Interview with Norma Percy, April 3rd, 2019. Interviewed by Geoff Moore, London.
So Norma, can I just ask you to just tell us a bit about your earlier years and background education, and so on?
Right. I grew up in New York, and when it came to go to university, I wanted to get as far as possible from my family. So I went to a small college in Ohio called Oberlin, where there was an extremely charismatic Hungarian professor of International Relations. And all we government international relations students actually learned a lot from him. He had been at LSE in the 30s and in love with Harold Laski’s daughter. So when it came to graduation, he asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to graduate school – everybody had already gone to graduate school, and what I wanted to get out of it. And I said, “I want to learn about how politics really works, and get as far as possible from my family.” So he enthusiastically suggested LSE, and off I went to do a two-year M-Phil at LSE. The topic of the thesis I put down, not knowing very much in Oberlin Ohio, was to study the Labour Party’s adjunct to European integration. This was 1963, and the McMillan bid had just been finished, it was in the early stage. I went to LSE, actually I was comparing Labour Party attitude to 1945 with the current day, and I started work on my thesis. But LSE being in the centre of London, had visiting politicians, it also had theatres, and coming from a small town in Ohio, there was a lot of distractions. I went quite slowly. And it was fine, because another good thing about LSE was it was very cheap. But suddenly, the Howard Wilson government put up overseas students fees by a ginormous amount at that time. I think it was the first time, and I realised my money would run out, and I had to get a job. And I got a job in the House of Commons, where I was absolutely, supremely happy. In those days, the Labour MPs couldn’t afford researchers, but my guy was a wonderful professor called John McIntosh, who had just been elected, and a social science research council grant to write a book. So he had money to pay me for three years. And I really… he sat in his office for all night sittings, while I sort of did intelligence in the Strangers’ Bar, and truly was having a wonderful time, and learning much more about politics than I did in my graduate course at LSE. Until four years when the research money was obviously coming to an end, and I could see that he was very worried about how he would ever get me off the premises, because I was so happy, at which point Brian Lapping turned up. He had just been commissioned by Granada to do his first big series, a sort of Royal Commission of the air. Sidney Bernstein had asked for Royal Commissions, televised Royal Commissions, on important subjects, and his first one was about parliament. And he turned up to see my guy for a suggestion about someone who knew about parliament, who he could hire as a researcher. And my guy was so delighted because he was someone who would take me off his hands, or his salary, and he gave me a fantastic reference to Brian Lapping.
What was the title of the programme?
It will come to me in a minute. I definitely know. Did Brian give you the books?
And what year was it?
State of the Nation! State of the Nation.
State of the Nation.
That’s what the series was called, and this was State of the Nation Parliament.
And roughly what year?
Brian first came to me to help develop it in February 1972, and we wrote a proposal. I guess we got started actually. You didn’t have to write proposals and get them to develop it. We started work. But there were a lot of us. I was the kind of Labour parliamentary researcher, there was a former lobby correspondent, there was a Tory researcher. But Brian and I got on, so I stayed. But parliament wasn’t televised yet, so we decided to use the structures of parliament to examine parliament. Actually this was the reason I stayed, because we commissioned an opinion poll from MORI about what was wrong with parliament. That had happened before I joined, and I said it was ridiculous. You don’t care about what ordinary people think about what’s wrong with parliament, you care about what the practitioners think, what the MPs think. So in the end we did a select committee looking into what was wrong with parliament and how to reform it. We did a mock parliamentary debate, which was absolutely fantastic. With the pro and anti… the reform I believed in, the reform I had learned from my MP, John McIntosh, was that there should be more select committees, that it would make MPs far better able to scrutinise the executives, and the sort of cheerleader stuff that they did on the floor of the House of Commons. And MPs were divided as to whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. So the centrepiece of the programme was a mock parliamentary debate on each side, eight people. And the people who believed in the floor of the House were people like Brian Walden, Michael Fuller, Enoch Powell. And on the other side was Anthony Crosland, Sir Richard Crossman, my MP, John McIntosh, Reggie (Maudling? 6:54), and the good side of Reggie Maudling, and some other nice (??7:03)…
So this was a series, was it?
No, it was… so it took us two years to research. There was also a film, which was supposed to be directed by Leslie Woodhead, in which we were going for a fly on the wall of one bill… of one clause of a bill going to the civil service and the House of Commons. And it took us so long to negotiate permission for this, that Leslie went on to do something else. And we looked around for someone else to do it, and we realised this was modelled on Roger Grave’s film, Diplomacy, which had gone out recently. And so we thought, “Why don’t we go and talk to Roger Grave?” Roger Grave was so outraged that we had gone to anyone else in the first place, but when he swallowed this he agreed to do it. So in the end we got permission from Geoffrey Howe, who was in charge of consumer affairs in the Department of Trade and Industry to study clause two of the Fair Trading Bill, which set up a director general of fair trading. It was kind of the fuzzy end of the Heath government, and it was doing something good to protect the consumer, which was why they let us in. And we filmed for six months. And whenever this director general was being discussed by the civil servants who were about to go to the House of Commons…
It sounds like a dream job for you.
