Interviewed by Geoff Moore, 13 August 2015.
Tell us how you came to join Granada.
I joined Granada as a promotions scriptwriter. Joe Rigby hired me, and the only reason I got the job was, having applied for it before, I decided to apply for it again because I didn’t get it the first time round. Unbeknownst to me, I had narrowly lost it the first time around, so when I applied for the second time the job was advertised, I was invited up for another interview and offered the job. At the time, it was very difficult to get into television, you had to be a member of the ACTT to get in, having got in you had to be a member of the ACTT – it was a closed shop. Promotions scriptwriters, however, were designated as part of the NUJ, and the advert for the job specified that no experience of television was required. And I think Joe Rigby, who was a great man, rather enjoyed bringing fresh blood into TV, and it was one of the few places where you could join from outside of telly. And I had left university the year before and I got a job in London, in my naivety, at an advertising agency, thinking advertising and television were adjacent to each other, and I decided it wasn’t for me. I was all set to go off and become a teacher, which was my second choice after television, when I saw this ad in the paper. And then I joined Granada as a promotions scriptwriter and I discovered that Jack Rosenthal had been a promotions scriptwriter in the beginnings of Granada, and of course Tony Warren, famously, was a promotions scriptwriter. And we wrote the links for the continuity announcers, and we made the trails for Granada’s programmes.
Just before we go into that, a few years earlier, as you started university, what did you want to be?
I wanted to work in television, and I had wanted to work in television since I had been a teenager. I loved the telly – I was born in 1952, I am a child of the television generation in the way that kids born today are children of the digital revolution. So television is a magic box – we didn’t have a television at home, which made it even more magical, until I was 11, so I only got to watch much television when I went to my grandma’s at the weekend. So there was something magical about it, and I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t know what people did; I’m from a working class home in Huddersfield. It was a mystery, it was a mystery world. I didn’t know how it worked – but something inside me said if possible I would like to do something to do with this thing. And what excited me about it even then was everybody watched it – it was a mass experience. Like every kid, the first thing we did at school break in the morning was to talk about the episode of Mission Impossible that had been on the telly the night before. The phrase is lingua franca, isn’t it? It was the common language we all spoke; it was the common cultural experience, and I wanted to be part of that.
But you didn’t know which area you wanted to work in.
No, I had no idea. At university, I absolutely poured myself into creative things – drama, directing drama, acting – I set up a university radio station and got a show on Radio Merseyside. I mean, I did things at university, I became the arts secretary, I booked (Dan Stroops? 4:39) to the university, I was the film reviewer for the university newspaper, so I used to bunk off lectures twice a week to watch the film previews down in Liverpool.
Which university did you go to?
Liverpool University. So I kind of did everything I could at university to explore the things that were interesting me over and above my English degree, and of course that stood me in good stead I think, when it came to applying for jobs I television, the few that were available. I was able to demonstrate an interest in culture and an interest in communication and so on, but I had no idea what the jobs were and what people did really. I remember applying for a trainee director’s job at ATV because it was advertised in the paper! I mean, in those days, if you saw an ad for a job in telly in a six-month period, that’s as often as you saw jobs advertised – and of course you’re right, the spec letters that never get answered… so I just applied for anything that got you inside television or radio.
Tell me about the interview process.
Well, it was a board! Obviously Joe Rigby was on the board, Joyce Wooller was on the board, and Joyce Wooller was an extraordinary woman – is an extraordinary woman, she’s still alive – and she was head of programme services, she was the only woman director on the board of Granada. I think she had been one of the vision mixers on the Coronation. She was a key lieutenant to Denis Forman and David Plowright and Mike Scott in the early days of Granada and she was responsible for journalists, producers, directors, PAs, all the services that support a production were her responsibility. And so she got heavily involved in the recruitment of PAs, researchers, promotions scriptwriters came under her auspices, trainee directors when those jobs came along.
What was competition like?
For promotions scriptwriter there was just one job, and a guy, whose name has just gone out of my head, from advertising, got the job the first time round when I didn’t get it, and I got it the second time around. Colin Calendar, now a seriously successful drama executive, and who ran HBO movies for many years, was the promotions editor, and a coming man at Granada at the time. So I got this job in promotions, it was the most wonderful way into television as it turned out, because you were involved with the schedule, you got to see every programme that was coming up, you got to meet all the producers of the different genres, because you were promoting their shoes, and you got to understand how a television schedule worked, and you got a sense of how the ITV network worked with the network calls and the rivalry between the companies and so on, and you got a real flavour of that in my first job in television, and I think that was quite influential in the way I thought about what I might do.
How long were you there?
In promotions, a couple of years, 18 months I think.
And how did you move on?
I decided, having been there a brief while, the thing I wanted to do was direct, you know, sat in the back of the gallery producing a promo session – we used to run the trails through the gallery and we used to put the captions on with a manned camera crew on the studio floor, pointing their cameras at captions saying: ‘Coronation Street, 7.30pm’, which we then superimposed over the bit of Corrie that we had edited – and I thought… and I had obviously seen directors at work on other shows that I had been promoting, and I thought, “I quite fancy doing that.” I love the notion… I like the liveness of live television direction, you know, sitting in that chair, all the images before you, I thought it was quite exciting. So I applied to be a trainee director – in those days, Granada ran a trainee director course every year or two – and I just applied. I didn’t tell my boss I’d applied because I thought that was kind of disloyal. So I applied, and Joe Rigby came to see me and he said, “You should bloody well tell me if you’re going to go for these things, I could have given you some guidance!” You know, Joe wanted his people to get on, that’s why he’d hired us. So anyway, I went for the director’s training board, and I did rather well. I didn’t get the job, Charles Sturridge got the job – was it that time, Charles Sturridge? It was either that or the time after – but I was encouraged by Joyce Wooller to not lose that ambition. So I applied again, and I didn’t get the job for the second time, I think that was right… or I was encouraged to go for a researcher’s job, I can’t quite remember – and I went for a researcher’s job and I didn’t get it. And Brian Armstrong, I think, was the chair of that board, then head of comedy, and I went to see Brian, and I said, “Joyce told me that I need to broaden my experience if I’m going to stand a chance of getting a trainee director’s job, and I ought to get into production, which means getting a researcher’s job. I applied for a researcher’s job but I didn’t get it – what can I do? I’m in a bit of a cul-de-sac here.” And I then applied a second time for another researcher’s job that came up, and I got it that time, and I ended up being a researcher on This Is Your Right, with Lord Winstanley, produced by Marjorie Giles, and then I got a big break because David Boulton phoned me up one day out of the blue and said, “David Plowright has asked me and Leslie Woodhead to set up a drama documentary unit to develop some of the skills and things that Leslie in particular has been doing on World in Action – and he wants us to do more of this stuff, it’s exciting stuff, but to do that, we need to put some real focus into it. And we’re setting up a little unit, it’s going to be me, Leslie and a researcher – and we’d like me to be the researcher.” So he invited me to interview, I’d not met him before, and he offered me the job.
