Leslie Woodhead recounts his ground-breaking work in drama-docs at Granada

 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.

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 Szczecin. 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, and saying, “What do you say to actors when they come in to the room, Michael?” 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, 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 Sher, 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 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

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