It was a dream job, yes. It was a dream job. So anyway, at the end of this two years, we did actually make some programmes, and I think it ended up being five hours of television on three consecutive nights. And I remember going to see my first actual seeing of the gods that ran Granada, was when we went up in the flat to show it to Denis Forman and David Plowright. He thought I was the PA, and he kept asking me timings! I knew absolutely nothing about television at the time, because it was like being on a big research project. And it wasn’t until the very end that we got anywhere near a camera, and there was… I think, I didn’t go to the film Roger’s film, because there were nine people and I would have been the tenth, I think. And Roger’s biggest job was trying to make the electrician stay at home, because he filmed without lights. So I did these two mock parliamentary select committees.
The Fair Trading Bill was two hours, and the select committee was 90 minutes, and I think the debate was two hours. So we went in the flat to show, I think it was the Fair Trading Bill, and we said, “Denis is this very boring?” and he said, “It’s just a Granada board meeting, I absolutely love it, and you mustn’t cut him in it.” So they started at nine o’clock, but they were so long that they went on, and they were on ITV, three nights in a row. And they were far too good to show it to the press on VHS in those days, I guess, or (new matics? 10:35). So the outside broadcast unit came down from Manchester to play them to the press shows, so that they would be high quality.
Wow, that’s amazing.
And I do remember Tony Crosland and his slippers, sitting in the cinema on 3 Upper James Street as they came up with some critics. And they got amazing reviews. I mean, they were so wonderful, Chris Dunkley and the FT. Anyway, Brian and I got on, and so we decided I would stay for the next one, which was another kind of ministers and civil servants thing. It was the minister and his civil servants discussing the genesis of a bill. It was Richard Crossman and (Damian Allonshaw? 11:23), that was the amazing one, in conversation about housing policy. And they almost came to blows, and then there was one on Tony Crosland and his civil servants about education. And one about (??11:42), and Geoffrey Howe about changing the legislation… the first change in the legislation. They were good, serious programmes, but they probably would have been best on Radio 4. What did we do next? But some of the things I remember, for example, in this amazing document that we prepared as the research paper for this, what was wrong with parliament, Brian went to see Sidney Bernstein to show it to him, and Sidney Bernstein took this document we had spent probably six months preparing, and threw it in his face, and said, “This is a terrible document.” And Brian came back very bemused. But what happened after that is, it didn’t have a date, and it didn’t have a title, and it didn’t have proper page numbers. So we put all these things in and he read it, and he liked it, and he… and so, Sidney was indeed a fan.
I just want to ask you a couple of questions, your first meeting with Brian Lapping, was that in an interview?
He came… god, do you really want to hear this? I had actually met a girlfriend of a friend of a Cambridge friend of Brian’s six or seven years before, and I knew Brian from going to dinners at his house. And so, when he rang me up, I thought it was somebody who was ringing me up that I knew, and I was therefore quite relaxed. At that time I had commandeered a room over the terrace of the House of Commons, where the cleaners used to rest, or the women would play cards on all-night sessions, but in the day was empty, because I didn’t have a proper office. And so I received Brian in this room overlooking the terrace, and then he took me to lunch. And I thought he was coming to me for advice about what to cover in the programme, because I knew about parliamentary reform, and we talked for two hours. And it would not have occurred to me that anyone would give me a job in television. I didn’t think about such things, and I had been planning to go on to some very boring parliamentary digest job that Bernard (Crick? 14:11) had accepted for me. And so I was very relaxed, and very pontificated, and the next morning… well, first of all, Brian went home and said to Anne, “I met this amazingly wonderful woman, and she’s going to be great in my programme.” And Anne said, “Brian, you know her really well.” Brian hadn’t recognised me at all! That was something to… a quality I noticed in him with other people. So we had these researchers, and we were taken on for a year to do research for this programme, and most of the others went, but because Brian and I got on, we stayed.
This was kind of a particular strand of Granada’s output, wasn’t it?
It’s kind of special political programmes. People actually list… Morgan was talking to me the other night about the Granada 500, which I also worked on in, I think, the ‘74 election, which was something that they had kind of… I have pamphlets about these things that the publicity department of Granada put out, and then they definitely published the transcripts of State of the Nation Parliament again. But Sidney definitely… Granada, at finding new and serious ways of covering politics, is something that they really prided themselves on. And so we continued to do that. We continued to look for… I mean, we considered ourselves… we weren’t film makers, and therefore, we had to find sort of special ways of making programmes. And I’m trying to think what we did next, because there were Hypotheticals, and there were journalist reconstructions.
Yes. And Granada 500, you worked…
Granada 500, Kate Haste and I were researchers, and I think it was the 1974 election.
Was there one in 1979?
I think there were… Granada 500, it kind of developed.
I worked on the 1983 one.
Right. I think there must have been. This one in 1974, Steve Morrison was making a fly on the wall film about it and managed to completely alienate all his colleagues who were trying to get on with making a programme. But what Kate Haste and I did, was bring… they had lunch time studio shows. The 500 would come every lunch time to the studio in Liverpool, I think… no, Preston.
