This is an interview with Claire Lewis. Today’s date is the first of November and it’s Stephen Kelly doing the interview.
Let’s start at the beginning, Claire. How did you come to join Granada Television?
I was a newspaper reporter on the Rotherham Advertiser, believe it or not, in Yorkshire where I lived at the time. South Yorkshire. I had changed my career – I was reluctantly a primary school teacher – and then got an attachment to BBC Radio Sheffield in the ‘70s when Sheffield was the most progressive local authority around, and the council leader was David Blunkett, they did attachments, secondments, for teachers to teach them to become radio producers. I went to the BBC, I realised that I’d always wanted to be… I’d actually always wanted to be a director, film maker. I realised, I changed my career, I got into newspapers, and after about 18 months of working on the Rotherham Advertiser, which was probably the worst newspaper in the world at the time, I decided to move to try and get into broadcasting. I applied for a number of jobs in TV and didn’t get them, and finally there was a researcher’s job advertised in the press. I applied for it, for Granada TV. I got an interview, I got offered the job – which was life changing – and a week later they ran up and they said did I want to be a researcher or did I want to be a journalist. And I said, “Well, I’d like to be a journalist,” partly because the pay was better. They said, “Well, you’ll have to come and do another board.” So I came to Granada to do second board, and it was the day of the Woolworth’s fire. In May 1979. And there was nobody around. And I did my board for being a journalist and it was all a great crisis because Rod Kedd, who was running the news, couldn’t find anybody to go and cover the Woolworth’s fire, and eventually he had to send Patti Caldwell – this was right in the middle of my interview, and I remember really well. So then they offered me a job as a journalist and they said which one did I want. I went, “What? What?” It was completely crazy. I went from being a nonentity newspaper reporter on the Rotherham Advertiser to being a journalist on Granada Reports overnight. And it set me on the course of the path I’m now on.
What about the interview process? Was there anything that cropped up from that interview process?
Yes. I mean, the first interview I did for a researcher… I was a bit older than a lot of people they were interviewing at the time because I was changing careers. I had got two young children at home and I was a teacher, and I was a fanatical television watcher – I watched everything. I watched drama, I watched documentaries. So when I came to do my board, the interview process, Steve Morrison was interviewing me along with two or three other people, I was completely different I think from everybody else they’d talked to. I had a lot of views about what I was watching. I watched the Street and I knew what was going on in all the programmes. And it was a fun interview. It really was. I knew it had gone well. Steve and I got on straight away and we had a laugh, and I think it was clearly I was probably a bit different, and older than some of the other people to interview, and that’s… I found it a very engaging process, actually. I enjoyed the interview so I really wasn’t like any other board Id ever done. Because I’d done rather mundane things and sort of staid interviews, and this was completely different. Completely different. The journalistic board was a bit different because it was a bit tougher. But again, I quite enjoyed it. I had nothing to lose, you see. Absolutely nothing to lose. So you just go in there, you throw ideas around, you come out and you think you’ve not got a chance, which is the best way of doing an interview.
Okay. So you joined Granada Television.
I did. I joined the week of the 1979 General Election. My first job was working on the election programme when Maggie Thatcher, got in. So it was a momentous week, that week. July 1979. Extraordinary. To be interviewed on the day of the Woolworth’s fire in Manchester, and then to join Granada the week of July ‘79 of the general election, which was a Thursday, and Maggie Thatcher got in, was again, historic.
So what programmes did you… you came as a journalist?
I came as a journalist on Granada Reports. Off-screen journalist. And I’d only been at Granada six or eight weeks doing my basic filmmaking training, going out on stories, working with a film crew. I’d done a lot of radio, so I’d done a lot of radio reporting, so that wasn’t an issue. So I knew how to do that. But I had never had any journalistic training apart from on newspapers, which was good, but then I was learning about filmmaking from all the cameramen I went out with. But two things were very important in those days. Firstly, they were making Brideshead Revisited at the time and there was a big strike. And what happened was, was that all the fancy cameramen, the most wonderful cameramen who were working on Brideshead, were laid off and they all got put on news. So I spent the first six weeks of my career working with cameramen, making films, who were there because they had to work and they didn’t really want to do it. But they’d been laid off because of this strike on Brideshead Revisited. Learning by trade with some of the best cameramen I’ve ever worked with. And it was absolutely wonderful. It was fun, it was exciting, they taught me everything I knew, and they went and did shots that no other cameraman would have done. You know, the old bog standard news cameramen would have just stood and complained, whereas this lot were amazing. And then, after a very short time, there was the big strike in ITV. I had only been there about eight weeks when the ACTT called a strike. I was in the NUJ, so we didn’t work. So we then had three months off, which was again extraordinary. I moved cities, I moved away from Rotherham where I was living, I came to Manchester, six weeks of intense work and then suddenly nothing. This great big hole, which was a great big strike.
Presumably you were paid?
The NUJ were paid, yes, then, which was quite difficult. The ACT were all on strike and they didn’t get paid, but I was paid all the way through that and wasn’t working. I mean, it was extraordinary.
So when the strike ends, which I think was after six or seven weeks, you came back onto Granada Reports?
