Interview with Maggie Coombes on March 18, 2015 with Judith Jones
Okay, Maggie – just to begin, can you tell me how you came to be employed at Granada?
Yes. I’d done a postgraduate course at Bristol University in film and television, and I just wrote round to all the television companies I could think of, this is who I am, I’ve done this postgraduate course, I’ve been at art college for four years before that, I’ve done a three-dimensional design course, I’d like to be a set designer, have you got any jobs. Most of them wrote back and said no, I think I had one for Thames and they said thanks but no thanks, and then I had a letter from Granada saying come for an interview. So I borrowed somebody’s suit, a friend from Bristol, and got the train up, and was interviewed by two very senior designers, who were lovely, they looked at my folio, really liked the fact that I knew something about programme making, having done this postgraduate course, and then Bob Connell, who I think was the what do you call it… personnel… and that was a bit weird, because he asked me all sorts of questions, and one of the main things he seemed to be worried about was who would look after my parents if they were ill, which I thought was an odd question, but I thought he probably asked me that because I was a woman, so I said I had other siblings who still lived in the south, and I felt between us all we’d manage, but my parents weren’t old then, so it wasn’t a problem. So that was it – they took me on, on a three months contract as a trainee assistant designer for three months and they said, “We’ll see how it goes,” and I think that’s how it started. I started on November 5, which was a good day to start, I thought.
2:13 What year was that?
I can’t remember if it was ’74 or ’75 to be honest, I was going to check on that. It must have been ’74, I can’t remember.
2:22 So what programmes did you work on to begin with?
I think the first thing I worked on was Sam (corr), which was a long-running drama series that John Finch wrote, and I was working for somebody called Colin Pocock (corr). I think the first thing he asked me to do was to design a wall for somebody’s back garden – they needed something for an actor to sit on, so that was very exciting, a wall, and it just went on from there. And I guess most of the time my working life was in drama. I mean, I did do a few other things when I was an assistant, a trainee, or starting out… I did a bit of current affairs and the news, but it tended to be drama, and that’s what I really loved doing and I always angled, if I could, to do drama, and it worked out tat way, so…
3:20 So in a typical drama, at what stage would you be brought in, and how many designers would there be?
I think when I started there were12 designers in the department and six assistants. They were all men except me, and again, some of the designers worked in drama, some of them worked in light entertainment, and some of them did factual stuff. And there was one designer who just did Coronation Street, as far as I can remember. So if it was a drama, there was generally a designer and an assistant, and the designer had the big ideas and worked things out with the director and the producer, and as the assistant you would do all the technical drawings and liaise with the workshop because Granada at that stage had its own construction shop with carpenters and painters and construction managers, it was fantastic really. And that was a large part of an assistant’s job – getting a set built. I mean, obviously the designer came down and oversaw it, so yes. And then getting it into the studio, and if you were lucky, you got to go and do some propping with the designer, which meant going to look for all the bits and bobs that you fill the sets with to make them look real. And there were about three prop houses in Manchester, and that was obviously the first port of call, and if you couldn’t find what you needed there, and you’d got enough budget, then you’d go down to London – and that was always great fun, because there were a lot of prop houses down there and it was a bit like going into all these amazing Aladdin’s caves… and just learning by watching designers and seeing their different tastes and their different takes on whatever drama you were doing, which was fantastic.
5:25 Are there any programmes that you particularly enjoyed, or you’re particularly proud of that you think about?
I suppose the Sherlock Holmes thing with Jeremy Brett (corr), which I think was through four series (Jeremy did four different Sherlock Holmes productions, each ran for between one and three series – Allie) and then they did some one-offs after that. I really enjoyed that. I mean, one of the great things if you were doing drama, and particularly historical drama, you got to do a lot of research about the period, so you could spent legitimately quite a lot of time researching that period. So that was a fantastic thing to work on too. I mean, something like that was really interesting because it was a mix of studio and location – and that was the other thing that change quite a lot in my time at Granada – to start with things were largely studio-based, and as time went on, we tended to do more and more location stuff.
