Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Christopher Neame (1942-2011)

(l to r) Christopher Neame, Elspeth Huxley and director Roy Ward Baker on the African location for Euston Films' The Flame Trees of Thika in 1980
Producer Christopher Neame, who has passed away aged 68, was a key player in the Euston Films story.  Between 1978 and 1987, he oversaw the 13 episodes of popular wartime drama Danger UXB, 7-part Elspeth Huxley serial The Flame Trees of Thika, one-off features The Knowledge and Monsignor Quixote (which he adapted himself from the Graham Greene novella) and finally 3-part crime thriller Bellman and True.

And inspired by the rather hectic six month shoot on Danger UXB, he was also responsible for drawing up the famous "Producers' Memorandum", a guidebook for all subsequent Euston producers to refer to which would maximise their prep time:

"I am a firm subscriber to the belief that [pre-production] should be an extensive period with in-depth analysis of all production angles - it is, after all, the least expensive section of the whole thing!  I found a way of making it possible for directors to have plenty of preparation at Euston: basically, by combining editing and post-production work and viewing the overall position as a single unit."

Son of the late director Ronald Neame, Christopher's first major post in the film industry was as clapper boy with Hammer Productions in 1965.  Working his way up in the industry over the next decade, by the late 1970s the decline of British cinema prompted him to accept - after some initial resistance on his part - an invitation by his friend Johnny Goodman, to work in television instead.  Another old friend, John Hawkesworth, of Upstairs, Downstairs fame, was deviser of a new project for Thames/Euston about the bomb disposal squad in London during WW2, and the series needed a producer.

It was the beginning of a very creative decade for Mr Neame, which he expands upon in his highly informative, educational and entertaining - in short, Reithian! - memoir "A Take on British TV Drama: Stories from the Golden Years" (Scarecrow Press Inc., 2004).

Beginning my research on Euston Films in the autumn of 2009, I stumbled upon this volume and was greatly inspired by the stories it told - personal remembrances and indispensable insight into, indeed, the golden years of the company and British television in general, from a gentleman.

Wishing to learn more from this font of knowledge, I attempted to contact Mr Neame via his publishers.  To my delight, he was agreeable to a chat and so the following January, we had a phone conversation in which he answered all of my questions about Euston Films and television drama and was kindness personified.  I was shocked and dismayed to hear of his death last week.

Christopher Neame was a first-rate producer; as actor and friend Sam Waterston, with whom he worked on the CBS period adventure series Q.E.D., says in the book's foreword: "Read it for a direct sense of what it is to produce for television, what it takes, what it's like to live the life, and who is best suited to the task by temperament and attitude.  That will be someone who shares the author's taste for bedlam, improvisation, jury-rigged, skin-of-your-teeth escapes from disaster and the great joke and noble enterprise that is the entertainment business along with the more seriously focused aspect".

As for Mr Neame, I suspect he retired from the screen at the right time.  He was sceptical about the committee-led nature of television commissioning nowadays, but retained his optimism nonetheless: "To be absolutely fair, there is good material to be found on television, although one has to dig deeper and suffer longer waits between one nugget and the next".

As the book went to press in 2003, he had just heard the sad news that John Hawkesworth had passed away.  Of his friend, he says: "There is now a void in my life where once stood a kind and thoughtful man".

The family and friends of Christopher Neame are undoubtedly thinking likewise.  May he rest in peace.

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