So the three people were you, Leslie Woodhead and who else?
David Boulton. And Angela Murgatroyd went on to be a PA, and she was the secretary in the office. And we were on the sixth floor, and this is me, I’d done promotions for 18 months, I had been a researcher for six on This Is Your Right, and I got offered one of the plumb researcher jobs at Granada with Leslie Woodhead – iconic, you know, hero figure for any aspiring director or producer.
That was a fantastic stroke of luck, wasn’t it?
Yes! it was a… I mean, I…
Why did you get the call? Did you know them?
No, I didn’t know them at all. I’d met Leslie in the canteen once, that’s all. I think Joyce tipped them off. She obviously saw something in me and wanted to encourage me – that’s what I think happened. I don’t know that, because it was out of the blue, and I remember Richard Belfield fancied that job like crazy. He was in current affairs, and he was even in World in Action by then… it was the job researchers wanted, and he made it clear that it was crazy that they hired me, but hire me they did.
For that position, you would have thought that a World in Action type would have been better place.
Now Jeff, I think you raise a very, I think, pertinent and telling point about Granada Television and its culture. Granada really were not big on specialism; they were big on people, and they backed people. And if they liked the cut of your jib, if they thought you’d got something to say, if they thought you were a bit of a pain in the arse, even, but you had an interesting perspective, they’d say, “Come on board! We’re going to have some fun.” And when you read Denis Forman’s Persona Granada book (corr), it’s very clear that Granada were not obsessed with departments and structures and specialised expertise, they were interested in interesting people making interesting programmes, and I think it was that – and I’m not saying this about myself – I believe that Joyce, and then later Mike Scott thought that I had some contribution to make and were keen to encourage me to develop in the way that I did, and I think they thought, presumably, that six months to a year of working with them were going to knock me into shape.
I’m sure that’s absolutely right. I mean, previously you had only done This Is Your Right as a researcher, so somebody was looking at you and thought, “We like the way he is and let’s try this out.”
Jeremy Fox asked me, once I became a researcher, and I think I was on This Is Your Right, if I could do The Krypton Factor, and exciting new quiz, and I turned him down to work with Leslie and David. And out of that unit came three films, which were… the one I worked on was Collision Course, which was the story of what was at the time the world’s words mid-air collision, and the story was really about how the air traffic controllers were the scapegoat for basically a crap air traffic control system over communist Yugoslavia. And that was scary stuff for me, to do some serious researching. It was Yugoslavia, it wasn’t Russia, but it was a bit behind the Iron Curtain, and it was talking to people who were seen as troublemakers, these air traffic controllers.
You went there?
Oh, yes – I went to Zagreb and I met all the controllers who were at home in their flats, but they were on house arrest, they weren’t allowed to work. I went several times, and I remember having quite an emotional conversation with Leslie Woodhead in a hotel in Zagreb about, if you like, the moral ambiguity of our role here, with, in a sense, these innocent men with families, and we’re about to make a film about them which would to some degree glorify them and be critical of the state, in a country where the state is omnipotent, and what damage that could cause to those people, what peripheral damage there could be. So it was a very powerful experience to have early in your television career. And from that position, I applied once more to be a trainee director, because my resolve to direct was stronger than ever, and that time I got the job.
What year was that?
I got appointed at the end of 1978. So I had been in Granada three years.
So What’s On was your first directing job?
Tell us a bit about that. Because you were at work on it for a year, weren’t you?
No, I (was/wasn’t? 16:42) on it for a year? I…
Tell us about your experience of What’s On.
Well, I did the Tony Wilson What’s On before the Geoff Moore What’s On, but I only did it a couple of times. And I was a trainee director, and you train in local programmes, and you do the news and you do everything that’s going, you know, you do music inserts, and… I am very chuffed that one of my music inserts was the first television appearance from Joy division, which of course in the classic Tony Wilson was played on Granada Reports that night. We taped it in the afternoon, and then it went out at 6.25.
Was that the debut?
That was their first television appearance, and it was… 78 or 79, and it was Shadowplay.
Yes. Joy Division were also on What’s On (??17:45), I cant remember.
They may have… I’m pretty sure that it’s on all the comps. You did a comp of the punk stuff, didn’t you?
No, Trish did.
Trish did. It’s on that, it’s on the playout on that, and I think they credited Patricia Pearson – it wasn’t Patricia Pearson who directed it, it was me.
I’m digressing here, but my one that’s on it was transmission.
I don’t think I did that.
No, I don’t think you did, no. So what was your experience of working on regional programmes?
I did everything on regional programmes.
How did you find it?
I loved it. Because one, Granada regional programmes was a very vibrant place, it was led by Steve Morrison, it was the first time I got to work with Steve, Steven Morrison… you know, an extraordinary force of nature. And he was ambitious for us all and for his department, and any opportunity was an opportunity for us to do things, whether it was making a network obituary for Alfred Hitchcock or John Lennon, or even Bob Marley I remember we did as well, or occupying the afternoons with a twice-weekly talk show, or making a Saturday morning kids’ show, Steve was up for it all, and it was a fantastically fertile, exciting time to be in television. And regional programmes after 10pm, after the news, were What’s On, Celebration was a great arts strand, I made several Celebrations, and obviously things like Reports Politics and so on, besides – which I don’t think I ever did – and I remember Jeremy Fox doing a health show called Good Health… it was quite a rich period.
