An interview with Kenith Trodd
The television and film producer talks to Colin MacCabe about his career and collaborations with Simon Gray
Colin MacCabe: How did you first get into the BBC, what were your original interests in drama?
Kenith Trodd: I got into the BBC classically, by the back door. Which, scandalously, people say you probably couldn’t do now, but I think you probably could do now. One of the people I was at Oxford with was a man called Roger Smith, and he left Oxford early and went writing and then found his way into the BBC. I stayed the course at Oxford and started to become an academic, and I’d come back from doing 2 years teaching at universities in West Africa and was being groomed by my Oxford mentor, F. W Bates - lovely bloke. Who was trying to get me jobs. And I went for an interview at, I think it was Sussex, and was offered this job, but had, by the time I got into the interview, already decided I didn’t want it, which is probably why I performed very well, because the day was running late, and I was left with my future colleagues, over lunch, and I thought, no, I can’t really - this is not really what I want to have my life built around. So they offered me the job, and meanwhile Roger Smith had said, can we have a drink? And we’d gone out for a drink, and he said, look, why don’t you come into the BBC, and in fact my kind of trajectory at Oxford had been much less drama than politics so I’d not - I hadn’t really thought of the arts world at all. And I said why, and he said, because I can’t stand these fuckers I’m working with. I then realized if I got in someone would be fired. And I said, can you do anything? He said, I’ll see what I can do. Time passed, and time passed. I got offered the academic job, and Roger was still saying, hold on, hold on, hold on. And I was doing the most ludicrous thing - the university at one point even phoned, and I got a girlfriend to say, oh he’s too ill to come to the phone to give you an answer. So eventually Roger comes - there’s a three month possibility, we can just have a go. So I wrote to the university and said - very very kind of you indeed to think of me, and go through all that trouble and offer me the job. On this occasion I’m going to decline. I then got a rather angry communication from Bates. He said, you can’t do that, at your beginner stage. They can turn you down, you can’t turn them down. It may make me difficult to go on being your champion. So I somehow burnt boats, and went into the BBC, not on the staff, and it was very much hand to mouth in terms of the tenure, but it was the Wednesday play, the first year of the Wednesday play.
CM: So which years is this? ‘65?
KT: That would be ’65. And I became number three script editor, with Roger, who was number one and Tony Garnett number two, and I came in as the tyro. Of course both of then had more experience in show business than I did, and our kind of, uncle-boss was James MacTaggart, of MacTaggart lecture fame. That team broke up at the end of that year for various reasons. People didn’t want to go on doing it - we’d done 39 plays in 52 weeks. Though a lot of those had been under way before I got there, and my first claim for attention was that the play that was going out next week, suddenly there was a crisis about on the on the Tuesday, before the Wednesday. It may even have been on the Wednesday. And they said, look we’ve got to find the writer and tell him, that there is this problem, they’re not going to put it out tonight. And they couldn’t find the writer. The writer was one Dennis Potter whom I knew. And I just happened to know he was on Woman’s Hour that morning, promoting the play. So I called him and said, I think you’d better come down to Television Centre. He did, and the legendary Sydney Newman, you know, the Joe Stalin who ran BBC drama at this point, got us all together, Garnett, me, Roger and Dennis, and said look they’re not going to broadcast it, because they’ve got a problem with the content, and the content was that it was really - it was exceeding its remit as drama. Although the Wednesday Play has a remit to be radical, to get out on the streets. Dennis had gone too far.
CM: Which play was this?
KT: This was Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, the one based on his experiences as a candidate in a hopeless Tory seat. And what he’d done was - it wasn’t just a chronicle of his experiences, and the character was fictionalized, and there was a lot of original stuff in it, including a very bold use of, if you like, the studio technique. And at the end, the thing I think they most objected to - this was Paul Fox, who was then not Controller, but head of current affairs or politics or whatever - was the very end where the main character, played by Keith Barron, does a walk-down to the audience, straight into camera, having had a humiliating defeat, and says ‘That’s it folks, and if you’ve got any problems with the tone or content of this documentary, you know what you can do - write to your MP’. Now that we never got back in, and there were months of negotiations, with Dennis, who for some reason at that time was living in the wilds of Norfolk. Tony Garnett and I went out there as emissaries, and were treated like men from the Kremlin, and Dennis, who was never someone to put a low price of forgiveness, said, well, I’ll make some changes but we’ll have to negotiate them all, and what I want is another commission. So he then wrote the second part of that pairing, Stand Up, Nigel Barton, and that was paired with Vote, Vote, and they went out in the autumn. And that kind of launched Dennis. I’d known Dennis earlier, at Oxford, and I’d also known him even earlier than that. He said somewhere that he thought he’d known me longer than anyone else except his mother, which was an exaggeration. So that was that year, and that team then broke up, and I was still there. And what they handed me, as it were on a plate, but a kind of twisting, dangerous plate, was to go to BBC 2 and develop this series called Thirty Minute Theatre - which is meant to be new writers, if you can find them, 26 half hours, transmitted week by week, in the first half of next year. And it’s live. And that was a blow, because in so far as I had habituated myself during that first year, with Garnett and Smith and so forth, it was to develop a healthy dislike of the prevailing dramatic norm, which was of course multi-camera in the studio. Of course the other figure floating around there was Ken Loach, and during that year we were preparing things like Up the Junction and so on, where Ken was showing his weight and total doggedness - I want to be a film-maker, I want to get out on the streets and you know, bugger this script stuff. The actual prelude to them agreeing to Up the Junction was itself very characteristically anarchic. Ken had some arrangement, as a number of directors did - although they were freelance they were contracted to do 4 or 5 dramas in a year. If you’re on a conveyor belt, the attraction of the conveyor belt and its congeniality depends very much on how interesting the scripts were. So I can remember Roger had already left to write his Great Gatsby which didn’t quite come off, but anyway Roger had gone, so Garnett and I were left, and Garnett was developing his own ambitions. But I can remember very clearly the way Up the Junction got into production was exactly the way it shouldn’t have got into production, by way of BBC norms. Ken turned down various scripts that we’d offered him, and came in one morning with this book. And said, can you read this, and it was Up the Junction. And we glanced at it - it wasn’t a drama, it wasn’t a story. And he only gave us one copy. Tony said to me I’ll read it over night and get in early then you can read it. And Tony came into my office holding the book and said ‘t’s all cunt!’ And we then had to decide whether to commit ourselves to the idea of the book, or not. And there then followed a kind of daily pas de deux where James MacTaggart who was - he was a kind of solid Scotsman with radical ideas who was very much - his brief was to look after us as the young Turks, but his own notions were quite conventional in terms of drama. And he was scared stiff at the idea of giving Ken this thing just to run with. And so day after day in my memory we would stand in the area between our offices and Jimmy’s with Ken hovering between us, and Jimmy would say ‘no’ and Ken would say ‘I want to do it’ and Garnett and I wouldn’t quite know what to do. And then there came one morning when we were having one of these pointless arguments, and there was Ken standing there slightly restlessly holding the book, and suddenly looks at his watch, and pushes his spectacles up his nose and says, if you don’t mind I’m going upstairs to start doing some casting. And we were down the slip road. And that kind of creative anarchy was how things worked. But getting together Thirty Minute Theatre in the studio, live and with a great pressure on the actors to be wonderful was kind of anathema to the prejudices or ambitions I’d developed in the first year. But I had to do it. It was no negotiating of it. I either did it or I didn’t and you couldn’t say ‘oh, we’ll do one or two which are all film’, or; ‘we’ll just play around with this’. So what in effect happened was that it was a mad scramble, and although I was given a producer, he never seemed to be there. I can’t really remember what happened to him. Sometimes he was there and sometimes he wasn’t. So the way that we rose to this challenge, or the directors did, was to say, OK it’s live and it’s in studio