Andre Singer

Interviewed by Judith Jones, 4 June 2020.

Andre Singer on how he joined Granada

How did you come to join Granada? Because I don’t think you set out to be a filmmaker, did you?

Not at all, absolutely not. I knew nothing about film whatsoever. I was a potentially bad academic at the time, and finishing, or writing up, a doctorate at Oxford and worrying about what might have happened to me at that time, which is probably get a lectureship in St Andrews University or something, and ending up there for the rest of my life, and I knew it wasn’t really for me. And I read an advert in the New Statesman, which was Brian Moser advertising for anthropologists to help on a new Granada Television series. And it was interesting, because there I was in a very conservative department of anthropology – Oxford was probably the biggest and most conservative of them all – and the idea of leaving that to go into film and television of all things, it was against everything they stood for in those days. But it sounded fun to me, and it sounded like an escape, so I applied, and as they say, the rest was history. I got interviewed by Brian, and started. I hadn’t finished my doctorate at that time; I got a sabbatical a couple of years later from Brian and went back and finished it. I joined in 1973, and the series had been going for a couple of years by then. And Brian had done the earlier ones in South America with Charlie Nairn. And three of us joined at the same time then.

So who were the three?

Melissa Llewelyn-Davies was one. And somebody called Angela Burr who left quite soon afterwards, was another. And me. And also, we had an undergraduate called Pattie Winter who joined us also at that time, who was basically coordinating the work that we were doing in the department.

So, were you familiar with the programme before you joined?

No. No, knew nothing about them whatsoever, and hadn’t seen them. I mean, I think the first one I saw was The Last of the Cuiva, but that was really when I’d already agreed to join and so on.

So, were you interviewed in Manchester or in London? And what was that like?

Good question. No, the first interview was in London with Brian, in Golden Square. And in fact, it was quite late on when we started going to Manchester. The whole hub of the series was really London. There was Brian, Chris Curling. And in fact, people like Charlie Nairn and Leslie, who came on later, weren’t really based in the Disappearing World office, they were almost like freelancers coming in and out. So it was quite a small unit we had in Golden Square, which was the researchers, a coordinator/secretary figure, Brian, and me.

Andre Singer recalls the first Disappearing World programmes that he worked on

Well, it was odd at the beginning because we were contracted as anthropologists, as consultants almost, for the film, not as filmmakers. And it was a research contract. I mean, it was a straightforward research contract that I had, but the role was find the stories, help set them up, and be the anthropologist. And at that time, Chris Curling was still a researcher as well, and he was just moving into doing his first film with Brian. And that’s when he met Melissa. They eventually married, and it was a very complicated dynamic that went on in the department which, sort of jumping to a later question, the reason that I took over in a way was because Chris and Melissa met in the department and eventually married. 

And I then set up my first film for Brian, which was the one in Kurdistan, the Dervishes film. And we each were sort of allocated a director to work to initially, so I worked with Brian to do the Kurdish film. Chris then worked with Melissa, and she set up her first Masai film, which Chris directed. That was his first film there. And Angela worked with Charlie Nairn, who directed one in Kataragama, in Sri Lanka. They were the first three that we did as that unit.

Obviously, you were employed as an anthropologist, did you get any training though in order to help you translate your subject matter into what would make a good film? Did anybody kind of give you that guidance? 

No, not initially. Initially, the whole sort of ethos of the series was that we would, or Melissa and I, and Angela at that time, would pop off to the field. I mean it was a wonderful period because we had the luxury of time, which, of course, evaporated really later on. So we would go off for weeks on end and set up a film without really knowing what it needed as a filmmaker, and then the film team would come along and we would join the film team, and we would liaise while filming. And filming then, probably about five or six weeks at a time, we would have for the film period. And then we would go back and we would help the director in the edit, translating, sorting things out, etc., interpreting, whatever. And so that whole period, we’re probably talking about two, three, four, five, almost up to six months a film. 

So, the first films that I did, first with Brian, then I did one with Leslie on the Mursi, and then I did one with Charlie Nairn up in Afghanistan, they were the first three. 

Andre Singer describes his director’s training

I then got frustrated and said, “I really want to make these myself.” You know, I’ve now learnt enough about what it takes to want to make these kinds of films rather than just keep feeding another director each time. And unlike Chris, who went straight into directing because he had done current affairs and a little bit of World in Action and so on, I applied for the directors’ training course at Granada. And that must have been in ‘75, ‘76, something like that. 

