Steve Leahy

Interviewed by Geoff Moore, 14 August 2015.

Tell us how you got into Granada, and when it was.

I was studying Law at Leeds and I’d scraped through my first year and hated it. My brother was a solicitor, that’s why I went into it. I didn’t know what the hell to do, so they nudged me that way, hoped I might make a barrister. I absolutely hated being a student. And I absolutely hated Law. As dry as old Wotsits. And I scraped through but I knew I couldn’t see myself doing two more years by any chance.

So I decided to leave, which my parents were very hostile to. We only got a television when I was 14 at home, so I was very new to telly, seeing it, and I just decided I wanted to work in television. So I wrote very naively to every TV station seeking a career, and Granada gave me an interview. I was working at the time up in Scotland for British Petroleum doing road safety for schools, going round schools with a microphone and little show. And so the police who were running these weeks – we were assigned to a police force each week in a different area to do these shows – they were so nice, and I was getting on so well with them that they covered for me completely, didn’t tell BP I was skiving off. And I went down to Manchester for the interview, which was for an assistant transmission controller, of which I had no idea what it was, or anything. I did the interview and lied my way through lots of things, as we all do. Manual dexterity: I claimed I mended my own car, and built my own stereo and all this sort of crap that was total rubbish, and could type – rubbish! But I had a good interview and got the job. So I moved up to Granada to be an assistant transmission controller as a trainee.

Tell us about the interview. Who was there?

I honestly can’t remember that interview at all. I can remember subsequent ones to become a researcher and things like that. But that initial one, I think it was Joe Rigby actually. Yes because it would have been presentation, wouldn’t it? And Dave Black. Yes, it would have been. I’m still in touch with Joe Rigby now.

So you got into Granada.

Got into Granada, arrived very green, as a trainee assistant transmission controller, which was a nine month training programme. And I did it in three months, which is astonishing because it was mind over matter, I can’t push buttons and do things, I really can’t, I had to just learn it. I was determined to learn it so that I stayed in the business. But I was fascinated by what was happening in telly. I didn’t wish to become a controller and aspire to work in that area. I wanted to get creative and join in shows and things. And after two years working in there, a researcher’s job came up on local programmes, and I wanted to apply. And they were horrified because they’d invested in training, and you just don’t leave where they are. It was seen as going from pseudo-engineering to creative, which was not heard of, so they told me I had to resign to be considered. I had to say, “I’m leaving now” and then they would give me a board to become a researcher. I didn’t mind because I was fully qualified and working for the biggest TV station virtually in the country, which meant that there were 13 or 14 other stations who would be desperate to have somebody totally trained to walk into their control rooms. So there was no question I’d have got a job anywhere. That was fine. And I thought, oh well, sod it, yes. So I now have two Granada pensions. One was for the few years as a baby and then the next one kicked in when I joined staff again.

So you had to resign to apply for the researcher job?

Yes. And then I did the researcher board, which I remember Chris Pye was on, I can’t remember much else about it, and I got that, and then I was again training and on a contract, and then when you got your union card, you became staff then. I was just cock-a-hoop. Wonderful.

What year was that?

Oh, gosh, I can’t do years.



So you joined Granada Reports with no journalistic background.

Correct. But I was Tony Wilson’s researcher on What’s On and things like that, so I did the fun and games. Always entertainment stuff. I never ever was put on a proper story. I didn’t want to. That’s not what I was there for. I went to become an entertainment researcher.

As I remember it, Granada Reports was a mix of journalists and researchers.

Yes, it was. I wasn’t the only one there, there were lots there. But certainly the newsroom was god, and that was a lot of people.

Was this when Steve Morrison was in charge?

Yes. My first day at Granada was exactly the same as Jules Burns’ first day, I think.

So how long were you on Granada Reports? And what happened after that?

I was a researcher on Granada Reports for a few years and then got involved in… I don’t think I did much else at that time. Then I became a researcher in entertainment with Johnnie Hamp.

