Peter Ansorge

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs


BEHP transcript Disclaimer

This transcript has been produced automatically using Speechmatics.

It provides a basic, but unverified or proofread transcript of the interview. Therefore, the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP) accepts no liability for any misinterpretation of the content of this interview.

However, the BEHP wants to make every effort to improve the quality of these transcripts and would welcome any voluntary offers to proofread this and/or other interviews. If you want to help, please contact BEHP Secretary,

Speaker 1  0:08  
The English regents drama consists was based in Birmingham at Pebble mill. And it consisted, at first just a one producer. And as it expanded, there were two or three producers working there, and two or three script editors. And the brief was actually to present new work by new new writers. But the only only thing that we had to obey was that they would the plays and drama would not be set in London, they had to be set outside London. And

Speaker 2  0:44  
was that regional voice? Really then quite significant.

Speaker 1  0:48  
Oh, it was completely significant due to the fact that that writers have territories. And television does tend to be not dominated by the Metropolitan voice inevitably, that's what the BBC was. That's where a lot of writers are. So you suddenly have Alan Plater writing out of how you have Tom Haddaway. Riding out of Newcastle. You send Mike Lee to Dorset, you asked Philip Martin, to see if there's any material for replay for today and Birmingham itself. And you get a different kind of material and a fresh kind of material, and often a point of view, because it's not London based, that is very welcomed by the audience.

Unknown Speaker  1:39  
What was the ethos of the department?

Speaker 1  1:42  
Well, you cannot understand pebble mill without understanding David Rose, who was the head of English regents drama, David had been a very experienced producer for the BBC. And most notably, he's known for Zed cars, which I think were 50 episodes a year or going out live. David Attenborough, who at that time, was managing director of the BBC asked him to go to Pebble mill, and open a new drama department and find some new writers. But the point was that David surrounded himself with people who actually didn't come from television. Barry Hansen, his first script editor, came from the Royal Court Theatre, Tara Prem, who and Barry started producing came in as Script Editor also come from the theatre. I came in actually, as my experience was editing a theatre magazine called plays and players. So actually, none of us had that much experience of television. But also we didn't have closed minds. And what we all knew about I think, was writers, and how to talk to writers. And, and how to, I wouldn't say bring them on, but how to try and do the best possible work with them. So the ethos was, was was very open. For example, I mean, David did live up there in Birmingham. I mean, he had quite a big house, he lived like a Country Squire, outside Stratford. And some of the production and the production managers and the FM's and so forth, all tended to have settled in in Birmingham. We actually commuted for throughout the week, so the actual other producers and script editors like myself, we were holed up in bed and breakfasts. And there was actually not a great deal to do in Birmingham in those days. And it was long before our expense accounts and staying in in posh hotels. So we tended to gather into the at the bar that at at at the second floor at Pebble middle of an evening. And I can remember one evening going into that bar, and there was Stephen Frears, Mike Newell, Mike Lee, David hare, Alan Bleasdale, Alastair Reid and Philip Savile. And inevitably you start talking about work and getting an insight into that kind of talent. That was absolutely wonderful. It is a melting pot. It was a complete melting pot. And of course, these were very ambitious, talented people. And were very ambitious for their work. And yet, they were also interested in what the other writers were doing. So a conversation would take place. And they were either in the stage of pre production or production or post production. And so all that came into the discussion as well what what the what budgets they had the length of shoot, how the editing was going. So on every level, the work was discussed and talked about among ourselves.

Speaker 2  5:10  
And that obviously couldn't have happened if it had taken place in London. But politically, how important was it that that actually the department was in Birmingham and away from the Metropolitan centre?

Speaker 1  5:22  
Well, again, we were very lucky. And David Rose used to have to go once a week to London, to report back, particularly to go to programme review. And he was very close to the Head of Drama in London, Sean Sutton. And really, we we were kept away from all the politics. It just, you know, it just wasn't number one on our list. And David kept all that away from us. And in that way, although we didn't realise it at the time, we were very fortunate because there was almost no interference.

Speaker 2  6:03  
When was the English regents drum department at its height, would you say?

