Interviewed by Geoff Moore, 18 November 2015.
OK. Let’s start the interview proper. So Brian, let’s start with how you came to join Granada.
I was at Edinburgh University. I had started a life as a perpetual student; I had done two degrees and was starting a PhD, but then I thought maybe I should try and get a proper job. In those days, the Guardian on a Monday had a strange thing called “creative & media recruitment” and there was a very big notice I think for researchers, and I applied for a researcher’s job. I didn’t get that, and then I applied for something that was called an assistant transmission controller. And I got swept down from Edinburgh to the boardroom at 36 Golden Square, this massive boardroom, and I got interviewed. The chair of the interview board was this magnificent woman looking like the duchess of Kent, but with very dark hair, and this was Joyce Wooler. And we did a very good interview, I thought, and she said, why do you want to be a transmission controller and I said X, Y and Z, not actually understanding what an assistant transmission controller was. Nevertheless, it was a very good interview and then she said at the end, well that’s a very good interview Brian, but I think there’s one thing I think we’d all agree on in this board that life as an assistant transmission controller is not for you. I was a bit disappointed. But she said, so we would recommend that you probably because a promotion scriptwriter.
So I then got boarded by Rod Caird [?] [00:02:31] and David Liddiment was certainly on the board, maybe Sandy Ross, I can’t remember. Anyway, I tramped down to Granada, Quay Street, for the interview, I think in February/March 1980. The first thing I always remember is that you sat when you went in, and you looked at Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope, which was part of the Bernstein art collection, and if there was anything more discouraging than having to look at Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope, when you were about to do an interview in your ill-fitting suit that you only wore for interviews and weddings and funerals, then I’d like to know.
But despite Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope, I became a promotion scriptwriter in April 1980. That’s when I started.
So were you aiming for the media while you were at university, did you any media-related activities?
If I’m going to be honest, I just didn’t… I wanted to do anything apart from making a sensible living. so while other people went off and became chartered accountants or lawyers, which was of course what my parents wanted me to do, I wanted to do something that was seem as slightly more sexy, more slinging. So I’d applied for jobs as a journalist and/or television or radio. So it was one of those sweeps that you did, not really maybe… no, I didn’t have a huge burning desire from the age 12 to become someone who worked in television. I just thought it had an aura, an air of glamour about it and being a very shallow person, I pursued it.
It’s quite interesting. So Joyce Wooler thought you weren’t right for the assistant transmission controller-
Boy was she right! [laughs] I think David Black was on the board as well, and he, I think I’d only got the interview because he came from Aberdeen and I came from Aberdeen, so it was one of those things. I don’t know if David Black can verify that or deny it, but yeah, that’s how I started.
Joyce Wooler was the key person, wasn’t she? She said, why don’t you-
“I think we’ll recommend you,” and she looked at David Black and nodded, because she was… you could imagine her running the civil service, couldn’t you? Dame Joyce Wooler. She was quite formidable and very elegant, and her hair would always be hived up.
So when you went for the Manchester interview for the promotion scriptwriter, what did they ask you and how did that go?
It was very casual. I think in those days they prided themselves on- they wanted to see a sparkle of personality or individuality, someone who’d fit rather than… Because you couldn’t really… you know, you didn’t know what a promotion scriptwriter was, really, apart from you know, you’d looked it up – unlike an assistant transmission controller’s job, I did actually get the job description right, vaguely, and it was making trailers and promotions. Which was, I think, ultimately, because Trish Kinane went through that, Andy Harris went through that, David Liddiment went through that, and it was a great opportunity to understand the nuts and bolts of the television building, in a way, because you had to trail down to the film- you had to work with film editors because you had to edit films in those days. You had to go and see the ATR, the sound guys, and you had to see the tape room, you had to understand how the building worked, and you made many films. You know, you had to condense – you got a drama or a documentary and it was going out tonight on Granada at 8 o’clock., it’s blah blah blah. Therefore you honed a skill of condensing the essence of a programme into a minute, or even 30 seconds. And then you had to work with the transmission controllers, a job I should have had!
So it was a very good discipline for a year or so. Then the progression was that you went for a researcher’s board, and I think I stayed in promotions for about 18 months, and then got a researcher’s board, and got it. I think the first thing I worked on was Trish Kinane producing Live from Two. And so that kicked me off in that world of chat shows. Which again, was great, because it really – am I jumping ahead or is that fine?
No, just checking my questions. You’re fine. Sorry, what year would this be, that you started out as a researcher?
It would have been probably 81 or 82.
And how many years did you have as a researcher?
I was a researcher from 82 I think to 88, when I went up to be a producer at Tyne Tees for two years. So I had a gap in my long career at Granada for two years when I went up to join Trish Kinane and then I came back in 1990 to be a producer in entertainment for David Liddiment.
So in those 80s researcher years, what programmes did you work on?
Well the thing about Granada that was really interesting… there were people that sort of went into World in Action and were stuck at World in Action and that’s all they wanted to do. But if you weren’t of that sort of aptitude or attitude, it was a really wonderful place to work. You know, people like yourself and David Liddiment jumped disciplines and it allowed you do to do that, which I don’t think the BBC would have, you know, because it was such a big behemoth – you went in and you never shifted from that discipline. But you know, I did chat shows, I did political conferences – I was Gus Macdonald’s handmaiden as we say through hours and hours of composite motions. You developed a skill, again, to edit a composite motion down to about two lines that could go across a caption, so that was interesting. I worked in entertainment and then I spent tow years in the Middle East, very prescient now, doing an Emmy award-winning documentary called Sword of Islam, so I was based in Egypt, Beirut, Tehran. And again, that’s a bygone era, in that you would have any programme that would devote two years of a producer and a number of researchers to do a programme about Islamic fundamentalism that got transmitted for two hours on ITV from 8 o’clock to 10 o’clock. They shifted the schedule for it. and I think if you said that now, that wouldn’t really-
Which night of the week was it? Midweek?
It was midweek, yeah. It was not on a Sunday or something like that. It was midweek. That probably went out about 86. We can check all these things though, can’t we?
