Jack Rosenthal Drama Scripts Collection
Ref: MS 286
Title: Jack Rosenthal Drama Scripts Collection
Scope: Television, film and theatre scripts, together with associated documents, by the contemporary dramatist Jack Rosenthal
Dates: 1942-2001 (mainly 1961-2001)
Extent: 75 boxes
Name of creator: Jack Morris Rosenthal (1931-2004)
Administrative / biographical history:
The collection consists of manuscript (typescript) copies of most of the scripts created by the contemporary dramatist Jack Rosenthal during a career of over 40 years of writing for television, the cinema and the theatre. Also included in the collection are related documents, including working notes, correspondence, press cuttings, together with some personal and other memorabilia. A number of videos of programmes made from the scripts are also available.
Many scripts appear in several drafts, providing an insight into the way in which a dramatic work may be changed and adapted during the creative process between its original conception and its final published form. Not all the works represented here have been produced or performed, as often television and film companies will commission a script and then either not put it into production or not ultimately complete the process.
Jack Morris Rosenthal, CBE, was born 8 September 1931 in Manchester to a Jewish family, both his parents, Sam and Leah, being employed in a raincoat factory. After attending Colne Grammar School he read English Language and Literature at the University of Sheffield, graduating B.A. in 1953. Following National Service in the Royal Navy, where he learned to translate Russian, he worked for a time in the promotion department of Granada Television, one of the recently formed ITV companies, before leaving to work in advertising. He renewed the connection with Granada in 1961 when he was commissioned to write episode no. 30 for the popular 'soap opera' Coronation Street, then at the start of what was to become the long-running and highly successful series which it still is today. Up to 1969 Rosenthal contributed 129 episodes to the series, an invaluable apprenticeship in television writing, demanding as it did both realistic characterisation, the development of convincing and entertaining story lines, and adherence to the strict discipline of the deadline, and he went on to produce the series for a time. His growing success as a writer for television, the medium for which he is best known, and a widening interest in both comedy and the experience of the individual within the wider social environment were evidenced by early contributions to the BBC satirical programme That Was The Week That Was (TW3) in 1963, a series closely associated with a period of rapidly changing social and political attitudes. He began to develop comedy series such as The Dustbinmen (1969-70), The Lovers (1970-71) and Sadie, It's Cold Outside (1975), which depended for their success not only on inherently funny situations but also on closely observed characterisation.
Rosenthal developed into a dramatist with much wider interests than those of 'just' comedy, a difficult enough genre in itself, though comedy has continued to play an important role in much of his work, even when his plays have a serious purpose. Often his work explores how individual people interact with their own and other social groups, sometimes in situations which on the face of it might appear banal. He takes much care to research the backgrounds where settings are unfamiliar: for The Knowledge (1979), about London taxi-drivers who must achieve an encyclopaedic knowledge of their city in order to qualify for a licence, Rosenthal spent time with cab-drivers (and was given the 'taxi driver's licence' in his name, now in the collection, as a memento), for The Dustbinmen he accompanied dustmen on their rounds, and time spent with removal men helped to produce the realistic background to both The Chain (1984), a feature film about seven very different households moving house on the same day, and Moving Story (1994), a television film about a wife apparently moving away from her husband both physically and emotionally. Similarly, the author went out on fire engines as preparation for writing London's Burning (1986), which features a group of fire-fighters in a world of more predictable dramatic potential. A rather different sort of perspective is evident in the screenplay Well, Thank You Thursday (1976), where intense personal dramas are played out in the lives of those who must attend a Registry Office but where the Registrar herself seems primarily concerned with taking delivery of a new desk. And the familiar world of television itself can also become a subject for drama: Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (1976) recalls the pitfalls of making a television film, while The Fools on the Hill (1986) takes place against the background of the early development of television at Alexandra Palace.
Rosenthal has spoken of wanting "to make people aware of the loneliness in others", a theme which informs in various ways Bag Lady (1989) about an itinerant old woman, Mr Ellis versus The People (1974) based on the work of a returning officer at a polling station, and Polly Put The Kettle On (1974), in which the mother of the bride at a wedding feels excluded from the social life around her. One of the author's early enthusiasms, soccer, provides the setting for Another Sunday and Sweet F.A. (1972) when a hen-pecked football referee finally asserts his individuality by an act of extraordinary bravado, while his biographical drama The Best (1986, not yet produced), is based on the life of George Best, whose high-profile football career descended into personal tragedy. Rosenthal has also produced a screenplay for a feature film, based on the book by Erik L. Preminger, Gypsy and Me (1992, not yet produced), about the life of the strip-tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and her son Erik, who was adopted by the film producer and director Otto Preminger.
