The BBC and ME: A LOVE-HATE THING Part II
Something of a delay has occurred since my first lucubrations on my relationship with the BBC. But, better late than not at all, I here resume the story at the beginning of 1978. We left our hero passing Yule without knowing quite what the estimable David Rose had in mind for him. As it turned out, David wanted me to produce a run of new plays of up to an hour’s duration for a new mid-week slot on BBC2. He needed me to start quite soon and hence to effect a release from my obligations to The Observer at the paper’s earliest convenience.
I was excited and flattered by the offer. As a long-standing student of one-off teledrama, I had plenty of ideas and opinions. David had picked up this inclination in my journalism and felt that it squared with what he was trying to do at Pebble Mill. His carefully achieved reputation there had allowed the modest expansion that provided this new strand and he evidently wanted to take some risks with it. In my own estimation, I certainly counted as a risk. I reckoned that no one would have been made up to producer at the BBC with so little practical experience since the days when pretty much everything went out live, nearly two decades before. And producers as young as 30 were rare.
When I arrived at David’s Pebble Mill fiefdom in Birmingham, I discovered that there was a certain amount of on-going office politics to be either contended with or ignored. David himself produced the three or four annual contributions to the Play for Today strand. Peter Ansorge, for whom at the outset of my journalistic career I had freelanced when he edited Plays & Players, had been promoted from script editing and was now running a new drama serial for BBC2 called Empire Road. The gig I had landed ought to have been handed to the other in-house script editor. He was older than me and vastly more experienced in both television and theatre. His name was Michael Wearing.
Though no stranger to anger or resentment, Mike makes a convincing show of geniality and, in all our dealings, never gave me to think that he harboured one iota of grudge against me. For that I was most grateful. At the outset, I briefly acknowledged that I understood he was more entitled to the job than I was and he gamely brushed that aside. I think we worked well together for the duration, he as my script editor. More pressing was that the schedule did not allow me to commission a full season of new work. This further suggested that my appointment might not have been as planned as David might have me think. But there was no point in dwelling on that.
Given that I had to go with a couple of existing pieces, I read Mike’s cache of possibles and settled on a modest, sincere little first play by a middle-aged Nottingham poet called Derrick Buttress. Entitled Connie, it had a nice lead role for a good actress and happily we were able to get a very good one, Marjorie Yates, to play it.
Another from Mike’s drawer was an amusing little shaggy-dog story by the actor Jack Shepherd. Underdog was set in Whitehall and needed a couple of actors who knew how to play that thin line where high comedy meets satire. Happily, Anton Rodgers and Nigel Hawthorne took the roles, the former generously ceding top billing to the latter. Nigel in particular was utterly convincing as a Whitehall mandarin and there is no doubt that his performance in Underdog won him the role that made him famous, Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister, soon after the play’s transmission.
Pebble Mill had a tradition of throwing neophytes into the deep end and I decided that I could make a bit of reparation to Mike Wearing by asking him to direct the Shepherd. He had plenty of experience directing in the theatre: years earlier, I had seen his famous production of Max Frisch’s The Chinese Wall that won awards at the NUS Drama Festival with a cast led by one Alan Yentob. The studio technicians were relatively generous towards directors in the gallery who are floundering a little – it’s not unlike flying a plane without having been trained – and Mike never seriously floundered.
Meanwhile, my intention to find a play that treated of the situation in Northern Ireland had been picked up by my old chum Snoo Wilson. Snoo had a stage play called A Greenish Man that his and my contemporary from Time Out, Dusty Hughes, had been sitting on for ages at the Bush Theatre where he was now artistic director. Snoo had done a television version and rushed it off to me. As soon as he knew that I had accepted it, Dusty scheduled it for production at the Bush, thereby pre-empting us because of course his lead-times were much swifter. (Another languishing stage play that finally went into production after I expressed an interest in rescuing it for television was Martin Sherman's Bent which went on to great global success).
Being by Snoo, the play was hardly a documentary examination of the forces at work in the province. I routinely described it to people as a fantasia about Northern Ireland. A German professor who took a close interest in British television drama subsequently tried to make me accept that the play was a parable, but I never felt that the fact of characters called George and Patrick would bear the weight of symbolism that the good professor sought to attach to them.
