BRITISH ENTERTAINMENT HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEW with DAVID ELSTEIN
Conducted on Friday 24th March 2017 at David’s home in Putney
Camera Operator: Nick Gilbey
Interviewer: Martin Spence
00.00 – History Project intro – names, date, location
00.38 - My parents – child refugees from Poland/Belarus, both arrived early 1920s, met & married years later.
01.35 - Born Nov 1944 in Slough – mother there because of War, father in Army. Parents had lived in East End, tailor & seamstress, father ran factory, mother ran shop. Both parents were frustrated intellectuals, unable to go to university, partly because of Jewish restrictions. Their ambitions transferred to sons’ education.
03.43 - Both brothers academically successful. I went to Cambridge age 16, graduated with Double First in History at 19. “Yes, we were high fliers”.
04.43 - I was fast-tracked at school by ambitious History teachers. Won Cambridge scholarship at 16 so didn’t need A levels. Worked briefly in tax office then went to univ. Arrived to find myself with 23-year olds still doing National Service – “I was a kind of pet”, couldn’t go into pubs for first 2 years (“I did, but not legally”). I struggled a bit, would probably have done better if I’d waited a year.
7.05 - Age 19, degree in knapsack. What I most wanted to do was postgraduate academic work, got scholarship at Oxford but supervisor left for another job. Looked at alternative careers: Guardian, Unilever, Ford, BBC all said Yes.
8.15 - BBC was odder – letter said I was too young for General Trainee, then offered job “as if” I was a GT. Pay was £975 pa, more than Guardian, so I took BBC job.
9.13 - “I had no real idea what I’d do at the BBC”. Interview panel: Martin Esslin, major figure in drama & theatre; Hyram Tennyson, distinguished producer; facing me, uncultured, uneducated, knew little about anything, made embarrassing gaffe re Britten / Peter Grimes / Peter Pears (interviewer breaks down in giggles).
11.20 - First sent to Overseas Service at Bush House as Script Writer. I knew Bush House from student days, used canteen when working at LSE Library. Remarkable emigres and exiles. Ludwig Hoffman was my boss, spoke 8 languages. “You thought you were at the heart of things”. My first assignment was 2-minute piece on opening of new Elephant & Castle shopping centre. Then I became expert on Olympic Games and had to forecast athletics results.
13.32 - Moved from office to office, found previous occupants’ unfinished manuscripts in desks – many only p/t with BBC. Read George Hilsey’s ‘History of Spanish Civil War’ in manuscript.
14.15 - Then I was posted to Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. Wrote various papers including one on the concept public service broadcasting – “a career shaping experience”. Hoggart had been on Pilkington Ctte, anti-ITV, pro-“uplifting” public monopoly: “ideas which I found antithetical but interesting”. Years later drew on this experience as Professor of Broadcasting at Oxford, all because BBC sent me to do this reading: “A bit like the Jesuits with a novice”.
17.12 - I came back, worked at Home Service as Current Affairs Producer on ‘Focus’ with Edgar Lustgarden. Then I was told time to go to Television Centre. It was a comedown intellectually from Bush House to Broadcasting House. BH was fantastic, empire created by Lawrence Gilliam, brilliant producers, Alan Burgess, Jack Dillon, Keith Lindell – but not quite at Bush House intellectual level. And then there was TV Centre, “a bunch of bluffers and chancers and no-nothings” who dominated the BBC. “It was weird”.
18.27 - “Eye-opening”. This is 1965. BBC TV in great shape. Huw Greene revolution in full flow, Graceman and Goldie in current affairs, Panorama presented by James Mossman, James Cameron, Michael Charlton, Robert Kee, John Morger, “50 minute illustrated lectures”. “A different type of BBC” because Bush House and BH had no competition but “TV was embattled”. ITV strong commercially, and BBC had to fight for audience.
20.09 - When competition started in 1955, BBC gave up, ITV grabbed audiences, BBC share down to 20%. Only Huw Greene saying ‘we’ve got to be entertaining’ led to resurgence: dramas, current affairs. Saturday night shows that became hallmark of BBC TV.
(Question re balance of commercial pressure and regulated/PSB pressure in broadcasting)
21.26 - No question but that in 70s and 80s, regulated ITV against regulated BBC drove standards higher. ITV running This Week, World in Action, Weekend World, First Tuesday, Survival, weekly Tuesday documentaries, Disappearing World, forced BBC to raise its game, Panorama had to be on its toes. Competition was for quality.
22.52 - In those days ITV was a quality broadcasting system. Before franchise auction, you retained franchise by showing how good you were. Govt tax regimes created incentive to invest in programmes and achieve sufficient profitability while retaining franchise.
24.43 - One of my first BBC TV jobs was to help launch The Money Programme. Two producers, Terry Hughes & Anthony Smith, put in proposals: BBC approved both and flipped the producers so Terry ran The Money Programme. I helped choose theme music, titles, live studio – “It was a very interesting way to be trained by the BBC”. Told to watch a live transmission one week, and do it the next. I was a Trainee as Director – credited as Director.
26.49 - My first Directing job – BBC had system of TOMs, Technical Managers overseeing process, crews very professional, and I had delightful Vision Mixer Nola Schiff. All my directions were anticipated by her: she cut the programme and I got the credit. Later she was Assistant Film Editor on ‘The World at War’ so we go to know each other again.
27.55 - Having become ‘star’ Director of The Money Programme I was recruited by Panorama as Studio Director. This was when Jeremy Isaacs was Editor. Hugely buoyant and adventurous period. But Jeremy wanted to do away with presenters and Robin Day didn’t like this, engineered a coup, got Jeremy ousted. Jeremy then pitched up at Rediffusion before it became Thames, started recruiting Panorama people for This Week, starting with his favourite producer Philip Whitehead. I meanwhile got a job in General Features, working on Cause for Concern with Ian Martin and Eddie Mirtzoff.
