Interviewed by Judith Jones, 23 April 2015.
So I wanted to start, David, by asking you how you came to be employed at Granada Television because that wasn’t your first job?
No, it was 1979 and I was 38 and I was Assistant Editor of the Liverpool Echo which was at that time probably the biggest regional evening newspaper and I was getting a little restive. I’d spent 20 years in local newspapers, local journalism, and I felt it was time for a move but I wasn’t quite sure what to do and I’d been on holiday and I came back and found lying on the doormat, a letter, from a headhunting company called Tysacs in London. It had been there for 10 days. What the letter said interested me greatly! It said that their client was intending to open a television studio in Liverpool and they wished to appoint a General Manager and would I care to advise them? Now the phrase ‘would I care to advise them’ is head-hunter speak for ‘Are you interested in the job?’ And I thought, ‘Hmm, yes!’ So I rang them up and said, “Look, I’ve been on holiday (panic, panic!)…” ”No panic. Don’t worry. Come down and see us.’ So I went down to see them and we had what seemed to be a mutually interesting conversation and as I stepped out onto the pavement of their posh offices in Mayfair, I saw, running towards me, Rod Hull and his infamous emu and I stood back to let him rush past and turned to see him heading away from me and found myself staring down the lens of a television camera and I thought, ‘Here is an omen!’ And it took 6 months for the appointment to go through because Granada became preoccupied with the Autumn of Industrial Disputes. It was a bad year for Granada and its labour relations but eventually after being interviewed by virtually everyone in the company it seemed to me, I was appointed and I took up my post in February 1980. That’s how it came about!
So what was Granada’s vision or rationale for opening a Liverpool office?
At the time the long-standing antipathy between Liverpool and Manchester focussed – even more greatly than usual – on the lack of a television station in Liverpool while Manchester had the TV centre in Quay Street in all its glory and different organisations began to form. One of them was led by a Professor of Transport from the Polytechnic, Professor Lewis Leslie and he was very vociferous in saying that Liverpool should have its own television station and indeed he garnered quite a large amount of support from the business community particularly but also from the politicians so I have no doubt that that had a bearing on what Granada were going to do, even though they wrapped the story up in totally different clothes! They were never going to admit that but I’m certain it was part of their decision to open a place in Liverpool. I also said to David Plowright when I joined the company and got to know him a little better that there was never a sense of complacency in Granada but there was perhaps a sense that they were invincible. And being from Liverpool, I was aware that as well as Professor Lewis Leslie (who I didn’t see as a threat), there was a chap called Phil Redmond who’d been writing television scripts for quite some time but was beginning to make mildly bellicose noises about challenging Granada and Plowright smiled and I said, “Look, David, while you are speeding along in the fast lane, keep an eye on your rear-view mirror because someone younger and faster is coming up behind you!” That was the sort of context in which the studio opened in Liverpool and the fact that it did open was largely welcomed although it never never totally quietened the voices of those who complained. It wasn’t enough as far as some of the business community, some of the politicians and other protestors were concerned.
So were you starting from scratch in that did you first of all find the premises?
Well, I was starting from scratch in several regards because when I went to Tysacs for my initial discussion, one of the first remarks I made to them was “You are looking to appoint a General Manager to a television station and I know nothing about television!” And they said, ‘You are just the sort of person our client is looking for’, which gave me an idea of the nature of Granada and its approach to life – it’s always something different. The premises had been found in what turned out to be the most unsuitable location. The studio centre was in Exchange Flags, which is a set of very fine office buildings set on a piazza, the other side of which is completed by Liverpool Town Hall and the centre of which is dominated by what I think (and I should know) is the Nelson Memorial. It’s a very fine public square and not the sort of place where you should put television producers who make a lot of noise. The tenants who worked in Exchange Flags (Derby House one side and Sefton House, the other) tended to be the professional classes – lawyers, accountants, insurers, marine underwriters – that class of person and in the lease that we had and they had was a clause that said that ‘we all had a right to the quiet enjoyment of our tenancy’! Well that didn’t last very long once we got Mike Short and other producers in there! The studio was on the ground floor. We had a Green Room on the ground floor, offices (editorial and management) and a canteen on the first floor and in the basement we had the loos and other things of that nature and Chris Carr, my management colleague, and I pretty well started from scratch. Once the building had been secured by Granada Property we were told to get on with it. All the techie stuff was done by the techie people in Manchester (of course!) but we did the rest and Chris and I, who was a Deputy General Manager, would often remark once we got into full flight in the operation of the centre – “it was really good before we let the people in!” Only kidding!
So how did you find the people? Presumably a certain percentage were people who were already working at Granada or were they all newly recruited?
No, the studio crew – I mean it was a fixed studio with fixed, when I say fixed cameras, they were cameras, big lumbering things which gave us no outside capacity so any mobile news requirements were handled from Manchester. So the studio crew across all the disciplines were appointed by a Board, headed by the particular head of sound, film, whatever it may be but Chris and/or I always sat on those boards so we could have a look at the people who were coming forward and hopefully make an informed appointment. Or help make an informed appointment. For all the other posts which were administrative, security, janitorial, canteen, anything else that you can think of, Chris and I made those appointments.
