Documenting a career in TV

Working in the higher echelons of television is a minefield for the unwary but also presents a tremendous opportunity to inform, entertain and set a nation talking.

By Andrew Clarke

Working in the higher echelons of television is a minefield for the unwary but also presents a tremendous opportunity to inform, entertain and set a nation talking. No-one knows this better than Sir Jeremy Isaacs - one of the most influential people in British television. He helped shape the early days of ITV, produced Panorama for the BBC before jumping channels again to join Thames as features controller, later director of programmes, and producer of the multi-award-winning The World At War series. In the 1980s he was then given the job of launching Channel Four onto an unsuspecting world.

Among the programmes he was responsible for bringing The Naked Civil Servant, The Sweeny and Minder to the screen. Sir Jeremy, who lives on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, was brought up in a world of Reithian values - a system of beliefs which even permeated the world of ITV - the young upstart of broadcasting in the 1950s. It is a set of beliefs that Jeremy Isaacs still adheres to - he believes that it is the duty of television to inform, educate and entertain.

Although now in his 70s, Sir Jeremy still has a tremendous enthusiasm for good television but feels that too much control has been wrested away from the programme makers and delivered into the hands of marketing men.

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“During my time at Granada, Thames and even at Channel Four there was a very short line of command. There were only ever two of three people between the top decision makers and the programme makers themselves. “One of my documentary film-makers at Thames Frank Cvitanovich swears blind that I gave him permission to do a documentary on Shire Horses in Norfolk while we were standing side by side in the men's urinals. I have to say I don't remember that but certainly the conversation could have taken place in the corridor or with him poking his head around the door of my office. The conversation certainly didn't take any longer than two minutes. I knew Frank, I knew what he could do. He just said: 'Jeremy, I heard you wanted to do something on the environment. I've got a great idea for a film about Shire Horses on a farm in Norfolk.'

“I just said: 'Fine. Do it,' and off he went to make Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton - a film that not only won a BAFTA award but was also ITV's entry for the prestigious Prix Italia.

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“There was none of the need for focus groups or consultations with advertisers or getting an indication of ratings predictions from marketing people - I was the features controller, I knew the film-makers or at least knew they had been recommended to me by people I did know and trusted and we just got on with making programmes.

“As a manager I am firm believer in giving people their independence - giving enough support to let them go off and make their film.”

Sir Jeremy said he remains a great defender of television. He said that it remains capable of doing an awful lot of good and can be a valuable source of information. When he was at Granada they broke the BBC's broadcasting ban on election coverage which results in today's microscopic coverage of politics.

“When I joined Granada in 1957, it was understood that no-one did any election coverage at all. It was perceived wisdom handed down by the BBC that any election coverage could influence how the vote went and that was a bad thing. At Granada it was decided that this was nonsense and we actually set about interviewing all the candidates and carried out the first coverage of an election count.”

Sir Jeremy examines his 40 years in working in television in his new autobiography Look Me In The Eye which he said was prompted by one too many phone calls bearing bad news.

“In the last six or seven years I have taken many phone calls from people telling me that such and such a colleague has died. I've had my bus pass for many years now and I think that it has finally gotten to me. I wanted something to leave behind which told my grandchildren what their grumpy old grandfather did for a living. I've dedicated the book to them.”

He said that television has changed so quickly over the last 15 years that he now barely recognises some of the channels. Mention Big Brother and his face clouds over. “I think it's well known that I am not a great admirer of Big Brother or that other celebrity in the jungle programme. It's not what we saw in the future of Channel Four. I have made my views known and I have been heard politely but then it has been indicated to me that perhaps the world has changed and perhaps I should let the current team get on with running the company.”

He said generously that although he understood that attitude, he wouldn't have liked anyone telling him what he should be doing, he also makes then point that he wouldn't have left a vast swathe of his audience unrepresented on the screen.

“From an advertising point of view Channel Four have made a very shrewd move because they have targeted their audience. They have decided to target the 18 to 34 age group - its all very modern, very contemporary urban lifestyle - which is fine as far as it goes. The advertisers obviously love it because this is the age group that have all the money to spend and advertisers want their money but that leaves a huge swathe of the audience uncatered for.

“It's not just my generation either, there's a generation younger than me that's also being forgotten.”

He said that the situation at the BBC today was hamstrung by bureaucracy and the need to produce ratings-winning shows that mirrored those on ITV. “I really don't understand why they feel the need to produce copycat shows with ITV and I don't know why they are so ratings obsessed. The BBC is still a public service broadcaster and they should be putting out programmes that they believe in - programmes they believe have something to say.