29.53 - I came up with an idea of my own, People in Conflict, person-driven concept. Given £500, 1 hour studio time, 1 day with crew, to make pilot. Made pilot about family crisis caused by birth of Down’s Syndrome child, very brave mother. Pilot went out on ring-main, HoD thought it terrific, whole series was commissioned, but I didn’t get Producer job because “thought to be to young”. 23 at the time. Radio producer recruited instead. I resigned from BBC.
31.53 - I didn’t have a job to go to. Last job was to edit the pilot and take my name off the credits: not great. Before I left, invited by Huw Wheldon to a dinner for APs, turned up with Tony Palmer, to find no name badge and to be turfed out by Paul Fox – “a bit brutal”. Saw Paul several years later when he turned up as MD of Yorkshire TV – “Ah, we’ve all made the change then”.
33.50 - I’d resigned, unemployed, offered job at LWT about to launch in August 1968 but didn’t much like the people. Jeremy offered me a job on This Week but couldn’t take it up until Rediffusion/Thames handover complete. “But before I could start work there was a strike”. Alan Sapper from ACTT rang to say “We want you to be Director for our Strike Camera Unit” made up of striking Thames crew. I went down to Kingsway: “The first person to cross the picket line was my future producer Philip Whitehead”. That was my introduction to ITV: strikes, uncertainty. But very impressed by free tea/coffee/biscuits, unlike the BBC.
36.02 - This Week was terrific, Philip Whitehead a superb producer, amazing expertise. He recruited top people from BBC. One of Philip’s first films was on topic turned down by BBC, gerrymandering in Londonderry: minority Protestant population had two-thirds of seats on Council. Godfrey Hodgson was reporter. BBC would never have transmitted it. Also Robert Kee report from Rhodesia at height of UDI, Peter Williams report on Newark riots. “A sense of a programme with its finger on the pulse and the resources to deliver”. “I became hooked”.
38.44 - (Re union membership). At BBC I was one of very few ACTT members. I thought ABS was a house union whereas ACTT was real muscle. At Kensington House, Chronicle producer Paul Johnston was ABS, always tore down my ACTT posters. Having an ACTT ticket was not prescient, I had no idea of going to ITV at that time. I was a rare bird, that’s why Alan Sapper knew who I was. I got to know him well, in later years we were both Directors of Children’s Film Foundation.
40.17 - (Re ITV strike in 1968). It was just weird, I was 23, involved in acrimonious dispute, on other side from people I would be working with. That tricky relationship lasted for years at Thames, because I was active in ACTT, Chair or Deputy Chair of Producer/Director Section, on TV Branch, National Negotiating Committee, spoke at Annual Conferences. Managers treated me with caution. When I became Editor of This Week and lodged my card, MD of Thames Howard Thomas took me aside and said ‘You’re management now, no more union activity’.
41.49 - That was ITV in those days. A bit of a battlefield, industrial disputes. Thames had many notorious disputes. Trying to run a creative programme with overtime bans/travel bans – “Brothers I know what you’re doing but boy is it getting in the way”.
Question: but weren’t management/creators also on the left?
42.57 - Jeremy Isaacs was Labour Party through & through. Philip Whitehead Conservative at Oxford but moved left, eventually elected as Labour MP & left Thames, then lost seat & I employed him before he became MEP. Robert Kee, Robert Morton, both on the left. “There was a political edge to the journalistic thrust of a programme like This Week. “World in Action was Trot through and through”. By their standards we were sell-outs and collaborationists”. But the politics were rarely an issue. We did programme on covert racism in Tory Party: MP Ian Sproat complained and appeared in follow-up ‘balancing’ programme.
45.38 - It only became problematic re Northern Ireland. This Week & World In Action had regular run ins with IBA over problematic/unwelcome editions. Peter Taylor was my reporter from NI. We did up to 8 editions p.a. from NI and IBA hated it, more than once took us off air.
Question: Did Ulster TV interfere/veto programmes from other ITV companies?
46.56 - Ulster TV’s position was sensitive. No-one from other ITV companies filmed in NI without alerting them first. This was sensible precaution. We didn’t have to clear anything with them, just treat them sensibly as colleagues more exposed than we were. They were attacked with bombs – not as much as BBC, but still exposed. But they rarely complained re editorial content.
48.05 - ACTT stalwart in this. Once when IBA refused to let us transmit This Week re NI, ACTT refused to allow replacement programme. So we had to put up caption. But our ratings that night were unchanged – audience clearly very loyal.
48.59 - Politics was not left-right, it was national. To be fair to UTV: after ‘Death on the Rock’ I commissioned a drama with RTE on the Gerry Conlan affair. My MD and Board didn’t want anything to do with it. But colleagues on ITV Network Controllers Group agreed to acquire it out of their film purchase budget. Richard Dunn, MD of Thames, still opposed transmission, so Network Committee assigned decision to Desmond Smythe, MD of UTV, and he agreed it should be shown.
50.45 - We are going through some of the same tensions now with ISIS. IRA attacks on British civilians etc. created great tensions. For broadcasters, reporting such fraught issues was a problem, particularly with Thatcher Government in place. There could be outrage: Panorama filmed IRA road-block, and apoplectic PM demanded programme be abandoned. Yes it was IRA stunt, but also journalistically interesting. Constantly caught in the politics of what was appropriate to report.
52.25 - I was listening to post-Brexit radio report from Belfast, where out & out republicanism and identification with Ireland was expressed. Took me back to interviews in NI around Queen’s 25th anniversary, hostile voices saying ‘She’s not our Queen, we’re Irish’. IBA found this untransmittable. Now, nobody thinks twice about it.
