Sandy Ross talks about his impressions of Granada TV as a company

Just talk a little bit about what kind of a company was Granada. 

Granada was, not their words, the best television station in the world. Granada knew they were good. They had weaknesses, don’t get me wrong, but they knew they produced good programmes and all the rest of it. Every year there used to be the BANFF television festival, which I think still runs. One year the BANFF television festival decided that Granada was the best television company in the world.

That was the accolade that was given to the company just because of everything it produced; the drama, ‘Coronation Street’, ‘World in Action’, some of the current affairs where they stood up to the government. They pioneered the first coverage of a parliamentary by-election when they challenged the Representation of the People Act.

They had an amazing history of firsts in terms of things they had done. It was also a regional television station producing all of these things out of Manchester, this wasn’t coming out of London. For example David Plowright used to argue that ‘Coronation Street was a local programme, which he allowed the rest of the network to see. I know for a fact that if he had a dispute with the network he would use ‘Coronation Street’ as a bargaining tool, “I’ll just take ‘Coronation Street away’” which would have panicked the network.

It was a very, very proud company and you were aware of that when you joined the company, about this reputation and the place of the company in the broadcasting firmament. After that year, which must have been ’76 or ’77, where the BANFF television festival decided it was the ‘best television station in the world’ you would come into work in the morning at the studios on Quay Street. The quote from the BANFF television festival and the citation things were up on the wall next to a Francis Bacon painting of one of the screaming popes. So when you came into work every morning, the first thing you did was you stared at this framed poster which said ‘the best television station in the world’ and you looked to your left and here was £3 million worth of contemporary art. Just going to work in the morning was a feeling of pride, you felt you were working for the best television station in the world.

These were the days when ‘World in Action’ was the current affairs programme and did an incredible number of things. Everybody was desperate to work for ‘World in Action’.

You would go into the canteen and there would be in the queue ‘Coronation Street’ actors that you had grown up watching on the telly. Lawrence Olivier would be in shooting ‘King Lear’, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood would come in to do ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. I had reason to look back recently at the King Lear cast, it was a veritable who’s who of the best of British acting. I still remember Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud doing the Pinter play ‘No Man’s Land’ in the Granada studio.

So you’d be in your office and you’d have the ring main on and you’d be seeing Richardson and Gielgud doing these dialogues from Pinter or see Sir Lawrence Olivier doing the soliloquies from King Lear. You thought ‘My god, I work in quite an important place’. There was that sense of pride, superiority to the rest of the broadcasting world.

The other really interesting that I still enjoy and benefit from; Granada was the station, certainly then but I don’t think it’s so true now, that essentially did the training for the rest of the ITV network. None of the other 14 ITV companies had any kind of training system. Granada’s training system was fairly rudimentary in the sense that it was training on the job. At least it was a training system. We also had a policy of bringing in quite a lot of researchers, some of whom wouldn’t make it after the first six months; they’re not for us, we’re not for them, and they would go. There was quite a high turnover of researchers coming in and let’s be honest, a lot of people were successful and a lot of people made it. Then what would happen is they would go off into the other ITV companies because they’d done their time at Granada, they’d learnt to direct, they’d learnt to produce, become good researchers or whatever it was. They would go off to Central, LWT, Thames or wherever it was they went. Even to this day there is a Granada old boys network of people who you have known from Granada days. Or even the fact that you meet somebody and despite not working there at the same time, the minute you know you both worked at Granada there is a bond that is created there, simply from having shared that Granada experience. I think that was part and parcel of having worked there and experienced working there. You felt that you’d had a special kind of training in television and a special kind of experience in television if you’d worked at Granada, which I don’t think you got anywhere else.

Would you describe it as a paternalistic company?

It was a very paternalistic company. It was also quite a fraternalistic company. I’d worked in solicitor’s offices, for one horrible year I worked for the general trustees of the Church of Scotland, that was dire. And I’d come from Scotland. Suddenly you arrive in this company where with the exception of three people everybody was on first name terms. Culturally to me that was quite a shock. You come from thinking these guys are your bosses but actually it was David, Denis, Steve, Gus, Chris…

The whole company right from the start was a first name term company. The only three people who, when I joined, weren’t first name people in that sense was Mr Sidney and Mr Cecil, the two Bernstein brothers. I think the Mr was an act of respect, they’d set up the company and Granada was their vision. As a mark of that respect they were known as Mr Sidney and Mr Cecil. The other person was Mrs Wooller, Joyce Wooller who was an administrator. For reasons, which I never quite found out, she was never Joyce she was always Mrs Wooller.

Sidney and Cecil used to come to the building. They were based in London, so they weren’t there every day, but they would come to the building. Their big heroes were the circus people Barnum and Bailey. They understood the concept of entertainment through Barnum and Bailey and through the circus. So there was Barnum and Bailey posters, as well as other fantastic works of art. That was another nice thing about working in the building in Quay Street, it was like an art gallery. They invested in modern art and they were obviously very, very well advised by whoever bought the paintings for them. There were some fantastic works of art all around the building apart from the Francis Bacon. The Barnum and Bailey thing, you were never allowed to lose sight of that.

I was never so aware of Cecil but I was always aware of Mr Sidney because the word would come out that Mr Sidney was going to be in the building on such and such a day and could you please just make your officer that bit tidier, or bin this or bin that. Him and David Plowright would walk around the building. Sidney would see things he didn’t like and a day or two later an edict would come out, ‘could you not do this or could do that’.

The one I always remember was when we moved into the Bonded Warehouse, a wonderful brick building which had been refurbished. We had started sticking stuff on the walls of the brick and Sidney had walked through this huge open plan office. An edict came out the next day that Sidney did not want stuff stuck onto the brick walls, please take it off, which of course everybody did. From that point of it was quite paternalistic but I also thought it was quite fraternalistic because there was a collegiate feel about the place and the way things were done.

Everybody was actively encouraged, no matter which department or speciality you worked in, to submit programme ideas to whatever department. There was an encouragement for you to do that, and you did it because if you believed in the idea what you would hope at the end of the day is that you would get to work on it.

The other thing they used to do very regularly was David Plowright, because he’d become the MD at the time, would host a dinner in the flat on the seventh floor. You might get invited to that twice a year, I don’t know how often the dinner happened, but if you were lucky and part of the group of ideas people you would get invited a couple of times a year. The drink would flow, the food would be nice but what Plowright wanted was to be challenged. He wanted to meet the younger people in the company but he wanted to be argued with, he wanted to be challenged, he wanted to hear different ideas. They were ‘serious sore heads the next day’ dinners.

So that again, yes it was paternalistic in that sense but it was also collegiate in the sense that anything was up for grabs. David might say a few words at the beginning of the dinner but essentially the conversation round the table, went in the direction the conversation took depending on who was there and what was being said. David might say there was particular challenges that had to be met or whatever. These were the things that were talked about at these dinners.

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