This is an interview with David Bernstein, the date today is referendum day, June 23, 2016. Interview conducted by Stephen Kelly and Judith Jones.
David Bernstein is the son of Lord Sidney Bernstein. Although he worked in television, at Granada, for only a brief spell (during a summer vacation), he is nonetheless well versed in the life and times of Granada Television and his father’s role in the company. In particular he met many executives, actors and friends of his father who worked for Granada in various capacities. Today he is a businessman, living in London. In his interview he talks about his father’s politics, business acumen, and family life.
David Bernstein talks about why his father chose the north west for his TC company.
He and his brother Cecil looked at a population map for the United Kingdom, and the rainfall map of the United Kingdom and decided, when they were choosing which of the franchises to bid for, that the north west would have most people at home on a rainy evening, ready to watch their programmes, and I suppose equally importantly, to boost the ratings, I guess, for the advertisers to whom they wished to sell slots in between those programmes. And I think that whatever my father’s… how shall we say… his idealism, and there was a lot of that about Sidney Bernstein, he was also quite a canny businessman, and he somehow managed, quite successfully in his commercial life, to combine his ideals and his vision with a good common sense financial base – I’m sure others have spoken about the initial financial troubles at Granada, I’m sure others will be able to tell you about that more than I can, I mean, I was a very young child at the time – but although it took a few years for independent television to find a secure base with advertisers, I think they made the right decision in going to the north, and basing themselves in the north west. But he was aware of the culture there, he was aware of the, the Halle, of the fact that the industrial wealth of the 19th and early 20th century had built up a series of institutions, universities and museums, theatres, concert halls, and he himself had been brought up in London, and his cinema chain, which is what Granada was until 1954/5/6, was based in London and the Home Counties. Nevertheless, he was aware of what was going on in the rest of the country, and perhaps, as I think we all do today, that England as whole, maybe Britain, was a bit too London-centric, and maybe he also anticipated that they’d have more fun up there, I would say. Because they did – they had a lot of fun up there, I think.
David Bernstein talks about his relationship with his father.
He definitely respected the straight-speaking, forthright people he met and worked with who were from the north. My dad was a charming and occasionally flamboyant man but he really enjoyed people who spoke their mind and told him exactly what they thought – he didn’t like people who beat about the bush, and he didn’t like people who fawned over him either, and I don’t think there was much fawning in the north and the north west!
I often say to people that he was my grandfather as well as my father, and I say that because I didn’t know either of my grandfathers, and I was born in my father’s 56th year. I was his first child, and he married my mother when he was 55, and had his first child when he was 56, so by the time I was getting into trouble in my teens and 20s, he was already well into his late 70s – and that coloured our relationship, and strengthened it, and gave him a loving tolerance of my youthful indiscretions which I might not have got from a much younger father, so I am very grateful that he only met my mother and had his first child when he did. But it means that a lot of the period that you’re interested in, the early days of Granada Television, I know about really second-hand as far as what was going on in the north. What I can tell you is how his commitment of time and energy to the early years of Granada meant that he was often an absent figure in my early childhood, and another interesting perspective on that is that my mother was born in Canada, 23 or 24 years after my father, much younger than him, and she came over to England immediately after their marriage – they met in California where my father was working with Alfred Hitchcock, and where my mother was working at Universal Studios – and they met, they fell in love, they married in New York, and came back by ship to the UK, and nine months and two weeks after their wedding, their first child, David Bernstein was born. I loved my mother for those two weeks. And so she was a brand new immigrant to the United Kingdom, she had never been outside North America before. My father was beginning this hugely time-consuming project in the north west, and my mother was left with first one, then very shortly after my sister Jane, two, young children at my father’s farm in Kent, not even really in London most of the time, to bring up their children while he was trying to get Granada Television off the ground – and as you know, there wasn’t much time to do it. The timescales were very tight for the selection of certain franchises to work on, and I remember from when I was, I suppose, what, six, seven, eight, nine, that I would often only see him at the weekends. He would come down from Manchester, occasionally and rather glamorously, by helicopter, and my father had a farm in Kent, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of London, between Sevenoaks and Tunbridge in the Kent Weald, and we would… sometimes he would arrive by car, having taken the train back to London and driven down, but occasionally, in good weather in the summer, a helicopter would appear just before dinner on Friday night, and you would hear this noise, and we young children would rush out to the big open field behind the house on the farm, and the helicopter would touch down and Daddy and his ever-present briefcase would appear from the helicopter, and that was his life a lot of the time. Another way we saw him as children was to go up to Manchester and my mother’s sister and brother-in-law moved from Canada to England, and my Uncle Jim worked at Granada – I don’t know in what capacity exactly. We’re now talking the early ‘60s, I would have been six, seven or eight years old, and my three cousins, my Aunt Isabel’s three daughters, their parents lived in Wilmslow, and Jane and I often went up and spent time in Wilmslow, and we would go to the Television Centre sometimes and have supper with Daddy in the executive flat on the top floor, and there was a formidable lady called Miss Thorne, who was the housekeeper there, and she was very severe and northern to us rather pampered, spoilt, southern youngsters, and I feel I was on better behaviour for Miss Thorne than I was for my mother and father! So he was a larger than life figure when we were very young, and he was often away because he was up in Manchester, running a television station, and getting it off the ground. And that was an important part of his life and his career.
