Interview with Nick Steer, April 2019
Interviewed by Geoff Moore.
So, Nick just start us off with pre-Granada. Where did you grow up?
Well, I grew up in Cornwall, in the Tamar Valley, very rural, and my father was a market gardener. I went to the local grammar school, which was absolutely tiny. There were, I think, 240 pupils in the whole school. And that’s where I got my interest in film, basically. I had a very inspirational English teacher who introduced us to foreign movies and such like, which really grabbed my attention. And we had little film club and shot things on 8mm. So she was really the one who introduced the idea, which I have never thought of, that I could make a career in that field. And we found a course in London, which was a degree in film and photography, and so I managed to get into that. I had three years in London at the Polytechnic of Central London, it was called at the time, previous to that it’d be been the Regent Street Poly, which was like the very first school of photography in this country – it’s now the University of Westminster, so it is still going. I did film photography in the first year, and then in the second and third year I specialised in film. So we were very small unit in a little building near Selfridges, just off Oxford Street. And it was great, but it was very much sort of practical and hands on, as well as the theory side of it, which was a quite unusual for film courses at the time, purely because of the cost of actually shooting anything. Because in those days we were actually shooting on 16mm, and processing film stock was incredibly expensive. So everything was done on a very tiny amount of film. So you had to think carefully before you started to shoot. And the course we did, we had to do everything, basically. Script writing, directing, producing, camera work, sound, editing and dubbing. So I think I got what I got out of that was a pretty rounded idea of the whole process, which I always thought stood me in good stead later on. Although when I finished that and needed a job, I had absolutely no contacts in the film or television industry at all. So I started just applying for jobs, basically. And it was the days of the closed shops, so you needed a union ticket to get a job, and you needed a job to get a union ticket. So out of everywhere that I wrote to, Granada was the only one that showed any interest, which was very fortunate. They were advertising for a camera assistant and a sound assistant, and I applied for both. I had no particular interest in sound at that time. I just wanted to get into the business, and they asked me for an interview. I showed up at the interview and they hadn’t bothered to tell me which of the jobs I was being considered for, which made it a little tricky. So I found this out sort of midway through the interview that it was the sound job! I was interviewed by Bill Lloyd, Jeff White and Bob Connell. Jeff White was the head of sound and studios at the time. Bill Lloyd, head of film. I had two interviews, and got the job, which was great. I’d never been to Manchester before in my life.
Was it a tough interview, and do you remember how it went?
No, it wasn’t tough. I wouldn’t say it was tough. I mean, it was fairly friendly. I mean, they asked me how I would cover it if I was shooting something, and slightly technical questions like that, and I can’t remember too much else that was difficult at all. I mean, they quizzed me about the course that I’d done and the films that I’d made at college, which was a 10-minute documentary, which was my interest at the time. Although, as it turned out, I later specialised in drama.
So you didn’t know the job that you were being considered for?
No, not exactly.
How did you react when you found out? Were you disappointed?
I probably, as everyone coming out of film school wants to be either a director or a cameraman, I probably slightly fell into that at that category. But I thought, “Well, it’s in the business, it’s a job. It’s a way in.” And after I’d been there a little while, I began to come more around to the idea that the sound side wasn’t such a bad option. Certainly as an assistant, because the camera assistants had a bit of a dog’s life, and the sound assistants were treated slightly better.
That is true!
So this was your first job?
It was my first job straight out of college.
You had to move to Manchester?
I had to move to Manchester.
And who was your boss, Bill Lloyd?
Bill Lloyd. So there was very much a divide between the studio and the film unit, which lasted for years, right up until the time that PSC came in. At the time that news started to be shot on video and electronic cameras started going outside, basically. Right up until that time. It was a like almost like working for two separate companies.
But you started on the film side.
I was always on the film side.
You didn’t ever work in the studios ever?
Never, ever worked in the studios, not at all.
Did you prefer it that way?
Yes, because my training at college had been film, I’d never done a TV studio or anything like that, so my interest was film basically, movies and documentaries. So I wasn’t that interested in going into the studio. But there wasn’t an opportunity for that, because you’re either one side or the other; there was no crossover. There were a few people during the late 70s, early 80s who moved from the studios out into the film unit when the film unit was expanding greatly. People like Doug Hallows, Lawrence Jones, David Odd had all started in the studios and then came across the film unit.
That’s an interesting point you made, it was very separate.
It was very separate.
The studio side and the film side, and there was probably more work on the film side than there is today because of the videotape and digital.
Sure. Well, what happened when I joined, Bill Lloyd said, “Well, you’ll start on local programmes.” So I thought that would be it for a long time, but it wasn’t. Basically when I started, for regional programmes, they used to have a full crew, which was two camera, two sound electricians, PA, researcher, director who would go out to make items for Granada Reports, which is unbelievable looking at the way it’s done now…
So I was on that unit. Harold Lester was the recordist. So I was his assistant, various other cameramen did stints on it and Mike Thompson did a lot of that.
What year did you join Granada?
That’s quite early on, isn’t it?
