The playwright Kenneth Jupp, who has died aged 80 of lung cancer, found success early in his career when, in 1959, his first play, The Buskers, was produced at the Arts Theatre, London, and won the International Theatre award and that year's premier Arts Council award. Both The Buskers and his second play, The Socialites, were well received critically in New York, the latter being published there in 1961 as one of Three New Plays From England, alongside works by Bernard Kops and Ronald Duncan.

After this brilliant debut came a series of plays for television, on which he worked with the producer Sidney Newman, front-rank directors including John Jacobs, Philip Saville and John Gorrie, and actors of the calibre of Irene Worth, Wilfred Lawson, Robert Stephens, Michael Bryant, Patrick McGee, Michael Pennington, Susannah York and Derek Jacobi. I recall Lawson remarking in a penetrating murmur, "So, we're working for the Aereated Bread Company," as we assembled in the ABC television rehearsal room for the first read-through of Kenneth's play Strangers in the Room (1961), directed by John Moxey. Tensions arose at once between Wilfred, great actor and accomplished tease, trailing a carefully cultivated reputation for unpredictability, and Mary Ellis, immaculate diva, on the lookout for the smallest sign of bad behaviour.

Most of the people in the room betrayed signs of concern: only the author, standing slightly apart, well-dressed but mildly raffish with his silk neckerchief (ties were the order of the day at a first reading) surveyed the potentially hazardous scene wearing an expression of unalloyed enjoyment. Later, when I became a friend of Kenneth's, I realised it was not in his nature to feel censorious, nor did I ever know him to feel impelled to interfere with the events unfolding around him - no matter how embarrassing or calamitous.

He was a dedicated, accurate observer, and this was the quality that informed his early plays. By the end of the decade he was written about as "the most interesting emergent playwright". The Chelsea Trilogy, televised in 1968 - The Photographer, The Explorer and The Tycoon - in particular captured the spirit of a time of swift change.

Kenneth's early years were spent in south-west London: he was born in West Hill, Putney, had a middle-class upbringing in Twickenham and was educated at Hounslow College. After a brief spell studying engineering at London University he worked in the coffee business in Brazil and spent time in New York and South America. After returning to London, he worked in the import-export business and began writing short stories. When he began to write a play, he realised that he had discovered his true vocation.

A Sunday Times critic remarked that "his people ... have their origins in the irrefutable illogic of real life". It is part of that illogic that talent, even brilliance and industry, do not always lead to lasting success, and there came a point when, for no apparent reason, Kenneth's luck gave out. However, he did not for a moment give up the discipline of his chose profession, and though, occasionally, one might see bewilderment in his face or the expression of an element of black humour, he never succumbed to envy or bitterness.

Screen rights to several of his plays were sold to Hollywood, but all the film projects foundered. In America he worked for a long time alongside Robert Bolt on his screenplay of George Sand, but again, this fell at the last fence. A brilliant dramatisation of the life of Mata Hari, commissioned by the BBC, fell victim to the budget cuts of the time, as did his screenplay on the early life of the French writer Colette.

For the rest of his life he wrote daily, building an increasing volume of plays and screenplays. His novel Echo (1980) was well-received in Britain and the US, and was later published in France and Italy. Dreams Are the Worst (1985), a comedy-drama about the travel and access problems of people with physical disabilities, was shown on Channel 4, and his 1988 adaptation of Clifford Odets's 1949 play The Big Knife, about the avarice beneath the glitter of Hollywood, was televised in the US.

During Kenneth's short final illness, he was sustained by Debbie and their daughter, the Emmy award-winning documentary film-maker Jemma.

Siân Phillips, Tuesday 11 August 2009 18.29 BST
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