6:35 Was that easier for you as a designer to do location, or did that bring about its own…
That brought about its own problems with it – it was fun finding locations, because you would spend a lot of time driving around all sorts of weird and wonderful places with location managers, knocking on doors, and people would just welcome you in to the most astonishing places, but practically that could be difficult. But as I said it was all interesting.
7:05 And presumably you had to be there when the filming was actually taking place, to kind of iron out any particular…
Particularly when you were an assistant, you were expected – if you were in the studio – you would be on the studio floor and you would be kind of the eyes and ears of the designer, you would be up in the box, watching a monitor. And then if you were on location you stood by the camera, and if you were lucky, the cameraman – DOP – would let you look down the lens and see what you were shooting, and what was in the composition, so he could shift things around to make it look as the designer wanted. So you always had to be on set when they were shooting, as an assistant. I mean, that changed as time went by and we did more and more on location, particularly when I became production designer, because then you were always ahead of the filming. Because if you had… I don’t know, I’m just trying to think. Well, even something like Sherlock Holmes, and then later on Brideshead, they would be shooting on one location or set, and you would be dressing the next, so you were always ahead of the filming.
8:24 So what kind of programmes did you work on as a production designer, then?
All sorts of things really. Detective things, police things, as I said, Brideshead, which I did as a sort of art director, I guess.
8:37 What did that involve?
Well, we went all over the place, we built studio sets…
8:44 So were you brought in right at the beginning of when they decided to do Brideshead?
No – I wasn’t the first assistant – I think Chris Truelove (corr) was the first assistant. But I came in after there had been a big break, and they had lost the first director, who was Michael Lindsay-Hogg (corr), and they brought in Charles Sturridge (corr). And I started more or less the same time as Charles Sturridge, and I started over at Castle Howard, which was Brideshead, and Chris Truelove became… I think that was when he actually became a designer, so he was offered the opportunity of doing his own show and spun off to do that, so that gave me the opportunity to work on that, which was extraordinary.
9:39 it seems to be quite exciting and quite… that you never quite knew what you were doing from one day to the next.
It was tremendously varied, it really was. First of all you’d get a script, and you’d break it down, so you’d read it, you’d work out how many different locations or sets there might be, and you’d have to think about if it was a period or contemporary and how you’d dress it and work out budgets… obviously talk to the directors about their ideas, how they wanted it to look, and do any research that you might need to do to get things built if it was a set, or redecorated, if it was a period drama that you were doing on location, all sorts of things like that.
10:40 Did you ever find that there was insufficient budget, or was that not an issue at that time?
I mean, I think it was always an issue; you never had as much money as you’d like, but I think in later years it’s got very much worse, very much worse, and it’s almost to the point where you have to beg, borrow and steal – well, not steal, but beg or borrow stuff, because there simply aren’t the budgets, which is very dispiriting, and it also means that I’ve found that you have to ask teams who are working with you to work very long hours, which I think almost to the point where it’s not safe, you know, you worry about them driving home, because sometimes you’re clearing up a set after the filming’s finished, or you’re dressing very early in the morning before they arrive, and filming days are much longer now, so it means that the days are very, very long. And also we used to only work a maximum of six days a week, and usually five, and not long days, but that’s all changed – I think the norm is now six-day weeks, and very often the design department is working seven because you’re getting things ready for the first day of the next week – so it’s fairly relentless, which took a lot of the fun out of it, and with lack of budgets, it became more and more of a grind.
12:19 So presumably when you were first at Granada you were in a union.
Yes, I belonged to the ACTT, and at one stage I was the union rep for the design and graphic department, and I had the privilege of sitting on the committee with Margaret Beckett and Brian Sedgemore, amongst others, and that was quite instructive about how the whole thing worked. I mean, I think that there were certain unions who held productions in the company to ransom, and made actually other people’s lives very difficult, but I think things swung far too far the other way with… I don’t think that the unions have any power now, other than the electrician’s union, who still wield I think quite a lot of weight.
13:15 You said you were the only woman when you were employed as a designer in the beginning, and presumably as well you worked in quite a male-dominated environment, and I wondered if you had any views around that.
