Taylor Downing

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21 Apr 2017
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Born Hammersmith London and attended Latimer Upper School. Studied history at Cambridge University and then as a post-graduate, film at Bristol University and wanted to find a way to combine the two disciplines. A talk by Jerry Kuehl, on the making of The World at War series helped him realise that television historical documentaries could meet his aspirations. Became a researcher at Thames Television two years later. Refers to George Brandt at Bristol, first to have a tape recorder in his department. Getting a job, especially with an ITV company would require an ACTT union ‘ticket’ [membership card] so his first job was at the Imperial War Museum film department where Anne Fleming was his first boss [BEHP Interview No 698] and he was able to get his ACTT card. He describes his work cataloguing film: an ideal job although only for 8 or 9 months. A job teaching Twentieth Century history at Leeds University followed under Nicholas Pronay, an expert on the use of film as evidence. A job came up with Thames, as a researcher on a 3-part series Palestine: Abdication, from the First World War until 1948 (producer Richard Broad). He talks about Broad, his work and his caution about using ‘other people’s rushes’; they got on well dealing with the British Mandate in Palestine where there was a biased image of Palestinians from existing archive film which created an imbalance when set against Zionist accounts. The series won an Emmy and was highly regarded. Brian Winston’s review in The Listener talked about ‘Academy award winning film research’. Made for 1978 the 40th anniversary of Israel. Talks about the idea of balance and the radical idea of Palestinian Arabs representing themselves, rather than other governments speaking for them and how the word ‘Palestine’ was loaded at the time.

[10mins 30secs] Anecdote about the preview screenings.

Taylor refers to the differing costs of acquiring rights for clips for series, and getting the rights in perpetuity. Thames had the foresight to budget for programmes that would have international appeal and long shelf life. The World at War was the classic example of this. Palestine: Abdication was made according to the same principle, with rights bought where possible in perpetuity.  Regarding The World At War he talks about the quality of the writing and how Jerry Kuehl might be part of this. Talks a bit about the rather over-theatrical Laurence Olivier narration although it adds prestige. (Olivier hated doing it). They talk a little about Jerry Kuehl being the conscience of the production. Taylor was on freelance contracts and his next was to start work on a series that eventually became a History of Northern Ireland, The Troubles, (not the one with Robert Key) but an industrial dispute blocked the renewal of his contract. The Shop Steward instructed him to leave the building. He moved to a job at Granada Television in Golden Square as researcher on a series called Camera which was a history of photography. (Maxine Baker, producer; Martin Smith, director). Interviewer Murray Weston refers to Vicky Wegg-Prosser, former NFTVA Keeper and Taylor explains how Flashback Television comes about.

[20 mins 10secs] Next was a chance to direct at Central Television, on a series of 30-minute documentaries, observational ones about the Nottinghamshire police. Then returned to Thames as a Director on The Longest War (David Elstein was producer) on the Arab-Israeli conflicts. In 1982, Jeremy Isaacs was appointed as Channel 4’s new Chief Executive. Vicky Wegg-Prosser and Taylor submitted the idea to use film records to look at different aspects of 20th century history. In Vicky’s absence Taylor went to a meeting with C4 and was advised to form a company to make the programmes. With reluctance and as the series was already called Flashbacks, a limited company, Flashbacks, was formed with the intent of folding it after the series. Taylor and Murray talk a little about Jeremy Isaacs, and about Vicky’s work.

Taylor talks about Jeremy Isaacs inspiring leadership, his light managerial touch and his clear crisp focus of writing.

[30mins] First were two series of ten 30-minute programmes on Images of war and pacificism beginning with the Boer War issues about faking footage etc. finishing with the Falklands War; Vicky made a series on Images of the family and the state’s attitude to family and family life. A series on filming the Olympics, with the 1984 Olympics in LA, looming, got commissioned by C4. Then Vicky got an idea commissioned and the years rolled on; production activities were separated (as Taylor was also freelancing for Thames TV), so Flashback Productions Ltd was Vicky; Flashbacks Television was Taylor. Vicky did a series about the March of Time newsreels over 50 or 60 programmes.

