Stuart Prebble Transcript

Interview with Stuart Prebble on February 1, 2023

Before we get on to Granada Television, tell me about your life pre-Granada.

I joined the BBC journalists training scheme from the University of Newcastle, and at that time they ran a graduate training scheme and a 2 year course in shorthand and local government – very lucky to get on it – after which you had to apply for a full-time job in the BBC. I applied for a job back in Newcastle in the newsroom, which I did for a few years. I was an on-screen reporter, and also did a lot of work for the national news, rather than industrial news, coming from that area at the time. So, I was very busy doing radio and TV reporting for the BBC.

Was there any background or family connection with journalism?

No not at all, but from an early age, as soon as I knew what it was, I wanted to work on World in Action, and it was my sort of medium-term horizon. Or certainly in current affairs rather than news. At the BBC in those days there was a real divide between current affairs and news. You couldn’t easily cross between one and the other, and I was being encouraged by the BBC newsroom to go to London to join the 9 or 10 o’clock news team. I really didn’t want to do that, so I looked across the Pennines and, in the medium-term, planned to join World in Action. I knew they wouldn’t take me straight away, so I applied for a job as a news editor at Granada. When I got there, Rod Caird said why on earth do you want to be the news editor here, you are a nationally known news reporter? And I said I don’t want to be a researcher, but I do want to work here, so they hired me as an on-screen reporter.

So you say you wanted to join World in Action and it had been your ambition for some time and the BBC was a stepping stone. Why World in Action?

Even then, there were other current affairs programmes in peak time but, World in Action had an incomparable reputation as the being the most likely to be righting wrongs, taking on the Establishment, uncovering dodgy dealings of one kind or another, and I really admired that kind of journalism. It was also being done to a lesser extent by This Week and to a lesser extent by Panorama, but World in Action was absolutely the flagship of investigative current affairs on television.

Which year did you join Granada?

I think I joined originally in 1979, and I was a reporter on Granada Reports for a while, and then I was a presenter on Granada Reports, but also a weekly politics programme.

Reporting on politics?

No, it was succeeded at that point by a show called ‘A Week on Friday’ which Gordon Burns presented and that was a weekly involvement in local politics. And then I was the producer of Granada Reports for quite a long time, and then I went from there to be a producer on World in Action.

How did you find Granada as a company to work for in the 80s?

Honestly, I thought Granada was an utterly brilliant company to work for, undoubtedly the best place I have ever worked and of course, its only in subsequent years, you realise how lucky you were when you see what happened to ITV and pretty much everywhere else over the years. I think we knew we were privileged. I mean many things stick in my mind, and obviously mostly about the leadership you got from Denis Forman and David Plowright in particular. I remember David Plowright saying everyone in Granada who isn’t a programme maker works for the programme makers, which is an extraordinary thing when in most places the sales director, the marketing director and the finance director were all people much more important than anybody involved in programmes. You know it was Gus Macdonald, who said, or maybe he borrowed the phrase, our job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, which is great. I was eventually Editor of World in Action for a period, and the only trouble I would only get into with management was not making enough trouble for the government, and the Establishment. It’s almost impossible to think of anybody that tried to do that with television journalism/broadcast journalism these days. So, I felt supported, well resourced. We would make some World in Action programmes, which is half hour on a Monday night, that took two years to make because they were able and willing to put in that kind of resource where necessary, which means you have to make some others very quickly. That was my speciality for a while, with obviously my background in news I was more used to fast turnaround. So that’s why I got called to World in Action in the first place, because the Falklands war broke out and they didn’t really have the capacity to react to events or do any studio programmes at all, because everybody was a film journalist, so that’s why I was brought in from local programmes.

What was the first World in Action programme you produced?

I think it was called ‘Losing out to London’ and it was a programme that had been half made by somebody who had left halfway through making it. It was about Britain’s need for a third London airport, and it was a case really for the north to replace the third London airport effectively with Manchester, so it was not an earth-shattering, intensely journalistic exercise, but it was what landed in my lap at that point.

At that time, you were not dominated by budgets and money and so on, as programme making probably is today. Would you agree with that, you were given a free rein to do the right thing for your programme?