Was it important to you that the people you appointed came from Liverpool or was that a factor in…
It was quite a strong factor although we didn’t (if I can think of the right word), we didn’t have a bias or prejudice in favour of. We simply looked at the candidates and if it was ‘well, it’s either this one or that one, they really are both rather good’ then I will admit that the postcode lottery came into play but there was no positive discrimination. That’s the word I was looking for, the phrase, there was no positive discrimination, we appointed the best people – and we got the best people! They were a marvellous team!
So when did the station launch? When was its first programme and what was that?
June 1980, it took few months to get all the bits and pieces put together and have a few dry runs. I remember Roger Blyth presenting the first news programme from Liverpool which was very exciting and it was made rather, even more interesting because the shot of the Presenter looked out across the studio and into Exchange Flags with the Town Hall majestically in the distance. Only on this occasion between the window of the studio and the majestic Town Hall was Professor Lewis Leslie holding up a placard suggesting it was all a put-up job! So I was vastly amused and let him get on with it but suggested to Shorty that maybe we got a slightly different camera shot, which he had already done anyway! Shorty was Mike Short, the Producer, by the way. So there was a touch of humour in that exciting first broadcast.
So at that stage you were doing news inputs?
We were doing news inputs. Granada Reports was edited by Rod Caird in Manchester and anchored by, I think, Bob Smithies, and Tony (Anthony) H. Wilson and Greavsey, Bob Greaves and various other very experienced folk. Roger Blyth who worked as a journalist, a freelance journalist on Merseyside for many years, fell naturally into the role of being a TV presenter. He was extremely good and was our anchor at our end but quite soon I formed the view, with my colleagues, that we were being wasted and I went to Plowright and I went to Sir Denis Forman, the chairman, and said, “We’ve got a studio, we’ve got a crew, we’ve got the enthusiasm – we’re bored! We’re bored stiff!” We do our insert into a half-hour evening programme and, as I recollect, there may have been a short lunchtime programme, we did a squirt into that; the rest of the time the lads and lasses sat around chatting or whatever. It was not good and it reinforced to me what had been said by Professor Lewis Leslie and others that really this was a bit of a sop! So fair play, Denis and David Plowright and Mike Scott said something must be done and we looked around for other opportunities and from that came an afternoon programme called Exchange Flags. Exchange Flags was one of the first chat shows, I suppose, in early 1980s and we had, Shelley Rohde presented it and Susan (I’ll get to it in the moment).
Was it Susan Brooks?
Sue Brooks. Susan Brooks did a cookery segment and there was a small studio audience and we had virtually anyone who was in town, either passing through, appearing in the local theatres, whatever, we would grab them and put them on the show so we had such diverse characters on one show as Diana Dors and Norman Tebbit, which is a bit of fun. Of course we had to have a band as well and once you get a band playing, there goes your ‘quiet enjoyment’! And the poor people who worked in Dunlop’s, just through the dividing doors of the studio going into the rest of the building, the poor people from a company called Dunlop’s – the rubber people – would bang on the doors howling in anguish but they weren’t heard because of the noise that the band was making! And I would see how long this would go on before I had a telephone call from the agent on behalf of the owners. And they would say, ‘David, you really do have to turn it down a bit!’ And I said, “Right, I’ll go down to the studio now and tell them to stop.” So I would have a cup of coffee then I would wander around the newsroom for a bit and go and have a chat to a few folk and then when I heard the music stop I would go downstairs and say to Shorty “Naughty boy!” and he’d say, ‘OK, boss, I won’t do it again!’ which of course he did the next day! So we had a love-hate relationship with our fellow tenants but we sought to get round that by using our Green Room to have very good parties and the tenants became well accustomed to hobnobbing with the likes of Norman Tebbit and others because after the show was over we would say, “Come round for drinkies. Love it!” And by in large it kept them in their box! That was part of my job. Part of what I did.
That was a help, having another programme to do because it split the day up a bit but Rod Caird then had the idea of putting into Liverpool a little programme called After All That – This and it went out on a Friday evening, late and it was produced/directed by David Kemp. David Kemp (who was known to like a drink, as we all did) and they appointed as the Presenter a very smart piece of work, a young woman called Ainsley Gotto and Ainsley Gotto was an Australian entrepreneur and she achieved fame in the late 1960s when she became close to the Prime Minister (I’d better get this right, I don’t want to malign anybody, do we?) Let me read this:
In 1968 Ainsley Gotto was subject to a controversy when the Prime Minister, John Gorton, appointed her Private Secretary. In February ’69, Gorton appointed Dudley Erwin as Minister for Air in a reshuffle and subsequently appointed Gotto as Principal Private Secretary and came to rely on her for political advice. In November ’69, Erwin was left out of the second Administration and Erwin explained his dismissal, saying ‘It wiggles, it’s shapely and its name is Ainsley Gotto’. And Gotto came to the UK and having been National President of the Australian Chapter of Women’s Chiefs of Enterprises International and she was Chief of Staff in Parliament House as well so quite a character! And how she to Britain and how she came to do that show, I don’t know but it was quite a dynamic 10 minutes every Friday night, late on and it was recorded in Liverpool studio and David Kemp, for some reason, would then take the tape back to Manchester in his car. This is always a somewhat precarious arrangement because after the show had been shot early evening, we’d all repair to the pub and as the evening went on we’d anxiously say, “Have you seen the time, David?” ‘Yes, no problem at all!’ he’d say and eventually he would leave and we’d sit there and watch the telly in the pub because the bar had a telly in the pub just for us – no one else watched it – saying, “Christ! Has he got there?!” And eventually, five to eleven or whatever it was the programme would come on so we’d all have another beer!