Sure. Did you work on Granada Reports?
One of the bizarre things about Granada Reports, being a promotion scriptwriter, was having to do the lunchtime news. So you sat with the news editor – or the assistant news editor I think in those days – but you had to sit in the news conference from about 8 o’clock or whenever it was, and then you were responsible for collating. It was a bizarre thing only because promotion script writers were NUJ. They belonged to NUJ, they weren’t ACDT [?] [00:11:57], so it was one of those bizarre things, and I think they threw that anomaly in just to bulk it up or whatever.
I don’t think I did work on Granada Reports as a researcher. That’s a lie, I did! It was terrible, because you got thrust out with a roadmap in a car to meet the crew… They… what was it? ERG, or…?
ENG. And of course, I didn’t know the fucking half of where these places were! And you were driving round, “I’ll be there in ten!” with your cranky mobile phones that you’d discovered through, and you had to rendezvous with the crew and make sure that Bob Whittaker or whoever it was, or Bob Smithies – they were all called Bob – or Bob Greaves, or any of a number of Bobs that were anywhere, and you’re looking at a map, going, shit, [missed] [00:12:57] arriving in a sweat and getting them to transmit from Rotherham or wherever, or Nelson.
In those eighties years, you were developing your own idea of what you wanted to do in the media and what you were good at. Which direction did you think-?
I was generally a jack of all trades for a long long time. And it was really amusing… my final Granada Reports anecdote was that one of the producers was the late great Mike Short, and for me, his Liverpudlian accent was almost indecipherable, and I always remember him going “right what you doing hnnghanhgngh” and you sort of thought, I think I got the gist of it, and you’re charging around the Arndale Centre doing bloody light piece of whimsy and doing a vox pop, but you weren’t ever sure with Mike Short whether you’d actually understood him, but I think I generally… I always remember that as one of the funniest things ever, Mike short telling you what to do.
I was happy doing LE shows and I think, you and I and sort of Liddiment went around that area where it was-
Because we did some Some You Win, didn’t we?
We did Some You Win.
And we also did Party Conference, I remember.
Yeah. It was just great fun and I wasn’t somebody that was hugely focussed at the point. But there became a point when you’d been a researcher for a number of years, that you had to start saying, I need to be a producer, or else my career is stalling, and then you’re thinking you’re getting a bit long in the tooth, perhaps. And anyway, Trish Kinane had gone up to Tyne Tees to become head of entertainment there, and she took me up and said, do you want to be a producer. Then I came back to Granada in 1990 when Liddiment said, would you come back and join the entertainment department.
So you didn’t do a producer’s board at Granada?
So you went to Tyne Tees as a producer, and you came back as a producer?
So you’re back in 1990. What did you do then?
I did a number of shows. I did Remote Control, I remember, with Tony Wilson.
I’d forgotten. Well remembered, that, because nobody’s mentioned that show. It’s a forgotten show.
It’s a forgotten show that we did for Channel 4. And it was an American format, and it was commissioned by Stephen Garrett at that point, or he was just about to leave, I can’t remember. No, he was there, he commissioned it and after that series Stephen Garrett left and I think [?] [00:16:21] took over from him, with his assistant Bill Hilary. So that was one of the shows I did.
We did another show, a pilot that never happened, which was putting real people… it was a slight precursor of quasi-reality television, where you hoodwinked members of the Great British public, and we did it around the now-defunct Granada Tours. But that didn’t see the light of day, I remember.
And then I became head of entertainment for a couple of years, which I stomped around a bit and didn’t achieve much, and probably wasn’t my finest time.
Why was that? Do you feel that you didn’t get the backing from the bosses or what?
No. I inherited a healthy roster of everything from the Krypton Factor to Stars in Their Eyes, Some You Win. It probably was me, I would have thought, I just probably wasn’t really cut out to do that. And the bizarre thing being Granada is I remember discussing it, saying to Andrew Wandfer [?] [00:17:51], who was then the programme controller, oh I’d like to try drama. And this is the good thing about Granada, they didn’t go, that’s absolutely stupid! I remember him saying, well you might as well, you’ve tried everything else! And that was around 1993 or 1994. And so I gave up entertainment and I did a show called September Song with Russ Abbot and Michael Williams. And then, again, the great thing about Granada was – I ended up, because the producer of Prime Suspect, Paul Marcus, also late, wanted to, he got given a chance to direct, so they needed a producer that would sort of keep the show on the road, so I did Prime Suspect. I think that would have been around 1994 or 1995.
I remember. I think it was at Paul [missed] [00:19:11] party that I remember you saying to me that you were going to shift to doing drama and that you really fancied doing drama, September Song you mentioned. I do remember that.
I think it’s a great testament to Granada in those days and that it wasn’t too big that they’d go, no if you haven’t been, gone up by being a script editor, which is the BBC way, if you reached a certain point, and there had been precedents in that before. I think people like Brian Armstrong had worked… everybody had worked on World in Action at one point and then they all shifted, and you know, people like Michael Apthead cut their teeth as directors doing documentaries, so there was a good history there, and you know, I think I was so lucky that I worked at Granada that they would slightly indulge you.
Did you produce September Song?
Within the drama department?
It was a sort of hybrid in a way, if I remember correctly. It came out of David Liddiment had sort of pushed the boundaries. He had done Coronation Street, and Coronation Street had this strange genesis that it was never within, as far as I remember, it was actually outwith the drama department, and by the time we were there, there was a sort of… The drama department went off, but drama serial, as it were… So Liddiment had done that, he had done Watching, which was very successful, and he had done September Song. They evolved out of the entertainment department / drama serial or whatever. So when he took over Coronation Street, he was allowed those areas or those areas evolved but they weren’t part of the drama department.
OK. That’s the mid-90s you’re talking about.
Mid coming onto late 90s, yes.
What happened after September Song?
