BRITISH ENTERTAINMENT HISTORY PROJECT INTERVIEW No 805
PETER WILLIAMS (PW) INTERVIEWED BY MARTIN SMITH (MS)
RECORDED at SWALE MEDIA ARTS CENTRE, SITTINGBOUNE KENT on 03 November 2021
Commenced 12.30pm; total duration 2h 47m
TDF 14646_01 (RE-START AT 03’40” FOLLOWING INTERRUPTION)
MS: Peter can we begin by finding out your full name, date of birth, and your birthplace.
PW: My name is William Peter Williams, I was born on 21st September 1933, in Great Yarmouth. I should explain that the males in our family were all called William Something Williams, therefore my father William Edgar Williams was known as Edgar; I am William Peter Williams and was always known as Peter. I have a feeling it’s because my great-grandparents didn’t have much imagination!
MS: How would you describe yourself nationality-wise?
PW: Welsh. Firmly Welsh. And don’t disturb me during the Wales-England matches – ever!
MS: I see, right, well that’s telling us. Of the awards that you’ve received, which are the ones that stick in your mind?
PW: I’m not sure how you can answer that question without conceit. It’s always an honour to be recognised for what you’ve done. From the filming point of view probably, although I’ve won a number of awards in Milan and New York and the American festivals, the one that I probably remember most is being Runner-up for the Prix Italia in – think – 1978, that long ago, with a programme called ‘Test Tube Explosion’. At that time I’d been for some years interested in reproductive medicine and we had recorded the birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby in this country and as a result of that film the Americans asked me to make a film on the first American IVF baby who was born in Norfolk Virginia – her name was Elizabeth Jordan Carr. As a result of both those films we then produced a film called ‘Test Tube Explosion’ which looked at the implications of IVF from the genetic point of view. Because the melding of the sperm and the ovum outside the body opened up a number of possibilities for genetic engineering and that sort of thing, therefore it seemed to me – having done the original films – we should also look at the implications of what Steptoe and Edwards and Jean Purdy had achieved. And so we went to Venice, which was part of the reason I remember it, because Venice is a wonderful city and it was the first time I’d been there. And we thought we might be going to win, but we didn’t, in the end we came second… I suppose it’s always the slight failures that you remember, rather than the successes that may or may not be following, so yes, that’s the one I remember.
The one that I personally treasure most is being a Freeman of the City in which I live, Freeman of the City of Canterbury, which followed the MBE I got for services to television and the arts. And the City recognised that as well. And I think there’s possibly no greater honour than being recognised by the people with whom you live and the community in which you live. I was profoundly moved by that honour and I shared the moment with a great friend of mine, John Ward, who was a fine RA artist and who subsequently then on my retirement as Chairman of the Canterbury Festival, he painted the portrait which was commissioned and paid for by my friends in the Festival…which was nice.
MS: Very nice too and I can understand why you would feel that way. I’m interested because you are so very proudly Welsh, you may disagree with me, but you are also a man of Kent aren’t you.
PW: Yes, well I came to Kent on a 6-month contract and stayed 50 years. I’d been a journalist on the Bristol Evening Post for 10 years I suppose, and during that time I’d been in the Army for 2 years, stationed in Germany.
MS: I want to stop you there, because I want to put some specific questions before you give away the jewels…
PW: I’ll start again..
MS: No no..
PW: Ask me the question and I’ll keep it simpler.
MS: Peter, you said very firmly you’re Welsh. But you‘re also a man of Kent aren’t you.
PW: Yes that’s true, but that’s almost a coincidence. I’d been working in the West Country and in Wales as a journalist, having left school at 15. And I used to watch the television and see a chap called Alan Whicker, and thought, ‘I think I can do that’ .. I mean how presumptuous can you get! So eventually I wrote – I had written to every single television company in the country, saying ‘please can you give me a go at this, I think I can do it and I love journalism and it seems to me to be a vocation’ (we’ll come to that later). It was Southern Television that gave me the chance, and I came to Kent on a 6-month contract, as I say, and I had no idea, absolutely no idea at all, that there was a coalfield in Kent. Having come from Wales it seemed to me that most of the coal in the world came from Wales, which of course was not true, but nonetheless coming to Kent it was an absolute revelation to discover that there was a coalfield in Kent which was a unique coalfield (and funnily enough it’s a film I’ve just finished making, my penultimate film, called ‘A Century of Coal’) – simply because it was hidden. Well it was a revelation to me, and I tried for 50 years to get a network of some description to make a film on this extraordinary phenomenon of the Kent coalfield. Because coal – if you wish me to expand on that I will…
Well, coal had been discovered in Kent when they were looking to build a Channel Tunnel. I think at that time we were on speaking terms with France, and we were trying to get a road connection or a rail connection to travel to France, and all they found was floodwater at that stage because they didn’t have the mechanical facilities to dig a tunnel under the Channel. But nonetheless what they did find was coal. And that’s unsurprising because there’s a seam of coal that runs from South Wales to France – I mean Northern France, there’s masses of coal there – unsurprisingly there was coal in Kent as well. But they had no miners, because Kent, if you like, was a county of hops and apples and orchards and soft fruit and that sort of thing. So they had to import every single miner in order to open up their four pits …
MS: I must stop you there… (EXT NOISE) That’s why I’m stopping..
I’ll take you back and we’ll pick you up on coal later on.
PW: Have I given you enough on the Welshness?
MS: I think you’ve given me that, you’ve a chance to come in with some more later. But first of all, I was surprised you talked so much about your PENultimate film. I’m very interested in what may be your ultimate – but frankly I can’t believe it. What is the film you are actually working on at the moment Peter?
PW: We’re making a film called ‘A Canterbury Tale’, which, living in Canterbury, you may think is appropriate. The subtitle of the film is ‘Albert Figg and the Battle for Hill 112’ and in recent years I’ve done a lot of charity work, and this is one of them. And I knew Albert Figg slightly, he also lived in Canterbury, and he had survived one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, which was the Battle for Hill 112. And Hill 112 is in Normandy, and after D-Day Montgomery, who was in charge of Land Forces at D-Day, planned a battle to draw in the German Panzers into a battle of attrition. There’s no doubt – I know that this is what he’d planned. He was much criticised at the time and 7000 men died on that Hill, but it worked because it decimated the German Panzer divisions and allowed the Americans who had landed in Cherbourg to break out, drive South, reach Paris and eventual victory. But Albert, having survived the battle, for 30 years decided that his mates who had died on that Hill were always going to be remembered.
And so he set out to create a memorial on the Hill, and over the years he had persuaded someone to give him a Churchill tank, and a 25-pounder field gun; he persuaded an artist to create a statue of ‘An Unknown Infantryman’ and they are all today on the Hill where his friends had died. But he himself died at the age of 97 a few years ago and before he died – and I remember this conversation so well – he said, ‘Peter will you help me finish this Memorial?’ You can’t say ‘No’ to that.
So that’s what we set out to do, to make the film, and I helped them to raise many scores of thousands of pounds to create a film that will be an ongoing fundraiser for them over the years – much of which Albert himself had filmed, which was a very interesting challenge for a professional producer-director. I hadn’t really worked with other people’s material, which has been shot in – dare I say it – a very good amateur way. But the film will be premiered next year, and I shall invite you.
MS: It seems to me that you’re a bit like Mr Figg yourself, you persist, you work away, you carry on, it takes you years to get it done but in the end you make certain it’s done..
But thinking of Hill 112, you were a child during the Second World War – do you have any memories of that time?
PW: Oh huge, yes …
MS: So just tell me, what do you remember of the Second World War?
PW: I’m so old that I remember the Second World War; I was, I think aged 7 when it broke out. My father at that time was working in South Wales, and he was a newspaper editor, well he wasn’t at that time but he was working in newspapers. And we were bombed – not our house, but we were blitzed in Cardiff, and my father decided that he would not expose his family to German bombers, and so he moved to Plymouth. In retrospect that was probably not a wise move because the Heinkels and the Dauniers could also reach Plymouth. So we went to live in Houndiscombe Road in Plymouth and we were duly bombed. And this time a bomb came through the roof of the house in which we were living.
And one of the quirks of surviving a Blitz which I remember well, is that... The British people are not silly; when they looked at the wrecked houses around them ..
MS: .. surviving the Blitz
PW: ..One of the quirks of surviving the Blitz was that when you looked at the wrecked houses what was immediately apparent was that most of the staircases had survived, and most people – and I remember this well – created under their stairs a hideaway, because they didn’t want to go into the Anderson shelter which was in the garden usually, and full of water usually because they always flooded. And that’s where we were on the night that our house was bombed. I think I was in a tiny bunk in there, my mother and father were beside me; and we didn’t know, we just heard a crash. And after the raid we went upstairs and there was a bomb on my bed. It was an incendiary bomb about (indicates) that long, silver – so I guess aluminium, I don’t know. But it obviously hadn’t exploded .. obviously. But I kept that bomb for many years actually, and I got quite attached to it..
MS: And you really had a live bomb in your bedroom, that you left there and lived with..?
PW: Well it hadn’t gone off so I thought it was probably safe. Anyway, you’re questioning my wisdom, you’re very wise to do that. Many, many years later, when we moved to Canterbury, I still had it and by that time I had six children, and I thought maybe I should share my secret with other folk.
So I rang the police, and they said –‘Do you mean a bomb?’ I said ‘Yes, a bomb’… ‘A real bomb’?
‘Don’t touch it’.
I mean I’d been handling it for years. I said ‘Okay’ and within about half-an-hour there was a scream of police sirens and they arrived, they took the bomb away, they chastised me for being extremely .. well I don’t know the best word – ‘idiot’ I think is probably – and the bomb was duly exploded elsewhere. Anyway that was the bomb. As far as we were concerned, going back to 1941, my father realised the idiocy of his ways, he was working for the Western Morning News at that time -
MS: As a journalist?
PW: Yes as a journalist, working for the Western Morning News and the Evening Herald. And he said, ‘We can’t have this’ .. I remember going out after the raid and the pipes from the fire engines were knotted all over the street and, you know, there were a lot of injured people. So I was then evacuated to South Brent which is a little village about 16 miles from Plymouth. And that’s where I spent the rest of the war until moving to Bristol. South Brent .. being evacuated were probably the most formative years of my life, because I had lived in cities before then. But for four years then – three and a half years from 7 to nearly 12 – I was living in the country and I realised that there was a life outside the streets. And also there was a quality of life that was just different. I learned the resilience of people and I learned that you didn’t have to have sweets in the bag, that you could go to the local greengrocer and for one penny he would give you a carrot, and the carrot was almost as sweet as sweets anyway. And I remember vividly taking a carrot to school every day, And I also remember my father coming – because he continued to work throughout the Blitz.