As we moved on, a bit later in the 1980s, the idea of This Morning was formed. I’m not sure who can claim that it was their idea. I think it probably came about through discussions amongst the gang of programme-makers. I think Short, Michael Short, had a large part in thinking of this. He had a large part in thinking of many ideas that became excellent programmes but I never thought that Mike Short got the credit he merited and deserved but that’s the way of life. Others who were smarter, politicians in the company-way, seemed to get the credit but This Morning brought Richard and Judy together and, of course, the show became a great success and actually the building block of the morning schedule for ITV and continued to be so. Richard and Judy had worked together in the Granada Newsroom of course but the first time they actually worked together on screen was on a programme that originated from ideas developed in Liverpool after the inner-city disturbances, as I think we have to call them, or the ‘riots’ as they were more properly known in those days. After the terrible events in, I think, 1982 when first of all, amazingly, riots kicked off in Bristol St. Pauls. ‘Bristol’, I thought, ‘that can’t be right!’ but it was and very quickly spread to Moss Side, Manchester, parts of Birmingham and indeed to Toxteth in Liverpool.
Several things happened around that story. One was that because we were a studio set-up, we had no cameras to take out so a news team was sent from Manchester for the riots but John Toka and Mike Short went out into the streets with the crew and they were short-crewed but it was what we could get together in the circumstances, which were extraordinary because in Upper Parliament Street a Gentleman’s Club, known as the Racquet Club because it stood there for a hundred years, was burnt down which indicated the great anger of the population of the people of that part of Liverpool. And as an aside I will say that (let me find it, where’s the bit of paper when you need it?) it was a day of great ignominy, I thought, for Granada that the wonderful footage that the Manchester crew got together with the reporting of John Toka and Shorty and so on was never seen. (If you give me a moment I’ll find what I am looking for. It’s a little cutting from The Times. I would like to be able to read the cutting if I could because it says it all in a way. Ah ha, here it is!) So we resume. It was, I think, probably one of the darkest days for Granada journalists and news managers. I’ll read what The Times Diary had to say:
‘The weekend riots in Toxteth in Liverpool was arguably the biggest local story in Granada’s catchment area since commercial television started. But what were viewers of its local news programme, Granada Reports, offered on Monday evening? A half-hour Flintstones cartoon! The reason for the lack of coverage was indeed stone-age farce. A crew was sent to Liverpool to shoot a half-hour Special. Unfortunately someone overlooked an agreement with the Film Technicians’ Union, the ACTT, which forbids local news crews to shoot more than 800 feet of film, roughly 7 minutes on screen, without the aid of a bigger unit. The crew got the programme together only for the ACTT, which in this instance might stand for the Association of Cretinous and Triassic Technicians to show its fossilised attitude by pulling the switch. The next idea was to mount a studio discussion but then the Neanderthal Union for the Preservation of the Jurassic, the NUJ, said that if the ACTT were not going to play ball, they wouldn’t play either and there would be no programme at all about the riots. Not really so different from the average Flintstones plot.’
Just to go back to some of the programmes you talked about, one of the programmes I think that I remember that Mike Short did was involving children and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about that!
