ROSENTHAL, JACK

British Writer

Jack Rosenthal is one of British television's most successful dramatists. He has received numerous awards, notably BAFTA awards for The Evacuees, Bar Mitzvah Boy, P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang, Ready When You are Mr McGill, an Emmy award for The Evacuees and the Prix Italia for Spend, Spend, Spend and The Knowledge. He has written successfully for the big screen with The Chain and The Knowledge and has also written five plays for the live stage, notably Smash!.

Rosenthal learned the craft of writing for the comparatively new medium of television in the 1960s at a time when television drama in Britain (particularly on the BBC) was still dominated by writers schooled in theatrical conventions and over concerned with being taken seriously. This resulted in a preoccupation with adaptations of theatrical successes, revivals of classics (e.g. Shakespeare, Dickens) and writing that exploited literary rather than visual resources. Independent television in the late 1950s was looking to develop more popular forms of drama to attract new audiences and brought in Sydney Newman from Canada who fostered new dramatists and initiated new series. It was against this background that Rosenthal started work in Granada where he served his apprenticeship by writing more than 150 scripts for the popular TV soap Coronation Street. The experience of writing for a popular genre prepared him for his originating such comedy serials as The Dustbinmen, The Lovers and Sadie, It's Cold Outside. His growing reputation in the 1970s as a professional writer who could be relied upon to turn in a successful script led to his being entrusted with the prestige form of the single play: a form that Rosenthal himself prefers because of the freedom it offers the artist to explore his own vision.

Rosenthal was born in Manchester of Jewish parents and has drawn on his experiences to write Bar Mitzvah Boy and The Evacuees. It would be a mistake, however, to classify him as a "Jewish writer": his interest is in observing the interactions of individuals in social networks and the Jewish community merely furnishes one among many institutions that he explores: schools (P'tang, Yang Kippperbang), taxi drivers (The Knowledge), the army (Bootse and Snudge), refuse collectors (The Dustbinmen), firemen (London Is Burning), TV drama (Ready When You Are Mr McGill). He is also interested in the common experiences that many of us face at particular moments of our lives: moving house (The Chain), growing up (Bar Mitzvah Boy, P'tang, Yang, Kippperbang), falling in love (The Lovers) forgetfulness and old age (A Day to Remember).

The strength of Rosenthal's comedy lies in its closeness to tragedy: from another perspective the petty cruelties of the stepmother in The Evacuees could have blighted the lives of the children, but both plot and psychological insight combine to restore harmony and recognize the cruelty as misplaced possessiveness. So too, in A Day to Remember, the terror and pain of short-term memory loss attendant on a stroke in old age is contained and balanced by the comic presentation of the gaps and imperfections that beset the middle-aged. If the comic vision is shown as a wise perceptiveness about the frailties of the human condition, this is not sentimentalized. The insight that comes through comedy is one that is often painfully achieved: the schoolboy hero of P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang is only able to kiss his first love and enter upon adult sexuality by recognizing the fantasy element of that anticipated delight. To fulfil his desire means abandoning private fantasy and entering the real world in which people are both less than we would wish and more diverse than we could expect. Similarly, when the aspirant cabby in The Knowledge finally achieves his ambition to be a London taxi driver he discovers his girlfriend, the initial driving force behind his application, frustrated with his neglect of her demanded by the discipline of acquiring "the knowledge" (he has to learn by heart the streets and landmarks of London by perpetually driving around them), has fallen for somebody else. Knowledge of chaps rather than maps turns out to be that which is most difficult to acquire.

Although the comedy of Jack Rosenthal is invariably rooted in a recognizable social setting which has been carefully researched, the characters are not deeply explored. Our interest is focused on the themes they are the means to realizing: in Another Sunday, and Sweet FA the frustrations of refereeing a football match is the opportunity for a comic disquisition on the competing claims of power and justice; in P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang imagination and the reality principle struggle for an accommodation, in The Chain the seven deadly sins provide the motivation for Fortuna's wheel of house-hunting. If there is a thread which underlies most of Rosenthal's work it is that our desire as individuals to do good in order to be liked and admired is at variance with our role as social beings to impose order, our order, on others. Wisdom comes when we learn to accommodate these competing demands and accept responsibility for fulfilling our desires.

-Brendan Kenny

 


Jack Rosenthal
Photo courtesy of Jack Rosenthal

JACK MORRIS RESENTHAL. Born 8 September 1931. Attended Colne Grammar School; Sheffield University, B.A. in English Language and Literature. Married Maureen Lipman in 1973; one son and one daughter. Early contributions as a writer for television included 150 scripts for Coronation Street; subsequently consolidated reputation with comedy series and one-off dramas, several of which were pilots for series. Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1994. M.A.: University of Salford, 1994. D.Litt.: University of Manchester, 1995. Recipient: British Academy of Film and Television Arts Writer's Award, 1976; Royal Television Society Writer's Award, 1976; British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Play Award, 1976, 1977. Address: William Morris Agency, 31-32 Soho Square, London W1V 5DG, U.K.

TELEVISION SERIES

1963 That Was the Week That Was
1961-69 Coronation Street (150 episodes)
1965 Pardon the Expression
1969-70 The Dustbinmen
1970-71 The Lovers
1975 Sadie, It's Cold Outside
1994 Moving Story

Also contributed to: The Odd Man; The Villains; Mrs Thursday; Comedy Playhouse; About Face.

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1963 Pie in the Sky
1963 Green Rub
1968 There's a Hole in Your Dustbin, Delilah
1972 Another Sunday and Sweet FA
1974 Polly Put the Kettle On
1974 Mr Ellis Versus The People
1974 There'll Almost Always Be an England
1975 The Evacuees
1976 Ready When You Are, Mr McGill
1976 Bar Mitzvah Boy
1977 Spend, Spend, Spend
1979 Spaghetti Two-Step
1979 The Knowledge
1982 P'tang Yang Kipperbang
1985 Mrs Capper's Birthday
1986 Fools on the Hill
1986 London's Burning
1986 Day to Remember
1989 And a Nightingale Sang
1989 Bag Lady
1991 Sleeping Sickness
1992 'Bye, 'Bye, Baby
1993 Wide-Eyed and Legless

FILMS

Lucky Star, 1980; Yentl, with Barbra Streisand, 1983; The Chain, 1985.

STAGE (selected)

Smash!, 1981.

PUBLICATIONS

The Television Dramatist, with others. London: Elek, 1973.

Three Award Winning Television Plays: Bar Mitzvah Boy, The Evacuees, Spend, Spend, Spend. London: Harmondsworth, 1978.

First Loves: Stories (anthology). London: Hamilton, 1984.

The Chain, with The Knowledge, and Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.

 

See also Coronation Street; That Was the Week That Was