Yes. So anyway, so working on that was a such a shock to my system, because I’d had a reasonably sheltered upbringing in the depths of Cornwall, and there’s an awful lot of things that I hadn’t ever done at that stage. So suddenly we were on this unit, and we’d go away to the Lake District or to north Wales or Anglesey for a week’s filming, and come back with three or four stories, 10-minute stories for Granada Reports, and stay away in hotels. And so I very quickly learned that the most essential piece of kit on those trips was the Good Food Guide. So that was something I’d never experienced. So we’re eating in restaurants all the time, and there was quite big drinking culture as well. But it was great. I mean, I loved it.
Did you work with Harold Lester a lot on those?
Only at the beginning, really. I mean, throughout the 70s, one of the great things about the film work at Granada in general was that you got a chance to do all sorts of different things. There was no specialisation at the time. So you could be doing a major network drama one week, the next you could be doing local news, World in Action or a documentary or whatever. And that was fantastic too. The variety, and the sort of access to people and things that you would never have got any other way, in any other job. I thought it was fantastic.
So how long did you work a sound assistant, do you think?
So when I joined they said I had to start as a trainee until I got my union card, which Ron Bowie, who was the shop steward at the time, facilitated. So it was three or four weeks. I was a trainee, and then I was immediately upgraded to sound assistant. So then, on the local programmes crew, the one of the regular things was, every Monday morning, you would do half a day on Coronation Street doing the exterior set, because it was all shot in the studio, but the studio cameras didn’t come outside. So everything on there was the very tiny original Coronation Street set on Grape Street, which was a sort of two-thirds of real life size. So it was absolutely, it was tiny, and you had to shoot it in such a way that it didn’t look, you know, that it looked reasonable. So that was every Monday morning, and that was my first opportunity to learn how to boom swing on a drama.
Every Monday morning there were just a few scenes?
So I think it was two episodes a week of Coronation Street at the time. So whatever scenes were outside on the street we would do in half a day. And that was the allowance. For whatever reason, you never went over the half a day. So whether they wrote the script accordingly, that there was only so many outside scenes, I don’t know. But yes, so I did that very regularly.
Yes. Yes. So you started in 1973?
How did your career progress through the 70s?
So after that first year on local programmes, I then got assigned to World in Action with Alan Bale, who was the recordist and George Turner, who was the cameraman. A few of the other cameraman came in for various things, but it was mostly George. And I had about a year just doing that solidly, which was again, opened my eyes basically, and we did all sorts of interesting stories. We went to Portugal, to Lisbon, when the dictatorship was overthrown there, and we were filming people raiding the Secret Service headquarters and pulling files out, and bugs out of the wall, and things like that, which was amazing. A similar thing, in the same year we went to Greece after the Colonel’s regime ended to do a programme about torture. And we went to the… a sort of funny story but I think they were playing a bit of a joke with me really. We went to interview a Mr Meanies, who was alleged to be one of the chief torturers, which he denied absolutely. And he was kind of posing as a businessman. So we did the interview in his office, and fine, and left, got back to the hotel, and Alan said to me, “Oh, I forgot to do an Atmos track,” which I don’t know if you know, just a post track in his office, which is an editing device. “So can you go back and just do that?” So okay, I’ll do that. So I drove the hire car back to his office and knocked on the door and tried to explain to Mr Meanies, the chief torturer, that I wanted to sit in his room and record silence for three minutes. Not an easy thing to get across, but I managed to do it. The rest of them, I’m sure, had a good laugh.
That’s a good story. So what other memorable shoots too?
As far as the world in action goes, the, the move we did one about with Mike Beckham about the, Maharishi, the Yogi, the Beatles guru, which was amazing. We went to his sort of world headquarters, which was in this disused hotel on the top of the mountain in Switzerland. It was absolutely amazing. So that was good fun. Another one was with Gus McDonald. We did a thing about the special unit in Barlinnie jail in Glasgow, where the most sort of famous resident was a man called Jimmy Boyle, who had been locked up for murder and sort of gang activities in Scotland. And then he sort of discovered art and had become a writer and a sculptor.
So we’re allowed in this, this unit, which was a prison within a prison, and they were all sort of convicted murderers, and had also been, you know, involved in violence within the prison system. So that was Gus McDonald, and I think Brian Blake who did that. So that was amazing. We were allowed to be alone in a cell with this guy called Larry, who was a sort of very strange and dangerous looking, who kept budgies in his cell. And they had a detention cell for the budgie as well. So…
So this was with Alan Bale?
With Alan Bale. I mean, Alan was a fantastic mentor to me because he certainly taught me an awful lot, not just about sound recording, but about how to work as a crew. And he was great. They all were, really. And obviously I stayed working for many years, and I just worked with George Turner again recently on the, on the Up series. So I’ve done that every seven years. But we also, that same crew, we went on to do some of the, the Christians documentary series with Bamber Gascoigne. And we went to the Philippines with Leslie Woodhead and Mike Scott to do a thing called The Psychic Surgeons.
I remember it.
Which was an amazing story. So yes, so I sort of became part of that team, and then towards the later part of the 70s I started doing drama, mostly with Phil Smith but some with John Muxworthy, who taught me boom swinging, basically. And the sort of drama techniques.