Speaker 1  6:07  
Oh, I think it was at its height in the middle to late 70s. It began with an output that consisted of a show a series called Second City first, which were half hour plays on BBC Two. Mainly done in the studio. And I think David also had two plays for the day on BBC One made on film. And throughout the 70s, the department expanded until I can remember in 1978, I think it was about then, and I just begun Empire road. David hare won the BAFTA Award for licking Hitler. Gangsters was our series. Alan Bleasdale had just done the first black stuff, film. And this all went out in one sees. So I think that's actually when it reached its peak. And I think it never quite survived David Rose's departure in the early 80s. Both Barry Hansen and Mike were in came back to run it for a time and did some really good work. But it never had that it never went back to that scale or that influence, I think.

Speaker 2  7:28  
So you've you've mentioned some of the sort of key productions, gangsters and player aid. Why were they so important?

Speaker 1  7:38  
Well, gangsters, one of the things I think we looked at, was the fact of actually being in Birmingham, ourself, ourselves. And I didn't know Birmingham at all. I arrived in January 1975. And one of the first thing that really struck me was how in the inner city, the makeup of people in the inner city had changed. You could see it in London, but then it tended to be that people from the Caribbean were in Brixton and Southern, it didn't sort of impinge quite in the way that that it did, just working, walking everyday from my bed and breakfast in Mosley down to Pebble mill. And that simply had not been reflected in television drama. And I think it was Tara Prem, who herself is half Indian, who did a half, half hour film for Second City firsts based on the experience of young Asians in Birmingham. And that became a kind of seem to develop too deep to dig through. And and gangsters came about when Philip Martin was really given a stipend, the script as a stipend, to go and look around Birmingham for three months and to see if there was a story. And at that time play for the day tended to be still influenced by the Ken Loach style of of, of realism, you know, quite political. Quite naturalistic. It had a particular tone of its own. And there was every sense that that Philip was going to actually do something in that vein. But looking at the multicultural underworld, as it were, he came up with the idea of doing a gangster story. And that was the first play for the day that if you like, paid homage to genre, as well as to just realistic environment. And that had a huge impact.

Speaker 2  9:49  
What What impact did it have because it was notorious in well,

Speaker 1  9:54  
the other thing we didn't want to do, and this was something we all shared. It's not that we greet about everything. In fact, we had quite a lot of arguments about what was going on, which in itself is quite a healthy thing. But what we, what we all agreed upon was that we wanted to do something that entertained and excited the audience. We didn't want to deal with these subjects in a way. That was what we would call now politically correct. Or with earnestness and good intentions that never got an audience. So ghacks has got a huge audience. And that single film, then went into two main series on them on BBC One. And you did you did walk a lot you went to do shop and Dena, you did hear people talking about these things. And one of the things that happened then was that you knew whether you'd got through to the audience because people would write letters. And you knew if the letters started coming in, you'd made some impact. And that that was actually one of the few ways you could actually, of course, you knew about the viewing figures, the appreciation index, but that seemed to be, from my memory, that consistent, kind of thumbs up if something was

Speaker 2  11:22  
working. And did you have to answer the letters? Some,

Speaker 1  11:25  
yes, we didn't answer the letters. I mean, I knew Empire road had worked. Because I think at the end of the second week, two episodes of got out, suddenly, these these letters arrived on my desk, my assistant put them on the desk. And they were from a class of, of school kids in Brixton, the teacher had asked them to write not just about the programme, but to write to the characters in the show. Because they obviously hadn't been many of those kinds of characters, for those kids to see on television. And that was terribly rewarding moving. And you just you've got through to an audience, that doesn't mean that all the audience loved everything. But it had got through

Speaker 2  12:17  
you saying that the the sort of heritage of play for today was that sort of Ken Loach drama documentary that had lots of political thread going underneath. Now, looking at some of the work of English reasons drama, there is there is that undercurrent of, of political thought, particularly in gangsters and also of course, boys from the black stuff. And Empire Road, actually, in terms of the discussion of social issues. How important was that? How much did you factor that in when you were producing? Well, I think that's

Speaker 1  12:59  
the basis of it. Actually. We all had a feeling that, which I think in general, BBC drama, then was that drama reflected the world around you that it should actually hold a mirror up to nature. And therefore you had to look for the points of conflict, you had to look for what was in the air, you had to kind of bring contemporary life in to the drama. We just often tried to do it in different ways. And those have been done before. A lot of the work isn't classically realist in that sense.

