Interviewed by Stephen Kelly, 16 June 2015.
So, Jon. Just to get going with this, take us back. How did you come to join Granada and when?
I have been a staff member at Granada since 1978, that was when I joined the staff. But I left university in 1973 and was looking for work in television, I worked with Arthur Smith at Rose Productions, he gave me an opportunity, he knew a producer at the university, Vivian Daniels, a BBC Manchester producer, who put me in touch with Arthur. I worked with Arthur for two and a half years, and during that time I did quite a lot of work at Granada working for him and with Granada cameramen as a freelance.
I managed to get my ACTT ticket in October of 1974, and so I could work – as it was a closed shop in those days – so I did several jobs at Granada, Coronation Street, with a variety of cameramen, things like that, but then I left Manchester and joined the BBC in 1975, worked at the BBC for a few years, and in 1978, Stan Challis asked me would I like a job as a cameraman at Granada, so in the August, I left the BBC, and in September 1978 I started work as a staff member of Granada Television.
What made you want to be a cameraman?
That’s a question quite a few people have asked me because certainly I didn’t have an artistic education as such, I had a scientific education. I went to university and read geology, I’ve got an honours degree in geology. But it was a hobby. Photography and film-making were always a hobby to me, and during the time at university with some people who you will know from Granada like Phil Griffin and Andy Harries, who were at the same university at the same time, I took a lot of photographs for the university newspaper, Torchlight. You know, bands coming every week to the union to play, we took photographs of those and things going on around the university campus. I also joined the film ops, the film unit at the university, which was a student-based film unit, we made a variety of films on a little Bolex 16mm camera, and during the end when I was graduating, I asked Vivian Daniels, who ran the Gulbenkian Arts Centre , could he recommend anybody in the north west around Manchester as a cameraman who might be tempted or be happy to take me on as a trainee assistant cameraman to try and get my way into television.
As I say, Arthur Smith and Brian Spencer from Rose Productions had a long chat with me and took the plunge, and gave me the chance to become a film camera assistant in those days.
So you joined in 1978?
And you were there on the film ops team?
What was that like? What were your first impressions?
I’d always thought that I would become a cameraman. When I was a youngster, so before I was a teenager, sort of eight, nine, 10, black and white television was just turning into colour television. I had seen a lot of images on television of cameramen working and thought, “That sounds like a great job, that.” But of course I didn’t have the artistic skills to be able to go to university to become a cameraman, but when I joined Granada it fulfilled a lot of the sort of desires I’d had within me to work in the place. I passed the Quay Street headquarters of Granada many times on the bus going home – I was born and brought up in Salford – so I regularly came out of central Manchester, past the Quay Street… and you could look, on the upstairs of the bus, over the wall into the car park, and wondered what on earth was going on there. So it was like a fulfilment of a dream, you know, from a guy from Salford, to get a job with the company.
It was like a very large family, and I know that has been said quite a lot about Granada, it’s a big family, but what it was, and my over-riding memory of the place was how welcoming it was. Even though it was a union-based company – I had worked on stuff at the BBC, which was no union at all – and joining Granada with an ACTT ticket was great, but everybody was very friendly. And the one thing, as the months went on, when you worked on a variety of projects, you got to know everybody from the security man at the gate, the canteen staff, the chippies and the painters in the construction shop, the sparks, right the way through to the management, through the various departmental managers to some of the higher ones, into the cash office, and it was really… everybody knew you by name, which I think is quite unusual in a company of over 1,000 staff based in Manchester. So certainly my initial impressions were that it was a very friendly company, but secondly also a very forward-looking company.
It was one of the major four ITV companies, and had a wonderful, wonderful record for making great television programmes, from the local news right through to top end drama. So a good company, I thought, to work for, and it was a good company… would make me leave the BBC, I had a nice job at the BBC in film ops, film operations, there, so it was very tempting to come back to the north west, my home town, and to work for a company that I really wanted to work for.
After you joined in 1978, what jobs did you do?
I joined as a film camera operator, not as a lighting camera, a film camera operator, so my role was working as the camera operator on any programme I was assigned to, and we did work in film ops on a whole variety every week, every month, it was changing, dozens and dozens of different programmes, but the staff them, there was Ray Goode and David Wood as the two leading drama cameramen, Mike Whittaker, Mike Thomson, Mike Popley, George Jesse Turner, David Odd were there as cameramen I would assist.
When I first joined Granada in 1978, my first day on film ops was on Coronation Street, doing the location – all the location filming was done on film in those days, before electronics, you know, went lightweight. And Ray Goode was the senior cameraman, and I was his assistant, focus puller, and that was my first job. So it was a fantastic learning curve, and the one thing that I feel sorry, and for now, for young people coming into the industry now, is they can’t learn from people with experience. It was an apprenticeship of sorts – it was a full-time job in terms of the role of a camera operator, assistant cameraman, focus puller, all those sort of combined roles which you did, it was a learning curve, so you watched a man, you asked him questions. Somebody with loads of years experience of lighting, about the grammar of film, about the technique of film making, about how to deal with actors, how to look at lighting and make it work for sound and vision, and to be able to give the director what he wanted in terms of the look and the style of shooting. So it was a great learning curve, and I have nothing but respect for Ray Goode and Dave Wood, who were wonderful at giving you their knowledge.
Tell me a bit about those two characters and your experience of them as individuals.
Basically, unlike the BBC, where an assistant and a cameraman would maybe work together for two or three months at a time, Granada had a much more flexible, almost programmable, change. So if you were working on a drama, say Strangers or The Mallens, or something like that, you would probably work with the cameraman through that particular programme but then you would go onto another cameraman. So working for, you know, a month or six weeks, which was this general thing, to make an hour-long film it was probably a month to six weeks’ shooting on location to shoot it all, it as really using that ability to be able to ask him anything he wanted, to ask him why he was doing this, why had he chosen that lens to shoot it, why were shooting it at this exposure. Always very willing to tell you why, also to drop you in at the deep end and say, “You’re shooting it this morning, I’ll light it and you operate it. You discuss what lens you are going to choose with the director and I’ll join in, but I’m going to leave it with you and the director to sort this out.” So it was a wonderful apprenticeship, a free apprenticeship, to that. So both David Wood and Ray were very happy to tell you why, to shoot what they wanted to shoot, but always to give you the opportunity to get the experience, which I think is a wonderful apprenticeship level which you don’t get nowadays.
Were you very good as an apprentice?
I think all of us… you know, Andy Stevens, you remember Andy Stevens? Mike Lemmon , Mike Rayner, there was quite a few of us in the same sort of grade. Andy Stevens was probably the most senior camera, he’s been there the longest, the camera operator, so he’d… so I wouldn’t say I was Ray’s favourite in any sense at all, we all worked on a variety of different shows. We were just assigned a drama with a cameraman, a sound recordist and a boom swinger, who were just assigned to a show, and it was great to be able to bounce around. Certainly, I’ve done a lot with Ray and David, but Mike Thomson was very generous with his… you know, a newer, younger, cameraman, Mike Popley, Mike and I did lots of things together – The Mallens, which was an ongoing series, where a lot of the interiors were shot in studio one week, and we went out on the road the next week. It was an episodic series that Mike was doing. So you saw different people’s ideas, techniques, the way they dealt with it, and it was a really, really big challenge.
Because as a young man, I was 27, 28 when I joined Granada on staff, and still had a lot to learn, you know. I’d had a lot of experience, I’d done six or seven years in television, nowadays most people would think they were producers after six or seven years and be able to shoot anything! But film, and the film equipment, is a much more technical based thing than modern-day electronic technologies. It isn’t forgiving; film isn’t a forgiving medium in terms of if you don’t know what you’re doing with it.
You can’t fix it later.
