Screen • BBC • Cathy Come Home

“We need drama people believe in”

STEWART LANE talks to Tony Garnett, the producer of tonight’s B.B.C.- 1 play. (1966)

TONY GARNETT, producer of “Cathy Come Home”, tonight’s play on BBC 1 began his career as an actor, appearing in several television plays.

In 1964 he joined the B.B.C. as a script editor, assisting in the work on the Wednesday play series. With director Kenneth Loach he was responsible for Nell Dunn’s realistic “Up the Junction.” Now he is involved, as producer, in six forthcoming television dramas, of which “Cathy Come Home” is the first, and which has been written by Jeremy Sandford, the husband of Nell Dunn.

The play shows what might happen to an ordinary, decent young couple as a consequence of the housing shortage. From tonight’s play we went on to discuss the role of the TV producer and Tony’s own attitude toward his work. What I asked him, was the relationship of the producer to the play?

He grinned: “I carry the can.”

The writer, he made it clear, was considered most important as far as he was concerned. “His is the primary creative act. ‘‘If there’s anything right with a play, then it’s to the credit of the writer, director, actors, cameramen, and so on. If there’s anything wrong, then it’s my responsibility. “What I have to do as a producer is to create an artistic and creative team, a collective, and I am the link between them and the corporation. ‘Obviously, organisation, the question of time. The amount of money we can spend come into it. But the producer musn’t give a prescription to the writer: there has to a dialectic between us. ‘All the same, if my name as producer is going on the programme it has to be something I think is worth doing.”

If a production group worked with this kind of autonomy, what were the possibilities. I wondered, of units setting up independently and selling the finished product to the television organisations?

“There were probably about 100 or so people involved in ‘Cathy Come Home’: the capital investment required to create something like this is enormous, It would be very dicey. What’s happening in the States, and beginning to happen here, is that films for the cinema are being made partly on the financial basis of being seen ultimately on television. In that sense the cinema and television arc beginning to come together.”
It was sometimes said that there’s insufficient talent available to keep television supplied with good material.

Did he agree?

‘‘Far too much energy and talent is wasted in turning out triviality and rubbish, hiding behind the ratings and that word ‘entertainment.’ As a result, a lot of people end up despising themselves and the people and the people they are supposed to be serving. We need more drama that is serious, in the sense that people can believe in it. It’s a wicked statement to say that this country’s short of talent: it’s a question of having enough people caring for it and bringing along.”

Television drama seemed to be going in for more outside locations, actual backgrounds; was this trend to continue?

Tony felt that television’s economics and administrative conventions tended to keep productions in the studio, and this affected content. “Taking people out of their environment can, in fact, lead to false statements, despite the fact that drama is manifestly about the conflict in relationships between individuals.’’

As a medium, television had been likened to journalism. Was the increasing use of film in drama an extension of this analogy?

“There’s something snobbish about labelling somebody’s view of reality, of the present, as journalism. On the other hand, ‘art’ is a word that is corrupted and corrupting. I think life is more important than art is a word that is corrupted and corrupting. I think life is more important than art, and that art should arise from life. If, however, a piece of drama is only concerned with surface comment then it fails as drama: in that sense it’s ‘journalistic’.”

Another favourite phrase used about television was that it was constantly “pushing against frontiers.”  What was Tony’s view of this:

“Saying what we believe in, without fear or favour, without regard to pressure groups, is an other mark of respect to our audience. When I say to people that I can’t do what I don’t believe in, they sometimes reply that this means I’ m not a ‘pro’. I say ‘No it means I’m not a whore. Television, because it is in a sense a microcosm of the society in which it exists, and because it is such a powerful medium, reflects the conflicts within our society. There are those, who, for various reasons, want to preserve the social, cultural and political status quo. But there are always people – and they exist in the arts as much as elsewhere – who want to question, who want to change, who want things to be discussed. I know which group I am in.”

What, finally, was his view of television output as a whole? Did it achieve the standards he would like to see operating?

‘‘I am offended when I see human life going for nothing, sexual titillation which doesn’t arise out of any genuine feeling but is just there, and it’s the nightly drip, drip , drip of mendacity which I find offensive.  Most of the programmes which have caused uproar (I think that here, we both had “Up the Junction” in mind) have not been offensive at all, and I honestly do not think that many of the people who make noises are really representative. If anybody seriously believes that people like myself, writers and directors, put in four letter words, sex and violence, in order to be sensational….well, they really don’t know us.”

 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 to buy on Amazon.