Interviewed by Stephen Kelly , 12 May 2020
So let’s start about how you came to join Granada.
Well, for so many of these answers, it’s important to remember it was a long time ago. My first day of work was September 12, 1977, which was so different in every imaginable way, especially for young people. I mean, we’re talking here in 2020 and the landscape in 1977 for a young person was unrecognisable compared to how it is today. So any modern listener listening to this is going to think this was completely weird, but I was interested in the theatre. I just loved entertainment. I loved the idea of putting on a show, that collaboration, that sort of intense relationship with other creative people. I’d always been exhilarated by that. So, I knew there was no question in my mind, I wanted to work in the field of entertainment.
Theatre seemed, to me, to be, although it was my first love really, my brief exposure to it was so insecure, so badly paid, that you couldn’t really see calling it a career. It was much more of a vocation, I suppose. Whereas it seemed to me, television was an infrastructure that required backstage people like me. That there was a legitimate, organic career for me in television, so I wanted to apply.
I was a student and at that point, Granada was like many other corporations where, for some reason, they had decided they would only employ graduates for whatever role, practically. And again, talking to some people now, it’s impossible to remember. I mean, I was a fairly poor student in terms of being lazy and having fun and doing other things. So, I was not a serious academic and I graduated with a 2.2, same as practically everybody. But so few people went to university back then. Demographically, I think it was only about 15% of the population. Heavily white, heavily middle-class. And given the very narrow tip of that pyramid, even an undistinguished student like me was absolutely utterly guaranteed a job. And that’s something that people these days, won’t understand, but it was absolutely true. It was virtually impossible not to get a job, and back then people would do MAs and PhDs and stuff purely just to postpone getting a job, postpone the inevitable. So there was never any insecurity. Basically, you graduated and you picked your job.
And I remember in that July of 1977, I graduated. Hadn’t done anything about it at all. I was watching Wimbledon. It was the year Virginia Wade won. And I remember watching her win her semi-final, on a black and white rented television and thinking, “Oh god, I suppose I better get a job.” So I looked around. We had a two-day-old copy of The Guardian. Monday’s Guardian, I think, was the Media Guardian. So there was the jobs in the back and one of the jobs was for a trainee assistant transmission controller at Granada Television. And I really didn’t obviously know the specifics of the job, but there was something about it that just communicated to me that this is a job I could do. This is a job I would enjoy and thrive in. Because it sounded, without giving away any details really, it sounded like an operational job that was heavily about crisis management, when things are going wrong. And I figured I could do that. So, I went to the interview, and honestly, this is not so much about me, but just about the times really. I just thought, “Obviously they’re going to offer me this job,” and they did.
And so, I started in September 1977, which was, looking back on it a really interesting time for Britain as a whole, and for television, and for Granada in particular, because when I got there, 1977 was approaching the end of the post-war consensus. We were heading for Thatcher in the spring of 1979, about a year and a half later. The whole country was changing, in the sense that Granada’s reputation had been this colossus of particularly documentary. I mean, I was aware of Coronation Street obviously, but apart from that, not particularly aware of Granada drama at that point, but very much aware of World in Action and the documentary strand, the documentary ethos really, that is embodied. And I think in any history of television or British culture, you got to say that World in Action, in that first 15 years, was a huge thing, a brave thing, a lot of the time. So, I was very happy to be associated with the company.
I thought it was a great company, but I was aware that there was this sort of slight shtick they had about the regions talking truth to London. And it always struck me that that was on the way out when I joined. I was very aware of joining something that was changing, moving away from the past. That Manchester talking truth to London thing, was starting… it was very 50s and it dissipated in the 60s. And it was on the way out in the 70s. The idea that Britain was so regionally divided, but it was still very true actually in Manchester in the late 70s. It was remarkably Victorian. It was really still a 19th century city. And the people I met were, without slagging off Mancunians in particular, because everybody was the same, my granny in Yorkshire was the same, everybody was the same. It was… they were intensely regional, intensely nervous about anything else. I mean, I would talk to Mancunians in the late 70s and they would regard a trip to London with the same kind of trepidation and theatre almost that I would regard a trip to Moscow, somewhere very far away, very alien, and where you were likely to screw up and do something wrong and get in trouble. Manchester was way behind the times.
And one of the huge enjoyments for me was, in the time that I was working in Manchester, the city just accelerated like a hundred years into the future almost on a day-to-day basis. It was quite amazing. I mean, in 1977, as I recall, you couldn’t buy a bottle of wine in Manchester and that may be at Yates’s Wine Lodge. If you are an alcoholic, you’d get some syrupy stuff from them, but in terms of what you would call cosmopolitan sophistication, it just wasn’t happening, originally. But it really accelerated. And really one of the most exhilarating progressions that I’ve ever seen in the city with all kinds of random facts is chipping in. But when I left in 1995, Manchester was unrecognisable. Completely different in 18 years.
You ought to see it now.
Yes. Well, I go back occasionally on book tours and yes, it’s amazing. Economists say count the number of cranes on the horizon to judge the economic progress, and there’s always a lot of stuff going on.
Yes. Yes. Okay. So, you had the interview. Was there anything about the interview? Was it a fairly ordinary interview or did you have a board with half a dozen people interviewing?
Yes, it was a formal board with Bob Connell. His name was, what they call the head of personnel back then. And the guy that would be my manager, David Black, head of presentation. Joe Rigby, head of programme planning, who had been head of presentation previously and had a finger in that pie. So it was a fairly formal examination, but I figured that I could spot the questions coming. But the one question that I really remember was, do I have any objection to joining a union? Because it was a closed shop, and that would be required. I was a little surprised at that question because I thought, “What, other people would object to joining a union?” And then the other thing I remember at the end, and this was something that… just a sort of naivety of youth, I suppose, at the end they said, “Is there anything you would like to ask us?” And I said, “No, I think I’m good.” And they said, “Don’t you want to know what you’re going get paid?” And I’ve just assumed it would be a salary like anything else. I said, “Yes, okay. How much will I get paid?” And they told me. I thought, “Fuck, yes, I really want this job!” Because it was a very profitable business. It was a very effective union by then. And the workers got their fair share. And I would start low on a trainee salary, but then you would get annual increments and this and that and promotions and so on. And I remember thinking, “I could earn £100 a week here!” And to me, back then, that was it. A hundred pounds a week was everything that you could ever dream of. And the established guys, the senior guys that I immediately met, who, because they were short staffed, which is why me and another guy were getting recruited, they we’re working a lot of overtime and they were making a fortune. I mean, just by what had been my standards, I just thought it was an amazing summer. At that point I thought, “This could be very cool. It’s a job that I would like to do, in an interesting environment. And I get paid a fortune. What’s not to like?”
