Paddy Russell, television director

Paddy Russell at the BBC's Lime Grove studios in 1955. Picture courtesy BBC
Paddy Russell at the BBC's Lime Grove studios in 1955. Picture courtesy BBC
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Paddy Russell, who has died at 89, was a television maverick, establishing herself as a director on some of the BBC’s most popular early dramas at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to assume such a role.

It was an achievement matched only by Julia Smith, who went on to co-create and produce EastEnders.

In a career spanning 40 years, Paddy’s name was to be seen on programmes as diverse as Doctor Who and Yorkshire Television’s Calendar. It was in Yorkshire where she spent the second half of her professional life, living in Oxenhope, on the moors beyond Keighley, and working on prime-time entertainment shows including 3-2-1 in its early days.

It is for her work on Doctor Who that she is perhaps best known, but the series was a relatively small part of her drama portfolio, which ranged from the classics – Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Honoré de Balzac’s Pere Goriot – to audience-pullers like Z-Cars, Within These Walls and, later, Emmerdale Farm.

Originally an actress, she moved into television floor management and production, working with the renowned director Rudolph Cartier on national viewing events such as The Quatermass Experiment and the 1954 production of George Orwell’s 1984, both expanding the horizons of the then-new medium of television.

In Cartier’s experimental and partly improvised Holocaust drama Doctor Korczak and the Children in 1962, which was shot with neither sets nor costumes, Paddy appeared on screen and instructed the actors on the characters they were to inhabit.

She worked with at least three Doctor Whos – William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, the last of whom she described as “desperately difficult to work with” – but she was as formidable as any actor. When told in the 1950s by BBC managers that they were reluctant to hire her as a floor manager on the grounds that a woman couldn’t control a studio like a man, she told them curtly that she had no intention of trying to do so.

Among Doctor Who aficionados, her name is spoken with some reverence, and two of her stories, Pyramids of Mars and Horror of Fang Rock, are considered classics of the genre. Her ability to stand up to Mr Baker, who had a fearsome reputation among directors, helped her get the best out of him, despite their frequent clashes.

She was attuned to the benefits of having a forename that was not gender-specific, and recalled with some glee the reaction of a crew waiting on set for their new director before, as she put it, “a little girl in a short blue dress” came down the steps. Jaws dropped around the studio, she said.

Patricia “Paddy” Russell was born on July 4 1928 in Highgate, London, to a family that had been employed in shipping for two generations. During the Second World War, the family moved to Hertfordshire, although Paddy had already experienced rural life as an evacuee to the West Country with her convent school. After she sneaked out of the dormitory at the stately home where they were billeted, to play with the notoriously ferocious estate horses, the Reverend Mother asked her parents to come and take her home. The blitz was less dangerous than the horses, they felt.

Against her family’s wishes, Paddy went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the training came in handy when she worked on live opera broadcasts, many done from Alexandra Palace, of which Paddy was one of the last survivors.

Subsequently she branched out to work as a freelance, and it was one such engagement that brought her to Yorkshire Television in the 1970s, initially to work a sitcom called My Old Man, starring Dad’s Army veteran Clive Dunn.

Her reputation preceded her, and she remained a formidable presence at YTV, not least when required to train new directors – whom she kept in check with a voice described by one former colleague as a mixture of Gold Flake and gin.

At home, she became involved with cat rescue and protection, and her home was never short of its complement of felines, whose welfare was often given priority over her own.

Her final days were clouded by illness, but she retained a fierce intelligence and wicked sense of humour.

She is survived by her brother, Chris.