Mike Beckham on working on drama-docs

I then moved onto drama documentaries. These were an offshoot of World In Action. We found, this is Leslie Woodhead and myself, we found various stories behind the Iron Curtain, which we couldn’t get a camera to for obvious reasons, but we could often get, say, a transcript of a trial of dissidents, or an area like that. So what we did, we’d reconstruct the story with actors using the transcripts for the trial, or we’d sneak in to Czechoslovakia with a tape recorder and get a story. And these were new and unique. The name of the game there was that you couldn’t invent characters or scenes, you had to follow a chronological order, so it was still journalism. You could compress time. If someone was interrogated by the police five times, you could reduce that to two. And these were the forerunners of when you see on a screen, “based on a true story”. These really were true stories. We didn’t make up dialogue.

It sounds like you’re very proud of this programme.

Very much so. I made one about some trials in Czechoslovakia. I made one about a man called Jan Kalina, who was a professor of jokes at Bratislava University. And he told underground jokes. So he had an underground cabaret. And these were political jokes against the regime. Czechoslovakia then was a Soviet satellite, much under the thumb of Moscow. And he told these jokes and he was arrested for them. I was going to talk about that later.

I then did a very big drama documentary called ‘Who Bombed Birmingham?’, which was about the Birmingham Six. It was a two-hour film with John Hurt in it. And we managed to get to the truth of who’d actually bombed Birmingham and reconstructed it. We named, not the Birmingham Six, because they were innocent, but we named five IRA people who had actually planted the bombs, and that helped our six to get out of prison, where they’d been for 16 years.

Then I went back to factual programmes. I did two or three Disappearing Worlds, in Brazil, which was very exciting. This was really exciting, Boys’ Own stuff. A tribe in the middle of nowhere, you’d land on a light plane at a jungle strip, you’d take a canoe for two days upriver, and you’d find yourself in a village of tribesmen with spears, and we’d make a film about them. This was very exciting.

And then, what else do I remember? Before I left, I made some films with Prince Michael of Kent. I made two two-hour films, first of all about the Tsar Nicholas of Russia, who he was related to, and then Queen Victoria, who he was related to. The royal family often get a pretty bad press for being anti-intellectual and against culture, but Prince Michael was a pretty extraordinary guy, cousin of the Queen, spoke many languages – very good Russian, very good French and German. And I would write a link for him for the camera, and he’d say, “yes, dear boy, that’s fine”, and he’d go out in the car and have a look at it, and he’d play around and come up with something much more interesting, which he’d deliver beautifully in a very deep voice. He’d never done any television before and he was absolutely brilliant. And then I left Granada.

What year was that?



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