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John Hawkesworth, 82; British TV Producer

October 17, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

John Hawkesworth, a British film and television writer and producer best-known for the acclaimed period drama "Upstairs, Downstairs," a trans-Atlantic television hit that became the most popular of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" presentations, has died. He was 82.

Hawkesworth, whose long and distinguished career included serving as a set designer on director Carol Reed's "The Third Man," died of undisclosed causes Sept. 30 in England.

As a television producer and writer, he was known for his meticulous attention to historical detail and for what has been called the Hawkesworth stamp: interconnecting stories of characters and families. Among his credits are "The Duchess of Duke Street," "Danger UXB," "The Flame Trees of Thika" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

But it was "Upstairs, Downstairs," for which he wrote many of the early episodes, that established Hawkesworth as a top television producer.

Originally produced for London Weekend Television from 1971 to 1975, the series told the story of the upper-class Bellamy family and their servants in a five-story London townhouse during the tumultuous years between 1903 and 1930.

Hawkesworth, as a writer for the London Times once wrote, "achieved the perfect populist mix chronicling the ambitions, snobberies, triumphs and tragedies of a noble family, and contrasting them vividly (but comfortably) with the working-class value system dominating life below stairs."

Among the series' most ardent fans was Queen Elizabeth II, who deemed "Upstairs, Downstairs" her "favorite program" in 1975.

The series was broadcast on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" from 1974 to 1977 and won four Emmy Awards.

It was developed by Hawkesworth from an idea brought to him by actresses Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh. Marsh eventually played the role of parlor maid Rose.

"I think it hit at the right moment," Hawkesworth told Associated Press in 1984. "It was the first program we produced in color and the first one we actually exported."

Discussing his penchant for historical detail in an earlier interview with AP, Hawkesworth said, "I do a great deal of personal research. I was educated as an historian, and very much enjoy maintaining that strict attention to period, right down to the spoons on the table, you might say.

"I read newspapers of the day, the gossip columns, diaries and so on, getting right down to the roots of the era, and I make sure the people who work for me pay similar attention."

"Upstairs, Downstairs" is said to have legitimized "Masterpiece Theatre" as a respected program importer.

"When you talk about 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' John was certainly upstairs himself: He was very cultured and a man of dignity and style, but he wasn't a grand person and possessed a lot of humility," producer Beryl Vertue, Hawkesworth's agent, recently told the Times of London.

The London-born son of an army officer, Hawkesworth attended Rugby School, one of the United Kingdom's oldest public boarding schools, and he had a stint as an art student in Paris before studying history at Queen's College, Oxford. In 1941, he was commissioned into the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards and participated in the invasion of Normandy.

After his discharge from the Army as a captain in 1946, Hawkesworth worked as an illustrator.

An exhibit of his work at the Royal Academy of Art was seen by Hungarian art director Vincent Korda, who hired him as assistant art director on the 1948 film "The Fallen Idol," starring Ralph Richardson.

In addition to his work as a set designer on the classic 1949 film "The Third Man," starring Orson Welles, his film credits include "The Man Who Never Was" and "The Prisoner of Saadia."

In the mid-1950s, Hawkesworth turned to producing and writing for the screen. He produced and co-wrote the popular 1959 crime drama "Tiger Bay," which starred John Mills and introduced Mills' young daughter, Hayley, to the screen.

After moving into producing commercials for independent television in the 1960s, he wrote most of the scripts for "The Short Stories of Conan Doyle" for BBC2 in 1967.

His breakthrough as a television producer came in 1969 with "The Gold Robbers," a crime drama for London Weekend Television, which he co-wrote.

The success of "Upstairs, Downstairs" spawned an America version, "Beacon Hill," set in Boston during the 1920s. Hawkesworth's agent, Vertue, helped launch the CBS series and asked Hawkesworth to help. The series lasted only 11 weeks, however.

"I came in when the patient was dead," he told AP. "I was disappointed that I came in so late."

An accomplished watercolorist, Hawkesworth devoted his retirement years to painting.

He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Hyacinthe; and a son.

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