And I was interviewed then up in Manchester by Denis Forman and another panel. I can’t remember who else was on the panel. I think Leslie was one of the panel as well, but certainly Denis Forman. And it’s stuck in my mind ever since, because his leading question to me was, “Andre, why, because you’re an anthropologist, do you think that will enable you to be a filmmaker?” And not usually being very fast with the repartee, that was the one answer that I came up with, basically, I suppose, because I really believed it, which worked, which was, “Why do you think because I’m an anthropologist, I wouldn’t make a filmmaker?” And he had no answer to that. 

And it was quite good because we had such a really good relationship with Denis. He was fantastically supportive from day one, and always was Brian’s backer. And he’s the one that gave Charlie Nairn the chance to move from drama into that kind of world as well. And he gave Leslie his break, and so on. I mean, Denis was a phenomenon, I thought. In fact, I did one of the very last interviews with him before he died, which was very nice. 

So, I went on the training course. So, I stepped out of Disappearing World for two years, and that’s when I moved to Manchester. So, I then worked on local programmes, I worked on What the Papers Say. I even did a stint on Coronation Street. Most of it was filmmaking for local programmes. 

Andre Singer explains why the Disappearing World programme stopped in 1977

I moved from Disappearing World, having been a researcher on Disappearing World to being a director on local programmes, to being then a director on World in Action, because at that time, then there was a lull in what was happening on Disappearing World. Then I went back to work for Brian on Disappearing World, and was able to make my own films.

Was that lull round about the time when the programme stopped in 1977?

Yes.

And why did it stop?

Yes, it was exactly then. That’s why I was on World in Action. Instead of just as a tryout, I was kept on it for two years. So, I made seven or eight World in Action’s during that time. I mean I quite enjoyed my time at World in Action, but it was not what I was geared to do by Forman and co. I was meant to be doing Disappearing World, but it was stopped because of a dispute over… I had a major dispute at the end, I think it was over taking PAs (production assistants) on location. I think it was David Plowright who pulled the rug at that time, and said, “We’re not having that kind of blackmail,” and so on, and it stopped.

Okay, that’s interesting. Because I suppose given the conditions, you probably would have wanted a small crew, but actually that might not have been…

It was the very strong ACTT years, you’ll probably remember. In fact I was deputy shop steward in London at that time. And it was almost a rota system with people going on location, and we often had inappropriate crews, and was spending money simply for the sake of having to have an extra person. I now just don’t want to confuse the two reasons, because when I left, there was another dispute at the end. That was in ‘82. There was one dispute in ’77, and then there was another one later. 

The one that I fell in was also on that same thing, which was with Leslie. I’d set up a trilogy of films in China, and Leslie made one in a commune in the Northeast. I made another one on the Kazakhs in Western China, and I have a third film in Hunan. That was going to be made by another World in Action veteran who died about five years ago, Mike Beckham. That one was stopped because the local people had set up transport and the PA’s insisted that they had to have a PA. There was absolutely nothing for PA to do because transport was being organised locally, language was a translator locally. There was no hotel booking. There was no liaison. All they could do was take notes for the director and that’s when David Plowright really lost his rag and said, “I’m not having this.” He stopped that film. Leslie then spun his out to be two films instead of one, so we still had a trilogy going out on air. Then that was the end of Disappearing World, at that time. 

Andre Singer on Denis Forman’s support for Disappearing World

In 1974, we put together a little brochure of about nine films, the first nine films in the series. Denis wrote the introduction to this, and it was very much explaining why he did it and how he supported Brian, what went on. It’s a two-page introduction. It was very nice, and he touched on how important it was. Denis so believed in this that he knew that there was some prosperity in the material we were collecting. It was going to be unique. He created a library of Disappearing World with all the outtakes of all the shoots over, we’re now talking in the end about 40 or 50 films, but at that time, say, 30. He hired a full-time librarian and they created the library and then – all catalogued, all beautifully looked after – and then, when Granada lost the franchise and then it went to ITV, the whole library was moved to Leeds. About 10 years ago, I tried to – I had on my anthropological hat, I became president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and I looked after their affairs, and particularly the film side of it – and I tried to find a way of buying or hosting the library so it could be an academic organisation, at least.

Absolutely.

We were told it had been destroyed. The whole library had been destroyed.

My gosh. That’s shocking, isn’t it?

