Julia Jones obituary
Prolific and talented writer of dialogue for television dramas and sitcoms
By Michael Coveney
October 29, 2015
Julia Jones, who has died aged 92, was a prominent and versatile television writer for more than 40 years, contributing one-off dramas to both the BBC’s Play for Today series and ITV’s Armchair Theatre, making adaptations of Our Mutual Friend and Anne of Green Gables, and writing episodes of The Duchess of Duke Street and sharply turned sitcoms such as Take Three Girls and Moody and Pegg in the 1970s.
Jones, who hailed from a modest Liverpool background, trained as an actor and toured with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop immediately after the second world war. She took up writing as an economic imperative: while raising a young family, her husband, the actor Edmond “Benny” Bennett, was afflicted with facial cancer which, in the days when the effects of radiotherapy were more haphazard, developed into bone necrosis; he was unable to carry on working.
Encouraged by her friend Donald Churchill, the actor and writer, and his wife, the actor Pauline Yates, she submitted to the BBC in 1965 a short play, The Navigators, a story of a dowdy librarian falling in love with a labourer digging the road outside her window. This led to other slots in the BBC’s Wednesday Play series. She made her name as one of the writers of BBC’s Take Three Girls in 1969, a well-observed and beautifully acted sitcom, one of the BBC’s first series in colour, with three flat-sharing “swinging” 60s archetypes – the actress left holding the baby (and the bills) by a departing husband, an aspirant business professional, and the disorganised loser (played, respectively, by Susan Jameson, Angela Down and Liza Goddard).
Jones found that writing dialogue came to her as easily as breathing, and she was almost unstoppably productive. She was a small and wiry figure, gregarious and always full of stories, and known for her steely determination, what her family thought of as a will of iron. And, through her family background, she was always on the left in politics, with a highly developed sense of social injustice, supplying some of her early stories – though she found writing prose much harder than dialogue – to the Daily Worker.
She was born in West Derby, Liverpool, and grew up in the Everton district, one of four children of Harvey Sykes Jones, a manager for a meat importing business, and his wife, Eva (nee Collins), who died when Julia was 10. Harvey was of Welsh descent, and played the organ in church, while Eva’s family were of Irish origins.
When Eva died, Harry and the children moved to Aintree where he married again; Julia was never close to her stepmother, Rachel. She left school to work as a wages clerk in the Dunlop rubber company and, when war broke out, joined the women’s branch of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, travelling all over Britain and developing a keen interest in amateur dramatics.
She was diffident about going further in the theatre until, about to be demobbed, she saw that the film producer Alexander Korda was offering scholarships for ex-servicemen and women at Rada in London. She applied, successfully, and found herself, in October 1946, in the same classes as Michael Redgrave. She felt ill at ease, though, “just a girl from Liverpool” as she put it, to find herself among other young women for whom the place was a sort of finishing school.
When Littlewood, who was based in Manchester after the war, wrote to the registrar at Rada in search of likely actors, Julia auditioned and joined the Theatre Workshop in 1948, going on tour with them to Czechoslovakia and Sweden and to the Edinburgh festival of 1949. Productions at this time included Ewan MacColl’s The Other Animals, set in a concentration camp, Johnny Noble, a working-class ballad opera about unemployment and the Spanish civil war, and rewrites of classics by Lorca and Molière. She also played in a version of Alice in Wonderland that visited the Theatre Royal Stratford East in January 1950, before Littlewood acquired the place as her permanent home.
She married Bennett, a fellow Workshop actor, on leaving the company later in 1950, and acted in repertory theatre in Liverpool and Canterbury. She toured, with her young family, and played the West End, with Benny, in Alun Owen’s Progress to the Park. She also appeared on television in Emergency Ward 10 and Z Cars. The family settled into a house in Earlsfield, south London.
Bennett took small parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company but his illness accelerated and so, therefore, did Julia’s writing. She wrote for the leading TV producers of the 1970s – including Kenith Trodd and Tony Garnett – and her Plays for Today featured great roles for Rachel Roberts, Rosalind Ayres and Margery Mason. In the 1974 sitcom Moody and Pegg (the title characters played by Derek Waring and Judy Cornwell), she and Churchill wrote an entertainingly antagonistic double act for a divorced antiques dealer and an unmarried civil servant who each thought he/she owned a valid lease on their resentfully shared apartment.
With Churchill again, she adapted Our Mutual Friend in 1976, with a fine cast led by Leo McKern as Mr Boffin (“he was of an overlapping, rhinoceros build, with folds in his cheeks, and his forehead, and his eyelids, and his lips, and his ears”), John McEnery as John Rokesmith and Jane Seymour as Bella Wilfer. The popularity of The Duchess of Duke Street, starring Gemma Jones, followed that of Upstairs Downstairs in its story of the cook who takes over the smart hotel as hierarchies in the class system give way, a story that would be continued in Downton Abbey over exactly the same Edwardian period.
West End success eluded her as a playwright, but she did make two notable incursions, with The Garden, directed by Vivian Matalon and starring Brian Deacon and Diana Coupland, at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1972; and with Country Ways at the Bristol Old Vic in 1983. Bennett appeared in the latter. He died soon afterwards, in 1986. Still Julia turned out the series and adaptations, achieving great success with six episodes of Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce in 1989 and 12 episodes of The Famous Five by Enid Blyton in 1995, with a young, very watchable Jemima Rooper in the cast.
Julia bought a flat from Victoria Wood in Maida Vale, north-west London, in 1990. In 2006 she married a widower whom she had met on a cruise holiday: Derek Ballance was a retired chartered surveyor, they were both in their 80s, and they moved to north Oxford and, eventually, a retirement apartment in Painswick, Gloucestershire. Ballance died in February.
Jones is survived by two children from her first marriage, Thea and Harvey, and by three grandchildren.
• Julia Marian Jones, actor and television writer, born 27 March 1923; died 9 October 2015
JONES, Julia (Julia Marian Jones)
Born: 3/27/1923, West Derby, Liverpool, England, U.K.
Died: 10/9/2015, Painswick, Gloucestershire, England, U.K.
Julia Jones’s western – screenwriter:
The Campbells (TV) - (TV) – 1989