So tell me what the job entailed as an assistant transmission controller.
Well, again, that’s rooted in the past, the old system. I mean, don’t forget obviously this was way before any kind of computerisation or automation. It was way before any kind of technological assistance. I mean, there were still typing pools. Telex was the new thing that people were depending on for emergency contacts and so on.
The structure of ITV back then was, any one day of the week, because London had two companies – Thames during the week and London Weekend from Friday night through Sunday night – there were 15 companies in total, therefore, but 14 on the air at any one time, of which five were majors and 10 were minor companies. And the majors had a certain amount of sway, but the minors had a voice. And so you had to assemble your day’s transmission from your own stuff, the network contributions, commercials, trailers, promotions, all kinds of things. And that was the job of the transmission control team. There were two of them, a controller and assistant. It was a sort of editorial, operational type of job where whatever the viewer at home was watching on the screen, we were putting it there at the correct time and the correct sequence with no errors and no gaps, hopefully.
And the most routine aspect of the job was making sure the commercials were transmitted correctly, because obviously that’s where the revenue came from, so that was super important. And you had to make sure it was the right commercial, in the right commercial break, for its intended duration. If somebody paid for a 30-second slot, they were not happy if they were cut off at 28 seconds or whatever. So it was a question of patching together the day’s transmission. It had to be correct, it had to look seamless on the air, but it was like a swan. It looked good on the screen, but we were paddling like crazy below the surface to keep it all going. Some days were fairly routine. I once worked out that there were 15,000 critical pieces of information in a day’s transmission schedule. They all had to be correct. It was intensive work, but some days ran okay. But when we really made our money was in the panics and the crises, which were constant in those early days. I would say the first five, even say seven or eight years, were technologically very unsophisticated. There were constant breakdowns of equipment, either locally in Manchester or elsewhere on the network, that had to be covered.
There were news emergencies that had to be catered to, and those were decided by us, basically on a regional basis. A typical example would be, for instance, late at night, say 10:30 at night, 11 o’clock or something like that, there would be a news flash offered by ITN about, let’s say, an IRA atrocity in Northern Ireland. And typically, you would find Southern Television, Anglia, somebody like that would not be interested, not particularly germane to their demographic. Whereas Granada, obviously with Liverpool in particular, and Manchester had a huge Irish contingent and a lot of Irish interests. And so we would naturally want to use that newsflash because our audience needed to know it. So, at 10 or 11 at night, we’d be quickly cobbling together a news bulletin or something like that. It wasn’t done by ITN because it wasn’t being taken by the network as a whole. We would do it for our viewers.
The apogee of all of that was probably spring of 1982 with the Falklands War, which is sort of one bookend to the whole process. Really, the Falklands War was two or three months of crazy, chaotic, seat-of-the-pants transmission, where the schedule was perpetually disrupted and we had constant news flashes and stuff like that. And in the control room where – it was what you can imagine as a control room, 30 or so television screens, huge mixing desk, and about, I think there were nine telephones on the desk and they would ring all day long during that period, I mean, all nine phone ringing constantly. And I do remember one night, waking up in the night, in a cold sweat with phones ringing in my head. That was the closest I ever got to stress in that job. But then, nine years later there was the first Gulf War in 1991. And that was the other bookend, that was completely pre-packaged. It was ITN, basically packaging CNN coverage in a way that was like an entertainment product. It was just delivered to us. We had nothing to do with it. And so that really was an illustration of how the job became less forensic, less chaotic, more organised, more network based, more organised by somebody else. And so the particular thrill and excitement in our job tailed off. The things that we were good at were less and less required. And we became a much more… it became very routine. When things work well, there’s no interest in it. And I’d left by the time Princess Diana died, for instance, and well before 9/11 happened, for instance, but shamefully, I do remember on both of those occasions thinking, “Damn, I wish I was still working at Granada,” because those would have been just amazing days that we had, it was a tragic thing, but we had more professional satisfaction when things were truly horrible elsewhere. It was just exhilarating doing the news like that.
Yes. I suppose in a way, for that sort of current affairs, there’s dramatic moments where what really got our adrenaline going and made it worthwhile.
Yes, absolutely. It was a job where you sort of sadly hoped that something bad would happen that day, because that’s… because of the structure, big events were few and far between. I remember I started out as a trainee assistant, as we said. And when I finished my training, I was an assistant, and then I got promoted to transmission controller when one of the existing TCs left. And not long afterwards, my first big deal was Charles and Diana’s wedding, which I suppose looking back, you regard it as rather as a silly thing to cover in that… with that kind of passion and intensity. But, at the time, we were totally aware of the viewers wanting to see this ceremony. And I remember being super on-edge because I was quite new in the transmission controller job and the stakes were very high. You know, if we screwed this up, the viewer would never forgive ITV. And we nearly did screw it up. I mean, there was a… by this point, we had a sort of crude satellite situation at Granada where we could pick up satellite feeds. And I remember preparing for that programme, saying to the engineers in the room next to me, “Make sure I have the BBC feed, if I need it.” And they say, “Well, you can’t do that!” I couldn’t… and I said, “Look. Just do it. Put it on. Get it on a satellite. Put it on an input and I’ll take responsibility,” because I wanted every backup I could get. And, absolutely, we did. We’d lost about 15 or 20 seconds of coverage. ITV’s outside broadcast truck just went dead for about 20 seconds. And I used the BBC’s feed, and I don’t think anybody ever noticed that. BBC certainly didn’t know it at the time. I never told anybody. I didn’t want to have the argument, but I just used the BBC to cover the gap. It was that important, that kind of thinking, you know?