I will. Can I just, I’d sort of sidelined myself. What I just read from The Times Diary was an aside which moved me greatly. Flying Start was the notion of David Plowright. What happened after the riots is that Michael Heseltine came to Liverpool. He’d been appointed by Margaret Thatcher as Minister for Merseyside and I have to say he did an extraordinarily good job and that was a view shared by politicians of all complexions. Heseltine came and met in the little lounge that I had attached to my office Denis Forman, the Chairman, David Plowright, the Managing Director, Lady Margaret Simey, who was chair of the Merseyside Police Committee, and myself and what was put to Granada was that as well as neutrally reporting the news, Granada could use its considerable power and influence in the region to do something positive to help in the regeneration and recovery of the region. And the same message came when in our small Green Room we held a dinner a few nights later for leading business people and politicians who really wanted to have the same discussion with us. Amongst those attending as a host, David Plowright of course but a man whose name I now forget. The other principal hosts were David and myself. One of our non-executive directors who was the regional director of NatWest Bank so he was batting on our side. The conversation became quite heated and cries of ‘something must be done’ could be heard and Plowright took his cigar out of his mouth and put it down, took another swig of brandy and said ‘This is what we are doing. In 2 months time we’re going to launch Britain’s first Business Enterprise Competition for Small Companies (for small and medium-sized enterprises) and it will be called Flying Start. It will have the largest prize on British television, £25,000. Highet is going to raise a prize fund of £125,000 and NatWest Bank will be making a contribution of £50,000 in addition, which will be matched by Granada Television’. And there was a ripple of applause and moist eyes and slapping of backs and more brandy and cigars all round. When they left I said to David, “When did you think of that?” ‘Just now!’ And I said, “So, I have to raise the best part of £200,000, of which you will only give me £25,000 and NatWest will give me £25,000?” And he said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ I said, “Who’s going to run it?” ‘Jim Walker’s going to be the Producer.’ I said, “Does he know?” ‘No, not yet!’ So Jim Walker was appointed, marvellous producer, and he went off working on the programme format. We brought in people from NatWest and others to be the judges and they helped him form the way which we would approach recruiting the candidates and making sure that we got good ‘uns rather than wrong ‘uns and the first programme was recorded on a boat in Preston Dock. I said to Jim Walker, “For God’s Sake, Jim, what are we doing?!” ‘No, it’s great!’ We sat on barrels for some reason and the presenters were Richard and Judy and that was, I think, their first run out as a presenting couple and they did very well and I think that, in turn, led on to them appearing as the presenters for This Morning and onward and onward! End of that part of the story.
I might jump around a bit as questions come into my head. What I think has come through from other interviews to do with Granada was the importance of a kind of family atmosphere and I think I’d be interested to know in how you went about creating a community within Liverpool and how important the social side was?
I felt I had no especial need to foster a family feeling because the good people we had there were already doing it themselves. The way in which people got on with each other was a great pleasure to see. It may have been something to do, unwittingly, with our recruitment process because as well as looking at technical ability we looked at the kind of people that we were getting. And I think Chris and I, Chris Carr and I, my fellow manager, were of a common mind with the sort of folk we would feel comfortable working with and dealing with. People with spirit, creativity, individuality, a sense of humour – all qualities which one could admire in folk and all qualities that, by in large, we found that we had in the people in Liverpool. That is not to say that we didn’t have our rows. We had enormous rows from time to time which will happen in any family but as in any family you get over it and you get on with it. So the family feeling of Granada Liverpool did not have to be fostered, it just developed on its own and it remains today, 35 years later, that when we meet we still have that feeling.
And I think an important element of that was probably the canteen?
Yes, the canteen, run by lovely Helen, supported by lovely Joan, was a great focal point. The people who came to run the canteen had to understand that what was offered was conditioned by Union management agreement, bizarrely. Because I remember being approached one time by Graham Atkinson, a very nice fellow indeed but he loved his food and his drink and Gillian Halifax, Gill, who was my PA and a great supporter in Liverpool said to me one day, ‘Graham is here to see you.’ I said, “Fine, show him in.” Graham came in and said, ‘It’s about the canteen.’ I said, “What’s wrong, Graham?” He said, ‘I had lunch there.’ “Fine.” ‘I only had 11 peas on my plate!’ I said, “Fuck off, Graham!” And he did. But the canteen was a great centre for socialising, many a romance, I think, was found to bud there amongst the boys and girls – they were all at it I think! I, as manager was above it all, of course. They were a good team even though they were outside contractors. They never felt like outsiders, we never made them feel outside, they were part of our family.
So, from what you said, your role as a General Manager was quite varied?
It was. When I saw Mike Scott he said, ‘Why are you joining Granada as a General Manager? You should be applying, as a journalist, to be a producer or a researcher. You should be banging on my door!’ And he also said, ‘In Granada there are two distinct silos, one is management and one is programme-making and management do not interfere or get involved in programme-making.’ And that was spelt out very clearly. However, Mike Short, the resident Producer, Editor as I saw him, in Liverpool and I happened to get on extremely well and Mike knew I’d been a journalist for all of my career and was content to listen to my views and sometimes ready to come and seek my views on programme ideas and so on and particularly on news stories and particularly on people who we may approach in the Merseyside and the west of our region, which increasingly we were coming to have responsibility for, I was the contact man for Granada in Liverpool and the west and that became another very interesting part of my role – the contact with the academic, local authorities, politicians of all kinds, business and so on. Chris Carr, my colleague in Management, came from a Television and Arts background. He’d been Director of the Bluecoat’s Art Centre in Merseyside before he joined Granada with me so he had a terrifically good link with the Arts community of the north-west so between us we were able to help our programme colleagues but without crossing that bridge that we had been forbidden to put a foot on.