David Bernstein talks about the penthouse at Granada.
Yes. So if there was a board meeting or something happening up there, he wouldn’t be with us in London, he wouldn’t be with us in Kent – Jane and I went to school in London from the age of seven or eight. So I was both in 1955, so… 1963, we would have been based in London during the school week, and if my father wasn’t there it’s because he was in Manchester and he would stay in the penthouse, and other directors – my Uncle Cecil, Denis Forman and others – Victor Piers, Joe Wharton, Bob Carr – they all might, at various times, had use of the flat in Manchester. I remember going there, and my sister Jane remembers the menu that Miss Thorne served more clearly than I do, so I’ll just leave that as a teaser for your interview with her.
Well, my father’s homes, and all of the business premises that I knew of, had a similar look and feel, and in hindsight, and a little pejoratively, some people called it ‘eau de Nil’, but it was a kind of grey-green, rather inoffensive, and nothing too strong in colour, but at the same time my father was definitely a manqué architect, and loved getting involved in jobs of any sort, whether they were his business or not. There was always a modern line, so something clean, functional, practical, about all the projects he was involved in, but nothing in terms of colour or design that would distract, interfere or annoy. So no busy, loud prints. Soft, quiet colours and tones, but practical modernity as it was, and you see that just in the building of the Television Centre I think, in the styling of it, against the rather – am I allowed to say ‘bleak’? – industrial architecture, without that sounding too southern, pejorative… I don’t mean it that way at all. But something striking and modern. Was he called Tubbs, the architect? (Ralph Tubbs) I don’t remember. He enjoyed that. Later on, when I was a bit older, I was very aware of him getting involved in design features of the motorway service stations, which was when I was a bit older and I was aware of what was going on there, and also what happened around our homes and his private life, but one of the things that I admired about my father, and I think Granada benefited from, was that he didn’t see any reason why any of the commercial operations he was involved in should have anything but the best input in terms of design and style. And similarly, in the history of the television station that we both worked for, you would know that when he wanted to put on drama and Shakespeare, he went to Laurence Olivier – he wanted the best, and he didn’t see why the viewers at Granada shouldn’t have the best.
