It’s odd to think that one of the best-loved TV drama series of the 1970s owes its success to a pink typewriter that nobody wanted.
Liverpool bus-driver Cyril Abraham used the unloved machine to type out his first short stories after his wife Joan rented it for him. No office would use it because it was too garish!
Abraham started writing TV scripts for programmes like Z-Cars, Coronation Street and No Hiding Place before his big breakthrough – The Onedin Line.
The Liverpool-based maritime saga became compulsory viewing on Sunday evenings as the nation tuned in to watch the exploits of shipping owner James Onedin and his family.
The Onedin Line ran for eight series from October 1971 to October 1980 and made household names of actor Peter Gilmore, who played James, Howard Lang as Captain William Baines and Jill Gascoine as Letty Onedin.
The programme drew on Abraham’s own experiences as a youth on the training ship HMS Conway and as an apprentice on the Liverpool shipping line Lamport and Holt.
He originally planned to set The Onedin Line in the 1970s, but decided there were more characters – and more drama – in the 19th century.
Abraham took his inspiration from Victorian owners and entrepreneurs such as Sir Samuel Cunard and Captain Alexander Allan who founded the Allan Line.
There was also James Baines who launched the Liverpool-based James Baines and Co. shipping line in 1851. Captain Baines in The Onedin Line may well be named after him.
Abraham himself was born in Liverpool in September 1915, the son of oil-mill labourer John Abraham and his wife Agnes. He attended Liverpool Collegiate School before going to sea.
He was a Bevin Boy during the war, working at Bold colliery, and served as a radio operator in the Merchant Navy.
After the war, Abraham became a bus driver with Liverpool City Transport. He married school teacher Joan Thomas in 1964.
The Onedin Line started life as a 55-minute pilot episode on the BBC’s Drama Playhouse in December 1970.
Abraham came up with the name as an anagram of the water goddess Ondine. By moving the letter ‘e’ forward, he created the sea-devil James Onedin.
The first episode proper was broadcast on October 15th 1971 when the now familiar strains of Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia boomed out as the programme’s theme music.
Most of the first episode was devoted to introducing the main characters in the setting of 19th century Liverpool, although locations in the South West were used for the programme’s port scenes.
As well as the 28-year-old James Onedin, the programme featured Anne Stallybrass as his first wife Anne and Jessica Benton as his sister Elizabeth. Brian Rawlinson played his brother Robert Onedin.
The story of building a shipping line against all the odds featured historical events such as the Phylloxera outbreak which ravaged European vineyards in the 1860s as well as various political uprisings.
The series also portrayed the transition from wooden to steel ships. The first Onedin vessel – the schooner Charlotte Rhodes – was joined by mighty sailing ships including the majestic Norwegian windjammer Christian Radich.
A wide variety of well-known actors appeared on the series throughout the 1970s. Warren Clarke, of Dalziel and Pascoe fame, played the ambitious banker Josiah Beaumont and Maurice Colbourne portrayed Viscount Marston.
Colbourne would later star in his own maritime TV series, Howard’s Way, from 1985 to 1990.
Jill Gascoine, who went on to play Detective Maggie Forbes in both The Gentle Touch and C.A.T.S. Eyes, joined The Onedin Line during the third series in 1976.
She played Letty Gaunt, the governess who became James Onedin’s second wife and died of diphtheria two years later.
Film actress Jane Seymour appeared in 10 episodes as Emma Callon, and Kate Nelligan played heiress Leonora Biddulph. James Hayter portrayed Captain Joshua Webster.
Abraham was writing a series of Onedin Line novels when he died at the age of 64 in 1979. He’d just completed the fifth book entitled The White Ships.
He planned to continue the saga to the point where James Onedin was 102 and his sister Elizabeth was in her 90s – still battling over control of the company!
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