Interview with Sandy Ross – Dec 1st 2013, interviewed by Stephen Kelly
How did you actually come to work for Granada, because I know that Granada didn’t always take people who were obvious like journalists?
It’s quite difficult to try and understand but I think I was part of the working class phase because you’re absolutely right, they had quite an eclectic hiring policy. Sometimes they would do the conventional thing and go on the Oxford and Cambridge milk run and hire very bright people from there. Tony Wilson was a perfect example of that, Tony was somebody who came through that Oxbridge route. Another time I remember it was only women they hired because they desperately wanted women to come and work in the company. It just so happened at the time when I applied, as I say, I think they were looking for people with not necessarily a working class background but people who had worked and who had done different things. Not necessarily either in journalism or in television.
I always think that in different circumstances I doubt if I would have even got an interview at Granada Television. But it just so happened that I knew Steve Morrison who was in then head of local programmes. Steve asked me if I wanted to apply and I put together a form of application which I put in. I think probably it was helped to the top of the interview pile by him, which meant I at least got an interview. The thing I’ve always said, one of the most difficult things about television is being heard. If you can get in and be heard, even vaguely impressive people who are listening to, you can get in and do anything you want.
I still remember the day of the interview because if I’d known who the people were who were interviewing me, I probably would have been terrified. I went to the interview room and apart from Gus Macdonald, who I vaguely knew, I didn’t know any of the rest of them. There was Chris Pye who was Gus’ deputy in the regional programmes department at the time, Brian Armstrong who was the head of comedy, Derek Granger who went on to make Brideshead, Ray Fitzwalter who was running World in Action and Gus himself. It was an absolutely formidable bunch of people to interview you but because I didn’t know who they were it didn’t actually bother me very much. Gus knew vaguely who I was because I’d been very, very active politically in Scotland. In fact I’d just come off a major student demonstration that had lasted almost the whole year over the lack of teaching jobs for teacher training students. And during the course of the interview Gus kept going on at me about ‘the only reason you want to come to work in television is so you can be a troublemaker and make political programmes and smuggle political messages into programmes’ and all the rest of it. I have to be honest but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was told afterwards that the thing, almost more than anything else that got me the job, was at one point Brian Armstrong suddenly said ‘Gus seems to know more about you than we do, are you a raving Trotskyite?’ I said ‘I’m not raving.’
And they just all laughed.
I was told, that was almost the turning point. Chris Pye told me afterwards that I got a tick from all of them. I’m not sure I ever got a tick from Gus, if I’m honest with you, but I got a tick from the rest of them.
What had you actually done before?
I trained as a lawyer and I had worked as a solicitor. I’d been a town councillor in Edinburgh since I was 21, I got elected when I was 21. So I had obviously that kind of background and experience. I had been elected at least twice during that period. I was a member of the Labour party and had that kind of knowledge. I’d also shared a flat at University with Steve Morrison and I was always very, very interested in the arts and culture and all the rest. Living in Edinburgh, you had the Edinburgh festival every year and Steve Morrison and I got very involved in that. Every year for four or five years we used to act as the Edinburgh brokers, agents, fixers for the Bradford University theatre company. So they used to come every year for three weeks and put on shows at various theatres and halls. Steve and I used to organise that, because we were on the ground in Edinburgh during the year we kind of did things. Because I was also a solicitor I did some of the legal work for them and stuff like that. I had that kind of experience of working with them.
At that time the Bradford University theatre group had some amazing contacts and some amazing people writing and working for it. They would come with plays from guys like David Edgar, Sue Wilson, Howard Brenton, who were all at that time – in the seventies – just beginning to make names for themselves. I remember one year, it must have been during the miners’ strike, it was a David Edgar play about the miners’ strike and he said he rewrote the end every single day depending on what had happened in the strike during that period. So I had a bit of experience of doing things like that, and I’d also set up and ran a thing called the Leith festival. It was vaguely modelled on the Edinburgh festival but it took place in Leith, which is the port of Edinburgh. I set it up and it is still running. So I used to be, I don’t know what I called myself, artistic director, organiser, producer of that and I did that for five or six years before I came to Granada. I had that kind of general organisational background which without knowing it, but subsequently finding out about it once you moved to television, is the kind of production background that a producer needs.
So what year is this that you joined Granada?
I’m terrible with years, but I think I joined in ’76 and then I was there for about eleven years because Gus Macdonald went back to STV (Scottish Television) in ’86. He was hired by STV to prepare STV for the franchise renewal in 1990 and I was one of the people that he asked to come back and work with him at STV.
So I think it was about ’76 that I joined Granada and at that time of course, I didn’t appreciate this, but they were gearing up for their own licence renewal in 1980. If you remember in these days licence renewals used to happen every ten years and I think they got it in sync so it used to happen in the zero year; 60, 70, 80, 90, 2000 were the years when companies had to reapply for their licences.
So you joined as a researcher.
I joined as a researcher and was put straight into the newsroom where the evening programme at that time was called Granada Reports. It was presented by a rota of four people; Tony Wilson, Trevor Hyett, Gordon Burns and Bob Greaves. There was a woman called Ruth who would do it occasionally. With hindsight now it was a very male led evening news programme. It was always a two hander, so there was a rota. It would be Wilson and Greaves some nights, or Trevor and Gordon Burns some nights, and they were all different characters. Again, not having lived in the North West I didn’t really know who Bob Greaves was, but I learned pretty quickly that Bob was Mr Manchester and a huge star locally. Some nights the thing would be done in such a way that all four of them would present the news.
