Saturday 22 October 2016

Obituary: Herbert Wise Director of I, Claudius and Inspector Morse

Born, August 31, 1924; died, August 5, 2015

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Inspector Morse was directed by Herbert Wise, who died on August 5, 2015
Inspector Morse was directed by Herbert Wise, who died on August 5, 2015

Herbert Wise, who has died aged 90, directed the landmark BBC Television historical drama I, Claudius (1976), an epic up-market soap opera set during the height of the Roman empire which featured unprecedented quantities of nudity, sex and violence.

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"The high point of debauchery," noted one critic, was when the Empress Messalina "staged a sort of Roman version of It's a Knockout, challenging the chief whore of the empire to see how many chaps they could exhaust in a single day". But Wise had to cut one of his orgy scenes because it featured too many topless women, then apparently unacceptable in television drama, even on BBC Two.

Wise also caused consternation with another controversial and gory scene, in which Caligula (played by John Hurt) hacked a foetus from the womb of his sister. This was also considered too shocking and was repeatedly re-edited, up to the day of its original transmission, on orders from senior BBC bosses. Even after the initial broadcast and a repeat two days later, the shot of the unborn child was deleted and has since been lost.

The I, Claudius series made a television star of Derek Jacobi, then a rising Shakespearean actor, who played the title role as a stammering runt. Wise cast Jacobi after earlier directing him on television in Man of Straw (1972), based on a German novel by Heinrich Mann, brother of Thomas.

Wise realised that Jacobi had the dramatic range to appear to age from 17 to 80 in the course of the 13 episodes. With Siân Phillips, who appeared as Livia, Wise explained that he wanted her character to resemble Cruella de Vil from the 1961 Disney animation 101 Dalmatians.

Despite its immaculate pedigree - the series was based on two novels by Robert Graves, which together were universally reckoned a masterpiece - Wise felt there was a curse on I, Claudius. Several failed attempts had been made to stage it in the theatre, and in 1936 a feature film starring Charles Laughton was called off because Laughton struggled with the part, and his leading actress, Merle Oberon, was injured in a car accident.

When Wise entertained Graves to lunch during filming at Television Centre in London, he asked him about this so-called jinx, to which Graves replied: "This doesn't apply to you. It'll work."

In the event, after Wise had directed the television version to great acclaim, the writer of the screenplay died of a heart attack, and the producer was killed in a car crash. At the Bafta awards ceremony in 1978, I, Claudius earned Wise the Outstanding Contribution award, Derek Jacobi taking the prize for Best Actor. In 2007 I, Claudius was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Best TV Shows of All Time.

For ITV, Wise directed a notable adaptation of Susan Hill's novel The Woman in Black, first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1989 and seldom repeated since. In Wise's interpretation, instead of the shrieking spectre of the 2012 film version starring Daniel Radcliffe, the eponymous ghost of the title was played by Pauline Moran as a living character, staring down the young man she is haunting, subtly heightening the horror.

One critic rated it "a genuinely spine-chilling TV experience", adding: "You have been warned."

He was born Herbert Weisz on August 31, 1924 in Vienna and when the Nazis occupied Austria, his Jewish parents were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes. After his father was arrested and sent to Dachau, the 14-year-old Herbert fled to England under the auspices of the Kindertransport rescue scheme and was taken in by a family in Oxted, Surrey, where he went to school.

On leaving he became a radial driller in an engineering training centre and later worked in a chemistry laboratory in London. At 18 he joined the RAF but his defective colour vision disqualified him for pilot training and he became a meteorologist, before being assigned to air intelligence. He became a British citizen on his discharge in 1947.

Having appeared in plays at school, he had determined to become a director but failed an audition at Rada and instead enrolled at the New Era Academy for a crash theatre course. This led to acting work with a repertory company at High Wycombe with the young Kenneth Williams.

His debut as a stage director came with a production of Terence Rattigan's play While the Sun Shines at Shrewsbury in 1950. After running a repertory company in Hull for a year, Wise took over at the Dundee Repertory Theatre where he remained for a further three.

He also worked with repertory companies in Perth and Nottingham, before turning down the chance to join the BBC as a production assistant in favour of a director's job with the newly formed ITV company Granada in Manchester, where he made numerous documentaries and dramas throughout the 1960s.

His first major project for the BBC was Elizabeth R (1971), for which Glenda Jackson in the title role famously shaved her forehead and wore a false nose. Wise directed several of the self-contained episodes, as well as others for popular series such as Z Cars, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and Inspector Morse.

Twenty years after I, Claudius, Wise directed Derek Jacobi again in Breaking the Code (1996), a television "biopic" of the British mathematician Alan Turing. Wise also directed several other feature-length films for television, including The Gathering Storm (1974), Skokie (1981) starring Danny Kaye, and Pope John Paul II (1984).

Herbert Wise married the actress Moira Redmond in 1963. The couple divorced in 1972, and in 1988 he married another actress, Fiona Walker, who survives him with two stepchildren.

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