No – in so many ways. If you expose a piece of film and get it completely wrong in terms of the exposure, the focus, it’s a wasted piece of film.
I remember Ray Goode – he had a big reputation. Did he work on Brideshead (Revisited)?
He was a lighting cameraman on Brideshead, and also a lighting cameraman on Jewel in the Crown, which is where I worked with him for two years, just short of two years. So I was a camera operator on Jewel in the Crown.
What was your opinion of Ray Goode?
I think Ray had learnt his trade in London, and was probably a little more old-fashioned in his approach to using brutes, you know, big lights, whereas the younger cameramen used slightly smaller kit and much more available natural lighting styles, you know. All of us talked about why you did something a certain way, but Ray’s approach was naturalistic to an extent, but in terms of his lighting style had a slightly more ‘washed’ feeling to it, as opposed to dark areas, you know?
Was he demanding to work with?
I think what Ray wanted you to do was concentrate. These were long days, 10 or 11 days on location, and he needed – as everybody did, the producers, the directors – everybody to work quite hard to fulfil the schedule. It wasn’t a flamboyant, easy-going schedule in most of the dramas at Granada. They were, not penny-pinching, but the certainly liked to get everything done on time and on budget. So Ray was a very good social friend, I knew his wife and children, my wife and children, we used to see each other and go to dinner at each others’ houses. So it was beyond work as well, but whilst we were working, he demanded that you concentrated and got it through well. And I don’t think anybody who has never done it, who has had to live through rushes sessions – this is on 16mm film, most of the stuff we shot – you shot it one day, it went to the labs that night, the next morning it came back as rush film, that evening, after you had finished filming, you would watch yesterdays rushes – and to sit in a dubbing theatre, or a preview theatre, with the producer, the directors, most of the leading cast, Ray Goode, the sound men, and you’re the only person, as a film cameraman, who has ever seen it – because these are the days before video assists or monitors, so as a film cameraman, film camera operator, you were the only person looking through the viewfinder, and if you said, “Yes, that shot was great, this happened or this happened,” you’re the only person who had seen it. Had a boom come in or a shadow happened, and you missed it, everybody looked at you. So it was quite a challenging old deal to sit there for an hour watching yesterday’s rushes while everybody commented on it or took it apart.
There’s much more responsibility for you as a camera operator to make sure everything’s okay, from the boom shadows to the noises to whatever, because no-one else is going to pick up the pieces.
No, absolutely. There’s a lot of responsibility on the camera operators in those early days before video assist and video record and replay. Literally, it was film… if you imagine, during Jewel in the Crown, we were in India for six months, and I think we were there for nearly three months before we saw one foot of rushes back as VHS. So you can imagine the responsibility on your shoulders to get it right. And one thing you do learn to do is to multiscan the screen. Even though you’re framing it, you have to keep scanning the screen, and looking for everything, everything that goes wrong.
I can remember once, I think it was the series Strangers with Mike Popley as the lighting cameraman, I was the camera operator. A Canadian director called Bill Brayne, who had been himself a film lighting cameraman before he started directing, and I remember shooting a car sequence for him on one of the Strangers things, and two cars had to come together and stop at exactly the same moment, and as the cars stopped, he wanted the doors to open, instantly. And this is what he had seen in his head, this is what he wanted, and I was shooting it, and the cars stopped at exactly the right moment but the left hand car door opened about half a second after the first one. And in the rushes session the next night, watching it, he went bananas with me, saying, “I wanted it to happen almost as a ballet, the cars’ doors, and it’s late. That car’s late!” He gave me quite a bollocking about it, and I’ll never forget it, and all you can say is, “Yes, it is.”
And of course everyone makes mistakes, it’s part of the industry. Sometimes you have to re-shoot something that didn’t quite work, for a whole variety of reasons, not just your own bad camera work, but it is funny, you know, that people don’t realise the pressure that… and also in the profession, you’ve got to concentrate all the time about everything, and not… you know, I guess it’s part of… because it’s a film and because it’s part of cinema, what you don’t want is wobbly shot. If you’re framing a shot it’s got to be held steady, it hasn’t wobbled, it had to be level, it’s all those sorts of things that you’ve got to keep an eye out. Forgetting whether people are hitting the mark, whether it’s in focus, whether there’s a boom in shot, all the technique, it’s quite a responsibility.
In those days of making drama, what, the late 70s, early 80s, the director was not looking at…
He was trusting you.
Yes. Basically, you discuss the shot, you would frame up the shot, you would show him the shot, if it’s a tracking shot you show the beginning, the end, if he feels comfortable, the grip could push him through the shot as a rehearsal…
Was there a playback on the camera?
Not at all – all film. So in those days… it was only really around the advent of 16mm cameras… when we first started… Éclair NPR cameras, 16mm cameras, a French camera, they had Arriflex BLs , Blint, B-L for Blint, camera, we then moved on to Arri SRs, and Arten cameras. Jewel in the Crown was shot on two Artens, and Artens did have a very basic black and white video assist system it come in, so we were starting then to use… but it was a dreadful… you couldn’t quantify anything, it as just an image on a very small five inch black and white monitor, and you basically couldn’t really assess what the lighting was like, you basically just saw this image and yes, that was what I was looking for. So in terms of quality of whether it was in focus, whether the colours were right, whether their contrast was right, whether the lighting was completely where you wanted it, it was a very difficult, different game.
Just as an aside on this process of filming a drama, and yes, the responsibility is yours, and because you have a lighting director there to make sure the lighting was right and the framing was right, if you… how much scope was there later on to correct things? Because there were things like grading… compared to today.
Obviously… compared to today… things are probably better now in terms of being able to grade things. The modern colour grading that Final Cut Pro and Avid now have, when you were on film and we went to grading, if it was going through DaVinci, there was a DaVinci process for colour grading which came in I think after Jewel in the Crown, but colour grading was a laboratory lights and filtering system, so you would go and… so the lighting cameraman would look at that. But in terms of exposure, you had a bit more latitude than you do on video for exposure attitude, especially in the whites, in the over-exposed area of the frame, with film, you can print it down and get detail in the whites, in the sky or whatever, whites, with video of course, white is white and there is no other detail within it, so you can’t… So the modern… the way we used to approach it is with slightly over-exposed film but certainly under-exposed video when we started to work in video. And so in those days, in the 16mm days, yes, you could grade it, you could change the exposure somewhat, you could change the colouration somewhat, but you can’t obviously… if it’s out of focus, it’s out of focus, and you can’t change that, and you can’t really change the framing. Nowadays, with electronic scanning on video images, and certainly in the HD world where the image has got such a lot of information in it, you can cut a bit of the corners up without it, whereas in our days, 16mm, the frame was the frame, and that was it really.
Did Granada go to 35mm shooting?
We did. I shot the titles for Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street on 35mm, using Arriflex 35 BL to shoot that, that was just for the quality because they wanted to do a lot of post work on it. But I think basically… for myself in my career, I’ve used 35mm, really, at the BBC, on Z Cars, we used to shoot that on 35mm on black and white when I first started. I shot some stuff for stage back projection on 35mm. I shot a couple of commercials through Granada on 35mm for an Italian company, but almost everything we did in terms of drama was 16mm.
How many years were you in film ops?