I remember one of the redesigns of the set and the desk was shaped like a snake, and that’s what we called it ‘the snake’. Sometimes you would have the four presenters sitting behind the desk all doing different bits of the news, it was absolutely fascinating.
I can still always remember one night. Trevor Hyett was probably the main joker, Trevor was a bit off the wall, quite left wing. I was in the gallery, can’t remember if I was producing the news that night, or just in the gallery. All four of them were sitting there on the set and Trevor Hyett, with about two minutes to go until on air, said “right, what we’re going to do tonight is we’re going to present the news with our dicks out. Everybody dicks out.” So they’re all fumbling under the desk, and they sat there for about half an hour presenting the news all with their dicks out underneath the desk. Juvenile, yes, funny, yes. So it was interesting.
How long did you spend on Granada Reports?
Quite a long time actually when I think about it. I was a researcher on Granada Reports for about a year, fourteen months, something like that. What amazed me was there wasn’t really any training, it was quite incredible. You were on the news desk for a couple of days, just sitting there to see what happened as stories came in, how the news editor tasted copy.
You would attend the morning meeting, which usually started at about nine o’clock every morning. It was meant to be attended by the whole team although sometimes the presenters wouldn’t attend because they would come in later in the day. You were expected, when you went to the morning meeting, to have at least three ideas for stories that day. So that meant that before you even got in to the morning meeting you should have read the papers, the local papers, listened to Radio Manchester, listened to the Today programme or whatever. So you were always expected when you came in in the morning to have at least three ideas.
In the land of the blind man, the one eyed man is king.
There were certain guys, a guy called Mike Engelheart I think his name was. Mike could read Welsh so he had a head start because he used to read the Welsh local papers. So Mike always had the unusual story because he nicked it from some bloody Welsh language paper somewhere. I can’t remember whether they attended or conference called but the Liverpool newsroom had the same kind of meeting in the morning.
When the meeting finished in the morning the producer of the day and the news editor would sit and go through things. Some things were no brainers because they were the major stories of the day and all the rest of it, and other things were kind of optional. So they would then come back and assign the tasks to everybody. There were certain individuals who were specialist like Nik Gowing who now does BBC worldwide news. Nick was the industrial man so he would always specialise in trade union stories and industrial stories.
There was somebody else who would only ever do medicine stories, that was the only thing they were interested in, because there were a lot of people who had these little specialities.
After about four days of being in the newsroom, sitting on the news desk, seeing how things ran you then started to go out with crews. So you’d go out with the reporter, who was usually a member of the NUJ, who was going to do the story and you would be out there as the researcher, fixer or whatever it is.
Eventually, the speed of it was incredible, within about two and half-three weeks you were actually going out on your own with the camera crew. There was a one plus one crew or there was also some two plus two crews that were used because there were restrictions on the length of stories in these days. These were the trade union restrictions at the time. If a story was shot on a one plus one crew the story could not be any longer than three minutes long, I may be vague on the time. And the other thing is, you couldn’t keep the story for more than a day and half. So if the story didn’t get transmitted within a day and half of being shot you could never transmit it. Whereas if you shot the story with a two plus two crew, i.e. with a full union man crew, the story could be any length you wanted and you could transmit it whenever you wanted. There were all these restrictions on doing it. If you were not an onscreen person but a researcher going out with a film crew, everything you did was off camera. In an ideal world you would also try and get your voice out of it as well but sometimes you had to leave your voice in because you were asking the question.
I was always terribly conscious of the fact that I had a Scottish accent in the North West.
In these days in the beginning of course we were using stripe film. For a start we were using film, but it was stripe film on the one plus one crews. That meant a number of things. What it meant is that if the film didn’t get to the bath in the labs by ten past four in the afternoon it would not make the six o’clock news programme. There wasn’t enough time to get it back from the lab, get it edited, get it cut and get it on air. In the world of twenty-four hour immediate breaking news back in the seventies, ten past four was the deadline for any pictures on the six o’clock news programme. The other amazing thing about stripe film was the picture and the sound were at different places on the film. The sound was either ahead or behind the picture, I can never remember. That caused problems in editing and that’s why if you go back and look at some of the film reports from these days you would see lip flap. The film had to be edited from the picture but what it meant, was you took the sound off but you could still see somebody’s mouth flapping but no sound would be coming out of it.
There used to be a guy there, he read the news. As well as the presenters Bob, Tony, Trevor and Gordon, we always used to have basically what we called a rip and read during the six o’clock programme. These were the stories which we still felt were worthy of being reported but we had no footage to go with it, we might have had some still pictures or something like that. So it was just a round up of five or six stories or however many, and it was Bob Smithies who used to do that.
Bob was an ex Guardian journalist, ex photographer, set crosswords for the Guardian as well. Bunthorne was his crossword nickname, which was a pun.
Smithies was the rip and read man but he also went out and did stories, he came from Rochdale.
But Smithies was the master of stripe. He had got down to a fine art how you could instruct a cameraman to pan the camera in such a way that when it came to Bob either asking the question or doing his piece to camera or the interviewee answering the question, Bob’s great claim to fame was that all of his news reports could be edited with no lip flap. So Smithies was the master of stripe in these days.