So how many years were you directing in regionals?
I must have done on and off… well, you do it on and off the whole time you’re there when you are directing, I never stopped directing in regionals, but I had a glitch, and my glitch was, don’t forget I joined Granada in an NUJ job, and although I had done my two years in Granada, more than my two years, when I got my trainee director’s job, it wasn’t as a member of the ACTT – so when I was made up from trainee director to director, which is a formal process and it involves the union, and the union have to tick that box that you can now be designated an ACTT director, Malcolm Foster, the shop steward, wouldn’t make me up – so I was in an embarrassing limbo where I was not allowed to direct, because I was no longer a trainee director, the company wanted to move me up to director, and the union refused to endorse it – and at that point I worked with Chris Pye on On The Road, which was a series of in concerts, we made Kate Bush, which never went out, we made Roxy Music, which did go out, Earth Wind and Fire, which did go out, and…
But you weren’t directing.
No, I was like a… I was helping Chris, our deputy producer.
Who was directing those?
Keith McMillan, the pop video man.
I remember, Tina Turner.
Yes, and… Keith had left for the last one and I directed the last one because I got my ticket right at the end, and I did Roxy Music. You remember Roxy Music – I remember you saying, there was that great shot of that girl singing along to Virginia playing. I remember you talking to me about that. So I did Roxy Music, yes.
So what unravelled the union business, then? How did they change their mind?
There was a negotiation with the union and I think – I think – the crews… you got to know all the camera… you’re the director, you work with them, and actually the…I wasn’t bad. I was a capable director – I wasn’t incompetent. And I think the crew said, “This is ridiculous.” I think the feedback to the union was this was a technicality, and Michael Foster, in the end, relented. I think I was just 20 [something].
But they let you do Roxy Music, did they?
No, I’d got my ticket by then, and because I’d been working on On The Road, Keith McMillan had finished his contract, I got to do Roxy Music.
So word got back.
No… there was a formal point at which the union relented and I was allowed to become a director, and then I could work again.
What made them relent?
I don’t know. I don’t know. The company negotiated with them.
Okay. Maybe it’s just the length of time.
Scotty… Scotty and Plowright were very pissed off and thought this was ridiculous – they were very angry about it, and I think got Andrew Quinn onto the union, and there was a negotiation. I really don’t know, I can’t remember what swung it – whether it was a timing thing, by not being allowed to direct for three or four months, however long it was, that triggered a period of time which gave the union the ability to say, “Okay, well he’s not been an ACTT member long enough.” Because obviously I joined the ACTT as a trainee director.
I think that’s absolutely right. Just in this period, we’re talking about… when was On The Road? 1980, was this?
About then, yes.
Give us a few recollections of individuals that you’d like to mention, good or bad, or incidents… you mentioned Steve Morrison as a great force for developing…
What was your recollection of him? Some people say there was a down side to him, he could be quite… almost bullying.
Yes, look – Steve is a force of nature. He’s indefatigable, he’s not easily deflected from a course of action. All these are strengths. Granada needed – people forget this – Granada was a great company, but there was an element of atrophy creeping into the place. And that’s not a criticism of the people involved, it was just the reality of being a very successful business for, by now, over 20 years, and shows like coronation street still doing the business but frankly starting to look a bit outdated, and some of the glories of the drama department in the 60s, which had a very different temperament to the drama department in later years, that kind of… the passage of time had moved things on. The 60s was Granada, northern writers, the television novel, Sam, This Year, Next Year, Family At War… you know, these were great concepts that came out of the north, and the writers of the north, and the actors of the north, and that’s what characterised Granada drama, particularly in the 60s and early 70s – and that had passed, and the talent that had driven that had passed, and Philip Mackie, who had driven some of the extraordinary drama earlier on, had gone, and Peter Eckesley was still there but no longer running drama, and g was getting more focused on the big scale – Hard Times or Brideshead – so Steve Morrison coming along, and not taking the status quo for granted, not running regional programmes in the limited, obligatory way that it was obliged to be in terms of what it offered for the ITC or the regulator, seeing other possibilities and seeing something in Edinburgh and getting excited about doing it, and trying to find a way of getting it on television. That was exciting, and I think without Steve Morrison then, and later, when he became director of programmes, in a way being prepared to think the unthinkable, and to start to modernise Granada, I think Granada’s proud history would be a little bit more golden ageist than it is now. People forget that in the latter part of Granada’s life, drama had an incredible recovery, with Band of Gold and Prime Suspect and Cracker – this was a golden period of Granada drama, and it had nothing to do with the ‘old’, if you like, the Denis Forman/Sidney Bernstein Granada, but it grew out of that and it respected its heritage – and it was absolutely legitimately Granada doing what it did best. We moved into daytime television, we created This Morning, we started to get serious about light entertainment and started to invest in light entertainment and do shows like Stars In Their Eyes and You’ve Been Framed, and we became a player in light entertainment again, which we hadn’t been since the 60s. So that all came from Steve Morrison. Modernising Coronation Street – I ran Coronation Street for five years – so you could take on and regain its position as the number one drama serial in Britain, beating EastEnders and Brookside, not just in the ratings but creatively. That came about because I could see that Granada was kind of rather trading on the past with Coronation Street, and it was too important to be sort of left to atrophy in a schedule and a budget that was closer to 1961 than 1987!
A very interesting point. Take us through your various jobs for the 80s.
Well, I was a programme director for seven years…
After being a director. You were a producer?