Well, I mean, the designers and the other assistants I think were pretty welcoming, but I think there were issues with some of the tradespeople that I worked with in the construction shop – again, mainly it was fine, but I remember them telling me, I think in my first week, somebody down there said to me, “Oh, we had a woman once, she didn’t last, she burst into tears.” And I thought, “Right, that’s it – whatever happens, that’s the last thing I’m going to do.” And I don’t know, I suppose because you were running up and down stairs in the studio and running downstairs to the offices in the construction shop, which were on the first floor, I mean… and just because you were working… if you were down in the construction shop, it was a dirty environment, so I didn’t run around in heels and skirts, I wore jeans and what have you, and again, I can remember being asked if I was a lesbian because I must be, because I worked with all these men, and it was a male department that I had chosen to work in, which was a bit odd. I mean, I thought it was quite funny, really. But it was quite strange in retrospect, I suppose.
14:44 And did you see a change over the time you were there? Did more women come into the department?
Yes, yes they did. I mean, I suppose… I’m just trying to think… I suppose late 70s, early 80s there were… a couple of other women came in, which was good – that was great, except the powers that be then decided that… before, designers were in one section and assistants were in the other, and that worked fine, but they suddenly decided that the women should all be in one office together, and I dug my heels in and said, “No – I don’t want to work in a ghetto, thanks very much.” Not that I didn’t like the other women, but I just thought that was dreadful. But other than that, it was fine.
15:32 So you became a production designer, and then… I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the structure.
No, I mean, that’s the top of the pile, if you like, and that was a tremendous privilege really, because you get to work with so many creative people, I mean, writers and directors. I mean, Anthony Minghella, Charles Sturridge, John Madden, Ken Russell… I mean, I worked with those people, even now I kind of think, “Did I really?” And I did!
16:12 What was Ken Russell like to work with?
Er… quixotic. But very, very stimulating. And I think that was one of the first things that was done entirely on location, up in the lakes. I can remember we were up there looking for locations from the early spring right through until the summer, and setting it all up – and then we started shooting, I think, about September, when the crowds had mostly disappeared with children going back to school, and then we shot right through until early December, which was again and amazing experience.
16:54 So what was that for?
17:03 So did the director always have the final say in terms of the design? Did you ever have any kind of conflict where you felt quite strongly that the design should be one way, or…?
No. I mean, generally… I mean, the most rewarding bits, when you had actually very imaginative and visual directors who you had a really good rapport and interaction with, so that you could kind of spark off one another, that was one of the most exciting bits. Occasionally you would get directors who were wonderful with actors, and you would talk about sets or talk about locations, or talk about the look of the thing, and then when you actually got on set they would find the darkest, dimmest corner, with nothing in it, and shoot that –when they had something wonderful around them that they just chose to ignore, which is frustrating really, because they, you know, spent money on things that they never actually saw.
18:06 And did you have to, in terms of designing, did you have to think about the way the actors were going to move and the way they were going to use the set, as well as just the look of it?
Absolutely. You had to read the script and make notes about what the actors were using – did they cups of tea? What were the cups like? What kind of tea? What kind of teapot? Depending on the period or what have you, you know, how many chairs were needed, how many people were in that scene, how many doors, how did people move around the set, how was it described in the scene, so… as I said before, breaking down the script was a very important part, you know, one of the first things to do.
18:59 So this was presumably your first job really.
19:04 What did you think of Granada as an employer? As a company, what were they like to work for?
I think they were terrific, absolutely terrific. It was small enough and eccentric enough to feel almost like a family. I mean, it sounds like a cliché, but it was – and although I didn’t really have anything to do with the very senior people like the Bernsteins or Denis Forman or others, I mean, they were around the building, and as I’m sure other people have told you, they did use the canteen, they were regularly seen in the canteen, you know, talking to programme makers, actors and all sorts of folk, and that was a sort of very egalitarian kind of atmosphere that was quite extraordinary. I mean, people used to come up from London and saying in a sort of amazed tone, “But it’s so friendly here!” And it was. It was. People tried to help one another, and we all worked together to get the best out of whatever programme we were working on.