Sidney Bernstein as a risk taker
I wasn’t aware of the fragility of the company’s finances – very few people were aware of the deal that was done with ATV and Rediffusion, I only read about that in the book years later. The little bit of indiscretion which I probably will allow myself, because it’s all a long time in the past… there was a moment when the stability of the company was seriously at stake, and Granada was a public quoted company at that stage, and I discovered, after my father’s death, that in the ‘50s there was an attempt to take over the company by raiders in the stock market, and… not all the members of the family resisted the blandishments of some of those who were offering to buy Granada shares. And my father and his brother Cecil, and some of the other directors, made their own shares, and shares they had set aside for their families, available to an employee share trust, we would call it today, in order to secure the loyalty of some of the senior staff and executives who might have been lured away by those who were keen on taking advantage of the, as it proved, temporary financial vulnerability of the company. So I think that… what do I think… I think maybe they… I wouldn’t say they had bitten off more than they could chew, because they would chew it in the end, but I think they… the project proved to be more taxing financially than they ever imagined, and riskier than they had imagined, and I don’t believe that when they set out, they thought, “Well, we’ll stake everything on this.” I don’t think that’s what they thought they were getting involved in. Having said which, if you read Caroline Moorehead’s biography of my father, I mean, I only know him obviously from when I was born, and even well after that, from the ‘60s onwards, when he was a successful businessman, and he had already done a lot – but if you read about his early career, he was an imaginative innovator, and he did take risks, and he built these cinemas and they didn’t really know whether people were going to come and fill the seats; he borrowed money from Barclays Bank to do that, he bought the Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road and was lucky enough to secure Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence to open it for them in Private Lives; these were all risky, entrepreneurial, showmanship undertakings, and if you both, as you did, worked at Granada Television, you would have seen those PT Barnum prints that he insisted were in every office and at every desk. So there was a showman side to him, absolutely, and that involves a little bit of faith and trust that you will have a good audience for the second house if not for the first house, that’s what he always used to say, quoting the old musical days. So that was always there, and a bit of (bravura? 23:10) certainly, but by the time he was in his 70s there was a good solid track record as well. And there was also a great network of firm friendships and established contacts in the worlds that he was dealing with, so when he was looking for programme makers, when he was looking to bring the arts, politics, current affairs, into the new industry of commercial television in the UK, he was well-placed to do that because of his earlier successes through cinema and Hollywood and so on. And one of the things that is his legacy, I think, which he was… he created an atmosphere where the successes at Granada Television could take place. The quality of the people that he brought into the company, the standards that he set, the ethos of fierce editorial independence for all the programme makers… all of that. He was well-established in his politics, his world view, and you can go back to the fact that he joined the Labour Party in 1920 when he was 21 years od, and he was a paid-up member when he died in 1993. And yes, he was a successful businessman, and yes, I was brought up in a very privileged household, but he never forgot that, and he always made a point of stressing to his children that ‘with privilege comes responsibility’, that was his phrase, and he never forgot that. There were a lot of glamorous people going through our home when I was a young boy, but the Americans, I remember… when I was older and looked at their lives, they were very much of the Hollywood group that resisted McCarthyism. He was very proud to be friends with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Ingrid Bergman, who was a very good friend of his, had a terrible time with Hollywood over her affair with Roberto Rossellini, and she was drummed out of Hollywood by the very conservative moral police, if you like. My father wouldn’t have any of that, and supported her and always welcomed her into his home, and he was very firm and fierce about the principles that governed his business life and his private life and his personal friendships, and I think that was something that everybody who worked at Granada benefited from, whether they did it consciously or just unconsciously. And you’ll have to make sure that when you interview my sister, she repeats the anecdotes that she told… which I heard for the first time that Saturday morning, about her father telling her how to behave when she was on the opposite side from him at an industrial dispute. I mean, I thought that was marvellous, I had tears in my eyes and I swelled up with pride when I heard her telling me how Daddy had behaved on that occasion. I thought, “Wonderful, wonderful!” I mean, I had… I must have similar experiences with him but I didn’t have that experience. But you know, he was… he was a visionary man of principle like that, but at the same time he had a lot of charm and bon ami. There’s a lovely tribute to him in the Times by Bernard Levin, written just after Daddy died, which Bernard describes him as… a tribute to “a man whose greatest gift was the gift of friendship”. And what Bernard describes there is somebody who brought people together, which I think is a great gift, you know, the breadth of people that he brought together. And then you have this… like a chef bringing ingredients to a dish, you know, I mean, we talk about fusion cooking, don’t we, you know, when you take two or three traditional, separate genres, and you bring them together, and you’ve got more than the sum of the parts. And the number of people that you bump into in the creative broadcasting world who have had some association with Granada is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous, you know, it’s do over proportion, disproportion, and I think that he understood the value of that because it was part of his personality and part of his private life as well as his business life, was to bring all these people together, get the brightest, bring them together, put them in a room, see what happens.
JJ: How do you think what you call his Labour, his socialist principles, manifested themselves in the output from Granada? Do you think there was a direct link?