And our job was to get important experts on different subjects to speak to them, and this was to prepare for the big interview with the party leaders that happened at the end. And Liz (Forgan? 14:11) was saying, that was something that she thought was really significant and we ought to bring it back. At this time of thinking one ought to find new ways of educating the electorate, because look at the mess they’ve created, we should do this more often. In ‘83 they knew they were going to get party leaders from the beginning, didn’t they?
Yes, they did. It was again, based in Preston, so the whole team just went up there, and all these typewriters and phones, and teams were everywhere, and the 500 were chosen. And then the train went from Preston to London with a few drinks, but more drinks on the way back. Relationships were started – and ended.
Yes. We were based in London, because we…
Did you go on the train?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I had, I went with the party leaders. I did go… I was based in London and I would come with the talent at lunchtime, and then go back and forth. But I did have a time of staying. Maybe I must have done something else then. But we went on to journalist reconstructions, which I could talk about, because they were great. And in a way I feel this Europe series that I just finished is the… finishing the business that they started. And it was another brilliant idea of Brian’s, that he was reading about around cabinet over the decision to bail out Chrysler. And it was between Eric Foley, the Minister of Industry, and Harold Lever, and… it will come to me, someone who wanted to cut it because it would be more cost effective to…
I really want to ask you about that.
The early stuff?
No, no, that period, Granada’s tradition of political coverage.
Which was both local and national, it’s reflected in World in Action too, and Hypotheticals, and the Granada 500 and the programmes you did with Brian Lapping, all are part of the same type. Because Granada, at the top, though it’s worth doing and it’s important. So you got to entertain people, but also inform people.
Yes. You had to entertain. There was the PT Barnum photograph…
That’s right. That seems to have gone now, isn’t it, from ITV?
Yes. Well, they’re still entertaining. But surely that’s Mrs. Thatcher. I mean, before Mrs Thatcher, the ITV companies, got a licence to print money, but they had to produce a certain amount of serious stuff in order to get the licence, and they chose their series… the owners of the companies chose their serious stuff, and Sidney and Cecil chose politics, because it’s what interested them. But it was amazing. I mean, the idea that money was no object, and we were the London outpost that would come up to Manchester.
Were you at…?
I was at Golden Square first and then 3 Upper James Street. I was longest in Granada when we got to End of Empire when we were editing End of Empire, but I was unusual that I never had a spell on Granada Reports. Most people of my era were…
But you never worked in Manchester did you?
I never was on a Manchester-based programme, but edits increasingly had to be there and End of Empire had many months long…
What was your first producer job?
End of Empire, I think.
End of Empire.
I think. I had semi-produced (??20:49). When Brian ran World in Action, I was kind of… he moved upstairs to the fourth floor, and I had this little kind of outpost on the first floor. It was the bit that went out, three offices and bookshelves. Gosh, we had (??21:08). I have not many (??21:11), and I would make my programmes and occasionally go and see Brian, but I really was a producer. But David Plowright had this idea that we specialists couldn’t be producers, so the Disappearing World lot, Andre Singer. That’s what I think is very ironic, that Andre Singer and I are still working. And Jeremy Plowright decreed we would never make producers because we were specialists. They were sociologists, and we were… I was a political scientist, and so we couldn’t be a producer because we weren’t… but there was one I really had done on my own, and I was given maybe, we called it assistant producer, but that wasn’t a credit Granada recognised. And when David Plowright found out about it, he came into the studio on Sunday – because you put the credits on at the last minute in the studio – and changed it back to researcher. I was very upset. Many of like these journalist reconstructions… well, Brian was certainly the producer of the first one, but they went international in… ‘79? I wasn’t even the producer, but I was called a researcher, I think until the End of Empire which started in ‘82.
What were you doing through the rest of the 70s?
Well, I did three journalist reconstructions.
What were they called?
Chrysler and the Cabinet. It wasn’t, there wasn’t actually, they went out as specials.
They were one hour?
