Obituary: Mark Shivas
A film and television producer, his was the hidden hand behind a raft of classics of the modern era
by Philip Purser
Thursday October 16 2008
Mark Shivas: 'a serious player who didn't take himself seriously'
In television's early days, the producer did everything from choosing the play or the topic to calling the shots as the show went out on the air. Only with the spread of video pre-recording in the 1960s and the adoption of film studio practices did the role of director emerge. It was he or she who now framed every scene you saw.
So what was left for the producer to do? The short answer was that his remained the main creative responsibility. Producers still chose or commissioned the script, supervised the casting and determined the whole tenor of the final work. But few exercised this function with the instinct, understanding and tenacity brought to it by Mark Shivas, who has died aged 70 of cancer.
No better example springs to mind than one which Shivas himself instanced on these pages earlier this year when paying tribute to Anthony Minghella (obituary, March 19). In 1985, Minghella, then known only as an occasional contributor to television series, brought him the script of a serial about a failed marriage and access to children. The father was allowed only one or two visits a week, when he would take the children to the park - hence the title, What If It's Raining? It was not the most alluring of subjects, but Shivas saw instantly that it was recognisable, touching and wryly funny. He put it into production there and then for Channel 4.
At the time of its screening (July 1986), I described the programme as "at once the truest and tritest, freshest and stalest, most boring and most gripping fiction of the summer. The voices ... utter dialogue so natural, so free from added histrionics, that it must come from the wholefood counter at Sainsbury's. What If It's Raining brings back to television some of the old virtues which have been blotted out by the lurid super-soaps."
Born in Banstead, Surrey, where his father was an English teacher and his mother a librarian, Shivas was educated at Whitgift school, Croydon, and read law at Merton College, Oxford. His initial contact with the scenic arts was as a critic and assistant editor for Movie magazine (1962-64), which also paid some attention to television, especially the spontaneous real-life drama which, despite being known as cinema-verité, was seen chiefly on television. A high point of his time on the magazine was interviewing Claude Chabrol.
In 1963, he landed a job as assistant to the head of the story department at Granada Television, followed by his appointment as a director-producer (1965-68), with a sideline as one of the presenters of Cinema, Granada's weekly review of new movies. At BBC Television, he was a producer of drama (1969-88), head of drama (1988-93) and head of films (1993-97). His last full-time appointment was with Southern Pictures (1979-81), though he continued to produce cinema and TV films, particularly for Channel 4.
For the BBC alone, the enduring achievements bearing his credit include The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Dennis Potter's Casanova (1971), Jack Rosenthal's semi-autobiographical The Evacuees (1975), Frederic Raphael's The Glittering Prizes and Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male (both 1976), Tom Stoppard's hilarious football-and-politics fusion, Professional Foul (1977), Telford's Change (1979) by Brian Clark, and Marjorie Wallace's uplifting and moving story of a thalidomide child, On Giant's Shoulders (1979). More recently came Cambridge Spies (2003), examining the milieu of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt.
For Channel 4, a landmark ahead of What If It's Raining? was a co-production with RTE in Ireland to yield The Price (1985), a subdued six-part thriller about an industrialist kidnapped and held to ransom by the IRA.
In the cinema, Alan Bennett's very funny tale A Private Function (1984) was set in the austerity years immediately after the second world war, when rationing was even grimmer than it had been during hostilities. Maggie Smith presided imperiously over the apportionment of a deceased pig - "very British", said a bemused American critic. The flawless little romantic fantasy Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), written by Minghella, starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman, was released successfully on the cinema circuit, with a television airing for the BBC's Screen Two series almost contemporaneously.
Other feature films ranged in mood from The Witches (1990) to Enchanted April (1992), or from the harrowing account of Siegfried Sassoon's mental plight from his time in the trenches of the first world war in Regeneration (1987) and Esther Freud's tale of two sisters and their hippy mother on the road from London to Morroco, Hideous Kinky (1998), to I Capture the Castle (2003), from Dodie Smith's novel (and West End matinee dramatisation) set in a dotty English stately home.
Over the years Shivas won three Baftas, two Emmys and a Prix Italia, this last for The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Italy was one of his abiding passions, as were swimming and cycling. In 2005, he set up his own production company, Headline Pictures. He leaves his civil partner of 11 years, Karun Thakar.