I did. I came back onto Granada reports as a off-screen journalist, which I loved. I was immediately sent to Liverpool, to the Liverpool office in Exchange Flags to do a stint there, which was interesting and different, and then very soon, at Christmas, I was summoned to the head of local programmes, who said, “Right, we want you to go off straight away and work on our local politics programme.” Which was Reports Politics. And I started Reports Politics in January 1980, working with Gordon Burns and your good self, and the legendary David Kemp, and it was very, very interesting. It was unlike doing news, I hadn’t worked on anything long form before, so we were making documentaries, and it was right… my first ever job as a researcher – and I had to swap from being a researcher to a journalist, I had swapped contracts, because they offered me this job – they wanted me to do it, so they said, “We want you to go on Reports Politics, but you will have to go on a researcher contract, therefore you’ll have to join the ACTT and you’ll have to give up your NUJ.” So I did. I kept being a member of the NUJ but joined the ACTT as a researcher, working on long form half-hour documentaries. And my first job, my very first job, was to go to North Wales and make a film about the burning of the Welsh cottages, of the English, who had cottages in Wales. It was a revelation. It was a revelation. I remember driving down to Wales in the dark, because it was January, following the leads, following the story. It was a really interesting story, because of course the Welsh were really, really concerned and very upset about it. And they were indeed burning English people’s cottages. So I remember getting to Bangor about early evening in January. It was pitch black and I walked into this bar, pub bar, because I was trying to find somewhere to stay or a hotel or something, and I walked in, and everybody was speaking Welsh, and as I walked in the entire pub went silent. The entire pub. As I walked up to the bar and started talking to them in English. The landlord, or whoever was behind the bar, spoke to me in Welsh, replied. I have never felt so foreign anywhere in my life as I did in that pub that night in Wales, and it was a really interesting experience because it kind of set me up for making the film, and I realised how serious it was and how strongly the Welsh felt about their language. Anyway, I don’t remember much more. I remember working with David Kemp. We had a tradition on Reports Politics is that after we’d done the show we would go all go out for a meal, the whole team, which was a really fabulous team, it was great working together, and we would all go out to this very swish Chinese restaurant in Manchester, which was probably the finest Chinese restaurant in the country, and we would all go out and have a wonderful slap-up meal paid for by our exec producer. And we did that every week. And again, I’d never encountered anything like it. And it was really fun, and we would take our guests from the programme with us, so we would have a very good discussion, I met a lot of people, and there was Gordon, and there was David Kemp, and it was very political, with a small p, but also political with a big P. So it was a fantastic experience.
Okay. Next step from Reports Politics?
I went back to Granada Reports as an on-screen reporter. Yes, that’s right. I went back as an onscreen reporter, which was also fun. I had to do a screen test, and they wanted more women on screen at the time, there were a lot of male reporters who weren’t that good. So there were three of us. We got selected, we did screen tests, and started reporting. And I did that for about a year on Granada Reports, or maybe not quite a year, I don’t remember. But it was quite stressful. I found live television easy and fun, but I found reporting pieces to camera an absolute nightmare. Absolute nightmare. People who act a lot, and I’d acted a lot as a young person, are not very good reporters, and they realise that. The worst presenters are the people who are actors. People who are good on screen are people who are exactly the same on screen as they are off screen, and don’t change. And I found on onscreen reporting quite difficult. I found having to worry about will look like very difficult, get up at 6am and wash your hair and makeup on, it was all quite tricky. And in the end there were three of us on screen, and the head of local programmes summoned me in one day and said, “By the way, we don’t want you on screen any more,” which was kind of a bit sad but actually a great relief. And I remember I had one famous occasion I was doing an important piece on cervical cancer, in the early days before anyone talked about it, and I was doing it with Julie Goodyear – Bet Lynch on Coronation Street – and we did a whole item about how important it was for women to realise what was going on. And I was quite fashion conscious, and I wore a pair of green corduroy dungarees and some knee length boots to do this piece. Tan leather knee length boots. And I did my piece to camera outside the Christie hospital, along with Julie Goodyear, who was absolutely hilarious. Anyway, I did my piece to camera, did my piece, it went out on Granada Reports, and then immediately after the show I got a call from head of local programmes, Steve Morrison. He said, “I liked your piece, but don’t ever wear anything like that again on Granada Reports if you’re presenting.” And I went, “Sorry?” He said, “The kind of women who we want to get the message of cervical cancer to are not going to be wearing knee length boots and green corduroy dungarees. I want my reporters to look smart, and for people to realise that they’re one of them rather than looking trendy.” And it was interesting because he was actually completely right. He was completely right. And it was an object lesson for me about how, when you work at Granada, the audience comes first. It’s not about what you want to do and what you want to wear on screen, it is about how do you get your message across. And I think, for me, it was a fundamental lesson in the difference between working for ITV and working for the BBC. ITV training teaches you from day one to put the audience first. What’s the audience going to think about this? Who is your audience? Why are you doing it? And that’s really interesting.
Do you think that’s because Granada was northern?