He came home one day from work – we didn’t know sometimes whether he was coming home or not, depending on whether the trains were running or not – and he took from his pocket a bag, a brown paper bag, and took out this black thing, and I said ‘What’s this?’ and he said, ‘Peter this is a banana’. I said I thought bananas were yellow and he said, ‘Yes, but this has been around a long time, it’s been frozen’ or whatever.
And it was genuinely the first banana that I can actually remember, and how he’d got hold of it I have no idea – maybe it was black and on the Black Market! I don’t know. But I remember the taste of that banana, it lived with me for many years, until I saw a real yellow one.
MS: Do you still like bananas!
PW: I love ‘em, have them every day, do you?
MS: Peter I’d like to ask you ..you’ve spoken about your Dad and maybe we’ll do some more.. what about your Mum, where was she from?
PW: My mother was .. I was very fortunate, I had splendid parents. My mother, we were all Welsh, in fact the most Welsh person in our collective families was my grandmother who was named Caroline. She was born in Hereford, but she was more Welsh than any of them. She was the only one who didn’t speak Welsh, and I remember my grandfather saying, ‘Well I met Carol, I brought her home to the boys – because he had brothers – and he said (Welsh was his first language), ‘But whenever Carol’s here we all speak English’. And she never learned Welsh, and sadly neither did I, because having a father who was peripatetic, moving around as features editor and editor – which is why I was born in Great Yarmouth of course – he was editing the local newspaper there. And my mother whose name was Gladys, one of the things that she remembered all her life was that when I was born, that I was the first grandchild of an all-Welsh family.. and I’d been born in Great Yarmouth.. And the boys, her brothers – Uncle Arthur and my Uncle Stanley – came to Yarmouth to see the first grandson, and they gazed at the crib (I’m told) and they said to my mother: ‘Well Glad, he’s a lovely boy, but you know he’ll never play for Wales.. And that hurt her enormously. She took it that they had expected her to go back to Cardiff, to ensure that if I showed any talent at all at soccer or particularly rugby, I wouldn’t be disqualified from playing for my native land. And it did hurt her. She was a splendid, splendid woman, and she looked after my father who..
My father volunteered in World War One for the Navy, when he was 17 and didn’t need to, he lied about his age. He finished up in what were known as the Q-ships. Now the Q-ships were merchantmen, but because of the onslaught from German submarines who were used to .. well they terrorised our Convoys, our North Atlantic Convoys. Somebody in Whitehall had the bright idea of putting a single gun on merchant vessels, and they were called Q-ships and were covered with canvas. And they worked simply because the submarines of that era were much smaller than they are now and therefore they had only a limited number of torpedoes on board. So it was the habit of the German submarines to surface after they’d stopped the ship, maybe with a single torpedo, to finish off the ship by firing from their gun situated forward of the turret. So the double bluff from the Admiralty was to do the same with a number of selected ships and these were the Q-ships. My father was a wireless operator on Q-ships, but during .. and he saw action and he got medals as everybody did. But the World War profoundly, strategically affected his life because he contracted Spanish flu. And as you will know, the epidemic of Spanish flu in 1918 killed more people than in the whole of World War Two.
So my father for his whole life carried with him an inactive lung – he lost a lung – and he was a very brave man. He never stopped working and I remember as a child, on my knees actually, praying for the coughing to stop, because he coughed blood and was often – because he contracted tuberculosis as well – he was often off work for upto six months, and my mother would visit him in Scarborough, where he’d been sent to a sanatorium, and later to Clevedon in Somerset. And she kept him alive for fifty years I reckon. And that was their marriage. So we never had much money, we never owned a house of our own, and I admired both of them. I have one thing to say about him which is … if you’re going to ask me about how I got into journalism, he is key in that.
MS: Tell me how did you ..
PW: Well I was not a good scholar, but I did manage to pass the 11-plus – in those days it was called the Scholarship, so I qualified to go to grammar school, which initially was in Devon, King Edward School Totnes. In my first and only term there, I broke the record for ‘order marks’ which was punishment marks. And with that on my CV I left, because my father had got a job as Features Editor in Bristol.
There I went to what had been called the Merchant Adventurers School, because, if you remember, Bristol had been made prosperous because of the slave trade – because of merchant adventurers. It was renamed Cottam Grammar School and there I stayed. In those days .. I wasn’t (a) a really good student or (b) very happy. My father.. at the age of 15 anyway.. (‘I’ll start that sentence again’)
In those days, if you got a certain number of subjects, if you passed a certain number of subjects at a certain level, you could what they called ‘matriculate’. And you took this at the age of 15, took this exam, and if you matriculated it permitted you immediate entry to university, you didn’t actually have to go through to the Higher School Certificate, and I matriculated in exactly the subjects that were needed. That allowed me to leave school.
Now I’m not saying that that was part of my motivation, what I am saying is that I was not unhappy about that occurrence. So I said to my father, ‘I don’t think I really want to go to university’. This was a blow because I would have been the first member of either family to have gone to university. My father went to see the headmaster, whose name was ‘Splinter’ Woods – his name was Woods, and ‘Splinter’ because he could smash a cane over your, your bottom..
MS: Did he ever smash yours?
PW: Oh I was beaten a lot .. on my bottom, yes.
(brief pause for exterior noise)
MS: What was ‘Splinter’ Woods like?
PW: He got his nickname because he was very good at breaking canes on pupils’ bottoms, including mine, on many occasions. And my father went to see him when I matriculated at 15, and he said ‘Well what do you think, Mr Woods, about my son?’ He said, ‘To be frank Mr Williams, your son is a quid nuncic pric.
MS: ..a what?
PW: .. quid nuncic prig. Now I didn’t know what that was even though I’d studied Latin and passed it, I did not know. It actually means ‘Know All’ – or an enquiring mind if you want to be polite about it. This meant that I had gone through my school questioning decisions I felt were either wrong or disputable. It reinforced my determination – and I really didn’t fancy going on in education.
My father didn’t speak to me for about three weeks and he said, ’I’m really disappointed in you Peter, this was a huge opportunity which you’re going to cast away’. I said, ‘No I’m not going to cast it away, I’m going to apply for a job, I think I would like to work.’ He said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I’d like to be a journalist’. I think it was actually the trilby, I really fancied wearing a trilby.
But that, too, didn’t go down well. About a day later he came back and he said, ‘Look Peter, journalism is a hard job; if you can stay out of it, stay out of it.’ And I went away and reflected on it, and I thought, that’s a strange thing to say – but in fact it was very wise. Because what he was saying to me was: ‘If you don’t think that this is a vocation, don’t bother’. And it had been for him, that was the point.
MS: Peter, you decided on journalism. Were you trained, did you go through some marvellous induction ceremony, how did you learn your task?
PW: Well as simple as this – it’s just telling stories. But the great bonus of deciding to be a journalist was that I immediately went to secretarial school to learn shorthand and was the single male in a classroom of at least twenty of the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen. All of whom were doing shorthand, because that’s what you did if you left school and you had a brain, you became a secretary. But seriously, I was one of the guinea pigs for something called the Journalist’s Proficiency Certificate .. (brief pause for exterior noise)
MS: You were saying there were twenty beautiful girls … how did you spend your time?
PW: Doing shorthand! I was fortunate in that I was one of the guinea pigs for the Journalist’s Proficiency Certificate. I applied for a job at the Bristol Evening Post and I got a job as an office boy. The Journalist’s Proficiency Certificate, which was one of the best things, best decisions that the NUJ ever did because it ensured a minimum standard in the profession, was a wonderful thing, provided you worked. And they schooled you .. the course was basic economics, basic law, British Constitution, Higher English, all the things that you needed and presumably would have got if you’d been to university.
The thing I regret about not going to university was that I had no time, as a journalist. Whereas at university I would have had time to read books. And although I read a lot, my wife is much better read than I am, because I’ve never had time to sit down and read Proust or .. it just happened. On the other hand I was earning and bringing money into the house from the age of 15. And that was quite significant at the time.
MS: Tell me about working in journalism for those years, before you got anywhere near television. What were you doing, what success did you have, and maybe what failures came your way.
PW: Well the job of an office boy at the Bristol Evening Post was to sit at the end of pneumatic tubes through which capsules came bearing the written copy by the reporters in the room next door. And it was my job to empty the tube, know which sub-editor was doing which story, and give that material to that particular sub-editor.
I wanted to write as well, so I wooed the sports department and said, Can I please be a stringer on my Saturday afternoon off. And so on Saturday afternoons I reported rugby matches which I – I love rugby – and in summer I reported on cricket matches, so my first by-lines were in the sports department. I then became boxing correspondent which is hilarious, but I did, and I learnt to admire the determination of young men who wanted to be boxers, wanting to get off the streets and wanting to do something constructive. That’s the trait in sportsmen that I admire enormously.
Then I became a sports sub-editor: I went for the job which was the pinnacle of my ambitions at the time, which was to report Bristol City football matches. I failed and they appointed somebody from Bournemouth, and I had then to sub-edit his words – which I did with .. great enthusiasm if I can put it that way, and we became good friends. His name was Peter Godsiff.
I had already been flirting with the local television station, they were one of the many people, many companies to whom I was writing in an effort to get into television.
MS: Can I take you back, you were a sports journalist. Did you go from sports journalism to applying for these jobs, did you have something in-between?
PW: No I didn’t. I was applying particularly when I’d failed to become the football correspondent. I renewed my efforts to write to everybody in the companies. There was a pattern in the reply: the replies I would get from the companies was: ‘Your CV is interesting, the cuttings that you’ve produced are interesting – come again once you’ve got experience.’ And I was eventually reduced to writing back to them to say, ‘But how can I get any experience if you won’t give me a job?’ I seldom got a reply to the second letter, which was also interesting, except.. until I thought I would get closer to television by applying to the programme newspaper – it was called Television Weekly – this was in the days of TWW, Television Wales in the West, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the glamorous team that won the Harlech licence to broadcast ITV. And so for two years I produced what was called the Peter Williams Column in the programme paper for TWW, and I was absolutely wrong – actually working for the television paper reduced your chances of getting on the screen rather than the reverse! But nonetheless I applied to Southern – there was an advert – they were looking for a reporter in Southampton..
MS: Could you explain who ‘Southern’ were?