After September Song, I did Prime Suspect. And then I spent a year with Granada Film trying to do strange set-ups. I remember shooting around Australia and Korea of all places. We tried to set up a film, but… and it was in the midst of that that the call came – and I think this was around 1996, and I was in Sydney at the time – saying, would you do Coronation Street? And I turned it down twice as I remember. And then Carolyn goes, you really should do it, because she was the exec producer at the time. And went, hmm, I haven’t got that many options. Some people say don’t do it, some people say I should do it. It had moved by that point from 3 episodes a week to 4 episodes a week, and what I remember was that I went to some do at LWT – and I had said yes by this time… Do you remember Vernon Laurence? He was at Yorkshire and he had been the head of comedy and drama there or something, and I think he’d moved by that point and was Controller of Drama at Network Centre. I remember him sidling up to me and going, “congratulations Brian on Coronation Street. Bit of a poisoned chalice.” [laughs] That was a great one, which Liddiment always loved as well. [adopts silly voice] “Hello Brian! Congratulations. Bit of a poisoned chalice.” [laughs]
So with that poisoned chalice, December 1996, I’ll have to check these, where I sat before I’d formally taken over – Sue Prichard was still then the producer, Carolyn Reynolds was exec producer, and it had been described to me by people, that the writer’s forum was the pantheon of the gods-
Of Coronation Street?
I want to just hold it there. Before we talk about Coronation Street and the way it worked, this was your late 90s. Looking back on all those years, from your first interviews right up to Coronation Street, what were your general impressions of Granada as a company?
I thought it was a fantastic place to work. I mean, it had… it was interesting, when you went there, there was an esprit de corps, undoubtedly, and there was a finishing school – not a finishing school actually, it was almost like the Jesuits. There was a lineage there and it was obviously because of the Bernsteins, a sort of patriarchal, patrician noblesse oblige that sort of went though. In one was bizarrely like the Grace Brothers in Are You Being Serviced, it was like old Mr Grace and young Mr Grace and you’d be in the canteen and you’d see somebody going past Denis Forman… he was sort of odd because he always favoured a very dark tie and a white shirt. He usually had his jacket off, but he sort of sometimes looked like he was someone in the security men because they would dress in the same – you remember, black suits and black ties.
But he’d roll up and go into the canteen where I always remember Erma Cockburn [?] [00:26:03], I remember she always used to go, “Mash or roast?” and you’d go, “err roast!” because she was rather bad tempered and you were afraid when you came to her, wherever she was, but she always seemed to be in charge of potatoes, and it was “mash or roast?”… and of course her son Roland was there, and her husband worked there as well, but I can’t remember. But Roland I remember was a film editor for World in Action, mainly.
Did you think that… I mean, you were happy there, in the eighties.
Yes, we were. I think you were encouraged to…. I mean I think you went off to LWT at one point, didn’t you?
But they were always sort of saying, there was a sort of esprit de corps, a sort of [missed] [00:26:56], and you were encouraged to think of yourselves as the shock troops of ITV. Which I think sometimes was used as a slightly excuse not to pay you as much as LWT, because I remember everyone went, oh, you get paid much more as an associate producer at [missed] [00:27:13] – [as if in response] “Oh no no no! Stay at Granada, you know, we make better programmes.” And they certainly wanted to instil in you that you were the shock troops of ITV. Why, there was Yorkshire over there but they did very strange things and why would you work on that show when you can work on World in Action or the dramas.
Yes, that’s an interesting point there. They do seem to have retained talent at Granada.
Or even people that left, always… I remember we had to interview Michael Apthead for something… people always now, and I know he’s on that list… people have fond memories of it. And probably jumping ahead, but when I left in 1997/1998, and we’re now talking about it and I’ve had as much of a career outside of Granada in terms of years, I think, as I had in it. But I still think, it was big enough for you to be interested in it and you didn’t feel short-changed. I don’t think anybody felt short-changed when they went from Granada to the BBC, or to LWT, or wherever.
Up to Coronation Street, what individuals… do you remember any funny stories or characters that impressed you over those years?
When we did the party political broadcasts, I remember it had to sit next to Gus Macdonald. We were seen as quite a big thing at that point. You had to give him the cards and you had to point out who they were and you had to, as I said, reduce this huge socialist diatribe about a thing called the composite motions, which were highly convoluted and as you remember, you had to sub them down to two or three lines so Gus could… and you would hand it over to him and he’d go, “this is duh duh duh, but it is essentially blah blah blah” and you had to reduce it to its essence for him.
He was a big character. I mean, they all were in their day, like Brian Armstrong was the head of comedy. That was another thing about when you did, as a promotion scriptwriter, you had to go and see them all because you had to make promotions for their individual departments. So in a way you did come across the heads of drama, the heads of the comedy department, you crossed all those departments, so you were aware of it. It was interesting because you would get a taste for it. and I guess in a way, because I didn’t have a huge focussed ambition in the early 80s I was quite happy to sit and work in entertainment or chat shows. And again, you worked your way up through locals to – did you get on a network show? So there was as much that, I think, as you remember, you worked on local shows but hopefully you would land a network show at some point, working on a network show.
What about the social life in Granada in those years? People have reminiscences about the canteen as you’ve said.
Well, there was the canteen. I was in at the stables and the move from the stables to the old school, that huge transition period, where everybody lamented that… You were stuck by the fact that… I’d come from Edinburgh, and the centre of Edinburgh was… from a university and a social sense, what struck me as very odd, was that the centre of Manchester in 1980 wasn’t really there very much. If you worked at Granada, everybody shot off into their little necks of the wood, whether it was Fallowfield or Didsbury, and some of the more adventurous or maybe more established were further afield in places like, dare I say, Hale and Altrincham and Alderly Edge and Hale Barns. And that struck me, I think it was almost after I’d left, that Manchester as a throbbing night centre, and to actually live in Manchester, because I don’t think anybody in Granada lived in the centre of Manchester. They went out to Chorlton, Fallowfield, West Didsbury, Didsbury.
Also, Manchester was pretty much ignored by Granada. People didn’t go into Manchester, or did they?
