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Obituary: Breaking the Code playwright Hugh Whitemore

Hugh Whitemore. Photo: Victoria Gray

Like many other playwrights and screenwriters, Hugh Whitemore, originally wanted to be an actor. He trained at RADA, where one of his tutors, Peter Barkworth, tried to let him down lightly by saying that, while he had the potential to make a great contribution to the theatre, acting might not be the answer.

Nevertheless, Whitemore spent a couple of years doing regional rep in the mid-1950s while writing plays in his spare time. He also wrote continuity scripts for ITV in its early days. He said later that he valued his time as an actor because it taught him what did and didn’t work in terms of dialogue.

His career as a writer for TV took off in the 1960s, with regular contributions to the long-running soap Compact, set in the offices of a women’s magazine, and No Hiding Place, one of the first primetime police series. He also wrote for ITV’s Armchair Theatre and the BBC’s Play for Today.

In 1970, he won the first of three Emmy awards for an episode of Elizabeth R, with Glenda Jackson as the Tudor monarch, going on to adapt David Copperfield in 1974 and Moll Flanders the following year.

His later work for American TV included Concealed Enemies (1984), about the Alger Hiss case, and The Gathering Storm (2002), with Albert Finney playing a frustrated Churchill prior to becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939. Both TV films won Emmy awards.

Whitemore made his debut as a writer for the stage in 1977 with Stevie, about the eccentric poet Stevie Smith, written for his friend Glenda Jackson to perform. After a UK tour and West End run it was made into a film in 1980.

This was followed by arguably his two most successful plays – Pack of Lies (1983), based on the true story of a suburban couple (played by Judi Dench and Michael Williams), who are unaware that their friendly neighbours are spies, and Breaking the Code (1986), a moving account of the real-life downfall of the Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing, played by Derek Jacobi.

Continuing his fascination with real-life stories, Whitemore wrote A Letter of Resignation (1997), in which Edward Fox gave a creditable impersonation of the 1960s prime minister Harold Macmillan, dealing with both the Profumo Affair and his own wife’s infidelity with one of his closest political allies.

One of Whitemore’s happiest collaborations was in 2009 when he teamed up with the playwright and essayist Simon Gray to adapt the latter’s defence of smoking, The Smoking Diaries. Their play, The Last Cigarette, was directed by Richard Eyre and transferred from Chichester Festival Theatre to Trafalgar Studios in the West End.

The two writers, Whitemore and Gray, had been friends since they both wrote for the BBC in the 1970s. Interviewed before the opening of The Last Cigarette, Whitemore said working on the play together had been “tremendous fun”, even though he (Gray) was terminally ill at the time. Despite his notable successes in TV and film, Whitemore’s first love was always theatre.

He told one interviewer: “A theatre audience gives you that feeling of what you’ve written being a living, breathing thing.”

Hugh Whitemore was born on June 16, 1936, and died on July 17, 2018.