53.41 - My first period at Thames was from 68 to 82 so 14 years, with short 6 month break to help John Birt launch Weekend World at LWT. I came to Thames to work on This Week, worked for Philip Whitehead as a Director. Then he stopped being Producer and made The Day Before Yesterday re post-war British politics, and I did 2 episodes, one on Bevin and Palestine, other on Eden and Suez. Bevin and Palestine was ironic, because that would have been my subject for postgraduate work at Oxford: “I got round to it eventually”. Really good programmes, wonderful interview with Enoch Powell, in which he said that when Macmillan resigned, RAB Butler should have become PM but “He had the pistol in his hand but he couldn’t squeeze the trigger”.
56.18 - Did other jobs at Thames, briefly on The Today Programme, then back to This Week working for John Edwards, then my old friend Ian Martin. Also took a year out in 72/73 at Jeremy’s invitation to work on The World At War. I was a History graduate, had made historical documentaries, they asked me to write the book of the series but I couldn’t take it on. I did three episodes, two as producer, one on The Bomb as writer and producer. It was improbable that Thames commissioned it: 26-part documentary series, costing £1 million, but Brian Tesler signed on for it, persuaded ITV Network to show it. Jeremy was an outstanding producer, willing to try different producers doing different things: Michael Darlow superb on the Holocaust, Philip brought back to do two programmes on Home Fronts. (Jeremy) found great writers: Neil Ascherson. “It was a very Jeremy enterprise”. I showed him the rough-cut of programme on the failed invasion of Norway, where interviewee complained that campaign was “improvised” but Jeremy couldn’t see why that should be a problem. But with programme on The Bomb he just gave me my head, a diplomatic account about US using Bomb as leverage over Russians, revisionist but accepted because it was within The World At War. For all his many other achievements, Jeremy will always be remembered as the man who made The World At War.
1.00.59 - After The World At War I did 6 months on Weekend World, then back to This Week. Ian Martin fell ill from stress of producing This Week, handed over to Arnold Bolker who also found it stressful and had a nervous breakdown, so I took over as Acting Editor. I was finishing a This Week 90-minute special on NI, had just put it out when Richard Nixon resigned and we had to do a 90-minute special on that. I took over This Week in 74 and stayed through to 78 as Producer. I then became Executive Producer, did documentaries.
1.02.42 - “Essentially … I was waiting for Channel 4 to launch in 82”. I wasn’t made Head of Documentaries at Thames, bizarre because I was clearly the right person, so it was easy to resign and step into unknown as an independent producer. I’d spent so many years working to have Channel 4 created that I couldn’t imagine not being part of it.
(Question: doesn’t this connect up with your involvement in ACTT?)
1.03.40 - After the Pilkington Committee reported the next big stage was the Annan Committee in 1976. Philip Whitehead was leading light on Annan Committee. Government correctly rejected Annan Committee’s model. Philip launched informal ’76 Group’. John Birt and I both opposed to ‘ITV2’ model. I put together concept: small, greenfield, funded by ITV which would sell the airtime, overseen by IBA, commissioning content from whoever, aiming at small (10%) target audience. John agreed, we published it, others including Jeremy supported it, and over next few years it proved to be prescient. But in 1979 Thatcher was elected with manifesto commitment to ITV2, and ACTT also supported ITV2. I put motion to ACTT Annual Conference with Michael Darlow to oppose ITV2, heated debate, Alan Sapper asked me to remit but I insisted on a vote and with support of Labs we won and changed ACTT policy.
1.08.03 - That was eye opening for Conservative Government - Willie Whitelaw & Leon Brittain. I set up meeting for Leon to meet would-be independent producers. I set up screening at BAFTA of films by independent producers – Mike Dodds, Michael Peacock, John Cleese, Roy Godfrey. We made it look like enormous pool of talent – actually these were all the films I could find. Independent production sector didn’t really exist, kept at arms length by BBC & IBA. But it made an impact on Leon, who persuaded Whitelaw to move off ITV2. WE had a pressure group, Channel 4 Group, with Michael Jackson as organiser, just graduated, “thin and modish young man”. Clare Downs, Sophie Balhatchet, Michael Darlow, were main organisers. We ran ‘access slot’ on LWT, David Attenborough did the presentation. An energetic campaign. Eventually IBA came round. Channel 4 came into being overturning Thatcher manifesto.
1.10.58 - Years later, on A Week In Politics, first show I sold to Channel 4, she (Thatcher) did as-live interview with Peter Jay, Jeremy present. Afterwards she came steaming into Green Room at Molinare Studio, full of herself, Bernard Ingham got her whiskey, then quizzed Jeremy Isaacs for an hour. Despite tough interview, she posed for photos with crew. Eventually Bernard Ingham dragged her away and we collapsed in a heap. The energy she transmitted was immense. The Tories became very pleased with Channel 4, launched the independent production sector – “let them take credit”.
(Question: While you were lobbying for Channel 4, you were still at Thames. So were you not seen as a cuckoo in the nest?)
1.13.25 - “I was tolerated”. People could see which way wind was blowing. It wasn’t a one man show but a big campaign. I was already well known as supporter of independent Channel 4. I also called for BBC funding by subscription which was against ITV policy. Even when I was at Sky, that was not what Sky wanted either. When you take a public position which is well established and thought through, it’s hard for a company to drop you. As it happens, Thames provided many programmes for Channel 4. So I didn’t get any stick when I came back as Director of Programmes.
(Question: So how was it as an independent producer in early years of Channel 4?)
