Leslie Woodhead on why he decided to leave Granada TV

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, who had been on World in Action with me, were prospering. Her husband, Mike Whittaker, had been a cameraman on some of my drama docs, they had formed Twenty Twenty Television together and they were doing well, people like Claire Lasko 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 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.


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