I joined film ops in 1978, and left film ops in 1989 after a bad accident. I was directing a shoot for World in Action in Burma about Khun Sa, Lord of the Golden Triangle, and I broke my neck. The film was a joint venture between Observer Films, a newly based company, and Ray Fitzwalter’s World in Action. And Kimis Zabhiyan, a producer for Observer Films, and Andrew Drummond was a journalist who had great contacts in Burma/Thailand area, and had been to see Khun Sa and his guerrilla army several times, and came up with a concept to make a one-hour documentary about the opium trade in the golden triangle between Burma, China and Thailand. Kimi and Andrew interviewed, I think… quite a few of the cameramen at Granada… George Jesse Turner was the stand-in World in Action cameraman, and Mike Blakeley had been interviewed, he interviewed me, he interviewed David Odd, I think, and anyway, Kimis Zabhiyan having interviewed us all, said would I like to do it, and so it was a team of four of us. Les Honess was a freelance sound recordist, ex-BBC sound recordist, freelance, so the four of us – Kimis, Andrew, Les Honess and myself went out to Burma illegally through Thailand, with a 16mm SR camera, boxes of film, and we lived with a guerrilla army for about five weeks in the jungle, making a documentary about how Khun Sa and his guerrilla army managed and manipulated the control of opium out of that triangle through both Burma and Thailand and China. And we went in, as I say, on horseback overnight, into northern Thailand into Burma illegally, and stayed there, and then came back into Thailand. Kimis took some rushes out about half way through into Thailand to fly them home, and basically towards the end of it, we had a car crash and I broke the top of my vertebrae. I thought I had dislocated a shoulder at the time, Andrew, Les and I, just the three of us, I thought I had dislocated a shoulder, I’d carry on, we were almost at the end. We had a couple of interviews to do in Thailand with the Thai police and the Thai drug enforcement agency, plus the American DEA who were based in Thailand. We did them and Les and I flew home, and I had an MRI scan when I got back, because I still wasn’t very good. We all had private BUPA insurance in those days, and they sent me to the BUPA hospital in Manchester, I had a scan, and I had broken, cracked, C6 and C7 on my vertebrae.
Did you recover?
Absolutely. I spent about two and a half weeks in hospital in traction, they were going to fuse my neck, but it fused on its own. I have a little bit of an arthritis problem from it but, touch wood, I’m not paraplegic.
What caused the crash?
Just an old World War 2 jeep, the steering wheel went.
In the vehicle you were in?
I was driving it! The steering went, it went off the road and rolled over on top of me and broke my neck. Andrew and Les got out with just scratches, but there you go. But I was off work for about eight months, and that’s where you have to say Granada were brilliant. In terms of care, caring for their staff, they looked after me beautifully.
Did you go back to being a cameraman after that?
I did, for about a month. I went back into work I think in September. it happened in January/February, 1989, so I came back in February, I had February ’til about September recovering, I had a neck brace, and… I was very fit in those days, and that’s what the specialist said – had I not been quite as fit we would have been much more seriously injured. But anyway, I came back to work in the September of 1989 and I found it quite difficult to be a cameraman, holding a camera on my shoulder. So quite a few people said, “Why don’t you try and direct?” and I was, and still am, very grateful to Paul Docherty, who was head of sport, who I had done quite a lot of filming for. I’d done a lot of drama and documentaries but we also had to run through news as well, and we shot quite a lot of news as part of our scheduled routines – we all had to go and work in news. And I’d covered quite a few football matches on two rolls of (stripe? 28:00) film on a CP-16 camera, and worked with Paul quite a few times, and he said, “Why don’t you try and direct, Jon? Come and have a go at directing studio.” This is something I’d never done as I’d been a location film cameraman, and he was saying, “Why don’t you change all that and become a director?” And so I joined in… I think the first week in October in 1989, I got took on as an attachment to sport as a director, and was trained by an experienced director in sport, I can’t remember the name…
I knew Pat, it wasn’t Pat, it was another Freelance director who was very kind to show me the gallery techniques. So I went from being a film cameraman to multi-camera studio, multi-camera OB, and yes, it took a few months to get into the aspect of learning how to do live television, which was what pretty much all of it was – multi-camera live television.
But you left Granada in that year?
No, I was still staff.
So you stayed on as a director?
Yes – a new career, a new period. So from late 1989 to 2003 I was a director, then producer-director in Granada all the time. I was staff. SO I did pretty much 25 years as a staff member at Granada Television.
Are you glad you made that change to producer-director?
At times, I’m a little bit unsure whether it was the perfect move, but I think at the time it was a perfect move. Whether I would have enjoyed staying as a lighting cameraman, I don’t think I will ever really know. But one thing I do know is that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I think I’ve got a bit of a skill at doing multi-camera studios, both studios and OB – I quite like that live feel. So I have worked in sport, studios and OB, lots of football, boxing, rugby, you know, bowls, bit of cricket, so that was really good. And learning how to vision mix, another skill that a sports director needs, so that was quite good. And I’m grateful to all the Granada vision mixers, I think almost all of them were women, and what they gave me was an insight to how to vision mix and how to use the desk, and how to make it work – it was great.
So you were 11 years in film ops?
During that time, tell us some names of programmes you worked on and your memories from that time.
As I said earlier, you worked on a massive variety, so I’ve worked on thousands of programmes. I think one of my favourites was A Kind of Loving (corr) with Mike Blakeley, he lit and I operated parts of it, and that was a very nice thing to work on, about Salford and that sort of area. That was great fun to do. I did a few weeks on Brideshead, which was another great thing to remember, but one of the big shocks of my life was having to work on the Toxteth riots for ITN. Shooting on film, spending nearly a week in Toxteth, not getting home for nearly a week, and being close to very serious danger, and being almost injured quite badly a few ties, with petrol bombs and flagstones dropped from flats onto Upper Parliament Street – that was quite an eye-opener, how social disorder and rioting, if you are right on the front line of it – literally only a foot behind the policeman when petrol bombs are landing at their feet and on their shields – and that was quite interesting. Also, and something not many people will realise, is as the press you were probably hated as much as the police, and people in Toxteth really didn’t like us at all. Our cars were smashed regularly, windows bricked in, and it was in film, so it was quite a complicated process, not like electronic cameras where you just switched them on. So we were shooting film and having to get the film on a bike, on a motorcycle, back to the lab. So it was quite a complex period. The riots went on for several weeks and John Toker was one of the main reporters for Granada in those days, and was filing reports for ITN, although ITN were there as well. We spent a lot of time trying to get into the mindsets of the leaders of the riot – why it had happened, what was the reason for it. I think it all started from, I believe, a very simple act of police stopping a motorcyclist, and it just escalated from there.
Did you have to get people’s trust?
You never got their trust. I remember going to a funeral to somebody who had died in the riots, and was physically ejected. The camera was thrown out, before we even got to the church. They saw a film crew and we just weren’t wanted. They ripped the camera from us and threw it over the wall and threw us out, physically. So yes, there was quite a lot of hatred. And interestingly, it’s not generally that you work in an environment where hate becomes quite as apparent.
Did you feel threatened or in danger?
In danger, yes. Threatened by both the police and the rioters at times because you wanted to get to places that the police didn’t want you to go and see… so you were the filling in the sandwich – you were pushed between both cases. And a lot of it was very serious. At one point Upper Parliament Street was on fire – someone had got hold of a petrol tanker and emptied it down the street and set fire to it. So these things were happening – not necessarily the bricks, the stones and the petrol bombs and the threat of violence if you didn’t go away from both the police and the rioters – it’s not a happy medium to have to walk along the middle of.
Tell us about… you worked a bit on Coronation Street and World in Action, two of the biggest names in Granada history. What was that like?
Well, as a Salfordian, working on Coronation Street, shooting the film inserts, either on the street itself, on the lot, or round and about in Manchester as location work, was great for me. It was like the fulfilment of a boyhood dream. A programme pretty much based in my home town, and being a Salfordian myself, it was a lovely thing to work on. I never, ever thought I would get round to directing it, so I was very happy to have shot lots and lots of inserts, lots and lots of location inserts for it, weddings and on the lot, so that was really pleasant. Nice, great… Coronation Street is a drama about strong women, and the women on it, all the leading actors, were just fantastically strong women. But genuinely they were kind people as well, and I just think it’s something I will always be pleased to have done and always proud to have done, to have worked on what is a global brand.