G or Studio 2 or wherever it was, and to make it as difficult and ambitious as we can. So I can remember we did one written, would you believe, by Raymond Williams, who I was working with quite a lot as a writer at that point. And this was mostly set on platform one of Paddington station. It had a moving train, it had characters running up and down, and was directed by a man called Toby Robertson, who was totally a theatre figure, who had no real instinct or canniness about vision, and live on BBC 2. It kind of collapsed in a way. But nevertheless, we got through, and as the half year wore on we learned a few tricks and had the courage of our convictions. I can remember that the season climax, with the piece called, I think it was called Liberation Summer or Free Summer, set in the south of America about the freedom movement - 29 characters and eight or nine sets, in 29 minutes, directed by one Jimmy Ferman, who then went on to be the film censor. Now in the middle of all this there was I scrabbling to find material, and I came across a story in one of those short story collections that I think still appear those anthologies, I think it’s called The Winter’s Tales, and it was called ‘The Caramel Crisis’. I would say it’s one of those stories which is not archetypal, but like in the Championship league, not the Premiere league, of archetypal stories. It’s the one about someone who impersonates or appropriates someone else’s medical qualifications and passes himself off as a doctor, so it has very dynamic narrative implications, I think in this case it was his dead brother he’d taken on. So I liked this story and I was looking around for a hack to adapt it, and I suddenly got this call from somebody who said, I wrote it, can I have a go? And I said, who are you? And he said, my name’s Simon Gray. And I said, have you written any drama? No – and I said, OK you’re on. So, we just went into that, and essentially on that project we were two tyros finding our way, particularly finding our way in the geography and conventions of how to be an actor in this new medium, how to be anything in this new medium, because the medium was fairly new. We assembled quite an extraordinary cast which included Peter Sallis and George Cole and I think Max Adrian, and in particular John le Mesurier. So in the interval before the live transmission, the dinner interval, I do my dutiful thing, one of the tricks I’ve learned in the previous year - you troll the writer around and wish all the actors good luck. So, there was Sallis and whoever else - can’t find Le Mesurier. And it’s getting quite close to transmission. And eventually we find him shaking, shaking in some devastated, isolated coffee bar, with 10 minutes to go. It never occurred to me whether he’d been drinking, I don’t know if he had or not. But we just about managed to get him there, get him into his chair, and we did it. Having said before we got there - the only consolation about doing live television is, I never have to look at myself. And it came off. But I remember Simon and I - I don’t know if we discussed it there and then. I was very traumatic - this was the wing you’re on, it isn’t theatre, it’s certainly not film, it isn’t radio, but it’s a hybrid we’re into. Fm there on we collaborated -
CM: Let me just hesitate a moment here. You’re describing what in retrospect - not just in retrospect, because I was a child watching the Wednesday play - is seen as the great Golden Age of television. Were you aware of that at the time?
KT: No. No, we had very little idea how lucky we were, and most of the valid insights I have about the experience are after the event. Because during the time it was a scrabble, about keeping going, delivery dates. It was exciting. But I, and I suppose the others too, although Roger had departed - you were struggling for your own position. I mean it wasn’t that easy for me to get going, even though they were giving me that quite heavy responsibility in the second year - during the first year there had been one or two hiccups, when I didn’t quite adjust to how you speak to agents, and what the conventions of operating with actors are. I think, by the end of that year, if someone had come back to me, and rung me from Sussex and said we’ve held the job open for you I might have gone. I mean I didn’t find it particularly glamorous, although it was new, and in a way both terrifying and some aspects of it distasteful. I can remember the very first time I went to an outside rehearsal. The routine for making a studio piece, if it was going to be seventy five minutes, which most of these were, you rehearsed in a rehearsal room for two and half of those weeks, and the last three or four days in the rehearsal room people came to see what you were up to. And there were things - there was a producer’s run and a tech run. And I went to the tech run of a piece written by John Hopkins, called Fable, and starring Eileen Atkins. And Fable was fabulous in many ways, in that again it was much too ambitious not just in scale but in its content. Because we already by this time - I saw we, I mean I joined the we - had a reputation for cutting edge and I suppose being leftish, and Fable was about apartheid. And Fable‘s proposition was, let’s just invert it. That it’s the black people who are in power and the white who are oppressed. And let’s see how we invert it. And it boomeranged, I’m afraid. I wasn’t anything to do with the making of it - I stepped in for the producers and the tech run. Had I been there I don’t think I would have had any more insight - rather than hindsight - than I did then. And the general reaction was: that’s what would happen if you gave the blacks power. Completely hit us back in the face. And we ere so naÃ¯ve about the freedom we had, that we didn’t have the time or non-excitement enough to sit down and be beady about it. But the main thing I remember about that tech run was that, what the actors would do was run the piece usually in narrative order, which was the last time it would be seen in narrative order. And you’d be trailed in the rehearsal room by anything up to 8 or 9 camera men, people making notes, space, all that, and Eileen had to start it off. What she had to do was go through a door and into a room, and as she went through the door she tripped on the rostrum. We’re about ten minutes in and getting towards lunchtime. And the director, who I’m tempted to name - it was Christopher [Morahan] - he said, ‘Stop the watch, back to the top’. And the technicians got more edgy about their lunch being put off, because there was this woman who couldn’t do it, and we started all over again. So it became quite terroristic in my experience of it. I can remember being in the gallery for the first time, not for that production, but for another one that was quite complicated, not directed by Christopher. And the thrill of sitting on the edge of the gallery and seeing the row of monitors in front of you, and with your left eye you could look down and see the reality below you. It was utterly magical. But also very slightly repellent because it was something that depended - because you only had a very limited time in the studio - on a kind of over-organisation, and depended too on a certain militaristic temperament - that’s a bad word, but you know what I mean - organisational ability to be able to marshal people, remember the names of the cameramen who you’ll never meet again, or at least not until the next show - but somehow gather the creative juices out of that. And the person during that era who in my experience was best at that was Piers Haggard. Who looked like a blonde god, had a great deal of charm, was a descendant of Rider Haggard, and could do all that stuff - marshal everything. We did Pennies from Heaven together when he was extremely good at being inventive. That should have been a movie, it should have been made on film but we had to use mostly the studio. Piers was wonderful at bringing all that together. Piers oddly enough was not terribly good at making films. Quite a different kind of more supple, less controlling, more insightful, let-it-happen, kind of thing. I can remember looking down from the gallery. And there was quite a crowded scene - in a courtroom I think. And I heard the director, who was on my right in the gallery, suddenly say to his phones to the floor manager, ‘We’ll go again, and that extra will not tap his pencil’. This is as close as you can get to aesthetic Fascism as possible. What we were trying to create already, through experiences like that, was the ability to get out of that studio, in a kind of controlling way, and to make movies in the streets. But of course, what was associated with making movies in the streets was a content commitment to something very radical and quite un-bourgeois - bourgeois in content, bourgeois in structure. And I know at that time we used to try and inspire new writers - again talking about my first year - with saying this is what we don’t want. We do not want your old-fashioned non-kitchen sink play which opens in a kind of sunlit drawing room, leading on to a garden, and a character rushes on into it and says ‘anyone for tennis?’ And ironically, at the end of that year, the team which took over the Wednesday Play, were quite traditional and right wing-ish. And the first play they commissioned and broadcast in their season was by J B Priestly, who was still living, and it was called Anyone for Tennis? So, they were all kind of bits of politics –
CM: So this is the general context, but you started working with Simon - you work on this play. How does that play work?
