Interview with Brian Blake
Brian Blake joined Granada Television in 1966 and worked almost exclusively on World In Action, initially as a Researcher and later as a Producer.
8 November 2013
Brian, let’s go through your Granada career chronologically. When did you join and how did you come to join the company?
Well I joined in 1966 and it’s a slightly strange story how I joined.
Basically I was an academic, which sounds a bit pompous. I’d done two degrees in history and I was working on a big project in London on the history of parliament. I’d done three years of that and was beginning to get a bit bored.
I suddenly saw an advertisement in the New Statesman which said, “wanted: northern graduate to join television company.”
I wasn’t a northern graduate, in fact I graduated from Bristol where I read history, but I came from a small mining village in Durham. So I thought well, maybe that’s alright.
So I wrote a letter saying ‘I’m not a northern graduate but I’m a graduate from the north of England’.
I was summoned down to London and on the board were two of the grandees, Dennis Foreman and Mike Wooler, typical Granada style; shirt sleeves rolled up, red braces showing, gin and tonic on the table.
So we went through all of this and I’d no experience of television, I’d hardly seen one, never had one at home.
The final question came after all of this, “how do you feel about living in Manchester (moving from London where I was working)?”
So I said, “coming from where I come from, Manchester to me is the north midlands.”
Whether that got me the job or not I don’t know.
But I got a job.
In a sense that was the typical Granada style, you had no experience of television, they just took a gamble on lots of people who they thought ‘he or she could be interesting we’ll go for it’.
That’s what they did, so I got the job.
So I joined in 1966.
For nine months I worked on the seventh floor and the idea was Granada was into publishing then. They decided to become a publishing company and they owned one or two paperbacks, grafton and panther.
The idea was, World in Action did a lot of research on programmes which never hit the screen so they though they’d publish these pamphlets, maybe one every three months, on a particular subject which had lots of research on.
It could be anything really, from Northern Ireland to whatever.
After nine months, typically, Granada lost interest in the whole project.
So they said just go down and join World in Action, just like that.
Again I had no experience in television, I didn’t know anything about it whatsoever and suddenly I was thrust into this job on World in Action.
My first job, they were doing a programme in Cheetham Hill of all places, not very Worldly.
They were a family of ten living on the dole.
The production team had been working with this family for three months.
They just said to me, here’s a microphone go in and interview the father, just like that.
I said ok, so I sat down and just had a chat with him really.
Finished the interview, came back, thought ‘I don’t know how good that is’.
Mike Murphy was the producer and he said “will you go along to the film editors room and strip out some sync.”
I hadn’t a clue what he meant, ‘strip out some sync’.
So I went along to the film editor and I said, “I’ve been told to strip out some sync, what does it mean?”
He said, “what you do is, you look at the interview, which had been printed out, and you pick out the bits you wanted, that you thought were the best bits.”
I said “right I’ve learnt something today how to strip out sync.”
I was totally ignorant.
So you spent nearly all your time on World in Action then.
Who would be editor of World in Action then?
When I joined it was David Plowright.
What was he like to work with?
He was probably the brightest of editors I ever worked with, in a television sense. He was a master of summing up a film; looking at a film purely coming in from the outside. He had a really terrific turn of phrase; what was wrong with it, what was right with it.
Punchy, very very good man to work with. An absolute bully having said that.
He took no prisoners and could be absolutely ruthless and hard. But in terms of the cutting room, he was probably the best editor I worked with.
I worked with maybe thirteen or fourteen over the years, he was very very good indeed.
So I was a researcher then for about four years.
Coming in from the outside the atmosphere was incredibly glamorous on World in Action, at the time. There were people jetting in from Vietnam, Laos.
Of course my first major job as a researcher was to interview four hundred families in Wolverhampton who had been rehoused. I had to trace them all and find out whether there was any racial discrimination being practiced against the black families in Wolverhampton.
So it meant actually knocking on four hundred doors and finding out the new addresses where they’d moved to.
That was not the most glamorous, everybody else seemed to be doing glamorous things, I was doing really bread and butter stuff.
