Chris Kerr

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Chris Kerr, Granadaland notes, blog

Joining Granada was for me a question of being in the right place at the right time. I had started life as a trainee vision mixer at Thames tv followed by a three years as a researcher on the children’s programme Magpie. I had wanted to try life outside telly for a time and had taken what I planned to be a short break working in the arts. But here I was, seven years later in 1980, running the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool having pretty much given up the idea of ever getting back into telly. Then I had a call from a Liverpool solicitor, Sir Harry Livermore whom I knew quite well; as a former Lord Mayor he had a finger in most of the arts pies in Liverpool. He had had a letter from Sidney Bernstein about Granada’s plans for a new studio in Liverpool; they were looking for someone to manage it. Harry said that as I was probably the only person in Liverpool who had worked in telly perhaps I’d better go for it. As it happened I had recently had some contact with Chris Pye who was then running the tiny Liverpool newsroom; Granada had a new series coming up called Camera (produced by a young chap called Steve Morrison) and wanted to mount an exhibition to coincide with it; would the Bluecoat be interested in hiring out the gallery? I quoted what I thought was a rather steep price and was a bit disappointed when Chris accepted it without question. So the show came and, on the opening night, a lot of GTV grandees including Sir Denis Forman who listened politely while I told him about our plans for a new cinema at the arts centre.

I duly wrote to Andrew Quinn asking to be considered for the manager’s job but it all went a bit quiet for some time because of the strike; there was even a small picket outside the Bluecoat. But, early in 1981, I had a call asking me to go and meet AQ and Rolf Mitson the head of Personnel – it was before the days of HR although Rolf was pretty good at the jargon.   I sat in his office for quite a long time while he told me that the manager’s job had gone but that there might be other openings – he was a bit vague. After some time the door opened and David Plowright strode in. “Have you said yes?” he asked. “What’s taking you so long?”   I said I still hadn’t been told what the job, if any, was. In a few typically terse words DP filled me in on the position, said that a bright young fellow from the Liverpool Daily Post called Highet had got the top job but would need an assistant. Why didn’t I meet him and see if he thought I was any good?

So I rang David Highet and we met at the Grande Bouffe, a restaurant I knew well (my wife had run it for a year or so and I’d occasionally waited tables there). I asked David how I would know him. “I’ll be the one with the winning smile” he said.   He was right. Anyway we got on pretty well and I duly started work a few weeks later at offices in Exchange Flags while the new studio was being built across the way.

David has already given you a brilliant account of those early days in Liverpool; they were the greatest fun and I have happy memories of meeting the inspirational Mike Short and the likes of Roger Blyth, Shelley Rohde and Nick Turnbull. Nick produced a late evening cabaret-style show called After All That This; he gave her first break to the young Kate Robbins who happened to be the cousin of Ian Harris one of our security chaps; they were both part of the extended McCartney family. I remember a sketch which involved a spoof weather report in which the forecaster said we could look forward to a warm front at which point a well-made young woman in an exiguous bikini walked past the map. There was a bit of harrumphing from upstairs and the sketch was pulled. Thirty-five years on it looks fairly innocuous if unsubtle but Nick liked to push the boundaries a bit.

As David Highet has said, we had a number of visits from the top brass in those days; DF, DP, Mike Scott, Joyce Wooller, Jules Burns, Steve Morrison et al and there was a sense among the more astute management that Liverpool was a prize worth having; friendly managers tipped us off that we should be prepared to fight to preserve our independence – something David managed superbly by increasing the number and variety of shows we made, a strategy which led in due course to the momentous expansion at Albert Dock.

After a few months I was invited, in terms that didn’t invite a refusal, to take responsibility for the Granada Foundation. Kathy Arundale has given a concise summary of the Foundation’s history and work. It had been run up to then by Leslie Diamond the General Manager but he was retiring and, given my background in the arts, DF thought I could probably cope. It wasn’t hard work; we met about three times a year and I would get a lift to Manchester in the chauffeur-driven Rolls of Phill (sic) Jacobs, a Liverpudlian business friend of Sidney Bernstein. We tended to give our grants in a fairly subjective way – there wasn’t much in the way of a formal policy. I was asked to draw up a paper with some suggestions on policy guidelines. I can’t remember what it said but it was probably full of worthy sub-Arts Council ideas for residencies and fellowships. Sir Bill Mather the urbane chairman wasn’t much in favour: “I think it’s probably quite good thing for artists to do a bit of starving in garrets” he said. Both Kathy and Irene Langford have had their goes at writing a policy but I think one of the virtues of the Foundation remains its unwillingness to be restricted by rules. Other members of the Council were Lady Helen Forman, who had been DF’s boss at the BFI after the war. She was formidable but utterly delightful and her no-nonsense manner disguised a clever and sensitive woman with a deep appreciation of the arts and culture. A young Bob Scott was also making his creative presence felt. And then there was Tom Laughton, brother of the actor Charles. Their parents had run the two biggest hotels in Scarborough and, when the time came for Tom to retire, he invited us to meet at his big house on the cliffs. Sidney came too and I think was helicoptered on to Tom’s lawn. We had a fantastic lunch at which we all drank a good deal from Tom’s excellent cellar. I sat back happily and listened to SLB and Tom reminiscing about Hollywood before the war and telling stories about Alfred (Hitchcock), Elsa (Lanchester), Charlie (Chaplin)and other big Hollywood names. Like many really great men, Sidney was extremely approachable – “Mr Kerr, please don’t call me sir,” – and made you realise what charisma really is.

