Scientist and film writer
Born: November 18, 1917; Died: November 29, 2012.
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Jan Read, who has died aged 95, was a scientist, a film and television writer and a wine expert. He lived much of his life in Scotland and his many achievements included working on the classic sword-and-sandals adventure Jason and the Argonauts and persuading the BBC to make Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which originally ran from 1962 to 1971.
Read worked on dozens of films and television shows and helped shape the popular perception not only of the avuncular country doctor, but also of the avuncular British bobby as co-creator of the character who became Dixon of Dock Green.
PC George Dixon made his first appearance in the Ealing film The Blue Lamp in 1950 and proved so popular he was given his own long-running television show – even though he had been killed in the film. Read also worked on El Cid (1961) – he married a Spaniard and had a great passion for the country.
But film and TV were Read’s second career. He was originally a scientist and did secret research during the Second World War. Later he wrote English-language books on Spanish history and wine, doing much to popularise the region’s wines in Britain at a time when they were little-known here.
He was born John Hinton Read in Australia in 1917. His father was the eminent English chemist John Read, who taught at Sydney University. His son was styled Jan, a reference to the family’s English West Country roots.
In the early 1920s, the family moved back to the UK where John Read took a post of professor of chemistry at St Andrews University. Young Jan went to school at Glenalmond and studied science at Cambridge Universtiy, and then back in his home town of St Andrews, where he ran the university film club.
In 1937 he made a short silent documentary called Ad Vitam, meaning “to life”. It traced the history of St Leonard’s girls school in St Andrews and is now in the Scottish Screen Archive.
He went on to teach physics at Sheffield University and during the Second World War worked on the development of new, cheaper explosives and camouflage.
His younger brother Arthur worked at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre. Arthur was also one of Britain’s top chess players and a mountaineer – he was later killed in an avalanche.
After the war he decided to switch careers and went to the US on a film scholarship and worked with Fritz Lang, whom Read later described as his mentor.
Back in Britain, one of his first projects was The Blue Lamp, with Jack Warner as PC George Dixon and Dirk Bogarde as the young thug who shoots him dead (albeit only temporarily).
The screenplay is credited to TEB Clarke, one of Ealing Studios’ most celebrated writers, although the opening credits acknowledge that the original treatment was the work of Read and Ted Willis, and Read drew on his experiences in the US for the realistic quasi-documentary tone. He was not directly involved in the TV series.
Over the next 20 years he worked on dozens of other films and television shows, including The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), a Tennessee Williams adaptation with Warren Beatty; and the HG Wells adaptation First Men on the Moon (1964).
With the decline of the British film industry, Read worked increasingly in television, writing for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1959-60), Danger Man (1965), Sherlock Holmes (1965) and Man in a Suitcase (1968).
Read wrote many of the early episodes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook himself. The series was ostensibly based on stories by AJ Cronin, but Read also drew on childhood memories of eccentric St Andrews academics and of the doctor who came to look at his sore throat, asked him to lie on the table and without further ado took his tonsils out.
In 1956 Read married Maite Manjon, a nurse, and he developed a great interest in Spanish history, culture, wine and cuisine. He was involved in the early stages of getting the story of El Cid made into a film and wrote several books about Spanish history, aimed at the British general public. His book The Wines of Spain and Portugal (1973) helped develop a market here for the region’s wine. He did much the same for Chile with his book Chilean Wines in 1988.
His wife wrote books on Spanish cuisine and sometimes they would collaborate on books that included food, wine, travel and history, though ironically they enjoyed one of their biggest successes with The Great British Breakfast (1981). Their other books include Visitors’ Scotland (1979).
Read moved back to St Andrews in the 1980s and his autobiography Young Man in Movieland was published in 2003. He is survived by his wife Maite and by their son Carlos Read, a wine importer.