We did a programme on aspirin, is it good for you or bad for you. I rang up two hundred doctors on that to find out their views on aspirin. The film actually took two years to make. The story was, when we started doing the vox pops with people in the street about aspirin by the time we finished the programme the skirts of the women had shortened by about twelve inches.
So some of it looked a bit dated!
There was a lot of hard graft in World in Action. There was a glamorous side, which the producers got at the beginning.
The team was always incredibly small, maybe sixteen, seventeen, eighteen of which eleven or twelve were producers, so about six researchers.
We tended to get all the bread and butter stuff, the hard graft of hitting the phone and knocking on doors. Very rarely did you get abroad, all that began to happen much later on.
So the top side was very glamorous, bottom side was hard work; typical journalist stuff in a sense.
The people on the team are worth talking about because they were an incredible melting pot of anybody you could imagine.
We had foreigners; Americans, Australians, South Africans, Czechoslovakians, we had all sorts of nationalities.
We had people from Oxbridge, red brick universities, people who came straight from local papers, national papers.
We had every sort of combination of people; one had been an airhostess and never worked in television before.
Gus Macdonald of course, who became editor, worked on the docks in Glasgow.
We had a military policemen.
Today you think people have got to do media training and come up through that way, there’s hardly any other way now to get into television.
Then people were just plucked from every walk of life.
The story is Mike Scott met this airhostess on the plane and thought she would make a very interesting presenter so she was hired.
There were gambles, there was no set way of joining World in Action; you could be anybody from any walk of life and if they took a fancy to you or thought you had some sort of potential then you were employed. That was the Granada ethic I suppose.
It would never happen now, obviously not.
Let’s go back to that programme on aspirin, it took two years to make. How many people would be working on that?
There was one producer who was Dennis Wolf, who actually still lives in Stockport I think.
The researcher tended to come and go, you weren’t on it for two years; you might be on it for three months doing one particular piece of research and then somebody else and somebody else.
So probably about three researchers altogether. You could actually spend two years before you got a programme out. Again I doubt whether that would happen very often these days.
It’s a huge commitment that.
Well it was, I suppose it went so far down the line that once you’ve committed to doing a programme it’s very very difficult for a company to stop it unless there’s some reason for it, like a legal reason or the research isn’t holding up.
Once you’ve started a programme you tend to go on with it and hope you get the right result in the end.
There were others, not as long as that I have to say. People would disappear for three months abroad and even longer before coming back. Some programmes took six months before transmission. Others were done in three days.
That was a huge financial commitment as well.
Especially when you’ve got a small team, and when someone’s only doing one programme in two years it puts a load on other people as well. But they bashed on with it.
Tell me about some of the other memorable World in Action’s you worked on.
Memorable, that’s always a difficult question.
I can tell you worst programme I ever worked on, or the hardest one.
Roland Coburn was the editor on it so he will probably give you another side of he story.
It was the first gay rights civil march in London, to Hyde Park on a Saturday.
We had two crews out, one followed a group of gay rights people from Liverpool and I went down to London and filmed the equivalent London group of people who were marching to Hyde Park.
So it was filmed on a Saturday and it was big rally in Hyde Park; bands, speeches.
It finished about eight o’clock so we got the last train back and got back to Manchester at midnight on Saturday.
Of course it was all on film in those days, you didn’t have the luxury of today of video editing and so on.
So the two producers, we got our heads together and the other producer agreed he would work through ‘til seven o’clock on Sunday night and would prepare a rough cut, assembly of material.
I would come in at seven or eight o’clock on Sunday night and work through the night until Monday to get the programme out on Monday.
So I came in on the Sunday night at half past seven and not a frame had been cut.
The producer told me “it’s impossible, it can’t be done.”
I said, “have you told Ray Fitzwalter the editor about this.”
He said, “Yes I said I would get a studio programme ready just in case.”
We didn’t actually have a standby programme; the idea was you always had a standby programme which was timeless. It could be anything; conversations with a trade unionist was one of our standard ones, conversations with an old aged pensioner. They were timeless, you could slip them in anywhere, but we didn’t have one.