So I did fourteen months or something like that in the newsroom just learning, seriously, seriously learning and picking stuff up. Granada Reports again was slightly different, at that time, it wasn’t one hundred per cent news programme.
On different nights of the week they did different things. So on a Monday night I think they did some gardening stuff, on a Tuesday they did something else and Thursday night something else. There would be about seventeen-eighteen minutes of news and then the last part of the show each night would be devoted to something else.
I got assigned to work with Tony Wilson on a segment on Thursday evening which was called What’s On. It was just saying to the North West ‘this is what is on in the region over the next week or so’; films, books, magazines, plays, bands and all the rest of it. In hindsight now what I realise is the best thing that ever happened to me was being assigned to work with Tony Wilson. I can honestly say almost everything I learnt about the tricks, the techniques, the style, how to do things and all the rest of it I got from Wilson. He was one of the most televisual guys I think I ever met. He just understood television and the way it worked and it was just great fun to work with him. I learnt huge amounts from him.
The other person who learnt huge amounts from Tony Wilson was Andy Harries.
Andy worked on the ‘What’s On’ project for a while as well. Andy has gone on to be one of the most successful film producers in Britain, producing things like ‘The Queen’ and various other films. Andy learnt huge amounts from Wilson, so that was great fun working with Tony.
Eventually, this was later on, because it was so successful they spun the ‘What’s On’ programme off out of the evening news programme into its own standalone slot. And I was a producer of that for a while.
And that would also be at the time when Manchester had a lot of bands.
I’ll tell you exactly when it was. It was when punk was just beginning to happen.
There were all of these bands suddenly appearing in Manchester. I will never ever forget one night we were doing What’s On in studio two and we had Richard Todd and one of these old actresses, Cicely Courtneidge. She had been in Noel Coward films, and was one of these grand dames of the theatre and Richard Todd the matinee idol movie actor.
What’s On was such a mixed bag that Wilson was interviewing Richard Todd and Cicely Courtneidge about a play touring around the country and appearing at the Palace or wherever. You segwayed away from them to Slaughter and the Dogs at the other end of the studio. The contrast was unbelievable. I always remember Cicely asked to be taken out of the studio because of the noise. Wilson of course was a huge champion of these bands, he had kind of got into all that music.
So he knew them all, all the Manchester lads who were coming up. So they all appeared on the What’s On programme. For example I still remember Elvis Costello’s very first television appearance was on What’s On, just him on his own with a guitar and he sang the song Alison.
It was interesting, BBC Four did a great hour and half documentary about Elvis Costello three weeks ago. I watched it and waited for it and I waited for it and I waited for it and there it was, the clip from What’s On of Elvis Costello singing Alison, his first television appearance.
There were huge numbers of these bands who made their first appearance on Granada Reports, which is no new thing for Granada. You go back to the early days of Leslie Woodhead when he was the very first person to film The Beatles in the Cavern. Granada always had a bit of a tradition of finding these bands and putting them on the telly.
So from Granada Reports you go to…
What happened then was they advertised internally for producers. I’d been there for about fourteen months and they advertised for producers. I applied because I just felt it was the right thing to do. I’d been there fourteen months I thought, foolishly, ‘I know how to do this job’ which of course is bullshit. Anyway, I applied and much to my surprise I got the job. Steve Leahy and I were appointed producers on the same day. But, as I’ve never allowed Steve to forget, he was head of the promotions department at the time so he wasn’t allowed to leave that until they found his successor, whereas I basically started the next day.
Tell me about that selection process.
Basically they advertised; we are looking for producers, so if you want to apply, apply. So I applied. I was interviewed by Mike Scott, who at that time was director of programmes, and Derek Granger again, who was head of drama. Just a panel of two. I can’t really remember much about the interview, I put a suit on that I do remember which was bizarre. I think I only had one suit. The next day I got a phone call from Mike Scott asking me to go and see him. So I went up to the sixth floor and I walked in, this big office that he had. I remember seeing out of the corner of my eye something odd on the table in the office. He said ‘congratulations you’ve passed the interview’ and he handed me a copy of the ITC guidelines. He said ‘read this, your troubles are just beginning’. I thought there would be a slightly longer conversation. He then turns to the table and what it was on the table was a magneto from some old MG sportscar, which he’d just bought and wanted me to admire how fantastic this magneto was that he taking back to London to stick into his MG car. Apparently he was a bit of an obsessive about old cars.
So, I’ll try and remember what happened after that. I think the first thing I was asked to produce was a live afternoon show. These were before the days of all day television, but it was beginning to happen. So they needed programmes.
What they decided, I’m not sure who decided, Mike Scott, David Plowright, Dennis Foreman, whoever, decided they wanted to have an afternoon magazine show. They asked me and Steve Leahy, once he was allowed to leave the promotions department, to jointly produce a show called ‘Live from To’, which came from studio two, three days a week. Terrible original title; started at two o’clock, came from studio two and it was live. Live from Two. It was presented by Nick Turnbull who was a journalist in the newsroom. We also had another journalist called Shelley Rohde who worked on it as well. Later on when Nick stopped doing it, Shelley did it on her own. It was quite an eclectic afternoon programme. It was the familiar mix. If you listen to Start the Week on a Monday morning on BBC Radio 4 you always had a sense who was on the book circuit that week. It would be the same people who would come round doing all the regional news programmes and the regional magazines. There would be films that were released that week so there would be the film star, director, producer around selling the product. So it was topical in that sense; books, magazines and we had a studio audience bit.