Mike Short had an idea which became the bane of my life and I think it was to do with under-11s football. Granada was to sponsor this and I was to be the Administrator of it. Why on earth I agreed I have no idea! Anyway this went ahead and was, it turned out, a considerable success but I said to Mike, “Never again! I’m not doing that kind of thing again!” But before I knew it, Mike was back in my office, puffing on a fag, beaming wildly saying, ‘I’ve got a good idea, Dave!’ “Fine.” ‘You know that room in the basement?’ “Yes.” ‘I want to turn it into a studio!’ “Fine, Michael. Are we going to tell anyone?!” ‘No! We’ll do it!’ “Fine! What exactly are we going to do down there?” ‘We’re going to set up a playgroup!’ “Are we?!” ‘Yes!’ “What will the programme be called?” ‘Under-5s.’ And so it came to pass. And eventually we did go and tell Scotty that we had an idea for a programme and he loved it. What we did in this big room in the basement was put a false wall in behind which cameras and sound and lighting was concealed and every day 20 or 30 screaming toddlers came into the bloody office! They had to go to the canteen of course to have their juice, then they had to go to the loo (which meant none of us could ever get in there), then they go into this playgroup that had been set up with proper trained playgroup leaders and a number of psychiatrists and psychologists that Mike had recruited, who hid behind the false wall, peering through eyeholes (bizarre as it sounds) observing on the behaviour and interaction of these kids! It was brilliant! Absolutely marvellous! It ran for about, I don’t know, 6 months or so and then we had to pull the plug on it because we were all getting too tired and sick of the sight of kids. But that was another Mike Short Special! That’s the man for you.
I think there was a sense in Liverpool that we were an outpost and that you could do things that you wouldn’t necessarily do within the mainstream.
And there were two which I don’t know if you share my memories of and if you don’t it doesn’t matter but one was when we got a sheep into the studio to do…I don’t know if you can remember…
And a donkey we had as well. Several things happened which would never have happened at the TV centre in Quay Street in Manchester. One I remember was when Shorty brought a flock of sheep (or a number of sheep) in. I can’t remember the nature of the story he was running but it caused no end of problems for me but I wasn’t concerned about my problems, I was concerned about Shorty getting his programme out. He also brought a donkey into the studio for a nativity insert into the evening news programme and it was a real “Ahhh!” moment because a little child sitting on top of the donkey, holding a plastic baby, and another child was leading the donkey and the 2 little kiddiewinkies sang some carols – it was a very lovely moment – and then the donkey crapped on the floor! Fortunately we had come to the commercial break and the stagehands refused to move the crap, saying it wasn’t in their contract! So I went down with one of the cleaning ladies whose name I can’t remember but she was a marvellous woman. She used to go and clean the gents and sometimes would surprise me (there was nothing between us, I should point out!) so I took this lovely cleaning lady into the studio. ‘I’m sorry, cleaning the studio is the stagehands’ job.’ I said, “Well, clean the crap up then.” ”No, no.’ So I got a shovel and shoved it to one side. The donkey had been led out and the little kiddiewinkies and the choir and the studio was being reset for an interview conducted by John Toka, I think. The table was moved into place with chairs each side and he was interviewing Derek Hatton who was then deputy leader of Liverpool Council and a very controversial character. And Derek was wheeled in from the Green Room ready for the resumption of the programme, sat down, Toka the other side, the interview began. I was watching on the monitor in my office and what I noticed was that first of all Toka surreptitiously looked at his shoe then Derek Hatton moved very slowly in his chair, crossed his legs so that he could afford himself a view of the sole of his shoe and then they looked at each other accusingly! It was one of the most hilarious moments I’ve seen and sadly it was probably never preserved for posterity!
The big one though, for Shorty and for me, I’d been out for lunch because part of my job was to do lunch. I did a lot of lunches with people, spreading the word and so on. And about 4 o’ clock, which is normally the time I returned from lunch, I turned the corner into Exchange Flags and stopped because it appeared that a North American Native Indian encampment had set itself up on the Flags outside my studio! They were dancing round a fire, whooping and banging tom-toms! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, several chaps on horses galloped in re-enacting Custard’s last stand!! I was transfixed. I just stood there watching it and then I saw the landlord’s representative (well, 2 of them actually) running towards the studio so I did what only a sensible manager would do – I turned on my heel and walked away to the nearest pub and had a few drinks, only returning to the studio at 6 o’ clock when all was peaceful so that’s what Shorty did to me!
That’s a wonderful story which I’d not heard before but another one I recall was a woman who came into the studio to try and eat as many kippers as she could!
No, I don’t remember that one!
Yeah, I remember that one.
Ahh, such good times! Such wonderful times from the darkest moments to…
You’ve eluded a little bit to the strength of the Unions and I wondered if that was something that fell into your role as General Manager – that you not only had to deal with perhaps Union problems but also personnel problems.
