yet whereas the latter is set in a kind of mystical half world, Dick Turpin is about as earthy as you were allowed given a 5.15pm timeslot and the series strived for realism in its production style and dialogue. Rather than graft the historical setting onto essentially 20th Century plots, Carpenter and his directors (including Gerry Poulson) went for something earthier so, while there may have been no blood and Turpin never killed anyone, there was a harshness to the setting where mud, drunken brawls, buxom wenches and fist fights were shown as the norm. The characters were mainly a collection of thieves and rogues, some loveable but many black hearted and duplicitous. There was even an attempt at what sounds like some authentic period language, for example horses were “prancers” and “nags”, girls “doxys” or “trollopes” while people didn’t hang, they “swung”. Turpin himself is portrayed as without scruples and very much a loner, which sets him apart from some of the whiter than white heroes that kids television offered at this time. He has flings with girls, he robs indiscriminately and while he has his own code of good and bad his aim is generally to make money for himself.
One particularly well- written aspect of the series is his sparky relationship with sidekick Swiftnick, played by Michael Deeks. Turpin doesn’t welcome him at all and even later they still argue and Turpin isn’t above threatening his assistant who remains unswervingly loyal. Swiftnick thus provides a more conventional young hero type allowing Turpin a freer reign. Christopher Benjamin and David Daker enjoyed themselves as the blundering villains of the first two series and there was plenty of action meaning the viewer would never be bored. The only drawback was the 25 minute episode length which made it difficult to tell anything more than fast paced stories and it was this that Carpenter was able to amend in the later Robin of Sherwood. The whole series was filmed in a place near Maidenhead called Ockwells Manor and if you look carefully you’ll see the same building done up as about a dozen different taverns. O’Sullivan called Dick Turpin “a rattling good series” and he was right; it’s a great romp, lacking any pretension other than to entertain which it does consistently while edging near the knuckle and presumably getting away with it. There were two 13 part series and a 5 part adventure that was part financed by the US company RKO and shown as a TV movie over there.
As well as working on Dick Turpin, Carpenter was also adapting some of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories for a new television version co-funded by a German company. There were 26 episodes made altogether and Carpenter shared adaptation duties with Gail Renard, Richard Sparks and Gloria Tors. Some work was needed to modernise the cosiness of Blyton’s originals but the timeslot meant that anything too strong was out of the question hence the villains became rather camp and nobody ever used the guns they carried in the first season. A change of producer for the second allowed a little more leeway but plans for a third were scuppered when, with all the original stories filmed, the sinisterly monikered Enid Blyton Foundation issued an edict (probably from their underground lair) forbidding the producers to start writing their own. The series was a ratings hit and delivered a solid adventure each week with Carpenter and co having deleted a lot of the period stuff to make it a contemporary show. It’s believed that the later Comic Strip spoof Five Go Mad In Dorset was influenced by this version of the stories. The series was also notable for having a terrible theme song `We Are The Famous Five` in which the name of Timmy The Dog was stretched over half a line to get it to fit! Wonder what Toddy Woodgate thought of that?
In 1979/80, Carpenter also contributed to a cartoon series called Dr Snuggles which concerned a scatter brained inventor who travelled around with a bunch of bizarre friends such as robot Mathilda Junkbottom, The Treacle Tree, Nobby Mouse and even a walking talking wooden shed named Rickety Rick. He used various inventions to defeat enemies such as Professor Emerald, Charlie Rat and Madame Midas. His modes of transport were equally as inventive and included a flying wooden barrel called the Dreamy Boom Boom and a jalopy called the Snuggletruck. It may sound like something that could only be invented after imbibing something very strong but the script team included some of the top names of the day; as well as Carpenter, others who contributed were John Lloyd, the top comedy producer and even Douglas Adams while the voice of Dr Snuggles was Peter Ustinov. It was produced in this country but actually animated in the Netherlands.