No, you’d sort of go in maybe at the weekend, but certainly considering you worked in the middle of Manchester it wasn’t somewhere you really elected to stay on after work. And everybody had cars. It was a car-driven place. PAs all had Renault 5s as I remember.
I remember that!
Every single one of them, because of their financial structures and the fact they were allowed overtime. That was another great thing, because we’d…. once I’d become a researcher you were in the ACTT, but we’d elected to get some – before my time – some extra bung, but it meant that you weren’t eligible for… and that was a weird thing, if you actually worked abroad, you could be flying through various time zones and you would see the film crew, going, oh what are on now? We’re on 4T or 5T? And it was like this dial was was running round, and you know, all these camera assistants were charging around in BMWs. [quietly] I’ll mention no names, Harold Summers-
There was that strange anomaly. And then I remember, when we did the Sword of Islam, we had this strange phenomenon called a short crew, where – I’m starting to sound old and fuddy-duddy – but basically they would only allow short crews if you were working in slightly dangerous places, like war zones or if you were on Disappearing World and you were halfway up the Limpopo with some disappearing tribe. The only ways the unions would allow this to happen was that the short crew got paid everybody else’s wages, basically.
Oh, no. I didn’t know that.
Ah, that’s how certain people became very very rich! [laughs]
What was a short crew?
So the short crew was one sound recordist, the cameraman, the producer-director, and the researcher, say. So on Disappearing Worlds, where I did was when we were in the middle of Beirut pursuing or being pursued by Hezbollah, and it was considered too dangerous, or it became absolutely impossible to have a big crew there. But you had to go through negotiations – Granada had to negotiate it with the unions. And it was partly that it had to be seen that Granada was making money out of having short crews, where they didn’t have to pay everybody, so they had no financial incentive in doing this because all the money had to go to these four people. So certain individuals did terribly well out of it.
So that was a bad negotiation from Granada?
Well, it was before my time, but as a greedy little researcher, I was going “oh, that’s fine!”, you know. That’s probably why people were… yeah. [whispers inaudibly] made a lot of, they did very nicely out of it, if you did something like Disappearing World. I’m not saying that that’s [why they were doing it]… it was an added incentive. But you wouldn’t believe that now, that that was how it worked.
No, you wouldn’t believe it now. And a lot of money was being made by crews and by technicians.
Yes, because they were all on eighty… whenever they were going round, I always remember when you were travelling places, they also got to travel business class, while muggins like us had to go in… [laughs]
I remember when VT engineers were paid a lot of money.
Yes. And transmission controllers. They were on a lot of money in their day.
So what about industrial relations? Was it difficult, that era you were in, were there difficult industrial relations? Were the unions too powerful?
I always remember one of the funniest things and again you wouldn’t believe it now. It was that when you were a promotion scriptwriter you had to work with cans of film, but you weren’t allowed to touch them. It would cause a furore. You couldn’t touch a can of film… a film editor or a member of that union – BECTU I think it was at that time – were the only ones allowed to touch it. So you were told, you can’t touch the film or else there’d be hell to pay.
No, you were very aware again, when you were filming with a big crew, which was slightly impossible – I remember when we were doing Sword of Islam when you had to have the full crew that basically you were leaving half of them by the swimming pool, like the PA, the assistant sound guy, and the assistant cameraman, because you were going to film surreptitiously in a souq or whatever, or you were having a fundamentalist charging through Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, but you hadn’t got the union agreement at that point to have a short crew. When we went to Beirut we did have a short crew, because it was-
That’s a very interesting little story about leaving people by the swimming pool. I think the PAs did best out of all that than probably anybody else.
It would ill behove me to say such things. Of course, while you were filming, they were on the clock, so if you went over into overtime after eight hours because you were having to film these characters, they were at the pool clocking their… and then when they went on to travelling home, they were still on the clock, and I do remember crews going, “oh, what are we on now?”. Do you remember there were things called Golden Fridays, Saturdays, I can’t remember…
They were basically “whoopee-doo!”, you know. So it was an interesting time, and again, what I was aware of – probably in my second or third year as a researcher – there were people talking about this strange phenomenon called TVM that had started up. And then Channel 4 started. So I was there at the end of what was… Spanish practices or whatever they were called. And the advent of TVM [?] [00:40:11], which was rightly seen as Thatcher’s fifth column into breaking those last bastions of restrictive practise, both at the newspapers and in television, because they threw the rules out quite a bit by then.
I remember going to TVM [?] [00:40:34] in 1983. Alex Good was working there. Do you remember him?
I knew of him, I met him.
I remember going in there in the big open area and everyone was looking at computer screens. No one at Granada was looking at computer screens.
You had electronic typewriters and then they brought in these [computers] and people were like, “oh, it sort of works like a typewriter”. Even for years after I left Granada and was working at Shed, I was one of the most Luddite of them all. People went “Brian, don’t you understand?” and I said, it’s just like an electronic typewriter, and they said, no, but you can do X, Y and Z.
But I do remember when computers were brought in and you got these big lump things and you’re going, [quizzical noises], and it had to be explained to you slowly what it was capable of doing. Because the other thing I also remember that it replaced – do you remember that everything was written on memos and they were collected? So you would type it, and you’d put it into one of those little brown things and cross off the recipient that [it was meant for] and then the mailroom collected these things twice a day, once in the morning and [laughs]. You had electronic typewriters which you had to vaguely learn how to do and everything was collected on those blue little memo slips and that’s how it was.
So once you became a researcher you worked… The thing about Granada was that I think they purposely put the most inappropriate people, particularly in your first six months I think of being a producer, they perversely put people – square pegs into round holes. But that was a good thing in a way, but you would see people wandering around looking very unhappy saying, “but I really want to be a political journalist” and getting told “shut up, you’re working on Live from Two, and you’ll like it.”
But the other great thing I remember, once you got to become a researcher, was that everybody was very aware of what everybody else was doing. You did your time before the [missed] [00:44:18] but you wanted to work on network programmes, so you’d work on the local shows and go through them all but always your ambition was to, you know, meet Brian Lapping and work on End of Empire, or you’d want to work on one of the many big documentaries they had on the go.
