Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain
Edited by Sheila Rowbotham and Huw Beynon
5 Working in the Field
I don’t bring to this subject the detachment of the critic, the perspective of the Tony Garnett was historian, or the analysis of the political theorist. I just work in the field, as it were, head down, ploughing my own lonely furrow and dimly aware of what else is going on. So my personal account will, of necessity, be partial in both senses of the word. My working life, almost exactly, coincides with the period under review. I began working in television and films as an actor in the late 1950s. The choice of London University allowed me to spend most of each term appearing on the telly. I was rarely seen in the department. On one of my rare visits my tutor caught me in the corridor and said, ‘I saw you on television last night, it would be nice to see you in a seminar occasionally!’ But I didn’t go very often.
Those were the days of Dixon of Dock Green, Probation Officer, a soap set in a glossy magazine called Compact and Emergency Ward 10. I appeared in all of them! Plus some B-movies, the names of which I have forgotten. Each part was virtually the same—teddy boy, angry, aggressive, minor criminal or just cheeky working class. I played them all as James Dean! My generation of actors in this country modelled themselves on either Marlon Brando or James Dean, depending on their build. So, of course, Albert Finney was Marlon Brando. So was Richard Harris. Tom Courtenay and I were James Dean. These parts were written to send a frisson of fear into the homes of respectable people. But I was always caught by Sergeant Dixon or contained by my probation officer. It was the drama of reassurance. The country was going to the dogs even then, with youths threatening the very fabric, despite the fact that they hadn’t thought of joy-riding. It’s been going to the dogs ever since. As Adam Smith said, ‘There is an awful lot of ruin in a nation.’
The representation of the working class was from the outside; created by people from the educated middle class, London and Home Counties biased and mainly based on second-hand stereotypes rather than on first-hand observation. As an actor I felt like one of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals. The posh did the important things in iambic pentameters, and I spoke the prose. The working class were patronised as criminals and comic relief. Or they were to be seen in war films: brave, loyal, chirpy Cockney foils to an heroic officer who always got the girl. And, just like blacks in North America, working-class actresses—they were still called ‘actresses’ then—did a good line in maids and charladies. I don’t believe that acting outside your social class in this country is very easy, in fact it’s pretty well impossible to do it authentically. However, while the posh actors were always allowed to play working-class characters— Dickie Attenborough is the obvious example—working-class actors were never allowed to play posh characters. The RADA-trained posh actors would come up North and do their ‘ee by gum!’ acting. They had little sayings for it: ‘playing down’, or ‘I’ll play this character a bit off.’
But things were beginning to change. Some grammar school beneficiaries of Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act were coming down from university. Not all of them were changing their accents and leaving their class behind. Nor were all of them just ambitious working-class boys on the make—to use Dennis Potter’s typically sour remark. A few—a very few—were girls. As the 1950s gave way to the ’60s, some, feeling de-classed and lost, full of ambivalence about their origins and opportunities, were becoming politicised in one way or another. Responding to the end of post-war austerity and hating the conformity of the ’50s, they were looking to rebel.
It has been argued that the targeting of the youthful consumer, some disposable income and more years in education, meant that the teenager as a separate and self—conscious category had to be invented. Already by the mid-1950s popular music was stirring. This was the time of the ‘rebels without a cause’, when Look Back in Anger, although a bilious petit-bourgeois rant, shocked and electrified the Royal Court audiences. And Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz were looking towards working-class northern novelists like Stan Barstow and David Storey for material. The films even had working-class heroes, a little before John Lennon wrote the song—in my book the greatest song ever.
Some say the ’60s didn’t start until 1964, but I certainly noticed a shift before then. I acted in a feature film The Boys, a courtroom drama written by a member of the Communist Party, Stuart Douglas, and directed by Sidney J. Furie, which appeared in 1962. It followed a group of working-class lads accused of murder through their trial. The prosecuting barrister was played by Richard Todd, who I had previously thought of as having a stiff upper lip in submarine up-periscope war movies. Indeed his sneering disdain for Dudley Sutton, Ronnie Lacey, Jess Conrad and me didn’t seem to take much acting on his part! But the film was from the point of view of these working-class boys, not the posh, right wing barrister.