Yes, there was a full time Industrial Relations Manager in Liverpool. His name was Ian Ritchie and Ian and I joined Granada on the same day and we were given a shared desk in the Personnel Department, run by Bob Connolley at the time. Ian was a barrister who wanted to get into television and labour relations, I was a journalist doing what I’ve described to you already and we became firm pals. In fact we would lighten our day sometimes by singing the chicken song, which was a popular ditty at the time, maybe from Monty Python – ‘Wave your chicken in the air’ – and for authenticity we each purchased a rubber chicken so we got on awfully well and eventually he became the head of Industrial Relations, succeeding a very nice chap called, I should say Ian Wooldridge but, it doesn’t matter really. I would handle day-to-day issues to do with labour relations, like when Graham came to say that he’d only got 11 peas on his plate. When things got more serious like the Sparks were going to pull the breakers and things like that, I would obviously call for help from Manchester and Ian or one of his very good colleagues would come down and seek to negotiate a settlement so there was that aspect of it. I’d already seen some action on that type of front, working in the newspaper industry as an Executive. The newspaper industry also had very strong Unions and it was probably Margaret Thatcher who began to undermine the strength, even the grip, that the Unions had on both newspapers and television. As an aside I would say that what helped Margaret Thatcher was that a man from Warrington called Eddie Shah introduced computerisation into his newspaper and the relevance of that to television is that during the 1980s we, too, moved in that direction and it was a revolution in the way that television was made.
You’ve talked a little bit about your dealings with Denis Forman and with David Plowright and I wondered what were your impressions – did you meet the Bernsteins and what was your contact with that level of senior management?
It increased as time went on as I changed jobs within the company.
Because you became…?
I became Head of Public Affairs for the company in Manchester. I’d say that Sidney Bernstein, Denis Forman and David Plowright were three of the most charismatic, impressive, creative, commanding, engaging people I’ve ever met and ever worked for. They became mentors and heroes for me, particularly David with whom I worked very closely when he became Chairman and I became his sidekick as Head of Public Affairs. What can I tell you about them? Sidney Bernstein I didn’t meet often but he came to Liverpool not long after we opened because he wanted to inspect this new outpost of his empire and he came into my office and sat down and had a cup of tea and after his cup of tea he said, ‘By the way, Mr Highet…’ “Yes, Lord Bernstein?” He said ‘Call me Sidney,’ which was most strange that the Chairman of the Group asked me to call him “Sidney” but he called me ‘Mr Highet’! And he said, ‘Mr Highet, where’s your Barnum?’ And I thought this was sophisticated London-code for the loo so I led the elderly gentleman down two flights of stairs to the basement (as we didn’t have a lift) and with some sense of pride I flung open the door to reveal the gleaming porcelain and the crisp, white towels hanging from the dispenser, everything looking perfect and Sidney harrumphed, turned on his heel and walked back up to reception and said, ‘Good day to you, Mr Highet’ and I said, “Good day, Lord Bernstein.” ‘Sidney!’ he said. His chauffeur took him and off he went. The next morning when I came into the office there was a brown paper parcel on my desk. On opening it I found a letter, handwritten by Lord Bernstein. ‘Dear Mr Highet, thank you for your hospitality yesterday. I enclose an image of Phineas T. Barnum, the great American showman. It is my wish that this image hangs in every office in Granada so that as you sit in your business suit behind your big desk, you never forget that the business we are in is show business.’ And so I received, from Lord Bernstein, this rather frightening view, visog, of Phineas T. Barnum. And indeed it did hang in my office for all the years I was with Granada. That was Sidney Bernstein. A little illuminating moment about him.
Denis, what a marvellous man. He was a – I’m coming over like a lovie, now, aren’t I?! Isn’t it terrible! But it happens to be true! They were all so bloody marvellous! Denis, he was a war hero. He was in the battle of Monte Casino and suffered a grievous injury when his leg was shot off by a following group of Australian machine gunists. He was repatriated to the UK where eventually he became Director of the British Film Institute and I think in that way he came to know Sidney Bernstein and Cecil Bernstein and the Bernsteins came to know and understand his great qualities and strengths. So in due time he joined Granada and became its Chairman at the time I joined the company and I’ve got a note from him here, 1991, addressed to myself and other colleagues. ‘I am delighted to hear that you are coming to the Hypotheticals…’ The Hypotheticals were a wonderful Granada, not invention. Granada had filched the idea from Harvard Business School and the idea is that you would put maybe 20 people around a horseshoe-shaped table and these would be people selected because they had views on issues of great importance but those views did not accord and you could have a good row but