JOHN GRAHAM, ACTOR AND WRITER 1931-2015
John Graham was an actor and prolific stage and radio writer. He appeared on stage with Sir Donald Wolfit and wrote the last stage play performed by Dame Sybil Thorndike. From the 1960’s onwards he wrote many radio dramas and comedies for the BBC including The Men from the Ministry (with Edward Taylor). His stage farces continue to be performed around the world.
John Graham was born on the 7th September 1931 in Inverness, Scotland. One of two children, his mother a former matron, and his father an architect.
He was educated at the Inverness Royal Academy, and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, following which he embarked on a long theatrical career. He started work professionally with the weekly repertory company at the Salisbury Playhouse performing one play in the evenings and matinees while rehearsing the next during the days, and playing everything from Shakespeare to Pantomime Dame. This was followed by his first West End appearance, at the Haymarket, in The Strong Are Lonely with Sir Donald Wolfit’s company, a production that subsequently transferred to the Edinburgh Festival. Further engagements in weekly repertory at Leatherhead, Coventry and Guildford then ensued.
Having learnt his craft on various stages around the country, he returned to London, was married to Sir Donald’s daughter, Harriet, and joined the BBC drama repertory company, working regularly in radio for two years before deciding to go free-lance. Greatly in demand for his wide-ranging and versatile repertoire of accents, he continued to appear on radio throughout his career, including as the young doctor Roddy Mackenzie in the long-running soap Mrs Dale’s Diary, and in Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, of which also wrote several radio episodes. During the 1960s and ‘70s he worked in television too and appeared in Dixon of Dock Green, The Heart of Midlothian, General Hospital, and Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson, and in three films including A Challenge for Robin Hood.
Believing he might need a second string to his bow, in 1958 he had started to write radio plays, finding a ready audience for his one-off comedies and dramas from then on, even rising to the tricky challenge of bringing farce to radio with the original version of Slip of a Disc. Over the years his writing for radio, TV and theatre was performed by many of Britain’s best loved actors including Ronnie Barker, Jimmy Clitheroe, Ken Dodd, Leslie Phillips, Harry Worth, Norman Wisdom, Eric Sykes, Googie Withers, Ray Cooney, Arthur Mullard and of course Richard Murdoch and Derek Guyler. Many of these names had been former childhood heroes, an additional source of great pleasure to him.
His first stage play, There was an Old Woman, was produced in 1969 and starred Dame Sybil Thorndike and George Cole; around that time he also began to write the long running radio comedy series The Men from the Ministry with Edward Taylor. The series has found enduring international success, and may be heard to this day on Radio 4 Extra (not to mention in translation in Finland).
The writing partnership with Edward Taylor also led to a second stage play, Pardon Me Prime Minister which had two national tours starring Harry Worth, with Gerald Flood also playing in the second. The play has always been a favourite with amateur companies but it is to be performed again professionally this May at the Theatre Royal Windsor. A third stage comedy, John Brown’s Body set in Queen Victoria’s Balmoral household went on tour a few years later.
The acting jobs rolled in, and every day brought new voice work: for radio, for TV advertisements, language courses, film commentaries and movies. His was the original voice of the National Lottery as well as the sound of several thousand warriors (with a little technical help) in the film Zulu; he worked with many directors, from Charlton Heston to Stephen Fry, and not forgetting the redoubtable Audrey Cameron of the BBC.
In the 1980s he returned to the West End stage, and joined the company of the highly successful Children of a Lesser God at the Albery Theatre, where he played for two happy years, initially alongside Trevor Eve and Elizabeth Quinn. Even then he continued with his voice work during the day.
The UK stage version of Slip of a Disc starred Lance Percival, Ian Wallace and Paula Wilcox, and runs in both Paris and Rome followed, but in the mid-1980s it attracted the attention of Regina Zeigler Productions in Berlin. John was subsequently contracted by them to write a series of six one-hour TV comedies and these were produced and subsequently screened in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The German language TV version of Slip of a Disc, was shown on ZDF TV in Germany every New Year’s Eve for nine successive years, becoming part of the national cultural landscape. The collaboration also led to two series of half-hour TV sitcoms and further stage plays in translation, including Happy Anniversary. These are still touring in the German-speaking world today.
He always considered his mission in life was to make people laugh, and he certainly did that - his work has reached audiences on at least four continents.
He died on March 5th 2015 in Saint Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, after a short illness, leaving behind a sister, two sons, and seven “glorious grandchildren”, as he described them.