Yes, well I… I loved directing. When I was in it, in the middle of it, I couldn’t envisage doing anything else – but bit by bit I started to get a bit frustrated, because you are… you are inevitably directing other people’s visions, things they want to do rather than things you want to do, and I thought I really ought to start producing, in order to get closer to being able to kind of create my own stuff that I think ought to be on the telly. So I was asked by Mike Scott to take on Albion Market – and that came completely out of the blue, and that that was a turning point in my career, because Albion Market was the great white hope, a new soap from Granada for the weekend, particularly in London where it was created for, London Weekend. And I got a call in the morning from Mike Scott to my flat in Stockport, would I come and see him, 8.30am? So he was the boss, I came to see him, he said, “You’ve been watching Albion Market (1986) – I’d like you to take it over.” And it was another moment, like the drama doc researcher moment, where I thought, “Why Me?” I said, “Mike, I’ve never done any drama. What do I know about drama? I mean, I have a point of view about the soaps and what they should be, I can articulate a vision for this stuff, but I’ve never doe anything remotely like it.”
So Albion Market was invented before you, then?
Oh, it wasn’t me at all – it was invented by Peter Whalley and Andy Lynch, Brookside writer, and produced by Gareth Jones, who had been the director on Brass, and exec produced by Bill Podmore, who had been the producer of Brass. When I took over it had been running for six months. It hadn’t been on the air for six months, but there had been six months of episodes shot. It was on the air, it just wasn’t doing very well – particularly in the south. So I was brought in to sort of try and save it.
We didn’t succeed – but…
What do you feel about that?
I feel it was one of the most extraordinary nine months of my life. I met Key Mellor, who had been recently hired as a script editor, she and I bonded creatively like, I don’t know, more than anyone else as much as Kay at that time, and together, we just worked 18-hour days, we said, “Nothing is going out unless it’s good enough.” We scrapped scripts and started again, we re-shot episodes, we re-shot scenes, we changed stories of stuff that had already been shot, in order to get the show into a better shape. We brought in new writers, we created a different way of storylining, we brought in new characters, it was completely thrilling, and by the end we had a show we were really, really proud of. But at the end of the day, network politics, it just didn’t do well enough in London to survive, and the cost of keeping it going as a daytime soap, for Granada – these are the days of the guaranteed output – it would have used up too many of Granada’s points to keep it alive as an act of faith.
Was it too northern, then?
Yes. And don’t forget, EastEnders was pretty well-established as the southern soap, and we came back with another northern soap, probably a mistake in hindsight. But it was a modern, multicultural soap, and it was a workplace soap. I mean, it did have its strengths.
Did you go from there to Coronation Street?
Not directly, no – but because I had done Albion Market, and I think because I, certainly internally at Granada, that had been regarded as an achievement, even though the show got cancelled, when Steve Morrison took over from Mike Scott as director of programmes, after about… and I was appointed commissioning editor of comedy, Steve asked me to take it over, about six months into his reign. So I was exec on Coronation Street from 1987-1992.
What was your job title?
I became head of entertainment. And the entertainment department at Granada, under me, encompassed comedy, light entertainment, Coronation Street, This Morning, night time programmes like Hit Man and Her and Quiz Night, a whole slew of new comedy from people like Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne…
This is post Steve Leahy?
Yes. yes. Steve went to join Action Time. Basically what happened was, when Steve Morrison took over as director of programmes from Mike Scott, they created… commissioning editor… we were in the brave new world of Channel 4 and commissioning editors, so we were called commissioning editors, David Plowright decided we should all become commissioning editors. I was commissioning editor of comedy and children’s, and Steve was called commissioning editor of light entertainment, or entertainment, and Steve did Krypton Factor, Busman’s Holiday, daytime game shows, people shows, that kind of thing.
But after he moved on you became head of entertainment.
And after he moved on, they put me in charge of the lot.
Just to go on the job progression from there, after you were head of entertainment what happened to you?
Well, while I was head of entertainment, I was also made deputy director of programmes, because Steve Morrison – who by then was director of programmes – increasingly used me to… as a sort of sounding board, as part of his inner circle, along with Julia (Lamazon? 34:30), to thrash out our line for the network on the schedule, and the battles with the network about where our programmes should play, and where our schedule was weak and where our schedule was strong. So he tapped into my interest in the schedule and how it worked.
What years are we talking about here?
Well, when was Steve director of programmes? Because I was pretty much doing that, from within a year of him taking that job I was up there on a Friday afternoon, usually until 7pm or 8pm, and we had to bring in a bottle of Chablis, thrashing out his strategy for channel (controls? 35:11) the following Monday.
So this was the early 90s?
Late 80s. I was kind of involved in all… you know, the third episode of Coronation Street, so I was exec on Coronation Street as head of entertainment, I was running the entertainment department, and I was – informally, initially – helping Steve strategize the schedule, and then formally I was made deputy director of programmes.
When did you move on from that job and into what?
I was made director of programmes in 1992.
For how long?
Well, I only stayed there for, I think under a year, because I went to the BBC the following year.
Just let me ask you about… for someone of your background as a promotions scriptwriter and a researcher and director and producer, you had done a lot of making, but you ended up a suit.
How did you feel about that?