David Mercer was from Wakefield; he failed his 11 -plus; his dad was a train driver; he became the leading TV writer of his day. His Generations trilogy, about a family involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Committee of One Hundred, was broadcast by the BBC. I played the left-wing son in a middle-class intellectual family, where the father is a physicist working on the bomb. The boy finally dies on the Berlin Wall, shot to death by both sides. Although didactic and full of speeches, the polemical intensity and uncompromising subject matter was quite new on television. They got on uncut and virtually unseen by senior management.
Young producers and directors, like Don Taylor, themselves from working- class backgrounds, and beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, were infiltrating the BBC. And they had very different ideas about drama. Drama on the BBC before then was mainly West End boulevard plays transferred on to television— nice and slim young men, with tennis rackets coming through French windows.
Meanwhile, on ITV, Sydney Newman, a Canadian with a 1930s left-wing background, was producing Armchair Theatre and breaking entirely new ground. Working-class writers, with working class actors, for ITV, which was a working-class audience. This was unprecedented in British popular culture. Sydney didn’t give a shit—as he so elegantly put it—about the English class system. He’d survived General Motors Theatre in Canada, and he knew how to hook an audience and tell a story. Armchair Theatre, a different play every week, was a huge popular success on Sunday nights. But that wasn’t the stunning thing! The stunning thing was that the BBC poached him and made him head of drama. As someone at the Beeb said at the time, ‘It was like Rommel being put in charge of the tank regiment.’
Up to this time I’d been trying for, and usually failing to get, the really interesting parts. If Albert Finney turned a part down, they’d ask Tom Courtenay or Alan Bates, and if they weren’t free they would ask me! It was just that they were more talented than I was. I was a very lucky actor, always in work, but I had the attitude then, that if you can’t be the governor, if you can’t be number one, then don’t do it. So, despite the David Mercer trilogy and a lot of other stuff, I was getting restless.
Some friends of mine, Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath, put on a drama called Z Cars and I acted in one episode. Z Cars broke entirely new ground as a drama series on TV. First of ail they went up to Liverpool and South Lancashire and spent quite a bit of time going in the cars with the cops. They actually bothered to research it by being with the police to see what it was like. Then they came back and wrote the series, and it went on the air, and all hell was let loose. Sergeant Watt (played by Frank Windsor) had a dirty mac; detectives didn’t go around dressed like that—this was the level of complaint. The Chief Constable of Lancashire personally came down to London to berate the BBC. He said that it was terrible that his officers should be portrayed in this way. Yet all Troy and John were doing really was to put what they had observed on the screen. But television audiences had only been used to Dixon of Dock Green and those were the days when it was unheard of to question the honesty of the police. Eventually of course, Z Cars was to become an institution. But those first half dozen episodes were really very fine.
Sydney Newman wanted the BBC to have its own Armchair Theatre, but he wanted it to be in tune with the ’60s so we were happy to oblige and gave him more than he bargained for. I was recruited to make up a team of three with Jim MacTaggart and Roger Smith, and our task was to prepare a season of 75-minute plays to go out on consecutive Wednesday nights after the news on BBC 1. It was unimaginatively called the Wednesday Play. In 1964 we put on around 35 plays.
Our ambition was to find some new writers, create an anthology series that would get a big audience and say some things that had never been said before. We were quite unashamed about going for a big audience. We had a very sexy opening sequence—the music was composed by a big pop group of the day called Mannfred Mann. If we were going to put on a very difficult piece of writing, say by David Mercer, the week before we’d put on a comedy and the week after a thriller. It was very important to us to be in the mainstream, to get that audience to make a date with us.
Dennis Potter wrote his first pieces for the Wednesday Plays. Other writers included Jimmy O’Connor and Nell Dunn. We were looking for people who had something to say. I learnt so much from Roger Smith—he would look everywhere for writers. That’s been one of the things I’ve been trying to do all my life—take the mystique out of writing, film-making and acting. We wanted news from the front, people who had an experience of an aspect of life and were desperate to say something about it. I’ve always thought that if a writer can create a believable world and make characters come off the page, we can teach them how to do the rest. If they can’t do those two things they should stick to their day job, because you can’t teach them that. Instead of going to the established television writers, many of whom we thought were hacks, we tried to find new ones. So Dennis Potter wrote a play, Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton out of his own experiences standing as a Labour candidate in the 1964 election. And Jimmy O’Connor, who was just out of jail, having spent ten years doing a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, wrote a play for us about a boy who was going to be hung. And we took it all the way through, and we hung him. This play went out during the debate on the abolition of capital punishment as the bill was going through Parliament.
