Re-writing History: Writer-Director Francis Lee on unsung queer romance
23 February 2021
A few years have passed since Francis Lee came to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but he...
Beginning his career in radio with the BBC, writer John Hopkins first moved into television in the late 1950s with plays such as Break Up and After the Party for Granada Television. Returning to the BBC in 1959, he handed over a steady stream of quality work, and in 1962 he joined the team behind classic police drama Z Cars. Eventually becoming Story Editor on the show, Hopkins would write 57 episodes in all, including several that proved to be groundbreaking television.
“...within Z-Cars there are sketches of most of the things I’ve written since, most of the people who’ve appeared. It’s like – I’m not making a comparison in terms of quality – the hundred odd sketches Picasso drew preparing to paint Guernica.”
- John Hopkins, Transatlantic Review #32
1964 proved to be a busy year for Hopkins, his output including The Moving Toyshop for the BBC’s Detective series, The Pretty English Girls for ABC’s Armchair Theatre, experimental ballet Houseparty for BBC 2, and the Parade’s End trilogy for the BBC’s Theatre 625, adapted with Ford Madox Ford from his original novels. In 1965, after earning a co-writer credit on Terence Young’s Thunderball, Hopkins made two entries in the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand, Fable, which imagined Apartheid in Britain, and Horror of Darkness, and paid a return visit to Armchair Theatre with I Took My Little World Away. Next, he would produce the innovative piece of work commonly regarded as his greatest achievement.
“The first authentic masterpiece written directly for television.”
- George Melly on Talking to a Stranger, The Observer
A set of four plays, all recounting the same events but from four different perspectives, Hopkins’ Talking to a Stranger quartet was broadcast on BBC 2 In 1966 and was instantly recognised by critics and public alike as a classic. In the late 60s, after writing Dostoevsky adaptation The Gambler and Into the Sunrise for the BBC and the screenplay for John Dexter’s The Virgin Soldiers, Hopkins delivered probing stage play This Story of Yours, championed by Harold Pinter, which he would later adapt into the screenplay for director Sidney Lumet’s The Offence starring Sean Connery.
“He’s extraordinary. Unlike Kazantzakis, who keeps looking for what’s godlike about us, John keeps looking for what’s hellish about us.”
- Sidney Lumet on John Hopkins
The 1970s once again saw Hopkins’ name in the credits of several interesting television productions, including Some Distant Shadow for ITV’s Saturday Night Theatre, That Quiet Earth for the BBC’s Thirty-Minute Theatre, BBC one-off Walk into the Dark, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Divorce His; Divorce Hers, (their last film together). In the late 70s, Hopkins returned to the kind of cutting-edge drama for which he was best known with two memorable works for the BBC, Play for Today: A Story to Frighten the Children, and mini-series Fathers and Families. He then ended the decade with the screenplay for Bob Clarks’ memorable Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper adventure, Murder by Decree.
“Mr. Hopkins's screenplay is funny without being condescending, more aware of history, perhaps, than Conan Doyle's mysteries ever were, but always appreciative of the strengths of the original characters and of the etiquette observed in the course of every hunt.”
- Vincent Canby on Murder by Decree, The New York Times
In the 1980s Hopkins would embark on two big television projects, both collaborations. Teaming up with John Le Carré to adapt Smiley’s People, Le Carré’s sequel to the highly successful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, for the BBC; and John Trenhaile to tackle ITV’s Codename Kyril, a British/Norwegian co-production based on the novel by Trenhaile and starring Edward Woodward, Joss Ackland and Richard E. Grant. He also continued to work in film, with screenplays for John Frankenheimer’s The Holcroft Covenant and Michele Noble’s Runaway Dreams. In 1995 Hopkins’ returned to his writing duties for the final time, joining forces with writer Toshirô Ishidô for the critically acclaimed TV movie Hiroshima.
“The stories aren’t new; political sides have been examined and re-examined, and scrutinized in other dramatic forms (notably in the devastating 1981 BBC-PBS series “Oppenheimer”). But Hopkins and Ishidô work through a slender corridor of objectivity to tie up the tales, unearth surprising details and explore character assets and failings that lead to the ultimate payoff ; as produced here , it’s all a new game.”
- Tony Scott on Hiroshima, Variety
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