Ray said, “What do you think?”
I said, “I’ll have a go and if we can’t make it you’ve just got to get somebody ready to come into the studio.”
So I worked through the night and it began to take shape.
You had to time it back from transmission in those days. Transmission was eight, and if dubbed the film, it probably took an hour which took it back to seven.
Then you had to neck cut it and match it up and get the film which took another three hours so you were back to four o’clock in the afternoon.
You had to be finished basically by four o’clock.
Ray came into the cutting room at three o’clock, he hadn’t seen a frame yet.
He said, “I must see this film.”
I said, “you can’t see it, at this stage now it will take forty minutes to show it to you which will take us up to twenty to four. So that leaves twenty minutes for your comments.”
He said “oh my god.”
So I pushed him out of the room and we worked on.
It came to a point, at five o’clock, we were losing the battle.
I said to Roland, “I think we’ve lost this one, we’re not going to get there.”
We had cut about twenty three minutes of the film which was meant to run at twenty eight with commercials.
It did actually go out, we did make it but what happened was we called it a draw at twenty three minutes.
What we did then, the Tom Robinson band was the main band on stage with their famous hit ‘We are family’ a big gay rights number.
So the last three and a half minutes of the programme was the band playing ‘We are family’.
So that was the worst programme I ever made in terms of tension, sweat and certainly not the best by a long way, but interesting.
World in Action wasn’t very good at doing studio items was it?
Well it was a last resort. The whole ethos of World in Action was not to use the studio. When it was set up it was in direct opposition to Panorama, which did films of course, but it relied a lot on studio, it relied a lot on presenters like Richard Dimbleby, it was a studio led programme.
The whole ethos of World in Action was to get on the road. With the advent of these new 16mm handheld cameras the cameraman could actually dive into the action. He could carry it on his shoulders which couldn’t be done in the fifties.
We did occasionally go into studio; we did one on the Hillsborough disaster, we did two or three on the Falklands War because we couldn’t get access to the Falklands.
ITV weren’t allowed to go to the Falklands during the War, but it was a last resort, a very last resort. Nobody wanted to do it, we all hated studio in a way or we didn’t like it very much.
Just on an aside, I worked on a couple to do with the Labour Party; the Labour Party election and the SDP which were studio items; a bit of a disaster to be honest.
Did you work on the 1968 Anti-Vietnam March demonstration?
No I didn’t. I was filming another programme in Wiltshire with Mike Beckham. I think the two of us were the only World in Action people who weren’t involved in that.
We came back to Euston station from Wiltshire and there was the crew climbing on to the same train. We all go on the same train back to Manchester.
Everybody was there, six crews I think.
So our claim to fame was we were the only two that didn’t work on the 1968 Grosvenor Square.
Any other memorable programmes?
So many really, I did do more than anybody else. I am the world record holder for World in Action in terms of numbers; I did do about 130.
It is hard to pick out individual ones and often for strange reasons.
I did one on Chernobyl, six years after the accident; that was a very very tough experience, and quite a hazardous one.
One of the last ones I did was the killing of James Bulger, which was memorable for a totally different reason.
It was great competition among the media for that programme because everybody was after, it was a really big story.
What we did, we were up against all this competition, everybody including the main ITV news.
We got the scoop and what we did was, myself and the researcher, we had a drunken night in Liverpool.
Very hard to find a decent pub in Liverpool as you know!
We managed to get, from what source I still can’t tell you, the tapes of the police interrogation of the two boys who were later found to have killed Bulger.
Nobody else was anywhere near it, nobody even knew they even existed.
We got back to Granada with these tapes and constructed a little set within Granada of the actual police interrogation room.
This ITV female producer was after me all the time. She hadn’t a clue what we were doing. All the interviews they had done we didn’t bother with, we didn’t view any because we had the goods.
She couldn’t work out what we were doing.
She kept coming to the Granada building trying to find out and she actually came up once and got very near the set. If she’d seen the set she would have guessed I think, she might have thought we were just doing a reconstruction.
Anyway we managed to push her off.