PW: I eventually applied to go to Southern Television – they had advertised a job –and Southern Television was the ITV franchise holder for the South of England, and peripherally the South-East of England.
But in many ways, beyond Brighton nothing existed as far as Southern were concerned. They were based in Southampton and their Programme Director was a chap called Berkeley Smith, and Berkeley Smith was an ex-BBC man and he knew how to do television properly. And I went to Southampton, I drove to Southampton and I discovered – well I had been told – that the interview would be three days.
For three days – and there were many applicants – Berkeley Smith had initiated a process which, he indicated, if you could get through that, there was every chance that you’d be able to do the job. I mean he did everything, the course was everything – you had to be a reporter, you had to write scripts, you had to interview in the studio, he took you through everything that you would need to do in the real world on screen if you were part of a current affairs team. I don’t know why other companies didn’t do it, but they did – Southern were my first home. And two of us actually got the job – there was only one job but Ian Ross was the other chap, they employed me and they employed Ian Ross. Ian Ross went on to become a distinguished correspondent for ITN.
I found that in fact I wasn’t going to Southampton at all, they were going to send me to Dover .. the chat around the water cooler in Southampton is that if you went to Dover it was ‘Dover and out’!
But at that moment they were opening a disused bus garage as the South-Eastern studio for Southern Television, in other words Southern were going to embrace the South-East and this was how they were going to do it.
I must tell you on my first day, I was living in Clevedon at the time with my family, and I had a 6-month contract, and I said ‘Cheerio’ to my then wife and kids, and got into my blue A40 and started with plenty of time, knowing that I was going to be reading the News when I got to Dover. I allowed I think 12 hours for the journey, and having looked at the map I saw that it was a straight line from London to Dover, and that would be obviously quite quick. It wasn’t at all. Because what I did not know, having never been there, was that there were these large conurbations of the Medway, and Rochester and whatever. So .. and I also then, while I was looking at a map I went into the back of another car. So my A40 was slightly the worse for wear and I eventually arrived in Dover with the News bulletin going on the air – at 6.10 I think it was – I arrived at 5.30!
I got out of my A40, hopped into the studio, and virtually was on the air within about 20 minutes. And it was a tiny, tiny studio with 2 cameras, and only one cameraman. And it was he who sprinted from one camera to the other. Of course what he did was to lock off one and operate the other one. His name was Hughie and I used to read the News, for the next three years I used to read the News with Hughie.
And that was how it was .. yeah, it was an interesting introduction to television.
But I stayed there for three years, and I had a director called David Rea, David C Rea. He had been with Granada as a studio cameraman, and he was a film man really. And I learned so much in those first three years at Dover .. I learned from him, I had a film crew to play with every day, and a slot in the magazine programme which we had to fill. And it didn’t matter what the subjects were, you became an expert in everything – well you didn’t, we became Inexpert at everything I suppose would be ..
Anyway you were there to reflect what was going on in the South-East, and ‘South-East’ sounds okay, but we were based in Dover at one end, and we had to cover Brighton at the other end. Well it sometimes took most of the day with those motorways, to get from one end to the other, but nonetheless we had to cover Brighton, and that we did. And as I say.. you talk about falling on your feet, and I fell on my feet! I had a skilled, ex-film cameraman called Bob, and an experienced assistant, and a very experienced sound man called Ben Brightwell. And they would come in in the morning and say, ‘What are we going to do now’. Well what we were going to do now was what David and I had worked out the night before. And that’s what you did. And we did funny things, we sold Dover Castle to the Americans on April the First – that caused an absolute uproar by the way. But anyway it was a great learning curve and that’s how I learnt about television.
MS: [Question muffled by interference]
PW: My very first documentary was called ‘They Fought the Few’.. we were always interested in people, and it seemed.. I discovered in Kent that there was a great friendship between a British Ace called Stanford Tuck, who was one of the RAF’s highest scoring Aces, and Adolf Gallant who had shot down something like 300 enemy aircraft in his career in the Luftwaffe, and they were mates. I got to know Stanford Tuck quite coincidentally and he said ‘Well Adolf’s coming over at the weekend’. And I said, ‘What are you going to be doing? ’He said we’re going shooting of course. So we made a short documentary of half-an-hour, which we called ‘They Fought the Few’. Because through Gallant I was able to get through to the Luftwaffe pilots; and everybody made programmes about the Few, but nobody was making any programmes, certainly not for English television (for British television, forgive me, that’s my Welshness!) for British television about the Luftwaffe pilots, and they were just as interesting as the British Aces, just as interesting.
Anyway the Network liked that. And partly because of that I applied to ‘This Week’ which was a programme at that time, in those halcyon days when we had three current affairs programmes on free-to-air television every week: ‘World-in-Action’ on a Monday, ‘This Week’ on a Thursday, ‘Panorama’ on BBC. So that .. this was an important job, it was a programme I wanted to work for. And I noticed that Cliff Morgan had become editor of ‘This Week’, and Cliffy was one of my idols, I had watched him play rugby for Wales and he was one of ‘The Greats’. And he saw me, possibly because I was Welsh – I don’t know, you must ask him, well you can’t now but you could have asked him at the time – and I was in the office with him, and we’d had a chat ... It was one of those meandering interviews where I sat there and he did his job, and we had three or four words. And Cliff said... Somebody knocked on the door and a chap came in and said, ‘Cliff, the boys upstairs – the third floor [Executive] – can we do a programme to mark Accident Week?’ There was going to be a National Accident Week, and he said ‘Well yes alright boy’.
And he was a great editor actually – he didn’t know how to get it, but he knew it when he saw it, that it was good. And so we chatted on, and I said ‘That Accident thing, I can.. I’ll get a programme together for you on that. He said, ‘What’ll you do?’ I said ‘I don’t know yet, but I’ll give you a couple of ideas’.
He said ‘Alright boy’.
And that’s how I got onto ‘This Week’. We did a programme on Birmingham Accident Hospital and the new techniques they were using for treating children who had had accidents. I worked with a fine director called Ian McFarlane – who, again, from whom I learnt a lot.
And it seems to be the story of my life: I went there on that single contract and I stayed 14 years!
MS: ..14 years Peter. Well I personally, because I worked for a couple of years with you and I can remember my own thoughts were.. just for a minute – I was asked about you: ‘Peter Williams, what’s he like?’ But I replied, ‘Well I have immense respect for Peter, and if anybody didn’t know what the next story was or who was going to do it,’ I said, ‘all you would have to do was present Peter Williams with a copy of an old ‘Exchange & Mart’ and two weeks later you’d have a half-hour programme!’ (Laughter)
But talking back, ‘This Week’ 14 years: can I ask you to select a few of them, and how you made them. Or for example, of those 14 years, what were your – perhaps three, favourite programmes?
PW: It’s difficult, as you can guess, I’ve been asked that many times. For me the most important programme is the next one. And I mean that… I go back to my father again: for him journalism was a vocation, and it seemed to me that wasn’t a bad description of what was expected of you. My memories of the 14 years of ‘This Week’ was that they were probably the happiest of my life, professionally, doing the best job in television. Because for someone who wants to tell stories, to have a canvas which is basically 52 weeks of the year, with facilities which were available to you, must be a description of Heaven! And I always felt that, although I never had any close friends, but professionally everybody respected everybody else because they knew that they were contributing to something that really mattered. I think if you ask me to pick out programmes, they asked me to do – I can’t remember what it was – the 30th anniversary of ‘This Week’, they asked me to do that programme and what did I want to do. And I said.. I thought, ‘What’s a story that hasn’t changed, what’s a situation that hasn’t changed in the last 30 years?’ And of course one of the situations which hadn’t changed in 30 years was the plight of Rudolf Hess. Hess was still in .. wherever it was. So I talked about that to the production team (I can’t remember who the Editor was – I think it was David Elstein at that time) and I said I think it would be worth having a look at, you know: Why did he come, and did he really get into that bomber and parachute into Britain, carrying Hitler’s wishes for peace, really? Did he really… Anyway so we made that programme.
So I remember that one for the reason. The one that, funnily enough while I was at Thames, the one that probably got more attention than any other one, actually went out in the very first edition of ‘TV Eye’. I mean there was uproar when ‘This Week’s’ name was dropped, and a new Editor came in from one of the red-top tabloids and renamed it ‘TV Eye’. Some of them left and, frankly, I wasn’t far behind them. But the programme that we made on the first in-vitro fertilisation IVF babies, was one that drew huge attention round the world and we called it ‘To Mrs Brown a Daughter’, which is the way in the old days births were declared and publicised, and recorded. And that one I remember…
I remember because it was typical of a number of situations in which I had found myself , and later did find myself: me on the inside of a story with the world’s press on the outside, in other words if you can get the exclusive access you have a completely different experience than if you’re outside knocking on the door. And both with Steptoe and Edwards and Jean Purdy at an old and little poky hospital where Louise Brown was born, and later with the American IVF baby in Norfolk Virginia – it’s quite an interesting experience that I know you share as well, that it’s there and you’re part of it. And in a funny way you contribute to it, because you’re a representative of pressure – but you’re friendly pressure because you’ve convinced them that you believe in what you’re doing.. and I don’t mean that you’ve bought your way in, although in some instances of course that was the case. Not with me, although in fact I think it was.. I was part of the negotiations that started with Steptoe and Edwards opening Bourne Hall, in their relationships with the Daily Mail Group. The Daily Mail Group had been sympathetic to what the Pope and others had said – that the whole attempt to produce a baby outside the mother’s womb was against the will of God, and a blasphemy and all those things.
And they, I think quite sensibly, Steptoe and Edwards, decided that they were not going to have a scramble; they were actually going to allow the Central Office of Information to film the birth – uncontroversial, I was very happy with that – and they would get into bed with ‘A Newspaper Group’, not to control, because that was never a question, but actually to know that this was a story that was going to be told and they weren’t going to have a huge scramble outside their houses and whatever.
I was so far embedded in that story that in fact I was a peripheral member of the meetings between the Daily Mail and Steptoe and Edwards.
Incidentally I must just tell you there’s no such thing.. every national story is a local story, and I discovered midway through this that Patrick Steptoe had a bolt hole in Canterbury, so that we became quite friendly. And he was an extraordinary man, Steptoe: he was patrician, he had a grand piano in his front room, he wore a cravat, and he lived in Blackfriars Street in Canterbury, where nobody knew – no other pressman except me! He married a Canterbury girl and, coincidentally, in the village in which I live his father-in-law is named – I can’t remember the name of the Close now – one of the streets in my village is named after his father-in-law who was a GP. The contrast – I will pursue this if I may – you could not have found a less likely couple than Steptoe and Edwards.