We did another piece, Up the Junction, written by Nell Dunn. In one of the central scenes a character called Ruby is having a backstreet abortion on a kitchen table. Because Ken Loach and I were very into Brecht at the time, I got my GP to talk, with that quiet doctor’s authority, about how many deaths there were from illegal abortions, cutting his voice across all the screams of Ruby on the table. That went through as David Steel’s Abortion bill was being debated. Fortunately we were a very successful show: the ’60s were a confident time; the BBC management was cool, and we were allowed to do these things.
Drama at this time used to be done in the studio with multiple electronic cameras. I hated this as an actor, and I hated it as a producer, which is what I was then becoming. I fought a campaign at the BBC to be allowed to make films on location. It was very important to me, not just a matter of empty aesthetics or purely technical. As far as I am concerned the aesthetics, the techniques and the politics are all one argument.
We had nearly worked Ken Loach to death on the Wednesday Plays and he and I got personally very close, and he became my main collaborator during the next few years. It was vital to both of us to go out and observe the world as it is with a camera, rather than imagining what it might be like and recreate that in a studio. I had been very impressed by Raoul Coutard’s work in Breathless (1960). I didn’t think much of Godard, but I liked the way the film was shot. Godard and Joan Littlewood were the two biggest influences on me at the time. I wanted us to go out with a 16mm camera on the shoulder and just grab these films. The BBC film department at Ealing didn’t want us to do this: they thought it was ‘lowering standards’. Those 16mm cameras were for news, not drama. Drama was posh. Anyway I fought the battle, and we won. Indeed within two or three years no one wanted to work in a studio anymore: writers, directors, everybody wanted to go out to make films, leaving the expensive BBC studios in danger of lying empty.
The Lump was written by Jim Allen. Jim had been in the Merchant Navy and had worked on building sites and down the pit. He was a self-taught writer who had begun by reading Jack London’s novels. He had got himself a gig doing the odd episode of Coronation Street. I heard of him and got him down from Middleton to London. We met at my office in the Television Centre, and it was a very strange afternoon because Jim and I were prowling round each other. I was trying to get him to talk politics, and he was refusing. Finally, towards the end of the afternoon, we actually met properly when he said, ‘Well, I thought I’d never get a job if I came down here to the BBC and talked politics.’ And I replied, ‘Well, I was getting to the point where if you were going to refuse to talk politics you wouldn’t get a job!’ But in the end we came together, and he wrote a script about workers on the lump, which was quite prescient because there was to be a lot more of that going on in subsequent years. It was directed by a documentary film-maker called Jack Gold. It was the first film with actors that he’d ever tried, and he did a good job.
Ken Loach and I went on to do Cathy Come Home, which was written by the journalist Jeremy Sandford. He and his wife, Nell Dunn, were living in Battersea, and they found that some of their friends were disappearing. When Jeremy Sandford investigated, he found that they had become homeless. And he just followed them through the homeless experience, into sheltered accommodation, making a lot of notes. He had a terrible title initially The Abyss. The BBC turned it down, and he came to me, and we made it. Ken Loach and I both have very mixed feelings about the film itself and about its actual impact. After all many more people are homeless now than there were then, while the people mainly responsible for making Cathy Come Home have got very nice houses to live in. It was a reformist film in many ways.
There’s an unsung hero called Alfred Bradley, who was living in Yorkshire at this time. Alfred, who worked for BBC sound radio, was a wonderful man— selfless, generous and one of the most valuable people in my business because he loved writers. Everybody in my business lives off the writers; if it weren’t for them we’d all be out of work—everybody, John Birt, the lot of them. To get up and face a blank sheet of paper every morning is hard work. It’s the only non-technical job you can’t con your way through. I know because I’ve done it. I’ve earned my living as a writer, but I find it easier to make other people do it. Alfred encouraged a lot of young writers, and he tipped me off about a young man who was living just outside Barnsley—Barry Hines.