Before I got promoted, while I was still an assistant, albeit experienced by a couple of years, I remember a bank holiday Monday, which was a lovely feeling in transmission, actually. There was a skeleton staff in the station, and bank holidays, Christmas Day, and all that kind of stuff were a lovely feeling at work. So, it’s a bank holiday Monday. Snooker final was on the BBC, which we were sort of watching from the Crucible. And my controller went out for a long, boozy lunch, probably four hours, which was a perfectly fine, routine stuff on a bank holiday. No problem. So, I stayed there on my own. And we were showing Coronation Street and ITN called on the red phone in a panic because the SAS were about to storm the embassy, you know, for that embassy siege. And they wanted to break into Coronation Street for the coverage. And I was there on my own. The controller was in the pub. I thought, “What am I going to do?” If you disrupt the sequence of Coronation Street that is for the rest of history. You’re going to have to be playing catch-up. So, I said “No. As soon as the end credits stop, I will come to you, but I’m not cutting into the programming.” And so they reluctantly accepted that. So, as soon as the story finished, and as soon as those trumpets started up for the theme tune at the end of Coronation Street, I had the announcer quickly introduce ITN and off we went. And at that exact moment, the SAS stormed the embassy. And I figured out afterwards they were watching the television off-air. They wanted to be live on television. Because there was no way that they could have timed it that way without watching it. So, as soon as we cut to the scene, the action started and it lasted about 35 minutes, I believe. In the trivial Guinness Book of Records type of thing, I believe it’s the longest newsflash in UK television history. And so I did all of that and then we got back on schedule with the rest of the programmes and then the TC came back from the pub and said, “Everything all right?” I said, “Yes. I’m not doing too bad.”
Would you have had any kind of inquiry from on top after that? Would Plowright have wanted to know what had happened?
Yes. Every shift, we completed a log. It was called the log, and any mistakes, errors, or departures from the schedule, we would explain in writing. And so, generally speaking, the explanation was just read and accepted. Only in a tiny minority of cases would there be a post-mortem, which was partly Plowright and that generation of management, they stuck to what they said in as much as in order to stop too many cooks spoiling the broth. The formal situation was that the transmission controller had absolute authority on that day. Plowright and everybody could plan and dream about tomorrow and such, and the future, but on the day, it was like the transmission controller was the captain of the ship, and the admiral could butt out. And so, having said that, having set that up as their system, they couldn’t really complain about it afterwards, unless there was an egregious error.
I only really remember one unpleasantness, which is when… in due course, we’d started doing a lunchtime news bulletin that was a formal thing that was… it was a sort of thing that would normally be done in Studio 2 by the Granada Reports crew or something like that. But because it was only like a five-minute bulletin at lunchtime, it wasn’t worth scheduling anybody else to do it. So, that was a sort of extra job that got piled on transmission control because we were there all the time anyway. And so, we started doing this five-minute lunchtime bulletin, scripted by journalists and supervised by journalists, but we were, effectively, the production studio for it. And one night, we had one of these news emergencies about the IRA, actually, by coincidence. And I put together like a three-minute news report on it, using that lunchtime bumpers, you know, the intro and the outro, and making it look like an official Granada news bulletin. And I was hauled on the carpet for that for stepping on the news department’s toes. And I said, “Fine. You stay at work until 1am and you can do it. Be my guest. But if you want to go home at six, then you’ve got to leave it to us.” And it was all settled amicably. But that was more about a turf dispute rather than an error.
Yes, yes. But I remember the ledger, and I remember this always being warned we must never go to black. If the screen goes to black, there’s trouble. I think only once that I worked in a programme that went to black and there was a big inquest.
Yes, going to black. I mean, there were two minor errors. One was putting a BTR clock on the air. One was putting colour bars on the air. But going to black, yes. That was the thing because that mystifies the viewer. The viewer doesn’t know what’s going on because is the TV broken? But they just don’t know what’s going on. So that was the thing to avoid. I only saw it happen once, really, where… which was pretty late on in my career… where we got a new machine for the commercials, which was not digital. It was still tape, but it was this massively automated thing where it was a bit like, you know, where you put your shilling in and get a Snickers bar out of the selection. It was like this immense library of takes that would automatically load for the commercials. I can’t remember what it’s called now. I know it was made by Sony, but it was the first of the real new generation things that we had. And we were worried because there was no backup for it. It was a system that had no backup. And the management said, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be all right. It’s very reliable.” And, of course, one commercial break, it wasn’t. It just failed completely. And with no backup, we had three minutes, 40 seconds of black, instead of a commercial break.
Oh, that’s a long black, that.
Yes, that felt like a year.
Yes. It would, yes. So, you must have worked really long hours?
Yes, we did. I mean, we worked… if we were properly staffed five and five – you know, five pairs of people – if we were properly staffed, it was a relatively okay, sort of around about a 37-hour week, and antisocial hours of course, but not too bad. And we had, what they called notional weekends, so that your weekend might be Tuesday and Wednesday, or something like that. And if it was running normally for the staff, it was delightful because you worked at a variety of times and days during the week and therefore, you’re at home for the variety. You know, when my daughter was little, I would take her to school. I was the only father that ever showed up at school with a kid and all that kind of thing. It was a really nice mixture. But the problem was that, most of the time, we were not fully staffed. Most of the time, we were short staffed for one reason or another. And therefore working endless overtime, that… you know, I was young, I was energetic, and I was into the job. I didn’t particularly mind it, but it was crippling, really, to any kind of family or social life. I mean, I remember when my wife was pregnant, I worked 60 consecutive days, and then I had a day off, and then I worked 30 consecutive days. So, 90 days out of 91. And that was typical for long periods of that job. It became a strange thing.