1.15.07 - My company, Brook Productions, one of the first to get commission from Channel 4. I put list of twelve ideas to Liz Forgan, Director of Programmes. She commissioned one, Master Bridge, bridge tournament with Omar Sharif. Later she called me and Anne Lapping to discuss another idea for a weekly social policy programme loosely based on New Society magazine. She said ‘Can you do a weekly politics show?’. We said of course. Agreed to send in budget. Suggested A Week In Politics as title. I go back to my tiny office in Molinare building to assemble budget for live weekly programme, 40+ episodes per year. I was re-creating a This Week budget, plus a studio. It wasn’t rocket science. We put it in and delivered A Week In Politics on budget for years.
1.17.45 - At one point Michael Checkland, DG of BBC, asked me to do comparison of Panorama budget with A Week In Politics budget. I said I could do A Week In Politics to last penny because it was a cash budget, but I had no idea what the Panorama budget was. This was forerunner of Birtian revolution inside BBC. It also taught me that control given by cash budget was creatively superior to that given by resources-plus budget where you get a studio, and you get days of filming/editing, the old BBC/ITV way. “This had to be the right way to do things”.
1.18.59 - Without budgetary control you don’t have creative control. At Thames with its union problems, ban on 1st class air travel meant I could film in Rome but not in Tel Aviv because of union rule, budget totally constrained. But if you have control of budget then it’s a creative challenge, what are you going to do, how are you going to do it.
1.19.44 - As independent producer I did not just A Week In Politics but other shows from Brook Productions for Channel 4; took on job as MD of Primetime Productions, drama/arts/children’s programmes for ITV/BBC, big drama series Return to Treasure Island for HTV, The Fortunes of War for BBC, where Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson first met, arts programmes.
1.20.48 - A very interesting time to be an independent producer. Channel 4 still in learning phase, didn’t really know how to manage independents. I complained bitterly re failure to plan. C4 failure to pay invoice could push independent company into bankruptcy: this was before they all became multi-millionaires and zillionaires. These were days when there were hundreds of suppliers to C4, over 700 at one point, now about 150 with consolidation and much more conservative regime.
1.21.46 - Chanel 4 in its early days was wacky, truly experimental. One programme out of Brooke Productions, produced by Udi Eichner, was Voices: studio-based, someone like Michael Ignatieff or Bryan Magee interviewing three philosophers about obscure French philosophical ideas for an hour or more. Was anyone watching? I don’t know. Was it exactly what C4 should be doing? No question.
1.22.45 - It was a magical time. Those were days when C4 had guaranteed budget irrespective of audience. “This was before it started selling its own airtime which for me has been the kiss of death for C4”. So Jeremy was accountable to his board, and ITV companies moaned about ratings, but they had already fixed the supply system and deliberately understated C4’s true value. In those first 6 to 8 years of C4, we had a pure version. If you compare C4 now with then, in terms of the fixed quotas which have virtually disappeared - chalk and cheese.
(Question: Isn’t today C4 also a response to multi channel environment?)
1.23.52 - The multi-channel environment has barely changed C4’s audience share, ran at 9-11% for 20 years before & after launch of multi-channel TV. The issue was regulation. 2003 Communications Act unplugged C4 from previous obligations. Creation of OFCOM allowed it to escape obligations. Now much more commercial, still some good content but little/no arts, multi-cultural, education (education used to be integral to C4, 15% of budget). “They have eviscerated what that C4 was about, we have a different one now”. But in early days it was fascinating.
(Question. And yet you went back to Thames in mid 1980s).
1.25.30 - 1985, Thames self-imploded. “They tried to steal Dallas from BBC”. ITV and BBC in those days had gentlemen’s agreement, didn’t bid against each other for US programmes, sports etc. Football in those days got £4 million a year in total – “about two-thirds of a match in today’s values”. Brian Cowgill came from BBC to be Thames MD, aggressive, empowered Head of Programmes Muir Sutherland to buy Dallas at inflated price. BBC outraged, ITV embarrassed, said they wouldn’t show it. Eventually IBA made Thames hand it back at old BBC price while Thames was stuck with inflated price. Cowgill forced out, Richard Dunn replaced him. Muir also resigned. Richard knew me a bit, asked me to come back as Head of Programmes, which for someone rejected as Head of Documentaries a few years earlier was ironic.
1.27.40 - I was keen to bring with me my experience from independent sector. So I said to new Head of Education/Features/Religion, Alan Horrocks, You’re going to operate on a cash budget irrespective of resources, buy in resources if necessary. Alan made a big success of it, not just high quality but surprises, including dramas. Michael Winterbottom was one of his junior producers. Great documentaries: Ingmar Bergman profiles.
1.29.01 - Very interesting to come back to Thames. Big part of my life was effectively running ITV schedule Monday to Thursday. LWT ran weekend, we ran weekdays, all other companies were 7-day so it didn’t matter to them where ratings turned up, but in London it mattered. Fierce battle for revenue & ratings. John Birt (at LWT before Greg Dyke took over) said: ‘Never let 7-day companies get the better of you, we must stick together in London or it will fall apart. We can be bitter enemies but not let them gang up against us’. Interesting to see LWT beat up Granada re Coronation Street: eventually they got a Friday slot. Then Central turned up with Inspector Morse and suddenly we had a Wednesday banker - thanks Andy, Alan - but LWT extremely jealous.
1.31.09 - Negotiations away from the table were very interesting. For a weekday comedy, where do we slot it? After Coronation Street or after This Week? How good is it? Horse-trading. Greg Dyke at LWT turned TVS into satellite production company for weekend schedule. Alan Boyd was TVS Director of Programmes, so I’d say to him ‘If you do all that for the weekend, why should I do you any favours?’.
