Steve Morrison talks about the Northern Documentary Unit

Basically, Gus (MacDonald) invented a new role, or a new unit, called the Northern Documentary Unit, and he said, “You’ll be running the Northern Documentary Unit, you make little films just for the region, and you find stories and you find directors, and I’ll give you a couple of researchers,” one of whom was Anna Ford, “just get on with it.” So one day, a Granada director, a bit bolshie, came into the office, and he stood at the jamb of the door and he said, “I don’t know who you are, but this unit’s never going to work. There’s often been attempts to make little films as well as do Granada Reports but they never come to anything – and neither will yours.” I said, “Why do you say that?” and he said, “Well, you have no authority, you’re a director and directors have no authority in Granada, you have to be a producer to get anything done, and you’re not a producer, so that’s it,” and he walked off. So I walked down the corridor into Gus’s office, and I said, “Gus, I’ve just had this mad conversation with a director who says this is never going to happen because I’m not a producer,” and Gus said, “Okay, you’re a producer.” So in that moment, I went from being a director to the producer-director, and basically the head of the so-called Northern Documentary Unit, which nobody understood, but we started making films.

And actually, I still remember some of those films. We discovered – I don’t know how we discovered this, probably down to a very good researcher – that in the car park of Sefton Hospital in Liverpool, I think that’s what it was called, there was a caravan, and in that caravan, on the National Health, a very beautiful blonde woman electrocuted homosexuals – it was called ‘aversion therapy’, and homosexual men would come in, they would be shown pictures of other men in, you know, more or less naked positions, and very glamorous, and when they saw them they would be given, not a huge, but a persistent electric shock on their leg, then they would be shown pictures of naked women, or semi-naked women, and they weren’t given the shock, and at the end of this, which went on for about 10-15 minutes, they would be given a talk, or a conversation, with the lady therapist, and in fact, the lady therapist was so beautiful, and so genuinely interested, that homosexual men who had never been fondly regarded by a woman would be very interested in her, and talking to her, but of course the electric shocks had no effect, and I thought this was a great little film, totally self-contained in a caravan, if the subjects will agree to be filmed, and if the lady will agree to be interviewed, that’s our first film.

And in those days, you will recall that very cheap films were made on something called stripe, magnetic stripe, not normal film, which meant that you didn’t get a print of it – the actual thing, the piece of material was the only piece of material that the picture was on, as opposed to other kinds of film where the negative can produce different prints. So I was back in the cutting room, having done a 20-minute interview with this lady, and interviewed the subjects, and Gus Macdonald dropped into the cutting room, where the editor was a very famous World in Action editor that I had somehow got hold of for a couple of days called Kelvin Hendrie. And Gus looked at this interview with the woman when I was asking her why she was doing this therapy, and did she realise that these men had an affection and a relationship with her, even though they were homosexual, and Gus looked at it and said, “Yes! That’s a good interview, that’ll make two minutes.” And I said, as he went out, “Gus, every single frame of this interview is going in this film – this is not a news programme, this is a film.” And he went, “Ha!” and he walked out. Meanwhile, we had what’s called a ‘trim bin’ with a lot of old bits, ends of stock that we weren’t going to use, and occasionally Kelvin, bless him, would throw the dregs of his coffee cup into the trim bin, and we get another interruption, which is a phone call from David Plowright, who is literally down in the controllers group in London with all the bosses with all of the ITV companies in the fortnightly session when they tortured each other, selling each other programmes, and I don’t know who was listening, but he said, “Steve – an election’s just been called, and Lord King,” – I can’t remember what his name was, the guy who owned the Daily Mirror (Cecil King) – “but he was doing a film with us around Britain about what he thinks of Britain, and now the election’s been called, we can’t use it, it’s partial, and it’s not suitably balanced under the Representation of the People Act, but Gus tells me you’ve got a very interesting film for regional programmes.” I said, “Yes, we’re cutting it at the moment.” He said, “Well, that’ll be fine, you’re on the network next Tuesday night.” And I said, “How long is this slot, Mr Plowright?” or David, I think I called him. And he said, “Oh, the usual thing – 52 minutes. I’m sure it will be fine,” and put the phone down. And I said to Kelvin, “We are making a 26-minute film, aren’t we?” and Kelvin said, “Yes,” and it is on Stripe, so there’s no extra footage than what we’ve actually got?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “How many pieces of trims in that bin have you got that aren’t covered in coffee? Can you make this film last 52 minutes?” And this film, called Joe, went out on something called First Tuesday, the next Tuesday night.

That as my first experience of Granada, and the culture of Granada, which basically was, if you’re determined you can do anything, and you should be as bold as possible in your creative vision and your determination, but as conservative as possible in your estimate of the actual value that the rest of the world will put on it, so that you make it with a sense of creative boldness, but commercial prudence, and don’t overspend. So here I was with a 26-minute magnetic stripe regional programme, no problem as far as Granada is concerned, just stretch it and put it on the network! So that was my introduction to Granada.

Anyway, this went on for a while, and my to-be wife, Gayle, who was working in the newsroom, came up with an incredible story in Manchester, which was of a suburban house where a group of very young social workers in their 20s were living with a group of very disturbed teenagers who were so disturbed that they had been bounced out of school, bounced out of special school, bounced out of any remedial place they could be held, and the only people that could actually handle them was this group of I suppose what you might call rather trendy social workers, but very good people, and Gayle had come back to the news desk and said this is a terrific film, although she didn’t come from anything to do with media, she came from travel, and they said, “No, we only do two-minute items on the news – if you want this to be a longer film you’ve got to talk to Steve Morrison at the documentary unit.” So I got a message to call her and she took me to see this house and we all went out to play snooker, and it was obviously a fantastic set-up, so that became our next film, and it was so controversial that Granada – again, very boldly – agreed that I could do a live outside broadcast immediately after the film, which in those days was quite common, where the participants and the authorities would debate what was happening in the film, and again, the mayor or the leader of the council who was responsible for these children stood up to make a speech during this live outside broadcast, and as he did so, his trousers fell down, and he was very embarrassed, and he said, “Excuse me,” and he belted his trousers up again, and Gus Macdonald leaned forward and whispered to me, “Steve, is this programme going to finish in good order, or is it going to be a complete shambles?” and I said, “Don’t worry, Gus – it’ll all be fine.” So I had a very colourful entry into Granada.



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