Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

On Success and Failure

I’m starting the interviews now, in anticipation of the publication of a memoir. I’m repeatedly told that my life has been one long success and various films and TV series are used as proof. I’m stumped. I wonder who they’re talking about. It’s not how I see myself. I wish I did.

I remember it as a series of either partial or total failures; of conflicts and pyrrhic victories; of deep satisfactions working with fine colleagues; of exhaustion. All set in the context of terrible political setbacks since the 80s, after the early optimism of my youth.

Also some deep pleasures, of course. Taking a film back to a community that has helped you make it and see their approval. Hearing the howls of outrage from pompous figures in our ruling institutions as they experience what it is like to be exposed. Seeing young talent you’ve found and protected grow into creative maturity. These are memories to treasure.
My sense of failure is no criticism of colleagues. Few have ever disappointed my trust. Most have exceeded my belief in them. They’ve made me look better than I deserve. I’ve been very lucky.

But after a film was locked off, I would look at it and say to myself, ‘I know how to produce that now”, or write or direct, depending what my role had been. I’d beat myself up, unable to believe the mistakes that now glared out at me, mocking me. Wy hadn’t I seen them before? The only films I never felt like this about were the ones never made, those turned down, some ages ago. They are perfect. Because as every filmmaker or novelist knows, what you actually achieve on the screen or on paper, is a pale, crippled version of the drama playing in your head.

Like what?

A film dramatising the Putney Debates, Autumn of 1647. Soldiers of different ranks from Cromwell’s New Model Army debated the virtues of democracy and the extension of the franchise, the Levellers arguing against the landowning gentry, demanding full, equal voting rights. It was a crucial moment in our constitutional history. I knew it would not be a popular hit, but thought it could be riveting enough to entrance a substantial audience. The BBC disagreed.

A four part mini-series, like Days of Hope, about the 1945 Attlee government: the immense election victory over Churchill; its agenda for post war change; the battles between Aneurin Bevan and the BMA as he introduced the NHS; the great personalities of the day: Bevan himself, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Emanuel Shinwell. I thought it would be good drama and even better politics in Thatcher’s Britain. But it was expensive and not what anyone was looking for.

In Hollywood in the 80s a CIA movie about a young, idealistic American graduate, with ambitions to serve his country. We would see his training in detail, then him going on operations abroad, confronting and arbitrarily taking out those his country deemed anti-American. He dies in the end, but not before we see all his ideals killed. The studio asked me why I hated America. I replied that I loved America. I just hated its government. I was shown the door.

That is just a taste of a pile of rejections.

But to my shame, I regret the neglect of the feminist movement through the 60s and beyond, a movement I and my friends were in the thick of. It was not only ignored but in some of our films women were more or less absent, or just present as tokens, wives or girlfriends. I also neglected people of colour in a time when people from all over the world were trying to find acceptance and fighting for equality. Until “Beautiful Thing” I also ignored the gay community.

These were lacunae I cannot explain or excuse. I’m glad to see that now my omissions are beginning to be corrected. Talking to most older filmmakers and writers one hears similar stories: the ones that got away, the ones that could and should have been better; the delight in working with talented colleagues.
Face it. There are no second chances.

My fantasy is that life should first be like the out of Town tour. You go around the country playing to various audiences, seeing what works and what does not, making adjustments, learning from experience. When the show is really working, running like a Swiss watch, you bring it into Town for a long triumphant run. I’m ready. But they tell me that there isn’t a theatre dark and none looks like becoming available. There aren’t enough stages for all the shows. So I won’t be able to start again, knowing what I know now.
Pity. I reckon I could make a good fist of it this time.

Does any of this resonate with anyone else?


4 Responses so far.

  1. says:
    Hi. Is this going to be a frequent blog, or is it just leading up to the book release.
    Interesting reading.


    • Tony Garnett says:
      Andy, I don’t know what I’m going to write next. I just follow my what happens to be in my head. This wasn’t written to promote the book, but it was provoked by an interview, as I explained.
      I’m glad you found it interesting. I’ll certainly supplement it if other thoughts occur.
      Thanks, Tony.
  2. JJ says:
    YOU made important plays that were major talking points the next day – at work, in the pub, the factory and the staffroom. That’s a legacy for drama, writers and their support workers (script editors etc) and so many creative workers in the arts. You made things happen on TV in the days of a duopoly. It won’t go away.
    I don’t know you at all – save for a few interviews on radio or tv. I know you made a real difference on Wednesday evenings and Thursday lunch and tea breaks!
  3. Richard Lightbown says:
    I’m 68 and living in voluntary exile where I also continually beat myself up over the failures in my life and career (in forestry). So perhaps I know how you feel. That said we ain’t dead yet and there remain worthy things that even un vieux schnock can at least contribute to. So don’t worry about starting again, just keep going. Do not go gentle into that good night. (Bet the memoir is going to be a cracker, too.)

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