Paul Greengrass reflects on the culture of World in Action

When I went to Granada, which I was very lucky to do… and I owe Granada an equal debt, but World in Action… so I’m not decrying it in any way, but World in Action as the years… I knew none of this then, by the way. This is wisdom that came to me much, much later in life. I realised at the time I was trying to be someone who I actually really in the end wasn’t. In other words, the hard-bitten investigative television journalist. But really, the person that I was meant to be, was the person that I have become. I have made my own films in my own ways about subjects that… and that’s just one colour of it, but it’s not the all, if that makes sense.

Did you find it a macho culture?

Yes, very. And I would have been part of that too. But I think that not so deep down, it wasn’t really me. I was almost… playing a role is not quite right… because I did it, and I enjoyed it, and I was pretty good at it. But as the, I mean, the way I was… I was on World in Action for about six, seven years, something like that. They were formative years in so many ways because they taught me how to write at a shoot, at a cut, how to tell a story. How to be at eye level with an audience. Economy of style and storytelling. How important is to create emotional connection in your storytelling. They wouldn’t have expressed it like that, but I think that’s what made it a popular programme, as opposed to the more Panorama, which talked down to people, at the BBC.

Telling a story.

Yes. And of course it was a hugely benevolent culture, right? Fitzwalter, wasn’t it? A man who was always under pressure from us oiks, poor chap. But he was such a decent person really, in his eccentric way. He gave everybody their head in a lovely… he had his faults of course, but I owe him an enormous debt. But as the years went by, I think I got less interested in programmes that were about doing down. Even though I really admire them and still do. It’s not that I don’t approve of that kind of journalism. I really, really do.

I mean, John Ware, for instance, who I became a good friend of and remains a very good friend all these years later, his work I utterly admire, because he has a calling for it, and he’s one of the very, very best in the business. And he believes in telling a story well and judiciously and brilliantly, but I suppose I was always looking to the world beyond that. To a wider world. A wider world of filmmaking, I suppose. But I didn’t know that then. But I can look back now and see… I’m getting well ahead of the story… but, those first years would have been all about… I mean, all about making programmes that created a noise and the pride and thrill of that. Of the sort of drama of it with, “Are you going to get your legal opinion?” And all of the stuff that came with it. I loved all that. It excited me tremendously. And I was that person. I’m not denying that for a second. I love the fact that you saw the world. You travelled, you saw the world. Saw amazing things. I love the culture of the place. It was very macho. It was very male. It was very insular. But it was… it had its aristocratic mean about it. Do you know what I mean?

It was on its own. It was a bit like the sports department.


It was untouched. Nobody could touch it. It had its own rules, its own…

Correct! We all bought into that. It bred arrogance and insularity and exclusivity, and a lack of collegiality, and it also bred paranoia and had done before my time and did again. I think it also bred some carelessness on a personal level. I think and some rivalrousness. I think that’s normal in those things, but those are small things. It also bred tremendous creative excellence, tremendous esprit de corps, tremendously good programmes of all kinds. A wonderful history. I think we – and by ‘we’, I mean, the generation of people who were there when I was there – wrote a really good page in a pretty damn fine television book. If you can call World in Action from 62 to whatever. I thought that period in the eighties was a rich period. I thought we gave a good account of ourselves. And you know, great sense of humour, great solidarity weirdly. So, it’s a mixed bag, as these things are, these organisations.

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