GRANADA GIRL – written by Anthea Boulton June 2020
I arrived at Piccadilly station, Manchester, the day Labour won the 1964 election. “Told you the trains’d run late once they got in” I heard from a voice behind me, but I cared nothing for late trains or election fever. I was on my way to my first proper job: Call Girl at Granada TV.
My prospects hadn’t looked good. After graduating with an English degree from Exeter university, all the Careers Advisor could suggest was a job as an air hostess. My application to Rediffusion TV, then holders of the Midlands TV franchise, met with an apologetic note from the Personnel department saying they didn’t employ women except in a secretarial capacity. Wish I’d kept that letter but fury made me burn it.
And then came the offer from GTV. Granada was a forward-thinking company whose management saw the need to bring more women into the industry. Call Boys had been employed since the launch in 1955, following theatrical tradition, but their job of liaising with artistes was changing in the new studio set up. So Boys would be replaced with Girls, who would then have a chance to learn about programme production literally from the floor up. Union membership was obligatory, in this case NAATKE. Did I have any objection? I did not.
So five Call Girls duly reported to the Production Office and were inducted into our duties by the witty, wordy Peter Cuff. My first taste of the studio floor was unforgettable: a Motown group called Martha and the Vandellas singing ‘Music in the Street’. I’ve just listened to it on Youtube and it still gives me a buzz. That day, watching from the sidelines, it was electrifying.
But my real ambition was to write, so the next step was to ask if I could work on the local magazine show, Scene at Six thirty. Peter Cuff warned me that researchers on the show came and went like autumn leaves, and that I would need to leave NAATKE and apply to join ACCT, which I did. So I became a proud researcher B.
There was one woman working on Scene when I joined, Rosemary Hall, a glamorous Leeds graduate who impressed me mightily because she’d worked as a Bunny Girl. Her job was as picture researcher, providing illustrations for the various stories that made up the magazine show. Amongst the men there were writers like Arthur Hopcraft, later known for his dramas, Barry Cockroft, who discovered and wrote about Hannah Hauxwell of the Dales, and Malcolm Lynch, who was never known to submit an expenses claim without the entry ‘to hire of ladder, 10/6d’, plus imaginative explanation.
Everybody on the show, researchers, producers and directors, met at nine thirty in the morning, having read the newspapers and being ready with suggestions for that evening’s edition. We researchers would then go off to the canteen for a coffee whilst the producers of the day decided which stories to include. Around eleven o’clock researchers were given their brief and then required to research and write the piece, complete with any music, film or picture additions, ready for dress rehearsal at 4.30pm and live transmission at 6.30pm.
One of my first assignments was to write a piece about the Greek civil war. Now I had a classical upbringing and was thinking Athens and Sparta, so it was a surprise to find the war they were on about was fought in the twentieth century. My very first script concerned a famous trumpeter who was making a comeback. Mike Parkinson was the producer that day and it was he who kindly pointed out that I couldn’t include the sentence ‘he hadn’t touched his instrument for twelve years.’ I was very young then.
They were a grand bunch, those producers, and I was lucky to work with such talented men. Brian Armstrong went on to produce notable films for World in Action; Peter Eckersley ran the Comedy department before his sad early death; Mike Scott was a presenter and later programme controller of GTV; Leslie Woodhead made many award-winning documentary films, and has continued to do so until recently.
There was just one producer who was generally disliked because he could be mean and bullying. On one occasion he gave me a story to write, all smiles, assuring me that it wouldn’t be needed for a day or two. That evening as I left the office he said, grim faced, ‘I want that script first thing tomorrow’. Luckily I had done the research so was able to borrow a flat mate’s typewriter to write it up that evening. In the morning I was met with a thunderous face: ‘where’s the script?’ I handed it to him. Surprised, he looked it over and said ’hm, you must have been working’. Then I made a mistake, because I told him ‘of course I was working, I enjoy work’. He gave me two pieces to write that day, then no more work while he remained on the programme, which luckily was not very long. He really was the pits.
As for any sexism, I suppose we took it for granted. Like the day I arrived with my hair drenched from the rain and an outraged chap on the news desk told me to go straight off to the hairdresser to get it fixed. Or the time a boss sent me off to buy him some handkerchiefs. And the occasion when I was persuaded to share a taxi with a fellow researcher, only to have an unwelcome hand shoved up my skirt.
But my memories of Scene are mainly happy ones. There was the time I got some Venus fly trap plants to demonstrate how they snapped shut when they caught an insect – only by show time they were already shut because the stage crew had fed them with bits of paper. And the Valentine’s Day programme when I was delegated to produce two dozen oysters, because they were said to have aphrodisiac properties. At the end of the show I was left with them but when I got them back to my flat I couldn’t prise them open. So I boiled them and ate the lot and I can report there were no unusual effects.