If you worked in entertainment it was maybe slightly different, but I, like you, bounced back and forwards over the years. I think we were the exception. I think once you got into one of the long-running shows that went on when it was the history TV, which I think pulled people in for a bit, but they had those big long runners that you’d always… and because I’d done history I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to do an End of Empire, which I think I asked to get on, but then I ended up doing Sword of Islam.
But there was a sort of friendly rivalry and everybody was very conscious I remember in those years of who was working on what. It was like, “oh God, he got to do that, that’s something I’d really give my teeth [?] [00:45:48] to do”. But I didn’t get End of Empire and I got Sword of Islam.
But like you say, we had a mixture of stuff, quite unusually I think in Granada-
Yeah, I think Granada liked to mix it up-
Did you enjoy that mix yourself?
Yeah, yeah, as I said I hadn’t nailed myself down into a particular corner at that time and I loved doing chat shows and Live from Two, I think because I’m just such a shallow person that the idea of going down to London and interviewing Jessica Mitford and you’d read her books, or Jeffery Archer, or looking after Spandau Ballet was just… and we did Late Night from Two and late shows as well which I absolutely loved doing as well. And you were getting paid to do it, which was the most amazing thing, in its day! Just people you’d never meet again… that was the great thing about being a researcher at Granada at the time: you could be working on the Granada 500 and you met Margaret Thatcher, and then you’d meet Joan Collins. It was just one of those crazy things, where if you had that sort of magpie mind and were easily impressed [coughs theatrically], it was payment enough, almost. Which when you worked on the Granada salary was probably just as well. “How much are they earning at LWT? Oh, god!”
OK then. That’s great. Let’s move onto Coronation Street. It must have been a bit daunting to enter such a long-running and successful institution. I mean, it was the number one show, wasn’t it?
Erm, well. By the time I was taking over and had hesitations about it, I think if we’re going to be frank, it was in a bit of trouble. It had gone from two episodes a week to three and they’d just introduced the fourth episode. I suppose I was lucky in a way that I’d done quite a bit of stuff by then and I’d worked with some diva-ish actors. But I think when I took over, I was lucky enough to have a certain amount of information in our hands. And I knew that the problem was that it had gone to four episodes a week. The Friday and Sunday episodes were not playing terribly well in London, so that was a problem for LWT.
It was also failing… these crude things, that I think you became aware of, and it stood me in good stead later on, to understand is that there were problems with it. It was a show that was rapidly – it wasn’t a show that you’d watch with your mother anymore, it was probably a show where if you were lucky, you’d be watching with your grandmother. It was losing. It wasn’t attracting young people and it wasn’t attracting a southern audience, so they were quite big things and there were rumours that LWT was going to take it out of the 7.30 slot.
So I had to take a clinical look at it as well. I watched about 100 episodes before I took over. And… in December – and I took over in January – the press was always… it was either, EastEnders was up and was the great show that was coming in and thrashed Coronation Street over Christmas, and they’d make a great show about which show got the Christmas audience. And the year I took over, EastEnders had trounced it, so it was, EastEnders is the way forward, Coronation Street’s stuck in the past, old characters… One of the things that was worrying about it was [laughs] I think the median age of the cast when I took over was about 72 or something, and you’re thinking, there might be a slight indication of why no one under 20 is watching the show anymore. That’s a slight exaggeration, but there were trends there that you had to [take into account]… [if you weren’t then] you weren’t doing your job, actually.
I was also minded – I have to watch what I’m saying slightly here – I wasn’t going in with any rosy views. It was a great institution, and yes you had to be slightly careful with it, and there were political ramifications in it which I’ll go into in a second – but I knew it had to be shaken up, and that’s what I was going to do. There was no sense in being cautious with it, because I’d felt that being cautious or over-reverential was probably where it was at that point.
I do remember when I went in December before I took over in January, when I went to the first story conference… now it may be because it was very cold, but having been – this would be quite contentious, but having been told that the story conference was almost like the pantheon of the gods, I was thinking I’d have to be on my mettle. Well, it was a cold December morning and we were going to be meeting in the V&A in one of the big conference suites there or something. These load of people tripped in in anoraks, shuffling in, and I kept thinking to myself that they all looked as if they’d been chucked out of their local library where they’ve been keeping warm on a winter’s day!
It was an interesting dynamic, because there were three or four writers who held the court, and then all the rest were rather subdued. And it went on for two days at that point. It went on forever. And unfortunately on the first day conference at lunchtime, certain members would go over to the [pauses] stables and come back, shall we say, slightly looser and more relaxed than they were when they’d shuffled in. And the curious thing was that you could actually see stories getting chucked around and there were some master storytellers there, but then once a drink was taken, it all slightly went a bit woozy again, so stories were talked up, and then they were talked down. And then you’d spend the next day trying to pull it together again. It was a bit of an eye-opener; I was thinking we might have our work cut out here.
Can I just ask, how many people were in the story meeting?
At that time there were about 13 writers, anywhere between 10 and 13, as a pool, if I remember it.
And just to ask, is that the case today?[whispers] I don’t know.
No… well. I’ll try and ramble through it and see. There were about 13 writers. Then there was the script editing department, which basically storylined and edited the shows as they came in. There was a story editor and three assistants that worked as script associates.
What I did, which was contentious, but I decided that the power really had to be… while we could have a cabinet- I mean, I’m very aware of what I’m saying here. It was interesting in 1997, Tony Blair took over as Prime Minister, and the Labour party [missed] [00:55:41]. There was a feeling that whatever had been said [at the script conference] had to be passed and put through. I slightly moved away from that and I gave the power to basically script editors and story editors, and myself.
Basically, I thought, well, you had to produce, you had to push it through, and the sort of slightly more collegiate era that had been there before, I think my detractors would say that I went and [missed]] [00:56:36] that, and said, we had the story conference… I cut the story conferences down from two days to one day, and we pushed it through and when we went round the writers as before, and basically streamlined it, I gave more power to the storyliners and the story editing. So yes, the writers were there and would come up with ideas and we would discuss them. But to push them forward, we had very clear ideas of where it went. I think arguably the story conference was alright when it was two episodes a week in the olden days, when a convivial, almost club-like atmosphere could prevail and when the programme itself didn’t have any competition – in the good and olden days.