Yes. The idea was that… Brian very soon, with our fly on the wall films, we discovered that you could only get access to what they really want to let you in for, and it’s not the top stuff. Therefore you have to find other ways of doing it. It wasn’t the top stuff. He came up with two ways that were the reverse of each other. Hypotheticals when you’ve got the real people who did the decisions, and you got them to discuss hypothetical cases which were very much based on the real ones. It was the people who took the decisions telling you how they took the decision on a hypothetical case. Journalist reconstructions are the reverse. When there was a huge row between cabinet, and then we went on to do international EU ones, and again, something leaked out. We got the top journalist in the cabinet case, we got the top journalist, who seemed from his writings to be closest to the cabinet minister who was taking a particular position. Peter Jenkins… no, the first one was Adam Rafael, who is another person who is still working, he’s on The Economist. Adam Rafael had seemed to… Eric Foley. I think Eric Foley was the minister of industry and he wanted to let Chrysler go. And a story briefed by Eric Foley appeared in the Economist. Then Peter Jenkins had a fantastic piece in the Guardian, which was briefed by, I think, Harold Lever and yes, they must have been because (??24:38), Harold Lever, and it said that he made the case for bailing out Chrysler. And then David Watt had a fantastic piece in the FT which seemed to be based on Wilson, because it put the prime minister’s point of view, and deciding between them. So each of those people… and we then peopled the rest of the cabinet with top journalists, were told to go back to their guy, say, “I’m playing you on television, you have to tell me exactly what happened in cabinet, and what you said, and what they said to you and I’ve got to get this right.” And it was very good, it made the journalists work hard because they were going out, and they were going to be on television, and they couldn’t make a fool of themselves, and it made the politician want to… well, it gave them anonymity because we couldn’t say they were briefed by them. We said they know politicians well, and I sat there gathering these reports of everybody going to see their cabinet minister. And then before we shot each scene, I drafted a scenario, but before we shot each scene we would have an argument which was even more exciting, between the various journalists about what happened. Because sometimes their accounts differed, and we had to come to some basic agreement as to what happened and we would shoot the scene and then we would discuss it. It was like a three-day encounter group. We went to the Royal Commonwealth Society, I guess they went home at night. I actually had a bedroom in the Royal Commonwealth Society. I was working so hard I couldn’t go to Camden Town. And we spent three days filming this.
Where did you film it?
In the Royal Commonwealth Society which had panels and carpets and upholstery, and it could look like the cabinet room. But then when… was it a… (??26:39), must have been. I really (??26:43), because I know… it then went on to the IMF row, which was fantastic, because that was such an existential row, and Peter Jenkins got briefed by Tony Crosland. David Watt it turned out was such a good journalist that he didn’t actually go and talk to Wilson or Callaghan, but he just sort of worked it out. But he was so right that he… and he had also such authority amongst the other journalists that if he agreed to play the silly game, the rest of them agreed to do it as well. But the IMF one was really… we really got the story of one of the biggest things that happened in the 70s, and then very soon after we recorded it, but before it was broadcasted on the 9th of February, Tony Crosland died. And there was a big, “Oh my god, could we put it out with Peter Jenkins?” and the family of Tony Crosland rang us and said we want him to do it because he really gave him great access.
You’re worried I’m going too slowly. But these are the really interesting things that we did. And I think they had the… the IMF was the most accurate account of a cabinet argument, and it’s been shown to various people, like Queen Mary College afterwards, and everybody thought we got it right. But it got more fun when we tried to do an EU one, we were tasked to show how the EU really worked, and in that case I think it must have been for Harold Wilson’s referendum campaign yes. And we did a fly on the wall, this one I was absolutely the hands-on researcher. I was in Brussels for three months following… thank god, Stanley Johnson was the commission official in charge of it, and he was in those days as charismatic as Boris is now, because it was, you know… following close to (??28:45) director would have been hopeless, but he was fun.
Can I just interject? These programmes, they were kind of innovative television.
They’re incredibly… Brian Lapping was a genius at finding ways of finding ways of doing these things.
The BBC wasn’t doing anything like this.
Nothing like this, no. And they went out as World In Actions, and everybody thought in those days that Panorama was better at politics than World In Action, but I think these things were… they got at the truth. But something occurred to us when doing the international ones. Because in one sense, all you could say is this is the ravings of journalists, and you couldn’t say that… it was the truth. The EU ones were even better because each journalist had the national characteristic of their guys, so that the chap who played (??29:46) was tall and elegant and looked like he changed his shirt three times a day, and the German was also terribly supercilious, and when it came onto the Mrs Thatcher era, we got Sarah (??29:58) who absolutely had the manner of Mrs Thatcher down. But people didn’t believe them. So I realised that one of the prime ministers had left between the meetings and the broadcast, and we showed him the fine cut and filmed his reaction. And that was something that made people believe it, because one of the ones… he didn’t even have to say, he didn’t have to give secrets. He would come in at the end of a scene and he would say, “Yes, Mrs Thatcher really was that arrogant and bullying.” And so it gave it credibility, but it started in my head the fact that you really need to have the real people talking about the real events to get people to believe you. I mean, those five journalist reconstructions I think are absolutely accurate, but nobody knew it. And that led us onto End of Empire.
Okay, so these were World In Actions, but were you a member of the World In Action team?
I was, in theory.
Did you get put on other shows?
In ‘76 when Brian became head of world in action and they didn’t… I worked for Brian, they didn’t know quite what to do with me, so they put me on World In Action and I made a completely conventional World In Action. It was about unemployment, it was Brian’s first World In Action, and it was with… Collin Richards was one of them. It was a quickie, it was looking at the unemployment statistics that were rising, and saying the Labour government ought to take more notice of it. It was boring, and not very good, and I didn’t like it very much. So we go to the weekly meetings of World In Action but I continue to spend my time trying to think up things that would do things in the special way of doing politics. And so while Brian was running World In Action, I started thinking up ways of continuing to do the forms he invented, and he would come in at the end as the final supervisor.
What did you make of the World In Action people?