So you were an assistant on the dramas that you refer to…
My first dramas, I was a boom swinger. Yes, boom operator. The first ones where we did, I think the first sort of major network one was a thing called The Nearly Man, which was directed by John Irvine. After that we did Hard Times, where we had this amazing set on what is now the Science and Industry Museum, of a huge sort of fairground, and we had lots of smoke and braziers, and circus acts and that, Timothy West was in that and Patrick… I’ve forgotten his name. Yes. So that was great. So I began to do more drama, although there was still the variety you’d go off and do, you know, and I started doing recording on news as well, which was a great training ground, because you could do no wrong, basically. So you could try things out and get a lot of experience without coming to any harm. So that was my first recording experience.
And when was that?
That would’ve been around 70… actually, I hadn’t been there that long. 1976, 1977… I think appropriate started doing news and then 77. I actually got a chance to record some music on So It Goes.
What do you remember from So It Goes? Which acts do you remember?
I’m a bit a little hazy in terms of the timescale, but I think it was probably… there was two series, and I think in the first series I was assisting Phil Smith and we recorded a band called Asleep at the Wheel at the Library theatre, who were sort of western swing.
Directed by Peter Carr, as I remember.
Correct. And then so a little bit later on, I think we did The Stranglers at a pub in Islington, which was, I mean, when they were a punk band, I mean they became sort of more sort of middle of the road later on. But originally there were right in the sort of punk heyday. So that was fantastic. But the one that I will always remember was we did Muddy Waters at the new Victoria theatre and I got to meet the great man, which was a great memory. But then shortly after that, well maybe Peter Carr was involved as well, because he was, I got on well with Peter and did a lot of work with him. I got a chance to record some, which why they let me do it I will never ever know, because I basically didn’t have a clue what I was doing! So the first one was, it was a triple bill and it was at a club on Oxford Road, a basement club on Oxford Road. It was Sad Café, John Cooper Clarke and a band called Albertos Lost Trios Paranoias, who were an archaic to say the least.
Well, I was there, I produced that one. Yes, I remember those bands too.
I mean, I jumped at the chance, but as I said, I had zero experience, to be honest. And the other problem being that we really didn’t have the equipment to do it, so we were able to hire in a little bit. So for that one, I had a mixing desk in a converted ambulance, which was parked out the back. We had no talk back. We had no video feed. So basically I was working blind. So we’d done a sound check in the afternoon and basically everything was working, but there was no multi-tracking, so I was recording on to a stereo recorder, and you had to mix it down there and then because there was no chance of altering it later on, which these days you’d think, “No one in the right mind would do that.” But we just didn’t have the equipment to multi-track, so it was quite a lot of pressure to try and get it right in the first go. There was no second take.
How did you go about setting it up? I mean, did you have certain instruments on one channel and vocals on another?
Well, I got the biggest mixing desk that I could manage to hire in, which was in this ambulance, and I can’t remember how many tracks that was, but some of those gigs, it was a case of taking a feed from the PA mix, and then augmenting it with anything that wasn’t going into the PA mix. But that one, I think I remember that we had to make everything up ourselves. So we were splitting the feeds from the vocal mics, and then micing the drum kit and the instruments separately ourselves. Yes. And it kind of, well it wasn’t great, but I kind of survived. You know what I mean? So, yes.
Well that was a big challenge.
It was, it was.
And the equipment was… you had to work with lots of limitations.
Yes. But it was great fun.
Yes. I remember on that particular night, I think it was Rafters on Oxford Road.
So, but I remember we also did Iggy Pop and I think Barry was on sound. What’s his last name?
Barry Brooks. Yes, that’s even more daunting. You know, for the technicians, all his rock and roll and stuff, it was quite new to some of them, and I imagine quite daunting. Faced with a big American band with a big auditorium, that’s really challenging.
Yes. It is. Sad Café were kind of fairly organised, and that wasn’t too bad. Yes. When it came to the Albertos, at the end of the gig they started dismantling the drum kit and the band would kind of disappear and then they would sort of be wandering around between all the different microphones and banging drums and things. And because I couldn’t see anything, I have no idea where they were going to come up next. So that was…
It is extraordinary.
I thought, “Oh, really! What’s going on?” Because we hadn’t had a rehearsal, so we had no idea. We had only done a sound check, we’d never done a rehearsal, so we had no idea that was going to happen. But as I say, it was not perfect, but they let me do some more. So that was great for some of the, I mean, Tony would sort of come up with – Tony Wilson – would come up with bands that we’d never heard of. I remember doing a heavy metal band called the Tygers of Pan Tang, at Manchester Poly Students’ Union. We just have no idea what they were supposed to sound like. We’d not even heard a record, and we went in, and they were doing their sound check, and it was literally a wall of noise. So it was a case of trying to, “How do we pick something out of this?” But it was great. Absolutely loved it.
So what other shows did you work on in the late 70s?
So in ‘76 I worked with Laurence Olivier for the first time. There was a series called Olivier Presents, or something like that. The first one I think I did, I think was actually inserts for – most of it was a studio shoot directed by Michael Apted – with Olivier, Allen Bates, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. I remember being in London, in Hammersmith on the floor of a cab with a microphone, and Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates just above me.