Partly, but I also think it’s was because Granada was set up because ITV, Granada, it was a commercial station. They were set up to make money. You can’t make money if you don’t appeal to your audience, and you have to put your audience first. So I don’t think it was particularly a northern thing. I think it stood out more because I was a southerner, and some of us were middle-class trendy southerners who had been brought up to work in the north. I think maybe people were more conscious of it because of obvious class differences in the north, but I also do think it’s an ITV thing. I mean, one of the things you realised when you worked in ITV in the north is that everybody who worked in TV were just normal people who happened to be working in TV. They weren’t media luvvies. They were just nice normal ordinary people. Whereas people were working in media in the south right from day one were all media luvvies. I really do believe that. And that was why it is such a wonderful thing to work in TV in the north, not in the south.
What happened next?
I became news editor. I did a stint on an education programme, again with Gordon Burns, called Chalkface, which was a documentary series. So I swapped backwards and forwards from news to other programmes for three or four years. I then became news editor of Granada in 1981, which was great, working with Stuart Prebble, ran the news for a year. Then, when I then got pregnant and had a baby, and realised that news wasn’t really compatible with having a young baby; it was very difficult and I couldn’t be on call all the time, and it was very demanding, so I decided to ask if I could go into documentaries, which is what I really wanted to do. I mean, my whole reason for going to Granada in the first place is because I wanted to work in World in Action. As a newspaper reporter, I wanted to work on World in Action and I wanted to change the world. I wanted to use filmmaking as a means of changing the world, and I should have said that in the beginning, but that’s what it was. It was only when I got to Granada, because I already had two children, that I realised that the way in which they ran World in Action, it was not possible to be a mum and have children and work in World in Action – it was completely impossible. The way that they worked, the rotas, the shifts, meant that you could not hear a mother and work on that programme at the same time. Only one person had ever done it when I was there, and in subsequent years, who had ever managed to work on World in Action and had children.
Is that a criticism of Granada generally? Could they had been been better?
They could have been better, of course they could – but it was how it was at the time. There was no awareness at the time of the fact that there were crèches, the fact that we had kids. You know, if you had a kid, that was up to you. You could go off and have a kid, but you sort it out yourself, you know? And that was the ethos. You had childcare and you didn’t bring your kid problems to work. And that was just the way it was. I think it was tough, very tough, and difficult, but nobody really complained because they didn’t know any different. There was no other examples. The BBC were just beginning to realise about women working and having children, but in ITV there was never any kind of concession to women having children, having kids, and that kind of working.
And in a more general way, Granada and women… were they sympathetic at all, or was it always difficult for women?
I don’t think it was difficult for women at all. I no found any problems, apart from the fact that when you went off on maternity leave and you came back you had to look after your own children and it your own business. I know there was never anything other than lots of opportunities for women at Granada, always. Always. I didn’t find any kind of prejudice. There were no places that women couldn’t go. It was entirely done on merit. It was entirely whether you’re any good at what you were doing, and obviously if your face fitted, but that applied to both men and women. It wasn’t just women thing, you know, people wouldn’t get on and some people wouldn’t understand why. And that happened to both men and women. So I don’t think there was a particularly… in fact there was a pro-women culture when I joined.
So you eventually got onto World in Action?
No. I wanted to go, I realised I couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly be away from home for weeks on end when you have two children of school age, they were only eight and 10, or nine and 11, there was no I could do that. So I went on to the news, had another baby and became a researcher in documentaries. I had realised that’s what I wanted to do, and the first series I made was a series with Ray Gosling – wonderful presenter, Ray Gosling – called Human Jigsaw, with Sandy Ross – legendary figure, Sandy Ross – that was really fascinating. So that began my real initiation into making documentaries, and that’s what I stayed doing. With a few diversions which I’ll tell you about. So I did Human Jigsaw. As a teacher, I watched Seven Up. I did a certificate of education and I trained to be a primary school teacher, and part of that was watching Seven Up. When I got to Granada, I realised that Granada made Seven Up. And it was interesting because I was beavering away doing Human Jigsaw in 1982-3, and I’d worked briefly for Steve Morrison on his first drama, the Orwell drama The Road to 1984, because I desperately wanted to do drama. And because I was working in local programmes, everything I was doing was in local programmes, I was working with Steve on a number of programmes and he got me in as a researcher and as a researcher to work with him on his George Orwell drama, which was directed by David Weatley. Again, absolutely amazing experience. We shot it in in a old hospital in Trafford Park. My responsibility was getting all the animals for The Road to 1984, for the script was written but my job… Steve Morrison and David Wheatley, who were running the film, would feed off each other’s fantasies. And one day Steve said to me, “We want to use real pigs in the scenes for Animal Farm.” And I went, “Okay.” And we want we want real pigs, and we want the real pigs to be performing and doing all the things. There was a long silence and I sort of said, “You do realise that 1984 was fictional, don’t you?” And they both looked at each other and said, “We want to find real animals.” So I was dispatched to find real pigs who could perform. I have to say, probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had in my TV career, because pigs don’t perform. They’re really, really… they’re intelligent but they’re not very good performers. So I went and befriended the pig keeper at Tatton Park Farm where they had a lot of pigs. And he was called Ted Heath, believe it or not. And Ted Heath and I got on. And I said, “Look, this is my brief. My bosses, who are completely mad, want to use real animals in the Animal Farm sequences. How am I going