Rudolph Cartier

RIGHT: Rudolph Cartier directing Flora Robson in Mother Courage and Her Children (1959)

Born in Vienna, Austria on 17 April 1904, Rudolph Cartier originally trained as an architect, but a passion for all forms of drama led to him studying at the Vienna Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts under Max Reinhardt, who taught that a written script was the equivalent of the musical score, to be interpreted by the director. Cartier then embarked on a promising scriptwriting career in Berlin, working with Emeric Pressburger and Billy Wilder, but like his colleagues, was forced to leave Germany by the rise of Nazism, and arrived in Britain in 1935. After the war, he was invited to join the BBC by joint Head of Drama Michael Barry. On their first meeting, Cartier said he thought the current standard of plays being televised was terrible, and that the whole approach towards the medium was wrong, with too much emphasis on adaptations of West End plays and the familiar classics. The result of Cartier's new initiative was Arrow to the Heart, his own adaptation - with additional dialogue by Nigel Kneale - of a German short story, transmitted live on 20 July 1952 (and repeated live four days later), and the first of over 120 productions he would be responsible for.

In 1953 Barry commissioned Manx-born Kneale as one of the first BBC staff writers to come up with some original drama, and Cartier was chosen to direct it. The Quatermass Experiment (1953)  starring Peter Cushing, Yvonne Mitchell and Andre Morrell was an instant hit, and on its strength Cartier and Kneale were asked to adapt a controversial novel by George Orwell published five years previously. Their version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) proved just as ground-breaking, if not more so because it reached a far wider spectrum of the British population than the book ever could at the time. It was arguably the greatest television production of the entire monochrome era, but it resulted in questions being asked in the House of Commons, and the outcry was only dispelled - and the planned repeat allowed to go ahead - when Prince Phillip defended the play during a speech to the Royal Society of Arts: "The Queen and I watched the play," he said, "and thoroughly enjoyed it."

Cartier and Kneale's immediate follow-up play was The Creature (1955), about a expedition searching for the Yeti in the Himalayas (topical after the conquest of Everest in 1953) starring Cushing and Arnold Marle, but this was less successful than the subsequent Quatermass II (1955) sequel to Experiment, which had John Robinson taking over from Reginald Tate in the title role. Further collaborations were Wuthering Heights (a 1962 re-make of their 1953 production), with Claire Bloom, Keith Michell and David McCallum, and Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9), this time with Andre Morell as the Professor. Like almost all BBC drama of the time, the latter was transmitted live, and yet the scale of the production was epic even by modern standards, something which characterised all of Cartier's work. He never saw the television screen as a medium which could not be as expressive or as "big" as the cinema, either in terms of the subjects covered or the complexity of their presentation. Thus he willingly tackled such large scale productions as Clive of India (1956), A Midsummer Nights Dream (1958), Anna Karenina (1961 - left) with Sean Connery and Claire Bloom, Night Express (1963, Sunday Night Play), and Gordon of Kartoum (1966, Play of the Month).

Cartier chose to produce much European literature, such as Satre's The Respectful Prostitute, with Andre Morell and Lee Grant, and Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, with Billie Whitelaw and John Le Mesurier (both 1964, Festival), while his own origins were reflected in the number of German adaptations, which he often translated himself. It is unquestionable that he did much to rehabilitate the image of the German people in the eyes of a British public, for the vast majority of whom the crimes of the Third Reich were still in living memory, but he did so by confronting those crimes - and what little resistance to them there was compared to the complicity of the majority - in a most direct way. These include Cross of Iron (1961, Sunday Night Play), about the British-sanctioned court-martial of a German U-boat captain while in a Prisoner-of-War camp in Scotland; a surreal but intensely powerful and raw adaptation of Erwin Sylvanus' Dr Korczak and the Children (1962, Studio 4 - above right); Stalingrad (1963, Festival -  above left); The July Plot (1964, The Wednesday Play, concerning the failed conspiracy by German generals to assassinate Hitler in 1944, shortly after D-Day); and The Joel Brand Story (1965, Play of the Month), which focussed on a bizarre deal between the Nazis and the Allies, brokered by an Hungarian factory owner. The Listener remarked: "One's resistence to believing the ghastly story of Eichmann's offer of the lives of a million Jews for 10,000 lorries is justification enough for the production of [this] play." With this last piece and Lee Oswald - Assassin (1966, Play of the Month - above right), Cartier effectively invented the concept of the modern drama-documentary. His other great passion in life was the opera, which he was keen to bring to a wider audience with televised productions of Saint of Bleecker Street (1956 - above left), A Tale of Two Cities (1958), Verdi's Otello (1959), Tobias and the Angel (1960), and Carmen (1960).

Throughout his television career, Cartier worked only for the BBC, objecting to Independent Television on the grounds that: "I hate the idea of my creative work being constantly interrupted for commercial reasons. I am an artist, not a salesman." Like most BBC staff producers, Cartier was often required to work on episodes of more mainstream series such as Maigret (right), Z Cars, Out of the Unknown, Fall of Eagles and Late Night Horror, and yet he applied the same exacting standards to this work as he would a prestigious one-off night play. In the case of OOTU, he directed two episodes, one of which, Level 7, scripted by J.B. Priestley from a Mordecai Roshwald short story, is widely regarded as the series' lost masterpiece. He also directed numerous plays in BBC2's less high-profile Thirty-Minute Theatre strand, and his last work was Gaslight in 1977, a quarter of a century after his first BBC production.

Like Dennis Potter, Cartier died on 7 June 1994. Although of different generations, in the same day were lost television's greatest dramatist, as well as the man largely responsible for the genre as we know it. And yet with characteristic modesty, when interviewed in 1991 by BBC2's The Late Show (to coincide with a major retrospective of his work at the NFT), Cartier summed up his life's work thus: "The public wants to be lifted out of their drab, dreary life, to look at this cold screen of glass, and look at another world. That is what the public expected of me."

Select Screenography/Archive Guide

Return to Biographies Index

Return to Main Page

[A shorter version of this biography was submitted for inclusion in The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (1996, 2nd edition)]

17/12/98 First AOL upload
09/02/99 First Virgin Net upload
21/10/99 Transferred to
28/10/01 Minor corrections
07/04/02 Minor additions
08/03/04 Reformatted
22/10/17 Hosting transfer & amendments
22/10/17 Hosting transfer & amendments