Roland Coburn

Interviewed by Stephen Kelly, 30 January 2014.

Let’s go through your Granada career chronologically. When did you join Granada? 

Bloody hell! I was there for thirty-seven years, and I left four years ago.

When did you leave school?

I left school when I was eighteen, and then I went to work for a company called Greendow, which was a small independent place that used to have freelance editors, assistants and things to help out all the television companies around the country. They used to supply editors to work on programmes like World in Action.

I started as the little van driver who took out bits of film and gave people lifts out to all the various other stations and things like that. After that, I was lucky enough to go into a department called ‘Negative Cutting’. We used to cut the negative to match the film. So the editor would work on the film, cut it all up into lots of little pieces, put it all back together again and then I’d match the negative to that, so that when it was printed in the labs you’d get a nice clean, pristine colour print. Or that was the theory of it, anyway. I did that for about three years.

Luckily enough, again, I managed to get from being a freelance to being an assistant at Granada. I was assistant to one of the best editors I ever worked with, which was Jack Dardis. I did that for about a year and then I was made staff. I stayed editing, as Jack’s assistant, for about five years. He was a great editor to learn from. We worked on lots of dramas.

Such as?

Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Strangers. Of course, Philby, Burgess and Maclean had Derek Jacobi in, etc, so they were great dramas. After that, and still as an assistant, I worked with another great editor called Tony Ham.

I was sent to the Lakes with Ken Russell, who was then a features director. So having a features director work on a television programme was interesting, to say the least! David Warner was in it, and Felicity Kendal — people like that.

We were up there, and we actually edited the programme in Ken Russell’s own little cottage in Keswick, by the side of a lake. We were up there nearly nine months and the whole of Keswick was basically full of Granada personnel: the crews were out there, stage-hands, everybody. It was absolutely brilliant. You very rarely had the chance to meet someone like Ken Russell, never mind actually work with them for that length of time.

So what was it like working with him?

He was exactly as you expected. He would go out during the day and cause complete havoc. If you do a scene and you don’t like it, you do it again, but sometimes when I used to put all the sound together with the film, and was syncing the rushes up, on the clapperboard it would often say ‘take 45’ or ‘take 46’. He would make you do it over and over and over again.

There was a particular scene where David Warner was walking back, and the idea was that he was quoting some sort of poem, and he actually fell over. He got up and was really shouting at himself and annoyed that he’d fallen over. Russell went bonkers, because he wanted him to get up and carry on — the fall was so natural — and because he stopped the flow he went berserk. I felt a bit sorry for David Warner, but that’s just the way Russell was.

Another scene, where they wanted leaves blowing over the mountains, they brought in these wind machines, which had to be carried halfway up this mountain, complete with bags and bags of leaves that could be thrown in front of the wind machine to give it this effect. That’s just the way he was. He was amazing to work with.

What was the programme?

I think it was called The Three Lakeland Poets. Unfortunately, it’s never been shown since, because I believe that Russell had it all tied up in relation to repeat fees that he’d be paid. Huge sums of money. So these great dramas were never ever shown again, which I think was a really, really great shame, because in those days, Granada — through Mr. Plowright, etc — did make wonderful dramas.

And your mum and dad had worked in Granada as well?

Mother was, in fact, David Plowright’s secretary, in the very early days, and also helped Sir Denis Forman out as well. Then she became a PA. Father was a researcher on Scene at Six Thirty — or People and Places, as it started — and things like that. He eventually left Granada and went to the BBC, and was on things like Dee Time — as in Simon Dee — so that shows you how long ago that was. He used to write as well.

But Mother stayed with Granada until she eventually retired. She became what I would call one of the top PAs. At the weekends, she did all the football on the Saturday and all the church services on the Sunday. Football she loved. She was also a PA on the World Cup as well. Because she spoke six languages, it was useful to have a PA talking to other companies in their language, to say when they could change camera angles or do anything they wanted to do. She was also the PA on the original royal wedding of Charles and Di. She did quite a fair bit.

Did you mean the 1966 World Cup?

Yes. She loved sport, which helped. She kept doing the football for many, many years.