But then EastEnders was on the go, and rightly or wrongly, the die was cast that we went from 2 to 3 and 3 to 4, EastEnders went from 2 to 3, except it was a different machine. Writers and actors equally didn’t cope or didn’t want to cope with the pressures that were on there, and it had to become much more disciplined I think, and slightly ruthless and much more of a machine, rather than purely being the whimsy, which often was wonderful, in its day, but I needed to grab younger views and southern views to keep the ratings up. And you know, we put on 3 million viewers in our time. But we went for big, sensational stories. There was also a slightly, maybe unspoken convention or wisdom that once you’d done one big story you had to rest because viewers would be exhausted. Well, that was palpable crap. So we always went from one big story to the next big story. I looked around and went, well, who’s the happiest family here? It was Kevin and Sally. And I’d say, right, we’ll break them up, so we brought Natalie Horrocks in and exploded that.
I went away on holiday and I came back and we’d had – Deirdre had a new admirer or something, and we decided he was a con-man. And I remember I stupidly went away on holiday and they decided to close that down. Deirdre will go into the corner shop and she’ll find out that he’s a cheat, and that’ll be it. But when I came back, Ann McManus discussing it, she was the script executive by that time [and she went] no, it’s got tons of bloody legs on this, there’s so much more you can do with it. And it ended up with the story being that Deirdre went to prison, and the huge publicity surrounding that, and even had Tony Blair’s press office phoning up the Coronation Street press office saying, could you tell the Prime Minister what’s happening with the Deirdre thing, because it might be mentioned? And we thought that was a hoax.
You mentioned that sometimes you had to be slightly ruthless. I remember the phase “the axe man” in the papers. Does that apply to both scriptwriters and cast?
Sorry, I’ll answer that… because I was going to say something else that will fall back into that.
The thing that’s probably changed from then to now is that in those days, the huge interest that the papers – particular tabloids, the Sun and the Mirror – had with the casts of Coronation Street and EastEnders. I was very aware of her [sic], and I suppose more than most, I again changed the wisdom. I was quite happy to deal with the press, first because a lot of my friends were journalists and working on the red tops… because what had happened before was that the Granada wisdom was that they didn’t talk to the press and so on. Well, the fact was that there were certain elements among the cast and certain elements among the story process that talked to the press, for money or whatever. Stories were always being leaked and Granada at that time had this slightly hunkered… And I thought, no, let’s go and talk to Piers Morgan and let’s work out things. We’ll give them exclusives.
The term “the axe man” came from the second day that I was there. I’d taken over and we’d had a script story conference where it was known we were going to get rid of quite a few people, dead wood, and it just happened that it started on my watch. So the next day, it said “the axe man”, so I got stuck with that because I had to tell… the first big one was… it had been decided that Thelma Barlow, who played Mavis, had said that she was wanting to leave, and it was going to be leaving Derek Wilton hanging there.
The problem was that there were already a lot of widowed characters in there who had been part of double acts. So there had been Reg Holdsworth and Sherrie Hewson’s character, Maureen – or what was she called? We’ll have to find that out. There had been Don Brennan and Ivy Tilsley. She’d gone and now there was going to be… so there were there half double acts, no story generating, nobody was wanting to do any stories for them.
And so we had Peter Baldwin, and we decided to kill him off. Now I could have stopped, but having seen that there were all of these spare pricks at a wedding type of thing, I agreed to it. But that was one of my first acts, having to tell Peter Baldwin that he’d be going. And then it looked as though I’d done that on my very first day, and so the sobriquet “the axe man” came on board. During my career I did kill off five or six characters for the reasons I was saying, that we needed to introduce younger characters. There was inevitably a feeling that some characters had served their time. We also had to renew the writing pool as well, so as many writers went as characters. It was a nickname that didn’t leave me.
Did you enjoy it?
Did I enjoy what?
Working on Coronation Street?
Oh, yeah, I really loved it. It was great having that amount of… it was like having a toy box and you just… yeah, we took risks, but… inevitably, with any job you do, I discovered, you have to stick your head above the parapet. And any advice I give to people is that you can only expect 50% to like you, and 50% will hate you if you ever do a job like that. And you’ve got to be fairly undaunted about that. And that’s the way it goes. You’ve got to be fairly fearless. And you know that you’re only going to be there for a time. But I think, if I say so myself, I understood the parameters of that job and I understood the history and the traditions and I’d been brought up – I’d watched the damn show for years with my granny in the olden days. She loved Stan & Hilda. But I wasn’t scared to give it a kick up the bum. And I realised the reasons you had to give it a kick up the bum.
When I was there I remember huge complaints about anything you did. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted because every so often there was… I always remember this time I brought in the Battersbys and they were seen as horrible and vulgar. There were tons of complaints. There were ex-members of… I probably can’t quote, but remember Peter Hines [?] [01:07:23]? He wrote a letter to Gerry Robinson. Anyway, a number of things came through from Gerry Robinson’s office via [whispers, inaudible] saying to me, “err…” And Cadbury’s, who were the sponsors of it, were raising concern. And I said, what do you want me to do? I’m either going to do the job, or you can sack me. We’ll find out soon enough if it’s working or not working.
And even to this day it’s a very harsh position to be in, that. I notice the latest ones, whatever he’s called, they’ve said “sacked!”… Of course, I made the very wise move of sacking myself and that’s what it was quoted as in the paper – “the axe man axes himself!” I got out while the going was good, as well. I think as a producer of Coronation Street, in all seriousness, or EastEnders, I think you’ve really only got two or three years max before you get tired and before the job becomes very very demanding.
