Irene Shubik enjoyed proving television executives wrong. As a BBC producer she commissioned John Mortimer to write six scripts for what was intended to be the first series of Rumpole of the Bailey.
When the BBC put the project on hold, she left for ITV and took Rumpole with her. The result was one of Thames Television’s most popular productions, running to 44 episodes over seven series between 1978 and 1992, with Leo McKern starring as the raffish barrister Horace Rumpole.
“A Tasty Box of Kippers”
“I wouldn’t say the BBC threw away a pearl richer than all its tribe, but it has mislaid a tasty box of kippers,” the critic Nancy Banks-Smith observed tartly in The Guardian. The series was so successful that McKern complained that the role had become an “insatiable monster” and grumbled that his obituary would ignore the other achievements of a 50-year theatrical career and simply say “known to millions as Rumpole”.
Shubik was blocked again by bean-counting executives at Granada Television when she proposed an adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. Told that the cost of filming in India was too high, she suggested a cheaper adaptation of Scott’s Booker prizewinning novel Staying On. Like The Raj Quartet, the book was set among the British expat community in India. Hoping to use it as a pilot that would force Granada into a change of mind, she recruited Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson for the central roles, the first time they had been together on screen since Brief Encounter 35 years earlier.
Shubik was once again proved right. The success of Staying On persuaded Sir Denis Forman, the chairman of Granada, to give Shubik the green light to proceed with her adaptation of The Raj Quartet. Broadcast in 1984 in 14 parts under the title The Jewel in the Crown, the series rivalled Brideshead Revisited as the finest achievement of 1980s British television drama. Two decades later the British Film Institute (BFI) voted The Jewel in the Crown 22nd in its list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes.
Ironically, having won her argument, worked extensively on the scripts and researched the background and locations, Shubik did not stick around to produce the series. By the time The Jewel in the Crown was filmed, she had been headhunted by Columbia Pictures to work on the screenplay of the film Girl in a Swing. However, each episode of The Jewel in the Crown contained the line “series devised by Irene Shubik” in the opening credits.
By the time The Jewel in the Crown was filmed, she had been headhunted to work on the screenplay of Girl in a Swing.
Irene Shubik was born in Hampstead, London, in 1929, the daughter of Joseph Shubik, a Russian-born émigré who ran a textiles company, and Sara (née Soloveychik). The youngest sibling in a distinguished trio, her brother Martin was an emeritus professor of economics at Yale, and her elder brother, Philippe, became a leading cancer researcher.
When the Second World War broke out, Irene, her mother and younger brother were sent to live with relatives in Canada. She returned after the war to read English literature at University College London and obtained an MA in “The Use of English History in Drama from 1599-1642”.
After being turned down for a job by the BBC, she emigrated to the US, staying on campus with her brother Martin, who was teaching at Princeton. When he was disciplined for keeping a woman in his quarters, his insistence that she was his sister cut no ice and she moved to Chicago, where her brother Philippe was working. There she landed a job as a scriptwriter with the film department recently set up by Encyclopaedia Britannica before returning to London to look after her ailing parents.
“An Intelligent Face”
Her first job in television came with ABC in Manchester in 1960 as an assistant story editor. She was interviewed on a Friday and started work the next Monday, Sydney Newman, the head of drama, telling her that she was being employed not on the strength of her CV, but because she had “an intelligent face”. Newman also told her he “didn’t want to do any costume crap” and appointed her to work on the Sunday night drama series Armchair Theatre. She proposed a science-fiction version of the slot and the result was Out of this World, hosted by Boris Karloff.
When Newman joined the BBC in 1962 he took Shubik’s intelligent face with him and she continued to produce landmark sci-fi drama in the BBC Two series Out of the Unknown. “I had to read hundreds of stories to pick a dozen,” she recalled. “You have no idea how difficult some of these authors are.”
Nevertheless, she found futuristic tales by JG Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl and John Wyndham that lent themselves brilliantly to the format. Her favourite, however, was Isaac Asimov, whom she travelled to New York to meet and pronounced “one of the most interesting and amusing men” she had met. She put half a dozen of Asimov’s stories on the screen and enjoyed another significant coup when she persuaded JB Priestley to adapt Mordecai Roshwald’s post-apocalyptic novel Level Seven.
Her favourite was Isaac Asimov, whom she pronounced “one of the most interesting and amusing men” she had met.
In 1967 Newman invited her to become one of two producers on BBC One’s flagship drama slot The Wednesday Play. When she expressed a reluctance to leave Out of the Unknown, the invitation was reissued as a “command”, although she was allowed to commission a third series of what she called her “brainchild” before moving.
She stayed for eight years, overseeing the slot’s transition to Play for Today and producing dozens of memorable and sometimes controversial dramas, including 1971’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman, which gave Shubik a second entry in the BFI’s list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes.
Mortimer’s Rumpole also had his origins in Play for Today when the barrister made his screen debut in what was originally commissioned as a one-off in 1975. The barrister was originally named “Horace Rumbold”, but Shubik insisted on the change after she found somebody with the same name in the phone book. She was also responsible for casting McKern, against the wishes of Mortimer, who wanted Michael Hordern. “John initially was very against it, I think possibly because Leo’s dimensions were very like his own,” she observed.
She held trenchant views about the need for “structure” and “naturalness” in TV drama, and she provoked considerable controversy in 1992 over her role in what the media dubbed “Baftagate”, when she chaired the Bafta jury, awarding the prize for the best drama serial of the previous year.
When the votes had been cast, she looked through the ballot papers and announced, “We have a decision. It’s four to three,” and declared the prize had been awarded to Granada’s Prime Suspect. Subsequently four of the judges broke the academy’s confidentiality rule by publicly stating that they had voted for the Channel Four’s GBH, starring Robert Lindsay.
The writer Jeremy Sandford stirred the pot by pointing to Shubik’s long-running feud with Verity Lambert, GBH’s executive producer. Bafta attached no public blame to Shubik and the award was allowed to stand, but she resigned from the academy’s board. It was an unfortunate end to what had been a reputable career.
She never married and both her brothers, to whom she was devoted, predeceased her. Although colleagues sometimes regarded her as difficult and cantankerous, she counted herself “grateful” to have worked in what she regarded as British television’s most creative period. “We were allowed free rein,” she noted. “Nowadays you’ve got to produce a clone of the last series that had such-and-such ratings. We never even thought about that sort of thing. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a golden age.”
Irene Shubik, television producer, was born on December 26, 1929. She died from the effects of dementia on September 26, 2019, aged 89