Chris Kerr on looking after the programme makers

After about a year at the Liverpool studio I was sent for to Manchester. Jules Burns was moving up a level and needed someone to take over running the researchers and journalists department. Effectively this meant making certain that all the 100 or so researchers had a programme to work on and that producers had enough of them to run their programmes. It wasn’t always easy as some producers were very picky about the people they’d take and there was often an element of arm-twisting in arranging these forced marriages. The upside was that I got to meet some of the greatest of Granada’s producers, memorably Leslie Woodhead – and Brian Lapping who was always happy to talk fascinatingly and at length about his new series (End of Empire, Hypotheticals etc) so that I could understand the calibre of person he was looking for.

I was allowed to sit in on the meetings where Jules Burns briefed Mrs Wooller and Mike Scott about the state of programmes, their budgets, staff and so on. Fascinating to see the instinctive way in which decisions (almost always the right ones) were made. Mike had only fairly recently been made Programme Controller – it was before my time but I got the sense that some people were quite surprised that he got the job. I thought he was superb. He’d come all the way through Granada and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about television. And the great thing about Granada was that it was rather feared by all the other companies us because it was a bit maverick – in fact I think our bosses went out of their way to be so. And Mike really enjoyed winding up the other controllers; he was in a position of some strength because of the quality and quantity of our programmes. Mrs Wooller was another of those people who said little but whose opinions were carefully measured and absolutely invaluable. She and Mike were old friends and she rightly thought very highly of Jules so it was a very happy team. I liked her very much indeed.

Another part of the job was recruiting new researchers and journalists and this meant, once we had a run a series of preliminary interviews – usually with Mike Short or Rod Caird – setting up a final board on which would sit the likes of David Boulton, Michael Cox, Ray Fitzwalter and Stuart Prebble. The interviews were run in a way which the new HR regime would never contemplate. There was very little structure and we let the interview take its own course. Some of the best moments came when Ray would, in his mild way, lead the interviewee down an increasingly tortuous series of hypothetical backstreets and then ask, quite gently, “So what would you do then?”

The system obviously worked as we were able to hire some really top-class people. Some got away. Peter Mandelson came for interview (twice I think) for a job on World in Action but was sad to find it would mean leaving London to live in Manchester. Same for David Aaronovitch; I think they both went to work for John Birt at LWT.

Being on the 6th floor meant that I saw quite bit of the last great team to run Granada: Plowright, Forman, Scott, Alex Bernstein. And, sometimes, their rather well-known guests. I was sitting in my office one afternoon when David Plowright came in. “Just want to look out of your window” he said and he ushered in his brother in law Laurence Olivier and the director Christopher Morahan who were rehearsing for King Lear, to point out something on my side of the building – I can’t remember what: maybe the burned out ruins of the Jewel warehouse or the building that was becoming David’s latest wheeze, the V&A hotel.

The top Granada management had real style and, I think, were generally very well-regarded by the staff. When we won the franchise in 1987 – and I remember Andrew Quinn telling us how worried they were that they wouldn’t because of the bonkers bidding system which Thatcher had introduced – they sent every member of staff – to their home address – a bottle of champagne in a box with the message Normal Service Will Be Resumed. This was absolutely typical of their understanding and appreciation of the staff. And when the annual report came out you could see that, although top management was well paid, (and David Plowright had a free house) there was nothing like the light years gap between their salaries and ours. We were all on the same pay-scale; they were just a bit further up it and the gap seemed absolutely appropriate. All that changed of course a few years later.

Like everyone who was there at the time I remember the appalling shock of David Plowright’s resignation – well and truly shafted by the Group Board. Copies of John Cleese’s fax to Gerry Robinson were freely distributed and I still have mine, along with my Barnum.

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