Then another one was Hindlewakes, which Olivier directed, they sent Jim Howson out to sort of help him, well, not help him direct it, but to translate his ideas into things that were practical on a TV budget. It was quite a funny story, we were in Halifax, I think, it was somewhere in Yorkshire, outside a cotton mill, and we were trying to record some dialogue, and the supporting artists were all wearing clogs, and there was a lot of them sort of walking up and down, just out of shot. So Phil Taylor was the recordist and he said to Olivier, “Would it be alright if we got the people out of shot to take their clogs off?” So Olivier looked at him and eventually agreed, and then he turned around and said, “I spoil you, sound.”
Nice one. He did it anyway.
He did it. Yes. So that was the late 70s, and then the film unit was expanding massively. There was much more drama. They started doing the big documentary series at Christian’s, as I mentioned, so they needed more crew, basically. So there was a promotion chance. So that’s when I got to the chance to step up to recordist. Another interview with Bill Lloyd. And he said, “Right boy, we’re going to give you a chance, but you’re going to be doing local programmes for at least two years. We won’t let you near any sort of network stuff,” which turned out not to be true at all. I think there was a little bit of a delay before the promotion was made official, and then a month after that I was doing a network drama as a recordist.
Yes, but you had been a recordist on So it Goes.
But not officially, just because I was still graded as a boom operator at that time. So even though all the news work, and So it Goes, and I did the old local documentaries as well. But that was all acting up, and not officially recordist. So then 1980, I was finally a recordist, and started concentrating on drama more.
Is that what you wanted to do?
Well, as I said, I had originally come in and my interest was documentary. But the kind of opportunities for that weren’t as great, I found. As I became more experienced in doing drama, I did really enjoy that. It was more challenging, because there’s documentary and documentary, really. A lot of what was classed as documentary was little more than talking heads, which is not terribly interesting as a sound person. So the sort of documentaries that I was interested in was more the cinema verité type, and there wasn’t an awful lot of that going on. Although, as I said, I worked with Peter Carr quite a bit and his stuff was… in terms of getting the sound was much more challenging, and also more interesting in a way. So we did the Manchester City film, which I still think is a great, great film. And they managed to get this amazing sort of access into the dressing room and into the boardroom at Manchester City, which I think Paul Doherty had sort of arranged, and David Drury, who had been a film editor, produced it and he managed to keep that door open, which, was quite an achievement, because all hell was breaking loose at City at the time. They were firing Malcolm Allison, who was the manager, and then looking for a new manager, and the team wasn’t doing well. So there was all sorts of things going on, and we were behind the scenes on all of that. When things are going so badly, it’s unusual to be able to carry on shooting, which we managed to do.
Did you work on Living In Style?
That was a Peter Carr one, I just wondered.
It was, I did the city film. I did his Goostree series, which nobody will remember, I don’t think. But when you look at the reality shows today, it was ahead of its time, because over quite an extended period of time we followed various characters in the village, and they became real characters in the TV show. But we did it without in the modern reality shows where it’s kind of what they call ‘constructed factual’ these days. We didn’t do that. It was just what the people were really about and what they were really doing. So I thought that was good. Then I did another film with Peter about a Scottish cyclist who was in the Tour de France called Robert Miller, which was another really good film, and also great fun to do. Mike Blakely shot that, and I think he also shot the City film, and his handheld work was absolutely in a class of its own. I think he was never fully valued for that. He was really, really good at following the story, always getting the shot, basically.
He was the cameraman on So It Goes, the Clash Concert.
Which Peter Carr directed. which is, as you say, fantastic work from Mike, and Peter. Yes, so quite a variety of stuff.
Quite a variety, yes.
You did everything really, didn’t you, in those first 10 years?
I know, that was a great thing. I mean later on it became, the way the industry changed, you kind of had to specialise, and there were very few people who were crossing over from factual to drama and back again. Quite a few people moved from factual to drama, but very few went back, if you know what I mean.
So what did you do into the 80s, is that when you became a drama person?
Pretty much. The City film was 1980, the cycling film was later on. So I still had a foot in both camps. But it was more veering towards drama. So in the 80s, so originally at Granada, the drama had been basically done by two lighting cameraman, which was Ray Good and David Wood. David sadly died way too young. I think it was after that that Ken Morgan came in, who worked at the drama unit at BBC Birmingham. I did an awful lot of drama with Ken, Andy Stephen was his camera operator, and they were a great team. Throughout the 80s basically, I did mostly worked with them, and with Tony Cooper was my boom op, and later on, David Eve. So we kept the same team together for an awful lot of stuff. So the first big drama series that I did with them was this thing called All For Love, which was produced by Roy Roberts. They were one off stories adapted from mostly short stories by fairly well-known writers. The series was a kind of follow on to Country Matters, which had been done before I joined Granada. I think the idea was to do that same feel really. So they’re bittersweet stories. So I think one of the best of those was a thing called L’Elegance, directed by Jack Gold, Geraldine McEwan was the lead. It was about a shop girl from Manchester who went on an annual holiday to France, and took on a whole new persona, much more refined when she got to her French holiday hotel. So yes, and he was a great director. He was famous for the Naked Civil Servant, which was some time before, the thing about Quentin Crisp. But the way he worked was, put a lot of pressure on the crew. I think video assist was just beginning to be thought about, but basically it hadn’t come in. But he wasn’t interested in any of that. So we shot the whole thing, and the only person who had ever seen the shot was the camera operator, and the only person who’d ever heard the sound was me.