We saw more of the person sitting next to us than we saw of our families. It was a strange thing. And it was, frankly, enjoyable in a lot of ways when you felt wanted and needed and crucial. It felt good. It felt like… and again, total naivety on my part. You know, I’m from a generation that subconsciously expected to get a job and work there the rest of your life, unless you wanted to change. But the typical expectation you would be there all your life. And so, I thought… everybody thought… we were showing commitment, we were showing loyalty. It would be in some way reciprocated, which it was in minor ways, early on. I mean, they were never very generous about the pay disputes and so on. But in a sense, again, that was a very 1950s formalised situation. It was, in and of itself, an adversarial situation and we treated it adversarially. But, in terms of the non-financial type of recognition, we were valued, we were well-treated.
The old days were great at Granada, especially because, as I said earlier, Granada had been this brave documentary producer. But I sensed when I got there that they were getting a little weary of that, a little scared of it. The British Steel episode, which I’m certain the archive covers extensively, have been… you know, that was looking at it at this remove… you know, it’s just a little piece of history, but at the time it was truly scary. It was before I got there, but it was a truly scary thing. You know, the weight of government against you, and the Bernsteins that could have been personally bankrupted. It was super high stakes, super brave. But when I got there, there was the slight sense that they were getting tired and a little scared of the exposure. And so, what they were going to do was concentrate on drama.
So, when I got there, they had just made Hard Times by Charles Dickens, with Patrick Allen as Gradgrind. And that was the first of a magnificent run of drama production. It was as if they were pivoting towards drama. The Patrick Allen thing gave us a nightmare because back then there was a rule that you could not use a commercial if one of the actors from the surrounding programme was doing the voiceover. And, Patrick Allen, with that dark brown voice of his, he did practically all the commercials. And so, there was always tremendous artist clashes with the commercials during that show. I remember that very well.
And the production assistants always had to check, didn’t they, that any… that there was no clash with any of the commercials, in terms of what the programme was about or who was in it.
Yes. The production assistant wouldn’t know what commercials were scheduled. The programme was made and then the commercials are sold by the sales force, and so it was our department’s job to check for those clashes. And the assistant in the morning would preview commercials for the day because, back then, there were no commercials in the morning. It opened up and went straight to schools’ or kids’ programming for about two and a half hours. And so, during that time with no commercials to actually run, we would check ahead the commercials booked for the rest of the day against the TV Times. I mean, we would have the copy of the TV Times with the cast list, and we would be expected to recognise the voice on the commercial and check the cast list. So, yes. I mean, there were a lot of regulatory things like that, including things that shaded outside of regulation much more toward a sense of taste, which we had to look at as well. You know, in the evening news, let’s say News at 10, if the first half – and we had no idea what was coming up on News at 10 – later, they would give us a bare-bones outline of what they were planning to cover, but early on, we had no idea of what was coming up. And so, let’s say in the first half of News at 10, there was a report on famine from Ethiopia or something like that, we would then look ahead, and if there was a Fray Bentos meat pie commercial in the centre break, we would have to think about the taste aspect. Is it tasteful to show glorious, succulent food. You know how food is photographed in commercials. Is it tasteful to show that directly after a report of starving people? And so, we would take out that commercial just as a… on our own initiative. And, in a way, Fray Bentos themselves would have thanked us for that because it would have created a slightly negative image, subliminally, possibly, for Fray Bentos, and so on. So, there were hundreds and hundreds of intricate regulations like that. And we were expected to deal with it, get it right. And if we got it wrong, we were asked questions about it.
Yes. So, you’ve progressed from being the trainee, becoming assistant, and then transmission controller.
Yes, when I was about 26, which was very young. It was like 10 years younger than anybody who had been before. But it was made for me, that job. The old style of that job, the first half of it, that, I was made for that. I could deal with accuracy, I could deal with routine, but I could also deal with very fast coping with chaos and crisis. So, yes, for a period of a few years, that was the perfect job for me, yes.
But being the very creative person that you are, did you ever want to become a director or researcher?
Yes, I never really thought about it, to be honest. And I never really had that ambition. I was very satisfied doing what I was doing and kind of getting the creativity second-hand from other people, from my friends who would be… because presentation, the central control room where we worked, was literally central, you know. This was where everything went onto the air, so that we would be in constant contact with all different kinds of people. And so, I knew the directors, I knew the researchers, and the writers, and the promotion people, and other really what you might call… it was as if to the left of me were the engineers with the nylon shirts and the pens in the pocket, and on the right of me were the airy-fairy, creative types. And I was right in the middle. And I loved the exposure to both sides, but I never really felt the lack of not doing their jobs.
So, do you want to talk about any of the people you worked with at the time?
Yes. Looking back on it, the abiding memories have few of them that were really… you know, like I said, I went to Granada knowing that it was somewhat of a cultural colossus in the British landscape. But there were very few people working there, especially vertically. I mean, like I said, I walked in there as a new trainee, and my boss was David Black, head of presentation. And his boss was Joyce Wooller, who had a seat on the board, reporting to the board chairman who I think, at that point, was Cecil Bernstein, maybe Sydney, maybe. Maybe David Plowright was effectively the top guy, but that… I walked in as a trainee assistant, and there were only two layers of people between me and the board: two individuals, David Black and Joyce Wooller, and then it was the board. And laterally as well. There weren’t that many people there. And so, you got to know everybody. I mean, I remember in ‘79 or ‘80, either before or after the strike. Again, I was an assistant. I was nobody at all. I was walking down the corridor and saw Mike Scott, who was director of programming and was, at that point, really up to his eyes with Brideshead Revisited. And, as an assistant transmission control, somehow, I felt and he felt it was appropriate to have a conversation in the corridor. And I said, “Hey, Mike. How’s Brideshead?” And he said, “Every frame a Rembrandt.” And, looking back on it, I thought, “How extraordinary is that conversation?”