Somebody in ITV had said, “It’s a waste of space. We don’t want to keep all of that.” I tried, subsequently, to find out if that really was the case, because the information came via ITV, and via people I contacted in ITV that I didn’t really know. They said, “Oh no, they checked and it’s definitely gone. It doesn’t exist any more.” The whole library. All of those films destroyed.

Andre Singer on the reaction of other anthropologists

You’d come from an academic background, and I wondered what your fellow academics made of Disappearing World?

Oh, they hated it! Initially. It was seen as populous television then. I mean, it’s changed dramatically ever since, and now it’s almost a staple in every anthropology department around the country. That change has been quite phenomenal, partly I think because of the quality of Disappearing World, which has to be seen as the premier anthropology series globally. Partly it was as a result of the quality of the programming, but also I think it was a change of attitudes. It was because at that time you didn’t really… it took a while to percolate, but we weren’t visiting zoos and things. It was kind of… or even David Attenborough in those days doing this stuff. The use of subtitles was, I suppose, one of the labels. The use of anthropologists in the film was a second thing. The ability to give people their own voice, which was relatively novel in television in those times. My personal pride of the series at that time was that it did actually change attitudes, and changed how people perceived anthropology, and that gradually percolated from not having anthropologists using film much and so on. Suddenly, they were all knocking on our door, and we could pick and choose almost, any anthropologists we wanted, who wanted their people to be represented on film. Suddenly, it became a very different, during the course of my time there, from the early days in the 70s up to the 80s, it suddenly became different to how it began. But initially, people in my department, they were polite, but I knew that it was not seen as serious anthropology.

I was just thinking as well from a kind of ethical point of view, operating as an anthropologist, when you’re making a film, you will have to make some selection and it must be quite difficult because presumably when you’re an anthropologist you’re observational, but when you’re making a film, you’re actually looking for something that is interesting. Was that ever a kind of ethical…?

Yes, I didn’t really have a problem with it. I mean, perhaps I’m not a purist in that sense. I felt that the role of using film to bring ideas and description of what’s happening over there to over here, and to be able to interpret people and give a sort of a greater understanding of how other societies operate, far outweighed the minutiae of trying to be that observational. I mean, I’ve always been seen in the anthropology world as almost on the wrong side of popularising the subject, rather than being a purist in terms of film. A lot of the anthropological filmmakers would not want to try and squeeze everything into a 50-minute thing. They would be following an event over a long period of time and so on. That would be for more academic and intellectual purposes, than the purpose than the purpose I thought our sort of film has. It’s always been relatively contentious, and I suppose I’ve got away with it by playing both games, because I kept my anthropological links, and I’ve sort of driven the film side of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which is sort of the central body in London. 

Andre Singer recalls one of his most memorable Disappearing World experiences

The original Mursi film. And at that time, I was then told, that was my research era, I was then told, “Okay, you’ve got to get us…” David Turton was our anthropologist advisor, “Get us to these Mursi. Find some transport from Addis Ababa.” So as a sort of naive researcher, off I went and I found the only hire company in Addis was Hertz. And Hertz had little jeeps, and a Volkswagen Jeep was the only vehicle light enough to get into an aircraft that the Ethiopian air force could fly to the nearest local airstrip in a little place called Jinka. And so I hired that, and there was going to be Christian Wangler’s recorders, Mike Dodds, cameraman, Leslie, me, David Turton and his wife, six of us. And we all had to get into this one vehicle, plus all of our gear, plus all of our food and so on. So we all arrived in Addis airport and transferred, and had to manhandle this vehicle into this plane, and got in, and off we went to Jinka. Manhandled the thing out again – there’s some very funny film Leslie’s got, we’ve got some film clips of this, it was really quite funny, it was the first time we used colour, a Super 16 colour, and we were testing it out on this, so this was a good excuse to film this – and we manhandled the thing out, the plane took off and of course no communication in those days. It was, “See you Sunday, same place, six weeks’ time.” Off they went. 

So we were left for six weeks. We all bundled into this thing and set off into the middle of nowhere, and about, I don’t know, five or six miles later got a puncture. So we got out to fix the puncture, and found that Hertz’s spare tyre was the wrong size for the wheel, so we couldn’t fix the puncture. So here we were, six weeks ahead of us, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and really with one tribe, we were with a tribe called the Bodi, which were the Northern neighbours of the Mursi. We were in the middle of that area without transport, having to get to the Mursi, who were at that time having a war with the Bodi.

