Leslie Woodhead

Interviewed by Judith Jones and Stephen Kelly, 11 March 2015.

Going right back to the beginning, how did you come to be employed at Granada?

It’s a curious accident and quite simply the most fortunate thing that has ever happened to me. I was in my last year at Cambridge, reading English, and a chum of mine from Halifax, where I grew up, said, “I heard some guys are coming down from Granada to try and recruit graduate trainees – I’m thinking of applying, why don’t you?” So I wrote to these guys at Granada, and oddly enough the chum didn’t go for his interview, but I did, and they said, “Okay, come to the University Arms in Cambridge, and we’ll talk to you.” So I did that. They said I was the candidate they had ever met who had seen Coronation Street – it was on my patch and it felt like opening a door on my life, in fact it was really very striking when it first came on air. So, armed with my Coronation Street memories, I went and did the interview, and in typical Granada fashion I then heard nothing for three months and I went and got a job in advertising in London, as a copywriter, and was on the verge of taking that up when I got a telegram from Denis Forman (corr) in Manchester saying, “Be in Manchester tomorrow.” Again, a perfect Granada introduction! So my dad drove me from where we lived in Halifax to Manchester, and I was ushered into the presence first of all, in fact, of Sidney Bernstein (corr) and his brother Cecil, these two immaculately tailored, softly spoken gentlemen who didn’t seem to me at all to be like television guys. I’ve not forgotten the interview, because it was quite surreal. Sidney mainly wanted to talk about who did I think was the most distinguished writer/novelist of my time. I thought, “What on earth is this? This is very, very peculiar.” So I think I said DH Lawrence or something, and we had an agreeable little chat about… Sidney seemed particularly thrilled when I said that my father had been a dance band musician and he was from Yorkshire, so he ticked every box as far as Granada was concerned – I was the son of a northerner, and better still somebody who could be called ‘in show business’ – so that obviously lit him up, he was fascinated. My father had trodden the boards in a very wacky way in the 30s with an itinerant pop band that he was going around with. I was then shuffled into the presence of Denis Forman, an extremely elegant, silvery-haired gentleman, who said, “Okay, we are able to offer you a job.” And I thought, “Christ – after all this time, suddenly this is happening at an impossible speed!” I said, “When do you need to know? I’ve already got a job in London, in advertising.” He said, “Now.”

What year was that?

It was the early summer of 1962. I often wonder how it would have been if I had gone into advertising. Who knows, I mean it was the period when people like David Puttnam and Alan Parker and all of that were making their lives in advertising, so who knows? But I’m really, really glad I didn’t do that. But again, it was typical Granada, that having waited forever, they now needed an answer within five minutes! I said yes, and shortly thereafter I was hired as part of a group as production trainees. At that time, on a faintly regular basis, Granada ran this production trainee scheme, during which they would grab half a dozen graduates from around the universities and put them through a nine-month immersion into TV, which I then discovered what this meant. Partly it was because of the very tight union situation at Granada, we couldn’t begin to do actually anything, so we were shipped around the various departments – graphics, technical areas, observing local programmes being made – for nine interminable months, which was really quite kind of stultifying, because it was clear that they thought, “Who are these kids? They’re just time-wasters who are never going to do anything.”

Anyway, the nine months began with a month for each of us in a Granada cinema, because Sidney felt that we should sample the real world. So rather than living in the ivory tower of academia or TV, we should go out and meet the people, as though we hadn’t been doing that already. So I got the Granada Grantham – I always think that Margaret Thatcher must have been growing up around the corner, but that’s what I got – and had a kind of numbing month, tearing tickets and doing whatever one did at the Granada Grantham, before starting as a production trainee in July 1962, going through the routines I have just described, writing little reports on things.

I remember one of Sidney’s ideas was that we would all go… Sidney was convinced that the railways were blighting Manchester, so we had to wander around with cameras and take pictures demonstrating that Manchester was indeed being blighted by the railways, which there was some truth. Manchester in those days, it’s hard to recall. Looking at the sort of glass-spired place that it is now, it was a pretty gloomy place. There were a lot of still uncleared bomb sites in the city centre, everything was soot black and everything was very down at heel, so Sidney wasn’t wrong in thinking that the city could do with a bit of upbeat, and of course Granada were in the business of trying to provide some of that.

Eventually the course came to an end, after the nine months, and on my course there were a number of people, including Cecil Bernstein’s son Alex, who was a fellow trainee, who sadly died not long ago, and the man who, interestingly, is the person I most recall, is a man called Johnny Bassett (corr). Johnny Bassett was the man who knew all the people who became Beyond the Fringe (corr). Mostly they didn’t know one another, but John knew them and put them together. So laced through the beginning of being a production trainee, with John Bassett hurtling down to London in his Volkswagen, and coming back, bringing stories of Beyond the Fringe, of how Dudley Moore had disgracefully been conducting himself, and what Jonathan Miller (corr) and Alan Bennett (corr) were doing, and Peter Cook, and eventually we hurtled off in Johnny’s Volkswagen to one of the early productions of Beyond the Fringe, so that was part of the heady things that were starting to happen there, also The Beatles.

So having come to the end of the production trainee course at last, I got – as we all did – seconded on to working on local programmes. In our case, that meant People and Places (corr), which was the nightly magazine show with Bill Grundy (corr) and Gay (corr) Byrne – Gay has since gone on to big, big things in Ireland. They were the stars of local programmes. So my early days were People and Places, gathering force was Coronation Street, which was happening all around us, black and white once a week at that time, but nevertheless becoming something of a thing – this is pre-World in Action, Tim Hewat (corr) was making really ballsy documentaries, some of them on 35mm film, God help us, but I was really raw and just feeling my way, working on little items for local programmes, gathering a few captions to tell the story of the Bridgwater Canal, I remember from my early things. And then I got really lucky.