But in the corporate world today, the span from the button to the top is so huge that you wouldn’t have that conversation. You wouldn’t expect it. But then? Yes! You know, it’s such a horrible cliché to say it was a big family and so on. And there was certainly a lot of bitterness about pay and conditions and so on, but it was fundamentally a family. It was the smallest number of people that… working on some great stuff, and well before it all went wrong, and well before all the layers and layers and layers of management that came in later. It was very spare, very pared down. And it felt that that enhanced the creativity. It felt people were really united, working towards a common goal. And it’s easy to over-romanticise that, but I would say, probably it’s true that everybody was valued and everybody was, therefore, committed.
And, in particular, when you compare that to the way television operates these days, where you have to go through a lengthy commissioning process, and you have to produce a pilot before the pilot even gets to stage one of being considered…
Yes. I mean, I suffer from that all the time now in this, in my current situation, where I’ve been involved with film and television as a content provider for 20 plus years, and actually, 99.99% of it is just endless bullshit talking, and very little ever happens. And it was, of course, exactly the opposite back then. Programmes were made as a right. And there was a worry that it… the network politics as a whole, there was worry that the minor companies would get squeezed out. And so, there was a formal process whereby a minor company could make a programme and designate it Category A, which meant that the rest of the network was obliged to carry it, whether they wanted to or not, whether they believed in it or liked it or not. They had to carry it. And that was a sort of… I liked that, to be honest. It was a very democratic process. And it also threw up the golden fleeces of entertainment, the thing you don’t predict, the thing you don’t expect. And, in a way, it really taught me that you can never predict in show business. You never know what’s going to work or not.
Because I do remember this scandal really; people talking about it in the most disparaging way, that it got screwed over category A, because Tyne Tees was forcing this awful show on them that they were going to have to run network peak time that would undoubtedly be a total disaster. And everybody was very miserable and very down on the category A process as a result. But that programme was Boys From the Blackstuff. No, sorry, what am I talking about? It was the north east one with Jimmy Nail and all of that. It was the one where unemployed workers from the north east have to go to Germany to get a job.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
That’s it, that was what it was. Which turned out to be a huge hit. Exactly the kind of upscale suburban viewers that Thames and Granada were worried about hating it, loved it. They clasped that show to their bosom. So that really taught me you never know, you can never predict what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. And I was very glad about category A because that forced that on the air that it would not have happened otherwise.
Yes. You got involved with the trade union; do you want to talk about ACTT and the shop committee?
Yes, like I say, so many things by coincidence from the beginning of my career to the end and were a progression. And those 18 years were really an arc for the union. It started out when I joined, it was absolutely all powerful. It was an old-fashioned traditional trade union, a fascinating thing actually, because fundamentally the structure and the tactics and the context in which it worked was entirely an old-fashioned 1950s trade union, except the people in it were much more of a kind of professional association type of person. It was a very difficult balance actually, because the members were obviously either very creative and intelligent or very engineering, intelligent, fundamentally middle-class people living middle-class lives, on a similar pay scale to any other professional that might be their neighbours. Back then a camera operator was earning the same as any solid middle-class person. It was a solid, middle-class job. But they were in the trade union. And so you have these sort of suburban, middle-class people, who would have been at home in like the BMA or some professional trade organisation or something, but they were in a mechanism that was fundamentally the same as British Leyland. But it was very effective, we were well-paid.
Of course, when I started in the late 70s, don’t forget that was a period of incredibly high inflation. And from Granada’s point of view, of course, inflation did not matter because they could adjust their rate cards day by day if they wanted to. In other words, their revenue could go up as much as they wanted, but our salaries were fixed apart from the annual pay negotiation. And that became very, very bitter because they had a kind of knee-jerk sort of reflex about being combative about it. Even though there was money sloshing around, the profits were very high, they were doing really well, they sort of played a role – they had to be the tough employer, we had to be the tough trade union. It was a bit theatrical to be honest, but it was played out in tremendous detail.
Of course, against the background of that high inflation, we were looking for double digit pay rises every year, sometimes 20 or more percent. I remember my first year I came as a trainee. I finished that training so, that was extra pay. Then I passed my one-year anniversary, that was extra pay. Then we got our annual settlement that year, and my pay went up 45 per cent in that one year. And then the next year we put in a pay claim for like 30 percent because of inflation. And it continued like that.
But a really serious formal situation, union versus management, and literally came to a head for me in a super personal way. As a metaphor, in 1979, the annual negotiations were going really badly and the ITN shop in London got into a particularly advanced situation and walked out. And so, the ITN content was going to be provided by non-union labour. And the first show that contained in the non-union labour was one particular day, the one o’clock news from ITN. And we knew this of course and ACTT’s position was to support NUJ and black the non-union content. And so at 1pm on that particular day, I was at the controls. And as the assistant sitting next to the controller and my fingers were on the fader. And on the one hand, on my left shoulder, I had Andrew Quinn ordering me to take the feed at the top of the hour. On my right shoulder, I had Malcolm Foster, the ACTT shop steward ordering me not to take the feed at the top of the hour. And my hand was on the fader, the clock ticked to the top of the hour and I went to black. I did not take it. I obeyed the union. And so Andrew Quinn said, “You’re fired, leave the building.” So technically I was fired from Granada twice, that was the first time. And at that point, 13:00 hours, I was fired, left the building and we were all locked out. We were all thrown out, all locked out. I mean, people say on strike, but technically it was a lockout.
It was a lockout, yes.
For 11 weeks in 1979. And somebody said to me recently, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, somebody said to me recently, that was the last strike that our union won because we did win it. We came back with a 25% pay rise, immediately full restitution of missed wages, a promise of another 25% the next year and all that kind of thing. So yes, the union situation was super formal, and the committee meetings were all run to Robert’s rules of order, super formal, proper minutes, all of that kind of thing. I was used to that culture from having grown up in Birmingham, but I did love the north west flavour on it. Like I say, it was the old days in Manchester back then. You would have people in brass bands, and you’ve got this very particular Mancunian slant on labour relations, which was subtly different than the Midlands, but fundamentally the same thing. So, I was totally at home with it.
