Tony Cash obituary

Maker of TV arts documentaries for The South Bank Show and series exploring art, poetry and classical music

Tony Cash, who has died aged 86 of a brain tumour, is best remembered for the number and range of arts documentaries he made for the BBC, LWT and Channel 4.

He joined BBC TV’s Music & Arts division in the 1970s and from 1975 was assistant editor of Second House, a rather ragbag Saturday night arts programme that I edited. We took on all comers from the arts, with some successes along the way. The programme could be more than two hours long and accommodated 90-minute interviews with Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John le Carré and others.

In 1977, when LWT asked me to edit and present The South Bank Show, which was to be interview-based, I immediately asked Tony to be deputy editor. Our ideas on what it should aim for were compatible: to challenge the old hierarchies and make a programme on Paul McCartney as carefully and seriously as one on Benjamin Britten, and to introduce brilliant comedians like Billy Connolly and Ken Dodd; and to go backwards and forwards across the waterfront of arts old and new. This approach was something that Tony was also very keen on: we agreed that at the centre of each programme would be a well-researched interview; the principal aim would be to make the work of the artist clear and comprehensible without dumbing down.

Left to right, Shirley MacLaine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tony Cash. Well-prepared interviews lay at the heart of The South Bank Show’s accessible approach to the arts
Left to right, Shirley MacLaine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tony Cash. Well-prepared interviews lay at the heart of The South Bank Show’s accessible approach to the arts Photograph: none

Tony was perfect for this notion. For instance, he made Anatomy of an Opera with Jonathan Miller, and good films on Connolly and Dodd, as well as films on Peter Brook’s Carmen in Paris and Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York, for the last of which he won a gold medal at the New York television festival. We took a lot of flak for seeming to break the rules about what was considered to be art. But that was part of the fun. We were both keen proselytisers.

He left The South Bank Show in 1983 to become an independent film-maker. With his company, Lilyville, he embarked on an ambitious history of classical music, Man and Music, for Granada (22 editions, 1987-89), Art of the Western World (1989-90) for Channel 4, and Landscape and Memory (1995) with Simon Schama.

With Alan Bennett, he made two notable series: Poetry in Motion (1990), examining leading 20th-century British poets, and Alan Bennett’s Heavenly Stories (1997), an exploration of biblical parables.

The Poetry in Motion programme on Philip Larkin that Tony Cash made with Alan Bennett, 1990

When Tony and I worked together there would be the initial discussion of the idea and then a much longer discussion of the interview and finally collaboration in the cutting room. That could be a very vigorous debate. Each of us had our ideas about what the film should be like. Neither of us liked to give way. It was terrific fun.

Born in Leeds, Tony was the son of Michael Cash, who worked in food technology, and his wife, Eileen (nee Mundy), a talented amateur pianist. He was educated at Leeds Modern school for boys, where he was a contemporary of Bennett. Tony liked to point out that Bennett’s play The History Boys incorporated many aspects of his sixth form at Leeds Modern. His national service in the Royal Navy (1952-54) took him on to the Joint Services School for Linguists, known as “the Russian course”, like Alan and other bright linguists.

Tony had won a place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, to study French, and when he started the course added Russian, which became a lifelong passion. He broadcast to the Soviet Union with the BBC World Service after leaving university, wrote articles for the East-West Review, and his books included The Russian Revolution (1967) and Lenin (1972).

An equally compelling passion was his love of jazz (his early films for the BBC included profiles of Cannonball Adderley, Roland Kirk and Dizzy Gillespie), and of the clarinet in particular. At Oxford he was president of the university jazz club. He played the clarinet to a professional level, and would spend a couple of hours on Sunday afternoons playing along with tapes of “the greats”. One of the pleasures of working with Tony was that he was never without his little black clarinet case, and wherever we went – New York, New Orleans – he would nose out a jazz club and had no hesitation about asking to sit in with the often very distinguished group. “Now, over to Tony Cash from London town!” We were very proud of him.

He was widely liked and admired by everyone who worked with him – always cheerful, generous and argumentative.

In 1955 he married Judith Carr, and they had two sons, Nicholas and Thomas. Their marriage was dissolved in 1967, and four years later Tony married Gill Clark; they had two daughters, Sophie and Amy. Gill and his children survive him.

Anthony Cash, television director and producer, and writer, born 23 November 1933; died 16 April 2020


Melvyn Bragg

The GuardianTramp

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