to do this?” And he said, “Okay…” So we had a few plans and we got some pigs and he started training up one particular pig called Christine to have a paintbrush in her mouth for the sequence where they had the commandments written on the wall of the garage doors on Animal Farm. You know, the commandments. One, two, three, four. What they wanted was to film the sequence where they had a pig with a brush, and it looked like the pig was painting. Then there was another sequence of all the pigs coming in to the house to eat their food and sit up at the table. All of which was… I mean, nobody realised what a complete fantasy that was anyway. So that was my job. Anyway, Ted got this pigs quite well trained, and we did a few practices and we realised that we could do certain things with them. Christine was wonderful. She would actually pick the brush up and she would stand with the brush, and just had to go up a ladder; she had to go two or three steps so that she looked as if she was painting. So come the day of the shoot, big film shoot, crew of 500, James Fox, actors, trailers, hospitality, the whole thing; my first experience of a proper feature film shoot. We were doing the animal sequences. Okay. So we start and was all going swimmingly. And then it came to the scene where Christine had to appear. Right. No Christine. Didn’t appear. Nothing. We were waiting around. “Claire, where’s the pigs?” I said, “I’m sorry. I’ll go and find out.” So I ran and said to Ted Heath, “What’s going on?” He said, “I can’t get Christine out of her pen. I can’t get her out.” I said, “What do you mean?” “She won’t come out.” “What do you mean, she won’t come out? We’ve got to film this scene. I got a 500-person film crew here. What are we going to do?” “I can’t get her out,” says Ted. So we tried our hardest and couldn’t get Christine out at all. She would not come out of her pen. She’d never done it before and we didn’t know what the problem was, but she wouldn’t come out. So then we had one more scene to do, Christine was supposed to lead all the pigs into the house to get up to the table, and she wouldn’t. So I said to Ted, “What are we going to do? This is a really expensive film shoot. We’ve got film stars here. What are we going to do to shoot the house scene?” He went, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We will use a bunch of pigs we haven’t even worked with before, and we won’t use Christine. We’ll try this.” I went, “What?” he said, “It’s okay.” So we went and put food on all the plates in the house. Nobody knew that we hadn’t used these pigs before. And so we started to shoot the scene. So we herded the pigs, and the one that he hadn’t used before went into the house – and you can see this, because we actually shot it for the actual scene – these pigs went all the way around the table, it was a circular table, and each one got up onto the table and started to eat out of these bowls. It was unbelievable. We just stood there with our mouths open thinking, “We’re okay, we’re fine, this is working.” And we shot the whole scene and everyone thought it was wonderful. Nobody knew that we hadn’t worked with those pigs before, they were a completely different set of pigs, and that Christine wouldn’t come out of her pen. So we had to go back the following week to shoot Christine because she did know what she was doing. I said, “Ted, why wouldn’t she come out of her barn?” And he said, “Because she was in season and she had to walk past the male pig,” and she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t go near him. And she wouldn’t come out. He could smell her, and she could smell him. And so sex reared its ugly head! And then, of course, I had to do an interview for the papers when the film came out. And I told them the story about Christine, and one of the reporters said, “Well, what’s happened to Christine now?” and I said, “Sadly, she’s pork pies.”
So that was before, and then I got an inkling, I got a whiff of the next Seven Up film. I said to Steve Morrison, “Look, if this comes up, I’d really like to do it. I’m a teacher. I know about these films.” And I think because I had a very good relationship and I’d worked a lot with Steve right from day one, I’d done a lot of work for him, and particularly on The Road to 1984, working with Steve Morrison was a really interesting experience. Because he expected… he expected the best. He expected perfection. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And working for people like that means that you give of your best. If what you’re expected to do is so high powered and so good, and so ambitious, then you work towards that, and you can see it much more often than you think. So working for him, you know, he used to ring me up at 1am sometimes, wen we were doing The Road to 1984, about the pigs and about this, because it was his first feature, it was my first feature, and it was really important to everybody that it was good. So I think he was quite sympathetic to me doing Seven Up, and because I’d asked for him, so it suddenly came up and there I was… we’re going to do 28 Up. And there’s a very interesting story about 28 Up. Somebody else did a little tiny bit of research and handed me a piece of paper saying, “These are the people, they’re all missing, there are no programme notes.” Nobody had been in touch with them between 21 and 28. Nobody could find the files. And that was me. Steve Morrison said, “Right, off you go, you can go off and do 28.” But there was history to this. Because Mike Scott, who was then programme controller, thought that 28 Up would be boring, and they weren’t going to do it. They had decided apparently – and this is an apocryphal tale – they had decided that people are boring at 28 and there was no point doing it. And the only reason it got done was because Jeremy Wallington, who was then at Granada, series exec producer, had left and gone freelance and had set up his own company. And Jeremy Wallington said, “Well, if you don’t do it, I will. If you don’t want to do 28 Up, I will do it.” And at that point they realised they couldn’t allow that to happen. So they reluctantly, Mike Scott believing that 28 Up was going to be boring because nothing happened to people when they were 28, that was how I got the gig. And so of course, I then set off on this momentous, world-changing, life-changing experience of working on Seven Up with absolute gusto and great delight because it’s exactly what I wanted to do. It was perfect for me at the time. Except it was tough, because there were no programme notes. I had to find people, right from the beginning. All the girls had got married and changed their names. Neil was completely missing, Symon was completely missing. No addresses, absolutely no record of where they were. And I had to start… there were a few old phone numbers of some of the people in some old programme file somewhere, I think probably the contracts department had a few contact details for some of them, but that was it. And I had to start from the beginning.