Denis Forman had hired a young filmmaker called Michael Grigsby (corr) with a promise to make documentaries, but while we were waiting. Sidney deeply distrusted film. He didn’t want film to happen on Granada’s premises because he rightly thought, “Once I’ve got one unit, I’ll have to have 12.” And he was completely right – quite soon that turned out to be the case. But anyway, Grigsby, who was a really fascinating and inventive film-maker in the really kind of observational school of Denis Mitchell (corr) and people like that, I got paired with Grigsby to make little northern films – and that’s when I feel that my life at Granada started. I was instantly captivated by the idea of making films, which I knew absolutely nothing about, so I toured in my little blue Mini with Grigsby, around the north of England, as a researcher, doing these little four-minute films. And they were contrasts – the idea was we would look at contracting things happening in our region. So we had a guy who was a clog-maker, and we contrasted him with a young man who, incredibly, was a dress designer in Uppermill. God knows how he survived that in the early 60s! That was one of our contrasts – and that’s where my collision with The Beatles happened.

The guy who was running us here was a very mad Australian called David Baker (unverified), who was running People and Places at that time. And he said, “Let’s do a musical one of these Northern Contrasts – find the most traditional and untraditional music things that are happening in our region.” So I lined up the The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band (corr) and off we went and filmed them. Then I remember asking a fellow researcher on People and Places, a guy called Dick Fontaine (corr), a guy who is now head of documentaries at the National Film School. “Any ideas? What’s the thing that’s most unlike The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band in our area?” And he said, “I’ve heard there are these kids in Liverpool who are making a bit of a noise. Why don’t you ring up a man called Epstein and see what’s possible?” So I called and talked to Brian, met him in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, went down to the Cavern Club, was completely blown away on a winter evening in ’62, we agreed that we would come and film with them and we did that in August ’62 in the Cavern Club, a lunchtime session, which became the first film ever made with The Beatles.

And that went by, I was fascinated by the Beatles, and followed them around the northern clubs as long as they were still playing the northern clubs, but we couldn’t transmit the film because the Brighouse Band would have broken the local programmes budget for a month if we’d paid them full MU rates, so we were stuck with this half a film of The Beatles, and finally Brian Epstein collared me when I went to a concert – they were playing with Little Richard at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton – and said, “When are you going to put the boys on TV?” And he wasn’t kidding. He had me pinned against a wall, but more ferocious than the public vision might suggest. So the only thing we could do, since we couldn’t say, “Brian, we’ve only got half a film, we can’t put the boys on television,” was to get them into the studio, which we did – and they did their first TV on People and Places, and then several more visits to both People and Places and Scene at 6.30 (corr), so that established that relationship.

I then went on to Scene at 6.30, which was a very early, groovy, nightly magazine show, much groovier than People and Places had been, with ‘pop music’ as it was called, Johnnie Hamp (corr) getting bands into the studio… it was very much in the shadow of – and aware of – That Was the Week That Was on the BBC, it was very influenced by that very free-wheeling version of life. Quite soon, our performers included Michael Parkinson and Mike Scott (corr), and we all had a bit of fun with that. I was pulled out of being… I had done some early directing on People and Places and on What the Papers Say, and on All Our Yesterdays, I wasn’t particularly seized by studio direction, and I also directed the party conferences that tended to put me to sleep. But I was then yanked out of all that, just at the moment when I was about to do Coronation Street, and told that I was now producer on Scene at 6.30, first of all doing a little adjunct called Sporting Scene – about which I knew nothing, but anyway, that’s what I was asked to do, and that went on for a spell until I managed to wheedle my way into making my first film, which was a film for a series that Denis Mitchell and Norman Swallow (corr) were producing, called This England (unverified).

I can’t even remember how this happened, but I managed… I knew the northern artist Harold Riley (corr), who knew LS Lowry, and he managed to persuade Lowry to let us in to make a little documentary with him, so that was my first real film, following Lowry around for a couple of weeks. I remember we were so hopelessly naïve about doing something like that; I remember the camera man taking the Éclair (corr) camera out of a box, out of its original wrapping, on Lowry’s doorstep and was looking at the instructions, trying to work out how to assemble this thing, and how to lace it up – but we sort of managed to make it work and then went through Lowry’s door, filming as we went, in true early wobblyscope style!

It was fascinating, but a complete dogs dinner, the rushes that I produced. I remember recording the vital voiceover with Lowry in the Kardomah Café (corr) in St Ann’s Square when they were washing up all the cutlery, so all you can hear on the soundtrack, it sounds like it’s recorded in a steelworks, just completely unusable. So for about 18 months, nothing happened to this film, it just lay on the shelf while I went on producing Scene at 6.30 and it was only finally Forman and the guy who was then programme controller – I don’t know what his job was actually, a nice man called Julian Amis (unverified) – anyway, he took a look at this thing and said, “Well, there’s something there – why don’t you go back, re-record that voiceover, work with a decent editor and try and turn it into something?” So I did, and eventually that became part of This England series. I am now trying to remember how that then rolled forward.

So this would have been about the mid-60s.

Yes. It’s just before… I think it was ’64 when we did that. But Plowright – who I should have mentioned, since he was always an immensely important person in my life, and remains so – he had been the second producer on People and Places, and he had then gone on and I had worked for him on All Our Yesterdays (corr) and What the Papers Say when he was doing that, and indeed for the party conferences, but he then became the producer of World in Action, and it was then heavily based in London with Tim Hewat, and when David took it over, he relocated it to Manchester, and I was one of Plowright’s original producer/directors on World in Action, so that we’re now in ’64-’65.

So when did World in Action actually start?

In ’63 with Tim Hewat. This was 18 months later when Tim Hewat moved on to other things, and Plowright took it over, and that was kind of my launch pad really, for everything I then did. There were about eight or 10 of us as producer/directors on World in Action. The wonderful thing for me was that we were all allowed to do everything – in other words, we were our own researchers, we were our own directors, we were our own producers, we edited our own films, and in some cases did the narrations, always wrote the scripts, so it was a fantastic grounding in the full range of doing documentaries – always in a hurry, usually with a lot of overnight edits and all that went with that, but a very, you know, uplifting and energising time, especially given all that was going on in the world at the time as well – revolutions here, there and everywhere.

Did you feel that, if you came up with an idea for a programme, you could pretty much get it made?

