Screen • Other • In Black and White

Off-Cut: Save the Children Fund

We were also commissioned by the Save the Children’s Fund to make a film about their work. I paid little attention to it at the time. I was buried in too many productions at various stages of completion, working a couple of years ahead of anything actually shooting.  It was just a small documentary, so I left Ken to get on with it and didn’t think about it until he showed it to me. Chris Menges shot it and JIm Allen spoke the commentary. They filmed in Essex and Nairobi, putting the boot into the charity’s neo-colonial attitudes and snobbishness. It was an indictment of the Save the Children Fund’s work, but what did they expect, a public relations job? I quite enjoyed it, but it was still a detail for me.

That changed dramatically after it was screened. They were upset. So was Cyril Bennett at LWT, who was far less polite, lambasting me with a rich and creative repertoire of swearing insults. The result was scary for us. The film was unacceptable to the charity and to LWT. We were liable for the budget.

I consulted a trusted friend, Irving Teitelbaum, a lawyer. He informed me that legally we didn’t have a chance and were therefore facing bankruptcy. So I decided to take the fight to the enemy. I confronted LWT, warning them that we had a print and, since they were backing us into a corner, we would show the film to the press and tell the whole story about the Save the Children Fund, exposing their methods, plus lay out LWT’s censorship and his threats to us, thus making a huge scandal for both of them. Then they could sue us, in open court. This infuriated Cyril even more. He was proud of his Current Affairs reputation of fearless story telling and his refusal to side with established institutions. This threat called his bluff. I thought at one point he would physically attack me. I left before I found out.

But he must have calmed down and spoken to the charity, because they stopped threatening us with bankruptcy. Instead we had to agree that the film would be stored at the BFI and never shown unless the charity gave permission. LWT just wrote off their investment. I relaxed and got back to work.

The film wasn’t shown until recently when a differently managed Save the Children Fund allowed a screening at the NFT.

We were in the middle of negotiating a new contract with LWT in September 1969.  It was agreed in all but a few details, but not signed. Then we heard of the sacking of Michael Peacock and the resignations of six executives. Rupert Murdoch was virtually in power and LWT was rapidly becoming just another company, for profit, not programmes. We met and decided to resign too. This was a serious decision. We would have to leave a lucrative deal behind and walk out with nothing. Tough.

LWT did become just another money machine, that is, it made enormous sums for a few through trash for the many. I’d accepted Humphrey’s offer in the forlorn hope that Michael Peacock, Frank Muir and Humphrey himself could create a quality vehicle. I should have known better. The days of the Bernsteins setting an example at Granada were drawing to a close. ITV had always been there to make money, but some room had been allocated for serious work. Now the idea that a programme can have an intrinsic social value had given way to just one criterion: its monetary value, thus impoverishing programme maker and audience alike.