And you managed to track them all down?
I learned how to find a missing person, yes. I tracked them all down. I got to the point where I had to go through the electoral roll in Southall to find one of them. Luckily he’s got a very unusual surname so it was quite easy to do that once I realised. Finding Neil, who was completely missing, took three months. Nobody had seen him. His parents hadn’t seen him, his brother hadn’t seen him. Nobody knew where he was. Absolutely nobody. So I literally had to try and do what the police do when you’re looking for a missing person. And I did. And it’s a very interesting experience in that when you’re looking for a missing person, the way you find them is somebody always tells you something they shouldn’t. And that’s the key to it. Eventually somebody will tell you something that they shouldn’t tell you. Give you a piece of information that you shouldn’t really have. And that’s how you find them. And I finally found him, after three months of tracking him and tracking phone calls, the blind alleys, I found him in North Wales. And I found him because somebody told me, two people told me things they shouldn’t have told me. Key people. And I found him in a caravan in North Wales. Finally. And I drove there, knocked on the caravan door in the middle of this field. He opened the door and I said, “Hi, I’m Claire, I’m from Granada.” He went, “Oh, hello. Come in.” And he told me many years later, many years later, that he thought I was the cleaner come to clean his caravan, which is why he let me in. So working on that was amazing. I met Michael, I got on with Michael straight away.
Michael Apted, yes. I met Michael obviously very early on, but he had to meet me and make sure that we got on, and that was the right person. We did that. He was on a couple of days in London away from Hollywood, he was based working in Hollywood permanently, living in America. So I did the whole of the research for 28 Up on my own, set everything up, found everybody, and he just came over for the shoot. And there are several funny stories about 28 Up which I will tell you if you want to hear them, because they are legendary.
Before you do, explain what Seven Up is.
Seven Up was a World in Action special made in 1963, and it was commissioned by the then editor of World in Action, Tim Hewat. Tim Hewat had been brought to Granada by Sidney Bernstein and Denis Forman as the very first editor of World in Action. He was an Australian and he was editing the Daily Express, which was at the time a very, very popular, quite incisive newspaper. What Granada was set up in the early sixties, Sidney Bernstein and Denis Forman wanted to do something different with current affairs. They wanted a new immediate, popular current affairs programme that wasn’t didn’t reek of social class and posh people, and Panorama and those things. So they poached Tim Hewat, they got him over from the Daily Express, and he started and created World in Action, which was absolutely phenomenal. There was nothing like it in television at the time; it was ground-breaking and so popular. They did programmes on topics from all over the world, as well as UK topics, in a completely different way. Very appealing, very accessible, very populist. Tim Hewat did that for a couple of years, I think. And I don’t know what happened, but he got bored, wanted to go back to Australia, but he had one burning idea that he desperately wanted to do, which was born out of the fact that he was an Australian and he was appalled by the rigidity of social class. And I spoke to him on the phone several times when I was doing the book for 35 Up. And he told me about why he felt so strongly and why he felt that he needed to make a film about social class for World in Action. It turned out that it was his swansong. He commissioned Seven Up. Seven Up was created by a number of people who happened to be working at Granada over the time. And it was directed by Paul Almond, who was a drama director, who was in between jobs. The two researchers were people who’d just joined Granada. One was Michael Apted, fresh from university, and the other was Gordon McDougall. They were the two researchers. It was shot by a news cameraman who had never shot anything like this before, one of the Samuelsons, David Samuelson, who was a news cameraman. And Tim Hewat said, “I want to make a film about social class in Britain.” He wanted also to take on board what he believed was the kind of Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man.” In other words, he wanted to know what the seven-year-olds of 1963 were going to be doing in the year 2000, which is what the film was about. And it was to look at social class, pure and simple. Opportunity and social class in Britain. And it was England, it wasn’t Britain. It was only England. So the brief to the two researchers was they had six weeks to find the kids. Six weeks only. They had to turn this programme around in six weeks, a special World in Action. So they did that. They found the kids, Michael found half, Gordon found the other half. Meanwhile, Tim Hewat decides to go back to Australia and be a sheep farmer in Victoria. And he went. So he left in the middle of the production process and went back to Australia, leaving Seven Up adrift, without an exec producer, without a producer. They were all beavering away. So Derek Granger came in and oversaw Seven Up for Tim, and Tim had gone. And that’s how it all came about. So this motley crew of people who happened to be in Granada at the time, just gelled and made the most extraordinary film. Seven Up was groundbreaking. Again. It’s the first time… there were no adults at all in Seven Up, just children talking. First time that had ever been done. Nobody had ever done that before. Just kids talking. Their lives, their hopes and dreams. Wonderful film, beautifully directed, because it was directed by drama director, not a documentary or a news director. So there were shots in it that would never have happened had it been directed by some, you know, not good, but ordinary sort of documentary film maker, and I don’t mean that pejoratively, but having a drama director in it made all the difference to the way it looked – and it looked amazing. And that’s how it came about.
And then there was the successive 14 Up.