Speaker 2  13:45  
Now there's a there's a surrealist edge, isn't there sort of hype, naturalism that comes through.

Speaker 1  13:51  
I mean, one of the most astonishing films we ever did was Pendous fan, which had been done before the year before I actually arrived by David Rabkin, directed by Alan Clark, who is of course associated with cash realism. This was about the sixth form or in love with Elgar and the use of music and landscape and his kind of intellectual development. I've never seen that treated better. And it was quite astonishing to think this was going out, you know, on BBC One, you know, at nine o'clock.

Unknown Speaker  14:30  
So what was your role within the department? I started

Speaker 1  14:32  
as a script editor. Barry Hanson had left to go to Thames and therefore his script editor Tara Prem, became the producer of Second City first, obviously reporting to David who was generally was was responsible for the BBC One output. So my first work was actually to to to find new writing for second city first For Tara. And then actually, when you when you when you started to, to work in that environment, you were just drawn into what everybody else was doing. And I remember I think my second week, David, who's quite a shy man, he was not a man to kind of impose himself. Although he realised as time goes on what a professional he was, just said, Have you got? You know, we were starting a play for the day on Monday week, have you gotten the ideas? Now, that's quite scary, but on the other half was an opportunity. That was so you didn't really fit into pigeon holes. And that was one of the other things you worked on single plays, you worked on series, you worked on serials, there was no distinction. You know, one was not regarded as inferior to the other. And we didn't have any fixed rules about what a series was, I mean, gangsters breaks every single one of the rules you could possibly break in terms of the philosophy about drama series now. But of course, if you get it right, the audience loves surprises something different. And then, we had done a film called Black Christmas by a Western writer MiCollab and sets, which Stephen Frears had directed. And that had been a success. And Michael wanted to do some more. So we sat down, and came up with the idea of empire road. And then David said, Well, you should produce it. And so then I that would happen, just in a corridor. He didn't have to attend any boards, ticking the boxes, he just let you then produce. So after that, the work I did I produced those well,

Unknown Speaker  16:59  
and which are the productions Did you produce?

Speaker 1  17:02  
There weren't there were there were two or three plays for today. We did two series of empire road there was looking Hitler. And then the last thing this was towards the end of the 70s, you see was a series of based on some short stories by fruit Dondi. Called come to Mecca, which again, was was pretty ground breaking.

Speaker 2  17:34  
So that that thread of multiculturalism was underpinned a lot of the work then it

Speaker 1  17:39  
was part of it, it's something I became got very involved with, because I enjoyed doing it. And it it, it was it was also I think, what what what, what we always tried to do in Birmingham was to try and find the thing that wasn't being done elsewhere. And that certainly wasn't being done elsewhere. No. And it reflected, you know, a changing country it caused, caused a lot of debates, a lot of interest, and actually had something to do with the fact that when Jeremy Isaacs was looking for a Head of Drama for his new channel for which wanted to get into these areas, his choice was David Rose. And so that was about the early, the early 80s. And I followed David to Channel Four, most of us did, most of the writers and directors did, actually. And that had to do with the work that Jeremy had seen being done at Pebble mill. And

Speaker 2  18:55  
did that begin the decline of the department? Yes.

