In a new series, we celebrate Great Northerners. For Northern Soul’s Andy Murray, it’s Jack Rosenthal. Who gets your vote?
Which writer do you feel really encapsulates the spirit of the North? One of the Brontës, perhaps? Elizabeth Gaskell? Victoria Wood? Maybe John Godber, Jim Cartwright or Willy Russell? Alan Bleasdale, Alan Plater or Alan Ayckbourn? They all have their fine qualities, but for me the answer is always, indisputably, Jack Rosenthal.
Born in Manchester’s Cheetham Hill in 1931, Jack Morris Rosenthal was an English Literature graduate working in advertising when his true calling came. An ex-colleague, Tony Warren, had just received his big break creating Coronation Street for Granada and Rosenthal rang Warren to express his admiration for the show. Warren, who knew Rosenthal had untapped skills, replied by asking him if he’d like to try and write an episode. Next thing he knew, Rosenthal was a regular member of the soap’s writing team. Having spotted his particular gift for warm, likeable characters and sharp, funny dialogue, Granada brought him in to work on comedy shows too, from the hit sitcom Bootsie and Snudge to Street spin-off Pardon the Expression and his own creations The Dustbinmen and The Lovers, the latter making stars of Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox.
Astonishingly, by the mid-70s, Rosenthal was still getting warmed up. He had married and started a family with actress Maureen Lipman. He’d left Coronation Street behind – his last credited episode, in April 1969, is reckoned to be his 129th script for the show – and moved to London. He began writing a series of one-off TV plays which stand among the greatest bodies of work of any of his feted contemporaries. Behind the scenes, he appears not to have been any sort of troubled personality. His real skill was that he was an unparalleled observer, and indeed admirer, of human behaviour. For all the humour, and there’s a great wealth of that, his writing is never trite or saccharine. He writes fully-fledged, vulnerable characters who aren’t simply heroes or villains. They’re just people, drawn in shades of grey, getting by as we all do.
By anyone’s standards, a list of his plays is like a TV drama greatest hits: The Evacuees, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Ready When You Are Mr McGill, Spend Spend Spend, The Knowledge, The Chain, P’tang Yang Kipperbang. Each one is a beautifully-crafted gem, and if there are any among them that you haven’t seen, do yourself a favour and remedy that situation sharpish. If you’re in range of HOME in Manchester this month, you have the perfect opportunity to do so when they’re all screened as part of a special celebratory season, Jack Rosenthal on Jack Rosenthal Street, which I’ve co-curated with Andy Willis of the University of Salford.
In the late 80s and early 90s, two of Rosenthal’s successful TV pieces spawned full spin-off series. Moving Story followed his team of removal men from The Chain, while London’s Burning expanded his firefighting drama of the same name into a major long-running hit. Rosenthal had only limited involvement with those series, but they both demonstrate that, in many ways, the current vogue for character-based comedy drama was drawn from the same bittersweet template that he’d been using all along.
During the same period, Rosenthal’s career took in a number of curious detours, including co-writing the hit movie Yentl with Barbra Streisand, working on a disastrous Broadway musical version of Bar Mitzvah Boy and doing an uncredited polish of the script for Aardman’s Chicken Run. He was also awarded a CBE for services to drama. His talents were undimmed throughout and even some of his final credits, such as the twinned TV pieces Eskimo Day and Cold Enough for Snow, are full of the empathy and insight that made his work so cherishable.
Rosenthal was a keen adherent of the maxim ‘write what you know’, and the two aforementioned plays are no exception. They follow various families as their grown-up children move away to university. Rosenthal loved family life and seems to have struggled with ’empty nest syndrome’ every bit as much as his parent characters. This sense of him writing autobiographically can be traced right through his career, and indeed, his delightful published memoir, 2005’s By Jack Rosenthal: An Autobiography in Six Acts, presents key moments from his life in script form, complete with relevance extracts from his screenplays.
Rosenthal’s Jewish upbringing is an important component of his identity too, with references to it dotted throughout his work. But while he may have long since moved to north London, there’s also something indelibly Northern about the character, and indeed the characters, of his writing. Their chatty, colloquial dialogue can resemble homespun poetry. Their quiet everyday struggles can be every bit as involving as mighty space battles or epic, mythical quests. Like real people, they rarely say precisely what they’re thinking, even if those around them would like to hear it. They’re likeable, decent, thoughtful and vulnerable. Even Rosenthal’s antagonists turn out to have a good side.
It’s the warm glow that comes from recognition of the human condition that makes Rosenthal’s work something special. If you’ve ever had an unexpected moment in the spotlight only to blow it, Ready When You Are Mr McGill feels your pain. And if you’ve ever tried to woo a girl from Altrincham, The Lovers knows the trouble you’ve seen.
Rosenthal died in May 2004, at the age of 72. He’ll always be a hero to me. I would dearly love to have met him. I never did, but it means a lot that watching his work will always manage to conjure up such a vivid sense of the gentle, gifted man behind it.
The Jack Rosenthal on Jack Rosenthal Street season of screenings runs at HOME Manchester until January 27, 2018.
Season programmers Dr Andy Willis and Andy Murray will be presenting a One Hour Intro event on Rosenthal’s work on January 11, 2018.