Tony Garnett

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23 Jan 2007
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Tony Garnett
Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett, producer, writer and director, born 3 April 1936; died 12 January 2020. He was born Anthony Lewis in the Birmingham district of Erdington. Following the death of his parents, he was brought up by his Auntie “Pom” (Emily) and Uncle Harold, while his younger brother, Peter, went to other relatives. He went to B'ham central grammar school and retained his father's surname , changing it to his uncle's Garnett when he was a teenager.He joined rep companies before studying psychology at University College London, where he acted with its drama society. Spotted by a BBC producer, he was given small roles in An Age of Kings (1960), More screen appearances followed, including parts in Mercer’s television plays A Climate of Fear (1962) and The Birth of a Private Man (1963), and in the film The Boys (1962), as a teenager on trial for murder.He joined the Wednesday Play as an assistant story editor and, on promotion to story editor, worked on Dennis Potter’s Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton and Stand Up, Nigel Barton (both 1965).

He left acting behind to become a groundbreaking producer who made waves with both the socially and politically charged stories he brought to the screen and the chillingly realistic way in which they were filmed. The early part of his career was dominated by his partnership with the director Ken Loach, who pioneered a social-realist style of film-making.They were among the   first to put working-class voices on the BBC screen,Garnett was story editor on Up the Junction (1965), It featured “factory girls”, dirty streets, crumbling houses, bawdy language and casual sex. At its core was a scene of a backstreet abortion, two years before terminations were legalised.Garnett knew the Wednesday Play’s producer, James MacTaggart, would be unhappy with it, so set the production in motion while his boss was on holiday. 14 years later, in his memoir, The Day the Music Died, he revealed that his mother, Ida (nee Poulton), died of septicaemia after having a backstreet abortion when he was five. His father, Tom Lewis, a garage mechanic who switched to selling insurance, took his own life 19 days later. When Up the Junction was screened, it caused uproar in the rightwing press and was attacked by the Clean Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse, He then became a producer and with Loach on  Cathy Come Home (1966). It was an attack on council house waiting lists and the policy of separating husbands from their homeless wives and children.The public and political outrage that followed the screening of Cathy Come Home, featuring Carol White and Ray Brooks as the couple whose family was torn apart, speeded up the formation of Shelter.

He commission In Two Minds, David Mercer’s 1967 Wednesday Play about schizophrenia. His wife Topsy Jane Leggewas cast as Tom Courtenay’s girlfriend in Billy Liar (1963), she fell ill several weeks into filming, diagnosed as schizophrenic and given electroshock therapy. Later he and Loach remade In Two Minds as a feature film, Family Life (1971).In between, they made the film Kes (1969), lbased on Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave. Another writer he encouraged was Jim Allen, who wrote Days of Hope (1975), a four-part epic for the BBC tracing the betrayal of the working class by the trade union and Labour party leaderships in the years leading up to the general strike of 1926.

He produced two other plays by Allen, The Lump (1967) and The Spongers (1978), as well as Hard Labour (1973), Mike Leigh’s first TV drama, and Law & Order (1978), GF Newman’s controversial take on the legal system, directed by Les Blair, another of Garnett’s proteges, who also included the writers Leon Griffiths and Charles Wood, and directors Jack Gold, Roy Battersby and Roland Joffé.

Then, in 1979, Garnett left Britain for the US. He returned to the UK to establish World Productions -  Cardiac Arrest (1994-96), The Cops (1998-2001), Attachments (2000-02) and Rough Diamond (2006).Between the Lines (1992-94) and This Life (1996-97), alongside the more mainstream Ballykissangel (1996-2001). For the first time, while bringing on a new generation of writers and directors, he was producing series designed to have long runs, with repeat commissions.

Garnett left the BBC for a couple of years, and with Kenith Trodd set up Kestrel Productions, making dramas for the newly launched ITV company LWT. These included his own collaboration with Loach, After a Lifetime (1971).There was an attempt to block Garnett’s return to the BBC that was overruled because of his professional ability. Later, he himself had to threaten to resign in order to be allowed to employ Joffé. Garnett then wrote and direct- ed two films: Prostitute (1980), focusing on the working lives of sex workers, in Britain, and Handgun (1983), about a female victim of rape seeking revenge, in Texas.His time as a film producer at Warner Bros in Hollywood bizarrely yielded only the Sesame Street spin-off Follow That Bird (1985) before he made the musical Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and the atom bomb drama Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), starring Paul Newman.