In 1980, Carpenter unveiled another historical action adventure series titled Smuggler. Set in 1802 it concerned the story of ex-British naval officer turned smuggler Jack Vincent who has to “live by his wits and his sword in order to survive in the treacherous world he finds himself in.” Described in publicity as “a headstrong loner”, Vincent finds himself entangled in the espionage war between Britain and France. Oliver Tobias, action hero de jour of late 70s/early 80s telly took the lead role with Jim Goddard directing what was a swashbuckling show consisting of 13 half hour episodes, eight of which were penned by its creator. HTV produced the show, which along with its sequel Adventurer does not seem to have made a lasting impression on viewers despite the blustery location work and solid plots. For children of a certain age at a certain time though it was perfect.
In 1983 came the series which, along with Catweazle, Richard Carpenter is best remembered for and which was probably his biggest commercial success; Robin of Sherwood. As he had a few year earlier with Dick Turpin, he took a legendary character surrounded by conflicting stories, re-invented it and created what many feel is the definitive take on the whole thing. Crucially he added a mystical edge and captivated another generation the same way he had a dozen years earlier with Catweazle. Carpenter tapped into ideas that had gestated since his childhood experiences playing and his love of the English woodland, as well as the things about Dick Turpin that he’d have liked to improve, in particular the episode length. With a lavish budget to play with he set about re-inventing the Robin Hood legend. There’s a lot of real history and some pretend as well and production standards were so high that other channels held the series up as an example of what they should be producing. Perhaps the biggest gamble was changing the star when original lead Michael Praed moved on after two seasons; Carpenter simply used a different Robin Hood legend and a new Robin Hood was possible.
The story starts with Ailric of Loxley, Guardian of the Silver Arrow, an ancient symbol of pre-Christian England, who had led a rebellion against his Anglo-Norman masters, for which his home was destroyed by Norman pillagers and he was murdered. His son, Robin (Michael Praed), was adopted by the local miller and swore to one day avenge his fathers death. Some years later Robin encountered Herne the Hunter, a forest spirit possessed with the powers of light and goodness, which appeared before him in the form of a man with a stag’s head and he endowed Robin with Albion, one of the Seven Swords of Wayland. Our hero thus became Robin in the Hood thereby realising the prophecy of the Silver Arrow. Along the way Robin met up with his legendary band of merry men including Little John (Clive Mantle), Maid Marion (Judi Trott) Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) and the rather psychopathic Will Scarlet (as played by a then lesser known Ray Winstone) plus a new character Carpenter added, Nasir, a Saracen played by Mark Ryan.
After two series Robin of Loxley was killed and Herne chose another, Robert of Huntingdon (played by Jason Connery, son of screen legend Sean), to lead the outlaws for one more series of noble adventuring. Carpenter has described “television politics” as the reason for the series’ ending after 24 episodes and much acclaim. The show remains a cult TV favourite and was the first time Carpenter’s work reached beyond the children’s TV world as the series enjoyed many adult followers.
During his Sherwood sojourn, Carpenter also worked on the series The Baker Street Boys, which concerned a juvenile Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Although he didn’t create the show he did contribute two four - part stories `The Ghost of Julian Midwinter` and `The Adventure of the Winged Sacarab`. Six years after Smuggler, Carpenter devised a sequel series for hero Jack Vincent that was commissioned by Thames as a joint production with some of the budget coming from TV New Zealand. Oliver Tobias again starred as Vincent with the action moving forward to 1810 where he has been convicted as a smuggler meaning his naval career was finished. Directed by Chris Bailey and broadcast in 1987, the twelve- part show’s publicity blurb says that Vincent “leads a cast of misfits and miscreants in a struggle for survival complete with mutiny on the high seas, hostile natives and thwarted vendettas.”
Carpenter’s second foray into animation came in 1991 with The Winjin Pom; developed by the team behind Spitting Image albeit with a much younger audience in mind. The series chronicled the adventures of a group of globetrotting Australian animals, the Gullagaloona backpackers, going round the world on the cheap courtesy of a rather grumpy British camper van, the Winjin' Pom.