There was. So basically, the story about 14 Up, which is called 7 Plus Seven, Michael Apted, very quickly after Seven Up, wanted to be a drama director. His career progressed very fast. He did the Street, he then left, went freelance, came back, did some wonderful Jack Rosenthal dramas, and he was in the canteen and this – I know this is true, because he told me – he was in the canteen one day at Granada, doing a drama, and Denis Forman came up to him and said, “How are your seven-year-olds doing?” And Michael said, “Sorry?” he said, “Isn’t it time we went back and visited those children?” And that’s how it happened. So that’s how 7 Plus Seven and the whole… it was never intended to be a series. Seven Up was a one-off special.
Yes. It was never intended to be a series. And it was only because Denis Forman came and said, “Shouldn’t we be going and having a look at your seven-year-olds?” And in the original commentary for World in Action, for Seven Up, there’s a line, “What will today’s seven-year-olds be doing in the year 2000?” What will the shop steward and the company director… what are they thinking. So there was always a thought that they might go back in the year 2000, but it was never intended. It was a one off. And then they commissioned 7 Plus Seven and the rest is history. And that’s when Michael took ownership of the whole project.
Right. And you’re now the producer?
I’m the producer, yes.
And Michael is executive producer?
No, he’s the director. He produce-directs, and I produce. But we actually do it together.
So you’ve done it since 28.
I have, yes.
Which is how many now?
I’ve done five, and we’re about to embark on the sixth.
I won’t go into the sociology of it all… you said there were some funny stories.
I suppose 28 Up had the funniest stories. They were the ones where – I mean, there’s constant funny stories – but you have to remember, that when we made 28 Up there were no mobile phones. And I found Neil, who was a missing person, in this field in Wales. The problem with Neil was he kept moving – he was homeless. So he would move, and he would never stay in one place more than three or four days. And I could not keep track of him. I couldn’t keep track of him. He then moved up to the Highlands of Scotland, and I had to try somehow and find a way of tracking him. There were no phones. He wouldn’t use the phone anyway, and I had to arrange for this Hollywood film director to come over and film him with a big film crew, with George Turner and everybody, all of us. And I couldn’t find him. So eventually I worked out a system where I realised that the only thing… he had to collect his giro, Social Security, money every week. And the only place he could do that was in post offices in the Highlands. So what I did was I befriended all the people who ran the local post offices, and they would pin notes for me on their notice board for Neil. And I said, “If Neil comes in, you have to tell him this, you have to get him to read the notice board, and you have to tell him this.” It was the only way. So I had to fix two days filming in the Highlands, three days’ filming. So we fixe the shoot, we went to him, we flew to Inverness with a film crew and Michael, and we were all waiting around. We fixed a time and a place, and I didn’t know whether Neil had got any of my messages. I had no alternative but to try. So we were all there waiting at the appointed time, the appointed place, and I had absolutely no idea whether Neil was going to turn up or not. And absolutely bless him, we waited about half an hour, and Michael – who is not the most famous person on the planet – was about to have a bit of a nervous breakdown, and bless him he turns up. Have you got one of the many, many hundreds of messages that I had plastered all over the walls of the post offices, and he said, “You left me a lot of messages!” I said, “Yes, I did, actually.” So we did that, and then the worst experience was, one of the people in 28 Up, Symon, had basically… he changed his life a lot between seven and 28. I’d met him and I found him, he was also missing, but I found him. And we had arranged that we would film in Chessington Zoo for a whole day with Michael. It was all arranged, I’ll get a mini bus, I’ll pick you all up. He’d already have five children between 21 and 28. He’d got no children at 21 and five children by 28. So it was a good, interesting story. I turn up at 8am on a Saturday to film, nobody there in his flat. Nobody there at all. No reply No response. Knock on the door. Nothing. I had a film crew waiting at Chessington Zoo with Michael Hollywood, film director, and no way of communicating. Okay. I wait for about half an hour, three quarters of an hour, outside the flat. Nothing. Knock on the door again. Nothing. Knock on the door again. Nothing. Okay. After about an hour I saw the curtains twitch in the flat. I thought, “They’re in there!” So I went and knocked on the door and opened the letterbox and said, “Hi – are you in there? What’s the problem? Do you want to have a chat?” You know, “Why don’t we just talk about this?” Anyway, so reluctantly he let me in. They were hiding behind the sofa because he didn’t want to do the film.
They being he and…
The whole family?
The whole family. Not so much him, the whole family were hiding behind the sofa. And he was very sweet, and he came in and said, “Look, we really don’t want to do this. My wife and children don’t want to do this.” So I said, “Okay, let’s just sit down and talk about it.” And so we chatted, and I said, “Look, why don’t you just do it?” Just you do a little bit. Don’t do much. Just come and do it. We’ll go to Chessington Zoo, we’ll take the kids for a day out, and once you get there the kids can run around and have fun and you can just do a bit of an interview and nothing more. How about that? So after about a couple of hours, he said, Okay.” So we all piled into the minibus and drove to Chessington Zoo, by which time we were three and a half hours late for the shoot. Right? And Michael and the crew, with whom we couldn’t communicate because they had no phones, didn’t know what’s going on. We’ve talked about this recently, Michael and I, about this exact event, because he didn’t remember, and I do. I actually saw my career disappearing. I literally… when they didn’t answer the door I thought, “This is it. I’ll never work again. It’s my fault. I’ve done something wrong. No career.” As I walked into Chessington Zoo – and they were all there, the film crew, waiting for us – Michael was absolutely furious and boiling, and I said to him, “Don’t say a word. Not a word.” I said, “Smile and be nice.” Right? Smile and be nice and don’t say a word. He just went… he was (??49:01). And we carried on and we managed to get what we wanted.