How did that happen?

I think there was a vacancy or a show coming up and I said yes, I’d like to go into entertainment, so that was a move across. Then I became a promotions editor, working back with Joe Rigby. I think that was the order of it. And then the producers’ board, and I got a producer’s job in entertainment – locals again. That’s when we did things like the afternoon programmes that we were all involved in, and all that sort of stuff. Sandy Ross was similar at that time. And then I went into entertainment proper for Johnnie Hamp.

What shows did you work on with Johnnie Hamp, and what was the first show you did together?

There was a period when I was a researcher in entertainment, so maybe before I became a promotions editor I’d become a researcher in entertainment, because the first show I ever researched for him was Wheeltappers and Shunters. I had to go round the clubs at night. I found Cannon and Ball, which I’m not sure is a good thing!

You discovered them?

Yes, well they were an existing act on the circuit. I got them in for audition and stuff to Johnnie. I’m sure he must have known about them, they were out there. I used to go round the working men’s clubs at night, trundling around.

So it is the case that you were always aiming to be in entertainment from the moment you arrived, so you worked towards that?

Yes. Completely. And I don’t know why. But that’s what I wanted to do.

And then you were made a producer, you worked for Johnnie Hamp.

Then I became head of children’s programmes, which wasn’t under Johnnie Hamp; that was answering direct to Mike Scott. Granada had a requirement of so many hundreds of hours of children’s programmes to the network per year. So that was great, that was a little empire and you did what you wanted, because nobody was interested at all! [laughs] I honestly think that the entire period of working at Granada was a charmed life. An absolute privilege. I don’t think we realised it at the time. But we were in a hotbed of talent and productivity and creativity. When you think about it, we were nurtured, all of us, and that doesn’t happen today anywhere.

It’s interesting you made that point. As an assistant transmission controller there was a formal training scheme, wasn’t there? But it seems for the rest of the stuff, like being a researcher, there was no formal training at all.

Yes, you just learned on your feet. It was down to your wit and your value and your experience as you gradually got into the job. They had director courses. They didn’t have producer courses.

Were you happy with that? I mean, the BBC would have had training courses.

Well, you know better. I was born at Granada and you grow up the Granada way, don’t you? I think I learned a lot for future life through Granada. I loved the way the Stables worked, and before that, Film Exchange. While I was an assistant transmission controller I was talking to Peter Eckersley in the evenings and really getting to know people on every side of it, and gave you the entrée to speak to them in a bar, which you would never do in normal life. You wouldn’t go and knock on office doors and things. That was absolutely brilliant. We got Granada in our blood.

I was always fiercely loyal to Granada. I would defend Granada on anything. And we were all also very proud of everything they did. I had absolutely zero to do with Jewel in the Crown yet I can remember being immensely proud. I wouldn’t have said that at the time because I wouldn’t have realised it, but just looking back you think, gosh, it was a wonderful club, and it wasn’t an exclusive club. It was absolutely terrific. That was the training for people all over the world now: Granada. They’re all out there, aren’t they? You keep coming across it.

Later on, when we took on Action Time, it was like I’d been through a college to be able to do that. How to grab a team and make them loyal and make them yours, and have fun as well. That really stood me in good stead. I think Granada was absolutely amazing. Talking to people who had other backgrounds, I don’t think they had the same.

In other companies?

Yes. Apart from the sheer richness of programming and the vast quantity and quality of programming, which obviously smaller stations didn’t enjoy…

And its reputation was second-to-none at the time.

Oh! Unbelievable. One of the best moments for me was, we’d done a pilot of Busman’s Holiday, and it was accepted by Granada, by Mike Scott and co., to go to series. And in those days they would dictate and tell the network, “We’ve got a new series for you.” It wasn’t a question of going to a panel or anything like that. And obviously the series looked nothing like the pilot but that’s life. They commissioned the first series and we shot it, and transmission was going to be Wednesday nights at 7 o’clock. And on the Tuesday, the day before the transmission of the first show, Mike Scott sent for me and I went up to the sixth floor to his office, at 6 o’clock, and he opened a bottle of champagne, and said, “I love the show, it’s absolutely terrific. Second series commissioned.” And we hadn’t even gone on air. That was the biggest kick ever. Wonderful. I can remember the moment. Absolutely fabulous. You felt like, “Yes!” And we got 14 million the next night, but you would in those days, preceding the Street, which is probably getting 20. But that was just fabulous.