So our show went at half past eight and the opening of the programme is roughly along the lines of ‘these are the actually voices of the boys who have now been convicted (it was after the trial had ended)’.
The phone rang into the office and it was her on the phone.
She said, “you bastards, how did you get that?”
It was a scoop. It was an awful story, in the sense of the case, but the triumph of doing that is one of the great things about journalism, when you get something everybody is after; whether it is good luck, a good intuition or a good head for drinking in Liverpool.
Those were two of many but they were important stories.
The other one of course, the famous one that I look back with affection, which again is an English story is the village that quite smoking, Longnor.
My twins had just been born then, they were born in early December and I was sent up to Longnor on New Year’s Eve to start research on the project; knocking on four hundred doors to find out the smoking habits of the village.
Then my job, once we started getting ready for the film, was to persuade the whole village to give up smoking. That was a project.
I would sit in the pub seven nights a week playing darts and dominoes and persuading people to give up smoking. It sounded like a wonderful project until it came to my expenses, ‘how can I claim expenses for this?’
So I actually put down ‘entertaining the village of Longnor – £169’.
The accounts department looked at me with a knowing look, of course they couldn’t do anything about it and they actually paid it up.
It was the Granada ethos, pictures of Barnum the great American showman on the wall. The idea was you had to get showbiz somehow into current affairs, to make people watch and enjoy it, not just hard journalism.
The whole idea of the village giving up smoking, we had brass bands, hypnotists, we had Coronation Street people going up there to speak. It was a little showbiz enterprise and for a very worthy cause.
I think about 70-80% of people gave up smoking, what happened after of course is difficult to know but for the time being it was good fun and a worthy programme.
So for all different reasons these are some of them.
You talked about the Granada ethos, what kind of company was Granada, would you like to expand on that?
It’s difficult not to be clichéd about it. It had a genuine interest in all the people, in the early days certainly.
Some moved from London to Manchester, you’ve still got the same thing now with the BBC in Salford. There’s this problem of getting people to move to the North from the South.
We didn’t have that problem so much; it was only World in Action really that had that problem.
The management always lived in London of course, they came up on a Monday say and they had flats in Manchester and back on Friday.
The World in Action team was half London, half Manchester roughly speaking.
Everybody was going up and down.
They wanted people to move to Manchester, I remember one producer he said “I can’t afford to move to Manchester” and they paid his deposit.
That’s the sort of thing they did.
People who were drunk, there was a tremendous amount of drunkenness in those days; it was the old journalists tradition of hard drinking. People were sent to sanatoriums to dry out, a lot of that went on behind the scenes, it wasn’t broadcast.
So in that sense a very benevolent company.
As I said earlier they took gambles on people, like Brian Armstrong a fine documentary maker suddenly became head of comedy.
‘How did that happen?’ It couldn’t happen anywhere else.
They just looked at people individually, they had time to do that and they took flies.
I must say they were a very good company to work for, good fun. A few ups and downs, a few shouting matches but of course they encouraged that.
They used to invite people up to the seventh floor at Granada for a dinner party.
The whole idea was to get everybody drunk so that you would actually speak out what you thought of them or what you thought of Granada. A sort of bonding session.
There was one famous one, Denis Foreman.
We were all up there about ten World in Action producers, all sparky individuals, all thinking we’re pretty good.
He said “there’s only been two directors in the whole history of television and cinema who are great, who are famous, who are really good.”
We al said “Oh yeah, who’s that then?”
“Orson Welles and Ken Russell.”
And we all started throwing bread rolls at him. People were picking up bread rolls from the table and throwing them.
He loved that, that’s the sort of thing they did. They wanted controversy, they wanted people to let their hair down and speak their minds. And you could speak your mind, you could say what you liked.
So that was all good, no complaints there at all.
You’ve mentioned bullying and drunkenness. Bullying fairly rife?
Well bullying is perhaps putting it too hard. It was a rough and ready sort of crudity, in a way, like ‘I’m the boss and you do what I say’.
We thought we were better than that, you felt you had a right to be listened to, to explain your point, to get it over with.