I’ve described Steptoe to you; Edwards was a fully paid-up Socialist, a member of Cambridge Council as a Labour councillor, and a man who could not have contrasted more with the patrician views and attitudes of Steptoe. The thing that they shared was the drive, and the knowledge that what they were doing was good, that what they were doing was to the benefit of all those people who had struggled to have a child of their own, and lived through the agony of not being able to do it.
MS: I’ll come in there Peter, you’re going to divert me from where .. and I’ve got a list of questions here which I’m happy to ditch and it seems to me..
PW: No, listen ..
MS: No no, it’s not you, I’m saying this now to the facts. I’ve always wondered where part of your ethics and approach to things come from, and I want to know, did you come from a religious family? How has religion affected you, from being a child to being a reporter whose job in many respects is to dig the dirt; and, on this occasion, to do this something that one man at the top of one branch of Christianity said was something of an abomination, I think. Can you explain to me how religion has impacted on the way in which you work and who you are?
PW: Yes. My parents were not regular churchgoers, but they were Welsh, and so they could sing the hymns. I remember being a member of a Baptist Church Youth Club, and I also remember the revelation going along to an evening, a fund-raising evening that the church held, at which they invited my father to be on the panel of an ‘Any Questions’, and being absolutely stunned by the knowledge that my father had, and..
MS: Were these religious questions?
PW: No! They were … You don’t see your father in that context very often, and I saw him as a member of the audience, and I thought ‘What a great bloke! And what a great spread of knowledge’.
I was confirmed in the Army, I did 2 years of National Service in Germany, originally in the Royal Army Service Corps where I learned how to fill in work sheets and had to drive a 3-ton truck. And latterly I taught, just for a few months, squaddies who couldn’t read or write because there was a new education corps and I could teach them, and I was happy to do that. So that was good.
But I was in Sunday School as a child, and I won an award there for the ability to learn the Ten Commandments – I managed to do it in about three days – and I won the prize and I remember I was in trouble because I actually spent the book token, which was the prize, on three Biggles books. You were expected I think to at least have got a primer on the works of St Thomas or whatever. .. it was two Biggles books and a Worrals book.
But anyway, I felt.. I had been a Christian for as long as I can remember and I thought, part of my life isn’t complete and I’m in the Army and the Bishop of Fulham is coming over to preach in Neumünster where I was stationed, and he was going to have a confirmation class. So I thought, well I might as well do this, I can’t say it was a huge drive but in a way it was sort of – I’m a Virgo – it was making it rather neat and sort of tying up the loose ends. So I went, and I found that quite a profound experience. The Bishop of Fulham came over, as I say, and there were about three or four in a regiment of 2000 who came forward to be confirmed and I decided that I would do that.
What impact has it had on my life? Well, I’ve never had any blinding Road to Damascus experience, ever. But it seems to me that religion, Christianity anyway, I mean it involves a leap of faith and that’s the life after death. But apart from that – although that is a central part of the doctrine – apart from that, Jesus’ teachings are something by which we can all aspire to live, if we choose to. It’s not the only route to a good life, but it is a route to a good life, a good and productive life. And often throughout my career, and throughout my life, particularly at difficult times I’ve paused and prayed about these things for guidance.
I mean I’ve never been ashamed to say I’m a Christian, and I think that too many Christians forget that part of being a Christian is actually to share it.
And I think that .. sometimes you shouldn’t actually divide your personal life from your professional life; and I don’t know whether other people do but my fancy is that they do.
Whereas I think you’re exactly the same person whether you’re trying to get on with your next door neighbour. Or you’re trying to say to somebody, ‘What you’re doing is hugely important and I’m going to tell a lot of other people about it’.
That doesn’t mean that one strives for perfection, because none of us is perfect and we’re all sinners.
MS: Can I please, to use the vernacular, can I possibly move you from the sublime to the corblimey. Could you tell me how you regularly went about making ‘This Week’ programmes; how did they start, how long did it normally take you, what did you do to get a half-hour film out once a month?
PW: I think working for ‘This Week’ must be an obsession professionally. It doesn’t mean that you ignore the rest of your life, it does mean ..
[End of Part One: 01h 15m]
MS: Peter, how did you actually make a ‘This Week’, I mean they’ve got to be on once a month or less than that, how did it happen?
PW: Well it was never a production line except in transmission terms. The first, prime ingredient was The Idea. Somebody had to have the idea.
Recording paused at 48”
PICKED UP BELOW
PART TWO cont..
MS: Peter, I have to inform you first of all that the copyright of this recording is vested in the British Entertainment History Project. I take it that you are aware of that and happy with that?
PW: Totally agree.
MS: Right. Peter, how did you put a ‘This Week’ together?
PW: Well for the Editor it might have seemed like a production line week after week; that was not the feeling within the production team. The first primary ingredient was the idea, and the idea could have come from anyone.
MS: Could we go again, I heard some squeaks..a bit strong, from the chair here.. so if you could say, how did you make a ‘This Week’, Peter?
PW: For the Editor of ‘This Week’ it must have seemed a little like a production line, to produce a half-hour programme week after week, throughout the year virtually, must have been a nightmare, and I was never Editor of ‘This Week’ and I don’t think I would like to have been. Actually the genesis of the programme itself, the primary ingredient – if that’s not breaching a metaphor – was obviously the idea, and the idea could have come from anyone. It could have come from the production secretary, it could have come from the reporters, the producers themselves, it could have come from the Editor of the programme, it could have come from the researchers. In many ways the research is the most difficult and the most important part of the entire process. Once the idea is tested – and we used to have a production meeting every Friday morning which was sometimes a little bit like a bear pit, with competing ideas going for the treasured half-hour in the following week or in a month’s time. That testing was very real, I mean it was intellectually tested, also practically tested – in other words, it’s all very well, wouldn’t it be a good idea if.. but if you can’t get there, and you can’t get it back there’s not much point in trying to do it. So there was very much a practical limitation on what we could do.
Apart from that, ambition was never limited and that would have been the case throughout my 14 years there.
Once the idea is adopted, and sometimes two or three ideas would be adopted at a single Friday meeting, a researcher would be assigned to that and the research could take a week, three weeks, two months or whatever. Because there was no point setting out on this unless we knew that we were going to be able to do, or we had a good chance of knowing that we were going to be able to achieve, what we wanted to do. A director and a reporter usually at that time were also assigned to the project, and simply because of logistics it was quite frequent that reporters and directors would work together. I worked a lot with you [Martin Smith] and I’m really grateful for that. It was a genuine partnership and, sparing your blushes, it was always a joy.
The practical thing then was, we had a wonderful programme co-ordinator called Gilly Morphew and she was in charge of seeing whether we would get there, how we would get there, would we be in one piece when we got there, was the insurance right – because often we were going into war zones or sticky situations and insurance was quite an important thing. Also I should say that at the Friday meetings, importantly there were the [film] editors.
The [film] editor was a crucial member of the team because once the film had been shot – the reporter, the lighting crew, the cameraman and the soundman and everybody had got on the plane and we’d shot whatever we needed to shoot and bring it back – somebody’s got to put it together. Now it’s also fair to say that the storyline was sorted out by the director and the reporter/producer, and a script was then produced; and the editor then went through the rushes, told you what would work and what wouldn’t work and then started the assembly.
We had a dedicated team of editors, all of whom worked every hour God knew in order to get it on the screen week after week.
I go back to the researchers again. Often the story that they were pursuing was not what we believed in the Friday meeting – ‘often’ is too strong a word, but sometimes the direction of the story could change, resultant on the work of the researcher who went out and started to put the bricks together. In many ways the researcher was the vital link in the story: was it right, could they get the access – the access was everything. And although it’s fair to say that both the reporter and the producer, also particularly in the formative stage, gained the access to the people who were going to be important to telling the story, the researcher on the ground was the face of our programme as far as the interviewees were concerned.
As far as the subjects of the programmes were concerned the researcher was the face of Thames Television or ‘This Week’. I do know that on certain occasions, and purely for simplicity, doors have been knocked on and we were represented as being the BBC, simply because if you were British there was an assumption that you were the BBC anyway!
MS: I’d like to mention one thing though, that is, that the reporter – yourself – is one of the reasons
you can’t make the film if it isn’t there – the fault I would suggest isn’t the fault of the researcher; what the film becomes is because you and the crew get something which is different; and there are occasions – and I wonder if you can think... My view is that time and time again things changed on a shoot quite dramatically, and things also changed in the cutting room. Because for whatever reason it didn’t go like that... It seems to me… I worry about you saying ‘the script’ because I know it isn’t the script, so could we be clear…
PW: The running order, I should have said.
MS: Well basically it’s something that’s fluid.. I mean you have to think, …with you editorialising in your interview, but you’re editorialising all the way through and trying to find it, and that’s a lot of plots(?)
PW: There are two ways of making documentaries: one is the pre-planned, what I call the ‘antiseptic’ documentary and that is that the script is written before you leave the studio and the pieces of the jigsaw are manoeuvred so that they fit the jigsaw that you had pre-conditioned before you left home.
I don’t do that. I feel that is a corset that is a self-imposed corset which we should all resist, simply because stories develop. They develop during the period of research, they develop actually during the shoot – they develop because suddenly during an interview someone unexpectedly reveals, either tearfully or certainly fundamentally, things were not what you thought they were. And you’ve got to be nimble then, because it changes the story; the storyline is different and needs to be accommodated, and the antiseptic documentary doesn’t allow for that – and I think it’s the poorer for it.
MS: Thinking about you Peter, and the things you do; it’s been suggested to me that one of the things that enabled you to do as many programmes as you did, and as varied, is that you don’t think laterally..
or if you do think laterally you don’t think directly. You have such a wide angle, maybe because you were in Sport. Were you aware of that sort of thing, what were you like at .. were you the funny boy at production meetings or were you… What led you on many occasions to pursue a story, because I know from my experiences with you that sometimes people thought your story ideas were crazy.
PW: Well, yes, I made more programmes for ‘This Week’ than any other reporter in the history of the programme. Sometimes they were good and sometimes they weren’t so good.
How can I put it, it’s really a continuation of the previous answer that I’ve given you: you have to have the ability to think laterally simply because there’s a meta-story staring you in the face, if only you’re nimble enough actually to see that.