I see. So explain video assist?
Video assist where these days the cameras have a video feed so everybody can watch on monitors what the actual shot. The exact same shot, the same thing that the camera operator is seeing. Now that was a new technology in film cameras. It was obviously easy on video cameras because you just take a tap out. But it was a new idea to fit a video camera into the eyepiece of a film camera so that everyone else could see the shot. So for years, up until the mid-80s, no one could see the shot. You just have to take it on trust. The first time people saw it was when they watched rushes the next day. But Jack Gold, he asked you if it was okay, if you said it was okay, it was okay, and it’d better be okay. So that was amazing. So then another of the directors on the All for Love series was a guy called Rob Knight, and we went on to do a thing called the Ebony Tower, which is a John Fowles story with Lawrence Olivier again, which we shot in France, at a chateau with an hour’s drive outside of Le Monge. We were there for a few weeks. So with Olivier, Greta Scacchi, Toyah Willcox and Roger Reese. So it was quite a high-powered cast at the time.
Indeed it was, yes.
So that was good experience. Then I suppose the next notable drama was the Magic Toy Shop, which David Weekley directed, which was an Angela Carter book adaptation. Tom Bell was the lead in that. But I thought it was a really good script, it was pretty unusual. It was full of special effects, but it was before any sort of digital special effects. So it was all steampunk special effects, which is great fun. Steve Finnoran was the designer, he was a great designer. Again, sadly died too young.
Did he die?
I didn’t know. Oh, dear.
Yes. So that was great, and that got a cinema release, which was the first of the things that I’d recorded. It was a very limited cinema release, but it was there and I’ve still got the poster upstairs on the wall.
Yes, it was great. It was great.
And what year was that?
That was in ‘87. After that we did, I’m sorry, this is coming across like a list of programmes.
No, it’s good to detail them, and to detail who worked on them too.
Yes. A series called After the War, written by Frederic Raphael. It was a huge, huge series. I think it took about a year to shoot with two crews working. So it was absolutely massive. So I was on one of the units. there were three directors for the whole series, and I worked with John Madden, and John Woods was the DOP on it. I think Sita Williams was the producer. So yes, that was again a good experience. Madden was a talented director, although difficult at times. I think that on day one, the very first day of this year-long series, we were filming in the refuge building on Oxford Road. I think the first set up, we went to 23 takes, which when you had a year ahead of you, I thought didn’t bode well, but things sped up after that. So a lot of it was shot in Manchester. But also we also went to Israel and to Paris, and one of the other units went to Kenya as well on that show. So it was quite, the days when there was enough money to send drama crews to foreign places, which was fairly amazing.
You obviously did a lot of foreign travel over the years.
I did. Not as much as I could have done because I had a young family, and I took a conscious decision not to do that. So there was an awful lot of places in the world that I could have gone to, and chose not to for family reasons basically. So I had offers to do Disappearing World in China and in Tahiti, and I chose not to go. But the drama shoots tended to be slightly shorter when they were abroad. So that was fine, that was manageable.
But I guess the film office would decide who did what, and very often you learned about things quite late on, didn’t you?
Yes. That’s interesting, and that kind of changed over the years. I think in the 70s and 80s, they figured out which crews worked well together. So certain things were put together in that way, and then as time progressed, the producers and directors began to have much more of a say, and they could choose who they wanted. Because in the early days they got who they were given, pretty much. But later on, it rested on your CV, who they wanted basically. I did okay out of that.
So After The War, and then more drama?
More drama, a 1988 A Tale of Two Cities, which is another big one. We were in Bordeaux shooting for, oh weeks, must have been nine, 10 weeks or something. Which was another great experience. That was an interesting one, because it was a co-production with a French company and the cost was half, well more than half English. The other portion were French. Some of whom were great actors. But their command of English wasn’t… it was fine to chat, but to act… I think Steve Falls was the producer who liaised with the French production company, because I think he had a background as a French teacher or something.
Yes, that’s right. He did. Yes.
Anyway, so the decision was made to shoot it all in English, and to shoot certain scenes in English and French. That was very interesting, because the scenes in French with the French cast would take half the time of the scenes in English with the French cast. In terms of running the dialogue, in French it was very quick. In English it was really slow.
But the French lead was an actor called Xavier Deluc, and his English really wasn’t great. I flagged up in the first couple of weeks, I said, “We have a problem here, because you really can’t understand him.” And they said, “No, no, no, no, no. It’ll be fine.” We’ll actually, it wasn’t fine. So they let it go for the whole shoot, and then at the end of the day they got an English actor to re-voice him. Which is really disappointing for me, because one of the things that all sound recordists want is for your sound to make it into the final show. Not to have post-sync, or ADR as it’s called now. So that was a shame.
But as I say, but you really couldn’t understand him. But that was again, fantastic cast. John Mills, Jean-Pierre Aumont.
Yes. Then I see you worked on Who Bombed Birmingham?
Yes, with Mike Beckham. Again, that was the same team with Ken Morgan, and yes, that was fantastic. Fantastic show. Obviously the World In Action had come first, but the drama kind of added to the pressure, I think. Then the Birmingham Six were released, I think it was probably within a year after that went out. So it was, yes, I thought it was great.
