Waris Hussein has been a leading light in film and television since the early 1960s, and will probably be most familiar to our readers as the very first, and very influential, director of Doctor Who. He even became a character (played by Sacha Dhawan, below) in Mark Gatiss’s “origins of Who” drama, An Adventure in Space and Time (2013).
There is, of course, so much more to his career. The youngest drama director employed by the BBC in 1960, Waris was the only person of South Asian descent working in that field and helmed many key plays and series in the golden age of television – winning a Bafta for Edward & Mrs Simpson in 1979. He’s long had an appetite for issue-led drama (racism, women’s suffrage, colonialism), tackling subjects that were once taboo (abortion, homosexuality, Aids). He has directed Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He directed Bette Davis!
He’s still a viable force in the film world and it’s only fitting, as he enters his 80th year, that the British Film Institute in London is honouring him with this month-long retrospective of some of his finest work.
“It wasn’t easy making a selection,” Waris tells RT. “Some of my favourites – the classic Wednesday Plays written by Simon Gray – are long gone, wiped by the BBC. But I’m very happy that a lot of my work, which would have been forgotten, is being shown. [BFI programmer] Marcus Prince has chosen very wisely.”
Waris will be attending several of the BFI screenings in February. Here’s the full schedule :
Tuesday 6 February 6.00pm
Play of the Month: A Passage to India (BBC 1965)
Directed with great flair and sensitivity, this adaptation of EM Forster’s novel is a prestigious TV production from the mid 60s, predating the David Lean version by two decades. Some would say it’s superior. Only by sheer fluke was it preserved at the BBC. “They found it during a clear-out at Ealing Studios,” Waris tells RT. “They offered me a 16mm copy for £25! I kept it and later fought with the Forster estate to make it available to the BFI archive. I’m very proud of it.”
In 1965, A Passage to India garnered a Radio Times cover with its star Sybil Thorndike.
* On the night, the screening will be introduced by Waris Hussein and Virginia McKenna, who played Adela in the 1965 production.
Tuesday 6 February 8.30pm
Waris Hussein in Conversation with Samira Ahmed
The host of Radio 4’s Front Row presides over a 90-minute Q&A event with clips covering Waris’s wide-ranging career from The Glittering Prizes to Edward & Mrs Simpson.
Thursday 8 February 6.15pm
(and Sunday 11 February 5.30pm)
A Touch of Love (UK 1969)
This British movie marked Waris’s big-screen debut, as well as a young Ian McKellen’s. A snapshot of middle-class mores in late 60s London, it depicts a student dealing with her unexpected pregnancy. The film stars Sandy Dennis, two years after she won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
* Waris Hussein and Ian McKellen will be at the BFI for a discussion on the Sunday. [NB The Sunday event is currently sold out]
Monday 12 February 6.10pm
Play of the Month: Chips with Everything (BBC 1975)
Hussein opens out Arnold Wesker’s controversial play (Royal Court, 1962) about rebellion in the ranks of the RAF. The last of six Plays of the Month he directed over a ten-year period, it stars Tim Woodward, David Daker and David Troughton (son of Patrick, now Tony in The Archers).
Thursday 15 February 8.50pm
(and Sunday 18 February 6.05pm)
The Possession of Joel Delaney (US 1971)
Predating The Exorcist by a couple of years, this US movie is a terrific occult chiller about demonic possession, with a standout, occasionally bonkers turn from Shirley MacLaine.
Monday 19 February 6.15pm
Play of the Month: Hedda Gabler (BBC 1972)
Janet Suzman is captivating at the head of a fabulous cast (Ian McKellen, Tom Bell, Jane Asher) in the BBC’s acclaimed 1970s Ibsen adaptation.
* The screening will be introduced by Waris Hussein and Janet Suzman
Friday 23 February 6.15pm
ITV Playhouse: Blind Love (Granada 1977) and Romance: Three Weeks (Thames TV 1977)
Two rarely seen, romantic curios from the ITV archive. Blind Love stars Sam Wanamaker and Mary Peach. Three Weeks stars Simon MacCorkindale, Elizabeth Shepherd and Patricia Lawrence. Of the latter drama, Waris says: “That’s me being flamboyant. It’s very camp… seduction on tiger skins!”
Sunday 25 February 5.30pm
Intimate Contact (Central TV 1987)
A brave and groundbreaking ITV drama from 1987, the very first primetime series to deal head-on with the Aids crisis. Claire Bloom and Daniel Massey star as a couple whose marriage is rocked by the onset of the misunderstood and then largely untreatable virus. “I really fought to get that show,” Waris told RT in 2013. “I more or less banged the door down for it. I said, ‘I know what this is about. You can’t give it to anybody else.’ ” The BFI is showing all four episodes.
* Claire Bloom and Waris Hussein (above in 1987) will introduce episode three.
Tuesday 27 February 6.20pm
Copacabana (US 1985)
The season closes with this shimmering, very 80s TV movie – a rare acting vehicle for Barry Manilow (above with Waris) as a love-smitten Manhattan pianist. “Her name was Lola/She was a showgirl” etc… Not as camp as you might hope, but it bagged Waris an Emmy.
Doctor Who fans may be dismayed that the BFI will not be showing An Unearthly Child, the very first episode from 1963. But it has been screened several times, last in 2013 when Waris took part in the on-stage Q&A. The same goes for Melody, his evocative school-romance movie from 1971, shown a couple of years ago, with its star Mark Lester joining Waris on stage. You should have been there.
However, Shoulder to Shoulder, Waris Hussein’s highly lauded, occasionally harrowing serial about the Suffragettes (BBC 1974) – starring Sian Phillips – will be featured at the BFI in June.
Read Patrick Mulkern’s in-depth two-part interview with Waris Hussein from 2013
[Photographs are from the Radio Times Archive, Waris Hussein and Patrick Mulkern]