19:39 And did you think as well that there was a kind of social element of working at Granada? So it was more than a job in terms of…
Yes. I mean, to start with, probably because I was the only woman in a very male environment, I don’t think the social bit was as important – I was sort of take up with the job to start with – and I think too, as I say, I worked with mainly men, and… I don’t know… it was a sort of… I think it was more when I became more senior, and I had more to do with directors and producers and actors, that the social side of it became… and I just got to know other people in other areas, the longer I was there, I suppose. You know.
21:19 And it must be accentuated in drama, but if you go away and you’re filming, it’s almost like a little bubble, because you’re working in your way.
Yes. It is, yes. Very much so. And people would obviously rush home, when they did have a day off, or a day and a half off, or if, like me, you had a boyfriend who would fly up the motorway, and if you were perhaps up, say, in the lakes, like working on the ken Russell thing, I rented a cottage for the period and my boyfriend would come up there. But yes, I think you… again, we became like a family unit when you’re working like that on location.
22:10 Was there a stage where you started to think that the way the company was was starting to change?
22:20 Signs either within your particular role or in the overall ethos?
Yes, I think… sort of mid to late 80s, things started to change, definitely. I mean, for some years before I left, and I left for personal reasons, because we had a child and I wanted to spend more time… but it had really started to change by then. It was quite obvious that things were… that they were letting staff go, and that in some cases, people were being actively encouraged to go. I mean, it suited me to go because, as I said, we had a small child, but there were very good packages on the table to go. But it was quite obvious that it was going to become a freelance industry, and it was a change… I suppose around the time of the contracts being up for renewal, and the whole Sky debacle… it was around that time, I think, that things started to change, and then obviously when Compass, or the Compass people, well, before Compass, but… um…
23:38 And do you think they had a different view because of what you said, you primarily worked in drama, did you think that that changed, or…?
Yes… no… I think yes, it did. I mean, you know, we look around us now and the whole world has changed, and I think what happened at g was symptomatic of what was happening everywhere – that instead of having management who were genuinely interested in what people did and how they did it, it was all about the bottom line – and it became more and more about profit. I mean, I’m not saying the Bernsteins didn’t want to make a profit, but they were also interested in what people were doing, what programmes were being made, and that definitely changed.
24:28 And as a designer, how did that impact on you on a day-to-day basis?
Well, as I say, there was… I don’t know, you just felt that people really didn’t care how you got things done, or didn’t want to listen to problems that you might have about the hours tat you were asking people to work, or that indeed you yourself were working, because that was the only way to get things done – and that was a huge change, a sea change.
24:57 What year did you leave?
I left, I think, in about ’89, ’90, something like that, maybe ’89. I think I had sort of six months’ maternity leave, came back for six months, and even then they were very accommodating, the people immediately above me, sort of managers, it just didn’t feel right. I had a small child I wanted to spend time with, so I left. And then we had another daughter, and I did tiny bits of freelance work, but not much, and then when our youngest daughter was about six, I sort of stuck my head above the parapet and sort of said, “Does anybody remember me?” and fortunately a few people did, and gave me some work. But that was in the late ‘90s then, and things had changed incredibly. It was like another world. But I still loved what I did, so I went back freelance. And, as I had felt, it was a freelance world by then, so…
26:23 You said that before, when people came up, one of the things they talked about was Granada being very friendly, and I wondered if you thought it was significant that Granada was kind of situated in the north west, in Manchester, you know, what that brought to the company.
I think that was… it’s something now [that]I get quite cross about. I hate this sort of – I mean, I’m from the south myself, but I’ve lived most o my adult life in Manchester, and I think what was so refreshing about g was that it wasn’t a London satellite. It really wasn’t. And when I first went there, and sort of into the ‘80s, people were actively… they were expected to live in Manchester if you worked for the company, and you were staff, you were expected to live in the north west. Quite rightly. I mean, there were people who commuted, there are always exceptions, but mainly, even people from the south like myself were happy to come north, and I think that was an important part of who the company was. And the atmosphere was to do with being in Manchester, and not being in London.