Your mother was German?

She was, yes. She’d been an interpreter during the war for one of the British armies, and then met Father out there and was given permission to come and live in England. You had to get official permission from the government, and various other bits and pieces, in those days.

So you must be well-steeped in this Granada tradition?

I suppose I was lucky at an early age, because I never wanted to do anything else but work in television. There was never a thought of: do I want to do this, or do I want to be a doctor or a lorry driver? I’d always wanted to work in television. Originally, I wanted to be a cameraman, but the opportunity never quite arose so I went down the editing route and have done that ever since I left Granada.

So there you are at Granada. You remained the film editor throughout your Granada career, and were one of the great film editors, if I may say so. What kind of programmes did you work on after doing those initial dramas?

Well, it was a bizarre setup really, because when I was an assistant, ITN used to have a north-west reporter, who used to come up to Manchester and do little north-west news items. The very first thing I cut was a fifteen-second mute item — no sound, just four pictures cut together — of a rail delay somewhere in the north-west. It went out in ITN, and that was my very first thing. Just to see fifteen seconds of your own item go out was amazing.

I then started Granda Reports News and, because it was shot on film, or what they used to call reversal — once you make a cut, that’s it — you could stick it back together, because they had sellotape to cut the joins. So you had to make a decision.

What it taught you was to make a decision, and hopefully the right decision, because if you changed your mind, you’d always get that flash where the shot was rejoined back together again. So you knew you had to make decisions and make them quick.

Often, the item would come in at half five and it would be transmitted at six o’clock, so you had no time to mess about; you had to make decisions. That was good, because it learned you to be quick, understand what the reporter wanted and things like that.

Granada Reports, in those days, used to do nice little half-hour documentaries. You’d do a few little documentaries, which gave you more confidence. After that, I went onto a great football show called Kick Off, which was run by Paul Doherty and, in fact, in those days, someone like Paul Greengrass — the now Hollywood director — was one of the researchers. Elton Welsby was the presenter and Gerald Sinstadt was another presenter.

It was great, because I loved football and I was doing all these shows. I did that for quite some time — or it seemed quite some time. Ultimately, it came that there was an editor’s job. I applied for it and luckily I got it. You then started editing ‘proper’ programmes. I was lucky enough to do a Bulman and a Strangers which, in those years, were ITV’s top drama programmes. Not many people now will remember them, but they were great, great programmes. After that, there was a chance to work on World in Action which, of course, was everyone’s idea of being at the forefront, and I said, ‘Yes, I’ll have a go at that’. Twenty-one years and just short of seven hundred programmes I was on World In Action.

You spent your whole time on World in Action then?

I was on it for virtually twenty-one years. Occasionally I was taken off to do particular one-off programmes because, perhaps, World in Action was off the air, and things like that.

One of them was The Battle of Monte Cassino; this was the battle in which Sir Denis had been injured and lost his leg during the war. Sir Denis often used to pop in and come and see how it was doing. Not because he would change the programme or anything like that but purely so he could see how we were doing.

The director, Mike Beckham, I think, would be, ‘Oh, he’s here again!’ But he actually used to come in and say, ‘Oh, hello young Roland, how are you?’ because he remembered me through my mother. We’d chat for a bit then off he’d trundle. It was amazing.

Did he ever talk about losing his leg?

No, and it was something we never mentioned, purely out of respect for what he went through. I’m not actually quite sure if it was Mike Beckham or Ken Greaves. It was one of those two.

Would you see people like Denis Forman and Sidney Bernstein around the building?

Sir Denis, often, would walk along the corridors and so would Mr Plowright. They would both walk up and down, and you always knew because somebody would say, ‘Quick! Tidy the room up! Clean the floors! Polish your hair!’ and all that kind of thing. ‘Sir Denis is on the prowl.’

He’d walk up and down the corridor, check up and see what was happening, and it was brilliant, because he was like the god, the main man, and it was wonderful to see him wandering around. You could often be sat in the canteen and he would suddenly appear. He’d have his sleeves rolled up and sit down and have his dinner in the canteen with the workers, and people really liked that. They liked to see that he was there, and he did have this authority about him that left people in awe.