Speaker 1  19:01  
Yes. I mean, Brian Wynnum, who was the controller of BBC Two, when I did Empire road, and was unbelievably supportive, I have to say, I've never been tamed to lunch by controller before it was the first time I've met such an animal. Because David always been in between. And Brian, you know, who was great supporter of the department did say there was a lot of jealousy that they thought in London that we had this freedom that we were a bit self indulgent, because we did do some turkeys as well as masterpieces, but the two go together. If you talk to controllers now of channels, their philosophy is that that that that you have to put a more scientific approach towards drama, and that really nothing should fail. Which is impossible if you want to do good tomorrow. Not television. And what happened was that I think they didn't know quite who to replace David with because although we weren't doing these shows we weren't, it could not be that we hadn't had along a lifetime. Michael wearing nice, the two then producing other than working in Birmingham, and they were nervous of that. And it did begin the decline of I think, definitely. And Michael Grade who became my boss at Channel Four, arrived at the BBC, about two years after we had left. And he told me that he he didn't, he said, If David Rose had been still working in Regency would have given him money. But the people that were then working there, he wasn't going to give money to. And so the department was rundown. I know, they brought in Barry Hanson and monocle to try and shore it up a little bit. But I don't think it ever had the budgets and the support and the freedom that that was there in the 70s. I mean, they may tell you different.

Speaker 2  21:10  
Do you think such a department could exist in in today's television industry? Yes,

Speaker 1  21:15  
it could exist. If they if they made somebody made this decision. It was pretty astonishing. When you look back, because really, there's been nothing quite like it before. And there's certainly hasn't been anything like it since you had some of the same spirit at Channel Four. But that, but that was not a singular production unit. It's it's certainly, but it would mean it would mean a hell of a leap of the imagination on the part of the BBC, because it will be empowering producers and script editors without having to have everything rubber stamped from upstairs. Or will be it would mean devolving power to the creative people. You

Speaker 2  22:07  
and and taking a risk, which as you were saying, you know, you you did produce some turkeys?

Speaker 1  22:13  
Yes, yes, you can't do it without risk. I mean, when people talk about risk, it doesn't, I don't think risk means being oh, let's try this, this will be terrible. It's not an error, risk. Risk is not an irresponsible element in this mix. It's a vital one. Because there will come a point where a writer will come in. And if you if you believe in that writer, and you think the idea is good. And you think where will this fit into the shedule is how can I sell this? If you don't have the ability to develop that script and then to produce it? If it works? Risk goes out of the window? You know, that is what we had. And and that was more widespread in television. Anyway, that is almost gone out of the window? I mean, they would say not but the general verdict is it's gone out of the window.

Unknown Speaker  23:17  
What do you think the legacy of the department is?

Speaker 1  23:23  
Well, I think the legacies is is in in in the work that that that that we did. And that work still exists on tape on film. And when you when people see it, on the whole, it still lives. And people say, well, we don't see many things like that now. And so it's there in the archive and the files. And it's there to be one two, that and maybe one day somebody is coming to look at that say, Hey, let's do something like that now.

Speaker 2  24:08  
In what ways do you think television is the poorer for for not having an English regents drama, it's

Speaker 1  24:13  
not television that's poor. It's the audience. The audience knows on the whole when it's been talked down to it knows when it's been given the old formulas. What they all say, to the fact that audiences for drama, have halved. And that's a conservative estimate in the past five years, that it is to doubt that it's inevitable. It's to do with the competition to do with people got other things to do. They will never actually look at it and say, maybe we could be making drama that excites people more. And so I think is actually the all audience that that that has lost out. And I don't think the audience understands why it's lost out. Because actually, once you see, you know how television works, what happens in it? It's quite easy to, to read in a way. If you're just a viewer it isn't. I don't I don't think there's any understanding how programme has come about or why it's on the air. They didn't always just want something good. So there isn't really a dark dialogue between the audience and the and and the broadcasters anymore.

Unknown Speaker  25:37  
Do you think that the original voice has been lost as well?

Speaker 1  25:43  
Yes, yes, it has. I mean, it should be said that that many of the writers that we worked with them the reason why the Alan platers and, and the blues dolls and the willy Russell's and the hideaways they did live in their neck of the woods. And they did write for local theatres as well. And a lot of their first work would would actually have been in the theatre, maybe sort of fringe imbibes and so forth. But certainly how, how Willy Russell and Bleasdale began. And, and therefore they define their territory, they have been able to define their voice and territory. What happens today, on the whole is that it's very rare that a first time writer as it were, with a track record in theatre is ever allowed to do an original work on television, what happens is they're encouraged to learn how to do an episode of EastEnders. So more or less, every new writer to television now has to do the course and either and write an episode of EastEnders. Now I want to channel for I was responsible, Brookside for 10 years. So I'm by no means cynical about soap operas or the work that can be achieved. But if that's the only route, you're going to end up with the situation that exists now.

