Financial insecurity is the predicament of every small production company. I needed a banker show, which would pay the house nut for some years. That’s the elusive gold everyone is looking for.
Ballykissangel was the answer. It was aimed at the 8pm Sunday BBC1 slot. I knew that a hit there would be the answer to our financial problems, at least for a while. It’s so important to the BBC that it would also earn goodwill.
Kieron’s idea was a classic fish out of water format, light, warm and comedic, set in a charming world. A young English priest is transferred from an inner city parish to a small community in rural Ireland, Ballykissangel. Plenty of room for romance which cannot be consummated, which linked nicely into the rules of another genre: a love story is not about love, it’s about the impediments to love, or otherwise there’s no drama. Clearly Kieron knew his stuff. I read him. He could write. I met him and liked him. I said yes. She recruited an A list Irish crew, which was important, because Ireland was like Dallas. It had good people, but not the depth of London or Los Angeles. Get in at the top and they’re world class. Miss out, and you’re in trouble.
Setting up Ballykissangel was the first time I was seriously pissed off by the involvement of Sixth Floor executives in creative matters. They were not content with becoming buyers, the sole dictators of what could be made. They were all suddenly experts on screenplays, directors and casting. Some magic must have happened to them when they slept, the Drama Fairy Godmother must have cast her spell, because all these people from Current Affairs, or Daytime or Light Entertainment became drama experts overnight, the night following their appointment to the Sixth Floor. An incredible transformation. Plus, they all wanted to help, to share this new expertise.
So I was told we had to change the title. I said that was what it was called. Ask the writer. End of discussion. There were then numerous ideas for the role of the English priest, the leading character, usually fashionable stars or aspiring stars, all inappropriate. The BBC was so taken with its new marketing ideas, brought in by experts from Proctor and Gamble or wherever, that time and again I had to rebuff the suggestion of so and so, “Who is about to leave East Enders. He’s enormously popular and we want to keep him. Wouldn’t he be perfect for x?”
” No, he wouldn’t. He would be a disaster. He can’t act”.
It all became tiresome and time wasting. I growled at them and they retreated, muttering. But younger and newer producers gave in, to the detriment of their shows. Of course, when their shows bombed, they were blamed. I said at the time that in Hollywood you are messed around but at least you got a swimming pool. In London now you just got messed around.
We decided on Stephen Tompkinson, who I’d seen in the same show as Neil Pearson, Drop the Dead Donkey. The executives were firmly against him, saying he was unproven and unknown. I insisted, saying I thought he was right: he was talented, had comedy timing and was a warm, sympathetic everyman, who the audience would love and root for. If the series worked, he would be a star in three weeks. If it failed, so what?
In the end, they all backed off, not before I lost my temper. I’d taken a short holiday in France, but it was interrupted each day by numerous phone calls, with me wasting energy making this silliness back off. I may as well have stayed at home. Why can’t these amateurs leave it to those who know, who do it professionally? Their interference increases the chances of failure, which they are striving to avoid. Buy it or don’t buy it, but if you do, get out of the way and let me make it. It’s what I do.
The shoot went smoothly and the material had warmth and innocence. The Irish crack sent me back to London the worse for wear each week, but encouraged. In the event, the series was a huge hit from the first episode. I’ve never been able to predict audiences. This one grew and grew. Avoca, where we filmed, became a pilgrimage for fans as far away as Australia, so much so that filming external scenes became difficult. The crowds got in the way.
The success of Ballykissangel was marred by the death of Joy Lale. I had just told her she would be the producer the following year. She was thrilled by this vote of confidence. For months we had all begged her to learn how to drive, so she took lessons and passed her test, buying a new car. She lived with her husband some miles from Avoca, in a house rented for the shoot. They were narrow, winding country lanes. She and a van crashed head on.
I took the next plane back and found her in a Dublin hospital lying inert, surrounded by medical apparatus, her husband and family keeping vigil by her side. At first I was optimistic she would pull through, but after a while the medics shook their heads.
The funerals of those you love are sad, but Joy’s was very difficult. I saw the devastated face of her husband. They had been very much in love and happy together. I saw her bemused family, who had been close to her. This was an exceptional young woman, full of life and energy, embarking on what I knew would be a fine producing career, now dead, her life unlived and her promise unfulfilled. I thought I had lost a daughter, but my loss was nothing compared with what her husband and her family must have felt.
I had learned the lesson of Between The Lines, so I bailed out after two seasons, before my boredom drove me to tinker with its success. If it works, don’t fix it, they say. With me, if it works, leave it alone by leaving it to others. It ran and ran, stabilising the company and allowing me to experiment and bring on some young hopefuls.
The Day the Music Died is the memoir of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett. For the first time, Tony shares exclusive details from his childhood in working-class and war torn Birmingham. He takes readers behind the scenes of a selection of his more famous productions, offering secrets and anecdotes. Some moving and some amusing. Now available for pre-order on Amazon.