Very good. Has anyone pulled out?
Yes. Two or three people. Some of them pull out if something particularly goes bad or wrong in their lives at a time when my making a film, some of them will leave and then they’ll come back again seven years later if things have changed. There’s only one person who has pulled out permanently after 21 who has never done another one. But people respond differently; if their life circumstances are really bad, they don’t particularly want to go on the telly and don’t talk about it.
Sure. Sure. So you’re now at…
They’re going to be 63 in 2019. They’re coming up to 62 now.
And you’ll start filming that next year.
Let’s go back to Granada.
Oh, really? Okay.
Do you want to talk a bit more about Seven Up?
No, no – it’s up to you. You’re the one asking the questions.
Yes. Let’s talk a little bit about the ethos of Granada Television. Granada Television as a company. I’m thinking in terms of its northernness, its politics.
They were very important. Its politics were very important. Its northernness was very important. It was completely different from anywhere else. And it was a combination of people who were left-wing socialists and in showbusiness. So if you wore a gold lamé suit to your interview you were likely to get a job, and if you were left wing you were likely to get a job, but if you were in the middle and you were boring, you wouldn’t. That was the kind of ethos at the time. It was a combination of ideas, and exciting people, and interesting people, and left-wing people, actually, at the time.
Unashamedly left wing?
Unashamedly left wing mostly, yes. Mostly. And that was because of Sidney Bernstein, really. And it stemmed from Sidney, who I actually knew as an 18-year-old, believe it or not.
Yes! I knew Sidney Bernstein way, way, way before my career at Granada. His daughter, his stepdaughter, and I were at school together. So she and I became very good friends. And I became a friend of the family. So I knew Sidney when he was setting up Granada. He was an incredibly scary man. Very, very… and the first time I met anybody who I found deeply intimidating. I mean, he was fiendishly intelligent and very intimidating. For a teenager. But I knew him, and there was one famous occasion where I went around to their house and they were all having dinner. Because he was a multimillionaire and he already had the most fabulous proper paintings on his wall that I’ve ever seen in my whole life. You suddenly realised you were looking at something that was a Modigliani, and it was a real Modigliani. It wasn’t just fake. We actually had this dinner, I can’t remember what year it was, it must have been early ‘60s, I suppose, and he said, “Oh, by the way, Granada’s going into the motorway café business. I want each of you to tell me what you would want to eat if you stopped at a motorway café.” I thought, “Oh, no, he’s going to ask me.” So he went around the table and he asked all the guests what they would want to eat at a motorway café, and we all had to say what we thought we would like to eat. And then, of course, my career took a different turn, I completely forgot about it. Ended up at Granada, meeting up with Sidney only once, when he was still there in the late ‘70s. He used to occasionally walk around the corridors. Very, very occasionally. I met him once after that, and that was it. But I think he was responsible for the ethos. Him and Denis were really responsible. And Plowright, to an extent. They were responsible for the ambience, the feeling, the drive.
And did you come into contact with Denis and David Plowright?
I did with David Plowright, yes. Not with Denis. With David Plowright I did quite a lot. Because of being news editor, and because of Seven Up, I came in touch with him quite a lot, yes. And he was, again, absolutely extraordinary and a real inspiration.
How do you think Granada contributed to an image of the north west?
Well, that’s… well, because of the Street. Because of the Street. I knew and watched the Street long before I knew that it came from Granada, or cared. I watched it as a young mum at home, part-time teacher, and that was my image of the north. So in a way… is it fair? Possibly. Is it fair? Yes and no. In the early days, I think some of it was very representative, but it was a fictionalised, romanticised version of what working class life was like. I do think that image was very important; the way that people were portrayed in the Street. Because that was how anybody who didn’t come from the north saw the north. So yes, Granada had a really, really important shaping of the perception of northerners via the Street. I think in terms of politics and World in Action, we did alternative things. We gave a completely different view of what was going on to the world. Well, to the UK, because the world didn’t see it. But it was great being part of journalism that didn’t come out of London. And that was the best thing about it.
Was it a good company to work for?
Yes, absolutely. It was the best. It was the best. At the time I joined, I was very lucky. They were making wonderful, wonderful dramas that no one else was making – Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead – fantastic programmes. World in Action. Everything they did, wonderful. Tony Wilson, wonderful pop programmes. It was absolutely an amazing place to work. The ideas, you could go with ideas, people would take them seriously, and there was a real hunger for doing stuff differently. When I first went there. And it was the best place to work. By far. I couldn’t believe I got there, and the fact that I got there is just extraordinary.
And when did you leave?
