Director of television drama, including the ground-breaking Tales of the City and Traffik
Friday 9 September 2011 18.42 BST
In 1991 he directed the five-part Selling Hitler, adapted by Howard Schuman from Robert Harris's book, with Barry Humphries as Rupert Murdoch and Alan Bennett as Hugh Trevor-Roper. Then came Tales of the City (1993), an adaptation by Richard Kramer of Armistead Maupin's novel set in the San Francisco of the 1970s, and the only instance to date of an American drama series being entirely funded by a British broadcaster – Channel 4. Tales of the City had always been intended as a co-production – but pre-HBO American television couldn't countenance onscreen kissing between men.
Alan Poul, the American producer, says that when Tales of the City was finally transmitted in the US, with great success, it "forever changed the landscape of American television", paving the way for shows such as Six Feet Under and Sex and the City. It was quite an experience for me, as head of drama at Channel 4, to visit the set in Los Angeles and to be told by both Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney that Alastair was the best director they had ever worked with.
Alastair was born in Edinburgh. His father was a schools inspector and his mother a well-known antiques dealer. Alastair graduated from Edinburgh College of Art, with the intention of becoming a painter. He then studied directing at the Bristol Old Vic. In 1960 he was taken on as a trainee director by Lew Grade at ATV where he worked on the UK's first twice-weekly evening soap opera, Emergency – Ward 10.
He directed well over 100 episodes, which were broadcast live. By his last year on the Ward, Alastair had become extremely bored and chose to direct a whole episode entirely from the point of view of the characters' feet. Unfortunately, Grade happened to be watching at the time. He rang the studio gallery during the commercial break and demanded that the cameras return to their standard positions for the second half of the show.
Alastair went on to direct highly popular series such as South Riding (1974) and Shades of Greene (1975, from Graham Greene's short stories) for ITV but it was a stint at David Rose's innovative drama department at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham that proved a turning point. There he directed two series of the ground-breaking crime drama Gangsters (1976-77), a highly eccentric musical Curriculee Curricula (1978), with words by Alan Plater and music by Dave Greenslade, and David Rudkin's astonishing futuristic nightmare Artemis 81 (1981), starring Daniel Day‑Lewis and Sting.
Gangsters brought multi-racial Britain to a mainstream audience on BBC1 as never before, or indeed since. At the time BBC drama productions were a mix of studio and outside filming. The joins always showed. For Gangsters, Alastair introduced a handheld camera into the studio that created a seamless match with film.
Alastair planned and storyboarded like Hitchcock, who was his hero. Gangsters contains a brilliant homage to the crop-spraying sequence in North By Northwest, while Vertigo was a crucial influence on both Artemis 81 and the San Francisco of Tales of the City. After Gangsters came Hazell (1979) for ITV, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1980) with David Hemmings and the first episode of Inspector Morse (1987), followed soon afterwards by Traffik.
Nostromo (1996) was Alastair's last major work, filmed for the BBC in Colombia in the midst of a drugs war, during which he befriended the Nobel-prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and his mentor, Alvaro Mutis.
With his wife Jane, a gifted set designer, Alastair opened a vineyard at their house in Stoke St Gregory in Somerset. Famous names would visit, receiving the same welcome from Alastair and Jane off-set as they had once experienced on it. Day-Lewis spent a famous night there – not in the house, but outside in a tent, calling out to the wilderness, preparing for his 1992 role in The Last of the Mohicans.
Alastair is survived by Jane, his son Alex, his stepdaughters Lucy and Leo, and his two grandchildren.
• Alastair Reid, television director, born 21 July 1939; died 17 August 2011
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