Not at that time. At that time, David was firmly in control of the agenda. We had our conferences and tossed our ideas in, and those were sometimes taken up. The period when I began to be able to initiate things and have them followed through was really in the 70s. Up to the end of the 60s I was heavily involved in World in Action, it was my obsessive employment in lots of ways. It began to take me to crazy places.

Were there any particular programmes that you remember from that time?

In that late 60s period, we began to do… well, first of all, Plowright’s idea was that he wanted to pair… the change that he made from Tim Hewat’s time was to try and make it a more filmic series. In other words, he was interested in films that looked like films, as well as hectoring documentaries of the sort that Tim had wanted to do, which were very strident, tabloid, very effective, but consider these facts, really just wallop. David wanted to do more filmy things, which was great for me because I got teamed with investigative journalists, about which I had no experience at all. I got teamed with a guy called Jeremy Wallington (corr), who had been with the Sunday Times Insight (corr) team, and Jeremy and I did a number of investigations together. I remember we did one where we smuggled a back axle into Ian Smith’s sanctions-bound Rhodesia in ’67, which was the first time I had been to anywhere as exotic as that. And Jeremy drove the investigation, and I crouched in ditches and filmed. We actually filmed it ourselves because it would have meant breaking cover to take a film crew into that, so that was all kind of heady stuff – that was an enjoyable programme.

We did a mob-handed thing about the Golden Square demonstration in ’68 that was very striking, that was done on a Sunday afternoon for transmission on Monday night, 20,000ft of film rushed to Manchester, and all that went with that.

My first trip to America was the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated to do a film called Listen, Whitey! (corr) with black voices talking about King’s legacy and all that went with that, which was another fly over on a Friday, shoot Saturday and Sunday, transmit Monday – so those were all films which were effectively about staying awake! It was an immense crash course in making documentaries in a hurry with enough filmic ingredients to also be very instructive about how you might do that.

Remember, this was at a time when the technology was becoming totally liberated – that made a huge difference to me. I remember my first World in Action ever was about an adoption, and we started the film with an old (Orica? 25:14) camera that you could only really work with on a big rosewood tripod, and half way through that shoot we got our first Éclair (??25:24) set-up, and it was like suddenly you could fly! We were very aware of what was happening in America with Bob Drew (corr) and Richard Leacock (corr), and Al Maysles (corr), and very envious of that.

What would be the size of a crew at that time?

Well, in America, we worked with a one on one crew, actually. But usually, there would have been a camera assistant at least, and sometimes a sound assistant. No PAs at that time, so it was fairly tight – they were fairly small crews, and of course working on 16mm film which all had to be run through the labs and all that went with that, but there was a real feeling of kind of excitement and exhilaration actually, I mean, we were monstrously arrogant, we really felt that we were the smartest kids on the block.

I remember filming during the Golden Square demonstration, looking around and seeing the camera man I was working with had borrowed a slogan from Pete Seeger (corr) and pinned it on the side of his Éclair, which said: “This machine kills fascists.” (corr) The toe-curling arrogance of that is hard to remember at this time, but it was a feeling that we undoubtedly had – I mean, we were very pleased with ourselves, and you could say bliss was in that dawn to be alive. I mean, it really was a time when new things were happening all over the place, and the equipment was revving up at a speed that could deal with all of that, and we were very possessed of the idea that we were everything that Panorama – the BBC’s current affairs programme – wasn’t.

Was it that you just believed you were making a difference in political terms, or do you actually think that you were?

I think it’s very hard to estimate how fundamental the change was. Certainly we were part of a wave that was going on, which included rock ‘n’ roll and included fashion, and included new theatre and cinema. We were involved with all of that; it wasn’t an accident that the Beatles’ office was only across the street from Granada’s London office, and there was a great deal of interchange about all of that. So I think that there was… I mean, certainly we were much enlivened by the fact that the Conservative politicians took violently against World in Action, and said it was a ‘nest of Trotskyites’ – which of course it never was, far from it, although some would argue that Gus Macdonald (corr) was a little closer to that part of the world than he might have been. Gus joined as part of Jeremy Wallington’s investigative unit.

In the later 60s, I remember working on a film with Gus Macdonald about arms dealers supplying weapons to the AFRA, the breakaway republic in Nigeria, and that was fun, very sweaty and felt dangerous, and of course we liked to glamour ourselves by thinking we were doing hairy stuff, and to a mild degree I suppose we were. So there was a lot of international going about, there was a Vietnam war, I went to Laos to film – not to Vietnam – so there was a lot of all of that sense of pushing boundaries, taking risks, challenging received ideas, and all of that self-aggrandising fun that was going on there. The other thing that was fun for me was that my good friend and long-standing colleague, a guy called Jo Durden-Smith (corr), who has now, unhappily, passed away.

David Plowright, who was always enabling of nutty things, set up Jo in an office in Golden Square to make rock ‘n’ roll documentaries. Jo persuaded David that this was the wave of the future, that this was highly political, that things that were happening in rock ‘n’ roll were reshaping the world. So Jo and I did a film together, while I was still very much involved with World in Action – in fact, from late ’67, through ’68 and into ’69, I was series co-editor of World in Action with Jeremy Wallington, but I broke away once to do a film of the first London production of the stage show Hair with a bunch of World in Action camera men who we shipped into the theatre to shoot rehearsals and then perform, so that was a lot of fun.

And then, as we began to move into colour, Jo then persuaded Granada to do a film about the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park. By then, I had moved on from World in Action, I can’t remember the exact dates, but I discovered that I really… I had this 18 months as co-executive producer of World in Action, and it was really useful that I did – because I discovered something important for me, which was that I didn’t enjoy being a studio-bound executive. It was all right, but I just felt… I remember there came a moment where one of my colleagues on World in Action, John Shepherd, put through his expenses after shooting in Vietnam, and item three on the expenses was ‘opium party for Laotian general’ and I thought, “Come on – I don’t want to be signing the expenses – I want to be at the party!

