In 1971 ITC commissioned a drama serial that is generally agreed to be the saddest story ever told.

Unfolding over thirteen parts, 'The Wishing Box' was based on a treatment by Primo Levi from a work by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The main scriptwriters included maverick genius Vincent Tilsley, who had written the harrowing interrogation episodes of 'Manhunt', and Trevor McQuarlock, whose other credits include a no-punches-pulled adaptation of Gorky's 'The Lower Depths' and a script for Pasolini's 'Salo' which was rejected as being too grim.

Largely set in Poland in the first half of the 20th Century, Wishing Box charted the fortunes of the Jewish Bergloss family, in particular the ambitious but idealistic eldest son Jonas. While the mother is given to flashbacks to her childhood on the estate of a sadistic Russian nobleman - her own father fell through a frozen lake they were crossing in escaping him and her mother was eaten by wolves - as the story opens the Berglosses are well-to-do and more or less accepted by the higher ranks of Warsaw society. However by the end of the first episode a financial scandal has overtaken their father, who commits suicide, and they begin a new life in the slums.

Tragedy, horrible irony, unfulfilled promise and unrequited sacrifice abound. Jonas's sister goes blind working in a sewing sweat-shop to pay for his education and his mother goes insane when the aggressive dogs next door cause her (and the viewer) to constantly relive the wolves-eating-her-mother scene. A brother who was going to become a rabbi joins a street-gang after being beaten up and another is crippled by polio.

There are fleeting moments of joy amid the misery and Jonas retains his capacity for dreaming. As a youth he falls in love with his beautiful but flighty neighbour Lizveta, who is even more prone to flights of fancy than he is and believes she is the natural daughter of an aristocrat. One day exploring an old ruined mansion they find a music box that plays a haunting tune and displays two dancers, male and female, eternally revolving. She tells him it is a magical wishing box that can make any dream come true; they lay their hands on it solemnly. They both refuse to tell their wishes but Jonas blushes and Lizveta smiles enigmatically.

When they grow older, however, he makes a set at her and she turns him down, spurning him harshly and haughtily, telling him that she will only marry someone highborn or at least rich.

Broken and humiliated, Jonas marries his homely but good-hearted cousin Bella as the price of a partnership in his uncle's button business. He dedicates himself to building it up. Lizveta, humiliated in her turn when Jonas's aunt spitefully tells her her father was a pimp, becomes a courtesan. She vamps a small fortune out of an old and impotent moneylender by dancing for him nightly. Bribing an impoverished aristocrat to pretend she is his niece she succeeds in reinventing herself and moving in the gilded world.

Meanwhile Jonas's would-be rabbi brother is now a gangland enforcer who specializes in cutting off fingers, keeping them in an old mezuzah case, and his crippled brother has undergone an experimental operation that went wrong, leaving him without the use of his arms.

A Count who had offered Lizveta marriage throws her over after learning of her lowborn Jewish origins. She is tempted by another man, rich but vulgar, but a musician in the restaurant where he is about to propose plays the wishing-box music and hearing it she walks out on him and heads to the river to do away with herself.

While she is trying to get up nerve to drown herself she sees a family of ragged wretches who make a living dredging junk from the river. She sells her jewels to help their ailing children. However after the youngest perishes of the effects of long-term malnutrition she learns that their misfortunes began when the moneylender who kept her started calling in his loans to buy her things, causing misery throughout the slums.

Guilt-stricken, she resolves to starve herself to death. By chance or destiny Jonas finds her first, sitting inert at the end of a dingy alley. She tells him of her resolve but says it is because she would rather die than be poor.

Jonas locks her in a room in a lodging house with himself, a bowl of milk and a loaf of bread. He reminisces gently of their childhood and from time to time hums the music of the box. Days pass with neither of them eating; Jonas refuses to touch a morsel as long as she won't.

Eventually she yields. He feeds her up with a banquet from a restaurant; they gobble it with their bare hands and then couple like stoats.

They spend a blissful night together. But Jonas's wife Bella, who has been searching frantically for her missing husband, finally finds him. Surprising them in each other's arms Bella dashes out of the house and, blinded by tears, is run over in the street and paralysed. Overcome by remorse, Jonas vows to spend the rest of his life looking after her, and tells Lizveta they must never meet again.

He tends Bella devotedly but she realises his heart isn't in it and manages to kill herself.

Jonas and Lizveta are reunited just as World War Two breaks out. They are separated in the chaos of invasion. As the Warsaw ghetto is walled up by the Nazis and they are urged by friends to get out while they can they criss-cross it looking for each other, in vain.

Perhaps surprisingly the war years are then skipped over. We next find Jonas in New York some years after. All we learn is that his gangster brother (who became a resistance hero) enabled his escape to the new world; however a thick silver bracelet he wears only partly conceals a tattooed number revealing he has spent some time in a concentration camp.