Well, I never thought so. I mean, I think the first thing, and the interesting thing, and I probably need to re-read Caroline’s book, is how much did he and Cecil struggle with accepting… that they… well, deciding that they ought to go into commercial television at all. It was the idea of a Conservative administration, it was against their sort of Reathian public broadcasting principles of the BBC and of… sort of in my socialist approach, which is I suppose what you would call my father’s, I suppose they must have felt that, well, if it was going to happen, we might as well do it, make sure it’s as good as it can be. Who better to ensure it’s done well than us? There’s some arrogance there, but I think they thought they could do it well, and that’s what they endeavoured to do. But I think that, if you look at what’s happening today, or what’s happened since the glory days, so… Steve Morrison’s not here to contradict me, but he sort of argued against this on your Saturday, but you know, it… the public broadcasting responsibilities that were in the original Act were fulfilled and maintained at Granada 100% – and because they believed in it, not because they had to do it, but because they wanted to do it – and I think my father would have been proud of that, and I think that was something that he consciously and overtly chose to do and strove to do, and I don’t think you can say that of all the other contracting companies in independent television in this country.
The Labour Party and two world wars
Okay, well I’m just going to remind myself that you asked about the extent to which Granada might be seen as the public face of Sidney Bernstein’s politics. And in order to find an answer to that question, I went back to sketching the period that his life spanned, and by the time Granada began broadcasting, my father was in his late 50s and he’d already been through the First World War, the slump and the general strike in the ‘20s, the depression of the 1930s, and he… he very firmly felt that the Labour Party had policies, social policies particularly, which were the ones that he supported and felt were best for the country, no doubt about that. And in the ‘60s, which was a fascinating decade, my sister’s godfather, Bernard Levin, wrote a great book called The Pendulum Years which talks about the great social and political upheavals in this country in that decade, but there was a lot of change there, and my father resolutely supported the Labour Party, even when it struggled internally with itself, and after some hesitation accepted a peerage from Harold Wilson in 1969 when he was 70, and I think that he… he always felt a bit embarrassed a bit about it but I think he felt that it was, to a large extent, a reflection of the public service broadcasting success of Granada, and I think that’s why he accepted the peerage in the end.
Well, he went to the house of Lords and he (voted in the lobbies? 2:39), he made a maiden speech… he didn’t like public speaking; he wasn’t a great orator, and he always found that difficult, so he didn’t speak a lot but he made a maiden speech in a debate on broadcasting, and to my knowledge only spoke once or twice subsequently. But he voted when he was asked to by the Labour whips, and he certainly participated as a Labour member of the upper house. His sweet anecdote, which… his sister Beryl married a doctor, and his brother-in-law Joe’s medical practice was based at the top of the Finchley Road, 615 Finchley Road, by the Blue Star garage, and it so happened that a young Labour MP called Harold Wilson bought a home in the catchment area of my Uncle Joe’s practice, and when that young Labour MP eventually became the leader of the party and then prime minister, my Uncle Joe Stone became the prime minister’s doctor and he was ennobled as well. And my father and his brother-in-law were both in the House of Lords at the same time, which I think was a rather nice family coincidence. But both Labour supporters, and both had very… another experience, if I didn’t mention, the Second World War. My father was a little bit too young to fight in the First World War, so he tried and failed a medical in the last year, his elder brother (s/l Seelin? 4:46), the eldest of the nine children of my grandmother and father, was killed at Gallipoli. At the time of the Second World War, my father was too old to fight – he was 40 in 1939 when war broke out, and he served in the Ministry of Information and was involved in a lot of the film propaganda effort during the war, and was able to document the atrocities in the concentration camps as part of the work that he did for the psychological warfare division of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force – that’s a mouthful! His brother-in-law, Joe Stone, the doctor I just mentioned, was one of the first army medics to go into Belsen, and I believe he was instrumental in getting news to my father of what the British Army found there. He and Daddy said to me that they were vivid memories that would effect them for the rest of their lives, of what had happened – not just to Jews but all the victims of the Holocaust, and I think he felt that was another reason to be very firm about the social policies that he felt the Labour Party embodied more than any of the other political parties.