“But everything seem to have to go through committees and focus groups before they get the go ahead and if it doesn't do very well on its opening night or during the first two weeks its suddenly pulled from the main schedules and stuck in some deadend late night slot. Nothing is given time to develop or find its audience. The BBC of today is rather like the American networks I used to pity in the 1960s and 70s.

“One of the executive producers to whom I was trying to sell The World At War said to me: 'You know what the trouble is here Jeremy? The stuff you are trying to sell is just too good for us.” As a result the series was never sold to either CBS or NBC but we sold it station by station across the US and it's never been off the screens since. It's still being shown regularly today.”

He said that producing The World At War ranked among the proudest achievements of his career. “It was an enormous project but we could see very early on what we had - even though it took a team of 50 three years to pull everything together. We were fortunate to have the full support of the Thames board who recognised what we were trying to achieve. To this day I don't know what the true cost of the series was. It was in the days before total costing. We had a budget of £440,000 but we spent £880,000 - and there was no comeback, even when that was nowhere near the total cost of the project. Money wasn't thrown at the series but there was no penny pinching either. Staff costs, editing facilities, film stock, crew members, researchers were all free because they were already on Thames payroll. Thames board members saw the footage and let us continue, saying take your time, do it properly, spend what it takes to get the job done. We were doing the series at the right time because it was long ago for wartime hostilities to have subsided, far enough away from the events to get a decent perspective on the events and yet we still had the veterans to interview to get a first hand account of the war - both on the home front and the battlefield.”

He said the biggest challenge was not getting the Germans to talk, although tracing Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge and persuading her to talk on camera was a real triumph as was finding unedited camera negatives of German war footage - but persuading The Russians to contribute to the programme at the height of the cold war.

Having at first not wanted anything to do with a decadent western history of the Second World War they soon changed their mind Jeremy showed officials in Moscow transcripts and rough cuts of the episodes on the Eastern Front which gave full credit to the Russians for helping win the war. “That made the series complete. They then made veterans available to interview even though they made sure that nothing untoward was said.”

Production was started on the first episode in April 1971 and the final episode of the series Remember went out in May 1974. Although very much a journalist at heart - he started his career at Granada in 1957 as a documentary film-maker, he has always had a love of the arts and has always found space in his schedules for prime time arts programmes. He despairs at how few arts programmes are on terrestrial channels and how they are marginalised in late-night slots. He is also a great fan at one off drama and laments the passing of Play For Today on the BBC.

Despite his reservations about modern television he said his most recent foray into television production, Cold War, was a wonderful experience because he was shielded from the usual internal politics because he was supported by media mogul Ted Turner - even though he could never get Sir Jeremy's name right.

“Ted had seen World At War and loved it and suddenly had the idea of doing a similar series on The Cold War and apparently he said: 'Get me Jeremy Irons.' Whether he was disappointed when I turned up I don't know.”

Looking back at his career he said that he remains most proud of ITV's This Week, the cutting edge documentary series that gave Panorama a run for its money, The World At War and The Naked Civil Servant. “But it wasn't all about me. I was surrounded by many brilliant people. It was very much a team effort.”

He added for all his disappointment about modern television he said there were still excellent programmes to be enjoyed: “I thought Bleak House was marvellous and a wonderful way to reinvent classics for a modern audience. I liked the idea of Rome but there was far too much full frontal nudity for my taste. David Attenborough's series Blue Planet and what have you are always must see events and I thought the family tree series Who Do You Think You Are was excellent.

“The problem is that whenever the BBC or ITV do something big, there is so much expectation placed upon the series because there is so little that is actually produced which is not either soap or shopping. I think it is important to have a varied schedule, presenting a variety of programmes to suit all tastes and to live up to our responsibilities as programme makers. Sadly too much of the schedules is dictated by the advertisers and what they perceive the public might want to see. The trouble with the whole modern arrangement of commissioning programmes and planning schedule is if you ask the public what they want to see they can only ask for copies of programmes which they have seen before whereas the role of the television producer should be coming up with new ideas and innovative programmes.”

The surprise element of Sir Jeremy's interview was the fact that he expressed regret that he had spent too much time at work and one of the few things he would do differently now would be devote more time to his family. He and his first wife Tamara married when they were both young and career-minded - although very much in love and very supportive of one another work always came first.

He admitted that perhaps if he hadn't been so focussed on work he wouldn't have achieved the heights that he has. “But it has come at a high price. When Tamara died of cancer I was told in my office by phone. I had been at her bedside at the hospital but I was chief executive at Channel Four at the time and there things I had to do. So I nipped into work and while I was away she died. The fact that she died quickly is of little comfort.”

He said that he is now trying to make amends with his new wife Gillian who he married in 1988 in Bury St Edmunds.

Look Me In The Eye by Sir Jeremy Isaacs is published by Little Brown, £20, ISBN 0 316 72728 8

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