So from the time of the Burma incident and leaving, you were on Coronation Street?
Yes, I did probably about a year and a half on Coronation Street… we had moved away to electronics by then, so I was directing in the studio. I asked if I could have a go at Coronation Street as a director, and they kindly… I was assigned to an already…
It’s like a dream come true, isn’t it?
It was absolutely a dream come true. I’d done a lot of drama, I mean, I had shot Jewel in the Crown with Christopher Monahan and Jim O’Brien, the two Jewel in the Crown directors. As a camera operator you have a lot to do with the actors –how you stage it, the blocking of it, ideas of why… as a camera operator you have a very close relationship with the director and the cast in terms of a working relationship, how you’re going to work, and what the director wants and the blocking of it. So I was very used to talking to actors, asking them to do things slightly differently, to turn this way, that way a little bit, hitting this point, you know, trying to play it a little… because it’s a big close-up, don’t play it so big…
The external set of Coronation Street was a street in Salford.
Well, it wasn’t actually a street, it was a build… I think we used streets in Salford, around Chimney Pot Park, a lot, which is down the bottom of Langworthy Road in Salford, Chimney Pot Park, that elevated park in Salford, terraced streets abound, so we used that as a sort of bigger linking spaces, but the set, the lot itself had been built just off Water Street, so it’s where the gateway to the Granada Studio Tours was on Water Street, it was a built street running almost parallel to Water Street, and it was built on the cobbles. If you look at the very early episodes you can see that it’s wrong because the cobbles run at a slight angle to the way of the pavement as opposed to in all cobbled streets the cobbles run in parallel to the pavement, but on that street it crossed at a diagonal.
So was that there from the word go?
They rebuilt it pretty soon after it had been established, yes, they had built it…
And when did it shift to where it is now?
Well, it moved up to its new place, they built a slightly larger version with arches near the (Rosel Square? 39:31) end of St John Street, that was the second street, and they put a big studio in there, stage one, and built a second stage, or converted stage two, which was there to do Sherlock Holmes, when they had Baker Street there, so they had two studios. And only recently, within the last six months, they moved to Salford Quays, of course, they have a complete new… obviously Manchester’s closed, they’ve gone to Salford Quays.
The bonded warehouse and the land around it which became the Granada Studio tours, was that always Granada’s?
I think they had an option to own it, and basically… when Sherlock Holmes was commissioned, they needed a street to be Baker Street, they couldn’t go to London and do it in London, so they built quite a big set with a big cyclorama of London, the bottom end of it, and on the third floor, I think, of the bonded warehouse, it became the Sherlock Holmes studio, where they put all the major, you know, Baker Street, the interiors were there, and lots of other little sets were put in there and that became a permanent studio in a bonded warehouse, so I think they did own it, because it wasn’t long after that…
What was that building and the land used for in the 70s?
I think it was the railways… because there was canals that went into it, a canal barge entrance… I don’t think it was used in the 60s, but in the 50s it was used as a bonded warehouse, a spirit warehouse, and behind the other side where the Science Museum is, the lines are still there. It was next door to The Stables, because the bonded warehouse was next door to the Stables bar, before that turned around and went to the old school.
Tell me about World in Action.
I assisted on quite a few World in Action. It was a very busy weekly show, high turnaround of ideas and projects, and one that I smile at a lot was a World in Action we were shooting with Stuart Prebbles, producer, about the IRA, and we were filming in Belfast and Dublin, and it’s the only time I have ever been arrested by the British Army. We were filming some GVs around Belfast and being slightly too obvious around some of the command posts and observation posts for the British Army around elements… on the walls at the divide between the to sectors of the town. And we pulled up in a hire car, we had flown to Ireland, we had been filming, doing interviews around Belfast, one morning Stuart said, “I think we should spend a couple of hours just getting some GVs of the line between the two communities and the paintings, the wall paintings and the barbed wire and the command posts and the observation towers.” And we did that for half an hour, happily away, getting out of the car, few shots, getting back in the car, drive somewhere else. At one point we stopped and I got out and put the camera down, and got back in the car, and about 10 seconds later we had about 20 squaddies who had come out of the command post with their rifles pointing at the car, asking what we were doing. I remember Stuart… some of the moments fly by in your head, but I remember Stuart telling me afterwards that there was this young squaddie pointing his barrel through the window of the car at him, asking what we were doing as he was sitting in the passenger seat, and the young sort of 17 to 18-year-old was sweating, wondering whether this was a car bomb or something like that. So they marched us into the command post, took our passports, found out exactly what we were, who we were, and let us go about an hour and a half, two hours later, and said, “Don’t be so stupid – if you want to film these places you have to ask permission.”
What are you most proud of when you look back at the Granada years?
I think it would be difficult not to say Jewel in the Crown as a drama… that was quite a big achievement. It was a big, 15-hour series, global, acclaim… I think probably as drama, that rally was very good. Although, before I became a director, I really enjoyed working with a director called John Madden, he was a London-based freelance. We had worked on one Sherlock Holmes together and then we did a whole series, a Freddie Raphael series called After the War, which was a really nice series to work on, and we became close friends, family friends, and it was a really nice series to work on. In terms of directing, obviously as a Salfordian, directing Coronation Street stands up there very high up on the list, but also some… What the Papers Say, which was another legendary programme really, and still is, I think. I really enjoyed doing that. But as a football fan and a Man United supporter, doing quite a few OBs from Old Trafford as a director was really… that stands in my mind. This Morning with Richard and Judy, I spent a couple of years doing Richard and Judy, which was good. So many.
It was a great place to be, wasn’t it?
The choice to come to Granada in 1978 from the BBC I think was the right choice. It was a major, major television producer, gave people like myself an opportunity to work on a vast array of projects – and top end projects. You know, Jewel in the Crown was a mega multimillion pound project to work on, so it had everything you needed. If you wanted this, you generally could have it, you know, to make it work.
You described it earlier as a family. The Stable in particular was a great gathering place. So it was rather unique. You had Brideshead and Jewel in the Crown, but you also had World in Action. And within the building, it was a family. How much of that was down to Forman and Plowright?
Well, I would go back even before that. I think a lot of the ethos of the company, Made in the North, was down to the Bernstein family. It was a Bernstein company. I think Sidney obviously had a great insight into the media, and the newly developing television media, he had a great insight. He had cinemas, and saw a great opportunity, and obviously I’m sure there’s some hypocryphal tales that he chose Manchester because it rained so much that people stayed in at watched television, all those sort of tales that I’m sure aren’t quite true, but is a good story. But I’ve got a great deal of respect for the Bernstein family and I was very sad to be there like a lot of us were when they left and sold out to Compass in terms of management. Just to say I think it was a family and I think it best to mention, you know, the Bernsteins, David Plowright, you know, Mike Scott, Denis Forman, obviously Sir Denis Forman, who had a huge influence on me during Jewel in the Crown, and explaining – because he obviously had a great (?? 48:24) just to hark back to (Jewel in the Crown for a second? 48:24), yes – he spent a lot of time on location with us, and you could ask him almost any question you wanted about the Raj and he could tell you why this was so. So great people. But I did one project for Sidney, a personal project. He was working for the Ministry of Information during the latter part of the Second World War. Obviously as a Jewish family, he had great interest when the concentration camps were being discovered, and he himself was one of the first people into Belsen to see the horrors of what had happened there in the extermination camps. And several years later we made a film about his experiences, and I shot it. I spent quite a lot of time in his company in his office in London and I got on very easily with him. It was very interesting to actually meet the man at the top, whose idea, Granada Television, Made in the North, was. So I think the company was brilliant because it had that sort of heart, delivered by that man, who was not only a good businessman, had great foresight into what the industry was going to be, but he also had great insight into art – the whole place was an art gallery. The whole of the Granada building in Manchester was an art gallery. And I think that rubbed off on everybody. You only had to go up to the penthouse, I’ve used the penthouse hundreds of times as a location, run training courses there, and done dozens and dozens of interviews in it, and when you look around at what he bought and put there for our education, it was brilliant. And I also have to say that when I broke my neck, they looked after me like a son, really. David Plowright used to send me bottles of alcohol into hospital to while away the hours, you know, they were very good at looking after the family.