And I – with some difficulty, actually – persuaded Plowright and Forman that I really didn’t want to do the exec-ing thing any more – I wanted to go back on the road. I wanted to make documentary films. And I remember Plowright saying, “You can’t be Peter Pan all your life!” I thought, “Yes, I can.” So I left World in Action to others, including Jeremy Wallington, Gus, and John Birt (corr), who took over, and David Boulton (corr), who took it on, but I then only returned spasmodically to doing some World in Actions in the early 70s, and then mainly made one-off documentaries. And from 1970 onwards, I also got involved with doing drama documentaries, which was another territory I was utterly inexperienced in – I had never directed an actor in my life! Wallington got hold of a smuggled transcript of a trial in a mental institution in Russia, under which a dissident Soviet general who had challenged the system was shut away in a mental prison for his dissident activities – he was called General Grigorenko (corr).

And so we got the transcript, and Jeremy thought it could be turned into… there was no way we could talk to him, he was shut away in his mental prison, but actually that was interesting because it became the basic purpose of our drama docs from then on, for the next 20 years, which were always really some form of dramatised journalism. We used drama doc as a form of getting into places we couldn’t get by conventional documentary means, which over the years tended to mean Eastern European stories, which was always shut off to us until the 1980s. But we got very good information from various sources, and set up ways of dramatizing that as austerely as we would, usually with smuggled transcripts or tape recordings or whatever, and that first one I did in 70 about General Grigorenko, which was made in an empty, converted carpet factory in Stockport, which then stood in for, over the years, for a Chinese red guard base in Beijing, and for a polish dock worker’s meeting centre in (Stretin? 35:26). That same carpet factory did a lot of business for us.

It was always an intermittent activity for me, drama doc, and not something I was… I remember when I was waiting for the actors to arrive for that fist thing, ringing up my chum, a new graduate trainee called Michael Apted (corr), and saying, “What do you say to actors when they come in to the room, Michal?” and he said, “I don’t know – I have no idea. You just kind of find something to say.” So that wasn’t much help! But it was at a time when Granada was beginning to do film drama, which they had done I think from the late 60s, Mike was doing his terrific things, and so was his fellow trainee, Mike Newell (corr), so there was a lot of energy in film drama.

Over the decade of the 70s, I did three or four drama documentaries of increasing ambition and billowing budgets, which were always… the interesting thing about them was that no two were the same – they were all done in different ways, throwing up different problems. We had come terrific cast people like Ian Holm and Tony Shirr (unverified), and folk like that who signed on for these things.

Just to follow on from that strand, we eventually formalised that drama documentary unit, somewhat against my best feelings, I always thought that the form really… you really ought to do those things only when you came upon something that needed to be doe that way, rather than setting the form before the content. But anyway, we set it up as an outfit in whatever it was – ’77, ’78 – me and David Boulton, and we made a number of films under that heading, right through to the early 80s, we were doing those things. As I say, they got more lavish, they got more expensive, they got more ambitious, and it became a bit of a phenomenon really, and it was never really my… I loved doing them, but they were never quite my obsession. There were a few of them that worked really well; there was one about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia called Invasion that we did in 1980 with information provide by a guy who had been a senior member of Alexander Dubček’s (corr) inner circle of his Politburo, and this guy, our informant, wrote the programme for the Prague Spring. So he was a phenomenally well-informed guy who had come, who had left Czechoslovakia before the collapse of communism and gave us the information for that drama doc, and he was our guide and monitor through the making of that film.

And then we did another film about the birth of Solidarity in the shipyards of Poland – that’s the one where Ian Holm played Lech Walesa for that film, and again that was driven by tape recordings, and in fact that was filmed in the railway yards behind Granada in what became the Coronation Street set.

So that was a strand in my life for a long time – I guess for the best part of 20 years. And the other thing that was mainly… the main strand, as opposed to individual documentaries, was Disappearing World. That, like most things for me, happened kind of by accident.

Was that programme already in existence?

Yes, it was. Before I worked on it… Brian Moser (corr) started Disappearing World, again, Denis Forman… it was very much Denis’ obsession. He had become very keen to use Granada’s documentaries to record the lives of threatened cultures, basically, and to make observational films in which the local populations in remote parts of the world would tell their own stories, and the other decisive thing is they would all be made in co-operation with anthropologists who knew these people, had their trust – crucially, spoke their languages – and could take us in there in a way that would allow us to do the kind of films we were talking about. So Brian had started that out in the early 70s, he made a couple of one-offs, but the first six-pat strand of Disappearing World was going to happen in ’74, and one of these was in Ethiopia. Roger Graef (corr), the great observational film documentary maker, was working at Granada at that time, and he had been asked to make a film with a tribe of migrant cattle-herders in south west Ethiopia, who had the most extraordinary way of making decisions about what the group would do. They would hold public debates in which any man – not women, of course – was allowed to stand up and say, “We should move the cattle here, we should keep them there, we should do this, we should do that,” and this sounded absolutely fascinating – it as a genuine democracy, a leaderless society, and in fact from what we were told, a man got status by ability to speak in these debates, so that was fascinating.

So Roger, because he was working in this kind of area, doing observational films about decision-making, was asked to do this, and my great luck was that Roger decided he wouldn’t do it unless they took a unit doctor on location – I mean, this was absolutely inconceivable – these people lived somewhere off the edge of the known world, accessible only by flying 300 miles, getting dumped in the bush by a plane that would then fly off and leave you there for six or seven weeks – but I said, “I would love to do that.” It was extremely foolhardy, but anyway, off we went, in the June ’74, to make a film with these people, the Mursi (corr), which was an overwhelming experience. I mean, it’s one of the most, perhaps the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me in television. When we got there, we found ourselves in the middle of a major tribal war between the Mursi and their neighbours, and we were dropped 40 miles away from where they lived and from where we were going to make the film. We had to work out a way to carry our equipment those 40 miles through the bush, through the war, filming as best we could along the way, then walk around a lot while we were there, and then walk back again. So it was a round trip of… I reckon we walked 200 miles on that trip, just grabbing what we could – and it was maximum difficulty, it was just hellish. I had never spent a night in a tent, and we were stuck doing this… in fact I got one of my World in Action crews to do this with me, so we were one camera, one sound, me and André Singer (corr), who was the researcher.

