The high point in the career of the television and film director, Jim O’Brien, was the 14-part Granada series The Jewel in the Crown (1984), set in the final days of the British Raj in India. His next major work, this time for the BBC, was more controversial – The Monocled Mutineer (1986), the story of an impostor, Percy Toplis, who claimed to have taken part in a mutiny of soldiers at a British training camp in France in the First World War.
The series, which showed the British establishment in a bad light, was transmitted at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government was looking for left-wing bias in the BBC’s output. Conservative critics viewed the series as a complete fabrication.
O’Brien, the son of a building labourer, was brought up in a tenement and left school without any qualifications. After a series of dead-end jobs, he began training as an actor at the Guildhall School and then joined the Nottingham Playhouse, where he won a nomination for the most promising newcomer to the stage. He later trained as a director, first for the theatre and then for television.
In 1980, the BBC engaged him to direct Shadows on our Skin, which recounted the problems of a young boy living in a Catholic part of Londonderry. Two years later, again for the BBC, he directed Jake’s End, which centred on the sense of community among small-time crooks.
The Jewel in the Crown, based on the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott, was an enormous undertaking for O’Brien and his co-director, Christopher Morahan. The cast, together with a large team of production staff, were taken to India for six months’ filming, followed by a year’s work back in Britain. The series won a swathe of awards and made a star of Art Malik, who played a young man tortured by police for a rape he did not commit.
After The Monocled Mutineer, a four-part serial adapted by Alan Bleasdale from a novel by William Allison and John Fairley, O’Brien directed The Dressmaker, a feature film based on a Beryl Bainbridge novel, set in wartime Liverpool and starring Joan Plowright, Billie Whitelaw, Pete Postlethwaite and Jane Horrocks.
From the late 1980s, he alternated his directing work with teaching at the National Film and Television School.
Jim O’Brien, who was born on February 15, 1947, died on February 13 at the age of 64.
Richard Anthony Baker
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