Barry, who was teaching at the time, had written a book, a first novel drawing on his own experience. It was very much a young man’s novel, about a lad from Yorkshire who wanted to become a professional footballer. He came down to the Television Centre and I asked him if he would like to write a Wednesday Play. He replied, ‘Well, I’ve never written a play before.’ I told him that it didn’t matter and would he like to write one anyway? He answered, ‘I would, very much, but I’ve got this book going round in my head, and I’ve got to write it.’ So I told him I respected that but if he wanted to write a Wednesday Play when he’d written his book, he should get back to me. In the meantime, when he’d finished his book, could I read it?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’
I had enormous respect for Barry’s integrity, because his wife, Margaret, was not working, they’d a baby still on the floor, and a mortgage. God knows what he thought he was going to earn from his book, because those sort of novels earn nothing. There was quite a big fee for a Wednesday Play on the table— and he didn’t take it, because he had a book in his head.
Anyway, he wrote the book and sent it to me in a typed manuscript. It was called Kestrel for a Knave. I looked at it and I thought, ‘This’ll do’. There was a strong central image going through it, which was an unself-conscious and unpretentious metaphor for the whole piece, and it was just beautifully written. I sent the book to Ken Loach because I thought he would be good casting for it. He liked it, and so the three of us put a screen play together—not that difficult because Barry Hines had written it so visually, and it was more or less a cut-and-paste job. The film was subsequently called Kes, the story of a boy in Barnsley who finds a kestrel and trains it.
We went up to Barnsley to make it. If Barry Hines had written the book about Dagenham and set it in the Essex marshes, that’s where we would have gone.
Ideologically it was an absolute article of trust and faith on our part to go to the actual place Barry had written about. So we went to the local school, for instance, to find the boy to play the lead. We only had a problem in casting one of the characters, the sports teacher. Neither I nor Ken could think of anybody who could do it credibly. I like working collaboratively, I don’t believe in the factory assembly-line way of making films, and it was Barry who suggested, ‘Well, there was a chap who used to teach in my school, he’s a bit of a show off.’ This teacher would finish a day’s teaching, get into his car and drive to Nottingham where he was a wrestler in the evenings, under the name of ‘Leon Arras (France)’. We found out that he was also a member of the Variety Artists Federation, which was affiliated to Equity. This meant that we could have him. I’m still a member of Equity, but I’ve had terrible rows with the union policy of a pre-entry closed- shop policy. I believe in a post-entry closed shop. Anyway this fellow played the part of the sports teacher and subsequently went on to quite a career as an actor—his name is Brian Glover. When we finished the film, nobody wanted to show it. Finally, after a big campaign we got it into the cinemas, but we had to fight against the distributor who said it ought to have sub-titles south of Nottingham. Anyway it seemed to go down OK once we got to the public.
The Big Flame was another film we made at the time. I don’t know how we got this on to the air in 1969. It was about the Liverpool docks; after a strike the dockers end up declaring a soviet. We had to film on the docks. That was made more difficult by my friend Ken Loach, who is absolutely trusting and showed the docks management the script. It took a lot of lunches and booze to persuade them that we weren’t really doing that film, we were doing another!
In the early ’70s we did a series called Days of Hope, an attempt at an historical piece. We tried to tell the story of the labour movement from 1916 to 1926, the First World War to the General Strike, through the lives of three or four characters. There was some good work in it, including Ken’s of course. But I have very mixed feelings about it. I’m worried about doing films that are based on true events, because, as soon as you start making a film it becomes fiction. I have had many disagreements with David Puttnam over this fact/fiction thing. We’re like chalk and cheese. David loves to make films that put ‘a true story’ on the screen, and I’m very uneasy about this. One’s relationship with the audience is, I think, compromised. But, despite these problems, I think Days of Hope made a contribution to the discussion about labour and class, particularly in the light of the events of the last few years.
A mini-series, Law and Order was also done in the 1970s. The director was Les Blair, the writer G. F. Newman—again it was the first thing he had ever written for the screen. It was a four-parter about the judiciary, the prison service, some criminals and the CID. We had an immense problem because the BBC weren’t prepared to believe that corruption in the Met was anything other than the odd bad apple in the barrel, and we were saying in the series that it was systemic—you can’t be in the CID without being bent, period. They told us we were wrong, but since then, of course, there has been case after case, the Bridgewater Four just one example.