Well, I was quite snooty in the beginning. In the beginning, I was quite snooty about it. In fact Brian and I were quite snooty about it, until we discovered how clever they were. And it ended up… the World In Action… John Blake, Gus took John Blake, this was before Brian ran it, Gus took John Blake from World In Action and gave him to me when… I must have been the producer then, you’re right, I must have become the producer at this point. So John Blake was the researcher and he worked for us and then went back on World In Action, and (??32:53), he was from Disappearing World, but the more you worked with these people, they obviously were…
Did you feel a Granada person at this time in the 70s because you were…?
More and more, I also do party conference, where I did meet Sidney. I remember at the Granada dinner at party conference, I of course spilled something on my dress, but I was sitting next to Sidney, and the next morning his secretary rang to say, “Mr Bernstein would like to buy you a new dress.” That was Sidney, because in the 70s… they were in Blackpool all the time, the conferences, because the Brighton one wasn’t built yet, so Granada supplied the team, so I was party conference researcher for a bit as well. But yes, I certainly… I was impressed by the way they were prepared to spend time and trouble to research politics, and soon realised that television could get the access that ordinary researchers couldn’t get. The story I told about the first one, that was what hooked me about television, is that when I was working with my MP, and he was writing a book about what was wrong with parliament, he asked for permission to follow himself, like interview (??34:24), so he could see how much parliamentary scrutiny worked on the bill. And he was turned down absolutely flat. Then the House of Commons procedure committee, which was looking at ways of reforming the House Of Commons scrutiny (??34:37), asked permission to speak to civil service without working with MPs, well, they were turned down flat. I working for Brian Lapping, it took a year, but we got permission to do it on television because politicians need television, and if you’re on television you get access to decision and secrets and politicians’ time and…
Well, this is a question that’s probably been asked of you before, but obviously after your recent productions, you get the very highest level of politician appearing on your programmes. How do you do it? How do you go about getting a president or a prime minister on screen?
With difficulty! And with a lot of time. And it takes time. The first thing you need is time because Percy’s first rule is that everyone worth having says no at least three times, so you need time to keep going back. And in this series, the two people we saw first for a research interview… because to research decision making, which is what I suppose we slowly came on to, first you have to know what the big decisions are, and the meetings that happen in secret. Normally the people don’t know it, so you have to find out what they are, you have to find out people to tell you what happened at them. You have to meet the people who were there to tell you what happened, off the record. Then you have to persuade them to do it on film. And that takes time. But also the really important people, so you’ll go up to the advisors or the junior ministers to the top ones, but to get the top people to do it, it takes time. First of all when they say no, persistence does not mean just writing another letter. What you have to do is find someone who they trust, who knows to trust you, and get them to get back to them. With Dick Cheney for the Iraq programme it took a while. But we had Paul (Waterworth? 36:51)… am I allowed to talk about this because it’s not Granada?
But it’s a technique we developed on. It’s End of Empire that I really should be talking about because End of Empire was the biggest thing that we did for Granada for me. Brian was working on it probably from ‘80. I don’t think I started until ‘83, and it felt like more than two years (??37:16) it was broadcasted in ’85.
It was 13 hours, wasn’t it?
Brian probably told you it was 13, it was 14.
It was 14.
We have arguments all the time about this. Allan (Seymour? 37:26) got the India programme to be three hours, so it ended up 14 hours.
Yes were you producer of the whole thing?
No, Brian was producer of the whole thing.
Brian was producer of the whole thing.
It was absolutely, Brian’s vanity project, he had been commonwealth correspondent at the Guardian, he always wanted to make it.
And when he finished on World In Action, it’s like when… did he tell you about Denis Forman recruiting him?
Yes, he did, he told me all about that.
But when they got to the… when Ken decided to come off World In Action they let him do it, and I was just the producer of two episodes. And I first thought… I thought he was crazy to do it, because it was conventional, it was film. It was films live everybody else’s films.
What were your two…
Cyprus and Rhodesia. And it was Cyprus, making Cyprus was where everything I’ve done since came afterwards. And again, I didn’t know how lucky I was, both Greeks and Turks are fantastic storytellers. And we went (??38:39), I really felt that was the first thing I was the producer of, but I definitely was the producer of at least (??38:48).
So on these programmes, you had to find your own director and researchers, did you?
Yes. And it was… I also think about that. In the cutting room there was me the producer and a director and a researcher were paid for the entire time on the programme. But Cyprus grew, you know… we showed probably two or three… we must have shown at least a three-hour rough cut to Brian the first time we showed it to him. And he said, “This is ridiculous.” And we said, “Well, actually, we really ought to have two hours.” And he went to Mike Scott, and they put out two hours first before the whole series on the anniversary of the Turkish invasion, it was called Super Cyprus but (??39:50) grim legacy, and it’s definitely the best version of it. And then we cut it to an hour to go out in the series when it did. So that was in ’84, so…
Did you enjoy that period working on End of Empire?
