The television director Diarmuid Lawrence, who has died aged 71, approached the small screen not as an auteur, but as a master craftsman. He perfected his craft over a lifetime of storytelling, first in the theatre and then, for the greater part of his long career, in television drama, where his name on the titles brought a stamp of quality. His eclectic list of credits showcased a complete film-maker whose unifying purpose was to bring life to stories of all kinds, to surprise and delight an audience.
His last film was Peter and Wendy (2015), which reimagined JM Barrie’s classic as a modern allegory of the Neverland between life and death, and for which Diarmuid created a magical world where Great Ormond Street hospital and the Jolly Roger became one. He had a wicked, sparkling wit, which he used gleefully on Steve Pemberton’s Mapp and Lucia in 2014, giving Miranda Richardson’s Mapp and Anna Chancellor’s Lucia all the headroom they needed to coruscate with abandon in the drawing rooms of Tilling.
I met him in 2008 when, as a first-time producer, I was looking for an experienced director to take on the last five episodes of Andrew Davies’s 14-part adaptation of Little Dorrit. We became a team and I went out of my way to ensure that I worked with him as often as I could thereafter: on South Riding (2011), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012), Benjamin Black’s Quirke mysteries (2014), and Mapp and Lucia.
Diarmuid loved working with actors, and the lion’s share of his time on set was given to them. His work is studded with stellar performances – too many to mention, but among them Richard Johnson’s regretful historian in 1992’s Bafta-winning Anglo Saxon Attitudes, Michael Kitchen’s nuanced English land agent in The Hanging Gale (1995), Mark Rylance’s subtle butler in Loving (1996), Kate Beckinsale’s mischievous Emma (1996), David Morrissey’s tortured landowner in South Riding, and Tom Courtenay’s dying patriarch in the final episodes of Little Dorrit. He had an eye for casting, and the eagle-eyed could spot in his work Liam Neeson, Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig in some of their earliest roles.
His decisions about shots and cinematography were quick, instinctive and occasionally exasperating to the camera crew, to whom he would not necessarily explain his plans in advance. Yet each of them remembers him as among the best in the business, appreciating that they were working with a film-maker whose choices would result in a piece of cinema, however small the screen.
Diarmuid was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, to Dublin parents, Valerie (nee Brock) and Robert Lawrence, who had moved to England on the outbreak of the second world war. His father returned from service to teach English and drama at a local school, and for many years was an adjudicator for Lamda speech and drama exams. He was a keen exponent of amateur dramatics, who drew his son into his enthusiasms, and, at 16, Diarmuid left school for a life in the theatre.
He became an assistant stage manager in provincial rep, touring the theatres of England with well-made plays, learning his craft, and acting as required. The experience was a springboard to television, and by the beginning of the 1970s he was regular holiday cover as an assistant floor manager in the BBC’s plays department.
As an AFM he learned how to work the studio, breaking down scripts, establishing camera positions and choreographing scenes. Promoted to production assistant on the BBC’s studio/location hybrids Pennies from Heaven and The Glittering Prizes, he was required to assist the director in every possible way, frequently sent off into the wilds with a hundredweight of 2p pieces in the glove compartment to find and report back from the nearest phone box on likely locations.
BBC Plays was an apprenticeship for a generation of directors. Diarmuid’s mentors included the producer Kenith Trodd, and the directors John Mackenzie and Michael Apted. He remembered Apted sending him out with a camera crew and a couple of rolls of film to secure shots of a train that he needed for a film he had in the cutting room. Diarmuid threw himself into the task and spent an exhausting day shooting the train from every conceivable angle. His disappointment when Apted used only one shot was profound. Crestfallen, he asked what he had done wrong. “Nothing,” came the reply. “I only ever needed one shot, I just wanted you to have the opportunity to spend the day shooting.” Shortly afterwards he was sent on the BBC’s directors’ course.
In 1975 Diarmuid married a fellow production assistant, Bernadette Boyle, whom he had got to know while preparing for a job with their fearsome head of department, Christopher Morahan. When the pair announced that they were to marry, it fell to Morahan to remind them that married couples were not permitted to work in the same department. Bernadette’s response was firm: she and Diarmuid would marry, and neither was prepared to leave. The plays department considered its position and quietly waived the rules.
Diarmuid was a devoted family man and a loyal friend. He was fiercely proud of Bernadette, of their two children, Matthew and Kate, and of his grandchildren, Sophie, Lana and Jamie, all of whom survive him.
I often thought of him as a producer’s director, but, remembering him with our shared cast and crew in the weeks since his death, it is clear that he was also an actor’s director, a cinematographer’s director, a camera operator’s director, an editor’s director, a composer’s director and more.
• Diarmuid Seton Lawrence, television director, born 15 October 1947; died 20 September 2019