KT: That play works - The Caramel Crisis - worked very well, as I remember. But sadly it perished. And yet, just to finish on the Thirty Minute Theatre, although that one perished, I’m constantly hearing people saying we found this, found that. And only last week somebody at the BFI said they had found the Dennis Potter one that I did in that series. And I have a very painful memory of that, sitting in the producer’s box, during that live transmission, with Dennis, and watching helplessly as an old actor lost his way. You think, what on earth are we going to do? We can’t stop, we can’t go in and prompt him. And I think eventually another actor managed to prompt him and get out of it. I was told last week that that piece, which is called Emergency Ward 9, has been found in the hands of a private collector. What private collector was using what technology in 1966 to capture this thing - because this is pre any form of video tape, and I suppose all you could have done was point a camera at the set. There would have been ways of capturing it. But generally those things vanished, and all the others - I mean I did stuff there with Andrew Davis and various other people I worked with later. But with Simon what happened was I said to him - do you fancy tackling something longer? And he did, and came up with a piece called Death of a Teddy Bear, which, like Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, is about the Alma Rattenbury case, that celebrated murder in the mid-30s where a middle class woman married a much older man, took on a gardener who became her lover, and the man was eventually killed. And I think what happened in the end was that the boy was hanged and she was reprieved. And so Simon made out of this a very memorable piece of kind of English meditation, about taboos and about characterization, and in a way about a certain kind of English woman. That was not live, it was done very painstakingly in a mixture of film and studio, but it was still wiped. And we don’t have it any more than we have the next one I was involved in, which was called Man in a Side-Car. Several of those were lost. And one of the rather unexpected ironies is that I’ve found that practically everything I was involved with during those years, in and out of the BBC to ITV and back - ITV have kept everything, although they charge you a hefty price to go and look at it, but it exists.- And the BBC just resolutely used to wipe things. Which is a sadness. And that includes several pieces of Simon’s, and a few of Dennis’s, and I don’t think they’re all going to turn up in private collections. But Simon, of course, was extremely resourceful in the way he used his material, and Death of a Teddy Bear became a moderately successful stage play called Molly, which he did later, and one of the characteristics of Simon in an industrial way was how prolific he was. How tireless he was in his activity. And how he never wanted to stop the creative momentum, the kind of manic creative momentum, which we were generally in control of, but sometimes to the astonishment and distress to the people around us. I can remember much later, Unnatural Pursuits - which is one of the landmark pieces of the later years - we’d finished it, it was going to be broadcast quite soon, and we had a preview somewhere in Soho. And Simon and I - and Christopher was there, who directed it - and Simon and I picked up that there was one scene that didn’t quite work, and we said, we could actually make quite a nifty cut there, and it would make quite a difference. So we went to the editor, a very sweet, diligent BBC woman, who said, we have to massacre a music cue there. And Simon and I said, OK well if we have to massacre a music cue, we do. And she said, if only you’d told me few days ago, I could have really done something quite elegant there. And Simon said, we didn’t know until ten minutes ago. And it was that kind of craziness and persistence, which went on and on, and I didn’t meet that in any other writer, including Potter. But Simon was never away from it. And I don’t know how long in his life Simon claimed only to get up at two in the afternoon, but I can tell you for those years I don’t believe it, because nobody could have turned up quite so much material, nearly all of it vibrant although not always working. So much so that the pairing we have in the retrospective, of Plaintiffs and Defendants and Two Sundays, came about because he was writing draft after draft of a piece I commissioned, and it wasn’t quite working, and I didn’t really take to it, and I can’t remember if Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director, was involved early at that point or not. And he said, OK, I’ll have another go, and he goes away, and comes back and there’s a quite different play. But it isn’t quite a different play, and what we’re able to do is to make both of them with the same cast, with Alan Bates and Dinsdale Landen, and they complement each other and within they’re complementary. So that kind of prolificity was quite amazing in Simon, and it was one of the most admirable things about him. I think he had, whatever misgivings one might have about the more or less similar trail of middle class preoccupation that he trod, he had a very radical attitude to his material. It seemed to me as radical and as honest as anything that was in Jim Allen and Colin Welland and the other people I was also working with during that time. I think that the content of what defines a writer’s thrust, or a writer’s moral motivation, has very little necessarily to do with content. I mean Potter was very indifferent to political drama, he did not particularly want to see it, did not particularly want to write it. He wrote one play which I didn’t produce, I think I was elsewhere, called Angels Are So Few. I think I was working at London Weekend at the time. And this was about a young man who believed he could fly, could jump of roofs. And Dennis told me, you don’t see what that’s about, do you? I said, no, and he said, well, privately, it’s about Roger Smith, who was a mutual friend and we’d both been at Oxford with. And Roger by this time had become a disciple of the WRP - the Worker’s Revolutionary Party - and Dennis had observed this from a distance, because Dennis, unlike the rest of us, did not attend their Friday night gatherings. Dennis was very detached from that, partly because he didn’t live in London, and partly because he had a kind of certain feeling of caution about the whole thing. And he used, or I think I came up with, this wonderful phrase from Dryden - he was everything by starts and nothing long. Dennis had this insight about our friend and that was the characteristic he was observing, of someone who was absolutely in the middle of something, like writing the Great Gatsby, and then couldn’t follow that through, and then got right in the middle of the WRP, and then suffered all the disillusionment of that. So, he did believe that he had wings and could jump of roofs.
CM: This is in some sense going back over what you just said, but you’re relatively active in the WRP at that time?
KT: No, the full extent of my activity was going to meetings and occasionally giving them a cheque, and not a very hefty cheque. But I was pursued by them quite avidly, particularly by Gerry Healy, who was the leader of the WRP. Gerry used to flatter me by calling me the man with the rapier mind, and I remember very clearly thinking, yes, but that rapier’s not for you. That was based on - I don’t have many conscious feelings of gratitude about being brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, which I was, but the gratitude I do have, was that it forced me - the Plymouth Brethren being a very fundamentalist, protestant sect who believe they are the chosen, and that the verbal inspiration of the Bible is based entirely in the King James version - that was my parents’ background. They were not the most ardent of Plymouth Brethren, but that was their life and their mind. And I went to quite a posh local grammar school when I was eleven, and my parents then encouraged me to go to a slightly posher version of the church in that town, in Southampton. But I can remember quite consciously deciding - I’m sure this was not the language in my head as a 13 year-old - belief systems are not for me, I’d have enough of that, and I can balance the life at home, without confronting the contradictions that are there when I go to schools and have science lessons and talk Darwin. And so it managed to insulate me from ever again being that committed or that in thrall to any belief system ever again. And of course there’s a down side to that as well which means you’re a bit too detached -
CM: But at the same time you’re very actively involved, or in the world of, Trotskyist politics, and Simon is never remotely -
KT: When you say actively involved- – I was not a member. The closest I came to being warmed to it was through Roy Battersby. He became a full-time revolutionary, and Roger to an extent did, but I wasn’t seeing much of Rger at that time. And Roy, who I think still feels great pain looking back on that whole period, and has tried to write about it but has not quite done so successfully, really abandoned his life as a director and an artist to make the revolution happen, And there was a curious parallelism there, we made a film in I think ’73 or ’74 called Leeds United, which was probably the most radical piece I was associated with. Of course, it was written by Colin Welland, who was Leftish, but was more sentimental than Marxist, in the best sense, Colin, but nevertheless, made sense of that story, which was the story about a woman’s clothing strike in Leeds only a couple of years before Colin wrote it, and he wrote it because his mother-in-law had been a participant in that strike, and didn’t understand what had happened to them. Colin, as he did with everything, researched it thoroughly, we were going to do it with Granada, but Granada bottled out, so we took it to the BBC. And there’s no doubt it was informed a little by the insights of the WRP. It made narrative sense, which you couldn’t make narrative sense of at such a distance of time between the events and making the film any other way. And the only trace of it in the film, which would not be that obvious except to ardent political aficionados, is the voice-over at the end, spoken by one of the women, which says, the next time we have a fight, we’ll trust ourselves to those who won’t let us down. There’s a kind of message there, but it didn’t offend it dramatically. One of the interesting things is that we’re dealing here with a period when there was a Labour government, and not a Tory government, were increasingly uneasy about the BBC, or certain elements in the BBC. That perennial thing, which has kind of gone away at the moment, except when people talk about the BBC’s attitude to Israel, that the BBC is endemically lefty - I’ve never been able to make up my mind about that really. I certainly didn’t feel that the antagonisms I was involved din at the BBC were political on that narrow basis. But nevertheless there was that perception. And around 1976 - 2 or 3 years after Leeds United - they tried a purge. But just to remain with Leeds Untied for a moment. On the night it was transmitted it was immediately followed on BBC2 by a kind of live discussion programme which came form Leeds. And I spent most of the afternoon in Leeds trying to negotiate with the producer of that programme, who was Will Wyatt, who subsequently became a big BBC mandarin, that Roy Battersby should be on the panel. Otherwise the film would not have been much represented, because Welland for some reason wasn’t there, because he was working somewhere else, and they wouldn’t have Roy on, so I went on instead. And there was a terrific moment in the middle of this thing - it was anchored by a man called William Hardcastle, and one of the people we had on the panel was the managing director of Burtons, which was one of the biggest clothing manufacturers, and the argument about whether Roy should be allowed on there continued right up to the moment of transmission. Hardcastle was involved more as an observer than anything, and I think could sense that some unfairness was being administered there with a panel of about 12 people and only one representing the film itself, and so he was keeping an eye very much upon what kind of arguments were being deployed by who, and trying to be fair. And there was a moment when the man from Burtons began to talk about political activists, and I can remember seeing him reach down beside his chair and picking up a bundle of documents. Hardcastle immediately brought somebody else in, so he had the sense that there was going to be some kind of diatribe against the WRP and probably indicting Roy personally. So we were saved that. I don’t think that means that William Hardcastle was a big lefty, but I think there was a feeling that we were being slightly dealt a poor hand.