And then I got involved, I was nominated to the union committee, and I became a deputy shop steward, and then eventually shop steward at the end. It was all powerful at the beginning. And then, over 18 years, it suffered such major assaults that it was the end of it. My last two and a half years as shop steward were fun in a way, we won, or I won constant little skirmishes and battles, while always being totally aware I was losing the war. It was a very odd feeling. But I don’t apologise for any of it. It was a very, very profitable and lucrative business, and it purported to have certain values, and those values, in my opinion, should have included a fair share for the workers. Generally speaking, that’s what we got. We got a fair share and we got treated well in the end. In the middle years, it worked like it should.
There were excesses; there were crazy excesses, and that was kind of the problem that you would have. There were many things that stick in my mind. For instance, making Brideshead Revisited for instance. That was a huge expensive show to make. And at one point there were crucial scenes on an ocean liner. So what they did was they… a lot of the interiors, for instance, the dining room, they did at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool with the stage manager, standing behind the camera, going like this to indicate the movement of the boat, and all the actors had to go in like that. But the shipboard scenes were done on the QE2 to New York and back. In other words, it was about nine days of location shooting. And the ETU, the electrician’s union, put in a hardship claim because they were going to be away from home on a ship for nine days. And so they were paid hardship money.
To a certain extent… and then, of course, there was around about… in the very early 80s I think there was a car ferry capsized in the English Channel, the Free Enterprise.
Yes. Free Enterprise. Yes.
Yes. And that was a major news story to cover. And of course it dragged on for several days in terms of the actual crisis coverage. And I remember the videotape editors working in London, were on call so much, they were getting just fantastic rates of overtime for it. We stuck out a bit like a sore thumb, and actually wrongly, they were working by the white book, they were claiming what they were owed. Some of them even forwent claiming some of it, because it was getting out of control, but still we ended up with a really bad reputation for it.
And then what happened was Channel 4 started, which was somewhat under the ITV umbrella, somewhat detached. It was the first of the real third party issues that came along because Channel 4 was not us directly, it was not under our direct control, but it was associated with us and we had to deal with it. And so we did, which doubled up on the overtime because now we had two channels to run. So we were working like crazy.
And in the bowels of the white book, which was the ACTT agreement, really, if you read that agreement objectively, you see it as it was about not being exploited in terms of excessive hours. Really that’s what that agreement was about. Getting adequate breaks, not too long shifts and so on. So there were lots of rules that were basically incentives to management to be efficient, in other words, do the job and get the crew out of there. That was what the white book was trying to ensure. And because with Channel 4 being a third party, not under our control, we were still being paid through the white book for something that the management could not control.
And I remember one particular thing… I mean, first of all, the basic rule for getting paid was if you worked into a new hour, even by a very short time, seconds, or minutes, you were paid for the whole hour. If you were working on a bank holiday, you were paid extra. If you were working overtime on a bank holiday, you were getting paid extra. And then there was this fantastic rule that I can remember, it was rule 10J that if you were working overtime on a bank holiday, and that over time was spontaneously extended, your rate of pay became some fantastic multiple.
And I can remember in the 1980s, I was doing an evening shift on the Channel 4 transmission that was completely outside Granada’s control, obviously the content was Channel 4’s, and the programme overran by about 15 seconds. And it took me into a new hour and because I was doing overtime already on a bank holiday, I got paid for that one hour at the end, under rule 10J. And I got £1,000 to that one hour, in the 1980s. So I would argue against that being an abuse, they signed up on it. They agreed, that was their rule. But it wasn’t a good look in the sense, especially not when Thatcher was around. And it was beginning to brew right there.
Thatcher came to television later than many other industries, obviously, but she got there in the end. And again, the flash point was a very… as I understand it, the story I heard was a very ironic and unfortunate flash point really, which was that there was an ITN interview with Thatcher at Downing Street. And back then the practice was that if you were going to film, do news, from a sensitive location like a hospital or somewhere like that, you would always send two electricians – one to do the regular work and one for emergency standby. Because if you were in a hospital and you blew something up and the ICU went down, that is not a good thing. So for a sensitive location, we would always have two electricians. And so, because Downing Street possibly was a sensitive location, they routinely sent two electricians. And Thatcher noticed the one standing around, doing nothing because nothing was going wrong, and she said “What’s he here for?” and so on. And anecdotally, according to people I’ve talked to that, that kind of set her off.
And, of course, then in the background, there was the Murdoch issue, which was, I think, transparent, and I think we’re seeing it again now with the launch of Times Radio coming hot on the heels of another attack on the BBC, that was happening with Murdoch in the 80s. Murdoch was preparing for Sky and satellite broadcasting of his own. He needed to damage the existing set-up. And so, it’s possible to see, in my opinion, politically that after the mid-80s, really everything that happened was about damaging ITV.
And the first sign of that was a completely unnecessary, arbitrary, stupid desire to do overnight broadcasting. In 1988, we started 24-hour broadcasts, which of course for our department, because we always had to be there, it was a major stress. Instead of closing down at one or two in the morning, we would have to cover 24 hours with the same number of people. And so we were in uproar about it. But the main point about night time broadcasting was there was no point in it. Nobody wanted it. The programmes were absolute junk, just filler. I mean, we would literally put Teletext on the air for an hour. It was called job finder. And we would just put the employment pages of Teletext on the air. And I remember it was worse than junk programming because there was no organic desire for it. It was purely a mechanism for shaking things up. And the thing of course it shook up most was the white book, because the white book was all about protecting people from excessive hours. And the protections against overnight work were draconian. And there was no way that ITV could do 24 hours with the white book. So it was really a question of, they wanted overnight broadcasting simply to attack the white book, not for any other reason. And it did, and that was the first nail in the coffin really. And then over the next five years, it just got worse and worse and worse, because then we got more and more third parties, because they introduced this mandate that you had to show a certain percentage of your production had to be done by independent contractors. So it was just one assault after the other. So eventually, it all fell apart in the sort of early to mid-90s.