Yes, you know Ray Fitzwalter and Tom Gill managed budgets very carefully, but honestly, it’s hard to think that this could be the case, but I was a producer on it for 5 years, then the editor for A C years, and I don’t think there was ever anything we wanted to do that we didn’t do for financial reasons.

And indeed, it’s probably not very impressive to say it now, but going over budget was almost a matter of pride! I don’t think anybody ever said to me we can’t afford it, which is an extraordinary statement in the light of the way we run things now.

That’s a reflection of the leadership at the top and their priorities

Absolutely, it was all about programmes and it would be stupid to not take on board that ITV had a monopoly of advertising. As we all know, a monopoly is a terrible -+thing unless you own one, and if you do own one then you are very lucky to be able to own one, and Granada made things like Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited, because if they didn’t spend the money on programmes they would have to give it to the government, such was the tax structure, but that didn’t really filter through to other ITV companies. They had a commitment to programme making and programme makers that we really didn’t see anywhere else.

When I first joined World in Action, Gus Mcdonald and John Birt were joint editors, were they around when you were in World in Action in the first years?

No, it was Ray Fitzwalter and Allan Segal and Allan must have left more or less at the same time I joined, and after a few years Ray was thinking of stepping aside and moving on. He had done it for a long time and wished to have a deputy. Simon Berthon and John Blake and I applied, and I was certainly the junior candidate. But Simon got the job, subsequently John left, and then it didn’t work out with Simon, so I got the job as deputy editor to Ray for a year or two before I took over.

In more recent time you mentioned Ray Fitzwalter, and you will have read his book ‘The Rise and Fall, the Dream that Died’. What did you think of it?

I don’t think I disagreed with anything in it. I felt it was sad, and it was sad that Ray’s overall experience, everything taken together, that he would have wanted to represent it with a book, where the title says it all. 

Do you see it as the dream that died?

Yes, I suppose I do. It’s a obviously a matter of great regret that that sort of journalism does not exist on television now, and it’s one of those things that people don’t miss until its gone, and even then there’s not a moment where people take to the streets, it’s a sort of oh god, even now many, many years after World in Action ceased to exist. If I talk to anybody even close to my generation about it, they always remember it as oh my god yes, that was the show that people remember got innocent people out of jail. It used to harass the government regularly, and all of those brave and incredibly impressive things, hunt down former Nazi war criminals, the British newspapers, and all of those things, a fantastic record, but we will not see the like of it again.

In the 80’s the television landscape changed. The 70’s were great years really because there was no competition and they spent money on programmes, current affairs and drama and Granada’s reputation was excellent. But tell me about the change in the media environment in the 80’s when, and I saw this in entertainment, when commercial pressures became more and more insistent leading up to the broadcasting act, the change in Granada leadership and so on, that transition in the 80’s.

I think I lose track of what happened when, but it is in my mind that the nail in the coffin of the regional ITV structure was probably Death on the Rock, and Mrs Thatcher being very, very angry with Thames Television. Hence the franchise renewal bid that was initially going to involve the mainly the highest bids, and we started a campaign called the Campaign for Quality Television, where we wanted the government to introduce minimum standards of what the franchise holders wanted to deliver. And it was a whole thing in which everybody had to really look very closely at the economics of their business.

Was that industry-wide?

Yes, I mean every franchise holder had to re-apply, and the decision was going to largely depend on the size of the financial bid, and we did a lot of work. Simon Albury and Simon Berthon and lots of our producers were involved in the Campaign for Quality Television. We had a number of meetings with the broadcasting minister at the time, and they gradually introduced a quality threshold over which the people had to pass in order for their bid to qualify, which of course ultimately was the reason that Granada retained its share because MerseyTelevision didn’t pass the quality threshold. So that was the reason that Thames lost its licence altogether, and TVS, and that was sort of the beginning of the end. The advent of the end of David Plowright, and the arrival of Compass and Charles Allen and Gerry Robinson, was an absolutely tidal change in every aspect of this business. I mean, Gerry was a very charming man, but absolutely financially focussed, and very shareholder value-focussed, and utterly ruthless. Charles was much less charming, but at least as ruthless. They brought a financial rigour and management practices to the company that were completely unrecognisable and ruined the business over a period. They ruined it for everybody, including the shareholders, actually for everybody except themselves.

That’s a brutal analysis there Stuart.