CM: At this point you are moving between BBC and ITV - at what point did you move from being a script editor to a producer, and what were the contractual relations?
KT: I was never on the staff of the BBC. The big episode I’ve left out is that quite soon after the Thirty Minute Theatre year, there were big changes in ITV, and a lot of contracts were given out. And London Weekend were given a new contract to provide the national ITV television across Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the group that had got it was a very trendy liberal group - it was David Frost and Michael Peacock and Humphrey Burton -those kind of very good liberal television people. They won this goldmine, and they separately approached Garnett and me to say, would you like to come and be producers? Garnett and I got together, and I remember completely sort of flippantly said well, do you want to do that? Do you want to go and work for some dirty commercial company? I said, not really, do you? No I don’t think so. Then we came up with this jape, we would go back to them, and we would stymie them by saying, we’ll come and we’ll come together, we’ll come as a company, as an entity. And we thought, that will completely throw them because it’s not part of their horizon, or their vision, at all. But they bought it. So we became Kestrel productions. Got their drama contract for two years, and supplied them with all the single drama they did in that period
CM: So apart from anything else that means considerable professional success?
KT: Oh yes, but not for the first time, and not for the last time, I sensed that what LWT were wanting was to buy and appropriate what we’d done at the BBC. Because it was very prestigious, it was the kind of thing that got you television contracts in that kind of brownie points, elevated way. And we were in a sense trapped by our own joke, and then went ahead with it, and formed a group which included David Mercer and James McTaggart, and I was providing most of that material because Tony by this time was trying - he must have already done Cathy Come Home and all those, and was looking where to go next, but was wanting to go towards the movies, and I was still earning my- spurs mostly in television. So I took on producing all that stuff, so that was the break into producing, and I think the only one that Tony produced was All in a Lifetime, which was a story about a Liverpool working class cleaner which Ken directed, and among the other people I used in that year were Simon, and Dennis Potter and a whole retinue of people that I worked with there. But the London Weekend arrangement sort of soured through our mischief from the beginning, because we were contracted to do 16, and they said, do you want to do another one? And we said, well, we haven’t done any yet. And they said, we’re opening in August and we’d like to have an opening souffle, for our weekend, is there something you can come up with? And they obviously didn’t have any sense of how ill-motivated we were. And we said fine, yes we will, we’ll do something, we’ll do this piece celebrating the opening of a new television station. And it’s called the Franchise Trail, written by Nemone Lethbridge. It had a much lighter more comic touch than most of the others did, and it was a comic expose of how they got their franchise. They immediately wanted to ban it, and they didn’t quite ban it. That was the only ITV piece I was involved with which did get wiped, because they couldn’t see the joke. It was a very mild, farcical joke. So we were already being oysters in the stew wherever we went.
CM: And you’re working with Simon throughout this period?
KT: Yes, there was a little gap. But it isn’t a very long gap. We did The Franchise Trail, and then Death of a Teddy Bear, then Man in a Side Car, and then another one also wiped, which was an adaptation about an elderly serial killer, called A Way with the Ladies - it’s where you put the ‘a’ - that got wiped as well. Then during this period I went to Granada for a couple of years. The London Weekend thing finished because that glorious, liberal optimistic London Weekend didn’t survive more than about 2 years. They wanted us to stay, we didn’t want to stay, and although they offered us shares, we said no. Quite recently Andrea, my wife, who has quite a mischievous bent, said, you turned them down, but are you sure Tony did? I assume he did. I certainly did. So we were still, at least I was, maintaining this slightly sort of starry eyed, in the face of reality, believing we were not ambitious -
CM: But here I want to press you again, because it’s also part of my own life. There is a period from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, when very large numbers of people were starry eyed in that way. But Simon was never one of those.
KT: Simon was never one of those, but Simon was never hostile, he was just not involved. I don’t know how many times he would have met Dennis Potter, for example, or Jim Allen. Although all of us were with the same agent. First of all we were all with a man called Clive Goodwin, who died. And Dennis and I were then responsible for floating financially Judy Daish, as an agent, who acquired most of those clients and set up her own agency which is still flourishing today, although unfortunately I have a rather negative relationship with that world for reasons that don’t matter here. I suppose the reason why I’m hesitating - trying to find the end of the narrative, I can’t remember any stars falling from my eyes. What did happen during that period, you’re quite right, was that I suppose the media glitterati tended to be on the left. They tended to be committed to change. The extreme epigram for that was the WRP telling you that when the revolution came the gutters of Park Lane would be running with the blood of the aristocracy. And quite a lot of people believed that. I never did - I didn’t find it that repellnt, I didn’t find it that particularly real as an image or a creation. In later years, into the 80s, it collapsed in kind of squalid, sexual scandals. Whether that reflects on the poison of the political vision or not, I wouldn’t make that connection. But I remember Roy being the person I was quite close to, but had no desire or inclination to follow that route. And I can remember, with Leeds United, for some reason a few years after we’d made it Roy and I went to Canada for something called the Grierson Festival, where I think Leeds United was a big exhibit and won a prize. And Roy and I came back on the plane and he was talking about how by this time his energy for being a full-time revolutionary in Glasgow was gone and he was looking to come back in. And I remember thinking on that plane, I would love to but I can’t employ you now. Partly because there wasn’t anything that appropriate, although I was continuing. That was one of those occasions, when we got to Heathrow, and there was a driver waiting for Roy to take him in a Volkswagen into London, or somewhere, and I was given a lift and at the end of the journey I wrote a cheque, partly out of expiation, or guilt, or whatever. But, there was a kind of very strange, ironic pay-off to that. Because that was around ’76 which was the year there was a big purge, I referred to earlier, and they wanted to get rid of me. This purge was -
CM: In the BBC?
KT: In the BBC.
CM: So you’re back at the BBC –
KT: I’m back at the BBC. What happened was I think it was ’68 to ’71 at- London Weekend, then a year or two at Granada, back to the BBC with Leeds United. Then there was a crisis –
CM: But project by project, you’re taking projects to them, or on rolling contracts?