I loved it. I loved it. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to have my eyes opened, drama docs, producing soap – and I had, all that time, a passion and an appetite for the way television was. So becoming a suit, arguing the toss for different kinds of programmes, helping… being a midwife to get things on the air, like This Morning, I mean, me and Rod Caird (this guy?) were joint exec producer on that show, it was a thrilling adventure… it wouldn’t have happened if Steve Morrison hadn’t had the, if you like, corporate ambition for it. Granada Television management didn’t want This Morning, it was a pain in the arse… okay, Liverpool, the infrastructure, it wouldn’t make any sense financially… I mean, all of the negativity, institutionalised negativity, all rushed in to try and stop this happening, right? Still on the air today. Extraordinarily still on the air today. And it was completely right, and Steve, rightly, brushed that aside, battled on, and it was a thrilling time, Jeff, I can’t tell you what a thrilling time it was, because we were out there competing – we had to compete to get This Morning, we had to compete to get Families, the daily soap we (won? 37:34), we had to compete to get the night time slots. You know, we had to compete to get some of our sitcoms and our light entertainment shows away – it was an incredibly fertile time. Also, it was a great moment for Granada because we had this extraordinary pool of trapped talent that had been trapped by union restriction into their roles, particularly for women. Jane McNaught, Linda Clifford… I mean, a whole swathe of PAs who were brilliant, but were not being properly, fully realised – and This Morning, more than any other programme at Granada, gave us the chance to give them the opportunity to direct, to produce items, to be day producers, and they have gone on to do amazing things. And if you think of those years of the entertainment department when I was there, it was all home-produced. All those shows… we didn’t import. We imported the odd director like David McMahon, you know, but the producers, the production teams, were all home-made. Home-baked Granada people, all seeped in that same culture, but it was a generation that looked forward, not back. There was another generation of our contemporaries who looked back, and you know, and I look back now because I’m of an age where I look back, you know? But every institution has to kind of move forward, and I think in the attempt to capture what was special about Granada, I think some of the, if you like, later stuff, gets kind of dished out of the way – but it was phenomenal. Steve Morrison made Granada strong enough to lead the consolidation of ITV. Steve Morrison made Granada strong enough to take over London Weekend, because he built a grown-up Granada portfolio through competition, through competing, into the most successful collection of programmes on any ITV station – and the other ITV stations were nowhere near Granada in thinking through the primacy of IP, get the programmes, own the rights… that was all Steve – and he doesn’t get the credit, in my view, for modernising Granada.
Well, it’s a very interesting territory that we’ve covered, because even now, I suppose if you say Granada to people they will come up with Brideshead Revisited, Coronation Street and World in Action and not much else – so this period you’re talking about is worth [mentioning].
Because this period was Prime Suspect, it was Band of Gold, it was Cracker, it was Cold Feet, it was the Rik Mayall Playhouse, it was Stars in the Eyes, it was This Morning… it was Coronation Street firing on all cylinders, doing three episodes a week… it was a phenomenal period.
Let me move on, to make your answers a little bit shorter from now on, because we’re round about an hour… so… I keep thinking Surprise, Surprise, but that was LWT.
Stars in Their Eyes, am I right, it was Granada’s first big entertainment hit for a while at that time?
But it wasn’t a home-grown show.
No, it was a Dutch show, it was a Dutch format – in fact it was Steve Leahy who, you know, was a genius in spotting these formats from overseas that had the potential to be hits elsewhere – he was ahead of his time. I mean, he spotted the potential of You Bet! and had an option on the rights for the show, it was a German show, and it’s still on in Germany, and Mike Scott wouldn’t let him buy it because he thought it was gambling on television. Of course, London Weekend bought it and it became a big Saturday night hit for a good number of years. He spotted Stars in Their Eyes, which was a pretty low-rent Dutch show, but he spotted the potential of it – Action Time – and he got the rights. He spotted You’ve Been Framed before the Americans did, the Japanese material was on the market… now, the… Stars in Their Eyes he brought to Granada, it was the new indie quota, Granada couldn’t make all its own shows any more, so we had to set up an infrastructure to commission indies, and Steve brought in Stars in Their Eyes, and we commissioned a pilot from him, which Nigel Hall worked on, and Steve produced, and Chris Tarrant hosted, and Shirley Bassey won, funnily enough. And then Steve was making… Action Time were making all our game shows, they were making Busman’s Holiday, Runway, Connections, they were doing four shows, and I said to Steve, “I can’t commission another Action Time show, I’ve got to do something in-house, so we either bring Busman’s Holiday – which was an original Granada idea which he created when he was at Granada – in, or we take over Stars in Their Eyes (and we get it away on the network? 43:14). What do you want to do?” And he picked Busman’s Holiday. And in hindsight, that was a mistake, because Busman’s Holiday had another three or four years, and Stars in Their Eyes went on to become a big, 12-year Saturday night hit.
So Steve retained Stars in Their Eyes?
No – Steve brought us Stars in Their Eyes and made the pilot…
From the Dutch show.
Yes. When we wanted to go to series on it, I said to him, “Steve, you already make…” we’d given him Busman’s Holiday, it used to be a Granada in-house, we gave it to Steve, Action Time, to make, he created it, we gave him Connections, which he created, we gave him Runway, which he created, all of which became Action Time productions. I said, “I can’t give you another show, Steve. You’re making all of that stuff for us, so either we’ll take Busman’s Holiday back and we’ll retain it as an in-house show, or we’ll keep Stars in Their Eyes as an in-house show, and you can keep Busman’s Holiday – what do you want to do?”
You were very generous to Steve at the time, it strikes me. I wasn’t sure I was aware of that.
No, I wasn’t generous to him. One, he invented all those shows, two, Granada was required by law to commission from the independent sector to a minimum quota – so we had to find good people, preferably good people in the north, Steve set up in the north, he was based around the corner, he invented these shows, he knew them and could produce them better than anybody else – it made sense to put those out [rather] than to put other bits of the Granada output out. And it was pure happenstance that this pivotal moment arrived where we had the prospect of getting Stars in Their Eyes away on the network, he was making all of this output for us, and I asked him to choose. Free choice. You’ll have to ask him about this tomorrow.
Looking back at the programmes that you worked on in your various roles, what are you most proud of, and what do you regret or are embarrassed about or whatever?