I think so, although I never worked harder and I never felt so responsible as I did then. I mean, Brian wasn’t very hands on, and I somehow thought that the producer had to do everything. And I was in Manchester staying in a bedsit, renting a room either at the Midland Hotel, I really never felt harder worked. Because I was on my own, I can’t believe that I actually was with Steve then, because… but he was back in London. And I guess at one point I used to go home on Saturday. There’s a point where we did have it sorted, where I’d go home on Saturday and we’d have a project on Sunday afternoon, and then I’d take the train to Manchester, because I do have this strong feeling of getting out at Sunday night at Piccadilly station when it was raining. Or being on the sleeper with all my little bits of paper that we edited with Sellotape and moving bits of interview around with movable Sellotape in the top booth of the sleeper.
But this would have been quite new to you, this way of programme making, compared to…
Just filming and editing.
Filming and editing.
Well, I took to editing, but I took forever, and I took so long with… we had a row towards the end of working on Cyprus, what was Cyprus (??41:44) legacy, me and the director. The first name will come to me in a minute, about the revelation of Grievous, of Grievous and (??41:56), he wanted to reveal him after the first programme, too soon, too early. God, I can’t remember. But the researcher and me were on one side and he was on the other.
And in fact his contract had run out long ago because we had over run so much so he just left. It was the eleventh of November, he left and went on to his next job, which left me, me and the researcher, to make it with the editor. And that’s where I learnt how to make television programmes.
In the end it was (??42:31)
(??42:31), who was… probably his first grown-up editing job. And he used to make me sign the (??42:39), I changed my mind so much. So that became the catchphrase with directors I worked for afterwards… sign the (??42:48).
But I really definitely learnt how to edit then. Yes I loved it really, I mean it’s always a delight when you have good material, and we had absolutely fantastic material.
Did you not think, why TV? You could have done all this in print.
No. No. No. I can’t remember when I worked at… why television was so good for me. One is that I had been working on a PhD when I ran out of money, you know, and sitting on my own in my lonely room, I had one of those telly (??43:25) who cared about being on Panorama and not looking after his students, and I didn’t like working on my own, and the communal business of… Brian is absolutely brilliant as somebody to bounce ideas off, and the essence of… people think the essence of our programmes is the access, and maybe that’s my bit, but the other essence is the clarity and the absolutely getting the narration to the minimum, but right, and storytelling and at… certain shoots, usually before each broadcast or viewing, and then at the end, we’d have some com writing sessions, which are again, a bit like in counter groups where you slowly and painfully, you’re supposed to be just writing the narration, but you see structural changes and things too. Editors go wild because it’s the night before the com recording, you’re moving a significant sector. It’s being wedded to one, being surprising, and two, being clear. That is what Brian Lapping instilled in everybody.
What did you do after End of Empire?
What did I do after End of Empire? Breakthrough at Reykjavik, which was supposed to be a journalist’s reconstruction, because after the Reykjavik Summit, Gorbachev gave a fantastic press conference where he revealed an awful lot of details of what went on in the meetings. And this was the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had just got in, and it was just amazing. So, the idea was we would get Soviet journalists, and then American journalists to play Ronald Reagan and Richard Pearl and all the people who were at Reykjavik. But we failed. The Glasnost had not gone that far. Actually, the Americans weren’t much better. Americans have this ethos of you shouldn’t be too cosy with your sources and so the idea of playing Ronald Reagan, particularly, didn’t really appeal to them. But the Russians turned us down flat. So, we had all this material, because we did good research interviews with all the Americans, and we had this amazing stuff from the Russians. And it suddenly occurred to Ed Harriman, actually, that we should write a play. So we got him off World in Action. And he and I, we worked with Ron (Harwood? 46:05) and we wrote a script and then got actors to do it. And again, it was really, really accurate. But in order to give creditability, we had Richard Pearl and Paul (??46:23), who had been there, interviewed at the end to say that it was real. Yes, I think it was something else that I did before I left. But it was in ‘88.
When did you leave?
Brian was offered voluntary redundancy and set up… and Steve Morrison, or maybe it was Jules Burns, or maybe it was both of them, said, “Well, we could give you a job if Brian leaves, but it definitely would be in Manchester.” They made it quite clear that they probably thought it would be a good idea if I left. And, although Denis Forman said to me, “I wouldn’t exactly go and join Brian as an independent, I’m not quite sure that he has the business sense.” But I really felt like I had no choice. He was absolutely convinced he would go bankrupt quite soon. But he agreed to give me a staff contract for the existence of as long as the company existed. So, I went on it, instead of getting any of the backend. So, it was he and I, and we left with a leaving present from Granada, which was a Granada commission to do another play, which was the Road to War in 1939, which we used the transcripts which were published. It was for ‘89, the 50th anniversary of ‘39. And we got (Patrick Lawe 47:59) to direct it, and he realised that all the really great actors were in plays in the West End and available for being in a television. My introduction to real drama was making coffee for Ian McKellen, who played Hitler. And I think much of his Shakespeare acting, he was Richard III, has been based on playing Hitler for us! So we did this. Brian came in ‘88. He was determined to be the sole founder of what was Brian Lapping Associates. So, Charlie Smith, the researcher, and I stayed at Granada working on this for a couple of months enjoying Brian. He must have gone in June and I joined him in September. And so Charlie Smith, the researcher, Brian’s secretary, and me were Brian Lapping Associates. But we came to where Brook were, and Lapping and Phillip Whitehead were, and kind of used their accountants and stuff. But we did finish this leaving present from Granada, which turned out quite well. I hadn’t realised that you had to be thinking about what you’re going to do next. Brian went to see the BBC about a news quiz that they were asking for tenders for. It was a funny news quiz. It became Have I Got News for You. But they gave it to Patrick. They said, “Why don’t you do something like your End of Empire about the Soviet Union?” And that led to the Second Russian Revolution, which we’ve been doing ever since.