One of the segments that I introduced which we did for about four or five weeks, but was an absolute disaster, was a popular psychology thing. It was with a psychologist called John Mollison trying to talk to people about why they behaved in particular ways but that wasn’t a very successful segment. We also had a fantasy segment, I always remember that, it was Steve Leahy’s big idea.
It was almost a Jim’ll Fix It segment where we asked people in the North West to write in and tell us what their greatest fantasy was. And then we would choose from the fantasies and make them come true for the person in the studio audience. Two that I remember and always stuck in my mind. One was some woman who wanted to share a railway carriage with Cyril Smith. God knows why, but she did. Cyril Smith at that time was the Liberal MP for Rochdale and was a huge, huge, huge man. Whenever we used to have Cyril Smith on any of the politics programmes, or even in the studio, you phoned down to the props department and say ‘can we have the Cyril seat please?’ He needed a seat, which was about twice the size of the seat required by an ordinary person.
For this it was a woman, she wanted to read a poem to Cyril Smith in a railway carriage. So we got the stagehands to build a fake railway carriage. We got the Cyril seat in the railway carriage and we had the railway bench on the other side.
The woman sat opposite Cyril Smith and read him a poem.
And Cyril came?
Oh yes he came and sat in the carriage and she did it.
Another one, was some guy wrote in and said he’d always wanted to have his photograph taken with the European Cup, which Liverpool had won that year.
So we contacted Liverpool, I can’t remember whether we did it through the sports department.
Anyway, I can remember being absolutely amazed. Ray Clemence came through in a car with the European Cup. He brought it into the studio and we made this guy’s dream come true. Not only did he get himself photographed with the European Cup, he got himself photographed with Ray Clemence with the European Cup. The thing I always remember about that, I remember being shocked at the state of the European Cup. It was battered, it had dents in it, it was bruised. Obviously, you realised afterwards whatever team has been presented with the European Cup they carry it round the pitch, they drop it, they throw it to each other. I still remember the shock of looking at this bruised piece of silverware.
Live From Two was quite successful and it ran for quite a long time.
One of the other things that happened to it, I can’t remember quite how this translation happened.
We were coming close now to 1980, Granada was up for licence renewal. David Plowright was masterminding the renewal of the licence process. There was always this issue between Liverpool and Manchester and the fact that the television station was based in Manchester. There was a newsroom in Liverpool but there was always this tension between the two cities in this sense. It’s interesting if you go back and look at it, Liverpool is probably the only major city in the North of England that didn’t have its own TV company based there. You had Tyne-Tees in Newcastle, Central in Birmingham, Granada in Manchester, Anglia in Norwich, stations in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow. There was the same kind of tension, oddly enough, between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh was the capital but the TV station was in Glasgow. So there was always that kind of Liverpool-Manchester conflict, which I always remember was never helped by Tony Wilson. Whenever he was on air he lost no opportunity to have a dig at Liverpool.
Plowright was very conscious of this and realised that in the two and half years leading up to the franchise in 1990, you had to pay special attention to Liverpool.
He started concentrating on trying to get programmes that came out of Liverpool. I was involved in two of them; one was called Exchange Flags which basically was a version of Live From Two that we did from a studio that they built at Exchange Flags in Liverpool.
To be bluntly honest the reason the studio was put there was to sort out any potential bidders against the Granada licence who might try and argue the North West franchise would be better served from Liverpool. So they built this studio in Exchange Flags, we did the programme from there.
The other thing that we did was a kids Saturday morning programme called the Mersey Pirate, which we broadcast from the Royal Iris. Steve Leahy again joined me later on as a co-producer of that, but I was given the job under Chris Pye of putting together this kids Saturday morning programme from a boat in Liverpool during the summer of 1979. Plowright, maybe he’d been taking acid or drugs or something, he’d just suddenly woken up with this idea. Liverpool’s maritime history, the Mersey, ferry cross the Mersey, all of this kind of stuff; ‘I know we’ll do a kids Saturday morning show from a boat’.
I was assigned to find the boat. I still remember Chris Pye and I went down to Bristol, up to Glasgow, I think we went to Hull, looking for a boat you could present a television programme from on a Saturday morning. I remember the thing we came closest to was the Waverley paddle steamer, which was based in the Clyde. That would have been ideal because it looked great and it was paddle steamer and all of the rest of the stuff. But no way was it available to come down and be based in Liverpool over the summer because it did trips up and down the Clyde. So in the end we came back, and there was a ship called the Royal Iris, which was a Mersey ferry. It didn’t do the conventional ferry stuff, but it was used much more as a pleasure craft and you could go on wee trips in it and all the rest of the stuff.
We went along and discussed it with them and they agreed that we could do the show from the Royal Iris but part of the conditions on which we were going to make the show was that it couldn’t be taken out of service. So it had to continue on a Friday, the rehearsal day was a Friday and the show went out live on a Saturday morning. The Saturday morning wasn’t a problem because it didn’t do anything on a Saturday morning. But on the Friday afternoon it had a series of trips that it made up and down the Mersey as a pleasure craft and these trips had to continue while we rehearsed. It was a nightmare.
The technology that we were using was very basic. Apparently it had been developed by Southern Television to cover the homecoming of Sir Francis Chichester when he had sailed round the world. It was all based on line of sight.