KT: A mixture of both, but certainly with Leeds United - and this happened twice to me, once in ’74 and once in 1980 - we took extremely expensive hot potatoes, which had been bottled out by ITV, first Granada, then a few years later when I had a deal with Potter at London Weekend, we took to the BBC United Kingdom, which was the piece Jim Allen wrote and was the last thing Roland JoffÃ© directed before he went off to do The Killing Fields. What’s notable about that was not that the BBC was corporately or ideologically disposed to that kind of work, although they couldn’t have been ill-disposed towards it - it was that they saw, on that narrow commercial definition of cutting edge drama, where the measurement for success wasn’t only ratings, it was a combination of rating press approval and consensus inside, that to accept something which Granada was very much a feather in the BBC’s cap. It was almost like a commercial consideration where the commerce was not money. And I think that prevailed for a number of years. But nevertheless in ’76 I was in this bad situation of being fingered and told they didn’t want me any more. But the other thing that happened in that very year is that I had done - this is clearly what I was doing after Leeds United at the BBC - there were three new Dennis Potter pieces that were due to be transmitted in the Spring of 76. One of which was a piece which I still admire enormously, and which earned me my only written communication from Mary Whitehouse, which was a letter of praise. It was called Where Adam Stood, based by Dennis on a Victorian classic called Father and Son. Well, not Victorian, written in the 20s, by a man called Edmund Gosse, who was the son of Philip Gosse, a Plymouth Brethren biologist at the time of Darwin. Dennis and I picked that partly because we knew of that background. That was a very brilliant piece of work, both in content and in structure, because if you look at Father and Son the book, it’s four fifty minutes, six if we’re lucky. Dennis did it in 75 minutes and got the essence of the thing, absolutely brilliant, and it’s a very positive piece of work, although it’s got a lot of strange Potter characteristics, so that was not a problem. Then there was a piece that I thought was really going to give us a problem, called Double Dare, which was to do with probably one of the most personal and awkward pieces that Dennis wrote. He had a writer’s block, owed me script, and I was pestering him and trying to manoeuvre around it. He suddenly called me one day and said, I think I can break the block if you’ll be helpful. And I said, well, what do you want? He said I want you to arrange for me to meet Kika Markham. And I said, I’ve got to be a pimp to get a script? Kika Markham being a very glamorous actress who had been David Mercer’s girlfriend and was an up and coming thing. So I set them up for a meeting in a hotel in the West End, and I’m just about to leave my office to go to the theatre, and I get this call from Kika saying, can you come over? And I said, what do you want me there for? What does he want? So I go over there, en route to where I was going, and have a drink to try to get the temperature of the thing. Clearly Dennis is coming on to her but is also promising her a part at the same time. But anyway, I do my bit and off I go and I don’t really hear much more about it from either of them, except within, at the most, six weeks, probably less, I get this script, which is about this writer meting an actress in a hotel. But the writer is doubled with a kind of punter’s client who’s actually meeting a call girl. And these perambulations are interrupted by the writer’s producer turning up on the way to the theatre. But that was a very kind of itchy piece, really about Dennis’s own obsessions at that time, which were to do with the difficulty of writing, which were to do with identifying what kind of sexuality he could identify himself with. The equation he had in that film was the equation between the actress and the tart, which did provide an absolutely brilliant part for Kika, and we made it as a film, in Ealing, directed by John Mackenzie. It was in the end a very Hichcockian thriller - but I thought, that’s going to be trouble. And the third one was Brimstone and Treacle, and, of course, I was wrong, it was Brimstone and Treacle that gave us the problem, and got banned and became a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre, and we then out of frustration made a movie of it, but it meant that I was very non grata for a while.
CM: If we go back - that provides a lot of the context. We’ve had A Way With the Ladies, but that’s still very early. How did you work with Simon, did you ring him up every six months?
KT: I didn’t socialise with Simon - I’m just trying to pare away what I didn’t do. I didn’t socialise with him particularly, and he was I think by that time quite prolifically operating in the theatre with mixed success - and Butley of course, was ’71 - so across that period we were still working. There was then a gap which was maybe two or three years before we came to Plaintiffs and Defendants and Two Sundays, so I think we kept in touch. Simon would say I’ve got this idea or whatever. But his attention turned to theatre, and mine turned to working with other people. But the main body of the successful surviving work I did with him begins with Plaintiffs and Defendants. Because the piece we did at London Weekend, we did two of them as part of the Kestrel thing - one was directed by Jimmy MacTaggart, and it’s sort of about a writer, but watching it recently I thought, God we were on a learning curve, we really did not quite know what we were doing - Pig in a Poke it was called. It was mostly based in the studio, and it was really gawky, even though MacTaggart directed it - straining for articulacy, straining for a voice. And if you can just deduce Simon from that piece, he’s just as kind of trendy and interested in a kind of radicalism, or radical attitudes, as Potter was, but remembering I said that Potter wasn’t palpably interested in those things. The only piece that Potter ever wrote that I’m aware of that dealt specifically with public affairs was Paper Roses, which was about the old son, the slightly pre-Murdoch son, which is a brilliant expose of tabloid journalism at that time. And I remember attacking Dennis at the time, saying you were going to do this expose of tabloid newspapers and instead you’ve written this piece this old journalist. He said, that’s what I’ve done, you’ll find it’s all there. And he was right. But he didn’t go at those things, and Simon didn’t.- But the clip that we found from Pig in a Poke to use on this panel night is from the very end, and it’s about the play on the telly, and Mary Whitehouse. And the other one which again is accidentally topical is a piece called The Dirt on Lucy Lane. I sat down to watch it at the BFI last week, and I said, I have a dread here, which was to see the credits - there was my name as producer. It was one of Kestrel’s. That was adapted from a story by a writer you may remember, I’d forgotten him, called Thomas Hind. Quite fashionable in the ’60s and ’70s - short story writer, quite a posh background - and it’s about tabloid journalists. It’s almost like a paradisical anticipation of what we’ve got going on now, without the technology. It’s about a journalist preying upon a fading star and her husband putting pressure back. So what you could say there is that Simon is still developing his voice.
CM: And this is also the time that he wrote Wise Child, for the theatre. I didn’t know this until preparing for this interview, that he originally wrote Wise Child for television, and it was thought to be too difficult for television.
KT: I don’t think that went through me. I don’t remember, but I saw it in the theatre.- It probably would have been fairly unacceptable even at that time, but that was pre-Butley, wasn’t it?
CM: Yes, ’68 or ’69 [’67 ed]
KT: I did two with him at that period at Kestrel. He may have taken that to somebody else at the BBC. Because one of the things that was very important to all those writers in that period - I don’t remember having to do this with Simon, but with Dennis sometimes I had to, not exactly cheat, but there was sometimes a moment when he was desperate because he had a growing family, and was always moving house, just to give him the first half of the fee and hope the second half would come. And I remember taking stock of this and thinking, I’ve never had to give a writer the whole of a fee without anything to show for it, but you could have done. So those support systems were there. But I don’t remember having to do that with Simon. But I don’t suppose Simon was making money out of the theatre, really. There wouldn’t have been much in the way of royalties, until Butley.
CM: I think Wise Child was very successful financially. But if we go forward now to Plaintiffs and Defendants, this is, in a sense, the second phase.
KT: The second phase, yes, although the join between A Way with the Ladies and Plaintiffs and Defendants probably is no more than about two years. So I wasn’t, as I was with Dennis, and Welland, and one or two others, and Poliakoff later, getting everything they did and everything they offered. So you could probably say that Simon wasn’t settled into television at that point. But to go up now to ’76 and the attempts to rescue me, I remember Clive Goodwin, the agent, he said we take your case to Time Out and we have a blaze of glory, and march in the street. And Dennis said quietly, don’t, don’t do that, just keep quiet. So I compromised by getting Brian Gibson, the director I’d worked with, to organise a petition. I think everybody who worked with me during that period signed, including Simon. But that was on a professional basis, rather than we’re saying we’re defending his political beliefs. And the historical irony about all that was that I persisted within the BBC, going back and back again to the two main honchos, who were Alistair Milne and Ian Trethowan, at that time, and saying why is this happening to me, and I remember at one point being given a very patronizing lecture by Ian Trethowan saying: you mustn’t rely on me, conspiracy view of history, I’m sure you’ll work here again, and all that stuff. But the breakthrough came, and this has happened to me on another occasion, you know you have a big meeting with a honcho, and the meeting is over, and his PA is saying he’s got somebody else coming in, and the honcho at that period - they don’t any more - had pretty large offices. So in a very courteous way Alistair is leading me all the way down there, and we’re still chuntering as we go, and he says: well anyway I don’t see what you’ve got to worry about, I mean your beliefs are well-known, and you’ve stood up for them and you’ve run for Parliament’. At this point I’m at the lift and replaying this, and saying, what is this, running for Parliament? And, they’d confused me for Battersby, who had run for Parliament, as Vanessa [Redgrave] did in whatever election it was. So I went back – I think I still had a BBC office then - I went back and I actually did start - I took a piece of paper, ‘I’m not now nor have I ever been’, the classic apostay. And I managed, via Piers Haggard, who was at that time representing the director’s guild and trying to get residuals out of the BBC, so seeing the brass, I said to him, look, I’ve done what I can, but if you get the chance in your classy way to kid of mention a word, do so.And he did, and somehow or other, things relaxed, and within no time at all, months perhaps, the BBC came to me - probably the head of department - and said would you feel like going to Dennis Potter and seeing if he’ll write something for us. And this was while Brimstone and Treacle was still seething, and Dennis had won the war, and the press -
CM: And Plaintiffs and Defendants is from the same time?