I can give you.. Actually some of the best stories, some of the best films, actually arrive from quite an extraordinary source. I’m thinking of a film that I made with you that came from a small cutting, called ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’. Now that came from a newspaper cutting which was recording the fact that there was going to be a reunion of the Manchester Children’s Choir which in the 1930s had produced a [gramophone] record of “Nymphs and Shepherds” – which was, if there were such a thing, top of the Hit Parade and was certainly a staple of ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’.
As I say, that emerged as – what Gus MacDonald, who was at that time in charge of ‘World in Action’, described as ‘the most political programme of the year’. And it was the most political programme of the year because, with you, we found the people who had been in the Choir, original members of the Choir, and we talked to them about their lives and their aspirations. And what emerged within the embrace of this anniversary performance of “Nymphs and Shepherds – Come away, Come away, Come come away” – what emerged within that parenthesis was a snapshot of what it was like to live in Britain during that difficult decade…
13’ 53” END OF TDF14650_01.MOV
PW: cont. .. how they went to school, how they earned a living.. and that was unexpected, well it was unexpectedly good, put it this way.
I’ll give you another example, later in my career. I became Controller of Factual Programmes at the new boy TVS, Television South which took over the South-East franchise from Southern Television. The great thing about being Controller, I discovered, was that you were given a pot of money, and there was an extension of, I might say, the influence I had at ‘This Week’, that actually you could go and make it. You could actually say ‘We’re going to make this and here’s the money – go away and we’ll make this film’. That’s wonderful, it’s a bit like, I can imagine if you‘d deprived an artist of any canvas, then it would be the same as if suddenly, you know, said ‘There’s a limitless amount of canvas and a limitless amount of paint – go and produce a masterpiece’.
Now in a way the Controller is at the pinnacle of that power structure, because of what I was able to say in this particular instance: Ronald Reagan, when he was President of the United States said we must be very careful as a universe about the use of biological warfare weapons - I doubt that he had any foreknowledge but we’ll come to that in a second. So at one of our meetings at TVS, I said to David Wallace who was one of our researchers, ‘Go away for 3 months and comeback with some ideas about what we should do about biological warfare,’ as broad as that. About two and a half months later David came back (we hardly saw him for two and a half months) with a suitcase. And the suitcase was full of cuttings and ideas and whatever, so we spent a morning going through it and there was one small cutting there which referred to a unit called Unit 731, a water purification unit of the Japanese Imperial Army. And there was, to me, a revelation that this had been a cover for a biological warfare unit, and so it proved. We pursued this, and to cut a very long story short, we went to Japan, we confronted, we found the scientists who had been members of Unit 731; they had conducted diabolical – they were literally diabolical – experiments on hundreds of thousands of people. And we doorstepped them. I mean I went back to my days as a news reporter, I walked up with a Japanese interpreter named Fuyoko, she was wonderful.. went up to the door, knocked at the door, somebody came out: ‘Excuse me, are you Professor So-and-so’, he said ‘Yes’. ‘Could we talk to you about your activities in Unit 731 during World War II?’ ‘No, no’. So we just kept on doing it.
I must just say that on one occasion, the man who was in charge of freezing experiments – in other words they were freezing these people to death, the prisoners they were experimenting on – came to the door, or his wife came to the door and Fuyoko said, ‘Could we talk to Dr..’ (whoever it was).
She said she would find out and disappeared along this long corridor, then she came back and said, ‘No I’m very sorry, Professor So-and-so cannot speak to you today, he has a very heavy cold’. And I nearly laughed but then [she] turned round and walked down the corridor.
It was really the ‘mustard-seed’ story but in fact the mustard-seed was the tiny cutting. But the tree that grew from my mustard-seed produced a book which we wrote, called Unit 731 – there it is (points to shelf behind) on my left – available at the door or through booksellers! It produced a book and an award-winning film: it won Gold Medal at New York and it was revelatory.
What was revelatory about it was that the Americans had assured the Japanese scientists of immunity from prosecution for war crimes, in return for the work that they had carried out in Manchuria, right back to the war with the Chinese, right the way through. They were so dismissive of human beings that the Japanese scientists simply sat behind their desks and indented for ‘How many do we need today – fifteen?’ They then signed a form for fifteen ‘manutas’ - they didn’t call them human beings, they didn’t call them prisoners, they called them ‘manutas’ which is Japanese for logs of wood. And in a way I wonder whether or not that was the only way they could actually do what they were doing, failing to think any longer that these were human beings. 14
Anyway I felt – and this was part of my input into the story apart from anything else – that we needed to find out how this deal had been struck, how was it that the United States had got into a situation where, unlike Nuremberg where every Nazi that could be caught – other than those who were valuable enough to build atomic bombs but that’s another story – was prosecuted.
No Japanese was prosecuted, not even [Lt.Gen] Ishii the leader of this terrible unit. And Jo and I (my wife Jo, who’s a researcher, was a researcher then) found a chap called Colonel Murray Sanders who was living at that time in Florida, and we went to see him. In a way we were the researchers because we had to convince him that he wanted to talk to us.
And as you have so rightly observed there is a time in people’s lives when they want to talk about things, when they want to talk for whatever reason it is: to proclaim their own guilt, or to justify it, or simply, simply to clear the air and set the record straight.
And we talked to Murray Sanders whom I liked enormously and he agreed that he had been the officer who acted on behalf of General Macarthur who was C in C in Japan – God, in occupied Japan! Sanders had been a Colonel, sorry, a Major at that time and he had been approached by a spokesman for Unit 731, a guy calledNaito and Naito had told him of the work that Unit 731 had done, and had offered this work on condition that the scientists were immune from prosecution. Sanders was a very bright bloke and on his study wall was the letter which Naito had sent to him offering this deal, and Sanders had in his writing put at the bottom of that: ‘I have been assured by Mr Naito that no human beings were involved in this research; signed by Sanders. Within two months he realised he’d been lied to but by that time the work was with Macarthur and – I have to say this – Macarthur was not going to let this go. And the whole of the research was shipped to America to Fort Detrick and there they had – you know, how valuable was this – this was unique, nobody had ever done this with human beings: how do human beings react to Denghi Fever, how long will they survive..
[phone rings at 10’13”.. Resume at 10’25”]
..how long can they survive in sub-zero temperatures, all these things were handed on a plate to the United States Biological Warfare Unit at Fort Detrick. And the real thing that stuck in my craw was that all the members, pretty well every member of Unit 731 postwar – never prosecuted – all progressed and prospered in the new postwar Japanese society.
They founded Green Cross [Pharmaceuticals], one of them became the equivalent of the President of the BMA. We doorstepped, we actually walked straight into a laboratory on one occasion, brushed the people aside because I was fed up with it, and buttonholed this tiny, little wizened Japanese gentleman standing by his pots and pans on the laboratory top, and said ‘Do you regret what you did? Do you regret this, you must have .. doesn’t it keep you awake at night?’ – all through Fuyoko by the way, she was marvellous – and he broke down, he said ‘Yes I do, I shouldn’t have done that, it was all terrible.’ And – you’ve got a film, you’ve got a film.
I will tell one other story about Sanders: Sanders was a remarkable man, he was an army scientist and there was a time when many people in the American Army were being infected with an eye problem which was deeply worrying. And he was in charge of the research into what could possibly combat this particular eye problem and he had a vaccine which he thought would work. But it needed to be tested on a human being. I mean it just had to be tested on a human, you know, if he’d done it in animals it wouldn’t have worked. But he couldn’t find a volunteer because there was a downside. So he injected his own eye with that vaccine and it cost him two-thirds of the sight in that eye. I only found that out later in my relationship with him and it didn’t surprise me at all. You know these big stories are full of moving little stories.
MS: I hope you don’t mind me taking you back once more. Why did you leave ‘This Week’ and what was it like suddenly working for an organisation like the BBC?
PW: Well I was told by a friend…
END OF TDF14650_02.MOV
PW: cont.. I was headhunted by Paul Bonner to go the BBC to make a series called ‘Open Secret’, and they were three very interesting years actually. A friend of mine who had been Head of Films at Southern had gone before me, and I said, ‘What’s the difference between working for ITV and BBC?’ He said, ‘Well the major difference is this: if I sit at my desk and I say, I would like a grand piano on Orkney this coming Thursday, at the BBC the answer will be ‘yes’. And if I were to suggest it to ITV it would be the first of a series of committee meetings.’ And I think in a way that summarises – the scope and the breadth of the BBC, everybody should work for them at some time or another.
I had a happy time there; and I proved to myself that I was terrible in the studio - but I didn’t tell them that! But we made a number of interesting films – some with you…
MS: It seems to me, if I may say, there’s a real contradiction there (you can incorporate this in your response). You refer to the BBC as the organisation which is able to act swiftly and get things done, if you go to ITV it’s got to go to committee after committee. Now in the ordinary world it seems to me, this would be reversed – people would say ‘Bloody BBC, full of bureaucracy, what they need is a nice small unit’. Explain!
PW: Well, because it depended on which small unit you were working for. At the BBC I was working for Science Features which had a huge reputation for delivering the goods, and that is what I was really saying. Similarly over in ITV, you know, working for ‘This Week’ – ‘This Week’ was, if you like, an empire within an empire. The Editor of ‘This Week’ would say ‘Go’ and you’d go, that was the way it was. But the plethora of committees within ITV, as I found as a Controller, was bewildering and frustrating in the extreme, and very political – at the BBC I’ve been high enough up the echelon to be involved in politics. There was nothing akin to that at ITV, you know, you work in a team and rub along with everybody, don’t you, and those who don’t – well they don’t speak to you and that’s the end of that.
MS: You don’t mix on the political front; you like working and making your movies. How did you become one of the primary movers in the creation of Television South, how did Television South come about?
PW: Well I wasn’t, I was part of a rival group, I was part of the Charterhouse Group. I should explain, there is a round, it’s a bit like the Miss World contest. There used to be, every x number of years, a reshuffling of the pack of cards, when everybody on ITV had to decide whether or not they were going to hang onto their franchise, and there were always rivals for every single franchise. I was at the BBC at that time and we’d just had a couple of successes and I was asked by David Elstein if I would be interested in bidding for the Southern franchise, and I said ‘Yes’. And we were bankrolled by the Charterhouse Bank Group. I also then went to Paul Bonner, who had headhunted me to go to the BBC, and said to him, Would he like to join a consortium bidding for ITV, for the ITV franchise? And he said ‘Yes’ . Three weeks later there was a knock on my door and Michael Blakstad, who was Editor of ‘Tomorrow’s World’, said ‘Can I have a quiet word with you. I wonder would you be interested in my group which is going for the Southern franchise’. There was a long pause .. a long pause, and I said ‘I’m sorry Michael, I think I’m already committed’. I subsequently learned that he went and knocked on Paul Bonner’s door to ask him if he would be interested in joining his.. unfortunately he was also.. at that time. And of course the thing was, everybody, all three of us – had it been known in the BBC that we were flirting with the ITV franchise we’d have been fired. I mean that’s what they said anyway. At one stroke they would have lost three leading executives in Science Features, at a single stroke. It didn’t happen.
