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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anthony Hayward

Leslie Megahey obituary

Colin Firth, Jim Carter and Ian Holm in The Hour of the Pig
Leslie Megahey directed the 1993 BBC film The Hour of the Pig with, from left, Colin Firth, Jim Carter and Ian Holm. Photograph: BBC Films/Allstar

Leslie Megahey, who has died aged 77, was a director of arts documentaries on subjects across a wide spectrum, from movie legends such as Orson Welles to JRR Tolkien and other literary greats, but his own special love for painters brought to television a string of acclaimed film profiles.

Alongside making his own programmes, he had spells running the BBC’s art series Arena and Omnibus. When offered the Omnibus job, he took it on condition that he could make a film based on the life and work of the 17th-century Dutch portrait painter Godfried Schalcken.

The result, Schalcken the Painter (1979), made as a drama-documentary weaving fact and fiction, and based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 gothic tale, filled the BBC’s traditional pre-Christmas ghost story slot. The artist (played by Jeremy Clyde) is visited by the spectre of a lost love, as masochistic sexual desire combines with moral descent, Schalcken selling out his art by taking commissions for purely mercenary reasons. Its visually ravishing style, slow pace and spare dialogue make for compulsive viewing.

Charles Gray narrated both Schalcken the Painter and Cariani and the Courtesans (1987), which Megahey wrote and directed for the BBC’s Screenplay series. It tells the story of the Venetian Renaissance painter – played by Paul McGann – who falls in love with a woman he later suspects to be a sex worker and thief. Again, it was an exquisitely shot fictionalised biopic – a mystery this time – woven around the artist’s best-known works.

Away from painters, one of Megahey’s most notable pieces of documentary-making was The Orson Welles Story (1982), a Bafta-winning two-part programme encompassing the Hollywood giant’s long career. It went from his early days presenting live radio dramas – causing panic with The War of the Worlds – and making the film classic Citizen Kane, to his continuing battles with the movie establishment and frustrations about the business.

“I think I made, essentially, a mistake staying in movies,” Welles told Megahey in a frank, in-depth interview about acting and directing. “But it’s the mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman, but I did because I love her …

“I’ve wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie.”

Leslie was born in Belfast to Beatrice (nee Walton) and the Rev Thomas Megahey. When he was five, his father became minister of the Lichfield Congregational church and the family moved to Staffordshire.

At King Edward VI grammar school, Lichfield, he performed with the dramatic society. Then, he studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, before joining the BBC as a general trainee in 1965. Within a year, he was a radio producer, first working on the comedy Fault on the Line with Beryl Reid and Patricia Hayes, then on a string of plays.

In 1967, he switched to television to produce the arts show The Look of the Week. His career as a director began the following year with a portrait of the music-hall performer Dan Leno for another arts programme, Contrasts.

For Tolkien in Oxford, a 1968 film in the Release series, the Lord of the Rings writer gave him a rare interview.

Leslie Megahey
Leslie Megahey was a mentor for many other film-makers, combining intelligence and sensitivity. Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

Then, in 1969, Megahey contributed documentaries to Canvas, a series allowing David Hockney and others to give their view on great works of art, before producing First Eleven (1970), with similar personal assessments. He also produced the 1972 series of Canvas and wrote and directed The Savage, a 1977 biopic of Paul Gauguin starring Leo McKern.

Show business came into Megahey’s orbit when he directed Star Close-Up (1969), which included interviews with Lon Chaney Jr, Joan Fontaine and Mickey Rooney. Later, in 1986, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa gave him an interview for Arena.

He produced and directed Omnibus from 1972, and was executive producer of Arena (1976-78) and editor of Omnibus (1978-81), later jointly editing both with Alan Yentob and others (1985-87), mixing high and low culture in his commissions. When he started on Arena, two years after its inception, with its future in the balance, he switched it from a magazine-style show to single films. As BBC television’s head of music and arts (1988-91), as before he juggled his executive position with making his own documentaries.

Combining integrity, intelligence and sensitivity, Megahey was a mentor for many other filmmakers, giving them encouragement and freedom, and only stepping in with constructive advice when he felt it was needed.

Other programmes he directed included the three-part Artists and Models (1986), a biopic of the 19th-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (played by Anthony Bate), with Ian Holm narrating excerpts from the memoir of the painter’s student Amaury-Duval. John Russell wrote in the New York Times: “The programme has a beauty and integrity of tone that are rare in films about art and artists.”

With Yentob, Megahey was executive producer of The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood (1987), an exhaustive six-part history of the major film studio. Megahey even directed opera, with his film of Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1988) winning the 1989 Prix Italia music award.

In a different vein, he wrote and directed a BBC feature film, The Hour of the Pig (1993, US title The Advocate), starring Colin Firth as a lawyer in medieval France drawn into romantic and political intrigues after leaving Paris for a life in the country. Shortly afterwards, having left the BBC, Megahey was put on contract to Miramax Films, doing rewrites of half a dozen movies.

Another triumph, as producer, was the three-part Leonardo (2003), a Bafta award-nominee, with Yentob exploring the life of Leonardo da Vinci, played by Mark Rylance.

He also wrote, with Nicol Williamson, its star, the stage play Jack: A Night on the Town, about the Hollywood actor John Barrymore. He directed it in the West End (Criterion theatre, 1994), then in Los Angeles and on Broadway two years later.

Megahey is survived by his wife, the Czech-born documentary director Jana Boková, whom he married in 2017 after they had been together for almost 40 years.

• (Norman) Leslie Megahey, writer, producer and director, born 22 December 1944; died 27 August 2022

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