1.32.18 - Hardest problem was Granada, they always thought they were the leading ITV company: ‘We will deliver what we like, you’ll have to take it’. When Steve Morrison was Director of Programmes at Granada he delivered 13-part drama based on novel called Small World. I said ‘This is an academic novel and it will get small audience’. Steve said ‘It will go out on Monday night and that’s it’. I watched it die for first 4 weeks then bumped it to 10.30. You had to be disciplined, listen to what the network needed. Granada then got down to better shows like Prime Suspect, designed to win and hold an audience.
1.34.03 - Discipline within ITV network was important, but responsibility too. When Eastenders launched it made huge dent in our Tuesday & Thursday schedule, rest of the network asked me ‘What are you going to do? It’s your problem, we can recover at weekend’. I hunted around, we had 1-hour drama called The Bill, converted it to 2 x 30 minute episodes every week for whole year, agreed with producer to do it out-of-house. John Blair put together proposal for independent production of The Bill. I invited Ewart Needham, Head of Studios at Thames, to compete but it didn’t match up. I said ‘I’ll go with the outside version’ but Richard Dunn said ‘Give Ewart one more chance’. He came back with a version just a bit cheaper than independent proposal – don’t know how he did that, costs just disappeared. But I got my show at the cost I wanted. It was designed to mimic the demographic of Eastenders.
1.36.37 - We had ITV strategy conference just after first transmission, overnights came in during the meeting, we had completely recaptured audience from Eastenders and did so for years. It was part of the discipline of running a commercial broadcaster, how to fix a problem. It was on us, if we didn’t do it nobody would. Eastenders didn’t go away, we just scheduled programmes against it at 7.30 that would never win an audience, then won it back at 8.00, comedy at 8.30, drama at 9.00, off we go. In those days we did 6 hours of drama a week, now I think it’s 2, all part of a steady decline of public service broadcasting.
Question: sounds like problems stemmed from scheduling rather than producing the programmes.
1.38.30 - Most of the time I was commissioning programmes. Mr Bean, Rumpole, a pleasure dealing with creative ideas, top quality producers and executives. Men Behaving Badly was one of the first we commissioned from an independent, Hartswood. Creative juices were flowing, but also battling against inefficiencies of an archaic inherited system, slow to adapt.
1.39.27 - Almost the first thing when I got back to Thames was dispute with ACTT over PAs. Thames had about 70 PAs, most could only do film but we didn’t need them: we needed about 8 for studio and the rest were surplus. I knew them personally, I’d worked with them, but it was a dead weight, money spent on that couldn’t be spent on content.
1.40.12 - The whole thing reached a climax with the franchise renewal. 1990 Broadcasting Act forced us into competitive bid to retain our franchise. We knew Carlton – greenfield, no fixed facilities – could bid big cash sum. It was up to us to match it. But virtually impossible. We had 1,250 staff at Teddington, but I said to Director of Finance ‘I don’t need any of them, I can find studios, there’s a big market out there. The law of that market says volume of facilities will always meet volume of demand. All those facilities companies constantly reinvest against each other, so you can always find best quality in the open market. I don’t need a fixed resource’. Richard Dunn had been in production, sympathetic to Teddington staff. He persuaded Ewart Needham to offer to take staff down to 750. On that basis we bid £30 million/year, Carlton bid £40 million/year, we lost. Within a few months, all but 27 Teddington staff had lost their jobs. If we had planned for that, we could easily have bid £40 million and kept our franchise.
1.42.32 - That was the nature of the beast. Technological change should have forced us to make the right decision. We didn’t lose the franchise because of Death On The Rock, we lost because we didn’t bid enough. That’s the simple truth.
Question: Why then is here a widespread belief that it was Death On The Rock, which made you a marked company for the Thatcher Government?
1.43.19 - It’s simply untrue. Death On The Rock was very unpopular with Thatcher Government and was one of reasons for competitive bidding process in 1990. There were also other things – poor industrial arrangements, ‘unacceptable practices’. Her chum Bruce Gyngell at TV-am was heavily involved in tackling these practices. But decision on franchises was made by IBA, nothing to do with politicians. IBA had supported Death On The Rock. But system was clear: unless you could not deliver minimum quality, cash decided it. Richard Dunn lobbied Minister, David Mellor, to include clause to allow IBA to over-ride cash bid for an ‘exceptional quality bidder’. He thought this would be his get-out clause. IBA lawyers said it was subjective and unusable, but Richard thought it could work. So we had very high quality application, Carlton produced a carbon copy, but they had no track record to judge by. All you could judge by was a promise, plus cash. We had every opportunity to make winning cash bid, but failed to do so. We could have bid for LWT franchise which we would easily have won, but Richard had friendship pact with Christopher Bland. We had a ready-made bid for LWT, I drafted it, but we never submitted it. Losing the franchise had little to do with Death On The Rock. It was a precursor, but we lost on our own decision.
Question: What was in Government’s mind in introducing cash bid system? Did it achieve what they wanted?
1.47.15 - Ostensible reason was to extract the value of the public asset, which was the franchise. ‘Why should company get franchise for nothing?’- that was the theory. 1960s/70s system was a levy which worked. This was a new theory, identified with Nigel Lawson at Treasury: “How shall I put it? It was designed to punish”. ITV was unpopular with Tories, and it was designed to extract money from the system and make it punitive. But it was cock-eyed, made no sense. Legislation only required a competitive bid once, thereafter regulator set bid-level and companies competed on quality, which is the right way to do it. But we ended up with a farce in 1992. Two franchises were awarded for pennies because STV and Central drove away all competition, so Nigel Lawson got zero from two very valuable franchises. LWT underbid because they faced unreal competitor. TSW, TVS, TV-am kicked out – TVS thrown out for over-bidding which was nonsense. It was ruinous, helped destroy ITV system, forced a series of mergers and we ended up with ITV plc which is shadow of old ITV. “It was completely unnecessary, just political spite”.