We had a guy with a dish on the top of the Liver building. The Iris sailed up and down the Mersey and there was a line it could not cross, the mouth of the Mersey. The Mersey then becomes the sea and it couldn’t go into the sea, so it could sail as far as that and then had to turn and come back round but the water could be very choppy, even in the river. The guy on top of the Liver building had to direct his thing and it was line of sight. It had to hit the exact spot on the Royal Iris at the other end in order for the picture to work. Of course if the sea was choppy or the boat went from side to side you would lose the picture. If you ever watched it on a Saturday morning there would be instantaneous, tiny black flashes because the boat would have rocked one way or another and the picture would have been lost. So we worked on the thing and worked on the thing and we built this Buckminister Fuller bubble on top of the Royal Iris. It looked spectacular, I have to say, and that was the control room because the producers, directors and all the team were all on view during the show.
It was presented by a comedian called Dougie Brown.
The day that we went for the pilot, just to see if the whole thing worked, we set out into the River Mersey on a morning where the whole deck of the boat was covered in snow. The whole boat was covered in snow because the weather was awful.
The pilot was a bit of a disaster. One of the other things that we did was we decided if it was a proper boat it would have stowaways. We had a d-j on the boat as well who knew there were stowaways but wouldn’t tell the captain. Billy Butler, who used to duck back and forward between Radio Merseyside and the commercial station, City. I can’t remember which one he was working for at the time. Billy was the entertainment officer, and he used to wear a straw boater and a blazer.
I’d met and got quite friendly with Alan Bleasdale. I thought the Scully books were absolutely fantastic so I managed to convince Alan that Scully and Mooey, his mate, should be the stowaways on the ship. Alan used to write the stuff, almost like a spin off of the Scully books.
What we would do when we rehearsed on a Friday, we would pre record most of the Scully and Mooey bits, shoot them separately and then play them in on the Saturday morning although they were involved live in some of the stuff as well. The Friday would be really busy to try and get the whole thing together and all the rest of it.
One of the problems was about 14:30 on a Friday afternoon it would stop off in Birkenhead and a group of adults who had learning difficulties would come onto the ship. This was part of their weekly routine; that their carers brought them onto the ship on a Friday afternoon and they would sail up and down and after about two hours come back to Birkenhead and they would get off. One of the things they did on the ship was they would have a disco and they would dance. But of course every time we had to go for a take or to record something, Scully or Mooey or something else, we had to stop the disco. We couldn’t have the noise and all the rest of it, so there was always this element of tension between the social workers, the carers, the dancers and us as we tried to rehearse.
So the show eventually went on air without ever having had a proper pilot because the day that we had done it was the day there had been snow and the thing never worked.
We went live to air and it was meant to run until 12:15 when World of Sport took over with Dickie Davis. We’d never really had a proper chance to work out timings and running orders and all the rest of it. So at 12:05 we were finished and there were still ten minutes to go before World of Sport happened. I can still remember going through on the comms, Stuart Orden was the director, Jane McNaught was the PA, I remember that. I went through to transmission control in Manchester, remember this show was going out to the Network, and said “transmission control, we’ve finished can you take us?”
This voice came back saying, “can we fuck, you’re on your own.”
By a stroke of good fortune, that day on the very first show, we had Frank Carson on the show as well. Dougie Brown was a stand up comedian as well. So I said to Stuart “we’re on our own”.
I remember saying, “Dougie, Frank can you fill for eight minutes?” And they did until 12:15, ‘right that’s all from us, bye. We’ll see you next week’ and off we went to World of Sport.
The only good thing I can say about the Mersey Pirate; it was a great experience and great fun to do but nine weeks later the ITV strike happened and the show came off the air, never to reappear. It was an experience.
You mentioned Scully and Alan Bleasdale, and you did the Scully programme. Can you talk a little bit about that and in particular that great opening sequence in the titles.
I’d read the books and always thought it was a good idea, we always knew Alan was a good writer. At the time when we were doing the Mersey Pirate, and talking to him about the Scully idea, was when he was writing the Boys from the Blackstuff. I didn’t understand the way it was done but it had obviously been commissioned by the BBC.
I still remember one time going round to his house to see him, to talk to him. He gave me this script and said “this is the best thing I’ve ever written.” It was Yosser’s story from the Boys from the Blackstuff’. He knew even at the time he had written it, it was the best thing he had ever written. I managed to convince Steve Morrison that Alan was worth persevering with. We eventually managed to convince Channel 4 they should commission it. It was made by Granada but made for Channel 4. To give you an idea of the time it took to get it off the ground, Scully’s hero in the book and at the start of the process was Kevin Keegan. But by the time we actually got the thing made that translated to Kenny Dalglish, who was wearing the number 7 shirt and was Scully’s hero. We needed to convince Kenny to take part in the thing; to appear in some of the sequences, that Scully was going to wear his number 7 shirt and all the rest of it. I always remember I phoned Kenny, I got a number from the sports department for his house. I phoned his house and it was his wife Marina who answered the phone, and I couldn’t get off the phone. She wanted to chat and all the rest of it. Eventually I spoke to Kenny on the phone, I explained what we were doing and would he like to meet us. He said of course and he said there was a hotel somewhere to the North East of Liverpool on the ring road, I can’t remember what the hotel is now. He said he would meet Alan and myself there at one o’clock on whatever day it was, I think it was a Thursday. I think the hotel was near the Liverpool training ground, near Melwood. So I phoned Alan, and said “right Alan, he has agreed to meet us so we can go and talk to him about it.”