MS: As a beginner, could you give me a very brief description of who David Elstein, Paul Bonner, Michael Blakstad are? David Elstein, who he?
PW: David Elstein had a nickname, called ‘Two Brains’. He was a brilliant, I think a First at Oxford or Cambridge – if he ever sees this he will correct me. He was .. I worked with him a lot, and I admired his
judgment. He was a brilliant man who was very much involved, he was Editor of ‘This Week’ for 3,4,5 years or something like that.
MS: Paul Bonner?
PW: Paul Bonner was a BBC man through and through. He was Head of .. I don’t know whether ‘Controller’ or not, I don’t think that’s their terminology, but he was Head of BBC Science Features, working at that time out of Kensington House in Shepherds Bush.
MS: Michael Blakstad?
PW: Michael Blakstad worked below Paul Bonner but was a forward-thinking pioneer of Science on television. And he had produced ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and ‘The Risk Business’ – all three were formidable people.
MS: So you go to Television South, they’ve got the franchise.
PW: No hang on, I’ve got to explain.. [MS: Correct me] So Bonner and Elstein and I were comfortable with the team we’d put together in the Charterhouse Group, and a week before the results the front page leader in The Observer was: “Southern lose their franchise, Charterhouse win”. This was received with jubilation but some scepticism by us, particularly when a week later the various applicants were called in. And The Observer had been right in saying that Southern Television would lose the franchise, but wrong in the identity of who would win. The winners were TVS, Television South – a group put together by Michael Blakstad, it was Michael Blakstad’s group actually (I can’t remember the name of the Chair) ..
It was Michael Blakstad’s group and the Chairman was Terry Boston who was, or became, Lord Boston of Faversham. He was a Tory by any other name, except for the fact that he voted Labour; he was an extraordinary Chairman and I liked him enormously. But having swallowed disappointment at the fact that we had not won the franchise, the phone rang and it was Michael Blakstad renewing his knock on my door, saying ‘Would you like to join us as Head of Documentaries’, which is exactly what I did.
So that was why I was, if you like, a ‘Johnny Come Lately’ among the newcomers for the Southern franchise. And we produced.. I did a series called ‘Just Williams’ which was a series of local documentaries.
MS: Just tell me about the series of local documentaries. How did you go about it, how did you deal with it, how did it go down?
PW: It went down very well. The local documentary strand was obviously going to be important, because one of the things that we had said, and every applicant had said was that Southern, despite the fact that they’d opened a studio in Dover, had failed properly to service the South East corner of their franchise. Every one of the applicants stressed that and we did as well – the Charterhouse proposal – so did TVS. And one of the things we offered was a series of local documentaries; in other words they were local stories. But I’ve always believed that in fact, it is the truth, that every national story is in fact a local story – for somebody. You know, any disaster is always local to somebody. So that was the standard that we set for the series called ‘Just Williams’. Would they stand the test if they were being seen by a national audience …the fact that they might have been based in Newhaven, Southampton, Canterbury or wherever, was completely irrelevant, because you need to say something with your stories. And in fact what we did, the very first programme we produced was called ‘Secret Army’, and it was about the network of so-say Home Guards – or they weren’t Home Guards but they were disguised as Home Guards – the people who, if and when the Nazi invasion came to the South East, which it was felt that’s where it would come, they would simply go underground and pop up behind the advancing Panzers and blow up the rear guard and whatever. Their chance of surviving such an exercise was nil. But nonetheless there were lots of volunteers, and there are still areas in... In fact by the end of the war there were a series of dug-outs, concealed areas right the way round the coast of Scotland, across the South of England and up Wales as far as Scotland again, where these brave men and women were going to dive underground and then emerge fully-trained to kill and to blow up. Of course they weren’t .. Any able-bodied man and many able-bodied women were already in the forces, so the people that made up this secret army were farmers, teenagers, boy scouts almost, a quite extraordinary list of people. And in fact that programme was so successful that we then made two series of it: about the manuals that they had, the way that they manufactured the explosives in their back kitchens, whatever.
So that’s how you set out; you need to set a standard. Local doesn’t mean sub-standard. Local means you’ve got more interest in it because it happens to be happening in your back yard. The story is still of the same quality.
We also attacked .. Part of the job of regional television companies is actually to get on the network. They all have ambitions to do so and we did so quite heavily through our Religious Broadcasting. I hired as Head of Religion…
TDF 14650_03.MOV ends at
PW: cont.. Andrew Barr who had been passed over by the BBC as Head of Religion, I knew that and thought, this is a man of quality who may be ripe for a move – well he bit my hand off. And Andrew was a fine Head of Department, the Religious Department, contributing not only to – we contributed to ‘Songs of Praise’ - no we didn’t, we contributed to ‘Highway’, and we launched a series called ‘People Get Ready’ which was years ahead of its time, based on Gospel music and the rise of English Gospel music. But my brief covered Religion, Farming, the Arts and Factual Programmes, as broad as you like really. The relationship with the Current Affairs programmes headed by Clive Jones was also interesting, because of course there’s a cross-over there – Clive, a great friend of mine, a forceful competitor if I can put it that way (he’s Welsh!)..
MS: I see! Now Peter, I express ignorance here, how come the studio in Maidstone was set up – was that part of their large franchise, what do you think about its final demise and so on, can you talk me through that?
PW: Yes. Part of the attraction of the various bits for the Southern franchise was a desire that there should be a proper place there, a proper production unit there. And TVS very cleverly placed three of their Controllers in the South East and three or four in Southampton. And that was a declaration of intent, and to accommodate the three departments that were going to Maidstone they built a purpose-built studio, which subsequently was hired by other people, simply for the facilities.
Launching a new studio is a really interesting experience because you’re all newcomers. It’s not like coming into something where.. You’re not trying to elbow your way into an existing team. We had Children’s, headed by Anna Hume, later by Nigel Pickard; we had me, Factual Programmes, and TVS did it properly. It was a new studio complex which produced programmes – oh and the Children’s of course, it actually won the Children’s Saturday morning franchise. And that was a major breakthrough for the company because every time you contribute to the Network you get Network money, and that keeps the shareholders happy. When we lost to Meridian …
MS: Maybe we could .. how come..
PW: .. we lost? TVS went confidently into the next round, in fact ..
MS: next round of what?
PW: .. the next round of franchise. TVS went confidently into what became the last round of franchise changes. It went confidently based on its programme record. Well, my department, we got 14 one-hour documentaries on the Network in a single year. By this time Greg Dyke was Controller of Programmes and I got on very well with Greg, and he was an inspirational Controller – the horizons seemed limitless.
Unfortunately the Board of TVS had other ideas, and there was a injection of American interest, if I can put it that way, into the TVS Board. The then Chairman, who shall remain nameless, asked the existing Board, ‘What was the prime purpose for TVS’ existence?’ The answer was ‘We make television programmes’.
So he said, ‘Well if you lose the franchise what are you going to do?’ and we said ‘Well we don’t think we will lose the franchise’. He said, ‘But you must not lose the franchise, this is very obvious’.
We were at that time bidding 35 million pounds for the privilege – and as it happens that would have been enough to have won comfortably. Under the influence of the Americans who owned MTM and who seemed to have limitless money, that bid went up to 72 million pounds, and the IBA at that time (or the ITA – whichever it was) decided that it was very unlikely that a company such as TVS could actually honour a fee of 75 or 72 million pounds. And they were probably right, they were probably right that we had no need to do it – as it happens 35 million would have won it. And I think it may not have changed hands with Meridian who came in with a much lower bid. So, in a way, beware of boardroom decisions, just beware!
MS: So TVS disappears, what happens to you?
PW: Oh I decided to become an Independent. It seemed to me that..
MS: Could you just take me along..
PW: When TVS lost its franchise and I looked at myself and thought that there would not be that many companies falling over themselves to hire a 59-year-old Controller of Factual Programmes, but I did still want to keep making programmes. You know, it seemed to me that if you’re a journalist you’re a journalist, if you’ve got a story to tell you need to tell it. So I became one of a rash of independents, which resulted from the fallout of the latest round of franchises.
I had always had my own company, Peter Williams Television, and I decided to develop that company, and also to form a second company called Studio Z so that there could be a separation or there could be a coming together. But however it was, there was a market there because legislation was such that a proportion of broadcast programmes had to come from the independent sector. Therefore I decided to become part of the independent sector wholly, and not look for a job elsewhere. It’s quite nice being your own boss sometimes!
MS: So what was that like, what was your first success, how dodgy was it. I mean suddenly, if you’re given a pot of money, you could do what you like – but how do you get the pot of money?
PW: Well of course we had no money. So I had to go the local branch of the NatWest and try to explain to them that a commission was as good as having money. In those days you’d get about 200 thousand pounds to make a one-hour programme [I’ll say that again]
In those days you would get up to 200 thousand pounds to make a one-hour programme. And I remember going to my small group bank manager and trying to explain to him that we only had to get a commission for something like that – and that was as good as having 212 thousand pounds in the bank. He couldn’t grasp that; so I had to mortgage my house and put the whole house on the line in order to raise money, to borrow money in order to make the first programme.
I mean I consulted everybody I needed to consult, i.e. Jo [wife] and we decided that this was worth the risk. And gradually the bank realised that yes, it’s true, that actually once you’ve made and delivered a programme, you got 200 thousand pounds.
Other than that it was a question of recruiting people I liked and had worked with, who would want to come to work with me rather than, or in addition to, some of the broadcasters. Because this was in a way quite a new concept and the independent sector, who answered to nobody except the regulators of broadcasting and the commissioning editors who gave you the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – did they want that programme or didn’t they – and if they did, this was the amount of money they were going to pay for it.
So suddenly I was much more of a businessman, rather than an internal political businessman fighting for money which was in the pot owned by the company. I was now in the real world fighting for money not only to finance from the companies which were going to broadcast it, but also looking for sponsors to make programmes as well. Because often seed money at the beginning of a project is the most important money that you can get.
MS: What was the first film, did you get your money back on it, did you make a profit?