What were the downsides?
Working at Granada is the only time I have ever been on strike, which was the ACTT strike not long after I joined, I think it was 1978 or 1979. I think we were on strike for 11 weeks, and that to me was a bit of a shocker, because it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been on strike. So I understand the unions, and I was a union member, and I did a bit of rep work for them, in film ops. I think to some extent the unions had a role, and I think the down side of independent television was that it was a closed shop, and there were at times lots of issues with agreements. It became, in the end, a commercial agreement. You had to work… lots of projects had special deals to do it, to make it happen, with short crews… you know, when I started at Granada, my first experience of local news, Granada Reports, the film crew… it was shot on film in those days, and the features area, not just in news gathering, the features, who were doing longer films that were made, the crew was a cameraman, a camera assistant, a sound recordist, a boom swinger, a spark, a driver, a PA, a director and possibly a producer. So there could be eight or nine of you going out to make a little three-minute film. Now, that, today, youngsters today, who work in television, say, “What? How do you do that?” So it was run by the unions in terms of staffing levels, and I think there were an awful lot of management/union disagreements that… not soured, but it made you think twice about how things were doing. And it was a highly paid industry – nobody can deny that we were all very well-paid. And you have to be grateful to the unions for that, you also had to be grateful to independent television’s ethos of, you know, it wasn’t a hen laying golden eggs, but it was pretty close to that. Granada made a handsome profit, but they also ploughed back a lot of money into programme-making that they didn’t need to do. So I think that… so the down sides were very little to me. The union upsets were what upset me most. Sometimes scheduling was a bit of an issue, I mean, it was hard to have a happy family life, because I probably, in film ops, as a lighting cameraman, as a cameraman, spent probably 6-8 months a year away. And you could be in London. We were quite regularly abroad, but a lot of your life was spent away from home.
When you say they more into programme-making than they needed to, what do you mean?
They quite liked, I think, instigating programmes, writers, ideas, concepts, show them that we were like a Hollywood in the north.
So they didn’t just have a bare minimum.
I’m not sure whether they were quotas or between the independent companies… the news was a given, you had to do that, so many documentaries, so much drama, but I think Granada fulfilled and exceeded any annual need for their programme quota.
Is that because they were better than the other companies?
I think they felt that they couldn’t…
They wanted to punch heavier.
Heavier weight, yes. And I think also it showed globally in film sales, in programme sales abroad. But they were very successful – and you have to say, the name Granada still exists – ITV Granada is still there, so it obviously has punched, since 1956, in the main stage.
On the practicalities of working at Granada, and how we all knew each other, and it was a great thing, and people mixed very easily, but you couldn’t call it a diverse set-up, and in our day it was a very male set-up. Would you agree with that?
I would totally agree with that. I don’t think sexism played a massive part, but by natural… I think almost it had something to do with the natural selection of coming out of like a film industry – television evolved out of film, out of cinema, which was almost entirely a male-dominated, technical world, and I think that just… just grew organically. I think it had a lot to do with the history of the film industry and male dominance of quite a lot of the roles from directors and producers, cameramen, lighting and sound men, where ladies were given the roles of PAs, make-up and wardrobe, although wardrobe had a very large smattering of males in it. But a lot of the secretarial jobs were female. In so many way, you’re right, there was a very great imbalance, certainly within… and I think modern television is female-led. Lots of documentary companies these days are full of females, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all – but it certainly was a male-dominated industry. I can’t think of a single female film editor I ever met, there was never a female spark, Mandy Moles was the only camerawoman I ever knew in film, that came in to film, though I think there were a couple in the studio later on… the sound in the studio had a few female assistants, editing I think was predominantly male… central areas, the transmission… the one area that was a female place was, I think, commercial make-up, in the days when commercials were on film, they came in and there was a department that used to assemble each individual ad break from film clips, and I think that was a female area, that cemented all the films together. I think David Odd’s wife, Lesley, started in commercial make-up. But apart from the costume are and the make-up area, which have always been traditionally that, vision mixing always seemed to be a traditionally female, and that’s changed, there’s a lot more male vision mixers nowadays than there used to be, Granada was I think absolutely completely female vision mixers. PAs, the directors’ and producers’ assistants, the PAs, and the script supervisors, continuity ladies, that was certainly all female, but I think that was just historic. In independent television, it was… I think true too, at the BBC. I think until the late 90s, early 2000s, I think females were very much in pockets and it was a male-dominated profession.
I remember the old caption From the North on the captions, and that was very much Plowright’s mantra. And the studio tour is evidence of how Granada saw its place in the region.
I think the studio tours was an idea that came out of a will to advertise itself and to let people have a look in at the mystery of what television was. I don’t think anybody really in the 80s and 90s had much of a clue about what was happening from the box in the corner. They watched it but had no real clue about what happened behind it, how it actually arrived on their screen, and I think having Granada looking at all sorts of business venture and branding and expanding the brand and expanding the forward-facing element of Granada out to the country and out to the world, they looked at, I guess, the Disney model, I don’t know, looking at the brand of Disney and making a theme of it, a difficult concept in downtown Manchester/Salford border around the side of the Irwell, is quite a challenge, but it had its roots there. I think it was an interesting concept which was slightly skewed in its delivery – it wasn’t big enough, it didn’t have enough variety, but it tried like mad to show you what was behind the scenes of, you know, a studio, Coronation Street, make-up areas… it was themed. It was a commercial venture, it had shops selling merchandise – I’ve still got a couple of Rovers Return models that came out of the studio tours, so yes, they were trying to expand the brand and attract people, but I think it had a couple of calamities – there was an overhead railway system for a ride, a little ride that went around that never, ever worked properly, and it was probably was too small a site, and also too open a site, so if it rained you were a bit stuck. But I thought it was an interesting concept, though it may have been slightly better if they’d had a bigger site to put it on.
What would you say was the relationship between Granada and the rest of Manchester?
I think in terms of Greater Manchester, I think it was pretty well-respected as a company, you know, flying the flag for the north west in all its ways. The dilemma that Granada faced was with Liverpool – it was second city almost, feeling slightly isolated at the bottom of the M62, and for so many ways, Granada news was placed there for that very reason, in the Exchange building, news went there, and the This Morning concept was put there to give it more presence and to give it a feel to try and put some duality into its presence in the north west. Then also of course, Blackburn had a news centre, Chester had a news centre, Lancaster had a news centre, so they did try to divert away from the hub to give it a branded feel that there was a Granada office in more than one place, it wasn’t just central Manchester.
All those things were good for a licence renewal, of course, but in the end, wasn’t all that just too expensive?
I think television changed, and certainly what we’re really talking about is news. News gathering changed, and not only that, local news was downgraded in terms of national news. ITN and the BBC national news are always at the forefront of the news. Local stories are great, and we still do them, and that will never change – we will always need a news element – but in reality, local news tried to expand its remit, and we were doing all sorts of things, not just the local evening news show, there were festivals… we tried to do so much. And also, when technology changed from film to much more immediate electronics, when we first got into the (pneumatic? 64:46) era of tape, when news changed from film onto tape, and it almost had instant access, and we had those Range Rovers with microwave links, so we could beam a picture back to Winter Hill, or straight back into the tower in the top of the building, you could get stories I, not quite edited, but played into an edit suite into Manchester, or as a live report. So that was when local news was at its best, but most expensive of course.