By then you were head of entertainment? You went from children’s to head of entertainment?

Yes, I look over from Johnnie Hamp.

Was Busman’s Holiday your creation?

Yes, completely. Busman’s Holiday was borne out of… after the Film Exchange there was a bar opposite Granada, down some steps.

I remember, and I can never think of the name.

What’s that called? It was a spin-off, wasn’t it? And I can remember coming out of that after lunch one day, as one did, and it’s pissing with rain, with umbrellas and all that, making the hop across the Granada, and thinking, we’ve got to write something that gets us out of this bloody whether and place! Manchester, not Granada. And it just literally then occurred to me over the next few days, the idea of travel and occupations, and the title came naturally. And off we went.

Which other shows did you create?

Well, the first one I was ever involved in creating was Krypton Factor, which was Jeremy Fox’s idea. This was while we were on regional programmes, but Mastermind had started, and ITV wanted to counteract that. It was deemed that the right calibre show would play as adult education in peak time, which we’d then get huge brownie points for. So Krypton Factor never had a commercial break, because it was adult education, which the public didn’t obviously realise. It was Chris Pye, Jeremy and myself. Jeremy’s idea was the “krypton”, the idea of mind and brain, and then we contributed the other bits. The “factor” part of the title was mine, and different things like that. I went off and found the assault course and talked to the army and got all that going. It was great fun. So that was the very first. Thereafter, Granada, whenever they wanted a quiz, said, right then, we’re not paying, buying an American show in. I wrote 19 network quizzes in the end for Granada. And of course, didn’t get paid a penny extra. If I’d written a drama I would have. It’s quite funny. And they wouldn’t give me credits because they thought it might be contentious for a claim [/acclaim?] of some sort.

Some of those 19 shows, can you name some of them?

Oh, gosh. There was a lot of children’s ones – Runway wasn’t children’s, it was Richard Madeley’s first foray into network entertainment, that was a morning quiz show. Runway, Busman’s Holiday, Connections, which was done with a producer whose name’s gone… the staff producer at Granada who worked in regionals with us… it’ll come back.

Did you say you created 19 quiz shows that all got on air for Granada? Various shows, daytime, evening?

Yes. A couple may not have been quizzes. They may have been network series, entertainment shows.

You made the point that, we’ve all been there, a Granada show is a Granada show, you didn’t even get a credit, let alone any sort of stake in it.

I didn’t mind at the time, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t muttering for years, not at all. But it’s very funny to look at how the world works today.

Was this a factor in your leaving Granada?

No. When I left Granada it was a big surprise to me, because I was totally happy, I was mid-productions on everything we were doing, I was having a ball, totally, really enjoying myself. I got a phone call offering me Action Time, and we had long conversations the night on the phone, and I just said yes. I just could see the logic of going independent. I could see it coming. And there weren’t independents much then. I just thought, that’s got to be a way forward. That’s going to be what happens. And I really fancied the idea of running my own company.

And Action Time was part of which…?

Zenith. And Jeremy Fox started Action Time and he had sold it to Zenith and was going off to America to Jess McDonald to make their fortunes. So they asked me to take it over, to run it as MD. We didn’t even discuss money. It wasn’t the point at that initial thing. I just thought, yes, I can see it with absolute clarity, that that’s what one should do.

So Jeremy Fox asked you?

He put my name forward; he recommended me, yes. I inherited two filing cabinets and a soul music show on Channel 4 that had just finished. [both laugh] So there wasn’t a lot in the larder at all, but they did own a company and it was independent. We started literally from the back of a garage behind where our Action Time office became, with two of us, that was it.