So we had to do what people did in those days. We had to hire good old sort of 19th century porters, a long line of porters carrying all of our gear, and walk. And we walked, I think it was probably about 150 miles through the bush carrying camera gear, food, boxes, tents, everything. And then that had to be left in no man’s land, and the Bodi went, and then David Turton went and got some Mursi. They came up, picked up the gear, and then we had to start the filming.

So I was probably the most unpopular researcher in the history of television by that time. And the punishment was that we set up a camp in Mursi territory, and because the film was, I don’t know if you remember that film, but it was about debating, and the debates moved from village to village, and we couldn’t do this with all of our gear. We just couldn’t walk from village to village. So we set up a camp, and I was left in the middle of absolutely nowhere to guard, with a double-barrelled shotgun that David Turton had, to guard the camp while everybody else went off to make the film. And it was going to be two days, Leslie saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll be back in a couple of days’ time.” And off they went, but the story kept moving.

And I was there for 10 days, sitting by a tent with Mursi occasionally popping out of the bush. They’re very light-fingered, so you had to actually protect everything. And I was basically going barking mad by that stage. And during that particular period of time, one of the Mursi arrived at the camp with a baby baboon on a string, which was a present for the anthropologists. Gave me this baby baboon. So there I was, already a bit bonkers, with notes occasionally appearing out to the bush with a Mursi on a stick, “Here, I have this from…” Saying, “Terribly sorry…” from Leslie, “Terribly sorry, we’re going to be another four days. Don’t worry. Just keep going.” And the baby baboon bit me on the finger, and I sat there thinking, “What is it you get rabies from? Dogs? Monkeys?” And I’m five weeks away from any help, sitting there in the bush.

Andre Singer on taking over the role of series editor for Disappearing World – and then leaving Granada

Well, it was different for me. Brian (Moser) had the wonderful sort of patronage and support of Denis and basically, I think things were challenging but much easier at that time. By the time I took over, we had, besides those union problems which I described, Disappearing World was no longer… it had been going for quite a while. It had been going probably for about 10 years by then or a bit less, so it was not in its full flush of glory, and it was difficult for me to find the money and the budget and the support inside Granada to do as much as Brian was able to do. So I was constrained to doing about three films a year, rather than six, which we’d tried to do before. Editorially, it was absolutely fine. Nobody… I think at that time, first of all, it was Mike Scott, programme controller, and then it was Steve Morrison. So I worked with both of them. Steve Morrison took more of a hands-on interest than Mike Scott did.

And so, I did three films, first of all, which were interesting and successful films, in Africa, that was when we did the first all-female team with Claudia Milne going off to West Africa, when I did one about Witchcraft Among the Azande

And then I wanted to do something different, and wanted to do China, and no foreign crews had filmed in China at that time. And Steve Morrison was quite excited at the thought of that, so he and I went to China together to negotiate. And that again was one of those slightly surreal – and just on the gossipy level, Steve wouldn’t deny it, was quite a funny event – because Steve Morrison was in full economic mode for Granada and he was a very ambitious man, really wanted to transform Granada, and we went and sat down at banquets with the Chinese and instead of negotiating, what I wanted were the three tribal films that I wanted to put together there, he wanted to negotiate a deal with the Chinese to sell Granada televisions. Granada was in the rental business then. He wanted to sell Granada televisions to China. Immediately he saw this fantastic business opportunity. So all these meetings were dominated by Steve trying to do business deals, which nobody there knew what we were talking about because that wasn’t why we’d been invited in the first place.

But it was a successful trip and we got the permission. And so Leslie and I then went off and did the two films and cancelled the third one. But it was the first time a Western crew had filmed there and so it was clear it was a successful sort of… for me, it was a successful swan song because that stopped the series again and I had the choice of either staying on in Granada and them finding another role for me, and I, even though I’d done two years on World in Action, I was not a journalist, and I didn’t have the same sensibilities that they have, and I was stuck with a non-role. 

So that’s when I had been made an offer to go and make a big series for Central, for Richard Creasey again. And so I left. (in 1982)

Andre Singer recalls the challenges in making Disappearing World

Were there any countries that you couldn’t get access to? Was there anywhere that you wanted to film but for various reasons you couldn’t? Or was it always usually quite straightforward?