Speaker 2  27:09  
And do you think the demise of the single play has an influence on this as well? Well, it

Speaker 1  27:15  
does. Yes. When I started in 1975, at the BBC, the single play was what you aimed at it, it was the, you know, it was actually what drama out how BBC drama defined itself, of course, you had series and serials. And they were very important for the audience, and so forth. And a lot of them very good. But the single play was at the core of the output. It wasn't just, you know, two or three odd exceptions a year. And of course, a single play is different from a series in that it is a one off, it is an individual voice. It is something new each week, as opposed to watch, you know, and yes, that's a terrific loss. It did I mean, move it just referring to Channel Four, once again, when we started the when we started to do film on for at at Channel Four, it was actually a rescue operation for the single player originally. And the idea that you you will be able to show it in the cinemas at the time, sometimes before television, or after it's been on television was to extend the life of the single play. And it succeeded dramatically, so dramatically, that it does very few links with television anymore.

Speaker 2  28:44  
Coming on to sort of Pebble mail and the production elements there. What was the production culture at Pebble mailed the building?

Speaker 1  28:55  
Oh, it was it was astonishing, really. We had all come from London, you know, we worked in the theatre. We you know, we actually hadn't been a FM's we hadn't been production managers. And here we were choosing. And so the the production team, you know, were occasionally weary, but when they realised that what actually was going on, it was fantastic because they will tell you what they thought about the script. They tell you it is for casting couple of them, you know became directors. And there was a genuine sense of, of, you know, of anything can happen. And when you used to start the production team, the director came in because you chose the director. It always was they weighed the director up with this one workout. Was he as good as the last one? Would he would he fail? and this was talked about the whole time. And it was fantastic. At the same time, you had some of the most talented cameramen in the country, particularly the Willard mighty and Ken Morgan, who lit looking Hitler. And they would be, you know, one day working on Likud Hitler, which, you know, was terrifically innovative in terms of, of the workshop, and then they'd be on farming today. And then when David hare came back to do his next film, they wouldn't let him have Ken Morgan, because he's sheduled to do farming weekly. So it, it was an astonishing, I suppose mix of people, really. And you couldn't ignore the production people, you couldn't just sit around telling them what to do. I mean, they do it, but there would have been a relationship, you you had to engro that with sleeves, engage with them.

Unknown Speaker  30:56  
And in what ways were you innovating?

Speaker 1  31:01  
Well, innovating, first of all, in terms of of, of the fact that you had a particular brief to bring on new talent. We did work with traditional child as well. And I think when you look at the list, which I did do a couple of years ago, you look at the list of the writers that were brought on by second city first, the hit rate is, is better than I than I remembered. I mean, every you'd go to you go to short story writer to see if they wanted to try the hand short play. And Ian McEwan was one of the the people that we went to. I mean, Alan did his first work for television as a half hour. Mike Lee, whose career had stalled a bit, did come to Pebble mill to do, just first of all, half our studio. And then he went on to do nuts in May. I mean, looking Hitler. It's not merely that David wrote it, David here. He wanted to direct it. And even then, to give film play for the day to write I'd never been behind the camera before was quite astonishing. And that's paid off, or there isn't a director could have made that film better or innovative. Again, Empire road. It is true that time that the country was short of black actors who had experienced and television drama, and one of the strong messages that we got from London, was that you'll never do this, because the actors won't turn up on time. A quite experienced producer at Television Centre told me that while we're in pre production, and we just went ahead and did it. But we always wanted to, I mean, and then of course, you know, somebody like Alan went on to write voice on the black stuff, which wouldn't have happened without the nurturing and experience of doing his first work at Pebble mill.

Speaker 2  33:26  
And what was the sort of friction or interplay between the video culture and the film culture?