When did that happen, that switch from film to tape?
I think it happened in the early 80s, somewhere around the time of Jewel in the Crown, I think, early 80s. We came away from… I’m sure it’s just before Jewel in the Crown because I’ve got a very fond memory of Ian Ritchie, who was one of the local’s managers, and I was a film cameraman, and I was assigned to a week of filming mews, and it had just changed from film, so all our (CP? 65:54) film cameras had gone, we had these (??65:55) cameras with a (pneumatic? 65:57) pod that the sound recordist carried, and I had never seen one in my life before, and I (had to sign it? 66:03) on Monday morning, I was sitting in this car, and Ian Ritchie came to me with a handbook and said, “You’re going onto a job now, here’s the handbook, you’ll understand it all by the time you get there.” Of course, I didn’t, but it was an interesting baptism of fire into electronics for me.
That was very Granada.
Very Granada, absolutely. Although I also, on the other hand, think that Granada has been a wonderful training ground for so many people. You know, training me as a director, they were happy to do that, I have trained lots of younger Aps and producers to shoot video myself, so they are quite prepared to pay time and money to do that, so I always thought they were very good in their training schemes, very good indeed, and ran regularly, director training schemes, every year, pretty much, to give new directors both in studio and on film the opportunities.
And you say everything changed after Compass.
I think in the end, they’d probably had enough and they realised things were changing, that the monopoly – which it was – was going to go.
The good times had gone.
They were on the cusp. They hadn’t completely gone, but fiscal control was going to be a much more major part of what we did, and money then started to dictate to the programme how it was going to be done, and what programmes were done, and what you could do, and how many hours you could work. It had an immense… also, I think, it upset a lot of people in Granada, for no other reason than I think it felt like… I use this… it sounds rude, but everybody referred to them as ‘the caterers’ have taken over… and that’s rude, because they were shrewd businessmen, you know, Charles Allen and Jerry Robinson, two superb businessmen, but knew little about television. Well, you may not need to know much about television to run a business except that, but the ethos… it was like one door had closed and a slightly smaller, less important door had opened. And I remember now, sitting in studio 8 or 12, with several hundred other people being talked to by Jerry Robinson and his team with their view of what was going to happen to Granada. And I know it upset quite a lot of people, because it felt like commercialism was going to be the bottom line, that money was going to be the thing that demanded it, as opposed to art – it’s awful saying art for art’s sake – but a lot of what we made was because it was an interesting thing to make, not necessarily a fiscal or commercial thing to make.
Why did you leave Granada?
I left because I think I had probably run my course. By that time, in April 2003, I had been working for about two years in the factual department, Bill Jones’ area, he had said he was happy for me to come as a director/producer, so something I wanted to do in those days was to start to produce. I had done a lot of directing, lots of multi-camera directing. Lots of documentary directing, and I actually would have liked to produced and directed, which Bill kindly gave me the opportunity to do. And I probably was running the end of what I could deliver for them, and obviously money was important, everybody’s job was on the bottom line, and I remember Johnny Hollywood, who was one of Phillips Heard’s HR team based in London. I was doing a lot at Hadfields as well, in the factuals department there, because I had been doing lots of training with them. They had asked me to stay and do documentaries with them, and so I was spending quite a lot of time in London, not in Manchester, even though I was churning out a lot of factuals, because My Favourite Hymns for Sarah Mirch was coming out of there, I was doing a lot of those, I did The Virtual Body out of factuals, the first virtual reality, you know, for Channel 4 Schools, out of the studios there, and shooting lots of behind the scenes. We were trying to make a product which sat on the back of quite a lot of other dramas, like Coronation Street had lots of behind the scenes films, literally there were dozens of different films built about the characters in Coronation Street and what was going on. And I was spending a lot of time away and working for other freelance companies, yourself included!
And it came to the point where they were looking to make savings in factuals, and basically they were looking to take a tier of more senior, more expensive producers out. I had done 25 years so I couldn’t argue, and Johnny Hollywood said to me, “Jon, the writing is coming on the wall for quite a few people – I think you’ve still got a lot of your career ahead of you, why not think about going freelance now?” So that’s what I did.
And it worked out.
It worked out. 12 years ago, that happened, April 2003, and I am still managing to do the od bit, not so much in television, quite a lot more nowadays in corporate work and events, that sort of stuff.
What do you think is the legacy of Granada?
I would like to think that one of the major legacies that Granada has left us is a whole load of people who have worked in television and who are now disseminating their knowledge out to other people, training other people to do it, so I think that family approach and a whole raft of people who are still working in the industry and are giving stuff back, could only really happen for a company who were happy to employ and to train new, because I think that’s the ethos, I quite like giving things back and training people, because I was trained myself. So I think there’s a whole band of brothers that are from Granada, and who feel proud to have done and been worked through Granada, associated with it. In terms of its cultural legacy, it’s there most nights of the week – Coronation Street. It gave the nation Coronation Street and nobody will ever be able to take that away from it. It gave an amazing drama that’s still going on today. I think what it did do was it made London realise – another great asset that Granada did – realise that the world didn’t rotate around them. It has reversed a bit, it is elliptical, and I think when the Bernsteins were just handing over to Compass Caterers, that we had won and that we had pulled so much out of London on terms of production to the network, it was a great legacy, that. And I think as an institution, it’s put the north west, and the north west character, the north west life, and it’s people, it’s humour… you know, Victoria Wood… I’m not going back to Wheeltappers and Shunters, but we’ve put the humour and the character of the people from the north west into everybody’s living room, and I think… it’s a shame, I think, that the building has closed, and that it has moved in two smaller parts to a building on top of Salford University and Salford Quays to be the new centre for Granada, and it’s gone to Salford Quays for a new Coronation Street location and studios, the great thing for me was that it was based in the centre of Manchester. People who walked past it could see it there; you could look down Quay Street and see the word Granada, and now that’s gone it’s a great loss. But it will never be taken away. It was made in the north and it will remain in the north, but everybody will know it.
Tell me about the care you received when you were sick.
They looked after you body and soul, I would say. They were always, always caring about how you were, whether you were well – not many companies had a health centre within the building. Two nurses, a doctor on call, you could go there at any time for anything, from a cut finger to… and you would be dealt with straight away. So that was on site, it was there as well to help studios with audiences, I agree, but any member of staff, we were regularly checked up, they looked after us for every foreign trip, they made sure we had our injections, the right drugs, the right first aid kits, everything was given to you and you were taught what to do, and what drugs to take on certain days in certain countries, so in that respect they looked after you there. Socially, you had a nice pension you paid into, so they were looking after you that way, work in terms of clothing, you were given outdoor clothing allowances, the famous Tenson colours, you had a blue Tenson, a yellow Tenson, a red Tenson… everybody had a Tenson, moon boots, over trousers, hats and gloves – all provided for you to work outdoors. Inside the building, your duty of care almost, the canteen was the fantastic heart of the building, in its very first incarnation the canteen sat as a building that jutted out into the car park at the back of Granada and it was an L-shaped building with sort of banquette type booths that you could sit in, and if you wanted to meet anybody, if you were looking for somebody, you would always find them in the canteen, because nobody really went out to eat because it was totally subsidised. Friday was mad because it was fish and chips day, and it was brilliant – it was well-cooked and it cost you next to nothing! But also, not only that, but you generally saw the Bernsteins in there or David Plowright, or all the exec producers – nobody really ate anywhere else. Of course, there were exec dining rooms which all programmes used for guests and stuff, you know, on sport I spent a lot of my evenings in the exec dining room after shows, having drinks with guests. So that we know was absolutely brilliant. Also in terms of the more social, adult, there were bars. There was the Old Stables, which was a club, because you were a member of Granada you were a member of it, it was supplemented, it was a non profit-making organisation, it turned all its profits from drinks back into providing more drinks cheaper, table tennis tables, jukeboxes, gambling machines… it was certainly a place, if you were ever looking for a film editor you would always find one in there somewhere.