Yes, I was a bit stymied with my own area of interest, which was Iran. And I’d done my fieldwork in Iran, and I wanted to do work there, and tried a couple of times, but even then it was just coming up to the revolution time, 1979 was Khomeini, and so I knew we wouldn’t get permission to go and do anything there.

I wanted to work in Afghanistan, and I couldn’t at that time. I did later on when I left, and did some films in Afghanistan, but… except for the Khyber film, and I did that as a kind of non-Disappearing World. It got roofed by Granada under the Disappearing World label, Khyber. It was more a history film about the end of the British Empire and Afghanistan, but I couldn’t really get proper Disappearing World access.

And the Soviet Union, but Brian had done his Mongolian thing at that time, and that didn’t go down too well. That was one of the least successful, I think, of that sort of loose umbrella. But I think the decision-making was not so much, “Let’s go for difficult places,” but much more, “Let’s go for places where anthropologists have found really interesting stories.” And that’s where your show came in. It was, if you’ve got a good anthropologist, they’ve got a good access, and you can get the intimacy that you need to tell their story properly, that’s more important than, “This is remote or difficult,” or whatever, which is more the sort of gung ho adventure side of it, which I didn’t really have a problem with.

And would Granada, whoever they were, and I know it was a kind of non-hierarchical hierarchical management. But were they fairly relaxed in terms of health and safety? Or at that stage, was it more relaxed than it would be today in terms of, you can go off for several months?

Could you imagine doing a Mursi film today? It absolutely wouldn’t even start. And some of the second film… well, both the films I did as researcher, the first two. The first one was completely crazy in today’s terms. It was on the Iraq-Iran border. Tensions and shootings going on between the Kurds in Iraq and the Iranian government. So it wasn’t a war zone, but it was a pretty tense friction zone. And people were being killed along that border. Drug smuggling was going on intensely there. I got access to it simply because an anthropologist friend of mine, an Iranian, I believe his father-in-law, was head of the Iranian secret police, SAVAK. So we had a very powerful person up top.

But it was an area that you could only go in… it’s kind of a World in Action, ‘under the barbed wire’ type place, which today you would never, ever get insurance permission on the dangers of it. So we could see the guards on the border line. We had strict instructions about things we could and couldn’t film about women under the veil, which were all sort of something that Brian didn’t enjoy. If you do interview Brian, it’d be interesting to know his reaction to that film, because I mean, he spoke the language, knew the people, had the passion… suddenly for him to jump to Iran, to a culture he had absolutely no sympathy of knowledge of. We couldn’t film the women, even. And so it was really frustrating for him. But we could do that. Then I went with Charlie Nairn to Afghanistan and we were in the Northeast Pamirs of Afghanistan, could only get there by yak or horseback. Incredibly long, dangerous, difficult journey along the mountain tracks, and so on. A fantastic journey, real adventure stuff, but again, today, we’re on the Russian border, Pakistan border, Chinese border, in that little peninsula there. No way you could do that properly today. And Granada were very relaxed about it.

I was surprised that nothing untoward never seemed to happen really, that you all came back unscathed. Yes.

Now I look back on it, I wonder how! I had no real problems or difficulties on any of the films that I worked with in that sort of sense. We had some problems on the film I directed on the Azande, where David Jenkins was the researcher. I see him occasionally. David had a crash, an accident, while setting up the film before I came out. And we had quite a lot of difficulty there, getting the gain in the Southern Sudan, sort of semi-civil unrest and difficulty on that thing. That was a tough location. It was.

Andre Singer on the value of Disappearing World to Granada’s reputation

It was hugely respected because it was nominated for BAFTAs every year, 75 to 78.

It got one. One series BAFTA, series award, one year. I can’t remember which year that was.

And so, do you think it was a film that… I mean, there was a stage when Granada was being touted as the best television company in the world. And do you think that Disappearing World added to that impression of Granada as a kind of global international company of great repute?

Yes. I was told, and I don’t know how true this was, who’s the guy Granada International at that time? Anyway, whoever it was is quite well known figure and his wife was in Granada as well. For many, many years, was in charge of the international side of Granada. And I was told that Disappearing World was, if not the best marketing project Granada ever had, because even more so than Coronation Street, because they sold them every single year, year in, year out. They never dated. And even today they’re seen around the world. And that’s quite phenomenal when you mount up to 40, 50 films, and you can sell them as a block. It was a gold mine. So it’s not a matter of the quality necessarily, but the fact that this was such an economic project for the company for the group.

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