We went in, made a lot of high impact stuff, but by that time, Ann McManus and Maureen Chadwick who were working on the show had come up with Bad Girls. Nick Elliot, who was the Head of Drama at ITV Commissioning had said, what are you going to be doing next? I got offered the job of Head of Drama at BBC Scotland. I remember Nick saying, don’t go to the BBC, whatever you do! Anyway, we touted Bad Girls and I left in 1998, I think after 18 months. But it was a great rollercoaster and I loved working with Peter Whalley and John Stevenson, you know, real masters. Those were the people you could remember and they could tell stories. And to watch them synthesise stories and create them out of… and to see ideas. When it worked, it was the pantheon of the gods. But you have to remember that sometimes it could be shuffling old men coming in from the public library.
And your period was a successful period for the show, wasn’t it, in terms of numbers and-?
The ratings went up, yeah. And the next year, Christmas was “poor EastEnders, it’s on the way down”. You always remember this.
All this is about Granada. What was the… you mentioned the politics of the show. Did you get backing from Granada as a management…? Did you feel-
I think they were worried about it, as I said. One of the most curious things was, “this has been passed on from the office of [X]”, you know, the President of the United States, but it actually happened to be Gerry Robinson. And it said, “oh, we’ve had quite a lot of these letters” which was just saying, “this horrible family” and “he’s destroying it” etc. I suppose I was quite long in the tooth and had been round Granada enough to be going, well, you brought me in…
I’ll put it this way. As with all these things, and you learn these things as you go, it’s like, [posh voice] “Oh right Brian, we want you go in and shake it up a bit” and when you start shaking it, they’re like “well we don’t want you to shake it too much though…” So you get this idea that yes, you have to be radical and it needs a good shaking up but then they go, hold on a second! So in some ways it’s likened to, you know… you’ve got this venerable old institution. It’s like running a stately home. You’re only there as a custodian and you’re going to hand it on to future generations, or the next producer, the next sucker that comes on. So you introduce lions, and an adventure park. But at what point does it destroy the original? It’s just one of those things were you make a judgement call. I know that after I left there was talk, “the problem with Brian was that there were too many big stories and they were all coming one after the other” and you go… err, as though you’ve only got a treasure trove of ideas and you can only hand them over to the public. Well, not by that time, I don’t think. The great thing was, we started one story, like say Sally and Kevin’s marriage getting broken up. And then once you’ve stopped that, you know, you brought in Deirdre.
Oh and the other thing – sorry, I should remember – during my time, in the midst of doing all this vamping stuff up and making it relevant to younger people and a southern base. It was the great – “when are we going to have a gay character?” and at that point, I went, oh, God, because at that point EastEnders had had a gay character. We had Brookside, and it just looked as though we’d be slowly sadly filling it… and so we trumped them all by having a transsexual! So Hayley come in and she went on for all those years and when she died, in the really great storyline that they had for her exit, and Julie Hesmondhalgh was a fantastic actress as well. But it was that slight devilment that we had in our day just to go, because… I always remember when, I think it was Anne McManus’ idea – it certainly wasn’t mine – said, we were thinking about it, and should we make a transsexual and I fell off laughing. I always remember the writer, who had introduced Hayley, and she was just introduced as yet another mousy from the garment factory sort of character and there was nothing there. When we announced it to the… [laughs] What they got at the story conferences was a thing saying the plot of what the next batch of episodes was going to be. I just remember the writer going, her character was X, and we reveal, she’s a transsexual! And she went, “this is a joke, isn’t it?” “No!” So it was interesting. We decided not to go gay, we thought that had been done, so we went transsexual. And it worked.
So you were at Granada in total from 1980 to…
1980 to 1998 I think, so 18 years with two years off.
Eighteen years. Obviously in this project, people like Leslie Woodhead, who were there in the mid or early sixties, and left in the nineties, so they had much longer memories. But in your view, what would you say was Granada’s legacy as a company?
I think Granada’s legacy as a television company… you were very aware of its history and its achievements. Without being too souky [?] [01:16:08] about it, I think it imbued a certain esprit de corps that… you certainly were proud to have gone through the ranks, and you know, I was there for 18 years, so this was quite a long time. Again, by my time, that idea that you moved on – because when we were there, there were people who had been there like Jim Walker who’d been there for years and years, and certainly from the technical side, people assumed they had jobs for life. When we were there, the influx of that freelance mentality was starting to come in, but I think we were all there at a certain time when there was a huge transition in terms of union practices and the makeup of what was television.
Remember that show that Gus Macdonald did, “From pop to porn”, which was the sort of idea that one day soon – you remember, the set was about 35 television screens, and we sort of vaguely understood it but not quite. Where we are now exceeds all that. The whole television landscape dimension has just blown out of the water, to and extent. And the thing that those seismic shifts that you had where ITV, Granada ate up all the other companies eventually… the fact that nobody expects a job for life anymore. The fact that even within drama, the advent of Netflix and Amazon has just completely changed [things].
It’s a very shifting world that we’ve gone in. And I think it’s an apt thing for us to do this, because I don’t think people will understand that sort of “homo Granadicus” – remember Denis Forman’s title? – I think that era has gone. The BBC still has it to an extent, but Granada always was the BBC of ITV. It’s probably been said before. And the fact that it did give you a label that you were happy to accept, that you were a Granada person, and I do genuinely feel that you were aware of its traditions and its histories, and you were proud to have learnt… it schooled me, it absolutely schooled me. There was no way about it that I learnt something there, some sort of values…
Also, at its worst, it could leaden you, and I suppose like all institutions it could carry people in its day, but if you think of the people who went through it and went on to bigger, greater things, I think everyone has a fond memory of Granada and the fact that you got to experiment and jump around and do things, whether it was in our cases going from entertainment to serious documentaries, and local shows to network shows… it was of its time, and I think when you saw that show that they had with Peter Kay, when they closed down Quay Street, it was poignant.