Then one day my life changed. David Boulton joined Scene. He had been Sidney Bernstein’s press secretary and a newspaper journalist. On his first day he was told to produce a 4-minute item about the TUC conference for that evening’s programme. The only direction he got was a vague ‘helicals are that direction, 4 headed the other way and grams are on the second floor’. David had never worked in television, never seen a script and he sure as hell didn’t know what a helical was (it was what we called two headed cameras as opposed to video cameras known as ‘four headed’}. His desk was next to mine so he asked me if he could see a script. I rummaged in my desk looking around for my best example but of course he was only interested in how it was laid out. Later he asked if I fancied a coffee. I said yes. That day my (happy) fate was sealed.
Six months later David Boulton was running Scene and I decided it was time to move on. Denis Forman, then Programme Controller, asked me to act as secretary to FOG, a typically witty acronym for the Forward Outlook Group. This was brilliant, terrifying – and instructive in the art of subtle diplomacy. That’s when I became familiar with the phrase ‘I hear what you say’.
It was at this time, with all the confidence of youth, that I decided to try my hand at writing a play. Margaret Morris, head of the Drama department, was friendly and encouraging. I had always admired Anton Chekhov’s short stories and, for my first attempt, I decided to adapt one of his longer ones, Ward 6, for TV – a 90-minute drama, no less. Margaret approved my draft so it was duly presented to Denis, and I was astonished to find that not only was it accepted but it was printed in white, skipping the usual, ‘blue’ draft stage. I always suspected it was Denis’ highly gifted wife, Helen, who recommended the play to him. Denis suggested I might relocate the story from Russia to Ireland but I wasn’t convinced.
Accordingly, the play was cast with Eric Porter and John Shrapnel in the leading roles. A corner of Lyme Park was decorated with Russian-style huts and snow from a machine, and I’m sorry to say one of the technicians broke his leg by sliding off a slippery roof. Rehearsals were fairly fraught. On one occasion I crept in to watch, only for Eric Porter to complain, loudly, that the rehearsal room was like Piccadilly station! However, the cast were appreciative when I had to produce brief re-writes off the cuff.
The show got mixed reviews. The Guardian writer, standing in for the regular drama critic, didn’t like it. The Telegraph critic said it broke new ground in television. I decided that I needed more experience, so I got a job as storyline writer on Coronation Street.
After FOG I was given my own office, where I vetted scripts. A new Granada training scheme had been set up and amongst the first five trainees was a certain John Birt. John and his mates cut their teeth on putting together a mock version of the local magazine show, inevitably called UnScene at Six Thirty. John collaborated with a fellow trainee on a drama script, which they wrote under false names. I still remember John’s eager face, keen to know if the script had been accepted. Sadly, it had not. I wonder what became of him……
When Tony Warren wrote his first scripts for the Street, early in 1960, they were scheduled to run for only six episodes. Luckily, someone in management recognised the potential of this ground-breaking idea about a community living in a northern working class street. Tony was 24 when he wrote it, and he based it on Manchester characters he knew and grew up with. He wrote the first twenty episodes, then his vision seems to have departed from Granada’s, or theirs from his, so the Granada machine took over. By the time I joined, in 1968, it had settled into a well-oiled rhythm thanks to its highly talented team.
In those days the Street went out on two nights a week and we worked six episodes in advance. Every three weeks we attended a storyline conference with the writers, producers and directors to decide on a main story and, usually, two sub stories to run through the next three weeks. Harry Driver, from his wheelchair, seemed to be best at generating ideas. The Stan and Hilda Ogden characters made a splendid comedy team, so I came up with one about Stan Ogden entering his broken bike in a modern art exhibition.
My job, together with my fellow storyline writer, Esther Rose, was to build the skeleton for the writers to flesh out with dialogue. I soon learnt that we worked within tight boundaries. For a start, the actors were on different contracts. We had five stalwarts: Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Len Fairclough, plus Jack and Doris Walker at the Rovers Return. We needed to include at least three of these ‘heavyweights’ in each programme. Other actors, such as Bill Roache and Anne Reid, playing Ken and Val Barlow, had 26-week contracts, so stories had to be planned accordingly.
A second limiting factor concerned the sets. Shows were shot in the studio, with only occasional filming allowed outside for the big stories. Each programme consisted of two halves, with five or six scenes either side of the ad break, and sets were built to accommodate all six episodes in the three- week cycle. To justify any one set we had to find a way of using it at least once in each half of all six programmes. Additionally, our storylines needed to allow the actors time to move from one set to another, so we couldn’t end one scene and start another using the same character.
