Archive • Interviews

Meet the producer

Media Guardian: 28/10/2002

Cathy Come Home, Between the Lines, This Life… chances are at one time or another you have been captivated by a Tony Garnett drama. Maggie Brown talks exclusively to TVs most prolific producer

Garnett, 66, is Britain’s most influential producer. Responsible for decades of distinctive drama, from the campaigning Cathy Come Home in 1966 to the emotional intimacies of This Life in 1996, Garnett has steadfastly refused to speak to jour­nalists. He even refused an invitation to feature on Desert Island Discs.

Ten days after the email, I’m sitting on a blue velvet sofa in his modest Soho office at World Produc­tions. Gamett, spry, toned and approachable, points at the walls. “I don’t live in the past, I’m interested in what we’re doing now, the future. I keep no memorabilia, no print, newspaper cutting, photograph, any­thing I’ve been involved with. I throw it away. Look around. People get bur­dened by their pasts.”

Garnett tells me he has not been to an awards ceremony since 1974. “This business is too competitive and not cooperative enough. I decided in the mid-70s to stop reading reviews and never to go to an awards cere­mony. Two very liberating decisions.”

He was brought up in the Birm­ingham district of Erdington, born to the “labour aristocracy”. His father was a toolmaker for Hercules bicy­cles. He went to the city’s Central grammar school, then University College London, to study psychology. The Birmingham accent lingers and he remains a man of the left, although he has never been a Labour party member. As he has got older, his views have “hardened”.

Until now Garnett has made only one public statement about British television, in November 1997, at a drama forum. “The way people are treated in this business is scandalous,”  he said. British television was run by “managers with the mentality of 19th- century mill owners”; its recruits required “proper training – not the modern equivalent of sending kids up chimneys”; ITV needed “a shot of adrenalin”; the BBC was a “disaster area”. He was appalled at the “impoverishingly narrow range of drama”.

Today, Garnett says the past five years have proved him right. But he has been seeking solutions. That’s why he wants to talk. Three years ago, he helped to start a masters degree course at Royal Holloway College, University of London in television and film production. Technically, he’s a visiting professor.

“I was lucky: I had Sidney New­man as mentor,” he observes. New­man was the creator of Armchair Theatre in the 1950s, then head of BBC drama in the 1960s. James MacTaggart, the first producer of the Wednesday Play, gave Garnett a leg- up with a nine-month BBC contract in 1963. “A lovely man. A true Reithian without the humbug and pom­posity,” he says.

I sit with 13 student freshers in a dreary room in Gower Street as Gar­nett gives his opening lecture of the year. “The producer as creative entre­preneur” is the theme. Here’s a flavour: “Your taste is unique – nour­ish it. The industry lacks courage, dis­courages too much individual taste. That’s why so much is bland, formu­laic. Don’t let anyone ever take it off you,” he advises. “Try to keep hold of the ordinary punter, the viewer inside you. They’re saying, ‘Entertain me’.”

He continues: “Too many people in this industry think that, as soon as they have been given some power, infinite wisdom automatically goes with it. They think they are instant experts on everything, though they might have come from current affairs, or light entertainment. Beware of it in yourself.”

“When I started there was no media studies, nothing,” Garnett tells me. “Then almost overnight it became a huge part of academic life.” World Productions runs a website to cope with the volume of requests from media students. “I started to wonder about this huge gulf. There were a lot of people in academia who really didn’t know what they were talking about, and in the industry there was a general attitude of disdain, tinged with defensiveness. And that’s a non-creative way of carrying on. I wanted to make more links between universities and these courses, break down the mutual suspicion.”

‘TV ought to be a bloody great circus, with lots of acts. Room for all sorts’

More practitioners should come forward to hold classes, he says. “I don’t see why the broadcasters shouldn’t sponsor a couple of students. Young people working in broadcasting could take a year off, come on to this. I also think it’s scan­dalous that the National Film and Television School don’t get a shed-load of money from the government.”

Until 15 years ago, Garnett spent much of his time in Hollywood. Does he worry as much as Lord Puttnam about US ownership of British media assets? “Capitalists are capitalists. To argue that replacing the glittering creative brilliance of [Carlton’s] Michael Green with [Disney’s] Michael Eisner would be a disaster for British television is a bit hard to sustain. The only point I agree with David on is reciprocity. Everything else is humbug.”

More specifically, he expects TV drama here to face a hard future. “Drama is a very expensive way to entertain people, so it’s understand­able if broadcasters are thinking twice about how much drama they should be doing. And we don’t have a God-given right to make it. We have to earn the right. Take responsibility when it doesn’t work. I do.

Why should channel controllers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a drama that only a few people watch, when for sixpence they can attract a big audience to some­one decorating someone else’s front room? These are questions we have to ask ourselves. Fashions cool down. There was a time when drama was very fashionable and central to the television experience. It has shifted towards other kinds of reality TV, and that’s making it difficult.”