more, you could have a very deep, intellectual probing discussion that might get you to the root of what they thought, what their opponents thought and where solutions might lie. This particular Hypothetical was to do with Government and Industry. So, a number of us were there to be Granada hosts. Denis’s memo reads: ‘I am delighted to hear that you are coming to the Hypotheticals. This is to inform you that you are officially designated a Granada Host. This means that you must not stand in corners drinking with your friends but ensure that our distinguished guests are hosted whenever hosting is required. In particular it means, please, that you have responsibility for good order, military discipline and hilarity of the people on your table at dinner. Stand by for further duties at 6pm on Saturday at the Walker Art Gallery. Also further briefing and instruction from time to time. From your good friend, Denis.’ Fantastic, isn’t it?! That’s another indication of the type of person that I was working for. Lord Bernstein and…
I could tell you another story about Denis Forman. He telephoned me one day and his PA, Cathy, said to me, ‘I have the Chairman on the phone for you.’ I said, “Thank you.” ‘David!’ I said, “Yes, Sir Denis?” ‘Denis,’ he said because he didn’t like titles. ‘Do you know County Councillor blank?’ I said, “Oh yes, I know County Councillor blank.” ‘Well I saw him this morning at a meeting of the Liverpool Empire Theatre Trust and he said to me, ‘I believe you’ve appointed Highet as your General Manager in Liverpool?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ and County Councillor blank said, ‘He won’t last 6 months.” I said, “I can assure you, Sir Denis…” ‘Denis!’ I said, “I can assure you, Denis, that I have every intention of lasting for longer than 6 months!” ‘ I know you will, boy, I know! This is what I want you to do. Will you ring the County Councillor and recount this story to him?’ “Well yes, if you want me to.” ‘And when you have recounted the story to him, will you end the conversation by telling him that Sir Denis Forman has asked him to Fuck Off!’ I said, “Are you sure? He’s quite an influential person!” ‘I don’t care, David, I want you to ring and tell him. I’m putting the phone down now. I will sit and wait for your call back within 5 minutes. Thank you.’ Bang. Well, I was perplexed rather because County Councillor was an important person in the life of Merseyside but I was also aggrieved that he should have said this so I rang him. ‘David!’ he said, ‘How good to hear from you! Delighted to hear of your appointment! I know you will do awfully well!’ I said, “Well, County Councillor, I have just had a call from Sir Denis Forman.” ‘Lovely chap! I saw him this morning at Liverpool Empire Theatre Trust.’ “Yes, I know you did. He told me the following story. He said that you had noted that I’d been appointed General Manager and that I wouldn’t last 6 months.” And there was a sort of strangled cry from the other end of the phone “And Sir Denis has also asked me to tell you to Fuck Off! And by the way, John, here’s one from me – Fuck Off! Good day!” Bang. So I rang back Sir Denis. ‘Have you done it?!’ “Yes, Sir Denis.” ‘Denis!’ “Yes, Denis!” ‘Good boy!’ Bang. Put the phone down. Now, can you not have but loyalty for people like that who will support a new, untried middle manager to the extent that he did! Marvellous!
OK. So you (I’m trying to think of the chronology of this), you left Liverpool and I don’t know what year that was and then you went to be a Director of Public Affairs?
Yes, well one thing that you might want to think about discussing – or for me to remark on – is what Granada’s lasting legacy was in Liverpool and later in Manchester which brings me to the decision to open a News Centre at the Albert Dock in Liverpool. The Albert Dock had been derelict for many years and the only idea that had come up was that it would become the new Polytechnic. The buildings would be converted to become Liverpool Polytechnic and the Albert Dock would be filled in as a car park. After the inner-city riots, Plowright’s mind was buzzing away on several levels as to what we might do in Liverpool but also what we might do in television to begin to harness the new technology that was being seen in use in America, notably with Ted Turner at CNN. He called me one day and said, ‘Meet me at the Albert Dock.’ I said, “Of course, David.” It was blowing a gale, the rain was coming off the Mersey horizontally in stair rods, awful day! And David led me to the Dock Traffic Master’s Office (a wonderful old building with palladium columns and so on) but the roof had fallen in, there was no security, we just clambered through a gap in the wall, walked across the rubble, avoided treading on dead pigeons and Plowright, with a wave of the hand said, ‘This is going to be the most advanced television station in the world!’ I said, “Will it?!” ‘Yes! It’s going to be the Headquarters of Granada Television News.’ “Good!”, I said. ‘And you’re going to run it!’ I said, “Even better!” And that was the start of a great adventure that led to indeed, the Dock Traffic Office becoming, with the technology that we put in, lightweight cameras, computerisation and so on, for one, gleaming, shining moment the most advanced television station in the world! It attracted people from all over the world to see it and Shorty, God bless him, was the Editor and I was General Manager and we had a marvellous time.