Flashbacks is the story of a small independent production company through the 80s, 90s and 00, and the 1990 Broadcasting Act with its requirement for a quota of 25% from independents, showed the government taking it seriously.

35mins. Pitching to ITV and BBC ushered in second wave for Flashbacks which included diversification, so not just history but sports documentaries, drama-documentaries and new people with different skills came in. He talks about ‘poaching’ Neil Cleminson from Granada, a natural history programme maker who also made gardening programmes. David Edgar an ex-cameraman, became long-term partner at Flashbacks, with a different approach. Flashbacks originally made all Nigella Lawson’s cookery programmes [Nigella Bites]. Flashbacks had Farringdon offices with 40 to 60 staff, and Taylor felt he was reasonably successful at managing that. And in the 1990s a relationship had built up with Charlie Mayday a senior executive at Arts & Entertainment, New York who called Taylor to say they were setting up The History Channel and invited ideas from Taylor.

[40 mins] When Mayday visited the UK they went to IWM at Duxford and into the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress which led to a 40 episode series for the History Channel and over here on C4, and it was fantastic in business terms to be a pioneer in having an international arm, which is now pretty much standard. The series was written and edited in US style rather than being reversioned.  Talks about the American way of seeking other programme ideas. Also worked for the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic earning lot of money in dollars, which meant less dependency on the whims of UK commissioning editors. Cites a real example of a company having 1200 proposals for just 4 programmes a year to be independently made for them and how it is impossible to run a company waiting to be successful with your bid. The American money enabled Flashbacks to give people an idea and a chance to work, even if not actual training, and built up a repertory of talents, who would move on after a couple of years, which was never a problem and all stemmed from having a broad production base to allow that to happen. He describes the independent sector as it was, with specialist companies, and how he was keen to change that.

1990s After the Olympic movement had been undermined by the major boycotts Ted Turner the US TV mogul created the Goodwill Games (initially the USSR v USA). Turner then wanted to make a history of the Cold War and wanted Jeremy Isaacs involved;

[50mins] Isaacs, then running the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden was reluctant to return to TV. All the development for Cold War was done at Flashbacks

 With quite a substantial budget and Taylor talks about the production of a 20-episode series compared with a BBC project which had taken a year developing one half hour programme and talks about Ted Turner. Taylor describes his own part in a production that exemplifies the quality that money can bring. A little later the access to Soviet archives began to close down with the onset of the Putin era. The Cold War series did attract criticism in America for being even handed because the producers wanted to avoid US triumphalism and is now quite hard to see, but it was cleared for DVD and is used in educational projects. Taylor reflects on the changes to accessing film and written archives in the 1990s and early 2000s in Russia and the USA.


He suggests that here [UK] official archives are now struggling with newer formats as the commercial archives acquire collections and there is an expectation of ‘one-stop shop’ aggregation.

Using annual D-Day research requests as an example, Taylor talks about the obsession with familiar shots, which diminishes their power, and when combined with cuts to research time and budgets plus the use of junior researchers with little knowledge, impacts on the quality of documentaries although some great ones are still being made.

In reverting to talk about Flashbacks the 2003 Communications Act is raised which transformed the rights situation, giving producers the rights in what was created and increased revenue opportunities for the independent sector. Cites the example of RDF making £10 million in a year for format rights in one show. This stimulated growth and some independent companies merged and grew larger than some of the ITV companies. Flashbacks was approached by a number of companies but remained independent. In 2010 their office tenancy agreement renewal was going to be a 125% increase which was unaffordable and left David Edgar and Taylor looking at their options: become smaller; try and get much more work; or go virtual. They decided to wind down the company and staff (everybody got work).

[1hr10mins] He talks about his writing being important and feeling that he was ill-equipped for the technological challenges. The core company is still operating. He talks about the various business and licensing models including Netflix model; and how he was ‘ok’ with the shift personally from creative to business.

Looking back 1980s and 1990s independent sector was creatively the best place to be and perhaps had the edge, were a bit ‘hungrier’ than the BBC. The level of independence granted would not be possible today. Talks about his writing and about the awards his programmes earned including some for Al Jazeera. [1hr 20mins]

The trends: new platforms on which people receive material on, which will revolutionise how people access, but there will always be a place for the collective experience of watching the television in the corner.