Sidney Bernstein’s legacy
Well, my… here’s a personal anecdote that I won’t ask you to put the pause button on for. My father said out loud that he didn’t believe in inherited wealth, and certainly his politics would suggest that. But what he did do was he put £1,000 in trust for each of his children when they were one year old. Now, £1,000 when I was one year old was a considerable amount of money, it wasn’t a little money, it was probably a house. It was certainly more than a first flat. But he made a huge mistake, because he didn’t put £1,000 in trust, he put £1,000 worth of shares in Granada Group Plc. in trust, and he regretted that for the rest of his life because the shares did incredibly well, and by the time I turned 21, I was much wealthier than he thought I had any right to be! And he tried to think of a lot of ways to undo what he’d done. Fortunately for me, not all of them were successful. One of the things he did was inculcate into me and my sister the idea that with privilege comes responsibility, and he said that philanthropy was part of that. And all his philanthropy in his lifetime was anonymous, and he certainly encouraged us to do the same thing. And when he died, his will left no money to his children, and sadly his much younger wife predeceased him, so all the money that he had when he died went into a charitable trust, and I have the privilege to be one of the trustees, and he was very clear on what he wanted us, me and the other trustees, to do with that money, and we’ve been trying to do that ever since. And it was to support the causes that he had felt worthy of support during his lifetime, and that’s what we try and do. And certainly, we do work in the field of the arts and culture, which were a big part of his life. We support projects in the Middle East, he was a great believer in the need for an independent state of Israel for the Jewish people, and we certainly distribute funds there, and we also support a broader range of human rights projects around the world. Granada as a company, as a charitable trust, support a number of projects in the north west, and it supports people in and around the television world in a way which we haven’t with my father’s personal money, because we felt that the company was already doing well. So that’s a direct aspect of his legacy that involves me, and I’m very proud to be able to do that. I disregarded his instructions in one way; he said that he wanted all the money to be spent within 10-15 years of his death, and I haven’t achieved that. He died in 1993, and we are now 23 years later, something like that, and it isn’t quite all gone – but it’s over three-quarters gone. And that’s fine. One other aspect of his legacy which I have been personally involved in is the completion of restoration of the film that he began making in 1945, a documentary about the concentration camps, and there’s an extraordinary story there which is well covered in Andre Singer’s interesting documentary Night Will Fall, which was part-funded by Channel 4 and broadcast on Channel 4 two years ago. My father went into Belsen, the first of the concentration camps liberated by the British Army, and realised that these atrocities had to properly filmed. He was responsible for a lot of news propaganda materials, he realised this was something more serious that needed a full-length documentary as he saw it, and he began such a project with the approval of the British and American high command in April 1945. The project was never completed because the war ended – the war in Europe ended, I should say – and the allied administration of occupied Germany decided they didn’t want the film, and it was never completed. It was deposited – the work had been done and all the film stock was deposited – with the Imperial War Museum in the early ‘50s, passed on by the War Office, and in the 1980s, Steve Morrison put together a fascinating film that was based largely on the material that my father had begun to put together with his team, and with interviews with my father and others, that was broadcast under the title of Painful Reminder in 1984-5 on Granada. Four years ago, maybe five now, the Imperial War Museum contacted me and my family and said, “We’ve had a look in our film archive, we can complete your father’s project. We’re confident that we can do it justice now because there is enough material and we feel it ought to be done. We’re coming up to the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and we feel we should do this.” And we were able to use some of the funds that my father had left in the charitable trust to assist in the completion of the project, and under the working title, unglamorous, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, the documentary was completed and has now been shown at a number of film festivals in Germany, in Israel, in London and around the world, and shortly I understand the Imperial War Museum will release a DVD of the film, and I am very proud that we have been able to complete that part of my father’s legacy. He told my sister that it was one of the great regrets of his life that film was never completed and shown before he died. It has been now. So that’s something I am quietly very proud of.
Sidney Bernstein in his latter years
Well, I think it was as well that a lot of that happened after he was really aware of what was going on. I think, you know, all good things come to an end. There were lots of external factors that were involved in the changes to the independent broadcasting scene. Not all of it was bad, and of course how Steve Morrison so eloquently explained in his segment, his participation in your day, a lot of the programme making excellence that was part of Granada continues to this day, not withstanding that there isn’t an independent broadcasting franchise under that brand. But a lot of that was painful for the people who were involved in the group as a whole, I know, and certainly I am pleased that my father wasn’t aware of all of that decline, because he was involved in his own decline; he was a physically enormously powerful and strong man all of his life, and sadly he had a series of small strokes and then a large stroke and was incapacitated. He, as I said earlier, outlived his much-younger wife, and eventually died aged 94, just a week or so after his 94th birthday, and the last thing he had left was this extraordinary grip in his hand, and I rushed back to London at the very end of his life, when he was no longer eating or drinking and was very close to the end, and I got back on a Thursday morning and he died at 6pm that evening, and I arrived and he took my hand and he gave me this hugely powerful squeeze of my hand, just hours before he died, he still had this great vigour of some sort, even to the end. [It was] hard for him to let go, but he did eventually.