Paul Birkbeck obituary

Other lives: Prolific artist and illustrator for BBC children’s television

My father, Paul Birkbeck, who has died aged 80, was an artist and illustrator whose work is familiar to those of a certain generation brought up on BBC children’s TV programmes such as Crystal Tipps and Alistair, Play School and Jackanory. His distinctive style and keen eye for detail ensured that he became one of the BBC’s most-used artists through the 1970s and 80s.

Born in Woolwich, south-east London, to Guy Birkbeck, a radio engineer, and Emma (nee Farringdon), Paul attended Brighton college. Later, at Epsom School of Art, he met Sally Marsland, a fellow student, and they married in 1963. After completing his national service, Paul became the banjo player for the Dedicated Men Jugband, who signed to Pye Records in 1965. The band’s single, Boodle Am Shake, did not trouble the charts but Paul soon began designing sleeves for Decca Records.

Paul Birkbeck branched out into books by illustrating Salman Rushdie’s 1990 fairy tale Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Paul Birkbeck branched out into books by illustrating Salman Rushdie’s 1990 fairy tale Haroun and the Sea of Stories Photograph:

In 1965 he joined the BBC children’s TV art department and became a prolific illustrator for its programmes. For Jackanory he illustrated 14 stories, including A Dog So Small (read by Judi Dench) and Peter Pan, as well as the BBC Sunday afternoon Bible stories series In the Beginning.

Paul went freelance in 1975, although his work for Jackanory continued for many years. He created the memorable opening titles for The Vikings in 1980, presented by Magnus Magnusson, and the iconic Miss Marple series, starring Joan Hickson. Paul also drew the backgrounds for the groundbreaking TV series Jane, starring Glynis Barber, which mixed cartoon backgrounds with live actors and was based on the 1940s comic strip of the same name.

In 1991, as well as supplying illustrations, he was in front of the camera playing himself each week in the BBC’s six-part children’s TV history programme Now Then, an educational show that cleverly brought our ancestors to life.

Paul taught illustration at Leicester Polytechnic, Epsom College and the Royal College of Art, but continued to work in TV, including delivering the titles for the Stanley Baxter Show on Channel 4. He branched out into book illustration with Salman Rushdie’s 1990 children’s fairy tale Haroun and the Sea of Stories, for which his lavish pictures were much lauded, not least by Rushdie.

A painting by Paul Birkbeck showing his keen eye for detail
A painting by Paul Birkbeck showing his keen eye for detail Photograph:

My father spent the latter part of his life on personal commissions. His work appeared at the Keith Chapman Gallery, London, in Royal Academy summer shows and Sunday Times watercolour exhibitions between 2003 and 2008, and in the Mall Galleries Discerning Eye exhibitions.

Paul is survived by three daughters, Lucy, Alice and me, two grandchildren and his brother, Lyn, and sister, Jilly. Sally outlived him by little more than a month.

Polly Birkbeck

The GuardianTramp

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