An unsung hero of the film industry, Michael Tuchner made his name and reputation as one of the most wide-ranging television and film directors of his generation. Allowing the performances and narrative to dominate a film, his contribution often went unnoticed, despite having made more than 45 television and big screen movies — winning one BAFTA award for Bar Mitzvah Boy and being nominated for four others. Tuchner, who has died aged 84, had a long, varied career and his apprenticeship with the BBC, as an editor on the Tonight programme under the guidance of presenter Alan Whicker, stood him in good stead throughout his working life, especially in Hollywood where he directed TV movies with panache.
Michael Tuchner was born in Berlin the son of German-Jewish parents, Martin, a tailor and businessman, and his wife Rosa. With the rise of the Nazis, the family left Germany in July 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Tuchner’s father was interned in a refugee camp in Kent, his mother was obliged to work as a domestic and Michael was placed with an English family near Maidstone. He later clearly recalled being seven years old, alone, and unable to speak a word of English. It was an unsettling experience yet, fortuitously, Tuchner was left with a compassionate and caring nature .
After the war, his parents moved to Salford, where Michael won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School. He read classics at University College London, where his interest in films was sparked by his tenure as president of the university’s film society. His son Jonathan endorsed his father’s tastes: “He saw himself as a director who kept things simple; his forté being a creative storyteller – he was not one for ostentatious or spectacular film-making” .
After graduating, and joining the Tonight programme, Tuchner made his debut as a drama director in 1969 with two episodes for The Wednesday Play. This was followed by his first feature film Villain (1971) an East End crime thriller loosely based on the notorious gangland boss Ronnie Kray. Starring Richard Burton and Ian McShane and scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the film’s sadistic violence received critical response. It was shot entirely in England, showing historical parts of London.
Tuchner collaborated with Clement and La Frenais twice more: for the 1976 film version of their hit TV comedy series The Likely Lads, starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes and their 1989 adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s novel Wilt, with Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, about a feckless college lecturer farcically intent on murder. In 1972 he filmed the Alistair MacLean thriller Fear Is The Key, featuring a spectacular 15 minute car-chase with Barry Newman as the hero — notably giving Ben Kingsley his first film role. 1975 saw the arrival of Mr Quilp, a lively musical version of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, starring Anthony Newley and choreographer Gillian Lynne.
Tuchner returned to TV to direct Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy (1975), a charming comedy about the worries of a young working-class Jewish boy from North London approaching his big day. It was a remarkable success, winning a highly merited BAFTA. This was followed by The Summer of My German Soldier (1978), which won an Emmy, and told a touching love story between a young Jewish girl and a German prisoner of war, played by Bruce Davison. Tuchner was particularly proud of this film as it heralded his burgeoning career as a Hollywood film director .
Apart from a Disney adventure entitled Trenchcoat (1983), Tuchner settled into making predominately TV movies: notably, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982) with Derek Jacobi and an impressive, youthful Anthony Hopkins in the title role of Quasimodo; Amos (1985) , starring Kirk Douglas as a disgruntled pensioner in a nursing home; Not My Kid (1985), with George Segal as a doctor dealing with drug-addicted teenagers; Mistress (1987), a downbeat look at the life of a kept woman starring Victoria Principal; The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1993) with Jon Voight and Sam Neill; and one of his last films , Back to the Secret Garden (2001) a charming sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book.
Looking back at Tuchner’s life in films Brian Cox remarked, after the recent memorial service for Alec McCowen, “…there will be smiles and tears and – always the memories” !
Michael Tuchner is survived by his wife Dina Eaton, a music editor, his daughter Rebecca, a teacher, his son Jonathan, a charity administrator, and his four grandchildren. His first wife Gillian Barton Cook also survives him.
Dr Geoffrey H Buchler
Michael John Tuchner: born June 24, 1932. Died February 17, 2017