Sidney Bernstein?

Yeah, the Bernsteins would pop in. But you knew if they were around because the whole company, the whole building, was at attention, because you never were quite sure if he was going to pop in. It always made people slightly nervous and wary. But they were around. Of course, then they used to have the place at Golden Square in London, which was the London side of Granada. So most of the time, if they were around, they would be there.

Would you spend any time down at Golden Square?

I’d done two or three World in Actions down there, purely because World in Action, in those days, was split into two camps: they had a London side and a Manchester side. Often, the London people would come up to Manchester to do the edit, but if the edit was very tight, or perhaps had lots of problems with legalities, we could cut it in London, so the lawyers could pop in to the room, see it and go away again. So I’d cut a couple down in London. It was interesting, because Golden Square was where the real big bosses were. It was good fun.

Who would you have worked with on World in Action?

Lord Gus Macdonald was on World in Action as a producer and, later on, as a deputy producer as well. There were great producers like John Shepherd and Brian Blake; people who made wonderful programmes and wrote beautifully. It was the writing of them. You can argue the rights and wrongs, that the visuals weren’t perhaps as inspiring as they are today — because you didn’t have that kind of technology — but the way they wrote, you could follow what was going on and you were never in doubt as to who was the baddie. And there were quite a few baddies around!

It moved on at such a rate of knots that, all of a sudden, people like Paul Greengrass — who I’d worked with as a researcher on Kick Off — then was a researcher on World in Action, and other people, like the Jeff Sees (?) of this world, went on to be great producers and write lots of books and things. So there were lots of people there who really knew the industry inside out and could really make a wonderful programme.

You were there at Granada when you get this crucial change in film editing?

Yes. One of the great things was, obviously, film would have to move, in the sense that you would shoot the film, it’d have to go to the labs, it’d have to be developed, you would get a print to edit, you’d cut it all up and then you’d have to go back to the labs to match it up with a negative, which would then have to be printed. All this took time, and time could be maybe a day or two days. Often, you might lose a very valuable slot.

So it moved on a bit and the next thing, you thought, would be VHS editing: we’d do it on VHS in the edit suite and then you’d match it to tape, and the programme would then go out on tape. So film was slightly being manipulated out. The only problem with VHS, as you’re well aware, is that once you’ve done one assembly, if you change your mind and try and make another copy of it, the picture quality gets less and less. So it didn’t really quite work.

They then tried Beta tapes, or VTR tapes. The cameras were a lot bigger; a lot more cumbersome. But it was the same again: you’d go on Beta tape and it was fine, but it was always having to have three machines to work. It held its own for quite a few years and then, ultimately, it became what it is now, which is non-linear editing.

The best way of comparing that is that it’s just like if you have a Word document. You cut and paste; it’s exactly the same. All you’re doing is basically cutting a picture and pasting it, and it enables you to move it wherever you want. You don’t lose the quality. You have all the stuff at your fingertips. It’s shot onto a little card which you can put in your pocket and carry it around with you. Put that card into the machine and it digitises all the rushes. Then you just non-linear edit it. Of course, you’re able to add all the wonderful optical effects that you can do with computers, whereas in the old days, you’d have to make several layers of film to make anything work.

So basically you’re editing on a computer now? 

It is, yes. One of the good things in that respect is you see what you are doing. When you used to be on film, if you would just do, say, a simple mix, you wouldn’t see it until it came pack from the print, so you’re always hoping that it worked. Now, with it being non-linear, you do a mix and you can see it instantly. Straight away you can say, ‘Actually, no that’s too short’, or ‘That’s too long, there’s a bit of wobble on that camera movement. We can do it again’.

So with non-linear, you’re now spoilt, because you can just do so many versions, and you eventually get it right. Also, whereas before, on film, you’d just have one little screen when you were working with it, now you can have up to three or four monitors, showing pictures that you’re working on, pictures that you’re about to work on and even, depending on your system, a picture before that. So you have all these images and all the monitors. You know exactly what you’re looking at: if the colour’s good, if the sound’s good, and all those can be tweaked during the edit.

