No director stamped their signature on the television costume and period drama with as much style, substance and success as James Cellan Jones, who has died aged 88.
A master of literary adaptations and steadfast champion of new work, Cellan Jones also played a crucial role in maintaining the profile of television drama as the BBC’s head of plays from 1976 to 1979. Responsible for some of the small screen’s most-watched and critically acclaimed dramas over more than two decades from the late 1960s, he went on to serve as chair of BAFTA and the Directors Guild of Great Britain.
Initially reluctant to take the helm of a 26-hour-long adaptation of John Galsworthy’s sprawling family drama, The Forsyte Saga (1967), Cellan Jones transformed it into a huge international hit to become the Downton Abbey of its day. Although shot in black and white, it established the template and, with a then lavish budget of £260,000, the ambition for television drama into the 1980s and beyond.
Its success – capped by being the first British television drama to be sold to the Soviet Union – seemed all the more remarkable for Cellan Jones’ meteoric rise. Having joined the BBC 12 years earlier as a call boy, he had made his directorial debut in an episode of Lorna Doone in 1963 and cut his teeth over the next 18 months with episodes of the popular women’s magazine-set serial Compact.
Adaptations of novels by Henry James (a favourite author to whom he returned on several occasions), Stendhal and Victor Hugo followed, together with Ken Hughes’ now lost Russian espionage thriller An Enemy of the State (1965).
After The Forsyte Saga, there was a change of direction with episodes of Troy Kennedy Martin’s gritty Z-Cars and Alun Richards’ Albinos in Black (1968) before he returned to James and costume drama in the same year’s The Portrait of a Lady.
Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now provided growing evidence of Cellan Jones’ commitment to making the old seem new and relevant in 1969, as did Jean-Paul Sartre’s sexually frank The Roads to Freedom (1970) and Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza in the post-hippy era of 1971.
Another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, and episodes of the The Edwardians in 1972 inked in Cellan Jones’ credentials as a director with an eye for period detail, an ear for dialogue and a facility for drawing distinctive performances from actors.
He made his film debut pitting Glenda Jackson’s Lady Hamilton against Peter Finch’s Admiral Nelson in 1973 with Terence Rattigan’s Bequest to the Nation and returned to TV the following year for Julian Mitchell’s seven-part drama starring Lee Remick, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill. It secured for Cellan Jones the first of his two Emmy nominations. The second was for The Adams Chronicles, a generations-spanning family portrait of America’s second president, in 1976.
That year he succeeded Christopher Morahan as the BBC’s head of plays. Staying in the post until the end of the decade, he actively promoted writers as diverse as Jack Rosenthal, Stephen Poliakoff, Barrie Keeffe, David Edgar and Colin Welland in an era now considered a golden age for television drama.
There were controversies along the way. Roy Minton’s exposé of life inside Britain’s youth detention borstal system, Scum, directed with unblinking, visceral brutality by Alan Clarke, was recorded in 1977 but not broadcast by the BBC until 1991.
Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978) and Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians (1979) also proved personal triumphs for Cellan Jones in the face of institutional timidity about both content and execution.
His willingness to bring classic and contemporary plays to the screen was shown in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra with Alec Guinness and Geneviève Bujold (1976), A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Eileen Atkins’ Titania and Robert Stephens’ Oberon (1977) and Sartre’s Kean, starring Anthony Hopkins as the firebrand actor (1978).
There was an unexpected diversion into domestic comedy with Bob Larbey’s A Fine Romance in 1981, with husband and wife Judi Dench and Michael Williams as their on-screen doppelgangers. It earned Cellan Jones two of his seven BAFTA award nominations.
Occasionally Cellan Jones’ work divided audiences. Oxbridge Blues, a seven-part collaboration with Frederic Raphael in 1984, picked up several awards but was dismissed by The Stage as “a disaster… mostly hollow, patronising and snobby.”
Alan Plater’s 1987 adaptation of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War cemented his reputation as a master storyteller and accelerated the careers of its young stars, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
Cellan Jones reunited with Plater for an episode (one of three he directed) of Maigret, starring Michael Gambon, in 1992, the following decade seeing him contribute to less demanding fare that included the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, The Bill and Holby City.
His limited stage work included Much Ado About Nothing for the 90th anniversary of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 1973 and Daniel Massey and Penelope Wilton in The Taming of the Shrew at the same venue in 1975.
Latterly, he directed Bella and Samuel Spewack’s 1953 Broadway comedy My Three Angels at the Mill at Sonning in 2002.
Active on BAFTA’s television committee, Cellan Jones served as the organisation’s chair for two years from 1983 and was chair of the Directors Guild of Great Britain in the early 1990s.
In 2011, the British Film Institute ran a season devoted to his work.
Alan James Gwyn Cellan Jones was born in Swansea on July 13, 1931, and died on August 30. He is survived by four children, among them the television and film director Simon Cellan Jones and BBC technology journalist Rory Cellan Jones.