So Granada-wise, you were there about 15 years, working?
Yes, exactly. I came on properly, probably in the beginning of ‘73 and I left in the end of ‘88.
So looking back, what were the highlights? Ups and downs? Any significant people or moments?
Getting to know Forman and Plowright, and Denis Forman in particular, who was such an amazing wise man. We did end up having these night sessions in the flat where they looked at our programmes and gave wise thoughts. It was just the commitment to making the best programme possible. On End of Empire, we overspent so much that for the last two interviews, Mike Scott rationed us to two rolls of film, and we had to turn it on and off. But that’s the only time I can ever remember worrying. If there was a deadline, it was to do with some event that you had to come up against. But never because you were running out of money. Well, you know, on World in Action – you were one of them! – who were burying away at some.
That was our job, was to worry.
You were given an investigation and you did it until you completed it.
I remember we were in the Upper James Street at the same time together.
You were in the basement.
I was in the basement. You were on the fourth floor.
The fourth floor with people like (Roger Grace 51:36) and Disappearing World.
Now, tell me if this is true. Because somebody told me you have a reputation for being very hard working.
Yes, I was then. I really, really was.
Somebody said that you would telephone all 635 MPs in one day. Is that true?
I don’t think I’ve ever done that! No, and as a matter of fact, telephone is not my thing. I write letters. And that, I think probably came from State of the Nation Parliament. We wrote letters on real paper and envelopes miles after everybody else was sending emails. Now it’s emails. But we still… the answer to how you get them is you write a lot of letters. Once you’ve found these meetings and the people that were at them, you write them letters and you send them DVDs. I would give you a Europe DVD. And writing letters that establish your credentials. Pompous letters, you would say, that say that these are not all the ordinary television programmes, they’re histories. And give them DVDs of past stuff that shows that they are. I think that must have started on End of Empire. But even before, writing letters that catch people’s attention that say what we’re doing is important.
I know. I remember it well, because the art of letter writing, it’s your one chance to make the right pitch, to write it attractively, informatively, and so on.
And you can imagine Brian was a brilliant sub at the Guardian. He was fantastic at making letters have an impact. No, I thought you were going to say sleeping in the office, because I did that at Granada too. Charles Sturridge had just done the Granada director’s training course, and he didn’t want to work on Coronation Street, so he came to World in Action and he was on World in Action. And I needed a director for the first foreign journalist reconstruction. And so, he and I were in this little offshoot place. It went wrong because there was that electrician’s strike, and we got the top journalist from… of course, the trade union problems with making programmes were perhaps as the money problems now. We got the top journalists in every country, other than nine members of the EU, on a particular day. And they were terrible. Then we had to completely redo it. We could do it in the middle of the week so that they could travel on Monday and Tuesday. That’s the only time I ever made phone calls. To persuade these guys that they could do it at the weekend and they had to come on at the weekend. But, we definitely would sleep on the office, on the floor, off of James Street. He then went on to direct Brideshead.
He did indeed. I remember.
Did you work on the Jack Straw one? Because the other thing I did for World in Action was bring Jack Straw.
Because we were worrying about how to get World in Action’s British politics as good as Panorama’s. And we were looking for somebody who was good with politics. And I ran into Jack Straw, who having just had his leaving party, because he’d been selected as an MP; political advisors, which he was for Barbara Castle, couldn’t work once they’d been selected and the election wasn’t for two years. So it was ‘77.
I was on the Nuts and Bolts of the Economy with Mike Scott.
Right. So, you weren’t on World in Action yet?
It was a World in Action sub-unit. And we made a series of shows over a few years on the Japanese…
Yes, I remember. We made things like that with Mike Scott when we were independents. That were kind of offshoots from that.
Let me ask you about your experience as a woman in television. How was it for you as a woman in those years?
I had a lot of problems with that. I got an award for women in film and media this year. And I probably made a not particularly well-judged speech that said, “I have a terrible thing to confess, I don’t have women in my programmes.” Because, of course, I have the people who are inside the room when the decisions are taken. And there are too few women. And for Europe, we had a real problem because the two people in the Europe Crisis programme were Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde, who turned us down. And we presented Joanna Carr, the head of current affairs in the programme we had no women in. Our solution was one, to send us back to find one, but secondly, to have a woman narrator. But I made this speech and I said it’s not my fault. It’s like telling people you should go get more women in high places. As far as Me Too-ism, I experienced the sort of things that people complain about in the House of Commons. I’ve never felt it in television. Once I was television, I was sufficiently… MPs need television, I was treated like a grown up.