One of Richard Carpenter’s best- known adaptations arrived in 1992/3 when he wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s impressive version of Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers and its sequels. The two series were notable for what were groundbreaking special effects at the time allowing convincingly scaled and realised representation of the little people who lived in cracks and corners and scavenged from “human beans”. Carpenter’s script remained faithful to the tone of the novels while adding a more contemporary dialogue to some of the conversations and the top- notch cast included Ian Holm, Penelope Wilton and Sian Phillips. Director John Henderson drenched everything in brilliant summer tones and the end result deservedly won two BAFTA awards for best children’s series and best photography as well as a Royal Television Society award for best children’s drama and in the States received an Emmy nomination. In many ways, The Borrowers was something of a last look back to the golden age of children’s television drama as subsequent big shows in the 1990s would attempt grittier issues or start to seem like mirror images of adult soaps. Proof of the enduring quality of the series came in 2000 when it was the second highest place children’s drama in BAFTA’s all time Top 100 list.
1994 saw Carpenter pen another hit series, this time a four parter entitled Stanley’s Dragon which would certainly have made a great film and is summed up by one critic as “a wondrous tale in the best E.T. tradition… (a) story of a boy and his pet dragon.” Stanley Katz is a young American exchange student who loves exploring and pot-holing but when he finds a mysterious egg on one of his expeditions; the last thing he expects to hatch from it is a baby dragon. Olly, as he dubs it (as in Stan and Olly…) is kept hidden in his ramshackle bedsit, as his nosy landlord tries to discover what’s going on but it eventually turns into an awesome thirty foot long creature whose existence causes officialdom to swing into action. Poor Olly ends up a depressed exhibit in a zoo until Stanley sets out to rescue him. Directed by Gerry Poulson who did a lot of Dick Turpin and Black Beauty episodes, Stanley’s Dragon is a more swooping sort of piece perhaps lacking in the character department, partly due to its brevity, but managing to put across a story about animal rights and the way we treat and trust each other with verve and lots of Carpenter style interesting dialogue. Plus you get perennial tv character actor Milton Johns in fantastically slimy form as Stanley’s inquisitive landlord while young leads Judd Trichter (who in episode 1 is energetic to the point of blurring) and Mia Fothergill acquit themselves well. Ultimately the success of the show stands or falls on the depiction of the dragon and it largely works even though to an adult viewer it is clearly a collection of wires and animatronics. Yet it had an enormous power and somehow Carpenter’s writing and Poulson’s direction made it seem like a character rather than just a big monster so that by the end you felt and cared about it. The series was critically acclaimed and nominated for both BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards
Out of Sight was to be Carpenter’s next success story and won him another Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award. Shown over two series in 1997- 1999, it concerned a boy called Joe who is able to turn himself invisible with the use of a magic green spray while trying an experiment. To remove the invisibility he used water and he and his best friend Ali then used their new `power` to get into all sorts of adventures. Amongst the things they did were make some some scientists believe in ghosts, stopped a pupil cheating on a test, scared a returned puppeteer to go to a birthday party and foiled a bunch of thieves. The plots were lively and the tone mischievous with some great and likeable characters. The same year, 1997, Carpenter also adapted True Tilda a 6 part serial based on the novel by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. Set in the 19th Century, it tells the story of a young girl who runs away to the circus where she befriends a boy who she helps to try and regain his inheritance. The production starred Morgan Bell, Eric Graves, Isla Blair and Joe Duttine.
Given his record it’s perhaps surprising that until 1999, apart from Robin of Sherwood, Carpenter stayed – or perhaps was encouraged to stay- firmly in the children’s and/or genre bracket but that year he wrote several episodes of the BBC’s new Sunday evening adaptation of the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel which featured Richard E Grant in the role of Sir Percy Blakeney the masked and mysterious figure staging daring rescues during the terror of the French Revolution while avoiding detection by the head of the Committee of Surveillance, Citizen Chauvelin (played with as much gravitas as only he can by Martin Shaw).