“Oh great.” Alan was so excited.
Alan and I get there about quarter to one, Alan has brought along copies of all his books, the Scully books, ‘Alan Bleasdale to Kenny Dalglish’ and everything else.
So one o’clock comes and goes and there is no sign of Dalglish. So about ten past one Alan says “he’s not coming, he’s obviously changed his mind. I’m having a pint.”
He goes and has a pint of beer, so we sit there Alan and I talking. By this time Alan has had about three pints of beer and suddenly Dalglish arrives about an hour late.
He’s full of apologies and what has happened was, we hadn’t quite realised this, they had been playing somewhere on the Wednesday night. Their cars had been left somewhere but when they had come back the night before they had come into somewhere else. So he had had to go to Speke airport and pick up his car, which is why he was late. But of course by then Alan was slightly the worse for three pints of beer.
Kenny was very friendly and all the rest of it. He always made it clear he was no actor but he was happy to take part in the thing. All these kind of negotiations started with Liverpool about getting him to shoot that sequence and all the rest of it. When the team ran out it was Scully who was wearing the number 7 shirt. So that was quite complicated to organise but of course what made it easy was the Kop knew who Scully was. So there were announcements made to the Kop, ‘this is what is happening today, we are shooting this sequence’. So they behaved like the Kop, cheered for Scully and all the rest of the stuff and Dalglish came out later on.
Didn’t they do a chant; ‘there’s only one Franny Scully’ as he came out onto the pitch.
You must remember Scully had been serialised on Radio Merseyside, Alan read the book. Scully was a very, very well known character in Liverpool, so of course the fans at Anfield all knew who he was. ‘There’s only one Franny Scully’.
Just talk a little bit about what kind of a company was Granada.
Granada was, not their words, the best television station in the world. Granada knew they were good. They had weaknesses, don’t get me wrong, but they knew they produced good programmes and all the rest of it. Every year there used to be the BANFF television festival, which I think still runs. One year the BANFF television festival decided that Granada was the best television company in the world.
That was the accolade that was given to the company just because of everything it produced; the drama, Coronation Street, World in Action, some of the current affairs where they stood up to the government. They pioneered the first coverage of a parliamentary by-election when they challenged the Representation of the People Act.
They had an amazing history of firsts in terms of things they had done. It was also a regional television station producing all of these things out of Manchester, this wasn’t coming out of London. For example David Plowright used to argue that Coronation Street was a local programme, which he allowed the rest of the network to see.
I know for a fact that if he had a dispute with the network he would use Coronation Street as a bargaining tool, “I’ll just take Coronation Street away” which would have panicked the network.
It was a very, very proud company and you were aware of that when you joined the company, about this reputation and the place of the company in the broadcasting firmament. After that year, which must have been ’76 or ’77, where the BANFF television festival decided it was the ‘best television station in the world’ you would come into work in the morning at the studios on Quay Street. The quote from the BANFF television festival and the citation things were up on the wall next to a Francis Bacon painting of one of the screaming popes.
So when you came into work every morning, the first thing you did was you stared at this framed poster which said ‘the best television station in the world’ and you looked to your left and here was £3 million worth of contemporary art. Just going to work in the morning was a feeling of pride, you felt you were working for the best television station in the world.
These were the days when World in Action was the current affairs programme and did an incredible number of things. Everybody was desperate to work for World in Action.
You would go into the canteen and there would be in the queue Coronation Street actors that you had grown up watching on the telly. Lawrence Olivier would be in shooting King Lear, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood would come in to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I had reason to look back recently at the King Lear cast, it was a veritable who’s who of the best of British acting. I still remember Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud doing the Pinter play No Man’s Land in the Granada studio.
So you’d be in your office and you’d have the ring main on and you’d be seeing Richardson and Gielgud doing these diologues from Pinter or see Sir Lawrence Olivier doing the soliloquies from King Lear. You thought ‘my god I work in quite an important place’.
There was that sense of pride, superiority to the rest of the broadcasting world.
The other really interesting that I still enjoy and benefit from; Granada was the station, certainly then but I don’t think it’s so true now, that essentially did the training for the rest of the ITV network. None of the other 14 ITV companies had any kind of training system. Granada’s training system was fairly rudimentary in the sense that it was training on the job. At least it was a training system. We also had a policy of bringing in quite a lot of researchers, some of whom wouldn’t make it after the first six months; they’re not for us, we’re not for them, and they would go. There was quite a high turnover of researchers coming in and let’s be honest, a lot of people were successful and a lot of people made it. Then what would happen is they would go off into the other ITV companies because they’d done their time at Granada, they’d learnt to direct, they’d learnt to produce, become good researchers or whatever it was. They would go off to Central, LWT, Thames or wherever it was they went. Even to this day there is a Granada old boys network of people who you have known from Granada days. Or even the fact that you meet somebody and despite not working there at the same time, the minute you know you both worked at Granada there is a bond that is created there, simply from having shared that Granada experience. I think that was part and parcel of having worked there and experienced working there. You felt that you’d had a special kind of training in television and a special kind of experience in television if you’d worked at Granada, which I don’t think you got anywhere else.
Would you describe it as a paternalistic company?