David was saying yesterday that some of the shows, Busman’s Holiday included, became independent commissions.

Well, what happened was that dear Mr Morrison held a gun to my head when I left because within months I’d found You’ve Been Framed and Stars In Their Eyes. Stars In Their Eyes was Dutch, and You’ve Been Framed is actually Japanese, but I was in a cutting room in ABC in Hollywood watching one show and I could hear laughter next door, and I said, “Can I go and see what they’re watching?” And it was America’s Funniest Home Videos, but a pilot. And I bought the rights off the Japanese in LA while I was there and brought it back.

So I had really golden new shows, the rights to them. Granada drove a very hard bargain which I shouldn’t have done, but they said they need to make stuff in-house, I can’t have all those shows out as an indie down the road. But they would license them from me. But they offered me Busman’s Holiday as an indie. And at that time it was running very successfully and making a lot of money, and it was filming round the world, and fun still. And currency in Britain, as an indie, we make this, a network entertainment show, so it put us in a position. So I made the decision to accept that, and I shouldn’t have done, I should have said “Bollocks!” and gone to another company with Stars In Their Eyes and with You’ve Been Framed and they would have gone on air, they’re great shows.

So you’re the man responsible for initially bringing those shows, Stars In Their Eyes and You’ve Been Framed, to British viewers.

Absolutely. 100%. Stars was Joop van den Ende, it was his side of it. It was their show. I just saw the potential.

And Stars became a great hit for Granada.

Yes, we made a pilot with Chris Tarrant hosting, who’s brilliant because he was sardonic and tongue-in-cheek. Not, wonderful, wonderful. I mean, Matthew did a great job but the pilot was really good. But Mr ITV didn’t like Chris Tarrant. So they wouldn’t have him. But we advertised on Granada for lookalike singers, because Granada and Liddiment and the network insisted it’s got to be straight, we can’t just ship in people form Holland. Is the talent there? That was the big question. And we were just inundated, it was amazing. The pilot was brilliant. And that was that.

You’ve Been Framed was London Weekend wasn’t it?

No, it was Granada. Totally. And it stayed. You’ll still see Action Time credited on it because of legalities, although Action Time was subsumed into Carlton a long time ago.

Did you leave Granada in the nineties?

I left in ’88. I can remember that year! [laughs]

We could talk for ages about post ’88, but the project is…

Yes, I understand that. Anyway I left and at the time David Plowright had two of everything. So Liddiment and myself were heads of entertainment, which we carved down the middle and he did the Street which counted under that at time, and he did all comedy, which I had no interest in whatsoever, and correctly, he should do that. And he did singing and dancing, in that he did Kid Creole and all those things. Meantime, I got on with my quizzes and all the stuff I was interested in. We were totally compatible, it was very happy. I mean, it doesn’t sound like it would work, if you have an empire cut in two, but it really did because neither of us crossed over on each other and we both backed each other completely.

Complementary talents.

Yes. And we liked each other hugely. So that worked. There was never a case of, I’m not showing you what I’m doing, what are you doing, that sort of thing. There was no competition between us. We were absolutely on the same table all the time.

Was this the age of quizzes, do you think, the eighties and nineties?

No. I think it’s cyclical anyway. It’s the taste for quizzes that comes and goes. I mean, America now is seeking the next big hit, because Millionaire was an absolute triumph, and there’s been nothing since that’s quite swept the world. There will be, which is why I want to keep on writing. There will be a novel idea that really kicks and goes. But the staple of many companies around the world is still daytime solid quizzes, blocks of them. Look at ITV. I mean, Channel 4 ruled afternoons for a decade with quizzes and stuff. They’ve lost it; they didn’t refresh and redo. ITV have got it now with The Chase and things like that.

Looking back on your Granada years, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Granada as a company?

