Giles Cooper

Giles Stannus Cooper was born near Dublin, Ireland, in 1918, and brought up in London. The son of a Royal Navy Commander turned barrister, Cooper’s early childhood was a study in the usual separation - both from his parents and any real sense of “home” - which children of his time and class experienced. This included travelling to the Seychelles at the age of eleven, followed by the standard public school education at Lancing College, and studying languages at Grenoble. After a brief spell in Spain, he attended the Webber-Douglas School of Drama, initial plans to join the diplomatic service having been discarded. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in the army for seven years, mainly as an infantry officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment during the harsh Far Eastern campaign in Burma (he was later active in the Territorial Army and the London Irish Rifles). After the War he worked as an actor until 1952, after which he moved to script editing, first at the BBC, then Associated-Redifusion, before turning to full-time writing, initially for radio, the stage, and later television.

A respected adapter of the works of others on such mainstream drama series as Maigret (on which he was also script editor) and Sherlock Holmes (1965), as well as prestigious serial adaptations of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Toll (1965) and Waugh’s Sword of Honour (1967, Theatre 625), Cooper’s original plays often walked more unconventional paths. Best descibed as dark comedies of middle class behaviour, in many cases an exact interpretation is always open to speculation because he rarely discussed the meaning of his work, even when closely involved with the production process, which fascinated him, but only as an “observer”. He would often attend rehearsals, and although he rarely expressed an opinion on casting, he would occasionally show enthusiasm for a successful interpretation of a role or effect (he had high regard for Maurice Denham and Peter Howell, and praised the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), but he never did so in direct reference to his own interpretation of his scripts. Introducing one of his plays (The Long House) in a Radio Times preview, Cooper characteristically wrote: "The title of tonight's play, full of meaning to anthropologists, does not, I hope, give too much away. I certainly do not intend to add to the information it contains: one must be allowed some surprises."

Much of Cooper’s work centres on a forced conflict between his characters, leading to an unavoidable choice having to be made by one or more of them. In Where the Party Ended (1960), a gang of robbers digging their way into a bank undermine an unexploded bomb, which falls into the tunnel, trapping one of their number. The only one not to flee is Jack, a wartime bomb disposal man who quit when he lost his nerve in 1940. Determined to overcome his past, his first attempts to defuse it fail and he retreats to an all-night café, where he meets a young woman in a similarly desperate situation. They return to the tunnel and this time succeed in defusing the bomb, but the approaching dawn - and threat of discovery - forces them to part. Love and Penguins (1961) was more light-hearted, but still had a young bride facing the dilemma of having to choose between her second husband, or the recently-returned companion of her deceased explorer first. Reflecting Cooper's previous association with Spain, Carried by Storm (1964 Theatre 625) trod similar ground, but set during an incident in the Peninsular War - the storming of the Spanish city of Badajoz by Wellington's army (an event more recently given television treatment in the Sharpe series). During the attack, as English soldier's run amok, killing, raping and looting, one of their number, Dick Jervis (Simon Ward), finds a hidden chamber on the city walls. There he meets an Irish-French soldier named Louis Dillon (Tim Preece), and the two agree on a personnal truce until which ever side wins restores peace, but before this can happen, they too are corrupted by the scene they inhabit. Also set in Spain was Point of Honour, in which a visiting Englishman - accompanied by his wife and a companion whom he suspects of adultery - is forced to wait in a remote village while his car is repaired. There he meets - and is momentarily attracted to the violent code of - an outlaw who is waiting to assassinate the man who dishonoured his daughter.