The other thing I do remember is that we used Granada facilities for one series of Waterloo Road. We used the edit suite. And it was the creepiest thing that ever happened to me. I just remember, because the front was locked by that time, and Angie that used to run the old school, she was on the desk, and she was like “oh hello Brian, haven’t seen you for a few years!” and I said [through clenched teeth] “Angie, I’ve not been here for ten years!” And I just remember one day walking through the corridors and it was all empty and I went, oh my god, that’s where locals was, and there’s where Irene McGlashan used to sit, and that’s where you used to charge around, and then there was… you know, that’s what you’d forgotten, the vibrancy as a young person when you were brought in: seeing the newsroom, finding out what the… that’s where the film editors were, down that mysterious place, up on the third floor you went down the corridor and that’s where Ray Fitzwalter was sitting with World in Action, and they did this, and then… and it remained when you could see King Lear being performed by Laurence Olivier, you got to watch those things as well. And that was the thing that struck me, that’s all gone. The edit suites were being used and the rest were being hired out or were just empty. And there was something you’d never get again. I think we were very lucky to have lived through what was a golden era. I always just remember that, it was quite creepy. I didn’t want to go back. We did that thing where I didn’t want to go back again because it felt like a ghost town, and it was full of ghosts. You did actually go, that’s where so-and-so was, and…
I had the same thing, editing in there, and we had to walk through these empty floors. Graphics were there and Design were there, and…
And that’s where my office, and that was entertainment, and that was there and that was there… It’s a time gone, but for those of us who were lucky to have been there, they’re great memories. There was just excitement. I remember when I first got the job I would stay in late just to wander about, it was so exciting. And everything was new. You’d go into a control suite and you’d be watching… the vision mixers, they were a breed, weren’t they? More than PAs.
It sounds like for you and for me, the bottom line was that you got a job in television. You could tell people you worked in television, which is a great place to be. It’s a dream come true.
It had a real glamour and not everybody could do it. [jokingly] Not like fucking today, when they’ve all got bloody job creation and mickey mouse… no, it was a sense of entitlement and a sense of arrival.
And a sense that you were surrounded by talented people.
Absolutely. You were going, oh my god, am I going to survive? And of course, you saw people that had been on the telly, whether they were the local news, your Tony Wilsons, your Bob Greaves, you got to meet them, or to see them, and God forbid, you got to see the Coronation Street cast in the stables – Ivy Tilsley hugging her one-arm bandit.
It was glamorous and I think you were starstruck. I mean, I was. I remember seeing the Coronation Street and other actors who were in King Lear or something, and going, my God, look, it’s him, it’s her.
It did have that weird sort of… the canteen was the great democratisation. You would see Denis Forman with his tray looking like one of the doorman. And they would make a point of sitting next to plebs and we would then have indigestion for half an hour! [laughs] There was a feeling of a slight democracy about it, whether that was true or not. I think in a way it did pride itself in running itself on vague BBC lines, in terms of its self-regard, which I think was very important. And you were also very aware that it was because we are Granada – “how can we do that?” “because we were Granada”. It had a sort of northern gritty edge to it, which had a slight implication that they didn’t want any of that grubby commercialism. Which was of course a load of nonsense, seeing as Thompson’s license to print money was still there. But somehow, they managed to pull off that there was a higher purpose to Granada in terms of educating. They always had that thing where they loved the fact that they had Coronation Street on one hand but they had World in Action on the other, and then they could do high-quality drama at the same time. They could have their cake and eat it, and it had a northern redoubt. They worked that one really well, I think, into an ethos that we all bought into. And to a large extent it was true, therefore that’s what you enjoyed.
Just briefly, I wanted to talk about entertainment, because we talked about Granada being Coronation Street and World in Action, and that those were the two big shows of the 60s. We remember entertainment being perhaps an area where they weren’t top of the tree compared to other companies.
How would you see that?
I think entertainment was a poor relation in terms of how it was seen within the company, and also within the other ITV companies. Particularly, I think… there was a London drift towards entertainment. If you think of the big shiny, you know, David Bell at LWT. So the amount of production value, the shiny floors, were all… particularly under David Bell and Michael Grade, I think stole the march… or it drifted down there in terms of, yeah.
Did Granada crack it, do you think? Or is it a goal that was…?
I think. [pauses] I think it held its own in the 90s with shows like Stars in their Eyes, You’ve Been Framed, which were popular shows. But you never felt in terms of running… it would be quirky shows that had gone by then, but you say, like The Comedians was a show that you might argue only Granada would or could do. But I think in terms of entertainment, its pedigree was less than say drama and documentary, which perhaps percolated down from the Bernstein side, I don’t know. And while they made fair stabs at it every so often, I think LWT was always seen as that sort of shiny floor, big production values [kind of thing]… would you say that’s fair?
Yes, absolutely. There was a period of reinvention from Johnnie Ham’s great successes, shows like Wheeltappers and The Comedians were very high-rating shows, and they were very identifiable to Granada Entertainment.
Yeah. I think in a way, if you think before… in its time, Granada had Coronation Street, and its entertainment shows were sort of on a par with that. They were high-rating, but they were seen to be within a world. They weren’t sort of, oh, it’s Hollywood and it’s glitz and we’re going America Las Vegas extravaganza, which I think LWT aspired to.
That’s true, that’s a very good point. I never would have thought of that-
Oh, we can put that in then.
I recommend that this stays in. The link between Coronation Street and-
Northern grit and… character. So the character could come through comedy and it could come through drama.
Because the characters in the street, that’s what they’d watch, or go to.
Yeah. And they’d go to the… what was the one in Wythenshawe, the Golden Garter?
In its day.
Brian, that’s absolutely great.
I’m glad they’re doing this in a way because nobody’s going to understand what it meant to be at Granada. It’s only doing this interview now that I’m suddenly aware that our memories will fade and people won’t know. And as I said, going through – it must have been 2005 or something – and it was nearly all empty. You know, there was a bloke at the door saying, “hello Brian!” It was quite weird, because you were going, “I’ve been away for ten years” and it was-
Sad. I was glad to get out after. I was there for about three months, but we did just go… And Jim Loach was there as well, and he’d done World in Action, stuff like that, did Coronation Street. Another thing about Coronation Street is that Granada had been declining then, but we were at the other end, and it was a self-contained world, working on Coronation Street. You’d come through a separate entrance and things like that. Yeah.