Michael Ferguson obituary | TV & radio

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Producer Michael Ferguson, who has died aged 84, turned EastEnders’ fortunes after it fell into a lull four years after it exploded onto UK television screens. One of its secret ingredients turned out to be the introduction of two of soap’s most popular characters, the Mitchell brothers – Phil and Grant.

In 1989, the BBC bosses, aware of criticism of the program’s enduring strenuousness, tried to introduce lighter storytelling and comedy elements alongside dramas such as the canal-side filming of “Dirty” Den. Watts.

When viewers seemed confused by the identity change and ratings continued to drop, the BBC turned to Ferguson, who, as the producer of ITV’s crime drama The Bill since the previous year , had overseen his transition from a series of hour-long episodes to a half-week twice a week. -hours broadcast all year round, like a soap opera, but each with an independent story.

He also introduced The Bill to memorable characters such as Frank Burnside (Christopher Ellison), Tosh Lines (Kevin Lloyd) and Derek Conway (Ben Roberts). sucked.

Michael Ferguson’s introduction of Phil and Grant Mitchell, played by Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp, to EastEnders in 1990 saw the BBC soap opera increase ratings. Photograph: Boldizsar / Shutterstock

Ferguson arrived to take over as executive producer of the then bi-weekly BBC series in the fall of 1989 and the results of its redesign were first seen the following year. Logistical changes included more filming outside of Albert Square, the appointment of two producers to take charge of the alternate week episodes and full screenwriting.

More evident to viewers, there was a freshness in these stories. Ferguson introduced Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp as Phil and Grant Mitchell in 1990 to bring an air of danger, adding Danniella Westbrook as their younger sister, Sam, later in the year. Another strong character to arrive was Eddie Royle (Michael Melia), a former cop who took over the Old Vic pub.

Plots that have gripped viewers again include Diane Butcher (Sophie Lawrence) becoming a runaway living with homeless people, the return of Nick Cotton (John Altman) to attempt to poison her mother, Dot (June Brown), the Mo Butcher’s (Edna Doré) descent into Alzheimer’s disease and a climax of the love triangle involving Wicksy (Nick Berry), Cindy (Michelle Collins) and Ian (Adam Woodyatt).

“Drama is sometimes described as life with the boring pieces taken out,” Ferguson said at the time. “The challenge is to create the interesting elements that remain. By the time he left himself in 1991, EastEnders was again in contention with Coronation Street for the top spot in weekly ratings.

Earlier in his television career, which began with the BBC, Ferguson secured a place in Doctor Who history with his role behind the scenes of The Dead Planet, the first episode starring the Daleks, Little time after the start of the series in 1963.

William Hartnell as the original incarnation of Doctor Who with the first Daleks seen in the BBC series, in 1963. Michael Ferguson, then Deputy Floor Manager, waved the first arm of
William Hartnell as the original incarnation of Doctor Who with the first Daleks seen in the BBC series, in 1963. Michael Ferguson, then Deputy Floor Manager, waved Dalek’s first “sucker” arm in the series, and then directed Hartnell. as well as the next two doctors, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Photography: Ronald Grant

Working on his first program as an Assistant Floor Manager – while also holding an Actors Union Fairness Card – he waved Dalek’s first “sucker” arm, resembling a sink plunger, to be seen as he threatened Time Lord’s companion Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Colline). The “bodies” of the Daleks were only revealed in the next part of the story.

Then, he became one of the few directors to work with the first three incarnations of Time Lord: William Hartnell, battling a self-thinking computer in The War Machines (1966); Patrick Troughton, facing the Ice Warriors in The Seeds of Death (1969); and Jon Pertwee, in Les ambassadeurs de la mort (1970) and Les griffes d’Axos (1971).

Ferguson gained a reputation for being adventurous and inventive, with inclined planes, “points of view” and figures, “hopping” planes that increased the tension, and characters filmed from below to show them moving. look down.

Frazer Hines, who played Doctor Jamie’s companion in Ferguson’s second soap opera, recalled that he would challenge rehearsal actors to perform a “quick run”, delivering their lines as quickly as possible to ensure that they know them perfectly. “It’s very good for old brain cells,” Hines added.

Likewise, Ferguson impressed the cast and crew with his calm, controlled demeanor and willingness to listen to ideas. He could also be self-critical, later stating that he found The Seeds of Death adventure too slow to review it.

Michael Ferguson.
Michael Ferguson first trained as an actor in order to understand the acting process. Photograph: Paula Hammond / Alamy

Michael was born in New Malden, Surrey to Mona (née Armatage) and Thomas Ferguson, a stockbroker who served in the Auxiliary Fire Services during World War II and attended King’s College School in Wimbledon .

He performed in school plays and with local amateur theater companies, then during national service in the army in Cyprus and North Africa, before training as a comedian in Lamda (1957-58 ), simply because he wanted to understand the execution process in order to become a director.

Ferguson performed and directed with the Theater Center, a touring company visiting schools, from 1959 to 1963, when he worked as a director at the Hampstead Theater Club and managed to land a job on BBC television in as assistant manager. The following year he graduated from the Company Administration course and directed the soap operas Compact (in 1964 and 1965), The Flying Swan and 199 Park Lane (both in 1965) and The Newcomers (from 1965 to 1966). ).

He moved on to episodes of the detective series Z Cars (in 1967 and 1968) and Softly Softly (in 1967), then moved on to dramas such as Paul Temple (from 1970 to 1971) and the 1972-73 episodes of Colditz.

Moving on to ITV, he directed Hadleigh (in 1973) and Dickens of London (1976) before producing and directing The Sandbaggers (1978-80) and Airline (1982). Returning to the BBC, he produced the 1993-94 series of Casualty.

In retirement, he taught theater both to students of arts schools and to professionals at Actors Center London.

In 1964 Ferguson married Susan Harris, with whom he had two daughters, Tracy and Nikki. After his divorce, he married actor Jana Shelden in 1986. She and Tracy survive him; Nikki died in 1997.

Michael Ferguson, producer and director, born June 14, 1937; passed away on October 4, 2021


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