But Garnett has mellowed. “There’s also a feeling among broadcasters that a drama, even if it doesn’t get a huge audience, can help define a channel. It’s up to all of us to strive to do bet­ter.” He laughs. “I think TV ought to be a bloody great circus, with lots of acts. Room for all sorts.

“I can see some signs of improve­ment. The idea of Channel 5 doing high-end drama is a good sign. There is a clear sign that, although Channel 4 is financially strapped, it is going to get serious about drama again. Mark Thompson and Tim Gardam want to. That’s good. Despite all the diffi­culties in ITV, which are horrendous. Nevertheless, David Liddiment, to his credit, and Nick Elliott and Jenny Reeks [the ITV network drama com­missioners] have made some brave choices over past years.

“Also, there are good signs from the BBC, that they want to get the balance rieht. Mavbe it isn’t a choice between vulgar popularism on one hand and esoteric elitism on the other. I first worked for the BBC 45 years ago [he acted in Dixon of Dock Green]. I know the BBC better than anyone working there now. I know it in my bones. And the BBC influences any individual more than any individual can influence the BBC… I mention no names”. He is clearly referring to Greg Dyke.

“They are prickly and defensive under criticism, which is a pity. A bit like like new Labour – they may spin against [criticism], but after a bit they absorb it, and respond. Of ITV, he says 2There’s still some unimaginative, inappropriate casting. Maybe the penny is droppingI If  it’s a series, it’s insane to miscast  a name. If the show is going to click with an audience, the audience  will find it, and in three week the cast are stars. This happened with Ballykissangel [Stephen Tompkin- son and Dervla Kirwan], Between the Lines [Neil Pearson], This Life [Jack Davenport, Andrew Lincoln, Natasha Little, Daniela Nardini]. If the series is not going to click, it does­n’t matter who you have. Miscast a star and careers are damaged.”

Garnett says working conditions and hours in TV remain terrible. “I insist on five-day weeks, no overtime. Life is more important than show- business. Unless you are vigilant, as an independent producer, you are required to be the agent of exploita­tion on behalf of the broadcaster. I say to the whole crew, ‘There’s only one thing that doesn’t cost anything. And it is ingenuity.'”

A year after the dotcom drama Attachments on BBC2 disappointed, Garnett faces a busy 2003, Buried, a series about prison, is being readied for delivery to Channel 4. TLC, about young nurses in Leeds, also for Chan­nel 4, is about to start casting. A BBC arts film about Philip Larkin begins in Hull in December. Channel 5 is green- lighting a police drama. A political series for the BBC is under research.

Of Attachments – he was the exec­utive producer – Garnett says: “I have no complaints at all. Jane Root was a trooper. If you do a show that doesn’t quite click with an audience, don’t blame the audience, don’t blame the broadcaster, blame the show. We did something wrong, somewhere I made some big mistakes. As specimens of the kind of people in that dotcom nonsense, I hope we were fairly accu­rate about the characters. If there was a sympathy deficit, that was my fault.

“Life is marvellous. I’m curious about life. I spend most of my time trying to bring on the next genera­tion. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years. Writers, directors, actors in particular.” He lists Kath Mattock, getting her first taste of producing with Buried, and Simon Heath, get­ting his L-plates off, looking after the nurses series, with Helen Gregory. “I just want this to be a place where producers can produce shows, they don’t want to be distracted by organ­ising an office, thinking about the VAT, foreign sales.”

Eleanor Greene, development producer, aged 27, who joined from Nicola Shindler’s Red Productions after working on Queer as Folk and Clocking Off, says: “He sets very high standards. That’s the privilege of working here. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have to believe in what you’re doing.”

Is it altruism? “Not altruism,” says Garnett. “I only do what I enjoy doing. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing talent coming through. One of the worst things ever said is that ‘tal­ent will out’. It is an absolute lie. Unless talent is nurtured and encouraged and above all believed in, it will wither on the vine.”

Tony Garnett is something rare. Someone in TV who wants to do good.

The MA course in producing for film and TV is at Royal Holloway College, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX


The Garnett File

1936: Born Birmingham.

1957: Studies at London University, moonlighting as an actor.

1965: Makes first mark as producer with Ken Loach’s Up the Junction.

1966: Cathy Come Home, Loach’s drama-doc about a homeless family.

1969: Kes, Loach film about kestrel-loving misfit.

1973: Hard Labour, a collaboration with Mike Leigh.

1975: Days of Hope, series about politics from 1916-26, written by Jim Allen and directed by Loach. 1978: Law and Order: GF Newman- written series on the criminal justice system.

1983: Writes and directs feature film Handgun, after moving to US. 1989: Earth Girls Are Easy, Julien Temple comedy.

1989: Shadow Makers, Roland Joffe film about Los Alamos. 1992: Between the Lines, series about corrupt cops, announces return to British TV as indy producer. 1994: Cardiac Arrest, medical drama. 1996: Ballykissangel, first main- channel, big-rating series. 1996: This Life, cult neo-soap about flat-sharing lawyers.

1998: The Cops, series set in north­ern town using documentary style.

 2000: Attachments, bid to match This Life’s success set in dotcom start-up.