I’m very proud of my time on Coronation Street – it was a show that meant a lot to me as a child. It was my world reflected back to me, it was my north, Minnie Caldwell was my grandma, you know, it really was that. I’m very proud to be responsible for it for five years, and I’m very proud of what it did and what we did with it in that time – and it’s still there. This Morning… because these shows are still on the air, you know? And This Morning looks like it’s a fixture now, but at the time it was revolutionary – and it used to get a 70% share! I mean, it was not only revolutionary in content and in style, but it came from Liverpool – isn’t that a wonderful thing? But it was a phenomenal hit! So… I think… obviously I am really thrilled that I… got band of Gold away, because it had been written for the BBC and the BBC had prevaricated, and Kay Mellor, I said to her, “Well, let me know when the rights become free because I think we’d like to pitch it to ITV.” – by that time (??46:53) was a network centre – and she said, “Do you think ITV would go for it? It’s a series about prostitutes, and the BBC are in a real state about whether the public is ready for this show for BBC2!” I said, “Kay, I’ve read it, and yes, it is about prostitutes, but they are human beings, and the story element is phenomenal, it’s a really exciting story – so yes, I do think so, and I’m going to send it to Sally Head.” Sally loved it, and we got it away. And by the time it played, Sunday nights on ITV, and Marcus and (a lot of them? 47:28) had commissioned it, by the time it came out I had left Granada and I was at the BBC – and I remember well, as head of entertainment at the BBC, sitting in programme review on a Wednesday morning, and Mark Thompson – now famous as the director general, then head of features television – at programme review said, “Why can’t we make shows like that?” and it was getting 17 million viewers on a Sunday night, and the BBC were in despair. Here was high-quality, challenging, contemporary drama, getting 17 million viewers on a Sunday night, by a northern writer who was relatively unknown. Now, I am very proud of that – and I was doubly proud when I sat in that programme review meeting to hear how the BBC privately responded to it, because they had commissioned it!
What about stuff you had rather not mention?
Well, there are shows I directed that I’m not particularly proud of.
Or bad experiences on programmes, just things went wrong or whatever.
Oh, I’m terrible at anecdotes! I can talk generalities and the broad sweep… I can tell you the narrative of Granada a bit, though I’m not very good on the day the studio flat fell on my head type stories.
I mean, Albion Market you mentioned, but I got the impression that you felt it was…
I am very proud of that.
Proud of it?
Yes. But I’m one of those people who, I am very loyal to the shows I’ve worked on, and I’m very loyal to the people who work with me – it doesn’t mean to say that I’m not critical of what I’ve done, and I’m… you know… but I would not have missed the experience of doing that show for the world. It shaped me, it made me capable of doing whatever I have done since.
So you believe that you did the best you could on Albion Market, you believed in the show, and the cast and the talent involved, but that it was taken off because of network politics.
No, it was taken off because it didn’t play well enough in London, and I cannot understand why. Partly it’s a vicious circle – it didn’t play well in London because London started to schedule it out of peak – but it also didn’t play well in London because it didn’t connect authentically enough to the people in London and their experience at the time. So I completely accept that. I’m not saying that Albion Market was the best show, it was the hidden secret, the best show in the world – it wasn’t – but it was a damn sight better when we finished with it than when we took it over. And in the north, it stormed – the figures were fantastic.
Okay. Granada Television – strengths and weaknesses, looking back, as a company.
Well, I think it’s great strength was its singularity as a company, its willingness to go out on a limb for programmes – legally and creatively – famously over British Steel and so on… and also singular because of the way it thought about recruitment and the range of people it hired into television, and the philosophy it had, which is basically… the kind of people we want are the kind of people who can pretty much turn their hands at any way we want to turn them. So at any other company, Mike Scott, who grew up at Granada, whatever Joyce Wooller might have said to him, would not in a million years have asked a guy who had just been directing for seven years and produced a children’s programme and little else, to take over a fading soap – it just wouldn’t have happened. It happened at Granada because Mike grew up in that philosophy that basically said, “We entrust the people we believe in, and we will believe that they will deliver.” And I think that is a philosophy I have continued in my entire career – that you back the person, not the CV. And I think Granada is a case study for people who do work in business schools and elsewhere on how to run a creative organisation. How to get the best out of people, how to get the best creative output out of companies.
The years we were talking about, the 70s and 80s, are not like today.
The commercial pressures can’t have been as ferocious as they are right now, so it was easier for that philosophy to take root.
Of course that’s true, it didn’t feel like it at the time, but the commercial pressures were growing, we had come out of the duopoly, we had Channel 4 and the indies, multichannel satellite was launched, and I can’t remember a year at Granada beyond my years as a director when there wasn’t some kind of heavy presentation about the threats, and we have to change, we have to think differently and so on, I mean, we’re doing it today, it’s the same stuff, but… nothing stays the same; your life tells you that. Nothing stays the same. You think you stay the same, but you don’t. You think your view is the same, but it isn’t – it’s changing all the time. Look at London – it’s completely a different place than it was 15 years ago. And you have to embrace that in organisations, and organisations need to change. I think in the 70s, Granada was a bit slow to change. It was, as most ITV companies were, it was caught up in the model of union… abuse of union power, but it didn’t entirely stultify the creative process. It was a rather closed shop about what other people did, which mean that it missed the boat slightly when the indie revolution happened, and on Channel 4 in particular it kind of took its bat and ball home over Channel 4. London Weekend said, “Channel 4 – yeah! Let’s do Network 7! Let’s do this, let’s do the other.” And London Weekend did brilliant work for Channel 4 that they couldn’t have done for ITV – and we were in a really strong position to do the same, and all we could manage was Union World – and that did not reflect well on Granada.
What other shows?
Gardener’s… Rod did gardening on a Thursday night and Gus did Union World… and actually this rich seam of creativity at Granada did not get its fair share of early Channel 4. I mean, it got righted later on, but early Channel 4, we took our bat and ball home.
Because don’t forget, Channel 4 was to some degree a kind of creature of Granada and the ITV companies, they wanted the fourth channel to be owned by all the ITV companies, and whatever commission it was decided… came up with the rather brilliant idea that it should not make its own shows, it should commission from the indies.
It’s very interesting to go over that territory. Steve Kelly worked on Union World, and I can’t believe that Union World and a gardening show were what Granada…
Pretty much. I mean, they did a few different pieces.
I mean, especially given Granada’s music history, you know, the trendy stuff for young people…
Why was that? A failure of management, do you think?
