David Liddiment on working in drama-docs

Then I got a big break because David Boulton phoned me up one day out of the blue and said, “David Plowright has asked me and Leslie Woodhead to set up a drama documentary unit to develop some of the skills and things that Leslie in particular has been doing on World in Action – and he wants us to do more of this stuff, it’s exciting stuff, but to do that, we need to put some real focus into it. And we’re setting up a little unit, it’s going to be me, Leslie and a researcher – and we’d like me to be the researcher.” So he invited me to interview, I’d not met him before, and he offered me the job.

So the three people were you, Leslie Woodhead and who else?

David Bolton. And Angela Murgatroyd went on to be a PA, and she was the secretary in the office. And we were on the sixth floor, and this is me, I’d done promotions for 18 months, I had been a researcher for six on This Is Your Right, and I got offered one of the plumb researcher jobs at Granada with Leslie Woodhead – iconic, you know, hero figure for any aspiring director or producer.

That was a fantastic stroke of luck, wasn’t it?

Yes! it was a… I mean, I…

Why did you get the call? Did you know them?

No, I didn’t know them at all. I’d met Leslie in the canteen once, that’s all. I think Joyce tipped them off. She obviously saw something in me and wanted to encourage me – that’s what I think happened. I don’t know that, because it was out of the blue, and I remember Richard Belfield fancied that job like crazy. He was in current affairs, and he was even in World in Action by then… it was the job researchers wanted, and he made it clear that it was crazy that they hired me, but hire me they did.

For that position, you would have thought that a World in Action type would have been better place.

I think you raise a very, I think, pertinent and telling point about Granada Television and its culture. Granada really were not big on specialism; they were big on people, and they backed people. And if they liked the cut of your jib, if they thought you’d got something to say, if they thought you were a bit of a pain in the arse, even, but you had an interesting perspective, they’d say, “Come on board! We’re going to have some fun.” And when you read Denis Forman’s Persona Granada book, it’s very clear that Granada were not obsessed with departments and structures and specialised expertise, they were interested in interesting people making interesting programmes, and I think it was that – and I’m not saying this about myself – I believe that Joyce, and then later Mike Scott thought that I had some contribution to make and were keen to encourage me to develop in the way that I did, and I think they thought, presumably, that six months to a year of working with them were going to knock me into shape.

I’m sure that’s absolutely right. I mean, previously you had only done This Is Your Right as a researcher, so somebody was looking at you and thought, “We like the way he is and let’s try this out.”

Jeremy Fox asked me, once I became a researcher, and I think I was on This Is Your Right, if I could do The Krypton Factor, and exciting new quiz, and I turned him down to work with Leslie and David. And out of that unit came three films, which were… the one I worked on was Collision Course, which was the story of what was at the time the world’s words mid-air collision, and the story was really about how the air traffic controllers were the scapegoat for basically a crap air traffic control system over communist Yugoslavia. And that was scary stuff for me, to do some serious researching. It was Yugoslavia, it wasn’t Russia, but it was a bit behind the Iron Curtain, and it was talking to people who were seen as troublemakers, these air traffic controllers.

You went there?

Oh, yes – I went to Zagreb and I met all the controllers who were at home in their flats, but they were on house arrest, they weren’t allowed to work. I went several times, and I remember having quite an emotional conversation with Leslie Woodhead in a hotel in Zagreb about, if you like, the moral ambiguity of our role here, with, in a sense, these innocent men with families, and we’re about to make a film about them which would to some degree glorify them and be critical of the state, in a country where the state is omnipotent, and what damage that could cause to those people, what peripheral damage there could be. So it was a very powerful experience to have early in your television career.

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