As production trainees, we were extraordinarily privileged because we were in a position where we knew we were going to be producer-directors. I joined on the same day as Leslie Woodhead. We were the second batch of production trainees. The following year were Mike Apted and Mike Newell, so that was the golden year. And within two years, 18 months, I found myself directing Coronation Street. This was early-mid 60s, and this was the golden time of Coronation Street. It was Pat Phoenix, Violet Carson, Anne Reid, characters like Annie Walker, Jack Walker, Bill Roach, Mr Swindley. Wonderful scripts by northern writing like Jack Rosenthal, Peter Eckersley, and we even got Jim Allen, the Marxist playwright, who wrote some early scripts.
It was quite an exciting time, because there were three directors. We did two shows every three weeks, two half hour shows, all on videotape. No editing. So on the Friday afternoon when you ran the show, you put the captions on, and you ran scene after scene after scene, with no editing. So it was effectively a live show. If an actor fluffed, too bad. If a cameraman made a mistake, too bad. And if a boom was in shot, you lived with it. It was exciting television, great stuff to work on. It was probably one of the most exciting times of my life, because you’re in the deep end.
I got to know Pat Phoenix. She treated Coronation Street, because she was the big star, a bit like Hollywood on the Irwell… I remember once going out to her house, which had a heart-shaped swimming pool. We drank Dom Pérignon and she did treat it a bit like Hollywood.
I joined at the same time as a producer called Tim Aspinall, and he was told to get rid of some members of the cast. And the second show I did, we had to kill off Martha Longhurst, which was very sad, and she simply had a heart attack in the snug and fell over. This was a very actress called Lynne Carol. From then on, Tim and I would treat her with great respect, because we were the great reapers. I used to go to people’s dressing rooms at lunchtime on Friday to give them notes – “oh yes, have a glass of champagne,” you know, “have a bottle of champagne!”
So you were doing it as live, half hour, record. But wasn’t it all in one studio?
It was all in Studio Two. Very occasionally there was a tiny bit of film, that was fed in live, but it was all done in Studio Two, which is not a big studio, so you had to move the cameras around from set to set, live, move the booms around. It was very challenging and an incredibly good way to learn live television.
And the trainee scheme, you were part of an elite, weren’t you?
We were very much an elite. There were five of us. There was Leslie, myself, Cecil Bernstein’s son Alex Bernstein, a guy called John Bassett who had put together at university ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and a girl called Caroline Seabone, whose father ran Barclay’s Bank. Only Leslie and I survived. The others left for various reasons; they wanted to do other things. And you know, it was a major step up in television, because if Derek hadn’t been in the audience… people ask me how do you get in television, well, I don’t know these days, you have to be in the right place at the right time, or know somebody, you know.