Well, I think its accurate, I think honestly, it’s rather unforgivable. These things are always more complicated than one would want them to be, and there are many more factors. If  you look at the creative hub that Manchester was in that period, the drama, the entertainment and the current affairs, and the news – all of those things are all based there, and what has happened since – it’s heart-breaking. That’s a continuum of that particular type of decision making, the wider commercial environment and then the approach and outlook. I really liked Gerry in particular, a very, very affable, charming man, but he once said to me ‘my job is very simple. I say to you I want another 10%’, and I say Gerry, I gave you another 10% last year and the year before, there just isn’t another 10%. And he said, ‘when you’ve finished speaking, I want another 10%’ and you make more excuses, and at a certain point he says ‘I want another 10%, and if you can’t give it to me, then I’ll hire somebody who can.’

And that’s what Gerry did, very laid back. Charles was much more obviously involved in the detail, and thought it was amusing to fire people just in order to make a point, and make people who were completely unsuited to jobs do them, just as sort of a management strategy and I’m afraid these people between them nearly put ITV out of business.

And they got rid of a lot of people didn’t they, a lot of your colleagues?

Indeed. I was subsequently appointed to a lot of jobs – much after I left Granada – that were further and further away from programmes, and more involved wearing a suit. But it was a period where 15 companies were becoming five and five were becoming three, and three was becoming one, and it is absolutely inevitable in that process, that a lot of people will lose their jobs and certainly they were losing their jobs all around me, and of course in the end I lost mine. I was able to reasonably elegantly have a complete jump, but it was certainly not very far ahead of being pushed, not least because there were five chief executives of ITV companies throughout the country, and I was the Chief Executive of ITV when five became three, three became one and those chief executives would be chief executive of ITV and I knew it wouldn’t be me.

Who was made the first single Chief Executive of ITV?

I think that Clive Jones ran it jointly with somebody for a period, then they hired that nice man from radio whose name escapes me for the moment, but he couldn’t stand it very long, and there was a period where they didn’t have a chief executive for a while. I was running ITV Digital and they brought me in to run the network.

Going back to Plowright, you were one of the signatories calling for Plowright not to be sacked?

Well certainly, yes.

And that didn’t work, but there you go

Well, it was naïve, all this was going on way above our heads and Gerry Robinson wouldn’t know who we were, or cared.

The 1990 broadcasting act, were you involved in writing of the Granada bid?

Yes, but it was because they put me in charge of the bid to try and get a North-East franchise. Granada entered an alliance with Border to try to take over Tyne Tees. Because I had a history in that region, they asked me to run it. I think we would have won it actually, but Tyne Tees bid so much money that they literally put themselves out of business. Because I was writing the North East Television bid as it was called, I was also involved in the Granada bid. At that point I was head of Regional Programmes, and I’d been Editor of World in Action and one day Andrew Quinn called me up and said we’re coming up to a franchise round in which regional programmes are going to be the key thing. I know it’s a very unusual thing for people to go from network up to regional, but we wanted to turn it upside down and we’d like you to do it. They were putting a lot of resources into it, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to do, so I did, and we revamped a lot of regional programmes in order to impress the ITC.

So tell me about the sequence of your jobs, you went into world in action as a producer

Yes, I was a producer for 5 years and produced 25 episodes of the series. I presented a few, and then I was the editor for 2 years then they asked me to run regional programmes, which I was doing up until I was then made Head of Factual Programmes for a little while. This was the moment when central commissioning was going to the network centre in London, and Andrew Quinn was going down as managing director of that to put it all together, and I got the opportunity to be the first to join ITV Factual Programmes when the network centre was set up. So that’s when I left Granada and came to London, and did that for a while, 2-3 years, and then Granada wanted to go into partnership with Sky to launch some digital channels where they had this thing called Granada Sky Broadcasting, which was a revolution in programme making and interesting, putting our foot into digital television, trying to understand that. So I ran that for a while, then Granada became a partner in what was initially On Digital. I was Granada’s representative on On Digital for a little while. Then the Chief Executive of ITV Digital, Stephen Grabiner, fell out withMichael Green and left, and they asked me to take over as Chief Executive, then it seemed to make sense to merge what was then ITV Digital with ITV with one Chief Executive, and so I was the Chief Executive of ITV up to 2001 when I left and I have been an independent producer ever since.

