Paul Greengrass on the ethos behind World in Action

I’m sure that’s true of Granada as a whole, incidentally. I think one of the interesting things as we sit and talk today is that these kinds of cultural organisations are now few and far between. Organisations where you and I would have come in as young men, and matured and become men, as opposed to young men, during a period of… I don’t know how long you were there, but you know, seven, eight, nine, ten years, whatever… some people stayed for life, some people moved… but they marked you, and you grew up with people and the bonds… you and I didn’t know each other that well, but we still knew each other. We still know each other today. Those bonds, I think, are formed very powerfully in Granada, and that was one of its tremendous strengths as a company and that echoed and was synthesised also in World in Action. So it was a great place to work. As I say, benevolently run. Always both certain of its identity, and constantly questioning of it.

What was the point of a half-hour film on a Monday night? Because it wasn’t the news, and it wasn’t Panorama. It was World in Action, because it swaggered, and it was profane, and it had some brilliant journalism, and some frankly pretty duff stuff along the way, too. But it had its eclectic mix of filmmaking culture, which was always very important. It wasn’t just an investigative reporting programme. It had that strength too. And it also, let us be frank, had a sort of left-wing politics strand. Those were the three things. That was the ‘secret sauce’ of it. The mixture of those three things.

The filmmaking thing is often misunderstood. It spoke to me very highly. I remember when I first joined, so this would be ’79, Ray saying to me, “You need to go down to the screening room.” Which I want to say was away down where all the mixing theatres… or was it somewhere else? I can’t remember. They had a theatre, anyway. He gave me a list of World in Actions from the past, and I was to watch them, and I absolutely loved them. And they spoke to me. I remember watching Biko’s funeral, Mike Ryan’s film which was just a film about Steve Biko’s funeral. That’s all it was. It was just a beautiful observational film.

I remember watching John Sheppard’s film about asbestosis, which was a most beautiful film. I can’t remember the time period, but it was… I can remember watching his first ‘Dumping Grounds’ film in South Africa. That was a beautiful lot. These were films. I didn’t know it then, but of course it goes back to Denis Forman. It goes back to the birth of World in Action. It goes back to John Grierson who sold the title to Dennis Forman for a pound. Or was it a penny?

Did he really? I didn’t know that.

Oh yes. Denis Forman wanted World in Action to have a film identity, and that’s why it didn’t have reporters. That’s why it’s shot on film. That’s why it morphed as it started to live into the sort of agitprop thing, which served it well. Right back to the very early stage when they brought the coffins out of Salford.

I was going to say that. Now that was just a fantastic, when they all came out of the terraced houses.



Yes, but it’s…

Still a piece of film…

It’s an agitprop, isn’t it?

Yes, exactly.

But brilliant. And those three strands, pure filmmaking, pure observational, a certain sort of filmmaking. It was observational. You stood back on a long lens and you observed. It goes to the heart of British documentary film making. That comes from John Grierson.

And the agitprop thing, which is actually not as simple as saying, “They’re a bunch of lefties.” It’s not as simple as that, that was comprised of Granada being a non-metropolitan company, being based in the north west, not being part of the metropolitan London thing gave it attitude, and that attitude in the 60s was really important, I never lost it, you know? And it obviously morphed in the 70s towards having a more sort of political hue. But I don’t think that ever was as important as the anti-establishment hue that the programme had, and that the company had. I think it made it a congenial place if your politics were to the left, but I don’t think it would be simple as to say that it was a left wing, I don’t think it was, it was just… it had a great sense of attitude. So, these are all the great things about it.

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