It was a very paternalistic company. It was also quite a fraternalistic company. I’d worked in solicitor’s offices, for one horrible year I worked for the general trustees of the Church of Scotland, that was dire. And I’d come from Scotland. Suddenly you arrive in this company where with the exception of three people everybody was on first name terms. Culturally to me that was quite a shock. You come from thinking these guys are your bosses but actually it was David, Dennis, Steve, Gus, Chris…
The whole company right from the start was a first name term company. The only three people who, when I joined, weren’t first name people in that sense was Mr Sidney and Mr Cecil, the two Bernstein brothers. I think the Mr was an act of respect, they’d set up the company and Granada was their vision. As a mark of that respect they were known as Mr Sidney and Mr Cecil. The other person was Mrs Wooler, Joyce Wooler who was an administrator. For reasons, which I never quite found out, she was never Joyce she was always Mrs Wooler.
Sidney and Cecil used to come to the building. They were based in London, so they weren’t there every day, but they would come to the building. Their big heroes were the circus people Barnum and Bailey. They understood the concept of entertainment through Barnum and Bailey and through the circus. So there was Barnum and Bailey posters, as well as other fantastic works of art. That was another nice thing about working in the building in Quay Street, it was like an art gallery. They invested in modern art and they were obviously very, very well advised by whoever bought the paintings for them. There were some fantastic works of art all around the building apart from the Francis Bacon. The Barnum and Bailey thing, you were never allowed to lose sight of that.
I was never so aware of Cecil but I was always aware of Mr Sidney because the word would come out that Mr Sidney was going to be in the building on such and such a day and could you please just make your officer that bit tidier, or bin this or bin that.
Him and David Plowright would walk around the building. Sidney would see things he didn’t like and a day or two later an edict would come out, ‘could you not do this or could do that’.
The one I always remember was when we moved into the bonded warehouse, a wonderful brick building which had been refurbished. We had started sticking stuff on the walls of the brick and Sidney had walked through this huge open plan office.
An edict came out the next day that Sidney did not want stuff stuck onto the brick walls, please take it off, which of course everybody did. From that point of it was quite paternalistic but I also thought it was quite fraternalistic because there was a collegiate feel about the place and the way things were done.
Everybody was actively encouraged, no matter which department or speciality you worked in, to submit programme ideas to whatever department. There was an encouragement for you to do that, and you did it because if you believed in the idea what you would hope at the end of the day is that you would get to work on it.
The other thing they used to do very regularly was David Plowright, because he’d become the MD at the time, would host a dinner in the flat on the seventh floor.
You might get invited to that twice a year, I don’t know how often the dinner happened, but if you were lucky and part of the group of ideas people you would get invited a couple of times a year. The drink would flow, the food would be nice but what Plowright wanted was to be challenged. He wanted to meet the younger people in the company but he wanted to be argued with, he wanted to be challenged, he wanted to hear different ideas. They were ‘serious sore heads the next day’ dinners.
So that again, yes it was paternalistic in that sense but it was also collegiate in the sense that anything was up for grabs. David might say a few words at the beginning of the dinner but essentially the conversation round the table, went in the direction the conversation took depending on who was there and what was being said. David might say there was particular challenges that had to be met or whatever. These were the things that were talked about at these dinners.
For example I can remember one around that time which was all about this new channel called Channel 4. ITV had been lobbying quite hard for a second channel which they wanted to be to ITV essentially what BBC Two was to BBC One.
So that they would have two channels and could sell twice the amount of advertising, thank you very much, but also you could put particular kinds of programming on the second channel that hit different markets. ITV One was always going to be a popular mainstream broad based channel. Even today I doubt very much if something like Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited would be commissioned by ITV.
If they had two channels it would have certainly worked well on the second channel.
So David, he really wanted to challenge this group of producers to come up with ideas for Channel 4.
The example used, he had some slides taken of the magazine section in WHSmith with the whole range of magazines; women’s magazines, men’s magazines, sport’s magazines, golf magazines, car magazines, bicycle magazines and all the rest of it.
And I remember him saying to the producers that the challenge to you is to think differently; not to think World in Action or not to think popular entertainment.
He said these are the magazines that sell to the public, so what you have to start doing is thinking of programmes in the way the magazine companies have hit the magazine market.
I still remember the day that the government decided, Willie Whitelaw was the minister at the time, that Channel 4 was going to happen. Plowright called together all the producers in the building into one of the downstairs committee rooms in the main building. We were all in there, David came in and he said “there’s good news and bad news. The good news is we’ve got Channel 4 but the bad news is we’re not running it, but the good news is we’re selling their advertising.” So that was the day Channel 4 was announced. But Channel 4 right from the beginning was never really interested in commissioning from the main broadcasters, it never saw that as being its function.
Let’s just finally talk a little bit if we could about the trade unions because you were active on the shop stewards’ committee.
I’ve always thought the problem in the early years with trade unions was quite a big one. Granada was a post entry closed shop in these days. So what that meant was you could come in without being a member of the union but once you were in you had to join the union.
There were three or four unions. So there was the NUJ, most of the journalists in the newsroom and other people as well, at one stage I had an NUJ card. There was the NUJ who essentially ran the newsroom and these were journalists. There was the electricians union who did what it said on the tin, and in some respects were hugely powerful because they could flick a switch. There was NATKE, which was the stagehands, prop hire, technicians. Then there was the ACTT, which were engineers, cameramen, soundmen and producers, directors and researchers. These were the four main unions in the building.
