The Observer – TV’s Secret Godfather


Tony Garnett does not do interviews, ever. It is not that he gets a bad press. Far from it. Nor does he make flops. Just look at his track record as a producer:

Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction in the Sixties
Kes and Law and Order in the Seventies
then, in the Nineties, Between The Lines, Cardiac Arrest, Ballykissangel, This Life and now BBC2’s latest police series, The Cops.

No, Garnett seems simply to have an intense, almost pathological dislike of publicity. The official line is that he prefers to let his programmes do the talking. ‘We simply don’t like discussing ourselves,’ says Sophie Balhetchet, his senior colleague at World Productions. His company will send out only a tiny curriculum vitae, listing a few credits. No date of birth, no town of origin, no record of marriages. Nothing personal . And certainly not an entry in Who’s Who, despite requests.

Garnett has thus created a Stanley Kubrick-like aura around himself, which some believe was not entirely unintentional. ‘Tony knows that the less publicity there is, the greater the mystique,’ says Neil Pearson, whose first starring television role was in Between the Lines.

Described by BBC2 controller Mark Thompson as ‘simply the best television drama creator and producer there has been’, Garnett is, at 63, the grand old man of British TV drama.

In fact, a better description might be the benign uncle, who encourages and occasionally cajoles the best out of young actors, directors and writers, such as Amy Jenkins who wrote This Life and John MacUre of Cardiac Arrest, whom Garnett found after he placed an advertisement in a medical magazine for a doctor who might be able to write. ‘He’s not interested at all in casting names,’ says Daniela Nardini, who none the less made her own name in the role of Anna in This Life. ‘He’s also completely liberating for actors.’ His latest protege is Jimmy Gardner, who has created The Cops after writing a couple of episodes for the second series of This Life.

Born in 1935 in Birmingham, Garnett studied psychology on a state-funded scholarship at London University, where he also dabbled for the first time in drama. After graduating, he worked for a while as an actor. His first TV part came in 1960 in Troy Kennedy Martin’s first BBC play, Incident At Echo Six. Garnett played a sick soldier on Cyprus. He also had a small part in Z Cars. ‘It’s his acting past which has made him sympathetic to the needs of actors,’ says Alan Yentob, director of BBC Television.

Garnett was soon persuaded to give up acting to join the BBC as assistant to Roger Smith, then script editor of BBC Plays. The Sixties were heady times for left-wing writers and directors at the BBC. Director-general Hugh Carlton-Greene’s regime was a liberal one, and Garnett worked alongside Martin, Dennis Potter, Ken Loach, Roy Battersby and Jim Allen, a former navvy who was hired by Garnett first to work on The Lump and then on Days of Hope, his series about trades unions. Marshalling them all was Smith, married to society beauty Caroline Seebohm, who later fled to America after Potter fell head over heels in love with her.

Garnett’s first big break came with Up the Junction in 1964, followed two years later by Cathy Come Home. He produced while Loach directed. These were and remain two of the most socially influential plays ever screened. Cathy Come Home helped lead to the setting up of the charity Shelter. The two men later worked together again on Kes, which in turn became one of the most important British films of the next decade.

Like Loach, Garnett is best known for his political dramas. Law and Order, which dared to suggest that the judiciary and the police might not be honourable all the time, led to questions in the House of Commons and strong criticism from the then Labour Home Office Minister. Not surprisingly, he is said to have been investigated by the man from MI5 who famously kept an office at the BBC during the Sixties and Seventies. The spook was unable to unearth anything of interest, however, since Garnett is, according to his friend Gordon Newman, who wrote Law and Order, ‘more pragmatic than you might expect when it comes to his own political views and actions’.

He has, however, been at times deeply critical of those in power, both governmental and televisual. Last November, in a rare public speech at the British Academy of Film and Television, he complained about a British television industry ‘pandering’ to the new Labour Government, which itself was ‘seething in sanctimony’. ‘Your kids will have to show Jack Straw their completed

Homework before they can watch EastEnders,’ said Garnett. As for the TV bosses themselves: ‘We now, with very few exceptions, have an industry run by managers with the mentality of eighteenth or nineteenth-century mill owners,’ Garnett said.