We thought we could fly a Jeep in there in the Dakota, but then we discovered we got the wrong fuel for it, God help us, so we were stuck in the middle of the Ethiopian bush with the wrong fuel, and the Jeep broke down in 200 yards, so we had to walk, and Andre stayed and watched the Jeep while we made the film. And I thought until quite late in that, “We haven’t got a film here. It is so difficult to just be and survive here, we barely have anything to film.” But as so often with these things, on the very last morning before we had to turn around and walk back for the plane, the whole thing exploded, and we got amazing footage of one of these big debates about what to do about the war and all of that.

And that… and I became absolutely… I remember writing about this and saying, “This is the most absorbing business of my life. It’s captivatingly interesting, terribly alarming, but it stretches everything I’ve got, and it’s kind of one of the things documentaries seems to be for.” And then I went back five other times across the 70s and into the 90s to make more films with the same group of people, recording hat happened to them as their lives changed beyond recognition, basically they collided with the outside world, the Ethiopian government got fed up with them and wanted to control them, and I made my last film with them in 2001 – so that’s gone on for 35 years of being with the Mursi. And along the way I also did films with Sherpas in the Himalayas, with Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees, with fisherman in the South Pacific… so I did 10 Disappearing Worlds, of which six were with the Mursi. But they have really, as I am throwing away photographs in my out house here prior to moving house, I am finding that 60% of all the photographs are on Disappearing World. That sense of tapping into the exotic was overwhelming, and I still count those as the most intriguing things I have ever been involved with as a documentary maker.

So that went on, and I also went on making one-off films of various kinds. Most of the one-offs were the drama docs, in fact, rather than simple observation work and documentaries here. My life was really bouncing around between drama docs and Disappearing World with some excursions into things like I did a film with Mike Scott about some charlatans in the Philippines who called themselves ‘psychic surgeons’ and claimed to be able to remove diseased tissue from people with their bare hands – a bizarre spectacle, and we filmed that… I thought, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but something is – this is completely impossible.” And we finally cracked it, we got a young magician who was just starting to work with Granada to come and look at the rushes – he was called Paul Daniels – and he spotted it. He said, “You’re looking at the wrong place – look at the other hand, not the one that’s doing the operations. That one is palming the rabbit’s giblets, or whatever they’re claiming has been removed,” and you could see it, of course, on film, quite clearly, once you knew what to look for. So that was a fun thing to do.

I did three films with Mike Scott in Japan called The Uncommon Market, about a trade delegation trying to do business with the Japanese; we did an EEC (??48:48) for the European Union referendum, whatever that was, in ’76, we went round the market with a bus load of punters with George Brown and Clive Jenkins (corr) cajoling away at one another while the punters looked on in dismay. So we travelled down through France into Italy and back up again, and made that film in a hurry, just on the verge of the big ITV strike. So there were things like that that wen on in between my Disappearing World and drama documentaries.

As we moved into the 80s, the drama documentaries got more ambitious and the Disappearing World became more difficult because of a big stand-off with the union over PAs being on the shoots, which stopped us for a while completely. But I was still having a wonderful time at Granada and by now, to respond to your earlier question, it was – and I have always thought about this – it was possible to go through one door and talk to one man and get something okayed. I remember going to talk to Plowright about that Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia film, and saying, “Here it is.” “Okay, go and do it.” I thought, “Really?” I mean, that was over a quarter of a million pounds.

So you had the resources and the budget.

Yes. To just do it. And the same happened when Mike Scott okayed the Solidarity drama doc. So it was then possible – one of the defining things about Granada was that there was that very immediate access to people who could make the choice. It’s so unlike the world that we live in now, with the galleries of execs and commissioning execs, and who knows who in the pyramid, who have to agree or stick in their idea. It was a very straight and clean process by which things got done. I hope I don’t sentimentalise it, I don’t think I do, there was much that was maddening about Granada but it worked wonderfully in those terms. Also I think there’s one of your questions about the defining texture of Granada, and I think… I have thought a lot about this. First of all, an awful lot of us worked together for a long, long time. I mean, some of my colleagues over there all those years were people I had worked with for a quarter of a century – the same people. Obviously they had grown up – Plowright had moved from being a local programmes producer to being controller of the universe, Denis was in the stratosphere and all of that – but there were a lot of people who knew one another very, very well and had worked together across a variety of programmes, and I always thought that it gave us a kind of telepathic sense of shared purpose. And strangely, that went across genres. So in other words, in some ways I felt that when Derek Granger and Charles Sturridge were doing Brideshead, they were fired up by the same corporate enablement as I was – we were in and out of each other’s editing rooms and all of that – unlike the BBC, which stratified these things. First of all, it was a fairly small group of people, at its most it was 1,600, something like that, Granada, not 25,000. We knew one another very well, we had worked together on various things… I mean, I first knew Granger when he was series editor on World in Action, God help us – what a bizarre piece of casting that was! But there was that long shared history. I mean, Mike Apted worked on World in Action before he became a feature film director. So that long understanding of what the other bloke was doing, and bumping into people in that building on Quay Street, and bumping into their edit rooms and seeing how they were doing it, and getting to know the people they were doing it with, gave it an extraordinary cohesion and, as I say, a sense of shared purpose that seems to be, looking back on it now, unusual and crucial.

And presumably the kind of experience you are describing about Disappearing World, where there is a small group of people together for 24 hours a day over a period of weeks, really accentuated that.

Absolutely. I men, in the Disappearing World I did, the crews I worked with over the 20 years I did them were mostly the same people. Same camera men for the most part, many of the same sound people. Tried to work with the same editor in Manchester – usually Kelvin Hendrie (corr) or Oral Ottey (corr) or Kim Horton (corr) so it was a very tightly entwined group of people – utterly unlike my more recent experience as a freelance where you meet an entirely new group of colleagues on every production – you make yourself (??55:00) one at a time, I mean most recently I have been working with a very nice production company in Glasgow who I had never met in my life before, which is interesting and fun and stimulating, but quite unlike the Granada patch which had its own reinforcements. I suppose there are those who would argue that in the end it became incestuous and not sufficiently open to… by the late 80s, a really changing world, and of course that duly came to pass. But for a long time, the fact that across the spectrum, from investigative journalism to anthropological film making, to major drama, to drama docs, these were all people I knew well, sat in the canteen with, went to the pub with, and really… we went to each others’ houses and spent all of our lives really, in cahoots with one another. It’s quite unlike the very atomised world I came to know over the last 10-15 years.