On a number of occasions, Cooper's scenarios were based more in the realms of telefantasy. The Freewheelers (1963) was a sub-A Clockwork Orange analysis of youthful rebellion, in which four young couples engage in "freewheeling" - racing to and from chosen points on the map in stolen vehicles - but the inventor of the game is the first to tire of it. Loop (1963) was a science fiction parable with the paradox of an invasion of the present from the furture, while The Other Man (1964) had Michael Caine as a British army officer speculating on how his life might have been had the Germans won WW2. Broadcast in two parts, this play was the most technically advanced television programme of its time, as it follows Caine's character through an alternative past, which culminates in his near-death on the Russian front, before being brought back to life through the same advanced cybernetics that keep Hitler alive in the "other" present. Also with a science fiction theme was one of Cooper unproduced televisions play, The Carboy, in which an eccentric scientist experiments with reproducing natural history in a sealed bells jars (carboys). One steams up with condensation, and inside intelligent human life evolves at a speeded up rate, with the struggles of the tribe mirrored by those of the scientist, through his involvement with a married woman and her jealous husband.

Other Cooper plays dealt with themes of modern alienation, such as The Long House (1965, Theatre 625) A young couple, Ben and Kathie Curtin (David Buck and Caroline Mortimer) buy the end house in a South London Terrace, only to discover that their neighbours have knocked through all their interior walls to form a single commune, unknown to the outside world. Invited to join this alternative community, Ben and Kathie eventually witness its collapse and final destruction. The Listener remarked: "The destruction of privacy by the breaking in of the bedroom wall had some of the horror of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four," which was ironic in light of Buck's playing of Winston Smith in the second television version of the novel the next year. Kittens are Brave also dealt with a private nightmare hidden behind a conventional facade, with Wensley Grafton (George Murcell), a former barrister who has become a TV personality, finding himself the victim of a campaign of hate-mail when he makes an offhand but unfavourable comment about dogs. He traces on particularly obscene letter a vicar, Gordon Shiplake (Geoffrey Bayldon), who has his own problems in the form of an alcoholic wife and two deliquent children.

Also produced for television were a number of adaptations of Cooper's radio plays, including Unman, Wittering and Zigo and Seek Her Out, in a BBC2 Theatre 625 trilogy along with The Long House. Writing in the Radio Times, however, Cooper was quick to stress that it was not a "trilogy" in the accepted sense, blurring the line between fiction and reality in the process: "I am afraid that these three plays have nothing in common except the author. Of course one might find something if one dug hard enough. One always can. All I can find in mine, however, are people, and Three Plays with People in Them is really a little too vague. These people do, of course, in each case stand in curious relationships to the outside world. They belong in closed groups, but then the very fact of them being in a play sets them apart. Perhaps, though, the worlds of these three plays do have something in common. They have all stopped moving and are therefore ripe for dissolution." Unman, Wittering and Zigo had a new teacher (Peter Blythe) at a private school slowly coming to the realisation that the pupils killed his predecessor, while in Seek Her Out a young woman (Toby Robins) who alone witnesses an assassination at a London Underground station finds herself the next would-be victim of the killers. Unman, Wittering and Zigo was later made into a feature film, with David Hemmings as the young teacher.

Cooper invariably auto-adapted his work from one medium to the other, be it the stage, radio, or television, and he had an instinctive understanding of the confines and conventions of each, commenting: "The adaptation of a play from radio to television has its problems. Radio as a medium demands that its audience should use their imaginations, which means that they come part of the way to meet the author. In the case of television everything must be clear and logical or the play becomes confusing. The more senses we use, the less intensely do we use any single one of them. What one should do, I suppose, is tear the original play apart and rewrite it from the beginning; and yet one cannot do this to work that already has its own separate existence and still claim it to be the same work. What one does, therefore, is adapt rather than rewrite."

But for his tragic death falling from a train in December 1966, Giles Cooper would almost certainly have consolidated his success with a career that was only half-finished. Had he lived, it is conceivable that he would now be  a widely remembered as a writer of the same stature as David Mercer, Dennis Potter, or Harold Pinter. Many examples of his work would certainly now be described as "Pinteresque," but The Listener once remarked that it was, “unfair to accuse Cooper of imitating Pinter… since after all he was doing this sort of thing before Pinter was.” Even so, recognition did come within his lifetime, when he was awarded an OBE in 1960, while he is commemorated in the annual Giles Cooper Awards for outstanding new radio plays.

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

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