I remember very vividly, it must’ve been about 1988 on the shop committee, we had the This Morning programme. And it was a programme which offered a lot of employment. It was going to be two or three hours a day, five days a week. I mean, that was a lot of television, and Malcolm Foster arguing, “We need to compromise on this. We want it, we need it.” And we allowed a lot of those rules to be broken. The overnight rule disappeared, because you would have been able to claim being in Liverpool. A lot of poor people had to get up at six o’clock in the morning and catch the bus from outside of Granada to go to Liverpool. And that seemed to me to be a bit of a watershed.
Yes, exactly. It was a programme of one initiative after another, and the devil of it was that you could look at it like This Morning, which was good for Liverpool. It was good for ITV. It was good for everybody that worked on it. So, you can’t completely condemn it, but you were always aware that somewhere deep in the DNA of those initiatives, was a destructive purpose.
Do you want to talk a little bit about when you left Granada, and your subsequent career and how you got involved in writing?
Yes. By about 1993, early in 1993, which is when the Gerry Robinson and Charles Allen takeover really happened, they were getting super serious and super vindictive about the struggle for control, really. It was the old world versus the new world. The old world, where I started, had this assumption that, “Yes, we’re all in this together, we’ll thrash it all out, we’ll come to some kind of equitable agreement.” The bosses didn’t earn outrageous sums, the workers earned decent salaries. It was all good. Then we moved into the new world, where it was really an emotional component to it, where the management and the owners just found it utterly impertinent that ordinary people should demand a say or have a say. And there was this slogan that they promulgated around that time, which was ‘it’s our train set and we’ll play with it how we want’. And so, it was really a declaration of war.
And Malcolm Foster had been ACTT steward for forever, really. He retired. And meanwhile, by that point, ACTT had merged and there was a new, larger, media union called BECTU, and Foster went, and the word was put around that if anybody applied for the steward’s position, that they would be fired within a week on some pretext. And the aim was clearly to have a leaderless union, that would be victory for them, they’ve destroyed the union. So they put about this threat that nobody should apply to be shop steward. Nobody should stand for that position. Otherwise, they’ll be fired. And I was utterly aware that it was going to be a costly move to make, but I just thought “I can’t tolerate that bullshit.” And I’m a Brummie, if you pick a fight with me, I’m going to beat you. It’s just an instinctive thing. If you challenge me, I’ll take it on. So I thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to apply.” So I put my name on the nomination list, the only name. And I saw some manager afterward, who I knew from being deputy steward, and he said, “You’ll be gone in a week.” And I said, “We’ll see about that.” And of course I was elected unopposed, and I was shop steward for two years and three months. It was like 120 weeks rather than just one.
And it really, it really went… me as shop steward went through two phases. At the beginning, I was formal about it in the sense that I was following what we had done in the past, and I was following what I considered to be a respect for acknowledgement of the rules of the game. And very quickly I discovered that this new management were not playing by any rules. They were literally lying and cheating. And in a way that was… it was a shock, you know. Maybe that seems naive now, but it really shocked me that they would get down and dirty like that. So I thought, “Right, if you want to see what down and dirty looks like, I’ll fucking show you.” And that was the most glorious part of me being steward, there was about a year and a half where I was running a completely underhanded war against them. I had a whole bunch of people, the cleaners, who were actually… who were by that point in our union. I got the cleaners, I organised them into SWAT teams, where as soon as management was out of the building in the evening, these women would search every office during their cleaning for anything that looked like a torn up memo in a wastebasket, I trained them to look under the lid of every photocopier, because it’s surprising how many times people leave the original in the photocopier by mistake. Then I developed that into I would have people steam open their mail. I got engineers to hack into their hard drives, which they realised after a while and they started to put locks on the keyboard. And so I had… you know, we were there all night, so I had these engineers unscrew the hard drive, take it home and copy it and then bring it back. So I knew everything. I knew what they were going to do before they did it. I had the drafts of their speeches. I had copies of their memos. Some of them are about me, which was hilarious, looking at somebody else’s secret opinion of yourself. And I had it down to a fine art. I thought, “If you want to fight in the gutter, then… you went to grammar school, I come from Birmingham, I’ll show you what the gutter is like.” And we, we did great for about a year and a half, just constantly stymied everything they wanted to do. Like I say, won every battle.
You don’t mind this going public?!
There was one initiative where they wanted to start charging people to pay to park at work.
Ah, yes, I remember that.
Which was, I just thought, ludicrous in the circumstances. Shift work and so on and bad public transport. So we got a company-wide our position to that. I said, “I don’t care whether you’re one of my members or not. If you’re somebody else’s member or if you are temporary or whatever, join the campaign.” And we absolutely obliterated that. So we had a lot of successes in the short term, all the while aware that we were on this downward slope where it would inevitably end in disaster, which it did, eventually.
I mean, as a separate thing… I remember hearing at the time, doctors complaining that men never admit to feeling stressed or worried or anything like that. And I wanted to go on holiday, and I couldn’t get the leave because somebody else had it. And so I went to the doctor and I said, “Now I know that men are very reluctant to talk about their personal problems, but I’m terribly stressed.” So she signed me off for a week and I went to Spain on holiday. And when I got back from Spain, there was a message on my answering machine, like the third message. And it said, “You’re terminated. Your swipe card no longer works. Do not come back in.” And that was the end of it. And it left me… if you go back to how I felt at the beginning about the family feeling at Granada and the old fashioned generational thing where you expect to work one job all your life, and you’d expect to provide loyalty and receive loyalty, none of that had come true. And so I do remember saying to myself when I left, and it’s a line that made it into my first book, it says, “I’ve tried it their way. Now I’m going to try it my way.” And I do remember that as a watershed, I was never going to work for a company again, I was never going to have a boss. I was never going to be in that corporate situation again. I was going to work for myself, partly because I had to. That final stint as shop steward meant I was blacklisted effectively in the new ITV environment, which was fine because I didn’t want to work in it anyway. I thought it was just a miserable, downward spiral. So I knew I was going to do something for myself. And I thought I’ll give this a try. And my honest expectations at the beginning were it might work for a couple of years before I had to get another job, but happily, it kept onward.
Had you done any writing before the first book?