You know, David Plowright was a genius man, but he was… you know, he was a stubborn man, and so was Denis, you know, if Granada didn’t get its way, he could be quite… sulky. It was a sulky company. That’s part of its character, you know? We kind of resent… we were the Man united, weren’t we, as well, we kind of resented all the other companies, we thought they were terrible compared to us. It had that arrogance. That’s a strength and a weakness. And you can’t have the perfect entity. I mean, thank God we had a character, e had a point of view, and we took our bat and ball home from time to time – good on us, I say. I mean, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, but I think we missed the boat on early Channel 4, and I think that meant we missed out on developing a stream of programming that, you know, when you think about your pilot Teenage, there was more to be done… the design show which Trish did… you know, there was more to be done in this, that we were young, we were contemporary, we were living in the same world as everybody else. It’s a crass thing to say, but we were living our audience’s life to some degree, and we want it to reflect our experience of the world – and Channel 4 allowed you to reflect some experience of our lives that ITV couldn’t easily accommodate.
I want to move on to something you touched on, which we all experienced in the 70s and 80s, which was this extraordinary mix of people that you would get within the building and it was a community that everyone remembers with some nostalgia, and people say on the Granadaland posts, there is lots and lots of stuff about the canteen and mashed or roast, and the Stables, where you would mix with actors and producers… it was a unique community.
But you also did, as I remember, and I remember David McMahon making this point, that at Granada – and he had worked for other companies – he would find people who had done serious stuff one day and the next minute they are doing a quiz show or something.
And I remember that as being… I thought that was quite a strength.
Yes, definitely a strength.
Would you agree?
Oh God, almost exactly the same thing, Geoff, which is… you know, you came through World in Action and you ended up doing some light entertainment shows. It’s part of YOU. So you are able to express that. Very few other companies could you have worked for were you able to express, as it were, both sides of your character, and your interests, and that’s absolutely central to the Granada philosophy that really came out of Sidney I guess, but most articulated by Denis Forman.
Interesting. Let me talk about World in Action. Because others have said that you didn’t like World in Action.
I loved World in Action.
Or that you and Ray Fitzwalter were in a load of trouble.
Do you want to talk about that?
Yes, I’m happy to talk about it, yes.
This was when you were head of… controller of programmes?
At ITV or Granada?
Well, don’t forget, this was a muddy time, Charles Allen had come in from group, and was fitting us for the future… I was only there for about a year before I left, and I was director of programmes and I had three heads of factual programmes. I had four, I think. I had Rod Caird, I had Ray Fitzwalter, I had Stuart Prebble… and we didn’t need that many. And in the end I gave it all to Dianne Nelmes, on the basis that she and I worked very well together, she was smart and good, she was interested in the serious and the light, and in the sense to plump for any one of the others would… I think Stuart didn’t allow me to get to that point because he left to go to ITV Network. Rod and Ray hung on, and in the end Ray went, and then Rod went. So yes… you take on these jobs where you are controlling… erm… the output, and you have to work within the terms that you find yourself in.
Wasn’t Fitzwalter head of World in Action?
I can’t remember to be honest with you. Maybe he was. I think he had more than World in Action, I think he was head of current affairs.
So there were too many chefs in the setup and one of them had to go?
Yes… well, look. There was a… Granada was under huge pressure from ITV, er, World in Action, because it sat in the peak of the schedule, and the modern ITV didn’t like it sat in the peak of schedule, didn’t think it should be there, and Granada fought like Billio to keep it there – and nobody fought harder than Steve Morrison. But Ray Fitzwalter and others may well think they didn’t fight hard enough, but they weren’t in the network meetings, they weren’t dealing with the sheer pummelling that World in Action got week in, week out.
Why did it get that?
Because it didn’t deliver the figures – it did occasionally deliver the figures – and in reality it was never going to deliver the kind of figures… it was a false battle, because it really… which World in Action could never win because it was never going to deliver except… I remember Charles making a show about dodgy plumbers and… secret film… what became House of Horrors was originally a World in Action one-off, and it got 11 million, it was a bit like Neighbours From Hell was a documentary one-off from central and became this incredible brand, and House of Horrors was similar, that came out of World in Action. You think about the Matthew Parris World in Action, that was a sort of precursor of reality TV. You can’t do it every week. And there were some pretty drab World in Actions in amongst them, and that’s inevitable. You are either committed to weekly current affairs or you’re not.
Are you a supporter of Ray?
Of course I was a supporter of Ray. How can you not be a supporter of a…
People talk about disagreements and a bad atmosphere.
(Pause) I… he was resistant to… er… I can’t remember the detail to be honest with you, Jeff, there’s no point in me saying things that are not true… I’ve not… I certainly have a clear conscience about that period, and I have huge admiration for Ray Fitzwalter. I think he kind of misunderstood me a little bit; he saw me as a sort of revisionist who kind of had no business to be running Granada’s programmes. I think I had every business to be running Granada’s programmes, and I was very proud to do so. And I’m sad that, when I went to ITV, effectively I killed World in Action.
What do you mean?
Because what I said was, for current affairs to survive in the modern market on ITV, it needs to survive as a weekly, one-hour, properly resourced current affairs show that from time to tie will one-hour stories when the stories are strong enough, but can run 10-minute items or 20-minute items. Because the problem with World in Action every week for 26 minutes was some of the stories, frankly, were a stretch at 26 minutes, and that’s what I believed in. And because it was a big change and it was part of the move to News at 10, and we were going to put this new show midweek at 10 o’clock, and we put it out to tender to the other ITV companies, and the indie sector, and Granada pitched The Tonight Show, and when Granada won The Tonight Show, it was a properly resourced, well funded show with the ability to do serious long-term investigations – and I was very proud of that show, and it grieved me more than any other single thing when we lost the News at 10 battle, or the bosses at ITV stopped fighting the battle, because they did, and they ceded it to the ITC, that the biggest casualty in that was Tonight – which was the big success in the 10 o’clock schedule, and was a good show. Powerful show. And it’s sad to see what it’s become. Still does some good work.
I’ve heard that show described as ‘World in Action Lite’. Would you say that’s a bit unkind?
I think it’s very unkind. It was what it needed to be in the modern market – a 10 o’clock, one-hour slot every week. If you remember, it opened with the Lawrence suspects, and… some people didn’t like Martin Bashir, but I think he was a very important component of the success of that show, and it… it can’t… things can’t stay the same, you know? You can’t carry on doing World in Action with… it was like, who was it who did the voiceovers for World in Action for donkey’s years?
