Heritage: Southampton scriptwriter N.J. Crisp

Heritage: Southampton scriptwriter N.J. Crisp

by Martin Brisland. 

Remembering the career of prolific Southampton scriptwriter N.J. Crisp, whose credits included Dixon of Dock Green, Colditz and Secret Army.


Older readers probably remember major BBC TV series from the 1960s and 1970’ such as Compact, Dixon of Dock Green, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Expert, The Brothers, Colditz and Secret Army. 

All were connected to Southampton born Norman James Crisp (1923 – 2005). Known by his initials and surname, N. J. Crisp, was a prolific and versatile television writer, dramatist and novelist.

Bringing alive the world of business, by focusing on the trials and tribulations of the people who make the cogs turn, was a hallmark of N.J. Crisp’s long career as a successful writer for television.

The Brothers (1972-76) followed the squabbles resulting after three brothers inherited part of their father’s haulage firm – the eldest had expected to have it to himself – and the old man’s secret mistress was also bequeathed a share in it. The family-business saga proved compulsive Sunday-evening viewing, attracting audiences of up to 11 million.

 N.J. Crisp served in the RAF then went through a string of jobs such as taxi-company manager for Southampton’s Streamline Taxis and typewriter salesman. He had a television play, People of the Night, about a taxi company, broadcast by the BBC in 1957.

 Going full-time as a writer in 1959, he subsequently wrote a dozen plays for the BBC, including The Dark Man about a black taxi driver facing problems at work.

He wrote scripts for the BBC soap opera Compact (1963-64), set in the offices of a women’s magazine.

 He was one of several writers recruited for ten years to the popular police TV drama Dixon of Dock Green. It was developed from the classic 1950 movie The Blue Lamp. His task was to rid the popular series of its “cosy” image by writing “tougher” scripts. Norman also wrote for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, in one episode tackling the taboo subject of euthanasia.

 In 1968 Crisp co-created The Expert which followed the day-to-day activities of a forensic scientist, Dr John Hardy (Marius Goring). It was the first BBC2 drama series to be made in colour.

 N.J. Crisp also wrote scripts for Colditz (1972-74), the wartime prison-camp drama; Oil Strike North (1975), about the crew and their families on a North Sea oil platform and Buccaneer (1980), about a small air freight company. He scripted the feature-length TV drama The Masks of Death (1984), starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and John Mills as Dr Watson.

In 1985 he wrote a horror film Murder Elite, featuring Ali MacGraw.

Crisp published several novels including In the Long Run (1988) and The Ninth Circle (1988).

 In 1985 he wrote the play Fighting Chance. It was set in a residential rehabilitation centre for neurological patients and based on his own illness. He had a malformation of the spinal cord which left him partially disabled. Failing eyesight also led Norman to be registered blind in the 1980s.

 His 1996 play That Good Night starred Donald Sinden and Nigel Davenport.

Crisp’s 1987 psychological thriller book Dangerous Obsession became a London stage play and was filmed in 1999 as Darkness Falls, starring Ray Winstone. However, Crisp was unhappy with the end result and insisted on having his name removed from the final print.

 A founding member of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain he later served as its chairman and won a Writers’ Guild screenwriters award in 1968. Crisp negotiated the first £1,000 fee to be paid to a writer for a television drama. He also persuaded the ITV companies to make a pension contribution with each script commissioned.

Staying local he lived, with his family, for many years in Abbot’s Way in Highfield.

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