PW: I can’t remember what it was, but the answer’s ‘Yes’. I can’t remember because I never ever went into the red. I’ve never ever gone into the red, certainly not while I’ve been an independent.
MS: What was the first film?
PW: I honestly can’t remember.
MS: But with the volume that you produced Peter, surely ..
PW: But it’s true you see..
MS: That’s alright, you’re an independent producer, right, a different job. When did you start to get a real buzz; when did you think, yes hang on, this is the right way to do it..
PW: I don’t think I ever.. I mean the buzz is getting the programme on the air, doesn’t matter who, or how you make it. It doesn’t worry me, I never really worried... money doesn’t mean that much to me actually. And that’s possibly because I’ve never been in the red, and it’s important that you know this.. the fact that I was making them as ‘Peter Williams Television’ didn’t really make any difference from making them for Meridian – not Meridian, but Southern or BBC or whoever, because the achievement is in telling the story.
MS: I was interested in the esteem part of it. I was wondering what it was, because you know how much it cost you in money that you were able to create and to make it in your own way, ways in which perhaps you didn’t always .. also did you not feel any freer as an independent?
PW: No, not really. Because I always reckon that you make your film in the way you want to make the film, and they either keep you on or they get rid of you. And I mean, you know that’s really where it is.
The art of this whole thing that we’re talking about, is how you tell the story. And they have a beginning and a middle and an end and it’s as simple as that – it’s as simple, and it’s as difficult, as that.
MS: This is true but the vision that –
[End of 14650_04.MOV]
MS: cont ..you have brought to things, is to go for that story and to turn that story into something. In many ways I think, you have obsessions, I think you’re right, it’s part of the .. you’re an obsessive I think. Would it be correct to call you a workaholic?
PW: No I don’t think so, because I’ve had a very, very vigorous private life.
MS: How did you manage being both a work .. in my terms Peter, how did you manage being a workaholic and having a decent.. I mean don’t you put a strain... the hours that you have to put in to make a programme, that makes you somebody else for most people and their families – how did you do it?
PW: Well, in my book I have a chapter called ‘Missions’ – in the book that I wrote – and actually they were missions that Jeremy Isaacs, who founded Channel Four, was my first boss at Associated Rediffusion, whatever, he used to send me out on missions when things were difficult, almost as a last resort he would say ‘Try and sort this out’. Now in a way there’s no difference between a professional and a private life. If there’s something worth doing you can do it, you find time to do it and you take people along with you, including your family, if you can.
That’s why I’ve been able to do a lot of charitable work, because they have understood why…
I told you the story right at the very beginning about Hill 112, and that was only because the chap who was dying asked me to do it. And then you look at it and say, well is it worth doing, and the answer is ‘Yes’. And there was an underlying question: if you don’t do it, is it going to happen? And if the answer if ‘Not likely’ then you’ve got to do it. Haven’t you?
MS: Have you?
PW: Yes I think you do. I think you do. I think you do. I think you’ve got to agonise about it though, and then you’ve got to say ‘I’ve got to do it’.
MS: It strikes me listening to you then .. we’ll get round to it as a question.. you talk about ‘missions’ – it sounds to me that really, with your desire for slots to tell stories and programmes, that actually you’re something like a vicar or a priest even; you are telling people regularly, ‘Look there’s this thing and you should know..I mean,
PW: I never say you should know, I never say you should know – I’m simply saying ‘If you choose, did you know..?’
MS: Were they sermons?
PW: No, I don’t think so. Well.. I mean I don’t know, what’s a sermon? I mean the first thing that comes to mind when you say, ‘What’s a sermon’ is ‘What is boring?’ I hope none of the stories that we filmed have been boring. I’ve never really looked at..
MS: A sermon to me is the vicar getting up and doing his fifteen minutes, in your case it was half-an-hour or an hour – you’re very greedy! – do you see yourself in that role?
MS: .. to say something that is important – I think you do!
PW: No I see myself as a messenger rather than a sermon. I see myself as a messenger, I think that is true. I don’t see myself as a finger-wagging ‘you should know this because it will be good’. I don’t see that; I do see ‘here are choices and you may not know it’.. and you may not know it, but if you want to know it – here it is, the best way I can tell it.
I don’t see it as .. it’s interesting you should say that.. I don’t feel that I’m setting agendas for people, I do feel that I’m contributing to the agenda that they may wish to respect.
MS: Isn’t that what a good religious person believes in, if only this person knew this, they’d do that, it would be so much better for them and for the world. It seems to me right that you’ve made the programmes that you’ve made, in the numbers that you’ve made them, that you’ve been so successful, that you have a desire to tell people things. But I want to move away from this..
PW: No no, I’d like to answer that, because it’s very interesting. I don’t know whether.. I don’t know how many people know I’m a Christian. I’ll bet that not many people at ‘This Week’ knew that I was a Christian and I don’t believe that that’s... To me, it’s very relevant. To the output – I’m not sure that it is.
MS: I’ll tell you why: you’re a firm believer in the need for ethics, you’re a firm believer in the way this should be done, that is the model that you have offered in doing it. I’m not a Christian as you know from working, we’ve never had a day..
PW: We’ve never had any difficulty in working together.
MS: This is true [laughter]
PW: Do you notice I wagged my finger at you!
MS: Did you notice, people, I told you!
MS: Peter, I’m going to go back from the sublime, if you like, to the corblimey.
Labour relations in commercial television were something else, weren’t they really. I have a list here.
Even on ‘This Week’: you had a Reporter, a Director, a Researcher, two people on Camera, two people on Sound, a union Electrician for lights, and a Production Assistant to deal with all the business.
PW: And even if you didn’t have lights you took an electrician with you just in case.
MS: Precisely, and they had to be in the Union, so they were there. I mean, how on earth did you cope with that number of people .. you can move onto.. I mean this is not an anti-union tirade because lots of the equipment you had on the truck(?) but could you explain what you had to work with in those days, to make a ‘This Week’? How many people did it really involve?
PW: I can’t tell you, it seems about 20. I would think about 20. Historically – you will know this but I’ll just say it – the reason that Thames Television travelled with crews of 12, it was the residue of a big-picture agreement, that feature films would function only with a team of 12 with all the roles that you’ve just outlined – sparks, sound men, whatever. It was a hindrance in a way, simply because of the expense involved in taking 12 people when you only needed 5 or 6, I mean you did need 5 or 6. And of course the other part of the big-picture agreement was that everybody travelled first-class. That was an item ..
MS: .. over a thousand miles..
PW: Well everybody travelled first-class when we went, yes, more than a thousand miles, and that seemed to me a lot of money. Incidentally the only people... it seemed to me anyway, and I noted wrily, I don’t think we’ve talked about it very much, but the people who usually complained about the food and the first-class were usually the assistant cameraman. Or the sparks.
MS: Always the sparks.
PW: But it was an interesting sociological experiment, if I can put it that way, and you were carrying excess baggage. But there is a huge argument for larger crews than currently exist. Because when I see a cameraman carrying the tripod, having to think about what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it, taking some of the equipment that’s necessary in addition to that – without an assistant and even a sound man – it just seems to me to be crazy and, in a very Thatcherite way, threatening the product simply in the interest of financial return. I see absolutely no justification for this, I’m impatient with shareholders who believe that they have a greater entitlement to the money than the people who are making the product.
MS: I’m going to take you now.. I think we’ve covered much of.. I’m going to do one more substantial thing, then I’ll consult my producer who will tell me whether I’ve..
PW: I always used to ask everybody at the end, now what haven’t I asked, and this was at the end of three hours so usually they were asleep!
MS: I found it interesting that when we started talking, you spoke so strongly about the miners of Kent. And then you end up making a feature-length, for God’s sake a feature length, 90-odd minute film, about miners. Really, towards the very end of your life … and there’s bloody Welshmen in it again! How do you see.. just tell me a little bit about that film: how did it happen, why was it ..? How on earth did you get 90 minutes?
PW: Well that was no problem at all, the 90 minutes. When I first came to Kent from the West Country, I had no idea that there was even a Kent coalfield. In fact what was really interesting was that there were many people in Kent who didn’t know there was a Kent coalfield – now just think about that for a moment, scores of thousands of men working there, and people in their own county, certainly in the west of the county not even knowing that it existed.
And I thought this was a damned good story, and from then on for the next thirty years, I tried to interest every Channel you could think of in making a documentary about this unique story. It was unique because every single miner who came here, came down the mines at Betteshanger or Snowdown – everyone of them came from somewhere outside the county. So that sociologically it was a shift rather like a tribe of Israel, wandering round and then suddenly coalescing in the county of Kent, in the county of East Kent – in a very small area of East Kent.
And they brought with them all their traditions, they brought whippet racing, the Welsh brought their choirs, I mean, they brought their Rugby. In fact many of them recruited .. People went from Kent back to South Wales – forgive me I know more about this, about South Wales, than I do about Newcastle! They went back to South Wales with specific instruction to get a good fly-half. But they would have to “Go to Bargoed, I think there’s someone there, he’s very promising, see if you can get him”. And for many years the Rugby teams were – are still, very good. They still are, Betteshanger Rugby Team is still extremely good with a predominance of Welsh in there.
They brought choirs with them, the Snowdown Male Voice Choir is still going and they still sing Welsh tunes. None of them can speak a word of Welsh, but they learn the Welsh phonetically and they sing ‘Myfanwy’ and the traditions are still there. And the thing which appealed to me, it was twofold: from the very moment I heard the story I couldn’t understand why nobody had ever told it, nobody had ever written it, and there’d never been a film made about it. It’s tiny films for the local news and that.
And the second thing was, the community that is there simply because…
Ends at 13’ 53”
..they are all incomers, all of them. There is necessarily a defensive feeling there, therefore what they did was to build within their community everything they wanted, so you didn’t have to go to Canterbury or anywhere like that. So that East Kent became almost a little... well like a Warsaw Ghetto almost, if you know what I mean. They wouldn’t thank me for it putting that way, but that’s how it was. They didn’t need anybody else. And because, when they came into an agricultural county they encountered such hostility, that drove them even more into a..sort of ’let’s circle the wagons chaps, because we’re alright inside this enclave’.
I mean when they came down, there were legion boarding houses with ‘No Miners’ in the same way as in the South they said ‘No Blacks’. ‘No Miners’ – they were not welcomed on public transport, because there were no baths, and when they got on the bus in their blacks they left dirty seats even though they sat on newspapers, they left.. they soiled the seats with their coal dust. Later it was better when the mine owners decided they could afford baths for the men to at least go home clean.