No… Jim… “And now.” He always prefixed everything he said with, “And now,” whether you wrote it in the script or not. I go back a long way with Jim. But no… things have to move on, and things can’t stay the same.
A lot of stuff, I mean, ITV, some might say, looks a bit desperate because it keeps bringing old titles back.
Yes, it does. Yes.
Especially in entertainment.
Do you think they could bring World in Action back?
No, because they wouldn’t resource it properly enough, and it wouldn’t be World in Action. For World in Action to be sustainable, it has to be resourced as an investigative series. But, you know… it could have… it became restricted by its own form. In its heyday it was an amazing show, but actually a film and later VT, location-based half-hour per week is not sufficiently flexible to properly tell Britain hat’s happening to itself, and from time to time you want to do a big set piece interview in the studio – you want to give yourself the flexibility to be more than that. And this is going to be the weekly one hour, that’s what I did, we closed down the other stands, which were a remnant of old ITV, because every company had to have a half-hour current affairs for pride reasons, you know, because you used to get brownie points for that, and they wouldn’t give them up! Well, the new ITV, you were able to take some rational decisions on that, and actually Granada won fair and square – they won the contract to do a one-hour, weekly current affairs magazine, properly funded – and I think a lot of people who were involved in that are very proud of what it did and, like me, regret that… partly because of the news returning, and partly because of just over the years being squeezed by the penny-pinchers at the network, the show can’t be all things that I’m sure a lot of people so wanted it to be. But the notion that there was something… World in Action was only ever as good as its storytelling and its stories, and it’s finger on the pulse of what interested Britain. I went back to early World in Action – Tim Hewat World in Action – that was shocking, tabloid, arresting at their time. That’s as legitimate a part of the World in Action heritage as the drama doc behind the scenes in Russia and the reports from the Vietnam War, and both were legitimate and right for their times. I think by the end, World in Action… I think people had fought nobly to keep World in Action relevant and alive, and I’m not decrying what they did, but in the end, the form was not helpful, and giving them an hour and a later slot, I think gave them the opportunity to modernise and make it more relevant. But it’s all academic now because that slot didn’t survive.
Yes. It’s really what we want… us grammar school boys from working class backgrounds, of which I am one, that we talked about earlier… I remember coming into Granada and kind of feeling at home because what they wanted to do with television was speak to a mass audience of ordinary people – it wasn’t a privileged or minute audience; it wasn’t Radio 3 or what is now BBC4 or what is now the Today programme, and that was quite a big deal. I remember on World in Action, it was kind of the Daily Mirror approach. Would you echo that?
Completely. I don’t think it was entirely that though, I think Granada had its… snobbery.
Frederic Raphael’s Glittering Prizes. I think drama got slightly caught up in the sort of gloss and the reputational piece at the expense of the slight unsung heroes that I talked about earlier, the great television novels, you know, Sam, the great… Sam, what a wonderful… it was an author piece, it ran for 52 hours over four years and it was an author piece about the bleaching out of the working class, and it touched on trade unionism and the Labour Party and work and so on – it was a wonderful show. That was Granada at its best in my view. And listen – thank God for Brideshead, thank God for Jewel [in the Crown], still stand up today. But I would trade those any day for an expanse of work that is rooted in every day experience, that explores the lives of its viewers. And actually, we can look back and say, “We had both, didn’t we?” And we did have both.
Interesting. This is the final question, a bit of self-indulgence on my part, but since I’ve got you here…
I’m not going to do any impressions, Geoff.
Oh, damn! In that case, the interview’s over!
I’m going to take you back to GRD, because…
1979, in the wake of Saturday Night Fever.
People today… it was a fever in the country about disco, wasn’t it?
It was, yes.
And it was after punk.
Which was a strange thing to happen.
But… I remember you directed…
I did! Well, I was partly in there with you with the idea. I think I was a contrarian to some degree, in that the more Wilson and Co went on about punk and Joy Division, the more I wanted to get into the discos. Hit Man and Her is a show that I’m very proud of, and I loved to bits although was a bit tacky around the edges, because it was what ordinary kids did every Saturday night – they went down to a disco and danced and tried to chat some member of the opposite sex – or the same sex – and hope they got off with them, and they all got pissed! That’s what they did. They didn’t do the stuff that Network 7 used to do every week, or they did, but it was pretty much a kind of… youth culture, in other words, has always had its elites and its specialisms, but actually the massness of youth culture has not been that well-reflected in the media. But that was Hit Man and Her. On… I’ve forgotten the question.
Oh, GRD. GRD was… we were in the disco boom, it dominated radio play, people were having dancing competitions at discos, discos were booming, so we ran a strand of Granada Reports. You were editing Granada Reports, I was one of the regular directors, and we did this disco dancing competition. And Milly… Milly…
… won, and we did the final at Angels Burnley, run by a man called Paul Simon, very, very nice man, and we had Bootsie Collins up as a celebrity judge, in his full costume, and I wish I had a copy of that show, because the image that I tell people about today was that I remember to my dying day is of the end credits of that programme, which played out of random shots of people dancing on the dance floor at the Angel Burnley to Take Me To The Zoo, a track from Thank God It’s Friday, the disco dance hit movie of the year, and as the credits rolled, and we were taking these shots of everybody dancing, including Milly, the winner, there was a shot of Steve Morrison and Bootsie Collins in the same shot, dancing – and that is priceless to anybody who knows either of these esteemed fellows. But unfortunately, I don’t think a tape exists; I think it got wiped, and I haven’t got a copy. You might have a VHS of it, I haven’t.
I don’t know. That is a fantastic image. Everyone will be searching the archives.
And we had Bob Greaves, didn’t we, and Tony, up on the balcony, linking it as Granada Reports, and I think we went back to the studios for Bob Smithies to do the news, and we had a like OB from a disco to do the finals! And it was fantastic fun. I mean, it was just great, wasn’t it, to… it’s like having a… it was kids and a toy set.
It was. But I remember your enthusiasm when that was in full swing and you were directing it, a shared passion for what was happening in front of you was terrific.
It was great.