Alex Bernstein, himself a great art connoisseur and buyer, asked me to take responsibility for the superb art collection, of which Kathy Arundale has spoken. I was also allowed to buy if I saw something that fitted and it was a privilege to be able to put together a collection of work by Liverpool artists such as Adrian Henri, Maurice Cockrill, Clement MacAleer, Stephen Farthing and others for the Exchange Flags studio. Quite a lot of these “disappeared” in the move to Albert Dock which I guess means that other people liked them too. About 1982 Robin Vousden who was the assistant director at the Whitworth persuaded Alex to let them do an exhibition of work from the Collection and we had a lot of fun arranging that. I was also involved in the move of the Epstein Jacob and the Angel statue from the basement of Liverpool Cathedral to a new home in the School of Architecture. It was a bit heart in mouth as they lifted it onto a lowloader – no one quite knew how much it weighed or how fragile it was. Later Alex sold or gave it to the Tate and for a time it was in the Tate Liverpool foyer; now it’s nice to see it safe at Millbank. Given the great value of the collection I was always impressed by how laid-back Alex was about the pictures. He felt it was important that they should be on general view and if, as they did, they got damaged, well we just had them repaired. Alex was a private person and rather reserved but, as I got to know him better over the years, discovered that he had a fine and dry sense of humour and decided views, not just on art. Once I’d got over the fact of who he was I think we got on pretty well; he was certainly excellent company.

After about a year at the Liverpool studio I was sent for to Manchester. Jules Burns was moving up a level and needed someone to take over running the researchers and journalists department. Effectively this meant making certain that all the 100 or so researchers had a programme to work on and that producers had enough of them to run their programmes. It wasn’t always easy as some producers were very picky about the people they’d take and there was often an element of arm-twisting in arranging these forced marriages. The upside was that I got to meet some of the greatest of Granada’s producers, memorably Leslie Woodhead – and Brian Lapping who was always happy to talk fascinatingly and at length about his new series (End of Empire, Hypotheticals etc) so that I could understand the calibre of person he was looking for.

I was allowed to sit in on the meetings where Jules Burns briefed Mrs Wooller and Mike Scott about the state of programmes, their budgets, staff and so on. Fascinating to see the instinctive way in which decisions (almost always the right ones) were made. Mike had only fairly recently been made Programme Controller – it was before my time but I got the sense that some people were quite surprised that he got the job. I thought he was superb. He’d come all the way through Granada and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about television. And the great thing about Granada was that it was rather feared by all the other companies us because it was a bit maverick – in fact I think our bosses went out of their way to be so.   And Mike really enjoyed winding up the other controllers; he was in a position of some strength because of the quality and quantity of our programmes. Mrs Wooller was another of those people who said little but whose opinions were carefully measured and absolutely invaluable. She and Mike were old friends and she rightly thought very highly of Jules so it was a very happy team. I liked her very much indeed.

Another part of the job was recruiting new researchers and journalists and this meant, once we had a run a series of preliminary interviews – usually with Mike Short or Rod Caird – setting up a final board on which would sit the likes of David Boulton, Michael Cox, Ray Fitzwalter and Stuart Prebble. The interviews were run in a way which the new HR regime would never contemplate. There was very little structure and we let the interview take its own course. Some of the best moments came when Ray would, in his mild way, lead the interviewee down an increasingly tortuous series of hypothetical backstreets and then ask, quite gently, “So what would you do then?”

The system obviously worked as we were able to hire some really top-class people. Some got away. Peter Mandelson came for interview (twice I think) for a job on World in Action but was sad to find it would mean leaving London to live in Manchester. Same for David Aaronovitch; I think they both went to work for John Birt at LWT.

Being on the 6th floor meant that I saw quite bit of the last great team to run Granada: Plowright, Forman, Scott, Alex Bernstein. And, sometimes, their rather well-known guests. I was sitting in my office one afternoon when David Plowright came in. “Just want to look out of your window” he said and he ushered in his brother in law Laurence Olivier and the director Christopher Morahan who were rehearsing for King Lear, to point out something on my side of the building – I can’t remember what: maybe the burned out ruins of the Jewel warehouse or the building that was becoming David’s latest wheeze, the V&A hotel.

The top Granada management had real style and, I think, were generally very well-regarded by the staff. When we won the franchise in 1987 – and I remember Andrew Quinn telling us how worried they were that they wouldn’t because of the bonkers bidding system which Thatcher had introduced – they sent every member of staff – to their home address – a bottle of champagne in a box with the message Normal Service Will Be Resumed. This was absolutely typical of their understanding and appreciation of the staff. And when the annual report came out you could see that, although top management was well paid, (and David Plowright had a free house) there was nothing like the light years gap between their salaries and ours. We were all on the same pay-scale; they were just a bit further up it and the gap seemed absolutely appropriate. All that changed of course a few years later.