Question: So what did this mean for you?
1.50.12 - We got franchise decision in October 1991. We had thought ahead about what to do, put together a generous redundancy plan for those who wanted to leave early, made sure that the damage was minimised. The morning after the result we had meetings with staff, it was very grim, had to announce ‘Your jobs are all going’. I spent 15 months making sure there was a planned exit strategy. There was an assumption that I would stay on to run Thames production as independent producer: The Bill, This Is Your Life, Wish You Were Here.
1.51-45 - Then Sam Chisholm from Sky came along and said ‘Come and work with us’. I had met Sam when he was planning his bid for the Premier League. I told him we at Thames had built a model for a standalone Premier League channel, how to make it work, subscriptions. We were already supplying UK Gold to Sky, which I helped create. He liked it. So after they won the Premier League contest he asked me to meet the boss. I’d met Murdoch a few times. Sam arranged me to fly to LA, pick him up, go to Rupert for interview, and make decision. I flew out on a Saturday. Rupert had line of executives waiting to see him from all his businesses, in fabulous Jules Stein house overlooking the city. I went in for my 20 minutes: ‘Oh, yeah, what should we bid to get Letterman for Fox?’. So we spent 20 minutes talking about the value of Letterman to Fox then ‘Great you’re joining us, look forward to it’. I went back to airport to find Sam & girlfriend & lawyer on same plane, Sam said ‘You don’t leave the aircraft until you sign the contract’. Lawyer had laptop & printer. Through the flight he produced versions of contract and I scrawled Yes, No, OK, until by the time we landed I had a contract in my hand. And that’s how I joined Sky.
1.55.08 - It surprised people in ITV. They’d forgotten that for many years I’d advocated subscription as best way to fund broadcasting, particularly for the BBC, a direct relationship with the consumer.
Question: Sky content at the time was mostly sport?
1.55.38 - No: one Sky Sports channel, Sky News, two movies channels, and Sky One. Sky One budget about £30 million/year, all acquired. I was in charge of Sky One, looking after movies channels, overseeing at a distance news and sport. News and sports were well run, good people. My job was to build up Sky One with original commissions, got it up to 9% in satellite homes. Now it has budget of several hundred million and has a 2% share, but there you go.
1.56.50 - It was so different re engagement with audience. At Thames I was broadcasting to 12-15 million people. My audience feedback was a lady called Marjorie Jones with a notepad and a pencil and a phone, she took calls from audience, if you got through she wrote down what you said, if not tough luck. Next day I got a little note of what she’d been told by viewers. At Sky we had 1,200 telephone operators. What I would get was like War & Peace. A real insight into what viewers thought of service, programmes, things I should buy, US shows,
Question: Was this because of subscription service?
1.58.09 - Yes, that’s exactly what it is. To manage subscribers you must have very responsive telephone system. Sam Chisholm, wherever he was in world, he phoned Livingston in Scotland, call centre, and if it wasn’t answered after the first ring he would fire the head of Livingston. That was the discipline imposed. Guys in Livingston tried to game him by plotting all the phones he could use, but he got round them by using hotel phones. Sam called it the most honest form of broadcasting. I would say the most responsive form of broadcasting, just you and your customers. They could cancel, go away. How to work out what would appeal to them was a constant challenge to Sky.
1.59.51 - It was surprising what made a difference. People think Premier League made a difference to Sky. Actually overseas cricket started earlier, made a big difference. The biggest boost to dish sales was launch of multi-channel entertainment – Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel. Suddenly people had three times as much choice. You began to understand that Sky as programme provider was less important than Sky as platform. Sky as a platform is what made the profits. Very interesting talking to marketing people. At Thames, I would decide which programmes had posters. At Sky, they’d say ‘Got a good movie? If not we’ll go for a customer offer, 3 months for 1 month, 6 months for 2. But if you’ve got a Schwarzenegger movie we’ll go for that. Tyson vs Bruno? Absolutely’. You understood your relationship with wider world as programme maker, scheduler, channel manager, and then much bigger, the platform and the service. Sky now offers broadband, telephony, on-demand content. You begin to realise that your origins, making Focus for the Home Service, have less and less relevance to broadcasting today.
Question. You clearly enjoyed Sky. So why the move to Channel 5?
2.02.54 - At Thames we’d bid for Channel 5. It was turned down for absurd reason. One of our investors was Warners. IBA insisted that all investors commit in writing by 31st December. Warners Board meeting was on 3rd January. I asked for extension, guaranteed what the Board would say, but IBA said No. Probably just as well, we weren’t very well equipped to deliver it. Then the Channel 5 licence came back again. Sitting at Sky I though this is a gift for us, running a satellite service alongside a terrestrial service. We assembled powerful group of shareholders, Liberty Global, Goldman Sachs, Swedish satellite operator, Really Useful, Granada, Sky, Polygram. Put together a great bid. In quality terms no question which was the best application, Greg Dyke who had his own application was very open about it. We were ready to bid £20 million then Rupert said ‘No, I don’t want to bid more than £2 million’. So we bid £2 million which was excruciating and lost. We then put in a judicial review of the decision because ITC had miscalculated, made mistakes. Two day hearing at Court of Appeal. On first day Peter Rogers, Chief Exec of ITC, congratulated me on winning; next day we lost it.
2.06.25 - The winners - Pearson consortium allied with Clive Hollick’s company – ran into problems, changed Chief Exec, asked me if I would do it. I knew how to run that business, and it would be my own as Chief Exec. So it wasn’t a hard decision and Sam knew what I would do even before I told him. Big opportunity to launch a slightly anachronistic thing, another terrestrial channel, but I could see how to position it. One reason for change of Chief Exec was obligation to retune VCRs because it was thought that Channel 5 signal would interfere with video. In practice it affected about 2% of homes. But there was a requirement imposed by regulator to pre-retune. Bizarrely, it came from lobbying by LWT when they thought Thames would win the franchise. Now Greg was in charge of the retuning that he’d tried to inflict on us. A certain irony in all of that.