I moved from that when David Plowright became Chairman, I think it was 1986. I’d become very ill in the middle of 1986, which is unlike me because I don’t do illness and I managed to get back in time for the Christmas party – we always had a huge Christmas party and so on – and a big Christmas tree was put up in the Central Hall of the Dock Traffic Office, which was 2 storeys high (the hall, not the tree!). The tree was a big one and I said to Paul Rooney, who was our Head of something, very nice man. I said, “Could you put a ladder up the back of the Christmas tree, please, Paul?” He said, ‘Certainly, David.’ It wasn’t in his job description but he did it and went and put this ladder up at the back of the Christmas tree which enabled me to climb up almost to the top of the Christmas tree and my head emerged and I was able to address the throng, who were all well refreshed by this stage, and tell them that I had raised myself from my bed of sickness to come and address them and wish them a very happy Christmas on behalf of the Management and it was a great laugh! It was great fun! And Plowright was there and Plowright said, ‘Come into the Board Room for a drink.’ so I went into the Board Room for a drink with him and he said, ‘Are you still ill?’ and I said, “Yes.” and he said [silence whilst David composes himself] ‘Any medical help that you want from anywhere in the world, you’ll get it.’ So that shows you the kind of person he was! He also said, ‘Denis Forman’s retiring and I’m to be the Chairman of Granada Television!’ And I said, “Good. Congratulations, David!” And he said, ‘And I want you to come and be my sidekick.’ And I said, “Is that a job description?” He said, ‘No, Norman Frisby’s retiring.’ He was the legendry Head of Press and PR, absolutely legendary! Great, great act! Not an act I wanted to follow directly. So I said, “Yes, I would love to come and work for you.” He said, ‘Well, come and work as Head of Public Affairs.’ I said, “Yes, I’ll’ do that because I couldn’t follow a legend like Norman so what I’ll do, I’ll appoint a Chief Press Officer to work alongside me.” So it was a slight cop out but it worked very well.
And I went to work with David and he was a great inspiration as you will gather and a good pal and my role was to work the North-West of England. To make sure that Granada could open the door into any University, any business, any local authority – whatever it might be, if David wanted to go there and see someone, I would be the fixer. It wasn’t as difficult as it sounded because the name Granada would open many doors anyway but there were some doors that were rather firmly shut to Granada and those were the ones that I sought to open. So the role became extremely interesting. We carried on with Flying Start. In addition Plowright and Mike Scott devised various ideas for telethons, ideas which had come over from America and I know Richard and Judy did a 24-hour telethon and we raised immense amounts of money for North-West charities so there were good times in Manchester during the 1980s, perhaps seen by old people looking back as a golden age. But I think even now folk recognise it was a golden age because it produced Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, World in Action was going full tilt, Sherlock Holmes and so on and so on as well as all the light entertainment programmes that were coming out.
Things began to change towards the end of the 1980s. It’s a question of ethos and I think I would just like to quote from Ray Fitzwalter’s book – The Dream that Died, the Rise and Fall of ITV – and there’s a quote here quoting Bob Phillis, who was the Chief Executive of Carlton Television. And he said ‘Every organisation has to have a heart, a culture, a sense of values, an organisation needs championing, a standard bearer. Granada had a very distinctive ethos which passed from Sidney Bernstein to Denis Forman to David Plowright. Now it is gone.’ And he made that comment in the late 1980s, probably early ’90s at a time when Sidney Bernstein had died, Denis had gone from the company. Alex Bernstein was the Group chairman. He’d brought in from Compass Catering two Executives – Geoffrey Robinson and Charles Allan – and they came from a very keen business background with no idea at all about television but the Group directed their attention to the television company and particularly through Charles Allan they began to change practice, institute cuts in finance, seek economies whereas in the past the company was dedicated to protecting budget to enable programmes to be made. Anything else could go but programme excellence had to be maintained. And all of a sudden Plowright, as Chairman of Granada Television, found that programme budgets were being cut and he went to Granada Group and he was a member of the Group Board and he said, ‘This must not continue. We have to preserve the integrity and excellence of our programme-making. It’s either you do that or I go.’ And they said, ‘Thank you, David, you go’. An infamous decision which caused huge outrage and resulted in John Cleese writing to Geoffrey Robinson: ‘Dear Mr Robinson, Fuck Off! Yours sincerely, John Cleese.’ It had no effect apart from getting in the newspapers and causing some amusement but there was real grief and a sense of loss that David had gone. Without permission the programme-makers gave him a very good party in Stage One where the wine flowed, champagne flowed and “Bet” Lynch, bless her I can’t remember the actress’s name, “Bet” Lynch was lowered from the ceiling in a trapeze, wearing a skimpy costume and gave David a big kiss and a hug (one of the many surprises that night for David) so Granada did change. And although Granada is still a company I regard with great respect and I think its programme-making and programme-makers are of the highest order, I think the ethos changed and I think today’s programme-makers probably find it harder than those who were practitioners in that golden era of the 1980s.
That’s terrific! When did you actually leave then?
I left Granada Television a year before David left, David Plowright left because I’d had a telephone call from another head-hunter and that was to ask whether I could advise on the appointment of a Director of Corporate Communications for a privatised Utility Company. I roared with laughter! The very thought of leaving Granada seemed absolutely nonsensical but then I thought, nothing lost in going to have a conversation. I went and had that conversation and the role, the opportunity that I would have there and candidly, the money they were going to pay, was attractive and the thing that moved me from Granada was the fact that my boss in London, who was the Director of Public Affairs, Don Harker, was retiring and they were about to appoint a 35-year old city whizz kid and I just felt that I didn’t want to work for a 35-year old city whizz kid, however nice he might be. Even though my direct report would be to David Plowright, I knew that I would be operationally directed by a 35-year old city whizz kid so the opportunity arose at a propitious time and a year later when David Plowright was ousted, inevitably I would have been ousted as well.