Another writer I knew and admired was Stephen Davis and I was delighted to learn that he wanted to write (or had written, I can’t remember which) a play about an English photographer covering the Vietnam War. Always a fan of studio drama and of trying to extend the studio’s boundaries, I was excited about the challenge of staging the Vietnam War in the Pebble Mill studio and I think we brought if off with real style, enormously assisted by a cast largely made up of fearless American ex-pat actors. The play was called Contacts.
Keen to do right by my sisters and brothers in the gay community, I commissioned Drew Griffiths and Noel Greig of Gay Sweatshop to write a play for the strand. The notion they came up with interwove a contemporary student meeting a man who, in his youth, had met the writer and sexual liberationist Edward Carpenter with a wireless broadcast about Carpenter given in the 1940s by EM Forster. Only Connect was a soft-spoken masterpiece, beautifully achieved by the two ill-assorted writers (both now dead) and, of all the pieces of work in all mediums that have appeared with my name on it, I am proudest of that production.
Another writer I commissioned was Ian McEwan. He was still best known then as a writer of short stories. But a half-hour play of his had been produced earlier at Pebble Mill and I liked it a lot. Mike Newell had directed it and he came on board to do the new one. Ian’s first proposal of a version of one of his stories was, I thought, just too sexually difficult to get past the BBC management. Solid Geometry, however, looked more likely.
Like Only Connect, the story is set in two time zones, linked by a museum piece inherited from the contemporary protagonist’s grandfather. It was a severed penis, contained in a jar of preserving fluid. Aware that this particular practical prop might raise an eyebrow, I sent an internal memo to the staff involved, hoping to head off any discomfort. A section of this memo was later leaked to ‘Pseud’s Corner’ in Private Eye, the second and (so far) last time I appeared there (the first time was a spoof letter to Plays & Players but Michael Coveney, Peter Ansorge’s successor as editor, wouldn’t let me reveal to Private Eye that it had been “had”).
Before the leak, the Pebble Mill Head of Programme Services (or some such bureaucratic title) had fallen with glee on the memo. He evidently had a long-standing dislike of the Drama Department (I wasn’t to know this) and saw his chance to make mischief. Memos were fired off and phone calls placed. In very short order, several days before its scheduled studio dates (and before anyone had set eyes on the pickled penis prop), the production was cancelled. The public announcement from Television Centre was the first any of us knew of it.
I was aware of some of the context of this development, but not all of it. The censorship/editorial-control battle at the BBC, to which I alluded in the previous posting, had been raging. As a journalist writing about television, I had made it clear on which side of the fence I sat. My piece for The Observer on the banning of Roy Minton’s Play for Today about borstal, Scum, had been the most widely-read piece on the issue and had directly led Clive Parsons to set up the (inferior) movie version of the story. No doubt in reference to that, David Rose had warned me when I arrived at Pebble Mill that Alasdair Milne, the Director-General, was in his phrase “watching you like a hawk”.
It was no doubt because the BBC had disliked the coverage received for its editorial control that it sought to be so decisive in this case. Unlike the cases of Scum, Brimstone and Treacle and the other causes celebres, there would be no samizdat videotape for journalists to see and use as a basis from which to query the fuss.
There was a larger picture still, however. The Corporation was in the process of reining in its departments that had generated autonomous outposts run by people whom the management saw as mavericks. Those parts of the current affairs department that had been led by the brilliant and dauntless John Gau had recently been stripped of their power and Gau eased out. David Rose was now in their sights. Shooting down his newest producer’s project was a shot across David’s bows.
Going into bat on behalf of my production, writer and director, I “hurried to London” (according to the Daily Star, whose front-page story, run no doubt because they could use a pin-up of our lead actress Mary Maddox, referred to me bogglingly as a “BBC boss”) but was unable to get anybody to talk to me. I heard that the Controller of BBC2, the civilised and genial Brian Wenham, was an innocent party in the case – indeed he mischievously let it be known that he was a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing.