Speaker 1  33:33  
Well, that, of course, was a very, very big part of it all in those days, because as you know, most of drama was actually made in the studios, not on film, but multi cameras. And, you know, the aspiration, of course, on the other hand, was to get the film. I mean, I think we, we, we did, by the mid 70s, we were doing three or four film plays for today. And so always was whenever anybody got a film, it was regarded as a very special thing. And because obviously, the longer preparation, certainly longer editing, because that's changed a bit now, but then, you know, you were in the cutting room for for six or eight weeks. And you know, in that sense, the the film industry that they, you know, that's been said was working in BBC television in the 70s. So film was always really special. And you know, there was a lot of frustration with with working in the studio because, apart from anything else, you your recordings tended to be in chunks from eight o'clock to 10 o'clock, and if you hadn't finished by 10 o'clock, you might pull the plugs and it was not infrequent that about five to 10. Knowing that there are two scenes to get in You'd hear the director from the gallery telling everybody downstairs, go in and get what you can.

Speaker 2  35:08  
And things like Empire road, they will presumably shot in studio.

Speaker 1  35:12  
But they were all shot in studio, except that we did have not filmed but we had some outside. Yeah. And at the end again, I got I thought we will we've had black actors black writer, let's try and find a black director to do some of the later episodes. There was only one man called Horace ofay, who again it never actually to have multi camera, but have made a wonderful film called pressure for the BFI about West Indian life in Brixton, and that was groundbreaking at the time. And I saw that and thought, God, this man's got a real eye. And our Horus actually directed you're supposed to with the with the OB cameras do it a little bit like a mini studio. But he actually shot it like a film which had never been done at Pebble mill before. And the the two boys were first absolutely appalled by this they thought was unprofessional. But then when they saw that they had to do it shot by shot. They got really interested in it. And that in that was how a couple of years later, black stuff was done. There was one film I think they had. Yeah, talk Phillips, I will talk to him. He shot the video like film. He'll tell you all about that. And that just hadn't been done before.

Unknown Speaker  36:32  
And that's because of the different cultures. Yeah,

Speaker 1  36:34  
that's right. Yeah. That started to change with offline editing. Of course, Brookside that's how it was shot. Very rarely did they have two cameras?

Speaker 2  36:45  
And how would you feel about the fact that pebble mail has now been razed to the ground? Well, it's

Speaker 1  36:52  
it it's very sad, but you know, draw it of course, you feel sad, but But you know, in a sense that it was the people that work there, and the talent and the climate of the time and what the BBC was that, that that that you remember? And drama is an ephemeral, medium, you know, Globe Theatre has gone really well. It's back now, but the you know, it does. You know, Richard Arum always talks about that, you know, it's like sculpting in snow. The next day, it's gone, and that's part of drama, I think. But oddly at the same time, the good stuff gets remembered

Transcribed by


Peter joined the BBC in the Drama Department as a script editor and producer. Under David Rose’s innovative regime at BBC Birmingham he worked on Director Mike Leigh’s early success Nuts In May, David Hare’s Licking Hitler and Philip Martin’s Gangsters.

Licking Hitler won the 1978 BAFTA for Best Drama. Peter then went to Channel 4 where he became a commissioning editor for fiction and helped create the Film On 4 strand. Under Michael Grade’s era at Channel 4 Peter became Head of drama for television series and serials. Among his award-winning commissions for the Channel were A Very British Coup(International Emmy and BAFTA, 1988), Traffik (International Emmy and BAFTA, 1989), Alan Bleasdale’s GBH (Robert Lindsay Best Actor, BAFTA, RTS. 1992) and Paula Milne’s The Politician’s Wife (BAFTA, International Emmy, Peabody, 1996). The Camomile Lawn, directed by Sir Peter Hall, received the highest viewing figures to date for an original C4 Drama series.

After leaving Channel 4, Peter developed screenplays for the BBC by Paula Milne and Caryl Phillips. He produced Red Mercury, written by Farrukh Dhondy, starring Stockard Channing and Peter Postlewaite.