I can’t think of weaknesses. I thought it was cocky and it did the hell what it wanted and it fought the network on everything, but they meant it, and they were great. Certainly working for Granada I didn’t find any negatives whatsoever, I really had a ball. Absolutely privileged.

That world has gone now. But the community, you mentioned the Film Exchange and the one across from there, as David did yesterday. He came from the promotions department, but you just get access to a lot of people, from writers to producers, everyone. That sense of community in the same environment, that’s gone now in television.

Yes. In a funny way it’s probably easier to get a job in television now than it ever was because there are more courses and more training at colleges and universities, and also there are independents galore. But the trick is obviously to find the right independent who’s creative enough and big enough. Because in my experience of independents they don’t tend to build people. You have to leave and go somewhere else to become a producer if you’re a researcher. You’re not recognised in your own country. I think it’s much harder, therefore, for people.

And I think a lot of people I know in independents are in development, which we never used to do. We used to have day jobs, and developing was on the side. We didn’t have an office with the word ‘development’ on it, ever. We literally carried on with what we were doing, and, by the way, I’ve had an idea, and we’ll have a meeting on it, and while we’re producing this show. So it’s turned differently now. I don’t think television is anything like the fun it was at Granada, but that’s maybe me in hindsight, sitting back a bit. It was fun. All the time.

Are you sad about what happened to Granada? Other people have expressed regret at the way it went.

I suppose I’d like to see it still doing what it did, but I’m not World In Action, not as sad as they are. We know from the books written and all the stuff, there is a lot of hurt there. I’m not, because the areas I worked in would have changed anyway. I think it’s a shame that there isn’t the creative hotbed that we enjoyed, but then there isn’t anywhere now. BBC is decimated. It’s a completely different world. We were just in a bubble. I think television was in a bubble. Everyone was making money. ITV was very prosperous. There were only four channels, and Granada had the license to print programmes. I can’t remember anything being denied in productions terms. We had budgets, but they were bloody good budgets, certainly in entertainment if it’s network, bloody hell. I know it was political because we wanted to wave our flag in Liverpool, but we did things like Rock Around The Dock, and in those days that was about 800,000 quid, and that’s several million now, on a rock show at night in Liverpool! And I know they wanted to make big noise for Liverpool, but that money was there, and you just went and put your hand out for more.

What was that other show you made around the same time?

New Brighton Rock.

Wasn’t there one on a battleship or something?

Yes, that was Rock Around The Rock, which was out of Gibraltar on Ark Royal. It was fun.

Looking back at the time you were at Granada, which individuals would you single out at as having impressed you or having been great role models for people working there?

Well, I think leadership from Plowright, and Mike Scott was very good to me. Very good to me. I remember several times I went to him as head of entertainment and just said, “I’ve totally fucked up.” I’d booked The Three Degrees to sing on a show and they hadn’t even got permits, which we thought they had and they hadn’t, and we couldn’t transmit, and we had to re-record the whole sequence with another act, which meant putting the set back in and god knows what. And I just said, “Sack me, I’ve really buggered it up here and it’s costing a fortune.” And he was absolutely fine. So there was that sort of relationship, that meant you could talk honestly and not need to fudge things or cover things. So I benefitted hugely from them. Johnnie Hamp was good to me. His television was very different television from mine, so I was sort of biting at his heels in a funny way, but I certainly learned a lot from him, although it’s not the sort of telly, or the way we’d made telly. He was very focused on how he made telly, which was a different brand. Morrison had a big impact on my life because I worked with him for years.

Do you think that entertainment was given enough respect in Granada?

No, but I don’t mind that, because that made you fight your corner more. We were the grotty dustbin in the corner that somebody had to do. I don’t think anyone in drama or World In Action or whatever was ever proud of entertainment shows that were going through; they were mildly intrigued but they didn’t see it as being the flag. Whereas I think we saw it as, if we got a big entertainment show on the network, it was a triumph because it was another string to the bow. I never felt disadvantaged at all, but I’d understood. I mean it was quite obvious, when you’d sit at creative boards at Granada, that the focus was on the heavier side of things and the more illustrious side of things. But they understood there was a need. And if there is a need on the network, it might as well be Granada that makes it.