When did you leave Granada?

November 1989. I remember… I left at that time because of something Boulton said to me. By then, of course, change was very much in the air and it was plain that Granada wasn’t going to stay as it was.

So what kind of things? How did you discern…?

Most crucially, it became clear that through the changes that Mrs Thatcher had brought in the structures of British television, partly that, but partly actually – you can’t blame Maggie for all of this – the technological uproar that was going on through satellite distribution and all that went with that, multi-channel television, all of that, it became plain that Granada’s extraordinary stranglehold over a large part of ITV… crucially, Granada could say, “We’re going to do this daft drama doc about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,” and nobody could tell them they weren’t. Or, “We’re going to do these mad films in Ethiopia and that’s what we’re going to do.” It became clear that wasn’t going to be anything like as easy as it had been, and that other people were going to be calling the shots, and frankly that market forces were going to bear down on them in a way they hadn’t done. They wouldn’t have the kind of money that they had taken for granted… the cake would be carved up tighter, and that it would be a very changing world. That was evident by the late 80s.

David Boulton said to me, “Have you thought about what this is going to mean?” I said, “No, I hadn’t really. I just get on and make the next programme.” He said, “Here’s one of the things it’s going to mean: the current arrangements that Granada have for final salary pensions are not going to survive this change. They’re just not. Much, much more puff-minded people are going to be in charge; they’re not going to be the rather loose charmers who’ve run this place for the last three decades who are far more interested in programmes than they are in making money. It’s not going to be like that.” So he said, “I’m going to go – and you should think about it.” So I did think about it, and I thought, “He’s right.” Not just because of the final pension, but because I could see around me, a number of my colleagues had gone freelance once Channel 4 was up and running in the mid-80s. Some of them were really… people like Claudia Milne (corr), who had been on World in Action with me, were prospering. Her husband, Mike Whittaker (corr), had been a cameraman on some of my drama docs, they had formed Twenty Twenty Television (corr) together and they were doing well, people like Claire Lasko (unverified) had gone to join Claudia there, there was a real stirring of a new world going on. And at the same time, it was plain that people who were fighting the good fight to preserve the old version of Granada – primarily Denis Forman and David Plowright – were having a hard time.

There came a moment – you will have to check out what year this was (1986) – when rank made a takeover bid for Granada in the late 80s, and that was absolutely decisive. Granada got really rattled by it – because it nearly worked! They nearly got taken over – because they had load of cash and not enough diversification, so they were very vulnerable. And I remember that moment being quite galvanising, and the realisation came that they had better do something about it, and one of the things that Alex Bernstein did was to invite Gerry Robinson (corr) into the fold, which changed everything I mean, I barely… I think I had gone by the time he arrives, but I remember people telling me that they had a meeting in the penthouse and Gerry said, “I have been going around, and help me with something – am I to understand that each of your programmes is made separately?” in other words, you have different people… and he said, “That’s impossible! You don’t have a template or a mould, like portion control?” And he sat there and said, “Listen. I’ve been wandering around here, and all I ever hear is about Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown and Disappearing World – I don’t want to hear about that any more. I want to hear about what you are going to do next.” And you could feel the whole culture shifting. I mean, that was not going to be the same any more. We could talk for ages about whether it as better, worse or just different – but it was a massive change.

So it was with enormous trepidation, after 28 years man and boy on the staff at Granada, stepped out into the void, not having any idea what would come next. The first film I did – which is not of concern for this – was a film for Gus Macdonald, who was then boss man at Scottish Television, which was a little film about the selection of Britain’s first astronaut – a woman who got the job of joining in on the Russian space station. There was some sort of technology with Mars, and inevitably she became The Woman from Mars! Anyway, I did that – it was a quick turnaround – and I was up and running in the freelance world. I had always, always wanted to work with the BBC – that had been my one regret about being at Granada all that time, I had always… I knew people at the BBC and I thought they did fantastic things and wanted to see what that was like. Then I did an Arena in 1990 and then spent much of the 90s doing more Arenas. I used to think, “God, this place at Kensington House, it’s like being at Granada in the 60s.” they would play rock music all day, they’re got guitars hanging on the wall, they are all rascals who get pissed all the time and all of that, but it’s exhilarating. But that was a great transition for me – I loved doing the kind of things they were doing, dotty films about music, the arts, politics, all intertwined very much in the Granada style. So I did those – I did a couple more freelance jobs back at Granada on Disappearing World subjects and another drama doc about the Lockerbie air disaster – but really, the BBC experience, until I hit Storyville at the end of the 90s, was of mainly an Arena story, and then it became a Storyville story, which has been a major part of my life ever since then.

Just to talk a little bit about the BBC and Granada, how important do you think it was that Granada was based in Manchester? How significant do you feel that contribution was to the North West?

I think for Granada, the separation from London was terribly important. I mean, rather like the arrogance we felt about being young producer/directors on World in Action, they felt about… they used to rejoice in some quotes they would come up with like, “What Manchester thinks today, London will think tomorrow” and they really, really felt that. There was a close involvement with the Guardian – the when Manchester guardian – and there was very much a feeling that Granada was the TV equivalent of the Manchester Guardian, both in terms of its liberal tendencies and it’s interest in journalism. So that separation from the metropolitan take on things I think really was valuable, and I think when Plowright pulled World in Action back from being a London-based programme in the mid-60s, that had a lot to do with the way the company then shaped up.

It was funny that this obsession with what Sidney called ‘Granadaland’ was devised by people who simply didn’t live in Granadaland. Sidney, apart from going into the penthouse occasionally, I don’t think he ever spent a night in Granadaland! Denis didn’t, Plowright did live in Granadaland, which was terribly important for Granada, and there was a feeling that being in this region gave us a certain take on the world that wasn’t quite the same as the one in London. We didn’t tend to either hang out with or find places for mainstream politicians on Granada programmes – World in Action barely ever featured them, much to their dismay. And that separation from Westminster gave us a certain independence of spirit over the years, and so I think that was important for the region. I would imagine – although I am less familiar with this – that having a company committed to the area based in Manchester and eventually with outstations in Liverpool, all that that meant was terribly important. It really did provide a sense of regional cohesion and worth that to some degree centred around the region’s TV company. It really was significant, I think.

