Books • Unpublished Writing

Off-Cut: The Ones That Got Away

This glancing look at some of the productions over the decades gives the impression that every idea was easily green lit. If only. I still mourn the ones that were shot down at the last moment. It would be too painful to rehearse more than a few examples.

Neville Smith wrote a sharp, warm comedy set in Liverpool about the take over of a local firm by the Japanese. The Scouse workers were obliged to do keep fit and sing the company song each morning. I thought it was a delicious culture clash. Columbia green lit it. Ken was auditioning lads from a local sixth form. I was also in Liverpool, working with the crew. At the last minute it was cancelled. There had been a change at the top and the new Columbia bosses swept away the projects of the previous regime. One lad being considered was Jimmy Mulville, who started Have I Got News For You at Hat Trick, so he ended up in the business anyway.

A film from a John le Carre novel, written by Julian Mitchell, came close. There were congenial lunches with David Cornwell and Julian. The project was verbally green lit by Jonathan Powell, Controller of BBC1, and I was about to crew up. Then an austerity drive came suddenly from high and our film was scratched. David was gracious, but calling his agent Sam Cohn at ICM in New York was difficult. He was not an easy man.

Margaret Matheson and I had lunch with Frankie Howerd at Kensington Place. Our table was by the big window looking out on Kensington Church Street. Frankie played up to the public as they walked past, all the time pretending to be irritated by the attention. He didn’t ask for another, more discreet table. He was charming but asked penetrating questions, some of them very personal, especially about our sex lives. Not the way you start a conversation with a stranger. Not in Brum, anyway. It was a mad idea for him to play a private detective who gets into all sorts of scrapes down in Somerset. Don’t ask. I admired him, and had been tempted, but wasn’t heartbroken when it fell apart.

But failing to turn Lenny Henry from stand up to acting did upset me. Perhaps it was because he came from Dudley, near Brum, and I felt on his wavelength. Or because he’s just the nicest man. We talked and planned for ages, often over lunch in the old Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy, just off Regent street. An hour or two in his company and you’re in a good mood for a week. In the end, I regretted it because his ability was so obvious, quietly waiting for the right vehicle. I knew this bright man would surprise everyone. It’s a joy to see him, years later, doing just that.

In the Nineties I really wanted to do a series set in the early Sixties in Notting Hill Gate, when Rachman ruled and the newly arrived Caribbean Community was terrorised by Moseley’s fascists. It was a time of social change, with abortion law reform just round the corner and pop music becoming interesting. I wrote a full pitch for it but couldn’t find any takers.

I also begged Peter Watkins to work with me but in the end he said he couldn’t bring himself to work at the BBC again. I had admired Culloden and the political banning of his film, The War Game, was a dark incident and proved that the BBC’s vaunted independence was a deceptive mirage. I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with him and fight for his work.

Gerald Savory, Head of Plays, stopped me producing a film of the Putney Debates of 1647. He said he only wanted contemporary drama from me. What could be more relevant and contemporary than a debate about our constitution, the monarchy and the nature of democracy? But he thought it was just a boring, static history lesson which no one would watch.

I wanted to do a mini series about Attlee and the post war world, beginning with the 1945 election. One episode would be the story of Nye Bevan and the fight for the Health Service. But by that time there was no appetite for such a politically incendiary series. Another Days of Hope was not welcomed.

One project I aborted myself. Jim Allen and I researched an idea in Ireland at the height of The Troubles. It was interesting talking to the protagonists and sometimes amusing. We talked to the Army, of course, and both wings of the IRA. One evening we were sitting in a Dublin pub listening to two senior Official IRA men and a few tables away were two men in cavalry twills, with highly polished shoes and highly polished hair, cut severely short. They were so obviously intelligence pretending to be in mufti that the IRA men smiled and discussed sending them over a drink, but just nodded to them and waved a greeting. Everyone seemed to know each other and the atmosphere reeked with treachery. The politics were so complicated and the history so convoluted we decided we couldn’t dramatise it responsibly in one film and a series about such a sensitive subject would have been vetoed. How do you dramatise the conflict between the Provos and the Officials without going back to at least De Valera and Michael Collins? How do you describe the oppression of Ireland by the British, without also reaching back into its brutal history? This project defeated me. I preferred to abandon it rather than not do it justice.

Almost nothing I wanted to do in America was green lit. This was understandable, because they were all character based and critical of capitalism in general and questioning of American policy in particular. In the Eighties none of them ever got to first base, as they say. The project I most regret was about the CIA. Politically it was a non starter. One executive asked me why I was in America if I hated it? I said I loved America but hated its rulers.

Long after I left Los Angeles and was back in London, Amy Pascal, now running Sony Pictures, called about a John Lennon and Yoko Ono project. The action took place during the difficult period of his life when Yoko kicked him out and told him not to return until he’d dealt with his demons. He made his way cross country from New York, ending in Los Angeles, raving it up with various music druggies. Eventually, having gone through booze, drugs and anything and anyone else on offer, he went back to Yoko, as she expected, chastened and cool.

Another creative period flowered in him. Then he was shot dead. A story of love and creative renewal, full of his wonderful songs.

I worked with the screenwriter, Dana Stevens, who was married to Mike Apted, the ex Granada director, who was working in Hollywood. I thought we had a viable movie. I knew there would be a lot of Hollywood hassle, but I didn’t mind. It was John Lennon and Amy wanted to do it.

But Yoko Ono objected and refused to release the songs. I offered to go to New York to try to reason with her. But the movie didn’t happen. It’s still playing in my head.

There were many more. I bear no animus. Who was I to expect a green light, as opposed to hoping and fighting for one? This sort of work costs millions. Only so many can be made, either for the market place or from public money. I’ve never ceased to be surprised by some of my friends who are affronted when one of their projects remains unfunded and unmade. I can’t understand this haughty attitude of entitlement by those who flick their fingers and expect finance. I was just glad to get anything made. But I still mourn the ones stillborn.