I remember us talking about when you were running the ITV Satellite World, a very tough time, and it must have been in competition with sky, when you said something like we’re never going to win this because of the amount of money Sky has put in the system?

Yes, actually Steve Morrison said to me very early in my career it will be all be fun and if it can’t be fun it will be interesting. I always said there were some of my jobs that were fun and interesting, but then there were some that were just interesting, and that period was interesting because it was very new territory. I think we as a group of people were very naïve, particularly in relation to Sky, who were utterly, utterly ruthless, run by Murdoch. You can’t blame them for wanting the alliance with Granada for what they could get out of it of course, but On Digital and ITV Digital were fatally undermined, because from the beginning Sky was excluded from it. Had they had been allowed to be part of it, which was the original suggestion, it would have succeeded, but because they were against it. The bottom line is that it died because of piracy, and its conditional access cards being pirated, which in the end was traced back to a company on which James Murdoch sat on the board, and it’s a very big company. So, I am completely convinced that it was fatally undermined by its competition with Sky, and was never going to work for that reason, which was tragic for a lot of people that worked there, but looking back, we were dangerously naïve. Granada was, at that point, so preoccupied with just taking cash out of everything it was doing in programmes, obviously ITV and even all the services it provided for these joint ventures, that it was never going to work.

Have you spoken to journalists about the Israeli connection with Murdoch

There have been various attempts to get to the bottom of it, none of which has ever come to anything. It’s a very murky world and a lot of it is about technology that people don’t really understand, and it’s one of those things where there’s a set of circumstances that you can identify, but then if we know that he did this, thats the next level, which would be incredibly difficult to do. These were conditional access cards that were being sold in pubs for £5 which were basically get you access to the service we were trying to sell. Tracing those back would be like trying to get a whatever is the retail equivalent in the drugs business, like tracing it back to somebody in Columbia.

But you’re convinced it was sabotage

I’m convinced, yes.

What year did you leave Granada?

I feel as though it must be 1995.

Because you went to ITV

Yes, I was the Commissioning Editor for Factual Programmes, so that was arts, current affairs and news and everything that was non-fiction, which was big, and we were very much making it up as we went along. I did it literally single-handed, and so even when I arrived at my deskin the first day every independent company in the country were sending me all the of the things they had sent to Channel 4 over the last 5 years whatever it was. Factual programmes were the least important genre, other than probably children’s on ITV, so we didn’t have all that many slots, so I had to say no literally 200 times for every time I said yes. So that was a very fast learning curve for me and very interesting. It was a fantastic privilege because it would mean that I was working with the best producers in the country, but had I left Granada but Steve Morrison in particular, never acknowledged that I left. In his mind I was still working at Granada. I remember Henry Staunton later on, who was Granada’s finance director saying to me, every time you make a decision that increases Carlton’s profits by a million pounds, it will cost us £10 million more when we buy them. I am trying to run a network. It was a nightmare. I would get at the end of every Friday and the only thing I could do was keep the wheels from falling off. It was very difficult, a very difficult time, but a steep learning curve. When I left ITV to start my own independent production company, I just took four noughts off every number, but I could add up, read a balance sheet, knew what a profit and loss account was, knew about hiring and employing people, so happily we’ve managed to keep our heads

Was life more difficult for an indie then that it is now?

No, I think life was a lot easier for an independent then, oddly enough. I mean the indie sector has died now. You had guaranteed access to 25% of everybody’s output and Channel 4 was commissioning everything, and you couldn’t be defined as an indie if you had a relationship with a broadcaster. Now, most of the indies are huge multi-national companies, many of them have big shareholdings or are completely owned by the broadcasters, or are the in-house production units of countless indies, so we don’t have an entitlement of access to anything at all, whereas the BBC productions are entirely counted as an indie. So we’ve literally got no, as of right, access to anything, because the BBC still wishes to commission some stuff outside of London. So BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and the Scottish and Welsh indies get some work, but if you’re inside the M25 its very, very difficult.

Is there protection for the indies?

Our company has no shareholding from anybody else, we are properly an independent company. We don’t know how many companies there are, hardly any, that don’t have a relationship with Channel 4 or Sky or ITV, got an investment in them, and are much more likely to commission them than they are a properly independent company.

