Penelope Cruz, Charles Dance, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes . . . and me

As head of drama at Anglia Television, Brenda Reid gave us lots to enjoy on the box. Nowadays, writing – and a sunny Greek island – occupies her thoughts. She tells STEVEN RUSSELL about life – and marrying off the touchy Assumpta in Ballykissangel

IT’S a heady world, the television game. One of Brenda Reid’s projects during her time with Anglia Films was a crime-thriller called Framed. Written by Lynda La Plante, it starred former James Bond Timothy Dalton as a villain on the run in Spain. A police officer, played by David Morrissey, spots him by chance while on holiday. Dalton’s character is brought back to England to be an informer. The four-part series also featured a little-known but very beautiful Spanish actress then calling herself Pen�lope Cruz S�nchez. Later, of course, she’d become very big in the business (and drop the S�nchez).

“She must have been 18, 19 – no more than that,” remembers Brenda, who was executive producer on the 1992 production. “She was full of energy and tremendously nice – and very shy.

“When I commissioned Lynda La Plante to write it, I commissioned a two-hour film. When she came to deliver it, we met for lunch. She took me to The Ritz and gave me this carrier bag as I left, saying ‘Here it is!’ Oh my goodness; how many copies have you given me? She said ‘It’s all four hours of it!’

“She’d given us a four-part series. Lynda La Plante, in those days, you didn’t turn it down. So the network agreed to do four hours. It worked very well. I was very proud of that.”

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At about the same time in 1992 came A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia, featuring a young (and Suffolk-born) Ralph Fiennes as leading man – his first screen role.

A few years before that, she produced the TV movie Goldeneye – a fictionalised biography of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

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“We shot mostly in Jamaica. That was a tough call!” she laughs. “It was so hot, though. It’s much worse working in the heat than in the cold. You can only take so many clothes off when it’s 30 degrees... and Charles Dance having to wear a 1930s wetsuit of thick rubber – head to toe, with fleecy longjohns. We were having to film that at five o’clock in the morning.

“Julian Fellowes” – who has since had a monster hit with his creation Downton Abbey – “played Noel Coward. He doesn’t have to do that now he’s rich and famous!”

Also from the Anglia Films stable was Fay Weldon’s Growing Rich, starring ex-Spandau Ballet musician Martin Kemp. It featured three young women living in the dull new East Anglian town of Fenedge and dreaming of wider horizons.

Brenda worked, too, with writers such as Alan Bennett, Jilly Cooper and PD James during her TV production career.

She herself originally harboured dreams of appearing on the stage and went to drama school. “But I’m pretty near 6ft tall and in those days you had to be small and blonde.”

Her first job, then, was as an advertising copywriter. After having children she spent seven years as a literary agent for authors writing in the main for radio, TV and film.

In 1978 came the chance to become a script editor at the BBC and, a year later, a producer. They were good days. Producers were given an annual budget to make, say, seven programmes, “and you’d go away and do it. You’d find your writers, find your actors, find your directors. It was a magical time”. Brenda worked with exceptional writers, such as Tony Marchant.

There was a Bafta nomination for her, for 1986’s Drums Along Balmoral Drive.

In the late 1980s, the Beeb’s former controller of BBC2 – Graeme McDonald – went to Anglia Television as managing director of film and drama. He asked Brenda to become its head of drama. She accepted, and at times had up to 200 people working for her, depending on the number of projects in production.

“Regional drama was really important. Anglia had a terrific reputation for doing PD James, Tales of the Unexpected and so on. My brief was to get them more hours on the network. They had about 12 hours a year and wanted more.

“I had the absolute dream job again, of being able to take in people like Fay Weldon and Jilly Cooper (Riders). I went on to do more PD James. Nobody wanted more Tales of the Unexpected, which was a shame, actually, because I thought they were great!”

With Anglia now submerged within the general ITV1 brand, it’s sad to reflect on an era when our regional franchise pumped out a wealth of creative programming.

Much of it had a local flavour, with scenes for Riders filmed in East Anglia, for instance, and the five-season police series The Chief rooted here – the fictitious Eastland Constabulary covering much of the region.

Brenda herself wasn’t familiar with East Anglia before she landed the job. “I thought it was a very strange place, because it was so flat! I live in the middle of hills, so it always surprises me – still – when I go to Norfolk or Suffolk.”

When in this neck of the woods she would stay on the edge of Norwich, at the home of “oldest and closest friend” Rose Tremain, the author.

Brenda, Graeme and colleagues pushed Anglia’s networked hours up to 20 or 30 a year – “good programmes; a very varied collection of stuff”.

There was recognition, too: an International Emmy award, for instance, for A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia.

Sadly, the good times would end. The distinctive local franchises were disappearing. Anglia was bought by MAI – the owner of Meridian Broadcasting – in 1994.

It merged with United Newspapers to form United News and Media. HTV joined the new family, which then became part of Granada... which later merged with Carlton to create ITV plc in 2004 and put paid to Anglia as a proper brand. (It had already lost its on-air identity, towards the end of 2002.)

The emphasis, Brenda felt, swung towards exploiting the international market, rather than simply making good regional drama; “which I thought was a great sadness”.

The power of producers was diluted – in television generally. Decisions were increasingly made not by one or two people but by committees. The heads of channels, rather than the heads of drama, were making decisions about what was being made.

“For me, that was a kind of ‘let’s get out of here time’, because I found it really hard not being able to work directly with writers.” Sometimes, so many people would have an input that writers ended up confused about what was required, she says.

“I felt the quality started to go, because you weren’t allowed to work properly.”