There was just a certain few, as far as World in Action and current affairs would go, who thought they could run rampant and roughshod over you.
So that happened.
It’s something you forget about afterwards.
The Alan Seagal episode, I was in America doing a programme on Alexander Haig.
He [Alexander Haig] went in front of the Senate committee, he was going to be appointed the equivalent of the foreign secretary.
In America they go through this Senate committee who question him about his past and so on.
As usual we flew over on the Monday with it to go out the following Monday.
I got there and arrived in the court room to talk filming and Panorama were there with Peter Vile, who had been a Granada researcher, who is now a Panorama producer and Margaret Jay who was the presenter.
So Peter Vile came over to me at the break and said “Hello Brian, you’ve come to do Hague?”
I said “yeah, yeah”
He said, “when did you arrive?”
“Oh we arrived yesterday”
“We’ve been here three months.”
I said “what?”
He said “yes, we’ve signed up everybody; Bernstein, we’ve got every person signed up for Panorama exclusively.”
So I thought ‘Oh my god’.
Paul Greengrass was the researcher, now as you know a brilliant feature film director.
I rang back to Manchester to say to Seagal, “listen we’re in big trouble here. We’ve just done a days filming, we tried to interview people can’t get anyone as they have all been signed up. Margaret J was having an affair at the time with Bernstein. It’s all signed up.”
He said, “Listen Blake, if you don’t get that fucking programme out on Monday you’re fucking fired.”
So I said “Bog off Alan, what are you talking about.”
We went out the same time as Panorama, I’ve still got the TV reviews, and we beat them hands. I’ll tell you why we beat them hands down.
First of all, Paul Greengrass as a researcher pulled off the great coup. This guy, Roger Morris, who was teaching at the University of New Mexico had written a biography of Haig in the early days, an expert.
Panorama had been nowhere near him because they had got all the stars, all the big names in Washington.
So Paul got him on, I said “get him up to Washington. Will you do it?”
He said “yes I’ll do it for you.”
He flew up from New Mexico to Washington. We filmed him, absolutely brilliant interview, he just knew everything.
So we finished the interview and the phone rings and it’s his wife ringing up from New Mexico. His wife says “I’ve just had Panorama on the phone, I’ve told them you’re in Washington, they want to interview you.”
Roger turned round to me, “Panorama want to interview me, what shall I do?”
I said, “I can’t stop you from being interviewed for Panorama but I’d be very grateful if you wouldn’t do it.”
He said “right I’ll do that” and he flew back to New Mexico.
So we scored on that, we had one interview, they had nine.
Secondly, in the courtroom Haig was facing the panel of this committee. What Panorama did was they were getting a feed from CBS, and what CBS did was as soon as Haig spoke they showed a close up of Haig, and as soon as somebody from the committee spoke they showed a close up of the committee man.
What George Jesse Turner did he started off like that, he filmed Haig, but when the committee started asking him a question he stayed on Haig.
So you could see Haig’s face crumbling as some dirty trick he’d done came up.
You could see the man crumbling.
The reviewer said ‘they scored on two things; brilliant interview and wonderful camerawork of George Jesse Turner’.
I said to Seagal, “you don’t know how lucky you are.”
We should have been absolutely slaughtered, we got away with murder, as you do sometimes.
Were you there for the great World in Action revolt?
Oh many of them, all of them I think!
The ousting of David Boulton, what were the other ones?
That was the major one.
There had been all sorts of little ones, Lightbolt? like I said had tried to get rid of most of the London office, in fact I think five left eventually and took redundancy.
But that was the major one.
It was quite funny because we had this election amongst the team as to who would be our representative to stand for editor. So there was three on the shortlist; Mike Ryan, Ray Fitzwalter and me, we were the three candidates for the job.
Granada tradition we went for an interview with all of them there of course; Foreman, the lot. The gin and tonic was still on the table.
The first question was “you don’t really want this job Brian, do you?”
I said “erm, what do you mean?”
“You’re not interested in being a boss, sitting behind a desk.”
I said “I prefer making films but the team have put me forward and I’d be quite happy to do that.”