And presumably you can do that sitting at home? 

Yes, I have an edit suite at home and four twenty-seven inch screens which I work from. Because of all the applications and add-ons, you can tweak all the sound, you can help lose any hum or distant traffic and things like that. You can clean it all up. You can colour grade pictures. That’s just the way it is: you can virtually do everything you want to do.

Do you prefer doing that or going back to the old Steenbeck machines?

When the director said, ‘I want thirty seconds of this sequence’, while I’m cutting that he’s got time to write and work out what he wants to do. Whether you write pictures to words or you put words to picture is always open debate. Whereas now, on non-linear, because nothing ever rewinds and everything’s instant, if he says, ‘Put me four shots together’, you can do that within about a second and a half. So that producer doesn’t have that time, that thinking time, to work out. It puts a lot of pressure on them to, perhaps, bring a script into the edit suite. So you used to get two weeks to do it; now it’s down to a week. Things have got a lot tighter; a lot shorter. The thinking time is lost now. I think that’s a great shame.

But the quality of the picture?

The qualities of the picture and the sound are perfect, because virtually everything now is shot HD, which is 1080i. The sound, with all the new microphones and things, is really good quality. When you go back into the old film days, sometimes, if they had to do secret filming, they used to use old Hi8 and Super 8 cameras hidden in the bottom of a bag. Cameramen — people like George Turner — would hold it as if they were stood there watching the world go by, and they were filming you. The quality would be awful. But this was the beginning of new technology.

Is is true to say that you can almost film anything, any way, and you can cover up all the mistakes easier now?

Yes. Most of the cameras and the editing software have a stabiliser, so if the camera is a bit wobbly, because it’s handheld or whatever, you can stabilise it. You have to zoom in a bit to lose all the shakiness, but you can do it.

If the colour’s terrible because of the sunlight, you can alter the colour, you can change it, and within reason, you can virtually make anything better. Computer-wise, you can copy bits and pieces; you can add bits to the frame; you can blur out bits; you can change things round. So often, what you might think is a normal background, you can actually lose the background and put another background in its place.

When you see any feature film these days, is what you’re seeing real or not? You see a man doing something and you think, did he actually do that? You don’t know nowadays what is real and what isn’t, because of the world of computers.

Let’s talk a little bit about Granada as a company. You were there during its heyday. 

Yeah, I’d like to think so.

In its heyday, what kind of company was it?

It was a brilliant company to work for. Everybody seemed to want to do their best for the company. Everyone said, ‘I work for Granada Television, because they make the best programmes’, and they did. Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited: these wonderful dramas that they would make, and they would spend a lot of money on them and made them look good.

Some of the documentaries like The Christians — which I was lucky enough to be an assistant on — were great programmes. It always made you feel very proud to work for Granada. Even now, I say, ‘I work for Granada’, and not ITV. As far as I’m concerned, Granada was the one and always will be, because the original caption always said: ’From the north, Granada presents.’

You made wonderful programmes there, but what about it as a company? Was it a good company to work for in the way it treated its employees?

They always wanted their pound of flesh, and the hours could be quite difficult and quite challenging. But ultimately, you always did it, because you did think, these are the best programmes to work for and, in hindsight, this is the best TV company to work for. You always thought you were better than the BBC. I’m sure people would argue that point, but as far as I was concerned, Granada’s were the great programmes.

It was run by people who liked to make films. Mr Plowright did make films; he knew what it took. The people that ran Granada always knew what was involved in making decent programmes. I’m not so sure that’s the case these days. I’m not sure how many people who run TV companies have actually made any programmes. That’s the big difference.

And you were well rewarded? 

Well, you were well rewarded in the sense that you got overtime, and overtime was often an incentive for a lot of people to go beyond what was normal. On World in Action — and it went through across the board — if you did work overtime, you’d have to have what they called a ‘ten-hour break’.

Explain that. 

Basically, after you’ve done a day, you’re meant to have a ten-hour break, and a ten-hour break is, which is at least ten hours before you restarted work again. This was brought in by the unions to stop people working until three or four o’clock in the morning, going home, and coming back at eight o’clock.

