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John Tydeman (Read 907 times)
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John Tydeman
Apr 11th, 2020, 9:00am
This is taken from The Times, April 10, 2020:

John Tydeman obituary

Modest head of BBC radio drama who ‘discovered’ Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard and later seized on the first draft of Adrian Mole (13¾)

John Tydeman was aged 44¾ when a script by an unknown writer from Leicester named Sue Townsend landed on his desk at the BBC.

The script, which purported to be the diary of a teenager named “Nigel Mole”, had been rejected by another BBC producer and sat in Tydeman’s in-tray for a month before he read it.

“I thought it was terrific,” he said. “I rang her and asked her to come down. She had no money. She asked for her fare. When she came in she had a hole in her shoe and hoped I wouldn’t notice.”

He commissioned a half-hour monologue to be broadcast on Radio 4 with the promise of “more episodes if it’s as successful as it ought to be”.

When Townsend’s phone was cut off because she could not pay the bill, they were forced to discuss changes to the script by letter. Tydeman persuaded her to reduce Mole’s age from 14¾ to a year younger, on the grounds that was when the greatest physical changes of puberty occur.

He also offered prescient encouragement. “There is a lot of mileage in Mole,” he wrote. “I’m sure you could try and get a Mole diary published.”

When a script had finally been agreed, the pages of The Secret Diary of Nigel Mole Aged 13¾ were opened to the world for the first time on January 2, 1982, in Radio 4’s Thirty Minute Theatre slot.

It was a Saturday afternoon and Tydeman was at home in his book-lined flat in Great Titchfield Street. “The phone rang five times — all agents. It was very unusual,” he recalled.

By Monday morning he had put the publishers Methuen in touch with Townsend and she was commissioned to write a year’s worth of Mole’s diary, although they insisted on changing his name to Adrian because of the similarity to Nigel Molesworth, the schoolboy character in a series of 1950s books by Geoffrey Willans with illustrations by Ronald Searle.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ was published in September 1982 and within a month was top of the bestsellers list. Within a year it had sold a million copies and stage and TV adaptations followed. It was, as Tydeman noted, “the Harry Potter of its day”.

Tydeman also found himself a recurring character in the books as a BBC Radio 4 producer, rejecting Adrian’s poetry submissions. “Sue would send me postcards and poems as if from Mole, so I just fell in with the game,” he said. When Adrian Mole: the Collected Poems was published in 2017, The Tydeman Letters was included as an appendix.

In his career as a BBC producer, which spanned 35 years in which he rose to become head of radio drama, Tydeman found, nurtured and advanced new writers, starting with Joe Orton, who walked into his office at Broadcasting House one day in 1960.

“Joe was wearing bovver boots and khaki. He said he’d just come out of prison,” he recalled. “He’d been had up for defacing library books. He was revolutionary. I was a bit daunted.”

Nevertheless, he saw promise in a play titled The Boy Hairdresser that Orton offered him and championed his work in the face of the disdain of the BBC’s script-reading department, which Tydeman derided as a bunch of “old biddies”.

It took three rewrites and a change of title to The Ruffian on the Stair but Orton’s play was finally broadcast under Tydeman’s direction in 1964.
By then Orton had also brought Tydeman another play. “Joe showed me the script for Entertaining Mr Sloane, and I saw at once it would work best as a stage play and put him on to the agent Peggy Ramsay,” he recalled. “It was put on at Wyndham’s. The rest, as they say, is history.”

In 2007 Tydeman directed a BBC radio production of Entertaining Mr Sloane to mark the 40th anniversary of Orton’s death. “It represents a full circle for me,” he told The Times.

Tom Stoppard, another discovery, was a struggling freelance journalist in 1963 when Tydeman accepted his first script, The Dissolution of Dominic Boot. He went on to commission seven further Stoppard plays written specially for radio, including If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank, Artist Descending a Staircase and In the Native State, in which he cast Peggy Ashcroft in her final performance. “I could never write enough to keep him busy,” said Stoppard, who recalled being commissioned on at least one occasion in a Broadcasting House corridor.

