Johnny Byrne (1919-2008)

The Dublin-born poet, author and scriptwriter Johnny Byrne, who was script editor on the first series of Space:1999, has died at the age of 72. Byrne was also one of the key writers on the series, contributing 11 scripts, and later went on to write three stories for Doctor Who: The Keeper Of Traken, Arc Of Infinity and Warriors Of The Deep.

His writing career began in the early sixties as a poet, before he branched out into writing science fiction short stories for magazines such as Science Fantasy. He had previously been a tour manager for record producer Shel Talmey and brought some of this experience into his 1969 best-selling novel (co-written by Jenny Fabian) Groupie. Byrne’s increased profile led to more writing work, starting the following year with Season of the Witch, a BBC Wednesday Play starring singer Julie Driscoll and Robert Powell.

The early seventies saw him try his hand at an astonishing variety of scripts, from the ITV children’s series Pipkins to adapting Spike Milligan’s wartime memoir Adolf Hitler – My Part In His Downfall for the big screen. His first Space:1999 screen credit was for A Matter Of Life And Death, for which he completely rewrote Art Wallace’s original script, which has been written before the series format had reached its final form. Byrne went on to write seven further scripts for the shows first year, as well as writing additional material for The Last Enemy when that episode’s original cut came in under length. He also took over from Edward Di Lorenzo as the series’ script editor for most of year one.

Between series of Space:1999, Byrne wrote the one-off educational SF drama The Day After Tomorrow, produced by Gerry Anderson with most of the Space team. This failed to translate to a full series, and when Space:1999 returned he found himself replaced as script editor when ITC’s New York office insisted an American was needed in the post. As it turned out there was no credited script editor on year two, as Gerry Anderson decided to credit the new man, Fred Freiberger, as Producer instead.

Byrne’s scripts topped and tailed the series, though. He adapted his unused year one script The Biological Soul for the new format as the season opener The Metamorph. Another of his year one scripts, The Face of Eden, was rewritten by Freiberger as The Immunity Syndrome (the former Star Trek producer interestingly borrowing one of his old series titles). Although The Dorcons was rewritten (uncredited) by Fred Freiberger from Byrne’s original Return of the Dorcons script, this was his only contribution to the series to be created from scratch for the year two format and characters.

There was a return to Space:1999 when he wrote the postscript to the series, Message From Moonbase Alpha, to mark the coming of the year in which the series was set. This was very well received among fans of the series, and is regarded by many as being a valid part of the Space:1999 mythology.

Johnny Byrne left Space:1999 as a busy and in-demand writer for British television, He moved on to a long stint as writer on the BBC ‘s country vet series All Creatures Great And Small, and when the show returned after a long break in 1988 he remained with the production as Story Consultant. In between his two stints on All Creatures Byrne wrote the aforementioned three Doctor Who serials and eleven episodes of another BBC vet series, One By One, this time about a zoo vet.

He then went on to his longest stint, as creator and writer for the long running ITV Sunday night series Heartbeat, initially a vehicle for soap star Nick Berry about a young police constable in a small Yorkshire village. This kept him in employment from the shows inception in 1992 until 2007, and he would no doubt have carried on writing for the series, which shows no sign of declining in popularity, were it not for his fatal illness. Our condolences go out to his wife Sandy, whom he married in 1975, and their sons Jasper, Barnaby and Nicholas.

Originally published in FAB 60.