Anyway, there’s me, Mike Ryan we’d probably done 120 films between us, Ray had never made one.
In Granada tradition they gave Ray the job and they brought in Brian Lapping as an executive over Ray, again who wasn’t a filmmaker, who had written for the Spectator.
In a wonderful swoop they scuppered us, got their own nominee in and put somebody else in as well.
We’d been through the democratic process and we were left absolutely… It wasn’t funny at the time, but funny now.
And then Ray went and became editor for the next twenty years or whatever it was.
There was a great bonding wasn’t there when teams worked together whether it was World in Action or any other programme teams seemed to bond and spend a great deal of time together.
You did, as I say it was a very small unit of people and often you tended to work with the same researchers quite regularly.
When you were away it was a very small unit of people, originally it was eight; five or six crew, but in the latter days it was four. You could travel away for weeks and weeks abroad all over the place.
So we were together all the time, every night of course, every morning for breakfast, all during the day.
You were like a family on holiday, not on holiday but working together all the time.
So a lot of long friendships came out as a result of all that.
Whenever you have a reunion now in London the faces are all there, some have died now of course.
You stuck together as well if there was criticism from whatever, you stuck together in the cutting room or against flack from anywhere.
As I say it was a very small unit, the rest of Granada often I think looked upon us with suspicion because they worked funny hours. Some people came in at five or six o’clock in the evening; their working day was starting when everybody else was going home.
You come in the morning and there would be pants in the washbasin. A lot of people did that sort of life, they were like newspaper people they did those sort of hours where the night shift was nothing, especially the single ones.
It was a close-knit team.
Would you say that it was not very family friendly working for Granada? In terms of you were working long unsocial hours, going off filming to here there and everywhere.
I don’t think it ever really bothered them, they just thought that’s the job. Maybe if you’d just had a baby or something they might be slightly more tolerant.
I think it was just ‘you’ve got to get on with it’.
What about women who worked on the programme?
There weren’t many at all, especially the early days. Most of them were single, tough in that sense because they had to be, it was an incredibly male society.
It was funny it was different, they were very sensitive filmmakers, very good at emotional films which was not so easy for men I think.
But as I say, most of them in the early days certainly were very tough, very determined. None of early ones that I can remember were married at all, married later of course when they left.
So they were slightly different in that sense.
Maybe one or two at a time on a team of eighteen to twenty, sometimes only one. But later on of course it became much more prominent and quite rightly so.
Somebody said to me that Granada was an unashamedly left wing company. Would you agree with that?
I know somebody who did, that was Ken Clarke. Again we were doing an interview with Ken Clarke in London, I think he was Home Secretary. He said to me, “I don’t know why I’m bothering doing this interview, you’re all left wing Marxists.”
I said, “well some people might think that all Tories are rabid fascists, but I don’t.”
So there was a deathly hush.
That was the attitude.
It was a very left wing programme, the British Steel papers, all the clashes with the government over Northern Ireland, the IRA and so on. [Little unclear]
We were accused of giving terrorists air space, arguments that are still going on today and we’re talking about the sixties and seventies, some things never change.
I think Granada was sort of conscious of that in a way. So they did try to make the odd conservative one on World in Action.
Generally speaking because people were young, because it was that sort of area of documentary making you tend to be left wing.
The same accusations are made against the BBC today aren’t they? They were saying the same thing forty, fifty years ago so none of that changes.
They must be a Guardian reader because they’re doing these liberal things, it’s very difficult to escape from that criticism.
I suppose yes it’s true, broadly speaking I suspect 80% of us would have voted Labour in the times.
But then we’ve had the chairman of the young Conservatives, we’ve had Tory MPs working for us, we’ve talked to Ted Heath on programmes.
So there was no sort of attempt to be purely one sided, I think one did try to be a bit more liberal hopefully.
Then as you say, looking down the team for example there were two members of the team Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw who both became Labour cabinet ministers.
Lord Birt and Lord Macdonald… so there is a left wing tinge and was bound to be to that programme. Lord Bernstein was a Labour MP I think.