Back in Birmingham, Ian, Mike Newell and I drew up a statement of our position, pointing out that no decision to cancel, formal or informal, had been conveyed to us save by David Rose, not himself party to the decision. We issued this to the press. Only The Daily Telegraph made any mention of it.
A few days later, I was summoned to the office of Phil Sidey, the Head of BBC English Regions. Only about a month earlier, I had seen him for my annual interview (a BBC ritual that, for all I know, may still be a requirement of contractees). Sidey, a notoriously indiscreet gossip, had spent most of our time together regaling me with supposedly unrepeatable yarns about other members of the management. Now he had his stern face on. He presented me with a copy of our statement and asked me to confirm that it had been signed by me. Then he formally fired me. My crime was to have conveyed information to the press “without prior written consent”, which crime (as you may imagine) is committed by every BBC producer most days of the week.
My union, the National Union of Journalists, launched an appeal which was handled by a diminutive spitfire called John Foster: he subsequently served nine years as the union’s General Secretary. The appeal went to the then Director-General, Ian Trethowan (Milne having himself been fired in the interim). We had a highly formal audience with Trethowan at a vast table in an imposing boardroom at Broadcasting House. I remember little of it, except that at one point, in passing, I mentioned that I assumed that BBC managers knew how many beans made five and Trethowan remarked, rather crisply I thought, that he wasn’t sure they did all know how many beans make five.
As a result of my appeal, I was reinstated to the end of my contract, which had been renewed just before the Solid Geometry debacle. I was obliged to relocate to Television Centre where I would have “greater and closer supervision”. Shaun Sutton, then Head of Drama, gave me a single Play for Today slot to fill. I think I was given the script too: if so, I was happy to have it. It was Not for the Likes of Us by an astute actress-turned-writer called Gilly Fraser. The story was set in London and was to be shot on film. But all that season’s provisions for filming in London had been made, so we were shipped to Bristol. The BBC in Whiteladies Road has no drama department. I would have had “greater and closer supervision” if we had been despatched to the Arizona desert.
It was a pleasure to make a film, even on BBC schedules. When I had been planning my second run of plays for my BBC2 slot, which I called The Other Side (as in the phrase viewers then used when changing channels: “what’s on the other side?”), I had been very taken with a script that Mike Wearing found. It was called Traveller, dealt with such people in Ireland and was by another writer of short stories, a young Irishman called Neil Jordan.
My production manager Carol Parks, Mike and I took a trip to Dublin to meet Neil and his designated director, Joe Comerford, in a session first brokered at the Ardmore Studios by John Boorman who sat in but said little. Neil was captivating but often difficult to follow. His sentences tumbled out in a frequently incoherent mêlée and you had to hope that his enthusiasm alone conveyed sufficient meaning. If you’d told me then that he would become an A-list Hollywood director, capable of making his requirements clear to huge crews of cynical old pros, I’d have accused you of romancing.
The problem for us with Traveller was Joe Comerford. I could wholly empathise with his instinctive suspicion of the BBC and all it stands for. What he could not countenance was the schedule that he would be required to observe – Carol Parks could offer him no leeway on that. Neil was commendably loyal to his chosen director, so we went our separate ways. Comerford managed to get the movie made two years later but it only achieved a very limited release. It was once screened on television and I found it a lot more unrelievedly glum than the screenplay had promised.
Gilly Fraser’s film came up a lot livelier and it led to a remarkable run of acting. For the central role, we needed an actress of considerable girth who, after passing most of the story repressed in one way or another, finds herself gloriously as a nude artist’s model. The part went to Pam St Clement. And when Gilly was recruited to the writing strength of EastEnders, she got Pam the role of Pat Butcher that made her a household name and kept her in regular work for more than 25 years.
At the end of my contract, Shaun Sutton took me aback by offering me a renewal. I should certainly have accepted the offer. However, I had already promised a definitive account of the Solid Geometry story to the trade magazine Broadcast, which was edited by my old Time Out colleague Patricia Williams. I don’t know what Pattie’s reaction might have been if I had told her to forget it. But it wasn’t in my nature. I walked away from the BBC and wrote my piece. Pattie did her bit by me by offering me the role of regular critic on the magazine. But I would return to the BBC eventually, as we shall see …