So it was a penalty, and the penalty was, if you didn’t have a ten-hour break between finishing work and starting again, the following day you would be on double time. So it meant that the people who wanted you to work would think, ‘we can’t afford that, so you’d better go home now’.

However, if you were on a programme that was really up against it — it happened on World in Action numerous times. Sometimes, I would go home, having worked maybe twenty hours a day for three days on the trot. The first day was double time, the second day was four-T an hour and the third day was eight-T an hour. So it actually doubled up.

So all of a sudden, you’re finishing your last day and you’ve been there for maybe ten hours, and you’re on eight-T an hour. If there was any incentive to want to keep going, that was the one to do it.

The downside was that it would cut out the budget, so you knew this wasn’t going to go on forever, because companies couldn’t afford this kind of money. But again, sometimes on World in Action, I’d start on Saturday morning and I’d go home Monday night, and you’d work through two or three days with no sleep.

So I think you deserved to be paid that extra money, because it’s a long haul to go through that much time without any sleep. The next thing you know, you have a day off and you’re back in work again the following Wednesday. You do that for a few months and then you’re really on your hands and knees by the end of the run, before the summer break came and things like that.

But it was never going to last. I understand that the unions were trying to save people, to stop them working, but you knew that this kind of money couldn’t go from all the budgets. So somewhere along the line it would have to stop and, unfortunately, it did, and it cut budgets down left, right and centre. You got very little overtime. If you did, it was just simple time-and-a-half which, again, is fine, but all the days of double time had gone. Double time at weekends had gone. So it was just straight, normal pay at work.

So the company begins to change, in the late eighties and into the early nineties?

Yes. It almost seemed to come at the same time as Maxwell took over the Mirror, because he moved into the Mirror, which was in Manchester — because I knew people that worked at the Mirror — and all of a sudden all their little extras had started to go. They were cutting the budgets down. All this free drinking and free this and that all went out of the window.

At the same time, it seemed Granada then started cutting down on this; you couldn’t get budgets to do that; we can’t afford it. ‘I want four days filming.’ ‘No, you can only have one day filming.’ The whole thing started coming down to money, which was a great shame, because, obviously, there were more and more channels opening. So ITV didn’t have a monopoly on all of the advertising. Once the advertising revenues start to drop, you can’t afford the same kind of money for the programmes.

And the company had been taken over? 

The company had been taken over and, ultimately, everybody who takes over a company, all they want to do is make money, and to make money, you have to start cutting corners. And they cut corners quite drastically in those days.

Did you find it was a family-friendly company? 

It was always very friendly, especially in the early days. I always remember, when I was possibly about eight or nine, Granada always used to have, at Christmas, a children’s show, that they used to have in one of the studios. They used to invite all the children of the employees down there and it would be party time. The canteen was opened up and full of jellies and cakes and so forth. They used to have bands on and, on one of these particular occasions, the band was Lulu and the Lovers — and that was before Lulu went solo, so it shows how long ago it was! But they looked after kids, they looked after the people, and it was great to work for. It made the parents feel as if they were all part and parcel of the same company.

I think you mentioned to me you would get taken into the studio by your mum?

Yes. Obviously, with Father working for the BBC and Mother working for Granada, I was volunteered to go to boarding school — that’s probably the best way of putting it — and often, when I used to finish the term, Mother would still be working, and during the day and during the week would be on University Challenge and things like that.

So while she used to be in the control box, sat next to the director, I’d be sat on the floor with a pen and paper and she’d say, ‘Draw, and sit there for a couple of hours while we do this show’. That’s what I would do. It was always interesting, because, at the end of it, you’d meet all these people. If it wasn’t University Challenge — if she’d worked on a couple of dramas or a couple of big shows — you’d meet all these people, and it was really nice to meet everybody. She was also involved quite heavily, in the early days, on Coronation Street.