Really I had a lot of freedom in this period. Of course there were constraints: you had to be careful about Northern Ireland, you couldn’t piss on the Queen. But compared with the situation now, it was really quite liberal. I had a contract to do four films a year: two on BBC 1 and two on BBC 2. There was a young film-maker called Mike Leigh, and I thought I could give him and Les Blair a kick start. When the Head of Plays, the head of department, asked me what I was doing, I told him, ‘I’m doing a couple of films with these two lads.’ ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘Who’s done the script?’ ‘Well, there’s no script,’ I said. When he wanted to know what it was about I replied, ‘They just work it up with the actors, and you don’t know until you make it.’ So he asked ‘Who’s in it?’ ‘Nobody you’ve heard of!’ But I was allowed to do it. Nowadays if you want to do a big show on the television you get the controller of the channel or the network centre telling you that unless you have a particular actor you can’t make it, and they’re even interfering in the choice of directors. This is part of a huge, huge change.
Towards the end of the 1970s I just felt burnt out. I was exhausted from producing non-stop for all those years: all the battles to get things made and all the political battles on the left. I knew there was going to be a sea change, and I needed to have a think, so I went to work in North America. When I came back in the 1990s there was not only a different environment in the country— that hardly needs spelling out—but a different broadcasting environment too.
Previously I’d worked on single films and mini-series. In the ’60s it had still been possible to create a national event with one film—the kind of event that everyone is talking about the next day. But with the proliferation of channels, the remote control that allows easy grazing from one channel to another, along with computer games and PCs, this has become very difficult. The best chance is to do it cumulatively, through a long-running series. I became a late convert. I’ve realised that this is TV’s natural form—the equivalent to a nineteenth- century episodic novel. The difficulties and the opportunities of these long- running series now fascinate me.
A lot of television drama consists of genre pieces, and, if you want to get a big audience, one of the tasks is to put new wine into old bottles. I thought I’d like to do a cop-show, and I wouldn’t mind doing a doc-show. They are the mainstays on the box, that’s where the people are—in front of those shows. But I didn’t want to do one just for the sake of it. Then a writer called John Wilsher—J. C. Wilsher—walked into my office and said, ‘How about a series about the police investigating the police?’ I knew instantly that it was a bloody good idea; as soon as he spoke I thought, Why didn’t I think of that? In fact I’d seen an American movie, Internal Affairs, on the same theme just the week before on a plane, but it hadn’t clicked. Shit! I thought, That’s great. We can have crooked cops on the screen every week. So we did this series about the Complaints Investigation Bureau, Between the Lines.
With the doc-show we did the obvious and put an advert in the British Medical Journal asking for writers. There’s a long tradition of doctors writing in this country; I don’t know why so many doctors are good writers. Out of the hundred or so replies there was a handful who sent us stuff that looked promising. We picked Jed Mercurio, who was then a houseman at a hospital in Birmingham; I don’t know how he found the time to write at all working all those hours. However, my colleague Margaret Matheson and I could tell he was fuelled with fury about what was happening to the NHS and junior doctors. He also had this wonderful black humour, and we thought, It would be wonderful if we could slip this on to the Beeb! Let him loose! He wrote some acerbic, strong angry stuff. It was called Cardiac Arrest and ran for three seasons.
There is a completely different broadcasting environment from when I started to work, and they are going to continue. We ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say. For instance, though most of the work I do is on location, they are now squeezing the budgets so much that every time a show I have on the air is renewed they say, ‘Could you do it cheaper next year and get another million viewers?’ There is a continuing pressure to speed up; in This Life we had to get nine minutes of screen time a day single camera and there is now a tendency to build a multiple set on location, which I find ironic but am forced into.
In British television, particularly in the BBC, there used to be a doctrine of ‘producer power’. I’d done about 30 films before anyone asked me who was going to be in any of them or what they were about. It was assumed that producers could be trusted to do the right thing. If they had doubts or feared trouble, they were meant to refer upwards, but they made the decisions. One of the biggest changes—and it isn’t accidental—is that there has been a centralisation of decision-making. Now as a producer you have to be a seller. Thirty years ago there were hundreds of sensibilities at work, all making their decisions about what went on the air. Now when it comes to long-running drama series or sitcoms, it will be around three people who can decide what goes on.
This century has been dominated by petroleum: seven big companies, known as the seven sisters. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Rockefeller had a few oil wells, but he knew that owning oil wells wasn’t the important thing. You had to get the oil to the customer: it was distribution that was important. So he made a deal with the railways, and everybody else who had an oil well had to go through his deal with the railroad. The next century will be dominated by information technology, and there may indeed be seven sisters, or more likely a few big brothers, dominating them, Murdoch, Time- Warner, to name but two of them. They’re fighting it out now.