02.08.33 - When I arrived I stopped the retuning exercise, redesigned it. We had to abandon the launch date, couldn’t be met. I secured from Govt additional spectrum, channel 37 to go with channel 35, which significantly increased reach. I got agreement re satellite transponder and cable carriage which company hadn’t thought of doing. So instead of reach around 58%, at launch I knew I had 75% rising to 90%. All those made huge difference commercially. Also negotiated movie contracts to underpin schedule.
2.09.37 - One thing that nobody understood, in postponing the launch I saved the company £22 million. Legislation required payment only for a full year, so by not launching on January 1st … Nobody had thought that through. Likewise with retuning, I got consultant in who devised the £140 million retuning budget to be tax allowable, so we recovered most of retuning costs over years that followed. So what was a fairly dodgy proposition turned into a solid proposition. Programming was never what it should be because Rupert was quite right: the correct price for the franchise was £2 million not £20 million. It took 7 years for regulator to agree to reduce the price. Meanwhile £150 million was given to Treasury rather than spent on programmes, complete waste of time and money.
2.11.10 - Once Channel 5 got going, we broke even within 3.5 years. One original shareholder then sold its share to other three, and company valued at £1 billion during sale process. So from a standing start in 4 years that was not bad going. But soon after that shareholder left, others decided they didn’t want me to stay, paid off my contract and sent me on my way. Awkward because that shareholder had been the only cash shareholder, others were trade players, expecting to get contracts from Channel 5 – Pearson would get programmes, Hollick’s company would get studio contracts. When I arrived I said ‘I’m not going to do that, I’ve got to run this business in its own right, all those agreements are cancelled’. That did not make me popular, but it did make the company profitable.
2.12.45 - There was so much irrationality, even at that point, in the way broadcasting operated. I was amazed when I arrived about the contract with ITN for Channel 5 News, £11 million/year. I said ‘When I costed this we were getting it for £7 million, so why pay £11?’. I waited for the break point, then called in ITN, said we would put it out to tender and they were welcome to bid. I called Vic Pollard at Sky News and said ‘Would you like to bid?’ ‘Absolutely’. We got a competitive process going and amazingly price came down to £7 million. That could have been done on Day One. I felt I’d done my bit for Channel 5 and if they didn’t want me, so be it. Plenty of other things I like doing, I moved on from there to working in various media enterprises, launching channels, whatever it might be.
Question: What exactly was the rationale for Channel 5? A more commercial Channel 4?
2.14.33 - It was all part of punishing ITV. Advertisers had been moaning for years about ITV advertising monopoly, especially when ITV also sold Channel 4 airtime. Advertisers put up a twin pronged approach: sell Channel 4 airtime separately, or launch Channel 5 - because study showed that Channel 5 was viable in engineering terms. And Government in its keenness to beat up ITV, on top of competitive auction, allowed Channel 4 to sell own airtime, and launched Channel 5. It was a triple whammy aimed at ITV. There was no programming logic. Before launch of BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, there were major public enquiries, but absolutely nothing with Channel 5. There was no expectation of any kind, it was just to deliver more competition in the advertising market. It meant that Channel 5 launched with full complement of advertising commitments which normally wouldn’t happen. First year revenue was higher than second year, because advertisers were forced to deliver what they’d asked for.
Question: regarding more recent activities, two things in my mind are Broadcast Policy Group, and Open Democracy. The big issue coming out of Broadcast Policy Group is your proposal to replace BBC licence fee with subscription. Can you talk us through that?
2.17.20 - I first spoke about subscription funding for BBC in 1982-3. It was taken up by the Peacock Committee in 1986, they also came to conclusion that BBC should be funded by subscription. As only two people had advocated it, me and Which?, that was quite a triumph for an intellectual proposition. Broadcast Policy Group was set up at John Whittingdale’s invitation when he was Shadow Spokesman, but it could have been anyone, it wasn’t a Conservative group, probably more Labour than anything else. I invited colleagues who I respected, we did 9 months’ work on possibilities for BBC, primarily driven by our view of public service broadcasting. Our view was that it was in decline. Not just dumbing down but reduction in content spend, ITV no longer had incentive to produce high quality programming, BBC was following suit, and C4 had also moved in that direction. Therefore crisis was: How do you deliver public service content? Our solution was to create a dedicated public service broadcasting fund whose only job would be to commission public service content. It wouldn’t run any channel, buy would negotiate with channels to place the content. That was best way to protect what we saw as important PSB.
2.19.25 - A logical consequence was that BBC no longer had primary obligation to deliver PSB, could therefore move to funding which was more equitable, which we regarded as subscription, directly dealing with consumers. You take the Government out of the equation with no licence fee, take politics out of BBC, take licence fee prosecutions away – 150,000 prosecuted & convicted every year – and put a voluntary system in. People who don’t pay, don’t get the service. We advocated BBC production split from BBC – that’s happened. PSB fund is happening in a small way - £20 million instead of much bigger number. We won’t get to a subscription version of BBC for 5-10 years, mostly because of i-player. As transactional TV, payment for content, becomes dominant, i-player will inevitably attract a fee. And once it has a voluntary fee, logic says that will happen with BBC too.
2.21.10 - I never understood why BBC clings to the licence fee. It’s unhealthy. It forces BBC into relationship with politicians which it doesn’t need, bad for public, bad for BBC. Broadcast Policy Group hasn’t published anything since, except critiques of OFCOM reports on public service broadcasting. I think BBC could be a much more vibrant organisation if it embraced a different funding mechanism. But I’m in a very small minority.