I think probably the problem with trade unions within the ITV system goes right back to the beginning from 1956 when the ITV system was set up. When these people came into the industry they brought with them the model of trade unionism, which had applied in the factory, in the workplace, down the pit. It was a model of them and us, the employers and the trade unions. The trade unions were there to fight for the rights of the workers and not to be exploited by the management. I think what people failed to realise was television was a different kind of industry. I’m a great believer in trade unions but perhaps the industrial model had worked down the pit or in factories, wasn’t quite the right model to work in a much less formal, modern television type setting. But that was what they had. The trade unions applying that same model were hugely powerful. They negotiate with the management, they had this thing called the white book which was all the terms and conditions that were agreed and all sorts of other things agreed with the management. If the management wanted to make changes, these changes had to be negotiated with the unions who always insisted on payments for this, payments for that, changes in this way, changes in that way.
Because the companies, at that time, were so successful and making so much money the management were happy, by and large to go along with what the unions asked for.
They just threw money, ‘if you want extra for doing this that’s fine’. So you had this white book, which had been agreed between the trade unions and the management on the one side, which set out the basic terms and conditions, basic payments that should be paid.
But you had another almost black economy running alongside it where I don’t think there was anyone in the building who was paid on basic union rates. Separate allowances had been agreed for this, separate allowances had been agreed for that.
There is a friend of mine, Professor Alan McKinlay who is now teaching at Newcastle University. Alan has made a speciality of looking at the industrial practices within television. He has written a couple of papers on it and his argument is the management in ITV didn’t manage. They were not managers in the sense you imagine managers running a business. Alan’s argument is that the ‘medieval craft guilds’ which he called the trade unions, ran the companies. They determined for example the size of film crews, the working hours, the break between one shift and another.
All that kind of managements was done by the unions and ‘the management’ trotted behind or ran fast to keep up with what the unions were suggesting or proposing.
To give an example, you would be the producer of a programme and when you went down into the studio, which you were in charge of, you would walk on to the studio floor but you would have to ask the floor manager for permission. To go on to the studio to speak to a presenter, or an actor or whatever it is you wanted to do you had to ask permission because the floor manager was in charge of that, not you. Theoretically you were in charge of it but actually you weren’t. Similarly if you went into the gallery as the producer you had to ask for permission. If you’d been watching something in your office on set and you thought ‘that doesn’t look right’ you could not touch anything on the studio floor. Seriously in these days if you touched something on the studio floor you risked everybody walking out. I remember once we were doing a comedy programme with Stuart Orn, who I mentioned earlier on, was directing the programme. I was in my office about to watch it on the ring main and nothing happened. I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on’. Half an hour went past and still nothing had happened.
Eventually I went downstairs and I said, “what’s going on? It’s half an hours studio time gone, nothing’s happened.” When Stuart, as the director, had come in the studio, Bruce who was the national treasurer of the ACTT had gone across to him and said “we’re having a spot inspection of union cards, could I see your card please.”
So Stuart had to go to his car to find his card and when he’d come in, Bruce
knew, because he was the national treasurer, that he was in arrears with his subscription.
He said, “we’re not working with you until these arrears have been paid.”
So Stuart then had to go outside, find the chequebook in his car, come back in, write a cheque for the arrears in his subscription and at that point he was allowed to direct in the studio. A whole number of things were happening there. One, Stuart was freelance and freelancers were only just beginning to appear in the stations at that time and the union was very opposed to freelancers. So this was their way of making that point.
Two, they were asserting their authority over the director, ‘you don’t without us agreeing’. It was an interesting time.
But then as the technology changed there started to be an awareness that there had to be a come and go between the unions and the management. The strike in 1979 was a real watershed in that sense, I think the unions lost quite a lot of their power when we came back after that because they were forced to accept that things were changing and working practice had to change. Disappearing World was an example of that, where the unions had determined the size of crews that would go on a Disappearing World shoot. So that if you went to shoot a film in a country where there was no electricity, no roads, no this that or the other, you still had to take a stagehand, an electrician and a driver. So these guys were just along there for the ride. Eventually there was an acceptance that that sort of thing just couldn’t continue.
I still remember, for example, there was a thing that was paid as part of the white book, which was the 1C4 allowance. If you were above a certain grade, mainly a producer or director, you were entitled to this 1C4 allowance. It would be paid at a different rate dependent on which company you worked in. It was section 1, sub section C, sub section 4. What it was, was a percentage of your salary which got paid to you in lieu of overtime. I think at Granada it was something like 15%, so that if your salary was whatever, you got another 15% of your salary on top of that in return for working longer hours. The producer couldn’t schedule himself or herself to work overtime so you were paid this allowance and you did the job. Basically you did the job and got this 15% extra on your salary. You got this 15% whether you worked the hours or didn’t, it was just paid. Some people really benefitted massively from it, other people did work additional hours.
I still remember when I went to Scottish television and I was in charge of the entertainment department there. These overtime forms suddenly started appearing on my desk. I’m looking at them and they’re overtime forms from producers and directors saying they’d work a Saturday or four hours this day or five hours that day.
I remember phoning up the personnel department and I’m saying, “why are these guys submitting overtime forms? Do you not have a 1C4 allowance?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve got a 1C4 allowance.”
So at STV, not only were they getting the 15% on their salary for working overtime, they were claiming overtime. They were getting paid twice for the same work. I think that was pretty common throughout ITV. It was just the fact the companies had so much money they were happy to buy it all off because they all wanted a quiet life.
After the strike all of that started to change.