KT: ’75, yeah. And what happened there was that I did go to Dennis and Dennis again tried to make a bargain. He said I’m not going to write one play. I want to write a novel for television. And out of that came Pennies from Heaven. And it’s a great testimony to the paradox - which I don’t think continues in that form- in the BBC at that time, that they could want to throw somebody out, ban a writer’s play, and almost without drawing breath go and say, not to somebody else, not some neutral figure - will you go back to him?- And they then left us alone in an absolutely delirious way for months and months and we came up with Pennies from Heaven.
CM: And how did you get back in touch with Simon?
KT: You know I cannot remember, because absurdly I never kept diaries. We may have played around with ideas that didn’t go anywhere. But we didn’t, as Simon did with a lot of other associates, meet regularly for meals or anything like that. But clearly I would have been in touch with that entire fraternity through the agency. Although Dennis and I never participated in the management of the agency, we were very much the launchers of it, and there’d have been parties, and you’d talk, and that’s how they came up. So I don’t think there was a gap where either of us missed the other. We were both each in our own way fully occupied, and I cannot remember the germ of Plaintiffs and Defendants, but it was only going to be one piece, It would have been that I had an assignment to come up with six or seven Plays for Today, as it was by that time called, in a season, and was looking around for material. Because I know there was one season - and for some reason I was sharing - there were going to be 13 - it was only in that first year that they did as many as 39, so it would have been 13 or 15 or something like that. And I was sharing them in numbers with a producer called Irene Shubik, who I didn’t get on with at all. I mean, we didn’t fall out, though she was a completely different stripe from me. One just had to put material together. That was the last time I did that, and it also included those three of Dennis’s. Because, once we’d started on doing series, and you went on doing singles, it was not the same kind of brief. And gradually, partly through our growing ambition to do things on a bigger scale and always working on film, the numbers of single dramas on BBC television generally began to decline.
CM: But you did Two Sundays immediately after -
KT: Well they were done together. They were paired - that would have been one long production period where we would have had, with only a short break, Alan and Dinsdale, going right through for the best part of 6 months. Back to back. Because the casts are similar in both cases, just in Two Sundays there’s the whole school element.
CM: But then there’s really quite a long break until After Pilkington
KT: Yes there is.
CM: Presumably because Simon’s writing for the theatre.
KT: Yes, and I was then being quite manically busy, I think. Because we also started to be ambitious about the movies. And there was the second period at London Weekend, which wasn’t too happy, when we did three of Dennis’s pieces, and again they were needing to renew their franchise. This is London Weekend run by Michael Grade. And I don’t think I commissioned Simon among the people that - or yes, I did, intermittently, and this may have occupied us for both periods. We wanted to do Simon’s Dickens play. That had a stumbling history for some reason. At one time MacTaggart was going to do it, and MacTaggart died around ’77. And then the BBC changed the head of their series. But we were both very busy in the other field. I never took that much interest in the theatre. I never wanted to be involved in the theatre, except that for a long time I was on the board of the Bush. I didn’t always see Simon’s stage plays. And then we came back together.
CM: So how did After Pilkington happen, which is a very accomplished film?
KT: It’s an extremely accomplished film, yes. He wanted to do something. By this time my brief with the BBC, although I was going in and out of there, would have been to produce a fewer number of things over a season, but they all could have been on film. One of the things I was doing in that period, we’re now running into the ’80s, was the Singing Detective, which was very onerous. It took me a long time to find a director, and then eventually I did find Jon Amiel, and then I went off to do a film in Italy. But when I got to wherever we were, in Bologna, there was this urgent message from Jon Amiel. I felt very proud, because I’d set him up - took me a long time to find a director - and he and Dennis are going to meet and I don’t need to be there. And I got this urgent message saying I think you should come back because he’s trying to get rid of you. There was all this professional jealousy going on, because Dennis felt I should be exclusively for him. I wanted to work with other people. All that was a very preoccupying period. And during it we also did Dream Child, which was the movie about adoption that Dennis wrote. So it was extremely busy. And I don’t have any feeling - I mean there were periods with Potter where on personal grounds we didn’t speak for two years and then we’d come back suddenly and work prolifically. There was never any negativity between me and Simon. And retrospectively the oddity I feel about our personal relationship is that it’s almost like we never discussed Cambridge - although I was at Oxford - and it’s only reading Howard Jacobson’s piece in your Critical Quarterly, that Simon was a kind of Leavisite. And what I had done, or not done, at Oxford, I had braved their obscurantism by proposing crutiny as the subject of my thesis. But I left without completing it. So there was a kind of intellectual congeniality which was never spoken. Even though, of course, we did a television film version of The Common Pursuit, which is about that era. Just to tell you one thing, which is only incidentally to do with Simon- – the Golden Age, as far as being able to be contained, and in the best sense patronising with writers, flourished intensely and then was suddenly stopped. And it went into the nineties. It happened that in preparing for this season at the BFI, I wanted to look at The Common Pursuit. I found a VHS at home called VHS transmission. I put it in, and it contained the presentation voiceover.- Now this was a piece that had Tim Roth, Andrew MacCarthy, Stephen Fry - a glittering cast. You know what the presentation announcement says? -Ken Trodd and Christopher Morahan’s latest piece is – -. Absolutely incredible, as late as ’91/’92, actually presenting us as the names that you sell it on. I thought, was this an aberration? No, it wasn’t. I don’t know if it happened many other times, but certainly I didn’t stage it or set it up. I just took it for granted. I thought, did I really hear this? By that time things were already crumbling, and they crumbled as far as Simon is concerned, a year or so later, after we’d made Femme Fatale, which was the last one. And I remember going with Simon to see the Head of Drama, who was Mark Shivas, and there was a new elephant in the room. It was actually an elephant I knew, it was a woman who had been around the Garnett entourage for some time, subsequently produced Eastenders. So she was friendly, and we knew each other. And she got herself a job as some weasley title, like special assistant to the Head of Drama.
CM: Her name?
KT: Jane Harris. Do you know Jane Harris?
CM: No, I don’t
KT: No, there are one or two Jane Harris’s. I’m not sure what she’s doing now. She was trying to write a book about that period, or about Garnett, but it didn’t come off. That was recently. And - if I can remember the questions we were asked - we were just going really to say, well, we’d like to do another one. There’s an idea, can we just go ahead? Probably in past years I wouldn’t have even had to wheel Simon into the building. And I remember once giving an interview to Screen International or Broadcast, where I said in a very vainglorious way, sounds boastful and probably was boastful at the time - well, I’m working with these writers, I have a certain amount of freedom, if I decide I want to give a writer permission all I have to do is get the signature of a little boss along the corridor. The little boss along the corridor read this and thought, oh, is that what I am? And there was a bit of smoothing down to do. But it was in effect like that. You were give a kind of autonomy, and provided you didn’t break the law too much and weren’t that demanding, and they got feedback -
CM: So this is the last period, the period of perhaps your most intense collaboration with Simon, actually the very last period of what you might call British television.