Question: Where would PSB fund’s money come from? And how would it ensure its programmes were broadcast?
2.22.37 - All this was set out by Terry Burns and Burns Committee when Tessa Jowell was Secretary of State. He recommended a Public Service Broadcasting Commission which did just this. I imagine this is what would happen: BBC funded by subscriptions; subscriptions VATable; that is new money for Treasury, set aside for PSB content; commissioning editors similar to early Channel 4 agree each year with OFCOM re PSB priorities, news, current affairs, children’s, education; then invite bids to a fund from producers. Like early Channel 4 but with bigger fund. Channel 4 had £100 million/year, efficiently run. This would be bigger: £3, £4, even £500 million/year. Producers would negotiate a slot with broadcasters before coming to fund. So Melvyn Bragg goes to ITV saying ‘Bring back South Bank Show, 11 pm every Sunday, 1 hour, 40 weeks/year, and I’ll get 90% funding from PSB fund’. Comes to us at the fund: ‘Can you guarantee your 11 pm slot?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Here’s your cheque’.
2.24.45 - It’s a way of disentangling the way broadcasting functions. We’ve now got so much more separation. In the old days the BBC owned the transmitters, everything was in-house. I saw Alasdair Milne when he was DG of the BBC and said ‘Create a quota for independent producers, 2% like Commonwealth supply’. He wouldn’t do it. I went to Bridget Plowden when she was Chair of IBA and said ‘How about a quota for independent producers, 2%’. Absolutely not. Now it’s 30, 40, 50% of all commissions because it’s the rational way to go about it. No to hold all your producers in-house with studios and film crews and edit crews and advertising. That’s not the most efficient way to make these things work. So identifying publics service content which is the endangered species, that’s the important task. How to defend it, how to fund it.
Question: Is there anywhere else in the world where they do it better than us?
2.26.20 - PSB funds in Ireland and New Zealand are both very successful, running at around £80 million/year level. We’re about to launch a £20 million/year version this year, here. I look forward to it, it’s a start.
2.26.45 - One thing we haven’t talked about is Breakfast TV. When I was producer at Thames in late 1970s I worked on notion of Breakfast TV. There had been experiments in ITV – Yorkshire did experiment, people filming radio shows. I was certain that if you carved out a 3-3.5 hour slice in schedule, ITV couldn’t afford to make the content for that space, but a dedicated producer network could. I drafted a letter for Harold Lever to send to Bridget Plowden saying ‘Why don’t you advertise a franchise?’. To my surprise, though not to his, she agreed. The Lever letter triggered the franchise bids for Breakfast TV. Harold and I put together a consortium, didn’t win, we lost to the famous five. I’m not even sure we came second.
2.28.20 - It was another example of trying to think about the structure of broadcasting and fund new content, similar to the way I thought about Channel 4, subscription, Sky, the way I ran Channel 5. You’ve got to see economics, business concept, engineering and content all as a package, grasp all those. We were brought up only thinking about one at most of those, ‘I’m going to make a programme’. For me broadcasting is much bigger than that, a whole ecology.
2.29.22 - What give me most regret are lost opportunities that we have at the moment, Channel 4, ITV, BBC, in public service broadcasting generally, it’s all unnecessary. But it’s what we have.
Question: Your current activities include Open Democracy, entirely web-based. Will we even have broadcasting 20 years from now? Will all a/v content simply be part of digital/web-based content?
2.30.39 - I don’t think broadcasting or linear channels will go away. Today 85% of all TV viewing is live. People like schedules, channels, familiar with them. One of the tricks when I was running ITV weekday schedule, how many people can tell you what the schedule is, when Coronation Street/Minder/the news is on. If they have a picture in their mind of the schedule, you’re half way there. Tim Riordan, head of presentation at Thames, said: ‘Commission any comedy you like, I will deliver 12 million for the first episode, after that you’re on your own’. It was true. The expectation of an ITV comedy, with all the promotion and inheritance of Coronation St audience, stick it on and it will be watched. I remember John Howard Davies my head of comedy coming to me with Andy Capp, based on Daily Mirror cartoon. It was beautifully done, not an ITV show, a Channel 4 show, but it was in the ITV schedule and duly got 12 million the first week, 8 million the second, 4 million the third, and cancelled. Tim just said, ‘There you go’.
2.32.40 - Linear TV has a place. We are used to time-shifting, EPG allowing us to pre-record, on-demand viewing. One of the great things about on-demand is that it allows suppliers, platforms, to aggregate revenues. So Netflix can spend £100 million on The Crown because it will be amortised across hundreds of territories and tens of millions of consumers. So in a paradoxical way, at top end we are experiencing a flight to quality. HBO, Amazon, Netflix, some cable stations, can afford to spend £2/3/4 million per episode on drama, which was unthinkable many years ago. So that ability to put things together is a huge benefit to consumers. When I saw the first House of Cards, blown away by it, and I pressed the button on the Netflix app to see the old BBC House of Cards, and it was terrible. So embarrassing, so feeble by comparison, and I remember at the time thinking ‘Great! Prize-winning!’ Andrew Davies script, ‘I couldn’t possibly say’. Now it all feels so lame, and politically illiterate. And here is this brilliant American show, which only nods to old BBC one, deeply embedded in American politics, highly sophisticated, fantastic acting, huge production values, and I’m thinking ‘Great. Bring it on’.
2.35.22 - Open Democracy is nothing to do with that, an accident of history. When it launched I was a donor, when chairman became an MP I was asked to join the board. I write for it, I enjoy it, it’s a current affairs magazine, no/almost no video in it, it’s a print substitute. It’s just one of those things that I do.