Who was the cameraman on that?
On Who Bombed Birmingham? Ken Morgan again.
It was kind of odd, because it was a kind of a Granada-based story. So we had Martin Shaw being Ian McBride.
That’s right, I remember. So just jumping forward, if we may, to Prime Suspect.
Which is obviously one of the best known Granada productions. Very successful. Starring Helen Mirren. And you worked on it for it looks like three years?
I did. I didn’t do the first one. The first one, that’s what kicked it off. It was a great, absolutely great piece of television. The person who recorded it, Chris (Manoel? 53:04) that directed it, wanted all of this overlapping dialogue, so that the police station incident room scenes were a lot of people talking at once. Now from a sound point of view, it’s very difficult to do that, and make it so that you can edit it because obviously things overlap. You can’t get the scissors in. So on the first one, that had been a bit of an issue. So I was asked to do the second one, and they said, “Can you cope with that, and shoot it in such a way that we can edit it?” I said, “Yes, I can do it. I just need a second boom operator.” Because if you’ve only got one boom operator… and up until that time, really the sound crew was only a two-man crew. Things had been shot in the traditional way where the actors don’t overlap each other, leave gaps so that you can edit. Prime Suspect wasn’t shot that way.
Were you recording on quarter inch tape?
Still, yes, I’m pretty sure. I can’t remember what year we changed it. I went from a recording on a Nagra mono, to a stereo Nagra, to then a DAT machine, and later on to digital. I can’t quite remember which year that change what happened. But I’m pretty sure it was on a Nagra.
On Prime Suspect, and these scenes that you mentioned in the incident room…
So we were still, we only had two tracks.
So how do you cope with overlapped dialogue with two tracks?
So basically as long as you cover all the dialogue, everything that happens and there’s nothing that’s off mic, then it’s possible to edit it. It means maybe stealing bit of sound from one tape to use on another, or putting the sound edit, not where the picture edit is, either a little bit earlier or a little bit later, but you can edit it.
That’s quite tricky isn’t it?
Quite tricky. But that’s what we did. So we made sure that we… and those incident room scenes in Prime Suspect, there was a lot of people in them, and they all had dialogue. So you had to be on your toes, absolutely, to make sure that everything was covered. So as I say, as long as nothing was off mic, then the editor could get around it, and that’s the way we did it. It worked, it was successful.
Did you have a regular assistant to at this time that you chose to work with?
I’ve worked with Tony Cooper who I mentioned earlier, and I think he did the first one with me. But then David Eve, who I had been working with on a lot of the programmes which I’ve just mentioned, had a back injury, so he’d had to step away from it. So I was then looking for new boom operators, and on the Prime Suspects I worked with a number of different people.
Just on another tack here, but it was a man’s world really wasn’t it, of film crews and technicians?
Yes, absolutely. Pretty much the whole film unit, when I joined the whole film crew unit was male. Obviously we always went out with Pas, and that was the female presence. It tended to be eight or nine guys and one female, and that was for a very long time. Then in the late 80s I think you began to see a few female camera assistants, and whatever. Even later still, female sound people. But yes, very much. It took a long time to change.
I’m going to ask you about Band of Gold. what was that like to work on?
I only did the second series, but yes, it was a good one. We were mostly in Ashton-Under-Lyne on the back streets, pretending that that was the red light district of Bradford. Then quite a bit of with studio sets as well, were built for that.
Granada was still making a lot of drama in the 90s, wasn’t it?
When you look at the list of programmes, the perception was that when things started to change… I think when we were doing Tale Of Two Cities… Granada, whether there was money problems or whatever, I don’t know, Granada decided… I think it was Thatcherism as well. There had been the TV-am dispute, and all of that. Thatcher had said, “Things can’t go on like this,” because the union has held sway. To be honest, we had amazing deals in terms of expenses, and the electricians had to go on jobs where they didn’t have to put any lights up and things like that. Then in the 80s it was decided that this couldn’t carry on, and Granada came up with something called the House Agreement, which sort of did away with all of those things in one fell swoop. Everyone on the crew said, “Oh, this is the beginning of the end.” Actually when you look at the programmes that we did after that, it wasn’t the beginning of the end, it was just different.
Looking back on it, how was the industrial relations side? Did that affect the way you worked, and did it impact on the productions?
Yes. It’s kind of difficult to explain this really, but there was a very bad… with any change, everyone could see that it was unsustainable to carry on the way we were, and it didn’t make any sense. But the swing from one extreme to the other was too extreme in a way. It should have been sort of cut back, but gone in a middle way and that didn’t happen. It went to a totally other extreme, and we worked for a period where we didn’t have the right to refuse overtime, and the company could put out a schedule where you had no idea what time you’re going to finish work. If they said you had to do overtime, you had to do overtime. For a person’s social life, it was absolutely disastrous because you had no idea what time you were going to get home.
I see, or family life as well.
Family life. So that persisted for a few years, not too long. Then gradually people began to push back against it and say, “No, I’m not doing that unless you pay more money.” Because it was unreasonable, and it’s gradually gone back to a whole different way of working now where everyone is freelance. You do a deal, but the terms are much more strictly laid down. So it’s not all one way, which it was for those few years.
