Mark Shelmerdine, the veteran producer who revived London Films as an indie powerhouse and played a pivotal role in the development of the international TV distribution market, has died aged 78.
Among his achievements, he was among the first UK indie TV producers to retain rights to a broadcast production and was a founder of the LA branch of BAFTA.
Shelmerdine passed away on October 26 in Santa Barbara surrounded by his family, his friend Brian Eastman told Deadline. The producer had survived a rare and deadly form of bile duct cancer by receiving a life-saving liver transplant in 2018 through a trial in Houston, and was one of the longest living survivors of the MD Anderson Cancer Center and Houston Methodist Hospital program.
Born on March 27, 1945, Shelmerdine spent part of his childhood in Singapore before moving to the UK. He was awarded a place to attend Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University but finances prohibited this as he trained as a chartered accountant instead — a role that brought him into the Taylor Clark Group.
Among a disparate group of companies owned by Scottish businessman Robert Clark were the Caledonian Associated Cinema and ABC Cinema chains, for which Shelmerdine prepared weekly box office reports and analysed which films were popular, introducing him to the entertainment business.
Taylor also owned the catalog of London Films, the company founded in 1982 by Hungarian-born British filmmaker Alexander Korda. The company had made more than 90 films before Korda’s death in 1956, including The Private Life of Henry VIII starring Charles Laughton, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon), H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (Raymond Massey), Anna Karenina (Viven Leigh), The Third Man (Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles), Terence Rattigan and David Lean’s The Sound Barrier and Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.
Shelmerdine realised that it was possible to remake many of these to exploit the catalog better, and then learned London Films had rights to many other titles Korda has planned to make. He soon developed Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, which were produced as a series for the BBC between 1975-77 with Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, Jill Townsend and Clive Francis starring.
Crucially for the future of international TV distribution, the arrangement with the BBC meant London Films retained the international broadcast sales rights. As such, London Films International was soon launched. His model has been replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times over by British indie producers in the decades that followed.
Shelmerdine repeated the trick by turning an unfinished 1937 Korda version of I, Claudius into a landmark TV series for the BBC, starring Derek Jacobi alongside then little-known British actors including Sian Phillips, John Hurt and Patrick Stewart. It won three BAFTAs and an International Emmy.
He then persuaded Clark to sell him London Films and went on to remake The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour; Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1983); and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1984) starring Peter O’Toole.
When Channel 4 launched in the UK in 1982 with a purely publisher-broadcast business model that saw it only commission from indie producers, Shelmerdine was on hand to help shape the industry further. He was a founder of the Association of Independent Television Producers, and provided guidance to many producers learning to make deals with UK broadcasters. He was among the first to begin pre-selling overseas TV rights to co-finance productions, leading to BBC productions such as Testament of Youth, Therese Raquin and Old Men at the Zoo. He also produced the 1985-89 revival of sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.
He also founded UK cable and pay per view TV pioneer SelecTV, which later transformed into a production company and become part of ITV franchise holder Southern TV.
Shelmerdine relocated to the U.S. in 1986 four years after splitting with high wife Anne, and later married his self-help author Susan Jeffers. They founder Jeffers Press together, published their own audio books and established Feel the Fear Training courses, which had licensed practitioners across the U.S. and internationally.
In the states, he was a founder of the LA branch of BAFTA and was a regular of the Cock and Bull pub in Santa Monica, one of the few venues that screened international rugby, sating his passion for the sport.
He is survived by his third wife, Donna Luskin, who he married after Jeffers’ death in 2012. He is survived by his two children from his first marriage, film and TV commercials director Guy and studio manager Alice, and five grandchildren.