She was very good friends with Violet Carson, Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Pat Phoenix and Doris Speed, who was Annie Walker. They were always at our house, and I was always wandering round with mother to their houses, because Pat Phoenix lived in Sale. She actually had a swimming pool, which was quite big. I always used to go over there and used to go swimming in the swimming pool. Mother and her would be sat there having a large gin and tonic or something.

You’d go round and you’d meet Doris Speed and you’d meet her mother. The mother would always try and give me a Dubonnet and things like that, which didn’t go down particularly well, but it was great to meet these people.

There was one particular time we had to move to Ansdell, which is just near Blackpool — which was one of the reasons why I was at boarding school — and all the Coronation Street people had come round to Mother’s for a party. It was great. They were all there.

They’d had a few lemonades and were quite happy with life. I think Elsie, or Pat Phoenix said, ‘Why don’t we go to the pleasure beach?’ So Mother duly volunteered me to take this bunch to the pleasure beach. So off we trundled; there was Elsie, Pat and all the others. They used to have this ride called the Helter Skelter — which I’m not so sure if it’s there any more — and it literally was. You’d walk up quite a long ladder, you’d sit in a sack and they’d just push you down this thing.

Pat said, ‘I’ll have a go at it!’ and up she went. And the expression of her face as she came straight down on this slide; I thought the whole of Blackpool was just going to collapse in laughter as she went head over heels and into this bale of hay. But that’s the way it was: everybody was friendly, everybody knew each other and they were nice to each other. You could always sit and talk, and it was a fabulous time. It really was.

People have mentioned to me about the canteen, the bar and the stables being very important?

The canteen was very important, for several reasons, I always thought, because anybody who was working at the station and wanted anything to drink or eat would have to go in the canteen. There was none of this, ‘Oh, there’s a separate canteen for this production or programme’. Everybody would be sat there.

One time I was stood in the queue and Tom Jones is stood behind me. They would say, ‘Hello’ and that was about it. There was one time when I was sat in the canteen. Someone said, ‘Can I sit next to you?’ and I looked up and it was Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner, because they were in doing a big drama. They went and sat down and had their lunch and I kind of said, ‘I think I’ll go’ and left them. But that’s what happened. These great stars of film and theatre would appear, because there was only one place to eat. Sir Denis wanted everyone to be part of this lovely family culture.

And the canteen would be open from dawn to dusk?

It would. There was a young lady called Irma, who used to run the tea. She had this huge pot of tea, and if you were at the beginning of the queue it’d be great. But if you got towards the end of the queue, she’d refilled it so many times with tea it would melt the spoon, I think. But it always a laugh and a joke, and it was great fun.

Everybody was nice; everyone looked after the canteen ladies and they looked after you. If you were nice to them, they’d be nice to you. If you gave them any hard times, you’d suffer in the process. There used to be a little theatre group at the side, in the building, and then some bright spark said, ‘We’ll make this into a bar’, which was called the Old School and the stables.

As you know, television people do like the odd drink or two, and this place would just be absolutely heaving. People would be in there at all times, because some programmes would be finished, some would start, some would start early, some would start late. So whatever time you went in there, it would be full. And also, it would be full of all the so-called actors and actresses. Again, it was still a family unit, and that’s what made it so special.

Let’s talk a little bit about the way the company did change.

There were changes. When David Plowright lost his position on the board. He was on holiday at the time. People had moved in and moved him out. He knew straightaway once that had started, that was the end of the road. Not necessarily for Granada, but the end of the road of the family feeling.

Because these people that had come in, all they were interested in was pounds, shillings and pence. That’s all that they wanted to know: how much money they could make; how much could they save; could they do this; could they do that. From that point onwards, it then lost all the family connections and it got very hard and bitter, because people who’d been at Granada from day one always remembered what it was like and compared it to what it had gone on to be, and it was never, never the same.

Even now, if people talk to me, most of the time you can’t help but talk about the ‘good old days’. You don’t really talk about the days when various money men had moved in. That saw the demise of Granada Television.

Is there anything else you want to say or talk about? 

I don’t think so. I kept the technical side out of the film, because if I start talking about reversal it just loses it. I think non-linear is almost self-explanatory. I think people can understand cut and paste. I think that’s probably about it.

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