Leslie Woodhead recalls some of the memorable World In Action programmes he worked on in the late 60’s

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, who had been with the Sunday Times Insight 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 Grosvenor 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! 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 Orca camera that you could only really work with on a big rosewood tripod, and half way through that shoot we got our first Éclair set-up, and it was like suddenly you could fly! We were very aware of what was happening in America with Bob Drew and Richard Leacock and Al Maysles, 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 and pinned it on the side of his Éclair, which said: “This machine kills fascists.” 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.

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