Hopefully we were pretty fair about it all, I don’t think we were fantastically left wing.
Let’s talk a little bit about the trade unions, at that time in commercial television, whether you thought there were certain rules which inhibited programme making or made life difficult. Whether they were they justified or not.
I think the one that irritated me was you had to have a card to become a director. That used to annoy a lot of us on World in Action because we were producers, but also directors.
Most of us didn’t have a card because a card was something you got mainly through directing drama and none of us were interested in drama. So that was a little niggle.
I remember when the people in London went on strike and they brought in two or three producers from Manchester working in other programmes to come onto World in Action.
One of them I particularly remember is Jim Walker.
Now Jim Walker was a producer on other programmes but he couldn’t direct on World in Action, they wouldn’t let him direct.
He would set up a film, and you would have to have somebody like me who was not working at that moment. I’d go out with him and sit and let him do it even though it was his programme.
There were silly things like that, he couldn’t actually produce a film on his own, he had to have a director standing there, probably having a drink at the bar while he was doing it.
So that was a silly thing.
Some of the undermining was a bit silly.
There was the famous one about Margaret Thatcher when she was being interviewed. She looked round the room, and I think there was ten people and she said “What are they all doing?”
This happened, really, in the early days for us. You would go abroad with eight people. Now that is a tremendous cumbersome lot of people to travel around with.
For a start you need two cars, maybe three if you had luggage.
There was two of everything; two cameramen, two soundmen, often two electricians, if you were doing some big lighting job, researcher and producer.
There was a feeling of that.
That was obviously resolved in the end and eventually you came down to four; cameraman, soundman, researcher and producer.
So that was halved and you could travel in one car so mobility was much improved.
That was a slim lining, which I think was a good thing.
For example one of the big series I did with A History of Television we travelled the world on that and we had to take two electricians and two PAs.
Now two electricians you don’t need, so one would light the room, the other would bitterly sit outside.
So there were things like that, which were annoying but gradually they were sorted out.
I remember a World in Action I worked on, where we did a studio programme from the Royal Commonwealth Society with various MPs and there was no vision mixer.
It wasn’t until the programme had been finished at whatever time it was, four o’clock on the Monday that Alan Seagull, who was producing, realised there was no vision mixer.
So the programme was immediately blacked.
I think Paul Greengrass was working on that.
Mike Walsh did a piece to camera in it and because of that you had to have a vision mixer.
We had to get a helicopter to take Gus McDonald and Mike Walsh up to Manchester and run it through the studio.
Having said that I must say the unions revolutionised my life and many others.
When I joined I think I was paid about £900 a year.
We had that eight-week strike in the late seventies and we all went off and did various jobs like window cleaning and god knows what.
When we came back the salaries very quickly trebled and quadrupled and became a decent salary for the first time.
Nowadays the story is of presenters like Paxman and BBC people getting millions of pounds.
In those days it still wasn’t a huge salary, in fact it was no better certainly than a low paid teacher.
There was no huge expandary of money, it was only after the strike.
They were making huge profits then, ITV was a fantastically profitable industry.
Only then did they begin to realise something had to be done and the unions won that battle and transformed the lives of all the people who worked in the industry.
That was a tremendous plus.
So I’ve always been a very strong union man, I have to say.
What about some of the personalities who worked at Granada; Dennis Foreman.
Yes I mean the grandit as every body called him.
I didn’t realise, when I mentioned earlier about the interview in London and he was sitting there with his shirt sleeves, always wore red braces and a gin and tonic.
So I had the interview in London.
When I came to Manchester, I had never been to Manchester before apart from playing football in university days, but I had never been to Granada.
I went to the desk and asked “can I see Dennis Foreman?”
They looked at me, “is he expecting you?”
I said “yes he is.”
I didn’t realise he was here on the sixth floor; he had this huge office, two secretaries.
I just didn’t realise he was such a powerful important figure, which of course he was.
He really was the front of Granada.
The miser about the Bernsteins and rightly so as being the founders but Foreman was the one you saw and had dealings with, not a lot because he had the whole empire to look after.