Such outbursts aside, Garnett is said by those who know him best to be driven less by politics per se than by a sense of the unjust and unfair. ‘It’s the underclass and the underprivileged who have most interested him,’ says Yentob.

Not long after Law and Order, Garnett decided he wanted to direct. First came Prostitute, the gritty story of a Birmingham streetwalker, her naive social worker and a corrupt police force. It was not a success. As he licked his wounds, Universal Studios invited him to America to make a movie about women and guns called Handgun. ‘I think Tony went there partly because he thought, wrongly as it turned out, that he could beat the Americans at their own game,’ says Martin.

Universal thought Handgun was uncommercial and deferred its release. These were dismal times for Garnett. His nadir was Earth Girls Are Easy, starring Jeff Goldblum as a fur-covered alien. ‘I remember once seeing him in Forest Lawns,’ says movie director Stephen Frears. ‘I just never could work out what he was doing in California.’ Garnett later justified his time there by saying he had felt ‘artistically and politically out of place in Britain’. If anyone argued that there was little difference between US and British culture during the Thatcher and Reagan eras Garnett would counter that ‘at least America has a Freedom of Information Act and a First Amendment’.

Friends suspect the real reason for his exile was more prosaic: a professional and personal mid-life crisis. He came back in 1990 not, they say, because the black cloud had lifted but so that his younger son by his second wife could be educated in Britain. The boy was in his early teens at the time. Garnett has an older son, now in his thirties, from his first marriage. Those closest to him say Garnett’s depression continued for another couple of years until he was approached by the writer John Wilsher about a police corruption series. ‘I remember how Tony came back elated from seeing the then head of BBC1, Jonathan Powell,’ says Wilsher. ‘Tony shouted that Powell had got a hard-on about it.’

The first two series of Between the Lines were rightly praised. But the third, which Garnett had been unwilling to make, was disappointing. So it makes sense that Garnett refused last year to make a third series of This Life, a decision which infuriated BBC2 executives and the programme’s loyal audience alike.

The series was groundbreaking in many ways, not least in that it was an aspirational, non-political drama about twentysomethings overseen by a man in his sixties. ‘He has this extraordinary ability to tap into what’s contemporary at any particular time,’ says Gub Neal, Channel 4’s head of drama. ‘His age seems immaterial.’ Garnett took a chance with the then unknown writer Amy Jenkins. ‘He just relied on my experiences as me,’ says Jenkins, who last week signed a pounds 600,000 publishing deal for her first two novels. The pair tried out a team of young writers and a sparky new set of directors and producers, such as Jane Fallon, who moved on to make BBC1’s new police series Undercover Heart. Garnett was also responsible for spotting the acting talent of Nardini and Jack Davenport, who played Miles and is now on screen in the new Channel 4 series Ultraviolet.

It was Garnett’s idea to let the second series of This Life run on over four months in the manner of American dramas such as ER or NYPD Blue. The tactic paid off as the BBC2 audience grew with each episode and the show became a monster hit. Garnett’s rehabilitation was complete. Confident once more, he killed This Life while he was ahead and went straight into production on The Cops. The new series’s grittiness and its unattractive characters will make it a harder sell than This Life. None the less, a racy trailer featuring a cocaine-sniffing WPC, plus a mass of controversial pre-publicity, courtesy of the disgruntled Greater Manchester police, should already have ensured a sizeable curious audience for at least the first episode.

The real-life cops, who assisted with filming of the series, which was shot in Bolton, have expressed ‘disappointment’ at the way officers are portrayed. They have accused Garnett and his co-producers of social and moral irresponsibility, and of exploiting viewers’ fear of crime. All of which is likely to be grist to the ratings mill. Scenting a success, the BBC has already commissioned a second series of The Cops, a decision which probably has as much to do with the corporation’s trust in Garnett himself as in the drama. Garnett is already looking ahead, discussing future projects with the BBC and Channel 4. A workaholic, now said to be separated from his second wife (although even close friends are unsure about this), he seems to have few passions other than television. One thing that does interest him, however, is bread.

He loves baking it and eating it. So much so that he travels the world to bread-making gatherings. As his friend Gordon Newman puts it: ‘Tony Garnett makes great bread and great TV dramas. That says it all.’