You talked earlier about opening the camera on the doorstep while making the LS Lowry film, and I wondered if certainly at the beginning of your career, was there a sense that for most of you, you were kind of novices and learning as you…


And that wasn’t just for you personally.

All of us – and I guess that was what was exhilarating about getting involved at the moment I did. Television was quite new here. I didn’t grow up with television in my house; I remember the first set being brought in for the Coronation. Television was not stitched into my boyhood at all – it was radio. So even by the time I joined Granada in 1961, Granada was still a new place – Coronation Street was six months old when I joined Granada, so we were all learning our trade, journalism and documentary making was mainly occupied by former print journalists, reporters of various kinds, or by people like me who were just layabouts from university! I mean, I had no… I brought no particular expertise to the job, and the people who surrounded me were, like me, dilettantes who read English at university and had no particular equipment for doing this job apart from an interest in the world and their consuming curiosity. But we felt that we were having to make up a thing because it didn’t much pre-exist.

There wasn’t… although it had been back in business since the end of World War 2, it didn’t really start to evolve until the mid- to late-50s into anything like what we know now, and with only two channels for most of the early part of my life in TV, we were all very much novices, all fumbling about to try and discover how to do this thing, even the people who were working with us technically. In the studio there were people lumbering about with these bloody huge studio cameras who sort of knew what they were doing, they had done that elsewhere – but in my area, trying to find out how to tell stories with documentaries, that was a fairly new trade. When I first arrived, all the documentaries – or most of them – were being done on 35mm film, with all the angularities and problems that that provided – World in Action really took Granada into the 16mm world and was really conscious of trying to find new ways of working with this new lightweight – as it then was – film technology. So there was a tremendous sense of newness and learning together how to do this new thing.

You also said that whilst there were a lot of positive things bout Granada, there were things you said were maddening.

World in Action was a microcosm of the things that were maddening about G. There was a preposterous arrogance and self-absorption and a sense that nobody was doing it as well as we were, a sense of… if you are going to come and work for Granada, don’t expect to be paid properly. You pay a penalty for coming to work for the greatest television company in the world. Literally seen in those terms. That worked for an awful long time, and it was true, but there was a kind of smugness and self-satisfaction I think, a certain kind of sealed-up self-regard. And indeed, I guess you would have to say that the other side of this isolation from the metropolitan view of the world was a certain insulation and a certain self-absorption about being outside that orbit which was often exhilarating and helpful and wonderful but must in some ways have also been limiting and stultifying. And also the extreme consistency of people working together eventually must have been running out of steam to some extent. I didn’t eel it particularly until… I remember so clearly, the moment when I think… the last wonderful moment at Granada for me was when, in 1986, Granada won the lifetime achievement award as a company from the Banff TV festival (The Banff World Media Festival) in Canada. Plowright took about a dozen of us on a flight to Calgary and we were loudly extoled at this thing, and on the way back he was laying out, overnight on the plane, how it would all play out from here etc. – but it didn’t.

I mean, by the time he was talking about it, the things I was talking about earlier were starting to impinge. Importantly, he offered the programme controllership to Gus Macdonald, and Gus didn’t want it, so Mike Scott got it, which was never an entirely comfortable fit, but it wasn’t Mike’s problem, it was dealing with a rapidly changing world which Gus would have struggled with in exactly the same way. So after that thrilling moment in Canada… it’s not that it went downhill, but gradually the wind went out of the sails, and I have often thought back about that. It was even stronger for me because I had just come back from a particularly knackering Disappearing World with the Mursi just three weeks before the Banff thing, and I had lost a stone and a half and I was very tanned, very trim and very knackered before we headed off to Canada – so it was a pivotal point for me, swapping the Lower Omo Valley for the Banff TV Festival was a bizarre moment. And it didn’t seem, at the time, anything other than thrilling – but it was the beginning of the down slope.

SK: A couple of things. You mentioned The Stones in the Park (corr). Could you tell us more about the making of that?

The Stones in the Park came about because Jo Durden-Smith, my long-standing chum who was doing these rock ‘n’ roll documentaries, got a call from Mick Jagger himself – he said, “Hey, Jo – you guys have got great cameramen – why don’t you come and film our concert in Hyde Park?” – this is the summer of 1969, before Woodstock, weirdly enough, it wasn’t afterwards – and so Jo and I went to talk to Forman and Plowright about it, and with great reluctance they signed a budget of I think £9,000 to make it, and we simply shipped in every good World in Action crew we had worked with – including George Jesse Turner (corr) stuck on the top of a van in the middle of the park – and that was all done in a day.

Again, it was made up as we went along. I mean, we had no… the only film that had happened that was somewhat analogous was Monterey Pop (corr), Pennebaker’s (corr) film at the Monterey Festival the year before. But we basically… there were six crews, the directors were all former World in Action people – people like John Sheppard (corr) and so forth – each had a crew and a camera man – all World in Action people – and we went off, we decided we would record whatever the hell was going on in the park that day as well as what was going on on stage it was a technical omnishambles, I remember, doing that thing, it really was. I mean, first of all, I arrived in the park at the stage at 7am that morning, on a beautiful summer’s morning, to find that none of the filming equipment had been delivered – not one thing.

So we immediately ordered it all over again, and then shortly afterwards we got all the old stuff and the new stuff – so we had a pile of equipment 10ft high that had to be sorted out. So we fumbled through the morning with the Hell’s Angels being a pest, and then as we began filming, the Stones were so late on stage that we were getting concerned about the light levels – they were hours late. Brian Jones, of course, had met a (guide? 78:00) just leading up to that so we got Mick’s poem and all that wonderful absurdity. But as I say, technically, it didn’t really… it stretched us to the edge of possibility.

