James Cellan Jones, who has died aged 88, was one of the outstanding directors and producers of British television drama during the postwar era. His single plays, series and serials, from the 1960s to the late 90s, included seven of the 26 episodes of The Forsyte Saga, televised by the BBC in 1967 and watched by audiences of up to 18 million each Sunday night.
The show was also an international success, viewed by around 100 million people in 26 countries, and set the stage for a long line of period TV dramas to follow, including Jim’s own seven-hour production of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (1987), which made international stars of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
For three fruitful years in the late 70s Jim was head of the BBC’s television play output, sponsoring and commissioning various notable dramas and series, including Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, before returning to the fray to direct many more TV films, series and even a sitcom.
Born in Swansea, Jim was the son of Cecil Cellan Jones, a surgeon, and his wife, Lavinia (nee Dailey), a hospital matron. After boarding at the Dragon school in Oxford and then Charterhouse, he went to St John’s College, Cambridge, to study natural sciences, with a view to a career in medicine. There he joined the amateur dramatic club and appeared in the Footlights of 1951. It was not, as he recalled, an outstanding performance, but he caught the bug, and when it came to deciding on a career he applied to join the BBC as a call boy, lowliest of the drama department’s ranks.
After national service in Korea with the Royal Engineers, where he enjoyed blowing things up, a skill transferable to period drama, he returned to his call boy role, which was to prove an invaluable apprenticeship in the drama production crafts. Having worked his way up to become an assistant director, his first break came when, in 1963, having moved to BBC Bristol, he was asked to help direct a serialisation of RD Blackmore’s romantic Exmoor saga Lorna Doone.
Although the series had a lukewarm reception, the scenes for which Jim was responsible were well received, and other work was soon coming the young director’s way. These were the early years of film, videotape and studio in combination, opening up opportunities for location production, with screen versions of classic novels and plays, often with star names in the lead roles. Over several years, while doing his share of bread-and-butter shows (including 16 episodes of the BBC One soap Compact in 1963), he built his reputation by bringing such productions vividly to the screen.
The Forsyte Saga was made in black and white for the new BBC Two, with a cast that included Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More, Susan Hampshire and Martin Jarvis. It was adapted from John Galsworthy’s series of novels about the fortunes of three generations of an upper-class English family. Jim had at first thought the books second-rate and unworthy of a series, but afterwards acknowledged that “second-rate novels often make first-rate television”.
His name made, Jim followed up with a series based on an adaptation of a Henry James novel, The Portrait of a Lady (1968), and with Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1969). In 1970 he directed all 13 episodes of The Roads to Freedom, based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy of novels, which starred Michael Bryant, Daniel Massey, Rosemary Leach and Georgia Brown, and was particularly memorable for Brown’s rendition of its theme song, a haunting French chanson – words and music by Jim.
Work was going well for Jim as a freelance, with ITV as well as BBC, but in 1976 he took up an offer to become the BBC’s head of television plays, generating 80-plus productions a year. He oversaw a rich selection of scripts, among them Pennies from Heaven (1978), Potter’s highly original musical drama. However, political tensions were frequently near the surface, notably in relation to Scum, written by Roy Minton, a film about a juvenile prison deemed so violent, despite adjustments suggested by Jim, that Bill Cotton, the BBC One controller, refused to show it. In the ensuing public row (which enabled its creative team to raise the money to reshoot it for a successful cinema run in 1979 as “the film the BBC tried to ban”), Jim went public against the BBC’s “disgraceful” decision – and became a hero of the left. That was the point at which, as the Guardian’s writer about television, I first came to know him well.
The politics of Northern Ireland were at the heart of a new row when The Legion Hall Bombing (1978), a drama by Margaret Matheson based on court transcripts about a youth found guilty of planting a bomb, included an epilogue that used the term “freedom fighters” for the IRA. Jim insisted the epilogue be dropped; the production team took their names off the credits and he lost his status as a hero of free speech overnight. “I was now the voice of repression, a mindless fascist and a vicious censor,” he wrote.
Afterwards Jim went back to the freelance life, and spent two decades directing programmes and series for all of ITV’s major companies, as well as Channel 4. They ranged from Thames TV’s cop show The Bill to A Fine Romance (1981-84), the beautifully crafted sitcom he created for LWT (with Bob Larbey) and featuring the star quartet of Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Susan Penhaligon and Richard Warwick. Fortunes of War, for the BBC, was adapted by Alan Plater and shot across the Middle East.
In 1983 Jim was elected chairman of Bafta. In the next decade, as his television work declined, his energies turned to teaching and writing, notably his revelatory autobiography, Forsyte and Hindsight (2006). The British Film Institute staged a two-week season of his work at the South Bank in London in 2010, “celebrating the career of one of the UK’s finest television directors”.
In 1959 he married Maggie Eavis, a fellow TV technician. When their children were young, he liked to give them cameo appearances in his productions, as he also did for some of the boxer dogs he nurtured. One of his sons, Deiniol, died in 2013, and Maggie died in 2016. Jim is survived by his other children, Rory (the BBC journalist, from a previous relationship), Simon and Lavinia, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
• Alan James Gwynne Cellan Jones, television director, born 13 July 1931; died 30 August 2019