Wycliffe on Television
In 1967 the TV franchise for Wales and the West of England was won by a new TV consortium, Harlech TV, which took its name from the man who led the consortium: Lord Harlech, formerly a British ambassador to the USA.
Harlech TV obtained its income solely from advertising and the sale of its productions to broadcasters elsewhere in the UK and abroad. It was therefore important that it acquired a reputation for high quality programmes.
In 1970 it shortened its name to HTV and a year later it went public. In 1981 HTV won the ITV licence for Wales and the West of England for another ten years.
During the Eighties it adapted a series of historical novels and these productions were highly successful, bringing in valuable revenue from international sales. In the 1991 franchise round HTV was granted a licence for a further ten years.
HTV purchased the television rights to WJ Burley's Wycliffe novels and adapted Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death as a pilot for networking. It was broadcast on 7th August 1993.
The pilot was a resounding success and the ITV Network commissioned HTV to make a series of six episodes, all based on published Burley novels (given here in their published sequence):
- Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat 1975
- Wycliffe and the Scapegoat 1978
- Wycliffe and the Four Jacks 1985
- Wycliffe and the Tangled Web 1988
- Wycliffe and the Dead Flautist 1991
- Wycliffe and the Last Rites 1992
The six episodes were broadcast in 1994, at 8 p.m. on consecutive Sunday evenings. Viewing figures were excellent and HTV went on to make a further 31 episodes, broadcast over a four-year period from 1995. The final episode was shown on 5th July 1998.
Wycliffe was played by Jack Shepherd, an actor then in his mid-fifties, who had regularly been in movies and on television since the late 1960s. Shepherd caught the public's imagination with his portrayal of the enigmatic Wycliffe and the series became hugely popular, drawing UK audiences of around ten million. Shepherd has a varied background: in his twenties he had spent four years at the Royal Court theatre, in the 1970s he ran a drama studio for actors, he was a member of the National Theatre for eight years, he is a playwright, and he directs stage plays. In the TV series Wycliffe is seen from time to time sitting down at a piano in his home, particularly when he is troubled, and losing himself in a jazz piece or two. Not only can Shepherd play the piano but he is a very able saxophonist.
In the television series the investigating officers who most prominently assist Wycliffe are DI Doug Kersey and DI Lucy Lane. In the books Kersey, then a Sergeant, is introduced in Wycliffe in Paul's Court, published in 1980. Sergeant Lucy Lane appears five years later in Wycliffe and the Four Jacks.
Detective Inspector Doug Kersey was brought to the screen by Jimmy Yuill, an actor who has been active in films and television since the late 1970s with film roles in several Shakespeare dramas. The 1990s saw him not only in the Wycliffe series but also in the popular Hamish Macbeth series. Jimmy Yuill is also a composer - he provided the scores for the 1992 Swan Song (which starred John Gielgud) and the 1995 In the Bleak Midwinter, both directed by Kenneth Branagh.
DI Lucy Lane was played by Helen Masters who graduated from drama school in 1985 and then concentrated on the theatre including the Old Vic. She had done some television work when the Wycliffe series came along and dominated her career for five years.
For those who want to know what happened to HTV, it was taken over by United News & Media in 1997, had its licence renewed in 1999 for yet another 10 years, and then sold twice in 2000, first to Granada Media then to Carlton Communications. In 2002 Carlton and Granada merged to form ITV plc and the HTV logo was replaced by those of ITV Wales and ITV West. Today ITV plc owns twelve of the ITV licences.