Set in 1793, the series actually bore more than a passing resemblance to Carpenter’s own past works such as Robin of Sherwood and particularly Dick Turpin though clearly more money was spent and instead of the forests and woods of old we spent much of the action in castles and grand buildings. The series was certainly a good deal livelier than what usually passed for weekend drama and was loosely based on books by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It followed The Pimpernel’s adventures saving Marguerite’s brother and his secret identity from Chauvelin, trying to save a young girl caught between a rebel army and a vicious agent of Robespierre, even saving the young King Louis from a cunning assassin. It all looked fantastic with excellent costume, set design, action sequences and cinematography yet was much criticised at the time for lacking any reason why Blakely does what he does plus, as more than one critic rather unfairly pointed out everyone speaks with an English accent.
Two years later Carpenter won the prestigious gig of adapting His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman’s earlier book I Was A Rat and the result was a critically acclaimed co-production between the UK and Canada shot on location in both Toronto and London. “I was a rat. Now I'm a boy" says wet and bedraggled Roger when he winds up on the doorstep of Bob and Joan. To this gentle, childless couple, he seems an ordinary small boy (with a few rat like habits); soon, however, poor Roger is pursued by the "Daily Scourge" newspaper, a fairground owner who wants to put him in a freak show, and a mad scientist who thinks Roger is an alien yet Bob and Joan stand by Roger, even when it takes a bit of royal intervention to figure out who he really is. Tom Conti and Brenda Fricker headed the cast and direction was by Laurie Lynd. I Was A Rat was nominated for a BAFTA award proof that thirty years on from the triumph of Catweazle Carpenter was still working on quality material. Some writers may sneer that adaptation work is easier than thinking up your own ides, but bear in mind that tv and film are wholly different storytelling mediums and each require specific and special skills.
Some of Richard Carpenter’s thoughts on his craft were discussed in an interview on writing for children a few years back; “I believe writing for children should ultimately create a feeling of hope and optimism” he stated. On comic writing he said; “(children)…adore to see adults in trouble. Children like jokes –usually based on puns – which they generally tell very badly because telling jokes is a technical thing anyway. Jokes have a sort of `now I’m going to be funny` thing about them which is why children like them.” He also says that visual humour is the same for adults or children but “only works if the characters and situations are strong. It isn’t enough to push a custard pie into someone’s face. We must know what motivates it. There must be a build up.” He cites Laurel and Hardy as strong examples because, he says “we know them as people and their locked in relationship….deep down we know they love each other. However wild the visual knockabout, the two of them remain completely believable”. This is a strong trait in Carpenter shows; they are full of strong relationships - Catweazle and Carrot, the Motley Hall ghosts, Dick Turpin and Swiftnick - and whatever they fall out about, however much trouble they get each other into, at the end their friendship wins through; an important message for a younger audience.
Carpenter also argued against dumbing down too much for a kids audience and was critical of a lot of children’s comedy consisting of “very bright colours, manic presenters and gross over-playing; its all very basic and doesn’t say anything about people, which is of course what comedy’s all about, whatever age group you’re writing for.” His own series are notable for a high incidence of quieter, subtle moments that sneak in subconsciously making the characters seem warmer and more real. One key thing he pointed out is the clash of reality and fantasy which time and again is the backbone to his programmes; Catweazle landing on an ordinary farm, a boy who can make himself invisible living in a world the viewer can identify with, the way ghosts still have meetings, arguments and songs. “If one restricts the fantasy to one element, the rest of the world must be as real as possible,” he says, “In Out of Sight invisibility is the fantastic bit, but everything else is normal and everyday.”
As if all the writing wasn’t enough, Carpenter also listed his hobbies as painting, sculpture, jazz and talking to anybody about anything. He had latterly been trying to gain interest in a series called Rogues and Vagabonds about a group of strolling players set in the times of Cavaliers and Roundheads but it seemed without success.
Richard Carpenter leaves a collection of work that is thankfully mostly available for future generations to enjoy hundreds of hours of exciting, witty and enjoyable television that is really for anyone who has a little imagination.