KT: Yes. And I can’t remember what the idea was that we were wheeled in to speak to Mark and Jane Harris about, but there were just too many questions being asked. They all seemed perfectly innocuous questions, like who do you see being in it, what’s the span, can we have a treatment? And all that was just in a way which - it probably sounds precious - was just too much for Simon. Because what he’d been used to - being able to come back and get something commissioned, not for any princely fee - but, more or less, providing he didn’t bottle out, it would get made. It would get made without any great trumpeting, that much expectation, but it would reap benefits for everybody concerned. And suddenly they were wanting to put a stop in this process. Some BBC historian - a very nice woman, the lady who’s doing it now - approached me last year and clearly had no feel for drama at all, and I’ve always felt that drama in television during that period, and probably still now, in fact it is still now, is a different culture, even from light entertainment, and the actual experience of working within it, even if you’re a PA or a cameraman, is quite a different feeling for everybody, and there’s something peculiar and probably a little in-grown - in-grown toenail - about drama. And it depended on that kind of complicity. If you wanted to pick holes in it you could say it was a kind of favouritism, but that’s what you do, you make your judgment, you say you’d like to work with this person rather than that and here rather than there. Greg Dyke told me that he thinks one of the big mistakes John Birt made was to come in and, as it was, from Mars, decide we’ve got to have an executive cadre, which was an executive cadre nothing to do with programme making. Because I think the real fibre of the BBC had been programme making - getting people who were fulcrum people, producers like myself, to be between the management, the money and the talent below you, and what Birt produced, although he was originally a programme maker, was a quite alien notion other industries. And I think it was Greg that told me this, he felt that the BBC was lacking in some kind of status if it wasn’t able to demonstrate that there was a Head of Heritage, you know - seems a crazy thing.
CM: But if we go back to this period, it’s 1987, there’s After Pilkington, the A Month in the Country, Old Flames and Unnatual Pursuits, and Femme Fatale, so it’s six films in six years. Let’s start with After Pilkington - did Simon send you a script? Did you say, I want a script?
KT: No, we worked at it, and talked about the character being this woman who was a kind of mad person, and Simon was very keen to make her the centre of attention. Now, whether there had been any comment or pressure - as there certainly was from time to time with Potter - about the weakness or inappropriateness about the way they presented women - I don’t remember that with Simon. But certainly he wanted to make the woman the centre and for it to be Oxford oriented, and he developed the plot, mostly on his own, and we tweaked it, and there were various bits and pieces. This was a period when I was also trying to do some Simenon with Simon, because he had a commission from Granada to do a lot of Simenon, and Simon had taken on a Simenon story called something like The Blue Room. To make one connection between Dennis and Simon, the musical material in Unnatural Pursuits, which I think is quite original and works quite well, that was a diffusion of Dennis. It happened to me too with Jack Rosenthal when I tried to do something with him in that period - being mesmerized by what Dennis had achieved by using that song material, and wanting to do something similar in their own work. And part of the evolution process with Unnatural Pursuits was to say, you don’t need to be imitative, unconsciously or consciously of what another writer has done. But it may be a way of you conceiving a musical contribution in your own terms, which is what he did, and of course that musical material is not Cole Porter like the Potter stuff is. We had a composer and Simon wrote the lyrics. But it was a way of both of them - though Rosenthal was a completely different kind of writer, really - responding to something which had been a little bit overwhelming in that world.
CM: So - After Pilkington - you work on the script together. And the casting was particularly brilliant. Was that Simon or was that you?
KT: And Christopher too. We were offered or mooted Helen Mirren. We decided no, we would rather have Miranda. She’d done the Ruth Ellis movie, that’s about all she’d done. It was a very lucky set of circumstances - how it came together. It’s a very remarkable story.
CM: And Simon was very active in rehearsal of his plays?
KT: He was when he needed to be. He wasn’t somebody who I desired or who was in any way required to be there every day. Like Dennis - Dennis was sometimes unable to come because he was unwell, but would come urgently if there was a real problem, which sometimes there was, with an actor not understanding something. And he would come. I remember him coming to the Singing Detective a few times, and once coming to a hospital set where, he’s just sitting alone waiting for the crew or me to turn up, and a dermatologist comes in and sees he’s a patient. But there wasn’t anything compulsive about Simon being on the set, and although I think I mooted with him more than once - was he inclined to direct? - he wasn’t. With Simon, I think we were always looking for a dream director which we never found. And so we’d come round to the same one. Christopher has done very well for us before so let’s go there again. When Simon did appear on sets, he was an extraordinary, insistent power. I remember on the set of Old Flames, where it was a three-handed scene between Callow, Stephen Fry and Miriam, or it may have been just been the two men. We were in this lovely house in Tite Street. Simon is there and something isn’t quite working, and again the morning was wearing on, and everyone was thinking, we’ve got to finish this scene before lunch. Simon expresses some dissent. And the form, or the etiquette, of how you do this remains, I suppose charming, but elaborate: Simon speaks me, I speak to Christopher, the director, who then crosses the floor and whispers to the actor, and off we go again. That take doesn’t work. And Simon is persisting. So I say to Christopher, do you mind? So Christopher goes again. It doesn’t work, and we do one more, because Simon is still very persistent, still hasn’t been able to break the etiquette, and speak to the actor. So Christopher beginning, just in dumb show - the tension beginning to rise. So he finishes it, and walks back towards us, and then turns round and says ‘And Stephen this time just act it a lot better!’ That was the effect, in the most courteous way, of Simon being very insistent and always caring, and in a way never leaving things alone. I don’t know what the experience of being directed by Simon was like. I did commission something based upon the Cell Mates incident. And what Simon first of all did was an almost literal writing of it - it was too literal. Not because it was embarrassing but it didn’t really have enough life, partly because he couldn’t really come to terms with it. And we then went into one or two other gyrations - which as to - he wanted to write a piece about double acts, starting with Rik [Mayall] and Stephen Fry, but actually going back to two Cambridge figures - there was an academic called Graham - an English academic, I can’t remember his name, who apparently had some kind of vaudeville double act in Cambridge that Simon was aware of, and he wanted to take the archetypes of the Stephen Fry situation and recreate it through his memories of this pair. But it was little bit too - trying to bring together bits of material from different sources. It didn’t quite work. But we obviously did persist beyond - because the Cell Mates thing wasn’t until ’95. But I remember going to the launch of The Smoking Diaries. I hadn’t seen Simon for a little while, and I remember saying to him, do you think there’s anything in this for television? And Simon saying, in a rather legendary but terminal way, I think I’m too old for television.
CM: So that’s After Pilkington, and then you go straight on to A Month in the Country - they must have almost been back to back.
KT: Yes, I think it was. Because A Month in the Country was made as a movie with Warners and Channel 4, though earlier it was going to be television with Yorkshire, and then it wasn’t that. And I just chose Simon. I was interested in the book before we even had a director. So the order was me, plus Simon, then plus Pat O’Connor. Again, Simon’s attitude to other material was in the best, almost destructive, anarchic way, very creative. I can’t bear literary voiceovers in movies,- which is a very dogmatic position. There are movies which work like that, but generally the literary origins are too obvious. And here was a book that was already quite accoladed and had prizes, and a great following, and Simon first of all wrote a draft that was full of voiceover and too respectful, and sent it to me. I think I waited perhaps half a day too long before getting back to Simon, and he then called me, and before I could speak he said ‘I know, it’s not right, it’s not right. Don’t say a word. I know what mistake I’ve made. I haven’t learnt to despise the book yet.’ I said, that’s fine. From then on in there was not a word of voiceover or narrative, and yet almost everybody who loves the book recognises it as an honest and filmic account, and people who don’t know the book don’t realise its literary origins. So he immersed himself in that, and it’s very characteristic of Simon, but it’s equally very faithful to JL Carr. It’s a kind of landmark piece. It’s got a real cult status as a movie. And for some reason - it’s the kind of shibboleth which follows cult status pieces around - you can never find a good print.
CM: You then make what I think is, in some ways, one of Simon’s strangest pieces, which is Old Flames.
KT: I think there he wanted to work with Simon Callow - it started with that. But I think unlike Pilkington, which went through a lot of mutation, I think Old Flames, when it came in it was substantially what we were going to do. I think what we did not do there, and I do not know why - my fault, I suppose, perhaps I was doing too many other things - we did not put that ending through the ringer as many times as we should have done. And I think Christopher was a little too unaware that there were risks in realising that. Because there’s quite a jump in style and mode, and everything - it’s a kind a leap of faith in actually what’s happening in that ending, and I should have been more insistent on our trying to rework it. But I think Christopher found it very satisfactory from his point of view, as it was, and therefore I couldn’t really articulate - and I didn’t see it as a problem. Do you think it’s a major problem?
CM: No, no - it’s a shock.
KT: It’s a shock, but it’s a shock that works? Yes I think it probably does.