Of course it’s going to be difficult. They’re not going to hand it to us on a plate, any of it. It requires capital to make films. It is possible to make them outside the system, but the price you pay is that you only get them to a handful of people. That’s fine, but I chose to go another route. The only thing I’d say is that although going into a dark room and sitting with a number of people to watch a flickering light being projected on to the screen is a valuable experience for some people, increasingly that commodity, film, is going to be reaching people in diverse ways. Maybe in a cinema, or probably at home. You have videos and laser discs. You’re going to be taking films off the internet on to your television screens. Now with flat TV screens coming in and the whole business being digitised, the technical quality in the home is going to be very high in the next five to ten years. I don’t give a shit where it is seen. Indeed I’d like it to be in a whole range of situations. I’d like people to decide themselves how they are going to experience film. So the first problem is how do you get it made, and then how do you get it out?
I’ve always tried to work in the mainstream. Nowadays it has become much more difficult; I need a mainstream show on the air to get the confidence of the broadcasters. Then I try to do Trojan Horse drama. That’s just one way and not the only one. Radical film-makers are working in very different contexts and let’s hope that all roads lead to Rome. I don’t see it as simply an either/or. It’s not a question of ‘Do we find alternative ways around it to communicate with each other? Or do we work in the mainstream and try to infiltrate and get things on the air whenever we can?’ We’ve got to do both and take whatever opportunities come up with the new technologies. Of course it isn’t easy; it’s never going to be easy. But the opportunities will come up.
I think that my generation of the left blew it. We indulged ourselves in the ’60s at the end of the boom. In the ’70s, when Keith Joseph was embarking on his long march through the universities, all people did was throw tomatoes at him. When Margaret Thatcher was sitting at the feet of Hayek in a drawing- room in Chelsea, much of the left, in its fissile way, was becoming atomised and scolding each other. When Arthur Scargill was strutting with his hubris after the famous victory over Heath at the Saltley coke plant, Ridley was quietly preparing his plan to destroy the miners. We all know what happened after that. Blair has taken Thatcher’s agenda, though it’s better to have a Labour government than to have any kind of Tory government.
But there is something in the air now, something is stirring. What I’d really like to know, though it may sound naive, is:- what is the working class? Once it was organised in trades unions, and now less so. The workplaces were larger and more homogenous, and now less so. You were defined by your job, and your job defined a social classs, now less so. Society is going through a big change. The old joke about librarians being the lumpen intelligentsia seems to have acquired some reality now. Look at the wages and lack of job security of university lecturers and researchers, of people working in banks and the financial services, broadcasting and journalism. In white-collar jobs throughout the economy, layers of management are being excised. All this may have been done in a Thatcher-like way, but clearly the causes go beyond her. There’s been a paradigm shift: the revolution in technology, free movement of capital and globalisation. Do we broaden our definition of the working class? What of the unworking class, the unemployed? What of the shifting demographics, an ageing population—some of whom are very well pensioned thank you and a lot of whom are very poor? Should we be questioning who is included and excluded? Is there a credible, contemporary definition of what we mean by the term ‘working class’? In the modern Labour Party hardly any of the leading figures now have ever done a day’s work in the wider economy. They tend to be professional politicians, lawyers, trade-union officials or university lecturers.
I am solidly middle class now. I have been most of my adult life, despite my political views and my social background—which is why I constantly search for news from the front, brought by writers whose voices are authentic and unmediated—and they’re difficult to find. The images of the working class in the mass media are put there by the middle class, as indeed are the images of the aristocracy. That’s why both the working class and the aristocracy so often come over as cliches, as stereotypes, not as rounded and unique human beings. They are both patronised and sentimentalised. I don’t give a shit about the aristos, but if you are on the left the way the working class is represented obviously has political importance.
