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Obituary: John Bowen – ‘prolifically talented writer who deftly married the political and the popular’

John Bowen. Photo: John Brown

A writer whose work encompassed novels, theatre and television, John Bowen was a prolific talent who married the political and the popular with a deftness and diligence that sustained his career through five decades.

Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and after service in the Indian army, he read history at Oxford University before finding work in journalism and advertising. He attracted attention with his second novel, the futuristic parable After the Rain, in 1958. His later stage adaptation, starring Alec McCowen, was seen at the Duchess Theatre and on Broadway in 1967.

Bowen had produced his first play (Pegasus, co-written with Kenneth Rowell) a decade earlier and began writing for television with the children’s adventure Garry Halliday (sharing the nom de plume Justin Blake with Jeremy Bullmore) in 1958. His first solo screenplay, A Holiday Abroad, followed in 1960. He continued to juggle both forms, often moving his own material from one to the other.

Based on the medieval Mystery Plays, The Fall and Redemption of Man was staged at LAMDA (where he taught for several years) in 1967 and received its professional premiere at the Pitlochry Festival in 1969, directed by Bowen himself.

The same year, he contributed to Mixed Doubles, a portmanteau exploration of marriage co-authored by Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter, Fay Weldon and other luminaries at the Comedy Theatre.

His coupling of one-act plays, Little Boxes, transferred from the Hampstead Theatre to the Duchess Theatre in 1968 and prompted a rare onstage appearance by Bowen in its 1969 off-Broadway run.

First staged by the Manchester Drama Group in 1969, with a cast including Maureen Lipman and Coronation Street star William Roache, The Disorderly Women, his updating of Euripides’ The Bacchae, launched the Hampstead Theatre’s newly opened Swiss Cottage home in 1970. Later theatre included the “powerful political pamphlet” Which Way Are You Facing? (Bristol Old Vic, 1976) and re-workings of Marivaux – The Inconstant Couple (Chichester, 1978) and Moliere, The Geordie Gentleman (TyneWear Theatre, 1987).

On television, he co-adapted Chekhov’s Ivanov with John Gielgud (who also took the title role) in 1966, profiled a dystopian, right-wing Britain in The Guardians (1970), adapted Julius Caesar in Heil Caesar! (1973) and was a regular contributor to ITV’s Play of the Week and Armchair Thriller and the BBC’s Play for Today.

In 1989 he co-created the long-running Hetty Wainthropp Investigates with his partner David Cook. Based on Cook’s novel and starring Patricia Routledge as the indomitable amateur sleuth, ITV abandoned the project after its pilot episode before the BBC picked it up in 1996 to produce four series.

Notable single-screen dramas included 1970’s Robin Redbreast (a gripping examination of ritual murder in a sleepy rural idyll later staged at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford) and adaptations of MR James’ ghost story The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, and the classic 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter for its 1974 remake starring Richard Burton and Sophia Loren.

During the 1980s, Bowen produced more than a dozen episodes of ITV Playhouse, Sunday Night Thriller and Weekend Playhouse, before returning to novel writing. He published his 12th and last novel No Retreat in 1994.

John Griffith Bowen, born on November 5, 1924, died on April 18, aged 94.

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