I suppose in the canteen and the stables, there you had the wide-ranging community of all sorts of people who worked to make a television programme, who would all sit together and mingle, from actors to directors, to costume, everyone. You don’t get that any more.
No. I think you said it exactly. It was an absolute core where you could relax with everybody from the lead actor down to the props guy – everybody would be there, everybody knew each other, we knew the bar staff, they knew you, it was almost like your local when you walked in and they would be pouring you whatever you wanted, they knew what it was. But also, most of the Coronation Street staff would be in there.
It was almost too irresistible. Did that become a bit of a problem?
I think as time went on, I think the management thought that it was probably taking the mick a little bit – the lunch time became more than an hour, sometimes more than two hours, and it was different… it was different for myself, because basically as a film cameraman you generally weren’t there during the week, if you were filming, you only had an hour, because basically you had the hour break and that was it – you’re back on set again, whereas editing was a little more laissez-faire. Yes, they worked a bit later in the evening, but it was swings and roundabouts. But generally what you were talking about was the project. If you were sitting together, you weren’t talking about football too much, you were talking about what you were doing, and discussing it in a more relaxed way about what to do. And to be quite honest with you, I don’t blame them to some extent, I’ve spent enough days of my life in dark edit suites to know that it’s quite nice to get out of it for a little while.
Do you think the management was too lax in a way, back in the 70s?
I think it didn’t need to be hard, because it was a very profitable company, and I think yes, they didn’t want to rock the boat with the unions too much, the unions – or certainly the sparks – probably had too much visceral power over them, and they didn’t want to strangle the output they wanted to be made, it needed to be made, and at times you could only make it if you kept the union happy. And it’s wrong, it wasn’t right, but in the end, the negotiation between the union and the company did allow us to be cared for quite well. Me as a film cameraman, I travelled around the world regularly – I probably spent six or seven months of the year out, abroad or out of Manchester, and we used to travel well. Basically we did a lot of travelling in business class, and staying in very nice hotels all over the world, but that wasn’t just luxury, it certainly wasn’t a holiday. If you’ve ever travelled with a film crew, it certainly isn’t a holiday because the cameramen, you know, myself, would have a (??6:46) with all the customs, you’ll have boxes and boxes of kit, it’s not like going with a suitcase, you had your own suitcase and then probably 15-20 boxes of other stuff to get through, clear the customs, get it in, pay the excess, get it on the flight and then go. So flying in business class allowed us also, which was one of the main reasons for doing it, is that you could arrive relaxed and refreshed and start to film almost immediately. Had we been in the back in economy class for much of the journey, you wouldn’t have slept so well, you would have been cramped, you probably wouldn’t have been able to feel quite as energetic once you got off, and regularly I could remember landing in places and literally starting to film almost immediately. You would pick up a hire car, in you go and off you go to use that day – so that, to me, had a justification, that you were bing treated well, the company treated you well in the way they flew you around the place and hotelled you, and you were expected to be able to film for as long as you could on those days.
Nevertheless it was a great dream to stay in 5* hotels and travel business class.
I can remember one story about that – in fact, two stories on the same project. Busman’s Holiday, the quiz show that happened at g, and I did three years of the awards, the prizes of all the competitors, we shot them all off at one go, through November-December, at the end of the series record. I did the first three years of it, and on one occasion I can remember flying into Hong Kong early one morning and being met at the passenger terminal by three Rolls Royces to take us back t the Mandarin Hotel where we were staying, and that was fantastic. And it’s the only time in my life that my kit – actually all of us, there were probably about 10 or 11 of us, dozens of boxes – I never has to touch one box until it ended up in my room, which was fantastic. The other thing you can say, I remember later on that trip, in Australia, flying into Alice Springs, and the plane taxied to under an awning in the foyer of the hotel! So, yes… Busman’s Holiday… the only time in my life I had been in a Lear Jet, shooting the titles in a Lear Jet. The doors it opened, the people…
You were filming the prize-winners?
Yes, all the prizes were filmed in one go, so it was a six-week trip, the first two weeks you shot around Europe, you went to six different centres to make six films, almost film a day, fly a day, film a day, travel a day – that’s how it worked for two weeks. And then off you went around the world, picking up the other six or seven films you had to make as you went around the world.
You’ve had a great career, haven’t you?
It’s been fantastic!
Talk about the overtime.
I was just going to say… what was probably wrong, and I think it probably was rightly wrong, and a bad bit of negotiation that could also have broken the camel’s back, is that we were paid enormously well. I’ve got here, out of my diary, the overtime rates. We were all very well paid but we also got overtime for every hour we worked around the clock. So basically if we worked overtime between 8am and midnight, every hour was time and a half. Between midnight and 1am it was 3 times, 3T. From 1am to 2am you for 3.5T, from 2am – 6am you got 5T, so for a night shoot, you would get 5T for every hour, from 6am – 7am you got 4T and then from 7am-8am you got 3T, but it clicked back in again. So you had an eight hour day, then anything over that was done at those variable rates. It was scandalous, really.
Would that apply when you’re, say, flying through the night?
No. A lot of the flying was dispensated? to the fact that you probably got time and a half. If you had been working during the day and then flew that night you would get time and a half.
I remember a story of someone being on 10T.
There was never a 10T rate, it just accumulated if it went on for 24 to 48 hours – it doubled up as you went through If you didn’t get your 10-hour break, if you didn’t get a 10-hour break it just added up.
So if you were working between 2am and 6am, then if you had to do the same again it was…
If you only had a six-hour break, 10T. I think it stopped at a certain point – there was a maximum – but it was just ridiculous.
Was this negotiated by ACTT?
The ACTT and the company, yes. A lot of it was… we did work long hours, and we didn’t work 9-5 nobody worked 9-5, and we worked lots of weekends, and I think basically, you know, it was trying to stop the company exploiting you too much. It’s the cark side, isn’t it? It’s not the side that anybody should be proud of.
Today, if you were filming around the world as a freelance cameraman, would you be getting overtime rates?
Not at all. I think basically everything now is contractual. It’s a buy-out. You basically negotiate with the production manager for a 10-hour day, 12-hour day, kit, travel – it’s all negotiated and that’s it. It’s a buy-out. Finished. Simple as that.
We’re going to talk about kit. What was it like in the old days and what’s it like today?
It couldn’t be more chalk and cheese – talk about steam-generated television! In the era of film, everything was bigger, heavier, more awkward to use. A typical film cameraman’s kit would be a camera body – Arriflex, Éclair, Arton – with three 400ft magazines to put your film into, a box of lenses – prime lenses, a couple of zoom lenses – a tripod in a big polycarbonate case, you would then have a sound recordist with a (Nagra? 0:54) reel to reel tape recorder, a Nagra 4.2, box of microphones, gun mics, short gun mics, boom pole, boxes and boxes of film Kodak stock, some slow stock, 64 ASA, 7247 I think it was, (Eastman? 1:13) colour 7237. Daylight it was 64 ASA, tungsten it was 100 ASA, boxes of filters, lights, redheads, blondes, battery lights, (hand bashers? 1:28)… so if you were going off to shoot a documentary with one camera body, you basically had eight or nine boxes of kit to carry around. Yourself, a sound recordist, a boom swinger, a camera assistant and possibly a spark, more than likely you would have a spark. So the kit itself could fill an estate car quite easily.
With all this kit, you needed the extra personnel to carry it.