Alan Bennett writes ... Mark Shivas looked more like a don than a producer, and not at all like someone from the world of entertainment. But quiet and self-effacing though he was, he could be tough. He had the quality writers want in a producer: he was on your side and shielded you from interference by the bureaucracy and the money.
A Private Function was not an easy film to make, and not merely because of the pig(s). The financier, Denis O'Brien, had little faith in the project. He cut its budget to the bone before shooting started, and went on cutting while shooting was going on. Mark had to salvage the film from O'Brien's cuts, and from the consequent fury of the director, Malcolm Mowbray, and myself. Had we had someone less diplomatic, the film would never have been finished. Watching it, one sees the scars, but without Mark there would have been no film to watch.
The only other project we did together, Talking Heads 2 in 1998, was altogether happier, and it was a tribute to Mark that Thora Hird took the trouble to remember his name. She usually called all producers and directors by the generic name of Mr De Grunwald. But Mark wouldn't have minded that either.
Ronald Harwood writes ... I knew Mark Shivas for almost 30 years, but I realise now that I didn't really know him at all. Private and reticent, qualities unusual in a film and television producer, he was, in my professional life, unquestionably the most concealed person I have met. Not, I am sure, because he had any dark secrets to hide. It was simply that he shunned personal publicity or saw no need for it, and seemed determined to avoid talking about himself in any revealing way.
Slight and quietly spoken, he gave the impression of being either a little weary or, more often than not, secretly amused by life. Yet he exuded confidence, both in his own abilities and whatever project he happened to be overseeing.
We first met in the early 1970s, when he was asked to produce and I to write a film about Maria Callas. I remember flying with him to New York on Concorde and going to see a Broadway musical that evening. We both fell asleep in the theatre. The film was never made.
We lost touch till a little over a year ago, when Tom Courtenay asked if I thought it a good idea to make a film of my play, Quartet, about four elderly, retired opera singers. He had seen the play in London and thought he would be good casting for the tenor, while Albert Finney would be ideal as the extrovert baritone. And what about Maggie Smith for the grande dame soprano? My agent, Judy Daish, had known Mark for 40 years, and suggested we approach him.
He was immediately enthusiastic - but no, that may be too strong a word to describe his reaction; even cautiously encouraging may be a little strong. He said he would do his best to raise the funds to pay for the development of the screenplay. No progress reports came until, at last, he announced that BBC Films were interested. I then set about writing the screenplay. The only time Mark betrayed modest pleasure was when I delivered it. I was told later that he was genuinely excited, but his responses were never unnecessarily exuberant. The film is scheduled to begin shooting next year.
In June, he came to visit me in West Sussex, keen to get down to the nitty-gritty of producing Quartet. He refused lunch and departed. A few weeks ago he telephoned to say he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He gave the news in a flat, unemotional voice: no drama, no self-pity, just the fact.
He wanted so much, I believe, to make it possible for the film to be made in the best of circumstances. My fervent wish is that we don't let him down.
Kevin Hood writes ... The Headline chapter of Mark's career began when he met Stewart Mackinnon at a film festival and told him he was thinking about winding down, maybe writing a book between film projects. Set up a film company instead, said Stewart, and so Headline began - the name, like so much else, coming from Mark.
He was a distinguished man three times over. He knew everybody - from Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal as babies and as adults, to Saul Zaentz, via Anthony Minghella, Dennis Potter, Michael Palin, Frederick Raphael and on and on, hundreds of them. They all respected him, they all liked him and the vast majority admired him.
Unusually, Mark was a serious player who didn't take himself seriously. On one occasion, in BBC drama, a young woman asked if he had been there before. He smiled sweetly, shrugged, and said "once or twice", and she never guessed. Mark showed a special delicacy with young people. He understood them, their uncertainties and hopes. Perhaps remembering his own early years, he took time out to encourage, to guide, to recognise, to warn, to laugh with, to celebrate, and he did it for decades.
For all this he was no softie. He could get angry and sharp when the occasion demanded. His put-downs were often very much to the point, often funny and usually deserved. A warm man, witty and wise, he had just enough salt in his character to stop him being a saint and make him terrific company. There was no one you wanted to make laugh more.
Mark Shivas, film and television producer, born April 24 1938; died October 11 2008