The television producer Derek Granger, who has died aged 101, combined his love of the arts with a popular touch on a wide range of programmes, from Britain’s most successful soap opera, Coronation Street, to the hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action and two sitcoms starring Arthur Lowe.
But his greatest contribution to small-screen history was the sumptuous production of Brideshead Revisited that entranced viewers during the autumn of 1981 and is still regarded as one of the finest TV dramas ever made.
“The battle for higher standards will be fought in the area of mass entertainment,” Granger told those who worked with him during his early days at Granada Television, the Manchester-based ITV company founded by the Bernstein brothers, Sidney and Cecil, with a strong northern identity and an ambition to be a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment. With Brideshead Revisited, he took Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 literary classic to the masses with the tale of the aristocratic Marchmain family’s decline between the two world wars.
Granger commissioned John Mortimer to adapt the novel but ditched the resulting script and rewrote it himself with his associate producer, Martin Thompson, to be more faithful to the original. It was held together by Jeremy Irons’s mesmerising narration – as Charles Ryder, the university friend of Lord Marchmain’s younger son, Sebastian Flyte (played by Anthony Andrews) – and included Laurence Olivier in the cast as Marchmain.
The opulence and decadence were translated to the screen in 11 episodes over 13 hours, with leisurely photography, beautiful period costumes, atmospheric music written by Geoffrey Burgon, stunning sets and dozens of locations, from Castle Howard, in north Yorkshire, which doubled as Brideshead Castle, and Hertford College, Oxford, to Venice and the Maltese island of Gozo.
For Granger, it became a production nightmare when an 11-week strike by ITV technicians forced filming to be abandoned after four months – which also meant switching directors from Michael Lindsay-Hogg to Charles Sturridge – but the break allowed him to extend the series from six hours to 13. The £5m budget spiralled to a then record £10m, but the critical and viewer reaction, as well as seven Bafta awards, an Emmy and two Golden Globes, proved it to be justified.
Derek was born in Bramhall, Cheshire, to Winifred (nee Ashcroft) and Edgar Granger. When he was 14, the family moved to Eastbourne, where his father managed a chain of confectionery shops. Granger’s love of theatre was fuelled by seeing Olivier star in Romeo and Juliet at the New theatre, London, in 1935.
On leaving Eastbourne college three years later, he joined the Southern Publishing Company as a reporter on the Sussex Daily News and the Evening Argus in Brighton. He volunteered for wartime service with the navy and was a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve before returning to the papers and establishing himself as a theatre critic.
In 1952, the Financial Times launched its arts pages and, on the recommendation of Olivier, who had read his reviews, appointed Granger as its first drama critic. Six years later, he was invited to join Granada Television as a researcher, then became head of plays (1958-61).
When he took over as the second producer of Coronation Street, from 1961 to 1962, he learned an early lesson in overcoming unforeseen problems. A seven-month strike by Equity members meant that only 13 actors on long-term contracts could appear. Granger’s ruse of using tall children to deliver milk and post failed to impress the union, so he put one of the characters, Dennis Tanner (played by Philip Lowrie), in charge of a theatrical agency and filled out scenes with snakes, sea lions, pigeons, dogs and a chimp.
He then switched to sitcom to create and produce The Bulldog Breed (1962), starring Donald Churchill as the disaster-prone Tom Bowler and Amanda Barrie as his girlfriend, Sandra Prentiss. He returned to comedy with the Coronation Street spin-off Pardon the Expression (1966), relocating Leonard Swindley (Arthur Lowe) to the branch of a national chain store as assistant manager. It was a massive hit, but Turn Out the Lights (1967), a spin-off of the spin-off, with Swindley as a ghost hunter, bombed.
Earlier, in 1964, Granger had a run as executive producer of World in Action. Among the episodes during his time in charge was Seven Up!, featuring seven-year-olds whom Michael Apted, the researcher, would subsequently visit as director of stand-alone programmes every seven years to chart the ups and downs of their lives. Granger also presented Granada’s regional programme Cinema during 1964 and 1965.
The new London ITV company LWT lured him away in 1968 to produce music programmes and become executive producer of two drama series, The Inside Man (1969), about a psychiatrist-criminologist, and Wicked Women (1970), the stories of female Victorian criminals.
From 1969 to 1972, while Olivier was artistic director at the National Theatre, Granger was his literary consultant. He then returned to Granada to make the Bafta award-winning Country Matters (1972-73), based on stories by HE Bates and AE Coppard, and he co-produced, with Olivier, the anthology series Laurence Olivier Presents (1976-78), featuring six plays of the actor’s choice, all but one starring him. They included Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Harold Pinter’s The Collection.
After leaving Granada in 1982, Granger reunited with Sturridge to make two feature films of other literary classics, Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1988) and EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991).
His close association with Olivier over many years led him to write the authorised biography Laurence Olivier: The Life of an Actor, published in 1999.
In 2006, Granger entered a civil partnership with the interior designer Kenneth Partridge, his partner since 1949. Partridge died in 2015.