Then there were the cliff-hangers to manipulate: a minor one before the ad break and something more telling at the close. At the beginning of the autumn schedule, a seriously dramatic lapel-grabber was needed to hook the audience. Ray Langton’s maiming in a Street coach outing comes to mind; and, perhaps the biggest drama of all, the attack on Val Barlow.
Anne Reid was a brilliant actor and a kind friend to me. When my flat mate got ill and I urgently need to move out Anne invited me to stay in her flat, which was close by. Much later, when her beloved husband, Peter Eckersley, died she visited our house, still numb with shock but determined to make a good life for their young son.
Esther Rose and I became friends, if only virtually, with all the Coronation Street characters. We kept a record of their birthdays and anniversaries. We noted down their individual likes and dislikes, quirks and abilities, or lack of them. Albert Tatlock was good with pastry, ‘I ‘ave cold ‘ands, you see’. Elsie often had to soak her sore feet because of the high heels she wore. Esther and I argued over whether Minnie Caldwell, Ena Sharples’ regular companion in the Rover’s Snug, would be likely to possess a piece of string to wrap a parcel with (she said Minnie was too poor, I thought she’d have squirreled a bit away). Pat Phoenix, playing Elsie Tanner, invited David and me to a party at her house. What sticks in my mind is her delight at showing the guests her gigantic, richly adorned, ceiling-to-pillow draped bed. It clearly played a central role in her life.
I enjoyed working with actors, writers and the whole dynamic team. Evidently our audiences appreciated our work too because Coronation Street topped the ratings week after week. The aim was to entertain at all costs, with humour, high drama and if possible both, and I think we succeeded.
These were the days when ITV had a monopoly in commercial television. It was commonly said that TV companies had a licence to print money, and it’s true that Granada was doing very well indeed. So when Margaret Morris took over as Coronation Street producer she was able to state openly that her aim was to get the programmes down to number six or seven in the ratings. Unthinkable today, but what she had in mind was grittier drama that would take on serious social issues. She was ahead of her time, and it was left to later soap operas to follow that path – including, of course, the Street itself.
It was Margaret Morris who commissioned me to write another drama, an adaptation of ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginsberg, which told the grim, real-life story of a wife and mother who suffered brutal imprisonment in Stalin’s Russia. However, by the time the script was written, and paid for, Margaret had left Granada. Peter Eckersley, who took over her job, wrote me a kind note saying it was a terrific script but it didn’t fit Granada’s plan, and I should send it to the BBC. By that time, though, slots for one off, ninety-minute dramas were fast disappearing. In any case I had other things on my mind. David and I were now married, and by 1970 we had a baby on the way. But that play came back to haunt me. When giving birth I needed to be sedated. As the anaesthetist stuck the needle into my arm I saw the faces of white-coated torturers bending near and laughing as I tried to fight them off, yelling “you brute, you brute!”. A scene out of my own play!
With several other women I put an urgent case to Denis Forman that Granada should run a crèche, but we had no success. On this matter our otherwise liberal, progressive boss was immoveable. I was left with the choice of leaving Granada or organising a nanny. So I gave up my permanent job but continued to freelance for GTV during the seventies, working as north west researcher on Bamber Gascoigne’s series The Christians and writing reports for the Granada Foundation. However, by then we had two young children, so I looked for opportunities closer to home. BBC Radio Blackburn, later BBC Radio Lancashire, was just nine miles up the road and there I found myself free to suggest ideas, then research, write and present them – leaving a kindly secretary holding the baby!
Those were exciting days at Granada. Quay Street was home to a critical mass of talent which helped energise the company, the city of Manchester, and the whole of ITV. It was economics, as usual, that ended the dream. The Thatcher media revolution meant big players such as Sky entered the broadcasting field, creating a situation in which economies of scale counted more than cultural and regional values. London became, once more, the centre of life where broadcasting was concerned
I left Granada but stayed in touch with former colleagues, especially as David’s career continued, editing World in Action and writing and producing drama documentaries. Many of the friends I made back in the sixties are no longer with us. David and I still see Leslie and Yvonne Woodhead, and we’ve had great holidays with Claudia Milne and Mike Whittaker, and with Ray and Luise Fitzwalter before Ray’s tragic death. We visited Denis Forman just before he died, sharing memories and our passion for Mozart. Elegant as ever, he suggested we share a glass of champagne with him. We drank a toast to the glories of Granada past. I didn’t mention the crèche.