Douglas Livingstone, who has died aged 86 of heart failure, enjoyed parallel careers as an actor and writer for television and radio.
His compelling six-part small-screen adaptation of The Day of the Triffids (1981), a rare excursion into sci-fi, remained faithful to John Wyndham’s novel, apart from re-setting the story from the 1950s to the near-future. One critic described it as “the most effective TV realisation of Wyndham’s writing”.
Livingstone’s own creations often explored the pleasures and foibles of people taking time away from the pressures of city life. The Play for Today series proved to be a perfect showcase for his original ideas, although the BBC continuity announcer managed to omit the title in introducing the first one, I Can’t See My Little Willie (1970).
Set in the fictional Sea Dog pub, Margate, on the Kent coast, and made by the radical director Alan Clarke, it starred Nigel Stock as Arthur, in town for a family christening and finding the atmosphere of penny arcades, cafés and hostelries an escape from his boring job as a housing officer. He also loves the Donald McGill-style seaside postcards, which are brought to life when his imagination and fantasies are explored.
The roots of this play lay in the magical environment Livingstone had found at his mother-in-law’s Margate pub on Saturdays and bank holidays, “It was wonderful, people singing and dancing a conga round the pub,” he said.
Seaside resorts were also the settings for his subsequent Plays for Today, Everybody Say Cheese (1971), about an ageing beach photographer, and Mummy and Daddy (1973), featuring a couple facing reality after optimistically taking early retirement on the coast in a bungalow bought by their son.
As television was moving away from the single play, Livingstone made a 26-part adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger novels (1976), starring Peter McEnery as a 19th-century Staffordshire Potteries school-leaver robbed of his ambition to become an architect when his domineering father insists he joins his print works.
He then brought black humour to his own family saga, two series of Born and Bred (1978 and 1980), set in south London and following the infighting among 15 relatives, with Max Wall leading the cast as a former music-hall performer.
Later Livingstone worked with the producer Verity Lambert, first on his own creation, two series of Boys from the Bush (1991-92), starring Tim Healy as a British expat in Australia, then on The Cazalets (2001), his adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels about the miseries visited on a privileged English family transformed by war. No commission for a second series came, so the story stopped halfway through the literary quartet.
In front of the camera, Livingstone found his best role in a Play for Today trilogy by Peter Terson. It began with The Fishing Party, in 1972, when he played Abe, one of three Derbyshire miner friends enjoying a break from the pit to pursue cod in Whitby, where they find themselves in combat with Jane Freeman’s exploitative guest-house landlady.
Alongside Livingstone, Brian Glover played Art, the self-styled leader; Ray Mort was Ern. The wry humour and the chemistry between the characters led the BBC to commission two sequels, Shakespeare or Bust (1973), following the trio on a canal barge trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they fail to get tickets to watch the RSC, and Three for the Fancy (1974), about their plans to exhibit a rabbit, mouse and guinea pig at a country show.
In later years, Livingstone devoted his writing entirely to radio, continuing what became known as The Road to … plays. He had started in 1983 with The Road to Rocio, which the BBC billed as the pilgrimage of four English people to a tiny place in Spain, encountering “religion, booze, sex, brotherhood, Gypsies, macho men, singing and dancing”.
Through another 11 plays – all directed by Jane Morgan and based on ideas followed by research trips – Livingstone created characters on significant journeys, from a former soldier facing the ghosts of his past in Normandy and those attending a match-making fair in Ireland to a reunion of Bevin boys in Durham and an elderly widow’s hen party in Venice. Road to Ferrara (2019), about a middle-aged man seeking romance in Italy, was the final one.
Born in Dagenham, then in Essex, Douglas was the son of Winifred (nee Smith), a cook, and James Livingstone, a sub-postmaster. Moving to west London at the age of 11, he attended Wandsworth grammar school before doing national service with the RAF in Baghdad, where he directed plays on camp. He then left an English and drama course at Bristol university after a year to train as an actor at Rada and started his career in repertory theatre.
Livingstone’s journey into writing began in 1962 when he was appearing alongside Maggie Smith on stage in London’s West End, playing Ted in The Private Ear, half of a double bill with The Public Eye, Peter Shaffer-written comedies performed at the Globe theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in 1962.
Appearing only in the first play left him with time to fill, so he put pen to paper and, after a couple of rejections, created two dramas that were accepted for ITV’s Love Story anthology series, starting with A Future Holiday (1964).
As a writer, Livingstone was particularly proud of Drums Along Balmoral Drive (1986), about a white couple in post-colonial Zimbabwe, where he spent several weeks doing research. He did the same in Johannesburg for his 1994 TV play Return to Blood River, about post-apartheid South Africa.
Later, Livingstone was entrusted with writing The Quest (2002), when David Jason had the idea of loosely basing a feature-length drama on his own experiences as an adolescent in the 1950s. The comedy-drama was so popular that they followed it up with The Second Quest and The Final Quest (both 2004).
In 1963, Livingstone married Anne Massey, who acted under the name Anne Carroll. She died in 2018, three years after the death of their son, Rusty (Ross). Livingstone is survived by his brother, Duncan.
• Douglas Ian Livingstone, actor and writer, born 23 May 1934; died 19 April 2021