He was a very imposing figure, very cultured, loved music, loved film, a very imposing man indeed.
One of his many claims to fame, going back to History of Television, was when I was doing a summit on sex in television, the beginnings of the sexual revolution and all that.
His famous series which he set up and looked after, the jewel in the crowns, has a scene where one of the characters comes down the corridor and through the door you can hear two people having sex, grunting and groaning and so on.
The papers said the next day that it was the first time they had ever head the sound of sexual intercourse on television.
So I interviewed Foreman for the History of Television.
I said, “Why did you do that?”
He just rolled his eyes and laughed and said “isn’t it about time we found out what was going on behind closed doors. Absolutely harmless!”
He was larger than life figure.
A History of Television ran into problems. It was a huge enterprise, it was six one hours filmed all around the world. They suddenly realised, I think, about half way through that they weren’t going to recover the costs unless they sold it to America. It had to be sold to America.
So they decided to Americanise the programme, in other words use more clips of American television, not so much of British television or particularly foreign television which we all thought we were meant to be doing.
So we had this meeting and we all complained that what we had been filming; television sets in Africa, Japan and Indonesia and people in peasant villages watching television.
Obviously this was going to be pushed aside so we all complained about it.
“That’s enough of complaints,” he said. “Two million pounds for the budget, I want American clips and off you go.”
And that was it.
So the combination of what we were talking about earlier; bullying but power, the power just to say “two million pounds…” which was a lot of money then, you’re talking thirty years ago.
I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest series ever but we tried. It was the most difficult series I think I worked on, trying to balance these various things.
And there was an ability in those early days, was there not, to be able to come up with an idea one minute and by the afternoon be actually making the programme.
It was exactly the same as I was saying earlier about picking people on a flair, ideas were the same.
There were no committees in those days, one person could actually make a decision.
If you convinced one person, one boss… he might take it one step up but that would be it. Nowadays to make a programme you have got to go through various committees, various people coming to see a programme, have their own criticisms.
There you had an idea, you took it to your immediate boss. If he wasn’t interested he might suggest you take it to another department.
As you say, very quickly it would be taken up.
Same with people, if they met with somebody, they thought ‘this is interesting’ and away they went and employed them.
It was a small company in some ways, there were very few bosses. You would probably deal with about five or six people in a year, if that.
So there were instant decisions taken and instant protection of people as well if things were going badly.
It was a very small and very tightly run company, very financially solvent and very carefully run company.
Quite well controlled I think.
Did you have anything to do with Sidney Bernstein?
I did, not a lot I have to say.
I had just finished the History of Television and Steve Morrison rang me up and said “Sidney wants this film made.”
I said “oh yes”
In the Second World War Sidney was one of the first people to go into Belsen concentration camp. He was a major in the army and he decided when he came out of the army he wanted to make a film on Belsen.
It’s an interesting story in itself because he got people like Hitchcock involved and all sorts of things like that.
So they collected all these newsreels but the film was never made, never transmitted.
All the rolls of film were kept in the British War Museum in London. People had heard of them, knew of them, but they’d never been seen.
He wanted someone to do this film of Belsen using this Hitchcock inspired material.
So I did that.
I built up four interviewees, one of the first soldiers to go into Belsen and then three Jewish survivors in London who had been at Belsen.
We had a grand showing of this film in London. He sent me an invitation to this film, ‘Mr Lake he said’.
So that was it and then a week later I got a letter from him, again saying:
‘Dear Mr Lake, thank you for all your efforts on this film. I didn’t quite like all the interviews you put in but otherwise thank you very much.’
So that was my immediate experience of dealing with Bernstein, being called by the wrong name.
But he was a presence of course, he was always sweeping up and down corridors.
We interviewed him in the making of this Belsen film and I had done all the interviews up until then but of course no, he had to have Mike Scott to interview him.
He obviously trusted Mike Scott, he didn’t quite know who I was.
He was more of a presence, people just didn’t meet him like that, he might pop into somebody’s office in the evening and see what they’re up to type of thing.
Foreman as I say was the presence.