Like everyone who was there at the time I remember the appalling shock of David Plowright’s resignation – well and truly shafted by the Group Board. Copies of John Cleese’s fax to Gerry Robinson were freely distributed and I still have mine, along with my Barnum.

In 1986 Granada had decided to move its Liverpool operation to the Albert Dock to coincide with the Electronic Newsgathering revolution. Mike Short, Sue Woodward, the News Editor, and I spent many weeks interviewing potential staff. I got a call one afternoon from Rod Caird who was screen-testing possible presenters for a political programme; would I come down and be an interviewee?   It sounded like fun so down I went and was miked up to be interviewed by the barrister Helena Kennedy. We had a very relaxed conversation about something to do with the arts, she was delightful, and it all went rather well. Then Rod murmured in my ear “We’re going for another take and this time I want you to be as awkward as you can. I want to see how she reacts under pressure.” So we went again and I gave her rather short, rather grumpy answers and was generally unhelpful. I thought she did really well. But she didn’t get the job; I never had a chance to apologise and I’ve always felt guilty about that, although she did go on to have a starry career with the BBC. A few days after that, as we were having a break between interviews, Shorty asked me if Sue had told me about their good idea. This was that I should apply for a job as arts reporter on the new Granada Reports team. Quite a dream! I wondered whether the session with Helen Kennedy had given him the idea. Anyway I did a pretty awful studio screen test and a rather better location report and, in April 1986, I joined the team – back in production after thirteen years!

I was regarded, at least to start with, by some of the team as a management mole. But I had got to know Tony Wilson in his capacity as Father of the Chapel and we had always got on well. As a novice reporter I used to go out with him on stories and he would give me valuable tips about talking to camera, keeping the sentences short and so on. He was unfailingly kind and helpful and I think it helped people to see that I wasn’t a stooge.   He was, as everyone knows, a legend – endlessly stimulating, full of good ideas, always questioning, never hidebound. If it doesn’t sound creepy it was a real privilege to be in the same newsroom; we all learned from Tony. Years later he presented a religious discussion series which I was producing and he was the producer’s delight: did his homework, read the research and asked excellent questions.

The first presenters of the new Granada Reports were Tony and a burly Irishman called Tom McGurk. As well as the 6 o’clock show we ran a number of bulletins during the day which were read by the evening presenters or senior reporters like Mark Gorton. When Tom left he was replaced by Richard Madeley who had, I think, been fronting the Manchester end of the show. Like many of the team who still lived in Manchester, Richard had to flog down the M62 every day and often arrived pretty close to the last minute – bad for the nerves of the news editor. One morning, with five minutes to go before the first bulletin, he hadn’t arrived; Shorty pointed at me. “You’d better do it” he said. And so, with a few minutes’ notice, I plugged myself in to talkback, put on an earpiece and away we went. Fortunately it was only a few minutes long and, with the help of the brilliant team in the box: Ian White directing and Bernie Hammond as PA, we finished more or less on time.

So for the next few years I alternated between news reading, occasional presenting with the Bobs, Greaves and Smithies, and reporting, mostly on arts stories – we were able to give a lot of good coverage to the opening on the Tate, across the dock from us, in 1988. Since I spoke some French Shorty also sent me to Brussels a few times to cover the trial of the young Liverpool FC supporters who’d been arrested after the disaster at the Heysel stadium. That was a great experience particularly as I met up again with Harry Livermore who had come out of retirement to defend the boys and who made rather a name for himself for his cheerily outspoken interviews.

When you’ve worked alongside the likes of Tony Wilson and Bob Greaves – and indeed Mark Gorton – it doesn’t take long to realise whether you’ve got it as an on-screener and, after five years or so I asked David Boulton who was then running Factuals if I could move towards production. He gave me a job working on an arts festival under Stuart Prebble and he in turn next allowed me to develop some contacts I’d made at Ashworth Special Hospital (what used to be called a criminal lunatic asylum); with Julian Farino as director we made They Call Us Nutters, an extended insight into life inside – it was the first time a tv crew had ever been allowed to make a documentary there. It was Julian’s first film as a director and mine as a producer.

Stuart later gave me the job of producing religious programmes with the much-loved Canon Frank Wright, and a bit later I ended my time back at Albert Dock as Deputy Editor of Granada News, a kind of glorified studio manager but also able to keep producing. But I could see that things were changing and since I frankly didn’t care for Charles Allen or his style I thought the time had come to jump. The excellent and much-missed David Fraser who had joined Granada shortly after me was now general manager and gave me a generous package and a freelance contract for a couple of years.   He died terribly young not long afterwards. Many of my good friends had moved on – and many more were soon to be axed by Mr Allen. I always think that I was lucky to have joined Granada for the last of the really great days and to get out just before it all went wrong.

 

 

 

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