No, I’ve never done any at all. And I think that people are surprised by that, but that’s the wrong thing to be described about, because if you put the whole history of writing in a computer and ask it to figure it out, it would say that the people that make it have two characteristics. It’s always a second phase career. You’ve always done something first that involved an audience. And you’ve got to understand that what you already know is no use to you, except in the very barest of bones. In other words, you’re there to serve an audience. And I think that’s what did me more good than anything from Granada is that none of the specific techniques were transferable because television is very different than reading. But the idea that it’s not about you, and I’m sure everybody that contributes to this learned the same lesson. It’s not about you. It’s about the audience. First, second, and third. And so that’s really what I took with me on the basis of, “I’ve tried it their way now I’ve tried it my way.”
And in terms of writing that first book, did you have a plot? Did you have the book worked out?
I should have said also that it shouldn’t surprise people that I’ve never written anything before, because most writers… I mean, a lot of writers, sure, from seven years old, they’ve got like exercise books and they’ll draw little compositions in or whatever. But fundamentally you don’t do anything. What you do is read. You read for the first half of your life, which I’d certainly done. And then you become a writer based on what you’ve read. And I used to get bizarre interviews in TV, where if we were trying to recruit a new assistant or something, the TCs would rotate that duty. And we would be on the interview panel. And you would say to people “What do you watch?” And a few people said would say, “Oh, I don’t watch television.” And you would think, “What the fuck? Why are you here?” And it’s the same thing with writing that if you haven’t read continuously and obsessively all your life, you’ll never be a writer. So the preparation is always about the reading. So I was ready to start when I was.
So, I didn’t really have the book worked out at all, but I had one image in mind, which was previously, I bought a book about money laundering. And I’d only bought it because the jacket design was lovely, it had a regular jacket and there was a real dollar bill laminated into the book jacket. And I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” So I bought the book and it was about money laundering, basically to do with the illegal narcotics trade in the US, and economically the figures were staggering. That so much money is spent on illegal narcotics in the US that actually that sector of the market is worth twice the amount of cash in circulation. And because generally speaking drug deals are always cash, it meant that the dealers had this enormous industrial problem, which is the amount of cash. And they worked it all out, and they were processing 4,000 tonnes of cash every year, which was a huge industrial operation. Literally physically trucking it to the Caribbean, where it was banked in dodgy banks. And then it shows up as credits on Wall Street or whatever. But at its heart it was this industrial operation, trucking truckloads of dollar bills. And so that was the image I had in mind, like a warehouse full of money. And that was the key image in the book. And it was just the question of working towards it somehow.
And did you sell the idea to an agent, to the publishers? Or did you just write it and then submit it?
Yes, that’s the only way to do it. Non-fiction, you can often sell on a proposal, depending on who you are. But fiction you can’t, you’ve got to have the completed book. Because completing it is a huge thing. I mean, you could show three quarters of a book that was really good and still nobody would buy it because there’s no proof you can finish it in a satisfactory way. So with fiction, you got to write it first, then you sell it. So I wrote it, I sent it to an agent who took me on, and then he sold it to the publishers.
And did you plot the whole thing? I’m interested in this as somebody who writes myself. Do you plot it or do you just dive in?
Yes, fundamentally, I’m what they call the seat-of-the-pants type of writer. A pantser, not a plotter. Because I think it’s more spontaneous that way, rather than writing to a straightjacket that you designed last year. It produces better flow. It produces more genuine surprise. If the author himself is surprised at what comes out, then obviously the reader is going to be. So I would say generally, I’ve got one idea that might be just a tiny scene or even just one line of dialogue or something. I know that’s got to be in there somewhere. And it’s just a question of starting and hoping that it turns out all right in the end.
And do you have a set routine when you write? Do you write in the morning, afternoon, evening?
I never do anything in the morning. It’s one of my firmly held beliefs, nothing of value is ever achieved in the morning.
I have to say, I’m the opposite. I always write in the morning, I always write from nine til one.
I never do, I start late in the day, in the afternoon, and I’ll do five to six hours. And then sometimes I go back to it late at night, but it’s a delicate balance. The Granada days, I would work 12-hour overnight shifts and that sort of thing, so it’s not that I’m not capable of working long hours, but with writing there reaches a point where it’s diminishing returns. For me, after sort of five or six hours. Sure, I could carry on forever, but the quality will be not quite good enough at that point. So, it’s very self-indulgent, but I learned to stop after five, six hours and just say, that’s enough for tonight.
Yes. I mean, somebody had always said to me, you stop when you know what the next sentence is going to be.
Yes. That’s a really good way of maintaining the momentum. And what I also used to do is… you know, when you finish a book, you’ve got such pace, such momentum, such passion, such involvement. When I finished a book, I would immediately, literally that minute, write the first paragraph of the next book. In order just to capture… in other words, it wouldn’t be a cold start. And I think that’s very important.
Is there anything you want to say that we haven’t touched on?
No, I think… I’m glad you’re doing this project, because it’s the combination of the people, the company, and the times. I thought yes, I really did produce something that was very special, but also a lot of good fun for those of us who worked in it. And like so much for my generation, you look back on it as a jewel-like experience that has now gone. Same thing like university, for instance. Not only did you go free, but essentially they paid you to go. And you were guaranteed a job. That was a jewel-like experience that is gone. And I guess that we’re in an era now where if you go back 100-200 years, generally speaking, getting rid of things was good. I’m sure nobody ever had a regret about getting rid of cholera or something like that. But now we’re in an era where things are going, but they were actually good and valuable. And it’s sad that they’re gone.
Are you working on a new novel now?
No, I’m in the process of quitting. I’m not going to do any more, but my brother is going to continue the series. So that hopefully we can get a few more out of it. But again, you know…
But you’re not going to create a new character?
No, I just want to stop working. It’s like a generational thing for me, growing up when I did and where I did, it was just at such a fixed point in your life. 65, you retired. There were three phases in your life. You went to school, then you worked for a really long time, then you were retired. And I’ve always wanted that shape to my life, and so I turned 65 last year and I thought, “Alright, now I’m a senior citizen. I’m going to quit.”