And .. my grandfather was a collier anyway, before he became a docker, and.. they are real people, they’re just real people. I got involved with them towards the end of my career because I’d chaired a number of charities, and the most recent one was to build a new theatre in Canterbury called the Marlowe Theatre, which we did; and it’s there and it’s 1200 seats, and it’s big enough, you know, to attract Division One performances. And because of that they decided they wanted to build a mining museum to tell the story of the mines – this was after 1989 and all the pits were shut. And that in itself is a tragic story, you know I called the film ‘A Century of Coal’ because it was precisely a hundred years from the beginning – when they found the coal when they were digging, trying to find a Channel Tunnel – to the end, when Jim Davis opened the door for the last time and Betteshanger switched off the lights, shut the door, and that was the end of the field.
It’s a dramatic story and it’s an embraceable story, and I wanted to tell it .. and they were..
MS: And no television company was interested.
PW: No, not at all! Can you believe it - yes you can, of course you can because you’ve been in it..
MS: You took it around.
PW: Oh yes, I took it to everybody including Channel Four; you’d have thought Channel Four would’ve bitten my hand off, but no. No idea. I don’t think people took it seriously, even in its death throes I don’t think they took a coalfield in Kent seriously. They were interested in the big stories in South Wales or whatever, but the small story actually told the story better.
Anyway, they needed to raise money for this, we’d raised four and a half million for the theatre, and we had a target of, I think, 1.7 million for the Museum. I went along and one of the things I said was, ‘Look, let’s tell the story’. And in fact it’s been shown in cinemas already and the Museum will open in the Spring and we’ll re-show it again there. And it’s a great story – I wrote a book about it as well – at last, at last it’s on the record.
And, hey, Martha Gellhorn said something to me when I was a young..
MS: Martha Gellhorn..
PW: Martha Gellhorn was the mistress of Hemingway.
MS: I’m going to stop you now. Peter, you’re a journalist, to you journalism is important, it’s a life work, it’s doing things. I’d like you to do two things: I’d like you to tell me a few of the journalists who you think have really done something – is there anyone in television who you think we should be seeing in that light?
And then I’d like to ask you to interest a youngster who thinks maybe he could do it. I wonder for example whether you would wish to do it again. Can you tell me: Heroes? Journalists?
PW: Well I’ve got a number of heroes. My father first, without any doubt at all, because not only did he show me that he believed that it was a vocation and if you didn’t believe it was a vocation then don’t do it.
The second person who impressed me enormously is – I got to know Martha Gellhorn quite well and Martha was the mistress of Hemingway. She was also the first correspondent, man or woman, to go ashore at D-Day. In fact she’d just fallen out with Hemingway, and Hemingway was an official correspondent, but he was delayed because the early stages of the D-Day landings were rather difficult.
But on Martha, Martha pretended she was a nurse on a hospital ship and she got to France before he did, and actually got her report back before he did – which gave her enormous pleasure!
Anyway I got to know her quite well, and went to see her when she was in Wales, and I will never forget what she said to me, that was: ‘The only thing that matters, Peter, as a journalist is to get it on the record’.
And she was talking about everything, we talked about Nazi Germany, we talked about the value of Nuremberg, we talked about the atomic bomb, we talked about von Braun and how the Americans had bent – and we now know – bent their ethics, if you like, for the sake of information which they could only get from Germany or Japan. We talked all about that and she just suddenly said – ‘The only thing that matters to a journalist is to get it on the record’ – and she was right!
You asked me earlier, you were querying why I did stuff, it’s to get it on the record. If it’s worth doing, you’ve got to get it on the record. Because you may be wrong in your interpretation, but if it’s not there – you know, I’m not telling people to do it, I’m simply saying ‘There it is, make up your mind.. make up your mind’. And in a way that’s how we’ve always made films.
You’re the same; you don’t say ‘Do this or do that’, you say ‘Here are the facts’. And that’s my job: here are the facts, you make up your mind. You don’t write the script before you leave the studio.
The film is a development right from the very first spark of idea to the transmission on the screen. It always develops doesn’t it. It develops and then even you learn, not even you – even us, we learn don’t we, from the process. And we are enormously privileged... one thing we haven’t talked about is the privilege that we enjoy – and sometimes we forget.
We have, simply because of what we do, the power to get into other people’s lives and to interpret them, and that’s a duty! It’s a duty to do it fairly.
MS: Peter, I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry that I can think of, who’s covered as much as you.
PW: You don’t have to say that.
MS: No it is there. I’m amazed that you’re not a household word outside of television, you’ve done it incredibly well. As I say, I was fortunate working with you myself..
PW: You’ll have me crying in a minute!
MS: (.. yes you should cry!) What would you say to a youngster who comes to you ..
Well I’ll just ask you one more: Would you do it all again?
PW: Oh yes, without any doubt at all. And anybody thinking of coming into the business: you’ve only got to remember one thing, and that is – is it worth doing. Is it worth doing, and if it is, get it on the record.
MS: OK, would you just keep running for a minute..
Viv, have I left anything out?
Vivien Pottersman: I don’t think so.
I just wonder if you’ve got any views as a reporter of some note, about the current ‘celebrity’ reporting that we see on television.
PW: Well I can answer that easily. I’ve never believed that the reporter is .. what was the phrase you used?
PW: Celebrity... I’ve always believed that the story is more important than the man or woman who’s telling it. Sometimes the celebrity reporter can get in the way, simply because of their personality, which often is enviable and powerful. But I think there is a danger in what has been called ‘celebrity’ reporting, there is a danger that the story gets forgotten in the desire for a personality to push forward what he or she thinks. And I just think it’s a danger. There are different ways of telling stories, but I do prefer to put the story first, and occasionally emerge!
(Record buzz track )
Angela, you were saying?
Angela Smith: Listening to Peter, one thing that strikes me, and I don’t think it’s been mentioned, is that
essentially it seems to me that Peter uses his empathy, and it comes out of an awareness of the personal in the story and what it must be like to be in that story. And then out of that it spreads to the wider story, that that story is part of. Again and again, listening to Peter, it’s what it must be like, to be that person. Or those people.
MS: Peter, are there occasions when you become part of the story? Is that good or bad? And when it happens, do you sometimes feel –
[TDF14650_06.MOV] Ends at 13’ 53”
MS: cont. – you’re in the midst of it, what’s the effect of that?
PW: I try not to become part of the story. I think it’s inevitable, if you’re a human being, you become sympathetic and involved in particular situations. Well, I mean, childlessness was vastly misunderstood. Childlessness is a disease, it is an obsession, and when you’re involved in the attempt to create a baby outside the womb, then obviously you want it to happen so you’re involved. And I don’t think most people – I can’t speak for them all – but I don’t think most journalists are immune from the normal feelings of sympathy if that’s what you mean. Angie .. is that what you mean?
AS: The way you told the stories of what you do, it seems to me that what I’m hearing is an intense recognition of what being part of that story must be like for those people.
PW: I can’t say that, you see, I can’t say it. I can’t say, or I don’t believe anyway, that I have an empathy that is greater than anybody else’s. I don’t believe that’s the case.
AS: No I’m not saying it’s greater but I’m saying it seems possibly the core of how stories matter to you.
MS: I hear what you’re saying and I’m glad you’re hearing it, because it’s what I would wish you to hear, that’s coming from Peter. I think you’re absolutely right, that is something which I think is there, it’s not…
I’m trying to find some way of getting it out of you. Peter can’t say it and I know why he can’t say it – he can’t say it for the man he is. I mean you have said, time and time again, that for you it is ‘on the record’, it is the story that’s important. And I’d just like to close the sync bit of this by saying: That was the joy of working with you Peter, the fact that it was the story that was important – and you’re right, the story for us all was important, and in the end that’s all that’s important.
MS: Okay we’re going to cut..
PW: Thank you very much, you made it very easy.
Ends at 3’ 15”
INTERVIEW ENDED AT 4.10pm 03 November 2021
TDF14651_01.MOV = STILLS FOR INSERT WITH PETER WILLIAMS VOICE OVER
This is a ‘This Week’ Friday meeting with Philip Whitehead there (points) was Editor at that time. I am there (points) and that’s a pretty full team.
That’s me with an award from, I think, the New York Film Festival, as a young reporter I would have thought, with ‘This Week’.
That is the original TVS team of Controllers: Greg Dyke in the centre (points), Anna Hume (points), that’s me (points), Clive Jones my friemd and rival (points), another Welshman here, John Jones (OFF CAMERA)
That’s the team that made ‘The Queen and her Ceremonial Horses’ which unfortunately we didn’t mention. That’s my wife Jo (points), from the left – Tony Searle the director, then me, and then the rest of the crew really. (PUSH IN)
MS: I’d like you to talk about this one. Could you tell me the story behind this photograph Peter.
[01.48 PW with Horse ‘This is a photograph …. Won’t use this one’]
01.49 PW with HM Queen and Horse, PAN across
PW: This is the first interview that the Queen ever gave. We were making a film of a year in the life of the Royal News and at the behest of the then Controller, Sir John Miller – he said, Her Majesty will give you an interview. I said, Her Majesty doesn’t give interviews. He said, On this occasion she will.. and she did. The Buckingham Palace Press Office went absolutely spare and said, This is an absolutely terrible thing you’ve done, because we can no longer say ‘The Queen does not give interviews.’ We used the interview in three parts, and we reached an acceptable agreement with the Buckingham Palace Press Office that in their publicity they were able to say, ‘During [it] Peter Williams fell into conversation with Her Majesty’.
03.48 to 4.09 CU and Pan, HMQ to PW.
This is the original team, the original crew in Dover when I first came into television [PUSH IN].
This is the crew I worked with every day for 3 years. From the left, Barry who was the assistant cameraman, then the electrician whose name I’m appalled to say I’ve forgotten, then Ben Brightwell,
then (points) that’s me, that’s David Rea (points) director, and Bob Walker (points) who was the cameraman.
That’s charitable work. I was Chair of Viridor Credits for years and this was at the Boughton Village Hall,
I think. We made a big grant to them and they were able to build a hall. [Push in, CU, pull out to 2-shot]
That’s Archbishop Rowan, Rowan Williams [PAN across]
MS: Last one, where’s this Peter?
PW: This is in South Africa.
This is in South Africa, it just shows, with short crews everyone has to give a hand with the equipment.
[PUSH IN] That’s me with the gear, with the cameraman watching me struggle!
Ends at 7’ 16”