So you’ve never experienced any kind of discrimination?
Well, you could say that my relationship with Brian Lapping is a kind of relationship that a woman would have with a man. It was in some sense, a kind of definitely subservient. And I can remember Neil Kinnock shouting at me about why does Brian get.. I felt that when he was running World in Action and I wasn’t, whether or not I was a producer, he was getting the credit, that I was doing the work and he was getting the credit. But I have since learned that the thing about being in television, and I say this at award ceremonies, you spend your first 10 years resenting your bosses because they get the credit for all your hard work. And the rest of the time feeling terribly guilty because you’re getting the credit for everybody else. And I think I have had more years when I have got the credit for both doing what Brian Lapping invented, you know, Norma Percy’s special way of doing history, which is Brian Lapping’s. We talk about… Brian Lapping would say every single day of working on programmes…
But the women in television issue now, which is quite vocal. How does it compare with then?
I’m a 50s woman, I suppose. I never felt like I, a woman, should be getting more attention. (Carrie Gracie 59:22) gave me this award, so I talked to her at length about it. I’ve always felt it was to do with me if somebody else… maybe if it was to be with doing a woman, that I allowed myself to be bullied. But I think that my relationship with Brian, I never would have got to do what I wanted to do if I didn’t have this subservient relationship with a great man, whose work I… I suppose it’s disciples. I was definitely his disciple. And then I became more Catholic than the Pope, in that I’m much more pure about the method than he ever was. But I can’t imagine a man having the career arc that I had. But I don’t think I ever ranted and railed against it. I must have some, because I do remember my dentist shouting at me about grinding my teeth, and at one point when I was in this chair, and she said you’re grinding your teeth now, what are you thinking about? I was definitely thinking about Brian Lapping. But it would be being angry at Brian Lapping for not seeing that my line of commentary was better than his line of commentary.
Yes. I think, in many ways, the BBC is a good employer of women. And my controllers of BBC2 or heads of current affairs have been more often women than men. Certainly since the mid-90s. Not even. There’s Joanna Carr, who is head of current affairs now. Before her, it was Janice Hadlow. Before it was Jane Rute. Jane Rute was BBC2. And Janice Hadlow was BBC2. Fiona Campbell was head of current affairs. There was another woman before her. And my BBC execs have quite often been women. The only man’s world I exist in is the top politicians. And I suspect being a small woman is part of the trick. Is part of being non-threatening. Because we do non-threatening interviews. We do, “Tell me the story. Forgive me, but could you possibly tell it again, because it would come over better if it was more like a story,” rather than, “You’re lying.”
Do you actually do the interviews?
We all do. You have off the record interviews, with them, and you tend to see who gets on best. There’s a very good radio programme made by Brook Lapping Radio about how we do our work. It was on Archive Hour in 2016. Which you probably should have listened to first. But then you wouldn’t have asked the questions. Sorry, I don’t know why I said that. But, like I do Bill Clinton because I’ve done him three times and I just (??63:06) because the producer was having a baby, I got to go and do my fourth interview with Bill Clinton. But it just depends. I would say I probably do less, because my particular talent is sitting behind and making the person do the interview ask it again. We have a kind of double act if someone else is doing it and they’ll say, “Fine. Just let me check if Norma is happy.” Or, “Well, that’s fine with me, but I suspect Norma will be…” And I can be the bad cop and let the interviewer have it. So, I do more of that these days.
Final question. Looking back again at Granada, anything else you’d like to say about the Granada experience?
Oh, dear. See, that’s not the kind of question I’m good at answering, so I don’t ask them. But it was great. It made us. It’s amazing that it made people of such different sorts. But my mother worked for the American government and she retired at 87. Because it’s ageist in America to make you retire, so nobody could make her retire. And she would say, “Why should I retire, exactly? I’d have to pay for my own travel, and there wouldn’t be anybody interesting to meet at the airport.” And I kind of feel that about my job. It was the kind of experiences I had at Granada that instilled my belief that real life is working.
And you have another project after Europe?
Well, I have people asking what I want to do. I refuse to think about it until Cuba’s finished. Because Cuba was something I was just doing as hands-off exec-ing, which I’m now doing full-time for a month. And then I’ll think about it. But the two logical ones to do, I’m resisting. One is the sequel to Europe, which we have to wait until the dust settles and there’s an end, like End of Empire. And the other is Trump, in which I’m not convinced that a politician who won’t play by the rules would work in my sort of way. But that’s what people would like me to do.
Brilliant ideas. You have to do them.
You will fail sometimes. I thought Europe would be a failure. But it’s the characters that saved it, isn’t it?
It was the Sarkozys and Tusk are what saved it. I just feel that, while the Trump White House has scandals, it doesn’t have interesting political arguments. But we’ll see. Ask me in May. Thank you, that was fun.
Thank you very much.