Those of us who were film-makers on the left used to think, rather romantically, during the 1960s and ’70s, that TV at its best could allow the nation to speak to itself. In the TV of the future, with its fragmented audience, the working class will not be speaking to the working class, not even when mediated by sympathetic professionals. In certain aspects, the working class is being represented less and less, and this tendency is going to persist because of the way TV works. Increasingly most TV is becoming commercial. The programmes are there to deliver audiences to advertisers—that’s their function. But not any old audience. Gross numbers are not so important now, it’s the demographics that are important. If you want to sell fancy cars, or upmarket consumer durables or luxury drinks, you don’t want the poor, the unemployed, the struggling single parent, or even the average wage earner watching. You want a programme wrapping around your ad that will attract the well-off. It is the ones with disposable income who are the target audience for your goods and services. This does not mean that the working class will not be represented at all on these
programmes, but it does affect the filter through which they are portrayed, the point of view, the stance taken.
It would be wrong to confine consideration of the screen images of the working class to dramatic fiction and serious documentary. You don’t have to be Eisenstein to know that if you impose the right images you can create any impression you want. Even on the news, shoot a group of dockers on the stones, by a brazier on a windy day, and you can easily make them seem like an undisciplined rabble. Follow this by a well-lit, low-key interview in an office with a management suit or a junior minister, and you start to think those dockers have sacked themselves. There are images of the working class on the news, on game shows and on Kilroy, on Cilia Black or Jeremy Beadle, and these are just as manipulated, mediated and created as any I create in drama. It is all fiction in the sense that the producers make it up, pick and choose the material and the participants, and then edit the results. So my advice is, Don’t trust the people from the telly.
In drama most television images of the working class are in soaps, and that’s what most working-class people watch. When it comes to cinema, more people in the world, given the choice, prefer Hollywood movies by a large majority. With the lottery money, many British films will be made with the cinema in mind. Good luck to them, but precious few will get distributed or audiences of any size. It is very snobbish and misplaced to see this kind of cinema as exclusively important.
Personally, having worked in films like this a lot, I have become irritated by the self-regarding little world of the European art film, with its film-makers, festivals and critics. It is almost as if they pull back from the vulgarity of reaching large audiences: if it is popular it can’t be good. What brought me to television in the 1960s was the chance to reach millions of people on the same occasion. I wanted to occupy that platform. For the time being at least, my current focus is still mainly in TV. I like its vulgarity and its immediacy. I like the challenge of having to ask, ‘What can I get my cousin Norah to watch?’
I work in fiction. I help to make dramatic fiction—I have never used the phrase ‘drama documentary’, which was probably invented by some journalist. I have experimented with other forms, but most of my life has been in a particular, narrow, interpretation of dramatic fiction and in a socialist-realist tradition. When I am working with writers I say, ‘Research it and research it and research it!’ Then we make it up. That’s what we do because we work in fiction. I think there was a confusion because we attempted to create a style that was borrowed from the documentary tradition. When there is a willing suspension of disbelief, people will often say, ‘Oh, I like your documentary,’ but it is scripted, acted and put together as a fictional narrative. One of the things that Ken Loach and I have spent a lot of our lives doing is questioning the nature of performance. The kind of work we do depends on acting not seeming like acting. I hate ‘writing writing’, and I hate ‘acting acting’. A young actor once went up to Spencer Tracy and said, ‘Mr Tracy, I’m an acttor too.’ And Spencer Tracy replied, ‘Yeah! Well don’t ever let them catch you doing it!’
We all see ourselves and each other being represented on television. You can’t raise consciousness unless you confront reality, and I still think it is important to struggle for true representations. That is achieved through constant struggle and goes beyond any particular political agenda. Dramatic fiction, if it rings true, can help us feel what it is like to be someone else. It can make us feel less alone, and it can be the invisible glue that binds communities and social classes. We all live by stories, by myths; we all need a narrative to hold our lives together. The question is: which narrative? That is why history is so fought over. Tell us a story, tell us a true story. Well, I shall attempt to go on doing so.
We have to be thinking about the future. We can’t just bury ourselves in nostalgia. I’m spending most of my time now with the next generation, making shows with kids in their twenties. They are going to have their own ways of working. Goodness knows, they come out of difficult-enough circumstances. They are teaching me, and I am trying to teach them. We have to encourage them and trust them and help them, but not by imposing our old methods. We have to love good work out of them because they are the generation who are going to have the energy to carry it forward. There is an enormous energy coming into the industry, an enormous energy. And that gives rise to hope.
Tony Garnett, lecture at ‘Images of Labour’, edited by Tony Garnett and Sheila Rowbotham