So you have a very positive recollection of your Granada experience.

Absolutely. Wholly positive.

And you learned as you went along. That was the company way. And for you it was good fun.

Yes. There’s nothing I regretted about Granada or hated at all. I never ever went into work thinking, oh bugger, another Monday. That feeling that I’ve had since in different things. Absolutely, no. Thoroughly, really enjoyed it. I think everyone did. I don’t think there were unhappy people there.

What was Granada’s biggest entertainment show, over those years?

In Johnnie’s terms, it was Wheeltappers and… things were massive on Saturday nights. Big hit Saturday night shows, which Granada subsequently and historically didn’t really get because LWT swept in on all that. Granada wasn’t into stars. LWT was and is. London made front type of shows and we were more inventive in coming up with formats that would work.

I remember Mike Scott, who I worked with a fair bit when he was controller, he was pretty desperate to get an entertainment hit. I think he took the view that, you’ve got your Coronation Streets and your World In Actions but if only, and I remember him saying about Cilla Black, “If only we had Cilla Black”. The appetite for creating a hit entertainment show was very big.

Also, once you’ve got a hit show, it runs for years. That’s another worry out of the way. You can return for 13 weeks for five or six years.

And Krypton Factor was an important show.

Krypton Factor was a very important show, a) because it ticked the boxes, and b) it was very popular. You still hear references to it now.

And of course it won the Spanish television award in 1987.

Yes. I won one subsequent to that, the Premios Ondas.

That’s the one I’m talking about.

Yes, but I won it again myself for something else that was a hit in Spain, I can’t remember what it was.

I remember because Gordon went there with you to Spain.

Yes, I’ve still got photos of that.

I’ve got the flying horse, which I remember you were presented with, at your leaving dinner in the Midland Hotel, by [Claret?] or somebody.

What would you say is the legacy of Granada, from your perspective?

The legacy of Granada to the world? It was a fantastic training ground for so many people who have then gone out from there. Think of it as a school or college. Everyone’s gone off now to do other things, and that excellence is all over the joint. It’s all over the world. So I think, that, and also a brilliant history of programming.

Another thought occurs here, because this is what happened when we worked together. I remember Granada could have its snottier section, that was another thing with the BBC as well. Some people just put up with entertainment and quiz shows because there are more worthwhile things to do and we’ve got to pay the rent. But you were never like that, were you? You never wanted to see entertainment as a poor relation.

Oh god, no. I lived for entertainment and game shows. I absolutely thoroughly enjoy the chemistry of them, the makeup of them, and the execution of it. I honestly think quiz and game shows were the first early reality television, because it’s unscripted and using real members of the public in a position. Obviously reality now is freer, but that was the first thing where focus was on members of the public for entertainment. I would defend my corner completely. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love it. I think you have to, don’t you? You’ve always got to be true to yourself, otherwise, why?

You were a bit unusual in Granada. Granada had a lot of worthy people, mostly, you had no shortcut. But I can’t think of other people like you – I mean, David Liddiment would be one – that were so committed to entertainment.

No, but it was wonderful because it was like being given license. That was fantastic, to come up with ideas and be able to do them, and have a whole team working on them. It was brilliant. I hope people you’ve talked to have positive memories.

No, they do. There isn’t any negative. I’ve done you and John Woods the cameraman, who was brilliant, and David was brilliant. And, you know, there are downsides in everything. Relations with the unions have been talked about as problematic.

But that would have been industry-wide, you see. I can remember things like not being able to pick up a paintbrush in the studio or move a chair, or all this nonsense. I still think now, yesterday in the studio in [Carnarvon?] I was helping move a podium, and it still strikes me, gosh, you wouldn’t have got away with that a few years ago! And nobody cares. So there’s still that. But that was industry-wide and not a Granada, problem, I don’t think.

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