Betty Willingale, who has died aged 93, was one of the pioneers of British television drama. As a BBC script editor from the 1960s onwards she brought the works of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë, Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emile Zola and DH Lawrence to small-screen serials.
Later, as a producer, she had success in turning modern literature into popular television with the BBC’s big-budget Fortunes of War (1987), Alan Plater’s adaptation of Olivia Manning’s novels, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as newlyweds caught up in the aftermath of Hitler’s advance across the eastern front, and ITV’s long-running detective whodunnit Midsomer Murders (from 1997), based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novels.
Willingale preferred to refer to the process of transferring literature to the screen as dramatisation rather than adaptation, and enthusiastically encouraged scriptwriters, from Jack Pulman and Elaine Morgan to Philip Mackie, Trevor Griffiths and Plater.
The idea of bringing Tom Barnaby to television was her own and she was clear about who she wanted in the role – John Nettles, previously known as the Jersey TV detective Bergerac. She described Graham’s books as “Agatha Christie on acid” when she approached Anthony Horowitz to turn the stories into television adventures that became infamous for leaving a high body count in a fictional, otherwise peaceful English county.
The first story featured in Midsomer Murders was The Killings at Badger’s Drift – also the title of the first book – involving incest between a brother and sister, and nine deaths. Mark Lawson described it in the Guardian as “a higher kind of nonsense … adapted from a rather classy crime novel”.
That pilot episode was Britain’s most watched single drama of 1997, with 13.7 million viewers, and further feature-length episodes of Midsomer Murders were commissioned, proving a hit in dozens of countries, and the series continues to this day.
Even Nettles’s decision to bow out in 2010, to be replaced by Neil Dudgeon as the character’s younger cousin, John Barnaby, did nothing to diminish the drama’s winning formula, described by Willingale as “no punch-ups, no car chases and as few sex scenes as possible”.
She produced the pilot, the first two series and half of the third run (1998-2000), then continued as a consultant until her death. The affection in which she was held was demonstrated when Dudgeon’s newly born on-screen baby, first seen in 2015, was named after her. “We all love, admire and revere her very much,” said the actor. “So, when Barnaby and his wife were having a girl, the obvious name was Betty.”
The real Betty was born in London to Elizabeth (nee Bradish), responsible for passing on to her daughter a love of literature, and James Willingale, who worked as a “lighterman” on barges that carried goods from ships arriving at the port of London. She was evacuated to Scotland and Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, during the second world war; her mother became ill and died while Betty was away.
In 1944, on leaving Aylwin grammar school, Bermondsey, aged 16, Willingale became a junior – “dogsbody”, as she described it – in the library at Bush House, home of the BBC World Service.
Eleven years later, she joined the BBC television script unit as assistant head, trawling through writers’ unsolicited submissions. This experience put her in good stead to be story editor for 78 episodes (1963-64) of the BBC soap Compact, set in the offices of a glossy women’s magazine, in the middle of its four-year run, although she turned down the chance to work on Z Cars and Doctor Who. “I couldn’t bear science fiction,” she said.
Then, Willingale became script editor for serials featured in BBC1’s Sunday teatime family slot such as Silas Marner, The Children of the New Forest and The Count of Monte Cristo (all 1964), A Tale of Two Cities (1965) and Dombey and Son (1969).
She switched to peak-time “classic serials” on BBC2 with North and South (dramatised by David Turner, 1975) and followed it with How Green Was My Valley (by Morgan, 1975), Our Mutual Friend (by Julia Jones and Donald Churchill, 1976) and Murder Most English (by Richard Harris, 1977).
A successful partnership with the producer Jonathan Powell resulted in The Mayor of Casterbridge (by Dennis Potter, 1978), Wuthering Heights (by Hugh Leonard and David Snodin, 1978), Testament of Youth (by Morgan, 1979), Pride and Prejudice (by Fay Weldon, 1980), Thérèse Raquin (by Mackie, 1980), The Woman in White (by Ray Jenkins, 1982) and The Barchester Chronicles (by Plater, 1982).
Willingale and Powell moved on to modern literature with Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down (by Ken Taylor, 1978), John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (by Arthur Hopcraft, 1979) and its sequel, Smiley’s People (by John Hopkins, 1982), Sons and Lovers (by Griffiths, 1981), Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (by Reg Gadney, 1982) and Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo (by Troy Kennedy Martin, 1983).
The BBC’s 1979 production of Crime and Punishment, starring John Hurt, was Willingale’s second collaboration with Pulman. They had previously worked together on a memorable 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel I Claudius, with Derek Jacobi as the wily “fool, idiot and stammerer”. Flashes of nudity were excised by the censors when the series was screened in the US.
The chance for Willingale to become a producer herself came with Taylor’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park (1983). She followed it with Bleak House (by Hopcraft, 1985), Tender Is the Night (another Potter adaptation, 1985) and Fortunes of War.
After leaving the BBC on reaching its retirement age of 60, Willingale took her talents to ITV. As a script consultant at the producer Brian Eastman’s independent company Carnival Films (originally Picture Partnership), she worked on the first five series (1989-93) of Poirot, starring David Suchet as the Belgian detective; Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93), a sumptuous production of Clive Exton’s retelling of PG Wodehouse’s stories, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as the toff and his valet; and the second series (1992) of Forever Green, a contemporary drama starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins as a couple leaving London for a life in the country.
As a producer, she made the feature-length Harnessing Peacocks (1993), Andrew Davies’s erotically charged adaptation of Mary Wesley’s 1980s novel, before her success with Midsomer Murders.
In 2009 she received Bafta’s special award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to television.
Willingale was predeceased by her brother, Edward, and sister, Constance.