27:41 And looking back now, I wonder, because I think there’s a cultural resurgence of Manchester, if you look at the International Festival and things like that…
27:51 And I wonder, do you think that Granada contributed to that?
I do, I do, because I think… you know, it gave the region a sense, or reflected the region’s own identity, back to itself in a very positive way. A lot of other companies, regional companies, tended to make things that, you know, I don’t know… dramas for instance. “Let’s pretend we’re in London.” Why? Whereas I think Granada celebrated the fact that we were not London, we were Manchester, and we do things differently here, and we are different.
28:37 Can you think of any particular productions that you’ve worked on that could be described as having been based in Manchester, or you drew on, I don’t know whether you talked about Sam, or something…
Sam’s a good one – that was very much a north west set drama, and it was about this region and the people here. I mean, Coronation Street, for goodness’ sake! It couldn’t possibly be London or Birmingham – it’s Manchester.
29:16 Did you ever work on Coronation Street?
Very briefly, but as I said before, in the early days, there was one designer, it was his kind of fiefdom, if you like, and occasionally other people were drafted in to help, but no, I didn’t really have very much to do with Coronation Street.
29:32 So which programme do you think you most enjoyed?
Oh, I think… as we were talking, I just think I was incredibly lucky to work for Granada and to work at that particular time in television, because there was such interesting things going on.
30:03 Do you think, because I know, having worked at a similar time, we look back now and it does seem like a golden era. Do you think… would you still argue that it was very much very special? I mean, you say there were lots of very interesting people to talk to, or do you think it was just a combination of factors?
I mean… yes, you can look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but I don’t actually think… I think it actually was like that. It was extraordinary. It was a little creative powerhouse – well, not so little. It was! I felt proud to work for Granada – I still do, you know. “What did you do?” “I worked for Granada Television.” And that was something to say, I think.
31:02 And were there any particular characters that you remember, any particular people that you worked with who made an impression or made a difference?
I mean, some of the designers I worked with were… really inspirational. I worked a lot… one of the people who sort of took me under his wing and taught me a lot was Michael Grimes, who I had enormous respect for. Peter Phillips (corr), who was the designer on Brideshead as well… as I said, there were a lot of people, and directors too. Some really wonderful directors who, again, were inspiring, you know. Inspired you to do more. Do better.
31:52 Is there anything else that you’d like to…?
I can’t think of anything, really.
31:58 Don’t worry! Thank you very much.
… but always women, but there were sometimes, and the same with make-up, you know, or PAs. And when I was an assistant, that wasn’t the case. I suppose it was quite lonely in a way, but as I say, I was so in love with the job, I didn’t care. And I suppose I met people other ways, people I shared flats with and other interests, and got to know people in Manchester, so…
0:29 because it’s interesting as well I think that from a gender point of view, there were quite strong lines of demarcation in that all the PAs were female.
Absolutely. And I mean… whereas guys… it seemed easier for chaps to change direction than it was for women. I mean, I can remember… do you remember Sue Pritchard? I mean, very bright woman, fantastic drama PA, and she would have loved to have been a producer or a director, and she went for board after board after board and didn’t get it – and you kind of think, “Why?” I mean, she did eventually become a producer, but… I don’t know.
1:23 It was very much that those were the roles that you would do.
1:28 And it was difficult to break into.
Hmm. I mean, more women did get on directors’ boards and things, I suppose, and things did change a bit – there were more women producers, weren’t there? But it took a long while.
1:44 And I think there were, whilst it became more egalitarian in drama, I think there were still bastions of male domination, like World in Action.
Oh, goodness me, yes! Yes. I mean, interestingly, I think I said to you, you know, (??2:00) because she lives just… she moved, actually, into the hamlet that we lived in, that we have our house in, in Norfolk. It’s just extraordinary really, what a coincidence. But we saw her last week, and in fact, this last weekend, just before we came home, we didn’t see her. Claire Lasko (unverified) went down to visit. I mean, she worked on World in Action, but there weren’t that many people, were there?
2:29 No, it was only in later years, wasn’t it?