When did the House Agreement come in do you think?
I can’t remember the exact year. But I think it was around ‘88, ‘89.
Do you get paid overtime now, in the industry as a freelancer?
Potentially. But in fact, it’s ever-changing. There’s just been in the last year in agreement with PACT, the Producers Association, where they’ve actually laid down much stricter rules, because there’s been a huge issue with people working excessive hours, people crashing their cars on the way home from work because they’re too tired. So they’ve put some limits onto that, and as part of that to prevent excessive hours they’ve introduced some overtime rates again, which hadn’t happened for a long time.
Okay. Let me ask you about Cold Feet.
Cold Feet was great. I did five years on Cold Feet. The only one I didn’t do was the original pilot, but it was one of the most enjoyable things ever, really. I think the early series, the first couple of series were groundbreaking in a way. It wasn’t until the third series that it became a massive hit. But no, no, it was great. I can’t remember what year it was that Andy Harris got the head of comedy job, and then became head of comedy and drama. But he’d started doing a series with Rik Mayall, which I did quite a few of, which were the same thought behind it as Cold Feet. It was very relatable, but it was good stories with a good cast. We did one called Dancing Queen with Rik Mayall and Helena Bonham Carter, which was only an hour’s film, but it still stands up as a great little… it could have been a feature film. Another one was the Bare Necessities, which was the same story as the Full Monty, but we made it nine months before that came out.
Again, it was only an hour, and could have been a feature film, that was great. Andy did all these things, and then Cold Feet came along and that was a big, big success.
What year did you leave Granada then?
2003, so it was just after Cold Feet, was it?
What had happened was that from the early 90s, people… obviously had the change of management, which we all know about, and they’d started getting rid of people. They were offering voluntary redundancy, and the film unit had withered away from I think a peak amount in the mid-80s of about 37 people, camera and sound, augmented by quite a lot of freelancers. It was at the height of when we were really busy. Granada just started, if people left, they weren’t replaced, or people were offered voluntary redundancy. I’d actually applied for voluntary redundancy in the late 80s and I’d been refused. I think I was too busy. That was the problem. I don’t know whether that was good or a bad thing at the end of the day, but what had started to happen was, even though I was still on the staff, they started hiring me out to independent production companies and to the BBC. Which was a very odd situation, because I’d get phone calls from independent producers saying, “We’d like you to do such-and-such a drama, would you like to do it?” “Yes, but I can’t do a deal with you because it has to go through Granada.”
So they said, “Well, if we offered you this amount of money, would that be alright?” So it’s, “Yes. that’s fine.” So a day later I’d get a call from management at Granada saying, “We want to hire you out to such and such your production company, and we’re willing to pay you this amount of money,” which is what I had agreed… so it was very, very bizarre.
So I did that quite a bit. So it was a good practice for being freelance. I was kind of working for different companies but still being paid by Granada. So eventually in 2003 they decided to disband the film unit altogether. I think there only about four or five of us left. So at that stage they had no option but to give me the redundancy package.
I see, yes. So you were in Granada, ‘73 to 2003, 30 years in the company.
What are the high points, low points, what did you admire about the company and its people, or what didn’t you like so much?
I think we talk about the glory days really, in terms of when David Plowright was in charge. I think the different TV landscape at the time meant that the Granada could, if somebody came up with an idea and they pitched it to the management, and they liked it, they could just say, “Right, go ahead and do it.” What that meant was that it wasn’t the lowest common denominator. It was in some odd ideas could actually get made and the interesting ideas. Then in the later times when things like the Network Centre was established, and that was no longer possible, you have a much less chance of getting personal projects made or whatever, because it had to compete with the rest of the network for a start. Because Granada didn’t have automatic access to the network, without sort of pitching for it. I thought that was good. That’s what made it an exciting place because there was so many different things going on. It had its own character, really. From sort of left wing journalists on World in Action, to the (??70:08), which were the sort of northern end of the pier of stuff almost.
In your career, did you want to be anything else at Granada, or were you content?
I’d always wanted to direct, and I thought I could do it. But I think I applied twice for the director’s training course and didn’t get it. I wasn’t terribly surprised; there were few people who managed to move from crew to directing.
It was rare though, wasn’t it?
It was rare.
Pete Connors became a producer from being a sound man.
Colin Richards, also yes. But it was very rare. The most remarkable one was Tony Prescott. He came from being a spark to being a really good director.
That’s right, that’s right.
But I don’t know, I think you were kind of… and maybe sound especially, I don’t know. There’s a bit of a thing with sound men.
I think I know what you’re going to say.
We’ll I don’t know, I don’t know how to say it in a polite way, but there is. I’ve had the odd person come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re pretty normal for a sound man.”
There was bit of a hierarchy in a film crew, wasn’t there? The camera man was the lead operator.
Picture more important than sound, was that the general view?
Always everywhere. Not just Granada, everywhere. The difference, what made Granada a nice place to work, was that within the film unit itself, everybody helped each other out. So there wasn’t, if the camera guys needed a lift, you’d do that. If you need a lift the camera guys would help you out. That certainly wasn’t the case everywhere. I worked with some London crews where there was such a divide between cameras… they barely even talk to each other, and they certainly wouldn’t help each other out. It was almost like a competition, and Granada wasn’t like that at all. That was really good. The cameraman was always seen as the leader of the crew. Absolutely, right.