One of Rosenthal's best known plays, Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), which recounts events surrounding a rite of passage of a boy on the way to manhood, illustrates directly an important and recurring theme in his work, experience of life from a Jewish standpoint. Although that play was not autobiographical, others are substantially so: The Evacuees (1975) deals with the experiences of children, who happen in this case to be Jewish, during wartime, when many children from cities considered at risk from aerial attack were evacuated to safer areas - as were the author and his brother - but where their experience of life with foster-parents was not always a happy one. Likewise, 'Bye, 'Bye, Baby' (1992) owes much to the author's national service in the Royal Navy in the mid-1950s where he trained as an eavesdropper on Russian naval radio transmissions, and in which he was conscious of being the object of not one but three different prejudices: as a Northerner, as a product of a working-class background, and as "about the only Jew in the navy". Beyond his purely personal experiences Cold War Warrior (1994, not yet produced) is a drama about the dangerous personal and political conflict which develops when the daughter of a Soviet general falls in love with and marries a Jew alienated by the Soviet system; Dreyfus (2000), a theatre play by Jean-Claude Grumberg which Rosenthal has translated, deals with a notorious episode of anti-Semitic injustice in France; East Side: The Battle of Cable Street (1990, not yet produced) recounts a notable event of the 1930s when demonstrators in London's East End clashed with police in order to prevent a fascist march, whilst The Day Hitler Died (1979, not yet produced) focuses on the man who more than anyone else bears responsibility for both the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. Rosenthal was chosen by, and cooperated closely with, Barbra Streisand in writing the script for her feature film Yentl (1983), the story of a Jewish girl in the early years of the 20th century in Eastern Europe who overcomes the profound sexual prejudice which bars her from studying the Talmud by disguising herself as a man so as to enter an orthodox Jewish academy.
Other themes are apparent in his work. The pain of growing up, as in Bar Mitzvah Boy, is central to one of his best known television films, Ptang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982), in which an adolescent schoolboy dreams of kissing a girl in his class but feels unable to approach her. Many of Rosenthal's dramas indeed deal with relationships between the sexes: from the early manifestation of sexual feelings explored in P'tang his focus moves to the other extreme in Wide-Eyed and Legless (1993), a portrayal of the effect on a long-standing married relationship when one of the partners falls seriously ill. The trauma of applying for a university place and leaving home, the widening social horizons which accompany the process and the effect on candidates and their families are all explored in Eskimo Day (1996) and its sequel Cold Enough For Snow (1997). And as in Yentl, a sympathy with those seeking heroically to overcome unreasonable prejudice informs the feature film Captain Jack (1999), based on the true exploits of a Whitby skipper determined to commemorate his heroes, the father-and-son whalers and explorers both called William Scoresby, by voyaging to the Arctic Circle with a makeshift crew and without the mandatory official certificate of seaworthiness. An even more dramatic example of seafaring is Maiden (1991, not yet produced), also based on a true story, in which an all-woman sailing crew triumphantly completes a hazardous race round the world.
Music features occasionally in his work. Our Gracie (1984) is a theatre play with music about the celebrated Lancashire singer Gracie Fields, while Yentl also included music. In an unusual development for him, Rosenthal rewrote Bar Mitzvah Boy as a musical (1978), which despite appearing in both London and (later) New York was not a success, and the problems engendered by this production inspired him to create Smash!, in the form of both a theatre play (1981) and a screenplay (1984).
In 1973 Jack Rosenthal married Maureen Lipman, the actress and writer, who has appeared in several of his productions. They have two children.
Rosenthal's work has won many awards and honours, amongst which have been: The Lovers (Writers' Guild Best Series Comedy Series Award, 1971), Another Sunday and Sweet F.A. (TV Critics' Circle Best Play of the Year Award, 1971), The Evacuees (International Emmy Best Play Award, British Academy Best Play Award and other awards, 1975), Bar Mitzvah Boy (British Academy Best Play Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Best Play Award, 1976), and Spend, Spend, Spend (British Academy Best Play Award and Royal Television Society's Writer's Award, 1977). Yentl was awarded the New York Critics' Golden Globe (1984). In 1994 he was created Commander of the British Empire. Academic honours include: M.A., University of Salford (1994), and D.Litt., University of Manchester (1995) and University of Sheffield (1998). He was Maisie Glass Professor Associate in Theatre, University of Sheffield, 1997-1998.
Jack Rosenthal died on 29 May 2004.
[Notes based on documents in the collection, Who's Who, Film Index International, British Film Institute, National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Internet Movie Database, and published editions of the authors work .The assistance of Jack Rosenthal in providing detailed information about his work is gratefully acknowledged].
- Related collections: Lipman Papers
- Source: Acquired by private sale, 2002, with the assistance of The Friends of the National Libraries
- System of arrangement: Alphabetical
- Subjects: English drama - 20th century; English literature - Jewish authors
- Names: Rosenthal, Jack Morris (1931-2004)
- Conditions of access: Available to all researchers, by appointment
- Restrictions: Certain documents are restricted
- Copyright: Copyright remains with the author
- Finding aids: The Jack Rosenthal Drama Scripts Collection; arranged and listed by Lawrence Aspden. University of Sheffield Library, 2002