Our Debt To Wor Kate
Jun 26 2001
Twelve years ago an unknown actor named Sean Bean caught the eye of a TV producer.
Ray Marshall was casting for his ambitious two-hour adaptation of the Catherine Cookson novel The Fifteen Streets.
He needed someone dashing, a bit rough around the edges, but also something of a charmer. He instantly knew Sean Bean was right for the role of Dominic O'Brien. It was a casting made in heaven.
And thanks to his role in the drama set on the Tyne docks in 1910, Sean Bean became a household name and international film star.
The Fifteen Streets proved a blueprint for what was to become one of television's most successful runs of costume dramas.
Eighteen Cookson adaptations were made by Ray Marshall's Festival Film and Television company - all of which secured millions of viewers, regularly topping the 10 million mark.
They attracted top names like Robson Green, Nigel Havers, Denholm Elliott, Catherine Zeta Jones, Donna Air and Billie Whitelaw. They also helped kickstart the careers of the likes of Sean Bean, Tracy Whitwell and Ben Miles.
But, as reported in the Chronicle, ITV has decided it has had enough of Wor Kate and will not commission any further Cookson adaptations. That comes as a huge blow to Ray and his team, who have made the North East their second home over the past decade.
Festival has had exclusive rights to adapt the Cookson novels now for nine years - but it seems TV audiences have seen the last of their hard-done-by Geordie heroines and gritty, handsome heroes.
"I am drawing the line under Cookson now," states Marshall. "I am saddened, gutted in fact, by the ITV decision. But I won't be taking Cookson to any other station. It is now time to move on. Although I do still hope to bring filming to the North East whenever I can."
Just why ITV has decided not to commission any further adaptations remains a mystery.
Nick Elliot, ITV controller of drama, is first to admit they were good ratings busters.
"Cookson has been a great performer for ITV for more than a decade, consistently pulling in good audiences - sometimes exceptional audiences," he said when announcing his decision.
"Festival brought Cookson's work to the screen with great skill and ingenuity and can be proud of its achievement, particularly in bringing so many great actors to ITV screens."
He was unavailable, though, when the Chronicle contacted him to ask why they decided to get rid of them.
Ray Marshall remains relatively upbeat, despite ITV's decision marking the end of an era.
"There was bound to come a time when ITV decided it wanted to move on to pastures new and we've always been prepared for that," he says. "I prefer to look at it in a positive light. I'm very proud of what we've achieved and the enjoyment Catherine's work has brought to a large TV audience.
"Wherever I go, people talk very warmly about the Cooksons and I'm sure many of them will be remembered for years to come
"It was amazing that when we first started out we managed to get such an amazing cast for The Fifteen Streets," he continues, recalling the early days.
"And it was an enormous success. A great cast - Sean Bean in only his second job, and Jane Horrocks, whom no one had heard of.
"We were able to pull a cast together that really did justice to Cookson. And as the years went by we were able to attract big names to them, because, simply, they were good things to be in.
"It was good television and we were getting big audiences."
One of the most successful adaptations was 1995's The Gambling Man, with Robson Green in the role of Rory Connor.
"I'd never read a Catherine Cookson book before but this story was so strong and the character just leapt off the page at me," recalls Robson.
"Rory was a rogue. The charm of the character is that he is a man who dreams of escape and knows he has the means to do it.
"I loved the card playing, the gambling and winning. I remembered all those wonderful gambling movies and felt like the Cincinnati Kid."
Ray Marshall realised he was on to a biggie when he signed up Robson. At that time, the Dudley-born actor was at the pinnacle of his career.
"With Robson, he had obviously already made his name. He was a big star with Soldier, Soldier but he really wanted to do something different," says Ray.
"For us to get him at that point in his career was proof of how respected the Cookson adaptations had become."
Catherine Zeta Jones is now one of Hollywood's top actresses. But in the early 1990s, she was too busy perfecting the North East accent to think about Tinsel Toon.
Catherine starred in The Cinder Path, and Ray knew back then she was going to be a big star.
"To work with Catherine Zeta Jones was just brilliant," he beams. "She'd done The Darling Buds of May and when I met her I felt here was someone destined for big things.
"She had 'star' written all over her. It was great to work with her, even if she hadn't become a big Hollywood superstar.
"But we've had a number of big name stars over the years and I can honestly say they all told me they enjoyed being in the Cooksons.
"In fact, Billie Whitelaw told me last year she thought it was the nicest job she had ever had - and she has had a fantastic career."
The Cooksons weren't just a hit with TV audiences, the critics, too, more often than not, praised them. Although most of the stories were of a similar vein, they kept fans on the edges of their seats.
Perhaps the jewel in the crown was when one of the adaptations won an award at the world famous Emmys.
"Probably our biggest achievement was winning the International Emmy for best drama for 1991's The Black Velvet Gown," says Ray.
"That really was the high point. But there have been so many terrific moments.
"Catherine Cookson herself loved The Wingless Bird. She felt it really captured what she had written.
"She gave me a beautiful spode and silver coffee set as a present for it."
Cookson was synonymous with the North East, and each adaptation boasted a cast and crew largely made up of locals.
"But the fact is there isn't a bottomless pit of great North East actors," admits Ray. "I've always tried to bring through as many North East actors as I can, and also established ones where it has been possible.
"If there are the parts that warrant it, then it's great to have well known names playing them,
"We gave Tracy Whitwell (Cissy in The Dwelling Place) her first job, straight out of drama school, and she has gone on to do lots of stuff, like The Knock, Soldier, Soldier and Playing The Field.
"Purists in the North East criticise that we have brought in actors from outside of the region, but you cannot beat well-known names like Nigel Havers and so on.
"And part of an actor's job is mastering accents.
"With the crew, we recruited about 90 per cent from the North East. It was like a family and we had many who worked on every single adaptation.
"Many were freelances. But we had a very loyal crew who would down everything to work with us."
Cost looks unlikely to have played a large part in the ITV decision. "The adaptations were expensive to make - about £650,000 for every hour televised," says Ray.
"But when you compare that to more than £1 million an hour for the likes of Pride and Prejudice, we actually made ours as cheaply as we could.
"We were lucky. Because we employed mainly North East crew, we didn't incur huge hotel bills and the like.
"Putting 50 people up in an hotel or seven weeks is expensive. I hope I will be able to bring more things to the North East."
One actor who has perhaps fonder memories than most of his time on a Cookson drama is southerner Ben Miles, who since appearing in The Round Tower - unusually, for Cookson, set in the 1950s - has become a regular face on our screens.
"I loved doing the Cookson in the North East , it's such a great part of the world," recalls Ben, who has been in the likes of Peak Practice and Reach For The Moon .
"The Cookson dramas get the ratings. They've set the likes of Sean Bean up for bigger things in the past.
"A lot of people knock them, but they are classic stories and they are well made too as a drama.
"There's an excellent crew behind the adaptations. I had doubts whether I would be the sort of person they were looking for and when they asked me I just couldn't believe it.
"I jumped at the chance. It was a good break for me in terms of TV. It was different to what I'd been doing before, which was mainly classical theatre.
"To play a character who wears jeans and a T-shirt was quite refreshing for me.
"I was on location in the North East for six weeks, during which I got married, which was quite exciting.
"We didn't actually get married there, I got two days off and we wed in the South and then honeymooned in Newcastle.
"It wasn't planned, but it was very nice indeed."
Ray Marshall is now contemplating the future. "It is so sad, but I am incredibly proud of what I have achieved. I couldn't be more proud," he says.
"Catherine was proud of what we had achieved as well and said that we had done her books justice.
"And that's all I ever wanted to do."
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