Producer behind popular TV programmes on serious social issues, and documentaries with David Frost and Jonathan Dimbleby
Michael Deakin, who has died aged 83 of a lung infection after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was an executive producer and editor of documentaries at Yorkshire Television in the 1970s. His work there made him responsible for some of ITV’s most powerful programmes on social issues.
Johnny Go Home (1975), which he made with the producer and director John Willis, was a tale of runaway children on the streets of London, highlighting a national scandal and shocking viewers. The idea for the documentary came to Deakin when he stepped out of an editing suite in Soho at 3am after working on an Alan Whicker programme and found young boys huddled in the doorway.
Willis and Di Burgess, the researcher, followed Annie and Tommy, and the story of children surviving through theft and prostitution made uneasy viewing. An unnerving twist came during filming when the crew heard about the murder of a 19-year-old Scot called Billy who had been among those they filmed at a hostel.
As a result, the documentary became a two-parter, with Willis and his crew following the police investigation that ended with three men serving life sentences for the killing. They also filmed the arrest of the hostel’s owner, Roger Gleaves, who called himself the Bishop of Medway and was subsequently jailed for sexual offences against young boys. Deakin came up with the title Johnny Go Home, a variation on the classic television play Cathy Come Home, and the documentary was shown with dramatic impact either side of the News at Ten, attracting 10 million viewers and winning a Bafta award.
When Deakin and Willis wrote a book about the documentary (Johnny Go Home, 1976), Gleaves failed in a criminal libel action against them.
Willis – who, like others, saw Deakin as an encouraging “enabler” – subsequently had him as his executive producer on Goodbye Longfellow Road (1977), about poor housing conditions, The Case of Yolande McShane (1977), including police film of a woman trying to persuade her mother to kill herself, and The Secret Hospital (1979), on mentally ill patients at Rampton and a unit providing “the way out”. Deakin also oversaw the award-winning Kitty: Return to Auschwitz (1979), about a Birmingham hospital radiographer going back to the Nazi concentration camp she had survived, and some of Antony Thomas’s early documentaries, such as The Arab Experience (1975) and The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent: A Personal View of the Church of England (1976).
With David Frost, Deakin was responsible for major interviews with the Shah of Iran (1979) and the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (1980), as well as the 13-part A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers (1977-78), with Harold Wilson analysing his predecessors.
He was also executive producer of powerful political documentaries presented by Jonathan Dimbleby such as In Evidence: The Bomb (1980) and The Eagle and the Bear (1981), on US-Soviet relations.
A reputation for making serious popular programmes led Deakin to join TV-am, ITV’s first breakfast franchise holder, with Frost – one of the “Famous Five” presenters, alongside Anna Ford, Angela Rippon, Michael Parkinson and Robert Kee – and others, including Peter Jay as chair and Nick Elliott. Deakin, who helped to secure the funding, was earmarked as director of features but became director of programmes when Elliott pulled out.
TV-am went on air in 1983, but Jay’s famous “mission to explain” proved a grave miscalculation as it vied with the BBC’s less-serious breakfast show. Jay was forced to resign, Ford and Rippon were sacked, and the Aitken brothers, Jonathan and Timothy, took control, appointing Greg Dyke editor-in-chief. With the arrival of Bruce Gyngell as managing director and Mike Hollingsworth as programme controller, Deakin’s job was gradually eroded, so he resigned in 1984. He had enough of a sense of humour to concede that lighter items such as the puppet rodent Roland Rat had saved the breakfast service, and he continued his career as an independent producer.
Michael was born in Oxford, to Margaret (nee Beatson-Bell) and William Deakin, a literary assistant to Winston Churchill, wartime SOE officer parachuted into Yugoslavia to join Josip Tito’s partisans and later first warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. On leaving Bryanston school in Dorset, Michael studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and, with a fellow student, founded the fine art publisher Editions Alecto in 1960. A Rake’s Progress (1963) featured early etchings by David Hockney.
Deakin entered broadcasting in 1964 as a producer on BBC radio current affairs programmes. Four years later, he switched to the newly launched ITV company Yorkshire Television.
From storylining Tom Grattan’s War (1968-70), a children’s series about a young evacuee, he produced documentaries such as The Struggle for China (1969), assessing the bloody and turbulent events there during the 20th century. Then, alongside John Fairley, the head of documentaries, he was Yorkshire Television’s editor of documentaries (1976-82).
His friendship with Frost extended to co-authoring Frost’s Book of the World’s Worst Decisions (1982) and being best man at his wedding to Carina Fitzalan-Howard the following year.
After leaving TV-am, Deakin switched to drama to work as executive producer on the TV miniseries Act of Betrayal (1988), with Elliott Gould as an IRA assassin, and Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1990), an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel.
His current affairs background then informed TV movies such as Doomsday Gun (1994), starring Frank Langella as the designer of a “supergun” for Saddam Hussein, and Varian’s War (2001), with William Hurt as the American journalist helping Jewish artists and intellectuals to escape Nazi persecution in France during the second world war.
In a different vein, Deakin was amused to find himself associated with a gold disc-winning album, Lost Horizons (2002), recorded by the electronic duo Lemon Jelly, featuring his nephew Fred Deakin, and Nick Franglen. To their backing track for Ramblin’ Man, he was heard discussing John Standing’s travels in a fictional interview with the actor.
Deakin is survived by David Steele, with whom he entered a civil partnership in 2006 after 28 years together, and his brother, Nicholas.
Michael Deakin, television producer, born 21 February 1939; died 29 June 2022.