When Jagger picked up the mic to start the first number, he picked up the wrong mic – or at least one that didn’t contain our feed – so if you look at the first number, about half way through it a frantic man runs from behind and sticks another mic in his hand. So half of the first number is semi-audible. And the band were so wrecked, out of their heads stoned by the time they started the concert, that I remember it was tragically out of tune, their performance. I remember going to mix it with a very good rock ‘n’ roll mixer who had done a lot of their albums, and he said, “What do you want me to do with that? It’s just terrible.” And when we screened it, we screened it in Golden Square, Mick was in Australia doing his Ned Kelly thing, but the remaining Stones… we filmed the rough cut of the Stones in the basement at Golden Square.

I remember when it came to a stop, part one came to an end, Keith said, “I hope the lead guitarist tunes up before part two.” Of course he didn’t, it just gets worse. So God knows how it survived – it still gets screened a couple of times a year and I still get grabbed by people who remember it fondly. It was the very early days of us shooting in colour, so we only got 10% of the rushes printed in colour; the rest was in black and white – which was a real problem when we discovered that the camera I was shooting with, which was on the left hand side of the stage, the assistant had left the door open for the early numbers, so it was all orange-edged (??80:15), all our stuff was… a sort of vibrating band of orange. For years after that, mad hippies came up to me and said, “That was years ahead of its time, that groovy tinting of the film,” which we didn’t even know about until we got the show print.

So one way or another it was very primitive technically, but it had the energy of the concert – so it delivered the goods. I remember the Daily Telegraph said, “This is the loudest thing since World War One.” I remember screening it for Cecil Bernstein at Granada and he was just shaking his head in bewilderment about what his boys had been doing! I edited it all in Manchester, and that was the most fun actually, putting that together and finding different ways of doing the different numbers, despite the many technical shortcomings, like the main camera for Satisfaction, we lost all the rushes – they disappeared under a bush somewhere, which we never rediscovered – so that had to be cobbled together from whatever else was surviving, with a lot of crappy freeze-frames and stop-motion things, which were done in Humphrey’s Labs in London (unverified) because you couldn’t do them in Manchester, which meant that they went off on a train and didn’t come back for a week, by which time they were wrong, but it was too late to do anything about it – that kind of thing was just par for the course in doing those films. So that was fun, and that charged up a series of Granada rock documentaries that Jo went on and did, he did his Johnny Cash thing, and The Doors film – The Doors: The Doors Are Open (corr) – which was amazing, actually, which John Sheppard directed in the Roundhouse, which was done incredibly on video tape. So that became a strand of life, and I always loved doing music documentaries, I really have, since I went freelance. I have done a thing with Tony Bennett, another one with Randy Newman, and another one about the music in New Orleans – they are a much-loved strand for me of what I have been doing with documentaries.

SK: You didn’t do the Johnny Cash one though?

No, I didn’t, no. The Johnny Cash thing (Johnny Cash in San Quentin) was done by Mike Darlow (corr) in San Quentin. Huge row at Granada because Darlow and Jo Durden-Smith had a really powerful sequence built around the gas chamber – not with somebody in it, but waiting for its next victim – and Forman absolutely refused to make it part of the film. And I think Darlow took his name off the film. I mean, I don’t know why Denis – usually an unbelievably courageous executive – decided that that was a step too far, but he did. That was not one of Granada’s best moments.

The other thing you’re asking about, the down sides, I remember that Sidney was… there came a moment, just about when I was starting World in Action, they did a film about Freemasonry, which Mike Hodges (corr), the then feature film director, made – and it was one of the very, very few programmes that Granada pulled – and the reason was that Cecil was a Freemason, and he was very uncomfortable with it. And Sidney – I mean, I didn’t have this conversation, David Plowright did – and he said, “You have to understand, David _ I love my brother; I am not going to do this to him.” Now, you can certainly argue that that was shameful and shocking. It was the only time in my entire experience that that kind of personal agenda intervened, because for the rest of time, I remember they were absurdly courageous about those things. I remember when World in Action did a film about Aspirin, saying it could be dangerous for certain people, and they lost £1m of advertising in a week because they proceeded with that programme. They didn’t (miss a strike? 84:50) about that.

And the famous British Steel case, when they were at risk of haemorrhaging enormous fines for denying a court order to reveal their sources – never wavered on that. So they were usually editorially immensely resilient.

I had a personal wonderful story about how, when I did my drama doc about the Red Guard trial, the Chinese Embassy got really, really angry – and a man was seen that morning – photographed by the Daily Mail – standing on the door of the Chinese Embassy with an axe in his hand, as a sort of young red guard, and a delegation descended on Sidney at Golden Square to say this film that your producer, Mr Woodhead, has made is a ‘travesty’ of everything that has gone on in China. It was about the trial of a leading member of the Politburo which the red guards humiliated and stamped all over this woman, and we did a drama doc about this, and they said, “This cannot go forward, this must be cancelled,” and Sidney had me up and he said, “Did you get it right?” I said, “Yes.” “Bye,” he said, and that was it. Amazing. I mean, he was under enormous pressure, and he didn’t ask me any more questions, just that. So they were usually editorially very robust.

On occasions, the other time it got edgy – there were a couple of World in Actions about Israel that producers had a torrid time with – it seemed to me that Sidney demanded more evidence of bad things going on than he might have done with other stories. There was a story about how the Israelis were demolishing the houses of the Arab population – which was undoubtedly true, and remains true to this day – but he really put David Plowright through the hoops in a way that he might not have done with another story. So I would have to say, those passing moments of editorial intervention that were less than wholly likeable, and there were near moments where Denis and David had to reign in Sidney – after that long strike in the early shooting of Brideshead, Sidney wanted to cancel it. He said, “We’re just haemorrhaging money on this thing, we cannot go on doing this,” and they managed to persuade him to keep going, but left to himself he would have pulled the plug on that, having already spent, I don’t know, £150,000. So what really saved it editorially was the tension between Sidney’s instinctive courage about editorial matters, and his left of centre take on the world, occasionally limited by his personal sensitivities, and the fact that Denis and David were enormously ballsy about editorial things – and indeed, that’s what got them out of bed in the morning, they both loved the mischief of doing serious, rabble… cage-rattling TV journalism. That’s what they loved. In fact, they took much more pleasure than I ever did – I just loved making films.

Leave a Reply