I left in 1986. I left to go to the BBC because I wanted to direct, and I couldn’t get a director’s ticket. Because of the ACTT rules, I couldn’t get a director’s ticket unless I did a board and got a director’s job. I wanted to direct. I didn’t have the opportunity. I went to the BBC, and I was headhunted to the BBC to go and join a programme called Open Air, which was being made by the BBC. I got my director’s ticket straight away. I walked in… because I had been directing news. As a reporter you direct all your own… I’d been directing for three years, so I knew how to make films, and I knew how to make half-hour films, because I’d been working on Reports Politics and all the other things. But I couldn’t get a ticket. And I wasn’t perceived as being a director, I was perceived as being a reporter-producer. And that was the only problem in those days, is you got completely classified into boxes. You were either this or that, and you couldn’t cross from one to the other. So I went to the BBC as an assistant producer where I immediately started directing and got my director’s ticket. So I went to the BBC and then ended up working, directing on Brass Tacks, which was also very exciting because that was journalism out of London, a lot of freedom. I was with an extraordinary cohort of people. Steve Hewlett, myself, Diane Nelms, a whole bunch of us worked on Brass Tacks, making great stories. And then I came back to Granada after a bit at the Beeb, for the next Seven Up. For 35. And I set up the Russian series, and I set up the American series. So I exec-ed, and I picked the Russian director, Sergei Miroshnichenko, I set up and ran the first Russian Seven Up, and the American one.
Are they still going?
The Russian ones are, yes. The American one, they didn’t make 28 Up. They made 21 Up, but it never got a screening except on PBS. It’s a terrible shame. I mean, it’s a real tragedy. Nobody wanted it. ITV wouldn’t recommission it. nobody was interested. 28 Up never got made. And the stories of those seven-year-old Americans are absolutely extraordinary. They are. It’s such a terrible waste. They’re missing out massively. I mean, some of them are in prison, some of the Chicago Project kids. It’s a real testimony of how American TV doesn’t care about documentary, and nobody was willing to put up the money to do it. It’s terrible.
Did you want to talk a bit more about Seven Up. I don’t want to get into the sociology of it.
What, like, why has it worked?
Yes. Why has it worked. As a TV programme.
It’s worked because as time has progressed, we have progressed to a celebrity culture society. And the most wonderful thing about Seven Up is that it’s not about celebrities. It’s about us – ordinary normal people. And the more we become a celebrity-based culture, the more appealing Seven Up becomes. Because absolutely nobody gives anybody ordinary the time of day, to spend time talking to them about how their lives and their hopes and their dreams and what’s happened to them. So what started out as a look at social class in Britain has now become, and evolved into, an extraordinary history of the development of a person over the years, in an in depth and in a very personal way, of anybody who could be us. The attraction of Seven Up is that everybody can find something in one of our contributors that they agree with and identify with. And so it’s about the. It’s a film about them. It’s about what’s happened to them, it’s about what they care about, and it’s that’s why it works. And that’s why people love it. Because it’s not about celebrities, it’s about people who could be you or me.
I think the interesting thing to remember about Seven Up is that all our contributors were put into it by their parents when they were seven. None of them signed up to it willingly. I don’t think a single one of them, bar maybe one, would actually take part in it today, would have agreed to do it, as an adult. And so one of the reasons that it’s an achievement, both in television terms and in social history terms, is because we’ve managed to keep the same people on board and the continuity, at a time when the landscape of television changed in the period we’ve been making it. For example, when we did 35 Up, there was no Big Brother, there was no popular reality TV – it didn’t exist. All of a sudden, when we came to make 42 Up and 49 Up, the landscape in TV had completely changed. Big Brother changed everything. Reality TV changed everything. And all of a sudden, our normal contributors, normal people, suddenly panicked. “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be in this. We’re not in reality TV. We’re not interested in this.” So we had a really big issue to solve, which is how do we carry on making Seven Up but don’t turn it into a reality TV show where people felt exploited. And they did. And that’s constantly been the issue – it’s how do we preserve the integrity of Seven Up from the beginning – in other words, Tim Hewat’s original integrity of World in Action. How do we preserve that, and keep that going over the years, and not have it become a piece of reality TV. And in fact, when people say, they actually say, a lot of reviewers and television people say, “Oh, of course, Seven Up is the fist reality TV programme.” Well, it isn’t really. Because actually the interviews are edited and very specific, so it’s not reality TV – but because it’s about ordinary people, somehow only ordinary people appear in reality TV programmes. You can’t make programmes about ordinary people that aren’t reality TV. And I think that’s pretty scandalous. And Seven Up doesn’t do that. So I think that’s important.
Do they get paid?
Yes, they get paid. They get paid a small amount, not huge. They get paid enough to have a nice holiday. In other words, they get paid for the horrible six months that most of them hate, in and around the production and TX period. And they hate it. Most of them absolutely hate it. They find it disruptive and deeply intrusive, and the fact that we’ve managed to hold onto them is because Michael and I – and the team – have made it our job to do that. And we have the same team, same crew, same cameraman, same soundman, Michael and I, and it’s like being in a family. And it sounds a cliché, but it’s not. I can go seven years without seeing my people, and it’s just like I was there yesterday. And we’d pick up from where we left off, just like a member of the family – and that’s what it’s like.
And you form close relationships.
Very close relationships. With all of them. All of them. It is like family.
How many of them altogether?
There were 20 at Seven Up, they dropped six, so at 14 at 7 Plus Seven, and we had 13 out of the 14 in the last one we made, still.
That’s pretty good.
Pretty good. And of course, we’ve lost one. Lynn died two years ago.