CM: And then you have The Common Pursuit, which we’ve talked about before.
KT: One interesting thing to say, is that Common Pursuit is ’91 or ’92, and Pilkington is ’87, and there’s a television version of Quartermaine, which is also ’87 - and the difference in feeling. I watched that recently, and thought, well this is done in the studio and it must have been the early ’80s. It was directed by a man called Bill Hayes, who was really a director from a different mutation, who did mostly series. And then discover it’s not the early ’80s its ’87 - so the same year as Pilkington - and it was made on film, but it feels as static and as stagey as anything could and the material is not liberated. Whereas I think with Pilkington and Common Pursuit you do feel that you’re in an idiom where conscious efforts have been made to cinematicise both the writing and the realisation, and it feels like something in a different mode.
CM: And Common Pursuit in terms of script development, casting, how did that all go?
KT: We got money from WNET, via a man called Jack McQuiggan, who had been Simon’s theatre producer in New York, and that’s partly why we got Andrew MacCarthy - the kind of American interest - and it developed in that way. I’d met Jack in New York on other business and he’d worked with Simon quite a bit, until, as Jack insists, his career got ruined by Simon’s. There was a year or two when Simon was directing his own things in New York and things had just got personally quite out of hand, and Jack subsequently turned writer and wrote a script dealing with that whole material. Simon heard about it and said, Jack and I don’t speak very much, but if you’d like to get me the script I’ll see if I can make any suggestions. I think I did get him the script, but if there were any suggestions they went directly to Jack. But that worked extremely well. It’s rather a strange cast - the only thing you have to get over is that we accept these actors for what they are, which is mostly in their early 30s, but in the first scene they’re undergraduates, But you kind of buy that. And again, to me it feels like a movie rather than an account of a stage piece.
CM: And then, one of my complete favourites, you have Unnatural Pursuits. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. How did that come about?
KT: That came about because I read the diary - How’s That For Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady - and said, there’s a piece here. It’s not a literal account of that book, but that was the inspiration. We just went from there and made it happen. It was originally meant to be a three-parter. I think we had to cut it and just do it in two bits. It wasn’t an enormous hit on BBC2 when it first went out, I don’t know why. I think it was a funny time of year they put it out. Yentob was a bit bitchy about it both before and after, and then we managed to get it to the Emmy’s, and it kind of took off from there. What I feel about it, and I suppose each time I see it I feel this less - I want him to get into that plane. I find the stuff in London, the first half hour a little bit self-conscious. It doesn’t really liberate in terms of his obsession until you get the American cultural clash. It’s just a tiny bit cosy - filming in the Riverside in Hammersmith. But it’s fun.
CM: I don’t think I can get enough distance from it. It’s one of the very few things I’ve seen on television since I was child that’s made me almost ache with laughter.
KT: Some people have that intensity of feeling about After Pilkington, although it isn’t so much laughter. You know a writer called Frank Delaney, told me that when his kids were growing up they used to watch Pilkington two or three times a year as a treat - this kind of world you bury yourself in. And one of the characteristics of Simon, which isn’t quite true in that way of the other big people I’ve worked with, is that when you start watching something you feel that vitality and that confidence and that, in the most glorious, not intimidating way, overpowering confidence of someone with something to say and in control of the material. There’s a television version of The Rear Column, where Harold [Pinter] has been a bit too indulgent with the theatre origins, but the authority of it is very strong. Very powerful stuff, it’s kind of radiant.
CM: And then the final one, Femme Fatale, which must have been almost immediately after Unnatural Pursuits.
KT: No I think there was a gap. I was doing quite a bit of Poliakoff around that period, and kind of flirting with Dennis - Lipstick on your Collar, which I came onto and came off. I think there was a little bit of a gap. I think Christopher had done Ashenden for the BBC, quite a big job, I think that was a four-parter. And we were then going on to Unnatural Pursuits. And suddenly I couldn’t get a crew, because the feeling of Christopher’s dominance had really spread around the business. And there was a period in pre-production when I fired Christopher - with Simon’s agreement. Christopher then wrote to me a sort of apologia,. And from then on I never had a word of problems with Christopher for the rest of our time together. We did one or two other tings that weren’t by Simon after that. And, I remember telling this story to somebody. And they said, you know why, don’t you? Because he knows you’ve got that letter in your safe. And my only riposte was, we came to the end of filming Unnatural Pursuits, we were in lower Manhattan on a Saturday and had the party there, and Jim Clay, who was a wonderful designer, and did the Mike Leighs I did, and the Singing Detective, worked a lot with Amiel in the movies, and did Unnatural PursuitsI said, let’s have a -shirt. And he did a wonderful front which was an image of the hotel he built for LA, which is actually in Houston, and he said, what shall I put on the back? And I wrote it down for him - ‘Do I make myself clear’. So when you turned round - I think it was a joke that Christopher had to struggle with.
CM: So Femme Fatale - any thoughts about that?
KT: It’s a strange piece. It almost comes not quite out of left or right field. I think it starts as a kind of pastiche of a slightly cod Italian thriller, and then moves into English pastoral and acquires Simon’s own voice. It’s very telling and quite effective, and I think the cast is very strong.
CM: One of the things that becomes clear to me is that Simon’s career is much more tied up with television than I thought, and almost to an uncanny degree - from 1966 to 1993 - it is the golden era of television.
KT: Yes, it is, it is.
CM: I always think that the crucial date, and I forget which year it was now - it was ’93, ’94, ’95 - when the Channel 4 board effectively vote themselves huge salaries. And one of the things we’ve talked about, programme makers and executives, it’s not simply that the executives were generally drawn from the programme makers, but actually - not everybody earned the same amount of money - but everything was within a certain range.
KT: Yes, and the BBC got a fantastically generous licence settlement, which is earlier than that, and ITV coincidentally went into a financial dip. Suddenly you earn less working for ITV than you did at the BBC, although the BBC then went into a very savage fee cutting, and trying to -well they told themselves they were spending their money on the website, on the technology - but I think they didn’t, I think they took their eye off the ball. Because right now it’s quit a different organisation, it’s inhibited and strange.
CM: It you were to look back at Simon’s career all in all, how would you characterise his relation to television and television’s relation to him?
KT: Well, it was very fruitful. I think that body of work speaks for itself. It lives. And I think Howard Jacobson says in that piece [for the Critical Quarterly], it may live longer because it has doesn’t have that topicality. I don’t know if the overtly agit-prop pieces will have that kind of durability, some of them will. But I think there’s something about Simon’s detachment from the furore of the day which gives it a greater strength. I think it was almost like a stealthy career, alongside the theatre one, and there’s no doubt that it kind of suffers not in its content but in its approbation. There are two bits of snobbery you face if you work intensely in television, and they crowd you from either side.- The theatre one - there’s a great deal of prestige about being a person of the theatre, and I think Simon had a bit of that. There was never any point when Simon was condescending towards television, but I think he wanted to be a great man of the theatre. He did acknowledge that to be lucky in the theatre you want one big simple idea which you milk for two hours. But if you are entertaining a larger audience for television and you want to keep them watching and not switching, you’ve got to keep coming up with new tricks and I think instinctively he developed that, so the originality of some of those pieces is extremely strong The other shadow is the one from film, which isn’t that much relevant to Simon. I mean, there may have been excursions into movies I don’t know about - movie movies rather than television movies - but the main one I was aware of which I was aware of which I was involved with but I don’t think started it off, was the one about Sassoon, or about that period, set in a military hospital in the First World War. But that didn’t come off, so Simon in a way doesn’t really dignify the argument- that some films are more films than others. I think his sense of the expansiveness that was necessary for the scale of A Month in the Country, even though it’s quite intimate, is there. It would have been a great pity if that had only been a television piece. But then I suppose in the end I come back to my own quite ideological mantra, that a film is a film is a film, and you could say that Driving Miss Daisy should only have been for television. But time and time again things defy the physical scale because they just insist on speaking at every level. And now that people do watch on their mobile, the days are probably fast going when you can’t make any valid point about visual quality or sound quality. In a way I appreciate that because I think content is all.