And what about the electrician’s role within the…
I’m not sure what you’re getting at.
I think it ought to be a corporative unit, and when it works best, everyone’s helping each other and you sit down and dinner at night and why have a laugh.
Well, without being under diplomatic, I think in the early days when the electrician’s union ruled the roost, and some of the electricians, although really nice guys, and left to their own devices would do anything for you. But would not do that if they thought anybody would see them doing something not in their role. That was a union thing, and within the electrician’s union, there were some absolute sticklers who would come down like a ton of bricks on somebody who seemed to be doing something outside of the field. But yes, it tended, when you’re away from base, it tended to be all different and everyone chipped in.
Because the thing about… well, I’ve done more studio stuff, you’ve done more film stuff. But we work in unpredictable environments. Things can happen.
The weather can change things, or a car crash, or the equipment can break down. So in getting your schedule and your timing is very difficult thing. So you have to beg favours sometimes, don’t you?
Oh definitely, yes. Doing the job, in some ways you could say doing the job is easy, but making sure everything works is hard.
It’s always the biggest… because with sound kit especially, there’s so many bits and pieces, that trying to keep on top of that, it all gets hammered in the course of the job. So yes. So that’s hard. I was on a documentary in the states and it was one of those jobs where different city every night, different flight every day. We ended up in North Carolina, and took the recorder out of the… it was a Nagra at the time. Took the recorder out of the box, didn’t work. And we had one interview to do and then to fly onto Washington the next day. So that’s an awful situation. So I started getting on the phone in North Carolina, calling up local TV stations and radio stations and of course, nobody used that kit, because it was film kit. So that’s not what they use. So after a lot of phone calls, so tracked down a guy who was 50 miles away who had a Nagra, and called him up and said, “We’re really stuck.” And he said, “Okay, if you drive down the freeway and there’s a junction…” whatever number, “and it’s halfway between the two of us, and we’ll meet there I’ll hand over the machine.” Which he did, didn’t know us from Adam and got us out of the pickle.
Wow. That’s amazing.
That is amazing.
So since you left Granada, you’ve had a successful independent career?
Lots of different kinds of production, lots of different clients.
Well, the nature of things these days, is there’s lot of independent production companies. So yes, I work with Red Productions quite a bit. This thing I’m doing next is for Tiger Aspect, this is the third series I’ve done with them.
So your Granada reputation on the shows you worked has stood you in good stead?
Yes, I would say so. When you get to my age, you do get discounted for some jobs because they think you’re too old. But other than that that kind of CV stands you in reasonably good stead. So yes.
So is there anything else you want to add to your story?
No. I think there’s an awful lot of programmes and you can’t mention everything. The only thing we didn’t touch on, which I really enjoyed doing the local documentaries, which I did a load of. The This is Englands, and Celebrations, which I was interested in the arts anyway. So those were great to do. And quirky little films, with the, you know, directors like Norman Howell and Julian Farino. So yes, those were really enjoyable.
And finally all of the 30 years you were at Granada, just name a few people that you really admire, if you like, people you worked with over the years.
I’m trying to think of someone that I haven’t already mentioned.
Well, you can repeat it.
So yes. I worked with an awful lot of different people, cameramen, directors, producers. I think I mentioned before Ken Morgan, I’ve worked with for a long time, and I think that was a great working relationship. George Turner, who I’ve worked with every seven years on the Up films with Michael Apted. That’s a great working relationship, that whole team in fact. We just had a preview of the next 63 Up, which goes out in about a month’s time.
Okay, did George work on that?
Yes. Yes, we’re all still going. But what was interesting was, there was a Q&A, it was at the BFI in London and there was a Q&A afterwards. Mark Lawson said to Michael Apted, what would happen. “Do you think it should carry on, and if you can’t do it, should somebody else take it on?” One of our contributors who was there stood up and said, “We wouldn’t do it with anyone else.”
Oh, that’s good, wow.
So it just shows the sort of relationship that the crew have with the people, and why that’s been such a great series, because it’s very intrusive into their private lives basically. But the fact that they’ve stuck with it is partly to do with the relationship that we all have with them. So that’s great.
Looking at Granada as a company, as an employer and the culture of it. How do you see that?
Because it went through different phases. So I can’t but say it was an absolutely great company to work for. When I look around at the other ITV companies, and I mean the BBC is a different kettle of fish, but certainly the other ITV companies, I don’t see any of the others that had what Granada had. The fact that we were in Manchester, and the size of it, that everyone knew everyone else basically in it. There was this huge amount sort of talent within that building, I think in all sort of areas. One person I haven’t mentioned who I think was incredible, who I worked with a lot and I think was incredibly talented is David Odd. He sort of just came out of the Granada system, with the idea, a definitely have-a-go attitude. He was not afraid to try new things, do things in a different way. I think maybe that came from the Granada ethos. Yes.
Okay, are you happy?
Yes, I think so. You can go on and on, can’t you? but I don’t know.
We covered a lot one ground.
We did, we did.
Thank you very much.
No, no, it’s a pleasure.