One of the things I remember from Granada that ………… was always talking about the north south divide and I remember going to the nations and regions conference Fitzwalter used to run and Morrison was in there calling for something to be done, why should London dominate this industry like it dominates so many others, what is your view on that picture, is it still the same, is it still a London-centric business?

I mean ironically, in the days that you’re talking about, ITV was a regional structure with 15 different companies which were producing to a greater or lesser extent for the network. Leeds was a thriving place, Edinburgh and Glasgow were thriving places, Birmingham was thriving, and to a lesser extent were some of the southern places outside of London.  As far as I can tell most of that has just gone. It has centred around London. 

I think there is a reasonable BBC presence in Salford, but how that impacts on what you actually see on the screen – or more particularly house prices in Didsbury – and a bit of Channel 4 has gone to Leeds. I think it probably is still mostly London dominated. We had a structure, that was the point of ITV, that the nation was broadcasting to the nation rather than London. David Plowright was the most eloquent and strident advocate of it and they made it happen all the while it was within their power.

Storyvault is your company and you’ve been running it for 20 years?

Yes, when I left I set up a company with Andrea Wonforwho had been at Granada, but most latterly been the deputy head of Channel 4 and she retired, a wonderful woman, so we set it up as a joint venture. She was based in Newcastle, and I was going to be running it from London, but unfortunately Andrea immediately got breast cancer so really took no active part in the business.

We called it Liberty Bell and we ran Liberty Bell for a few years and were very, very fortunate. We did Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women and Three Men in a Boat, and Buster Campbell Diaries, and we were busy, and it was terrific. I sold the company to Avalon and did my three-year run out, and at the end of which I thought I’d maybe had enough. Then 2 or 3 colleagues I had worked with came to me and said we’d like to start a new one and the idea of just working with people I liked and sharing responsibility a bit and being responsible for everybody’s welfare. That was 12 years ago and I always describe us as the last Soviet Socialist Republic, because we have 5 shareholders, equal shares, nobody’s got a title. We conduct our arguments through the power of argument rather than rank and it’s a nice group of people with complimentary skills and we are extraordinarily fortunate to have a couple of series that, touch wood, keep on getting recommissioned. This enables us to pay our rent and make programmes that we’re proud of, so we’re very lucky.

The Sky Arts commission, how did that come about?

We made a series for Sky Arts, we made The Book Club for them for a period when I was at Liberty Bell. And then, do you remember the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square, and then they had that man that does the statues on the beach, Anthony Gormley, he organised this thing on the 4th Plinth where you could apply and you could have your exhibit on the 4th Plinth for 45 mins then it was 15 mins changeover, then it went on for several days or weeks in fact, it was rather brilliant. And we did the coverage of it for Sky Arts 24 hours a day and it was deemed to be a great success. So I thought well what are the ingredients of this, and one of them was that Sky Arts is such a niche digital channel nobody has heard of it, there were more people actually seeing it in the flesh than watching it on the television. You can see people going past and thinking Sky? I thought they were a movies and sport company, they do arts, good heavens! And I also knew they favoured things that have a legacy that would leave a footprint and would leave a mark in the community, so I had this idea for Portrait Artist of the Year. The first thought was that we would get hundreds of people gathered in Trafalgar Square and get Michael Jackson on the big screen and everyone was going to paint him in a competition, at the end of which we would commission the winner to do a painting that would end up in a national institution.  We did the first series travelling round the country, starting in Trafalgar Square and it was a big success and we also pitched Landscape Artist of the Year. The original plan was they were going to do landscapes one year and portraits the next but because they were so successful, they said can you do both in the same year. That was 10 years ago, when were about to do 10th series of Portraits, the 9th series of Landscapes and they are far and away the most successful shows on Sky Arts which is now gone free to air so its audience has gone up by a factor of 4 or 5 times.

Do you enjoy making them?

