Director of TV period dramas, from The Forsyte Saga to Fortunes of War

Born: July 13, 1931

Died: August 30, 2019

JAMES Cellan Jones, who has died aged 88 following a stroke, was a director who played a significant role in British television’s breakthrough into the American market with classic serials, beginning with The Forsyte Saga in 1967.

He worked on seven episodes in the BBC’s ambitious, 26-part adaptation – its last major drama to be shot in black-and-white – and helped to realise producer Donald Wilson’s dream of bringing to the screen John Galsworthy’s novels about the scandals of a wealthy British family in the late Victorian era.

Cellan Jones not only honed the art of storytelling in front of the cameras, but also displayed a sensitivity to working with actors that was tested most by Eric Porter, who seemed unwilling to be directed in his starring role as the harsh lawyer Soames Forsyte in an unconsummated marriage to Irene (played by Nyree Dawn Porter).

The Forsyte Saga became a worldwide success, seen by more than 160 million viewers. “The greatest soap opera ever filmed,” declared Time magazine in the United States.

Cellan Jones had a penchant for costume dramas and switched to ITV to make Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (1974), another hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The seven-part serial followed the American socialite (played by Lee Remick) through her courtship with the Conservative politician, their marriage and the birth of son Winston, and her own editorship of a literary magazine.

A decade later, back at the BBC, Cellan Jones stuck with 20th-century history to direct Fortunes of War (1987), Alan Plater’s adaptation of novelist Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant novels depicting the effects of the Second World War on British expats caught on the far side of the German advance.

The director held out to cast Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as the couple fleeing the Romanian capital of Bucharest (recreated in Yugoslavia) for Athens, then Cairo, despite reservations from financial backers about the pair’s lack of star status at that time.

Fortunes of War was his homage to Julia, the Holocaust drama made by film director Fred Zinnemann, whom he admired.

Alan James Gwynne Cellan-Jones (he later dropped the hyphen) was born in Swansea in 1931, the son of Cecil, a surgeon, and Lavinia (née Dailey). He attended Charterhouse School, Surrey, and gained a degree in natural sciences from St John’s College, Cambridge, before doing national service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers (1953-54).

In 1954, he defied family expectations that he would follow his father and other relatives into medicine by joining the BBC as a call boy – giving the knock on dressing-room doors for performers to appear on set – and soon stepped up the career ladder by becoming a floor manager.

Cellan Jones then worked as a production assistant and, in that role for a 1963 serialisation of Lorna Doone, was given the chance to direct film sequences on Exmoor.

“Someone suddenly remembered that a lot of it [the story] took place during the worst winter for 300 years, which was 1688,” he recalled. “We found that we were in the worst winter since that time, with snow everywhere.” The dramatic snow scenes outshone the rest of the production.

From there, Cellan Jones gained experience as a studio director during a six-month stint (1963-64) on the magazine soap Compact.

He switched to costume dramas with Stendhal’s The Scarlet and the Black (1965), Henry James’s The Ambassadors (both 1965 and 1977), The Portrait of a Lady (1968) and The Golden Bowl (1972), and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1971), Caesar and Cleopatra (1976) and The Comedy of Errors (1983).

Classic literature also inspired Cellan Jones to make The Roads to Freedom (1970-72), from Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels – considered one of the director’s finest works – and Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza (1971).

Among dramas Cellan Jones brought to the screen were Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978) and Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians (1979).

Returning to programme-making as a freelance, he directed Chris Sarandon as Jesus, Keith Michell as Pontius Pilate and Jonathan Pryce as Herod in the American TV movie The Day Christ Died (1980) and Lesley-Anne Down as Hitler admirer Unity Mitford in Unity (1981).

He both produced and directed the first two series (1981-82) of the sitcom A Fine Romance, Oxbridge Blues (1984), seven Frederic Raphael plays about the lives and loves of Oxford and Cambridge University students, and A Perfect Hero (1991), starring Nigel Havers in the real-life story of a Battle of Britain pilot shot down.

Cellan Jones’s autobiography, Forsyte and Hindsight, was published in 2006. He served as chair of both Bafta (1983-5) and the Directors Guild of Great Britain (1992-4).

In 1959, he married TV production manager Margot Eavis, who died in 2016, three years after the death of their barrister son Deiniol.

Cellan Jones is survived by their other children, director Simon and potter Lavinia, as well as another son, BBC news technology correspondent Rory, from a previous relationship with Sylvia Rich, a BBC secretary.