The two strands that I tended to make my own were films in Northern Ireland (that was the first one) because the so-called ‘Irish Troubles’ or the ‘English Troubles’ as far as the Irish were concerned were all bubbling up at this time from 1969 onwards and I had a peculiar ‘in’ into Northern Ireland in that my religious upbringing was in a fundamentalist Bible group called the Plymouth Brethren whose theology was very similar to that of Ian Paisley. Now I had long out-grown the Paisleyite theology but nevertheless, I knew my bible as well as Ian Paisley and when I went over and started interviewing Ian Paisley I think he was, I mean he regarded journalists as Fenian Communists or a little worse than Fenians and even worse than Communists and he discovered this strange journalist who was clearly (as he would put it) a total lefty but nevertheless could speak his language and understand his language and I got on quite well with Paisley. Paisley was a man who, after 10 o’ clock at night in the Europa Hotel, could be extremely entertaining, could be very funny and whose company you could enjoy. So that gave me an entry into that side of the Northern Ireland divide. The day that I joined World in Action the team was sent out to do (Brian Armstrong was the producer), sent out to make a film on the Shankill Road about Belfast Protestants, working-class Protestants, the kind of life they lived, the kind of houses they lived in, the kind of working-class poverty and solidarity of Shankill Road. Having made that film I was given a week to go out and make the mirror film, the one about the Catholics on the Fouls Road, and of course the two films were remarkably similar! Both films were about working-class people in working-class homes with working-class solidarity, very friendly, always inviting you in for cups of tea, hating each other but looking identical, sounding identical and really, the two films together basically said ‘What is this all about?’ ‘How is it that people of the same class, the same background can be so antagonistic towards each other?’ I remember Hartley Shawcross standing up in the House of Commons after our second programme and denouncing Granada’s Marxism for this praise for the working-classes in Northern Ireland. As things got worse in Northern Ireland I found myself in much deeper water doing films about the IRA [Irish Republican Army] – two of them banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA], as it was then.
Why were they banned?
One film was called Across the Border and the main sequence in that film was of Sinn Féin’s annual party conference, their Ardfheis, their annual party conference. We were given exclusive entry to that party conference and I think what the IBA really hated was that Sinn Féin was portrayed as a political party having a political debate and that wasn’t how Sinn Féin was perceived at all by the British. Sinn Féin was perceived as thugs with balaclavas pulled down over their heads, carrying guns and throwing bombs and the respectability of a political party was an anathema and IBA banned that film and it was never shown. And there was another that I did which was called The Propaganda War and basically argued that the British were losing the propaganda war to the IRA and I remember that we had several days of fierce argument with the IBA, which required changes to the programme and in the end we refused to make the changes to the programme so they banned the programme. But there are other programmes that I made in Northern Ireland that did go out and nobody else in World in Action particularly wanted to do programmes about Northern Ireland because I think people just found the whole situation so utterly un-English, so inexplicable that it wasn’t a field which attracted programme makers. That surprised me because it certainly attracted me so that was one strand of films that I did. ……
Am I right in remembering that you almost got blown up in Northern Ireland?
There were two occasions. One when I was staying at the Europa Hotel and my bedroom happened to be right next to one of the loos on the third floor and in the middle of that morning a large hole was blown through the wall by a bomb that had been placed by the IRA in the Europa Hotel. The glass windows came shattering down onto our crew car outside. None of us were hurt but that was a fairly unpleasant experience. Possibly a worse experience was simply being in the middle of a terrifying riot and battle between the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and the IRA group, a Catholic Republican group in Londonderry and it is something that I had dreams about, nightmares about for quite a long time afterwards. Standing in the middle of the main square in Londonderry and this vast mob bearing down on us on one side and the Police bearing down in the middle and you think this is not really where I want to be! I wasn’t hurt and both groups clashed right by the side of us and you got a fantastic film of that but it felt a very dangerous place to be. One of the problems I had was never really explaining back home exactly what I was doing and exactly where I was but the trouble is Anthea would then see the film a little bit later and sort of think, well, where were you?! Where were you?! “Oh, I was alright! I was OK! No problem!” And it is remarkable that very, very few of us, very, very few of us ever got hurt in those situations.