He has become a driven man and a ruthless one. Starting as the landlord of slum tenements he evicts widows and orphans without compunction, eventually erasing whole neighbourhoods as part of his property deals. Before too long he is a millionaire many times over and the heartless lover and discarder of numerous beautiful women but his success is plainly ashes in his mouth.

The only chink in his armour and the only hint of a human side is his mania for collecting old music boxes. He hunts them obsessively, spending insane prices sight unseen, and has agents scouring Europe for them, but none appear to please him.

Eventually he decides to give away his collection. He donates them to the Metropolitan Museum accompanied by a big endowment, and a swanky black-tie party is thrown in his honour.

At its height, as photographers are circling and he is being pressed to make a speech, a woman comes up to him and softly speaks his name. He turns. It is Lizveta.

They stare at each other wordlessly for some moments. Then Jonas throws his drink in her face and, before the horrified eyes of tout Manhattan, tears her dress off and drives her out into the street in her underwear with savage kicks and punches.

Curtain. The next episode is devoted in its entirety to a flashback to the war. In the (unnamed) concentration camp, Jonas, despite his time in the partisans with his brother, was given a relatively comfortable job as accountant to the camp commandant, a man whose sadism is undercut by his greed and who is cashing in on the side with the slave-labour at his disposal. Jonas is wracked by guilt as the other inmates slowly starve or are worked to death, or succumb to disease or are killed when no longer able to work. Nevertheless driven by a will to survive, alone in his bunk at night he nurses a lock of Lizveta's hair; once when he hears a violinist (the one from the restaurant, now ragged and almost unrecognisable) play the haunting music box theme (which he tells him is the music to an old song of lament called 'Tears Fall Like Rain'), he risks his life to steal him food.

But one night leaving his office he sees a well-dressed, well-fed woman entering the commandant's quarters. He recognises Lizveta. Getting close enough to spy through a window he watches as she embraces the commandant and they move into the bedroom. Shell-shocked, he asks around and appears to be the only one not to know that a female prisoner has become the commandant's mistress.

Trading his food for a knife he plans to kill her. But he enters the commandant's room when she is not there and stabs the commandant instead. As troops enter he flees out the window and hides in a pile of cholera- and typhus-disfigured corpses and is buried with them in a pit outside the wire. He struggles through the bodies and claws his way out of the earth, is found by his brother's partisans in a forest and smuggled out of Poland.

Back in New York post-war, alone in his penthouse apartment following the sensation at the party, Jonas has a visitor. It is Olenka, an old crone who was Lizveta's maid and confidante in her courtesan days and whom she has contrived to smuggle to the west with her. She tells Jonas (and a sequence of alternate flashbacks confirm) the truth: Lizveta only became the commandant's mistress as the price of saving Jonas's life - and that of her child, who is also his child, a daughter resulting from their one night of love.

'She understands you never want to see her again,' Olenka concludes. 'She will go away again now. But she asked me to give you this.' She hands him the music box, the one thing Lizveta kept through all her vicissitudes.

Agonized, Jonas rushes to where Lizveta is staying; too late, and he is only in time to find her waterlogged body being fished out of the Hudson.

He resolves to at least find and rescue their daughter, who was taken from Lizveta and put in an orphanage and is still trapped in Poland, and embarks on an odyssey behind the iron curtain. En route he finds the remnants of the rest of his family, variously alcoholic, rotting, downtrodden by totalitarianism. His gangster/war-hero brother, relatively flourishing as a black-market baron with ties to communist bigwigs, is able to lend him some aid. But his inquiries prove dangerous; they manage to find a clue but his brother is denounced as a revisionist and he and several other family members are killed helping Jonas evade capture.

Finally he tracks his daughter down to a run-down institute. She is deaf, dumb, blind and insane due to syphilis, for the place was used as a child brothel by party officials.

Jonas has a heart attack and dies cradling her.

The two militia-men who have been dogging his heels find them like that. As they come closer the boot of one of them crunches down on the wishing box lying next to Jonas's body.

'What's that?' asks his partner.

'Just some old junk.'

Roll final credits and theme tune, which is also the music box theme.

The scripts for the series still survive but are almost all that do. Before casting began a producer involved committed suicide and his reading of the scripts was said to be a contributing factor. Questions were raised about whether the programme was suitable for the mid-evening slot for which it had been slated, and whether it would be able to sustain an audience commensurate with the budget required. An internal report concluded otherwise, saying, not quite in so many words, that the thing was a stone bummer from first to last.

The production was shelved. However the theme music had already been written so, to recoup some of his lost investment, Lew Grade ordered that it should be used as the theme of his new light-hearted comedy-adventure show, The Persuaders.