I love making them. There are very few television programmes you can make that have no downside and everything about this is a joy. 2000 artists apply, our judges choose the ones that are going to appear. For the ones that appear – and most struggling artists want to get their work seen – it’s a life-changer for them even if they don’t win, people who appeared in the series 7 or 8 years ago say they have never stopped working since which is fantastic, a lovely thing and artists tend to be really nice people and they have entered a competition, but they are very supportive of each other.  We have just completely made one of our artists, now selling his paintings for a £¼ million and another was commissioned to paint Prince Charles, and one has an exhibition at the National Theatre which I went to the opening of the other day. The great thing about having a returning series is you can hire people as a runner and the next year they are a researcher and the next year an AP and then are a producer, so we have got people that we hired a long time ago, and you can develop people’s careers as you were able to do in the old days, which you mostly can’t do now in our entirely casualised run business.

How long will you keep on doing it do you think?

As long as it’s fun, and as long as they go on commissioning that. All of our lives as independents we have only done factual programmes, documentaries and arts, but for the first time we are trying to do a couple of dramas just out of interest, it’s always good to have something that scares you a bit. We’ve been commissioned to write a screenplay based on a book I wrote some time ago, and we’ve got another screenplay based on another book I wrote a while ago. I don’t know whether they will materialise. The great thing about making the art series is they pay the rent and make sure that our core is stable, which enables you to take on some other things that might not happen but might be good fun if they did.

A lot of companies devote a lot of time to development.

Do you?

I’ve now been a producer for just coming up to 22 years and one thing I have never, ever, got right is development. We have tried everything you can think of, hiring people and you think this person is going to produce something good in development but at the end we just do the development ourselves and back our own ideas. We have wasted an enormous amount of money. Development is about looking at what channels say they want and making programmes that are a bit like the ones that are successful for them. I have just always preferred that, well,  let’s have a really good idea and hope you can somewhere find a home for it. It’s very, very hard and at the moment we have no separate development budget at all.

Is it likely you will do anything else in the medium of television?  Is it possible you will go back into the system and be a suit as it were?

I honestly don’t think anyone would hire me even if I’m available for hire, I’m 71 and I do quite a lot of writing, so half of my life is sitting at my home computer on my own writing, and the other half is working with a fantastic team of younger people far more talented than I am. I get to put my name at the end of their work and it’s great to have a really good team. The quality of my professional life is directly a function of how good the people who work with us are. We are extraordinarily fortunate that most of the people we hire come back because we are trying to be a nice company and they like working for us and we are very proud of the programmes we make.

You must get a lot of job applications in your company?

We do. Honestly the nicest thing I see in here is when not that we take much notice of the rest of the industry in most ways, but you see the occasional list of the best places to work, and we usually figure in them. I am not under any illusions that we are in this position because we are very lucky to have two successful series and a broadcaster that is supportive of us. Sky funds programmes properly so we can make them to the quality that we want to make them, and it always gets a little bit tougher every year. But we are still very proud of the programmes we make.

So really, you’ve ended up in the arts area having started out in current affairs

Yes, both of the films we’ve tried to make are current affairs related, so who knows. Occasionally we’re doing other documentaries but yes, that’s the way we edit. Honestly, I don’t really want to make current affairs because I just don’t want to wake up at four in the morning because something has changed and we’re going out to film that night, and to be in an editing room at 4 o’clock – done that!

You’ve had many senior positions within the Granada and ITV at the highest level.  Do you not miss anything of that? Do you miss not being in that system and being able to change the broadcasting landscape possibly from that kind of job?

No, one day I had a secretary and chauffeur-driven different car, so I had to look after my diary wearing a suit so and every phone call, I would ever make would be returned within five minutes. The following Monday, I’m sitting in the foyer of Channel 5 being kept waiting for 45 minutes to see someone!  But I could genuinely put my hand on my heart and say I have never regretted it for a second. ITV was great for me; it was overall very kind to me, and I had worked with some great people, and I was given a lot of really good breaks by a lot of really good people. I feel absolutely fine about it, and I learned a lot. It stood me in very good stead. I joined television because I like making programmes and I was moved further and further away but nobody is to blame for that, and I learned a lot which enabled me when I was able to go back and start making programmes again, to be able to do it much better than I would have done. I always described it to people as like putting down two heavy suitcases. I suddenly had a spring in my step, and I had more programme ideas in the six months after leaving ITV than I’d had in the five years before then. I am just coming up to 49 years since I started work in the BBC and I’ve never been out of work for a single day. I feel very, very lucky and grateful to the industry.

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