There were other radical young playwrights Tydeman would have liked to employ but for the constraints of the BBC’s conservatism. “Writers such as Howard Brenton, David Hare, David Edgar, Stephen Poliakoff, do not get an airing,” he complained in a memo to Ian McIntyre, the controller of Radio 4 in the late 1970s. “Politically the reasons are understandable; artistically they are a loss.”

He retired early from the BBC in 1994, deeply out of sympathy with the new ways of BBC “managerialism”. His world was one where the fabled “drinks trolley” rolled along the corridors of Broadcasting House to the head of drama’s convivial office. There “actors and producers would get together to gossip and drink and stay until quite late”, the producer Michael Earley recalled. “It was restless and passionate. John exemplified that spirit.” His office was also known for its multitude of teddy bears, which he collected with a passion.

Faced with the demand of departmental budget cuts that meant sacking excellent colleagues, he resigned “trailing clouds of glory but also vapours of disappointment”, as Stoppard put it. His farewell party took place at the National Theatre, not at the BBC.

He later retired to a cottage in Norfolk with his partner, Tony Lynch, an Australian medical assistant. They met in 1983 and entered into a civil partnership in 2004. Ian McKellen, a friend since their time as students, described it as “a great marriage with a lot of love”. He was previously in a lengthy relationship with Glyn Dearman, a fellow radio producer.

John Peter Tydeman was born in 1936 and grew up in a Hertfordshire village, the late-born son of an elderly father, George, by his second marriage to Gladys (née Johnson). With four grown-up half-sisters who spoilt him, friends said that he was brought up by five mothers.

At Hertford Grammar School he was blessed with a sixth-form teacher, Dr Wilkinson, who encouraged his literary interests, and after National Service in Malaya with the Royal Artillery he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.

There he became a central figure in a golden generation of future British drama, memorably directing McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Corin Redgrave in a musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Jacobi called him “a born teacher” and paid homage to his early directorial skills. “He didn’t command a performance out of you,” he said. “He was much cleverer than that; he coaxed, you responded. He wanted the emotion. If an actor was in difficulty, he would say, ‘I know you can do it, I will help you find it’.”

However, it was the end of Tydeman’s own ambitions to act. “I met people who were far better than me,” he observed with characteristic honesty.

After joining the BBC as a trainee in 1959 he found his milieu in radio drama. Over the years he persuaded many of the great stage actors of the age to work for him, including John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Edith Evans. He voice-coached them with references to his beloved Winnie the Pooh, such as “a bit more Eeyore-ish there I think” or “Can you be more ‘Tiggerish’ here?”

Paul Scofield, whom he directed in King Lear, was a particular favourite. In turn it was said that Scofield regarded Tydeman as his greatest director.
Tydeman tried TV drama but found it boring. “The scripts were better in radio and you’re your own master,” he said. “What takes a couple of months in radio takes a couple of years in TV. The machinery drives you mad.”

After leaving the BBC he continued to work in radio drama as a freelance and later productions included Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years and It’s Too Late Now, a play marking the 50th anniversary of the death of AA Milne with Alec McCowen playing the creator of Pooh.
The Milne play also coincided with Tydeman’s own 70th birthday and his niece, Sally Cooper, created a heroic cake that seemed to sum up many of his passions and enthusiasms, depicting Pooh holding a glass of wine and a cigarette and with the complete works of Shakespeare under his arm.

Warm and hospitable with a great “capacity to giggle”, Tydeman was renowned for welcoming guests to his various homes at all hours, accompanied by generous quantities of wine.

To friends he was always “Tidey” or sometimes “Mr Radio”. As a present to mark his 84th and final birthday, an admirer of his work drew up a list of his BBC radio productions and appearances. It ran to 126 pages.

John Tydeman, radio drama producer, was born on March 30, 1936. He died of heart problems on April 1, 2020, aged 84
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