Brenda stayed at Anglia for about seven years, before going back to the BBC and working on Ballykissangel as a freelance. She was executive producer for a dozen episodes of the third series – key ones at that.

The first two series had sizzled with the sexual tension between sharp-tongued bar owner Assumpta Fitzgerald (played by Dervla Kirwan) and Roman Catholic priest Father Peter Clifford (Stephen Tompkinson), who found himself sorely tested.

“I thought ‘You can’t go on like this. They’ve either got to go for it or they haven’t.’ So I married her off!” And not to Father Peter.

“Everybody was very nervous. But I was working with Tony Garnett, who is one of the most brilliant men who’s ever worked in television. He was a great fighter. He said ‘You’re right. Go for it.’ So I worked with the writers – which was exciting, because it was taking it in a totally new direction.”

(There was an even bigger development towards the end of that 1998 series, when Assumpta was electrocuted while fiddling with a faulty fusebox.)

Brenda says her Ballykissangel period marked the last time she was really allowed to work closely with a writer and get the scripts spot-on. “And that was the most important thing for me, because then there would be a great director and a great cast, and they’d go away and bring it to life.”

Television, she laments, was becoming much more about numbers: both money and ratings. It was underpinned by anxiety: “a genuine fear that if you put an unknown actor into something, the audience won’t watch that. ‘They want to see soap stars – faces they know.’

“And so it became programmes by committee... focus groups. If you get a focus group in, they don’t have the same qualities as a producer or a casting director. They will be asked ‘Can you imagine this soap star playing a lawyer?’

“This happened to me. It was Sue Tully, who was just leaving EastEnders” – she played Michelle Fowler and had an affair with Dirty Den – “and they went ‘Ooh, she’s Michelle. She can’t be a lawyer.’ So we never got that made. She’d have been wonderful.

“Once it becomes a culture of ‘It might not work’, instead of ‘It absolutely will work’, you’re up the creek.”

Brenda has a daughter who’s a producer and a son who’s a writer. From what she hears, things haven’t got any easier. “It’s still very much ruled by committee. How my kids get anything made . . .”

One thing that irks about contemporary British TV is the over-emphasis on the safe drama. “You tot up how many hours are in hospitals or in police stations. But, then again, good drama comes through. Inside Men, at the moment, is excellent. There was a good idea and someone has given that writer the time to work on it.

“I don’t know if you saw Holy Flying Circus on BBC4.” It was a re-imagining of the period before the release of Monty Python’s controversial 1979 film Life of Brian. Brenda’s daughter was a producer. “How they managed to get that made... ” – past the “committee” obstacle – “but they did it. They’ve got the energy to fight! I’ve not, any more. I sit quietly in my house in Crete and write my characters!”

The biggest of the Greek islands became part of her soul about 30 years ago, after restoring a house in one village and then being offered the chance to weave similar magic on a friend’s grandfather’s house in a nicer setting.

The village is in the south-east, overlooking the sea, and is home to about 600 people. She and husband David, who used to be head of drama at the BBC, usually manage to escape there three times a year or so, for perhaps eight to 10 weeks each time.

It’s friendly, like their British base on the Welsh borders, near Ludlow.

“You walk down the street here and everybody talks to you. I walk down the street in our village in Crete and everybody talks to me. London, which was where we originally came from, many years ago, and which we go back to a lot, because we have children and grandchildren there, nobody speaks to you! I find it so strange.”

As she moved out of TV, so Brenda moved into writing.

“I’d always loved words and writers.” She sat in Crete and over two or three years wrote a book that went nowhere.

“I realise now it wasn’t good enough. I’d tried to do something too autobiographical, about a television producer. It was my kids who said first, and then the agent, ‘Why don’t you just go for fiction?’”

She researched the island’s history and realised it had had a terrible time during the war. “The Battle of Crete had been so much ignored (by history). It was fought with pick-axes and sticks by villagers forming resistance.”

In May, 1941, the Nazis had begun an airborne invasion. They eventually endured, though not without suffering heavy losses.

Brenda’s story The House of Dust and Dreams is about a love affair beginning as the island goes to war. A diplomat’s wife, the spirited Heavenly, falls in love with Crete and its people, and stays on when her husband returns to Athens.

As she strives to rebuild his family’s ramshackle home, she makes friends with a local woman and Christos, a good-looking builder. But commotion and violence can be heard on the breeze.

Writing took three years – lengthened by the leaving of research notes on a plane and having to start again. “And then I had my laptop stolen in London, in my daughter’s house – in its case, which of course contained the memory stick, the back-up disk and the novel in longhand. I lost the first third of it. I could have hit people who said ‘Oh, it will be better the second time!’”

Still, all worked well in the end – and the paperback is now out.

“The fact the book has been enormously successful in Greece is most important. To have their approval, for an Englishwoman writing about their history, means it’s been recognised where it matters most.”

Brenda – who has five children, including step-children, and 10 grandchildren – feels very at-home in Crete. Unsurprisingly, she feels deeply for the Greeks and the terrible economic problems they face: folk walking the streets because they have no work; the soup kitchens; the schools without books.

A second novel – Heavenly’s Child – is out in July. It’s set in the same location but under the regime of the colonels: the series of right-wing military governments that ruled Greece until 1974, after a coup d’�tat in 1967.

“Now there’s a danger that, in times of real crisis, you again go to extremes: the far left and far right.”

A third book, set in the village and more or less contemporary, should complete the trilogy.

Brenda is also keen to pen a holiday thriller. Set in Crete by any chance? “Set in Crete without any doubt!”

n The House of Dust and Dreams is published in paperback by Orion at �6.99

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