Nowadays, with instant change of media cards, when one runs out you can change to another one instantly. Of course, in the days of film, you used to have someone loading your film – taking out the exposed film, so what the camera assistant used to do was sit down with a black bag, which is like a portable dark room, a metre squared black bad, double-skinned with elasticated arms and Velcro and a zip front. You put the magazine in of the exposed film, you take the tape off a new roll of film, you put it inside the can, you seal it all up, you take the film can out, take the old, exposed film out, put it into the black bag inside – there’s a black paper bag inside the tin – put it down and hold that closed, put the new film in the magazine and lace it into whatever mechanism it was lacing into, seal it closed, open up the black bag, put tape around the exposed tin, put a label on it, and put tape around the lock of the magazine. Paperwork in those days for a camera assistant was quite a challenge, because not only did you have to keep the cameraman supplied with batteries, film, pulling focus, you also had to carry all this kit that he wasn’t using, the tripod, the magazines, the extra film, but also on the back of the clapper board, you had to put the clapper board onto fine sync, so we used clapper boards to synchronise the pictures and sound. On the back of the clapperboard was what we used to call mag cards, and the camera assistant would write down what roll it is, what the slate numbers were, a brief description of what it was, what the filters were, whether it’s interior or exterior, so that bit of information was then used by the camera assistant to fill out lab sheets. Four carbon copies went to costing to be charged for the film, went into the edit suite to tell the editor what they’ve got, to the laboratory, and a copy was kept for the cameraman so he knew what he had shot. So the poor camera assistant probably had an hour’s work every night, cleaning the gear, reloading the magazines, labelling up everything and filling out all these camera lab sheets. Whereas today, in the modern digital medium, where we use compact flashcards or quite similar solid state recording medium, you know, a 32GB compact flashcard can hold 82 minutes of HD 1920, 1080, 25p or 50i film on a card that you could put 100 of them in a matchbox, almost. It is ridiculous how small the cameras have become, but also what has changed, for the worst, I believe, is that so much of it now is single man shooting, so you are responsible for being a director, a cameraman, a sound recordist and a lighting engineer, so yes, we have much lighter kit, the cameras are smaller, the tripods are lighter – thought not necessarily better – the sound kit – radio mics, gun mics – aren’t what they used to be, but it all works through the camera – you can have a little mixer but generally most of it is attached straight to the camera, and lights are usually 1×1 panels now, running off a battery so you’ve got no mains power to worry about at all. It’s lighter, but it’s still cumbersome – it’s still a handful for one person.
Do you think that quality has suffered because of that?
Yes, I think nobody… I think I am fairly experienced after 43 years in the industry, and I have had the luxury of being both a film cameraman and a director/producer, so I think I’ve probably got a lot of the skills you need to do both – and I find it a handful quite a lot of the time. Not necessarily… being a cameraman is a bit like riding a bike. I can frame shots quite quickly, and exposure and colour are second nature. That sort of thing is quite easy. Sound is a bit more complicated because you can’t be reactive to sound, you have to try and keep an eye and try and second guess sounds, because you can only react to it after it happens. Lighting is a skill I’ve got, so I can light, and with more lightweight lights nowadays it’s easier. But trying to put all those three technical things together with being a producer, and asking the right questions, and seeing what’s happening, can be quite a handful. It’s a shame for the younger generation who that’s what it is. That’s the only option. They’re given a Canon 305, a couple of cards, a couple of microphones, a couple of LED lights and told, “Off you go and make a film.”
Do you think programmes have suffered in terms of quality?
Quality in terms of content, certainly. Quality in terms of camera technique, in terms of being a camera operator, making it look good, steady, smooth, well-framed, in focus, has certainly gone. Similarly with sound, it’s not quite as crisp and as good. The hardest thing, I think, what we’ve lost, is really the ability to be a producer/director whilst doing these other things. You can do it if you have time and you’re not too rushed.
So these costs, they are in the end cost savings.
Cost savings, but…
But they have impacted on…
Quality. Yes. And the quality isn’t just a technical quality, it is the art of what you’re saying – the journalism, what you can get in, because it’s a lot to think about in one go.
I remember (Johnny ?? 7:58) saying, when he was doing The Grumbleweeds, “Shoot and cut, shoot and cut.” If you shoot quick and cut quick, you won’t notice the joke isn’t that funny – keep the pace going. One thing I have noticed is that new technology allows you to be lazy and in a way allows you to have a bad day. Not everything is down to that moment of shooting. A) you can overshoot and overshoot…
And that’s the dilemma…
So the programmes are sort of made in the edit suite. “I’ll worry about that later.”
I’ll just machine gun everything that’s in front of me. Yes. Absolutely true. When you think of… a roll of film in the old days, in the days of 16mm film documentary making, a roll of film was nearly £100 for the raw stock, double it by the time you put it through the lab, pull off a rush print. So you’re talking about the best part of £200 for 10 minutes and seven seconds of film making, and nowadays, a CF card I think can cost you £60 for 80 minutes – and it’s reusable. Instantly, once you’ve dug down. Yes, there is a lot of data transfer you’ve got to deal with nowadays, but the old days where you are given a quantity of film, so many rolls of film, to make a documentary on, and that was your budget, your film budget, it made you understand what setting things up, turning the camera on at the right moment, then turning it off as soon as you want to, using sound… one thing we used to do, loads of wild tracks. We used to do lots and lots of wild track recordings, people making comments, and only interview for the bits you wanted, but got the comments just on sound, to use as a bed to paper over different shot. Nowadays you don’t bother because you might as well just shoot everything because it’s so cheap in terms of media. The media is very cheap compared with in our day, when film stock was a responsibility. You know, using short ends, saving the film, only throwing away very small amounts of film was the way to do it.
That’s really interesting. If you’ve got a camera assistant there, 16mm, 10 minutes of film, so there you are, you’ve lined up a very important interview, so an hour’s interview is going to be…
Which means the camera assistant has to change the tapes like a Formula 1 pit stop. How quickly can that be done?
Well, every cameraman would have three magazines, so he’s got three 10-minute films if they are full rolls. The modern cameras – the SR and the R can almost pull a magazine off and shove a magazine on without even turning the camera off, so there’s a gap. All we used to do is turn the camera off, pull it out, put it on, start, and put a board on – literally five seconds. Those are the latest style of film cameras. In the early ones, like the Arriflex BL, you had to stop the camera, it would have let… there would be no film left, it would have gone back into the magazine, take the old magazine off, but the old magazine had a loop which you had to put ion and then lace it into the camera, which took about a minute, a minute and a half to do. You used to explain, it was part of the routine. Nowadays you can shoot for an hour non-stop, or 82 minutes, non-stop.
That’s quite a difference.
It is. And whereas in those days you had to change every 10 minutes, so every 10 minutes you stop for a moment, change the film, put the new clapper board on, and off we go again, so everybody knew that. It’s much harder in verite documentary when you’re running around, and running around the streets, and the poor camera assistant had to carry the tripod while the film camera was shooting, and magazines and tape and bag, so like two bags on his shoulder, and the tripod, trying to keep up with him.
That’s kind of terrifying. If you’re interviewing a politician and they’ve made a statement…
And you haven’t got it on the camera because the film’s run out and you haven’t got it. Yes. You’re absolutely right. It’s a different world. It’s new media. The quality is fantastic – you can’t moan at high definition imagery, it’s fantastic. It is a bit electronic, it’s not quite as subtle as film, but it’s a beautiful image, and it comes out of a very small box nowadays, which is remarkable. I think as every cameramen knows, the new boxes, the new cameras aren’t particularly ergonomic – they’re not particularly designed by a cameraman. They could design them much more efficiently to be a hand-held camera. It’s a bit like a box with a few bits and pieces on it, but it’s the way it is. And they’re much cheaper. When you think a film camera used to cost the best part of £80,000 with lenses, where you can buy a CF305 camera for £4,000 with all the bits. Quite a saving.