Steve Morrison’s memories of making of the Spanish Civil War documentary series

I ran the Locals for two or three years, had a wonderful time, and then again, I think Gus may have been still in charge of the whole Factual area. He said to me, “I’ve got a problem with the Spanish Civil War.” He said, “We’ve got an Executive Producer and producers and a very good team, but it’s not working out quite right and it’s very, very slow, would you come over and become the Executive producer of this programme?” and combined with that, I can’t remember if it happened simultaneously or consecutively, “Would you become the head of Features?” So I left Regional Programmes and came to become head of Features. Funnily enough, I saw that sign, the Features department, in my garage the other week, so it still exists, the Features department, of the then Granada in Manchester, and I went to meet the team of Spanish Civil War, and again it was the most remarkable programme that very few companies, maybe Thames, who made The World at War, would have undertaken, and Granada undertook… and the BBC would have undertaken… but very few other TV stations would have undertaken it because it actually took us longer to make the Spanish Civil War series than it took the Spanish to fight the Spanish Civil War – it took us over three years.

We had a terrific team who were sent all over the world to interview Russians and Americans and the like about the International Brigades, and there was a certain rule on the film, which was a very modern form of history-telling, which was there would be no experts with opinions; that the film would only contain eye-witness accounts of people who were actually at an incident, and news film from the time, and I’m sure there was a voiceover commentary and some very, very, very Spanish music, which was very, very evocative. But this very spare, modern idea that this wouldn’t be a lot of talking heads, reminiscing or giving their opinion, it would be people who are actually there in the incident, and the news film that went with it, so it was an absolutely fantastic series, and Granada had had it commissioned at the very start of Channel 4, which was borne out of the ITV bandwidth, another spectrum bandwidth was found to create the second channel, and it was going to be called ITV2 but ultimately it became independent and it was called Channel 4, and this was one of the first series, the first two or three, that were commissioned of that scale, and so this series had been long in the making because everybody knew the new channel was coming along, and it took three years to make.

And I remember, because I wasn’t on the ground making the film, I was overseeing the series, and even then I was the head of the department, so I was slightly removed, but it was such a wonderful series that… we went over quite early on to Barcelona to ask RTVE, the Spanish television station, if they would do this as a co-production. We’d actually started, but we were having these negotiations. And the Spanish entertained us to the most incredible munch, which started at 2.30, and at 6pm it was just about winding up. And lots of toasts were given, and everybody was very excited about the programme, because it was obviously the most important subject of the 20th century for the Spanish, and the head of RTVE got up, and he said, “We hail our comrades from Granada and the wonderful enterprise they have undertaken; we have to tell you that, for reasons of state and national pride, we cannot…” – this had never been mentioned until 6pm – “we cannot be your co-producers because the people of Spain will wonder why we were allowing a foreign television company to physically make the series when it’s our war and we are Spanish television. So we don’t feel that we should be the official co-producers, but we are going to make sure that everything you want in the national archive is made available to you with our full support.” So actually, we ended up with a perfect solution, which was we weren’t bogged down by the politics of a very sensitive situation with a very sensitive co-producer, but they opened the archives and we got a fantastic series out of it, and a beautiful, lilting theme tune which I still remember to this day.

So the Features department was a kind of mixture of hybrid forms, you would get drama documentary, you would get pure drama which didn’t come from the drama department, you would get factual historical series, we had a very interesting film called The Road to 1984, which obviously went out in 1984, so this is basically where I would have got to by then, having done World in Action, regionals and features. So we made a scripted drama about the life of George Orwell, written by Willis Hall , a very famous northern playwright, which basically cut from a real situation that Orwell was living in, so he may have been living on Jura, a Scottish island, while he was writing Animal Farm or 1984, and then from his own set-up we would cut to a scene in a book that he was writing at the time, so he may have been working in the BBC when he wrote something, we would cut from the BBC to a scene he was writing, so you began to see what circumstances, many of them during the war, just prior to the war, with the Spanish Civil War, because he wrote Homage to Catalonia and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Then working in the BBC during the war, then being in Jura after the war, we saw where he was and what he was doing as he was writing his famous books, and because it was features you can combine the skills of factual and drama in any way you wanted, nobody would stop you.

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