George Orwell was right, this was indeed a big year, well for me, maybe not quite in the way he’d envisaged for the world as whole – we’d have to wait a little longer for that. It was the year in which I was made a trainee director. Granada TV had a course which was the envy of many a television company. I think it was the finest that existed – well I suppose I would, wouldn’t I – and a lot of great talent had come from it over the years. Mike Apted, Mike Newell, Roland Joffe and Charles Sturridge to name a few. It was a much sort after course which occurred only once every couple of years and was only available to maybe two or four people. It’s true to say, with the benefit of hindsight that, with the exception of Sarah Harding, who went on to become a highly successful drama director, it was pretty much a male domain, which is a shame.
I had spent the first part of the year in London, on unpaid leave, writing two sitcoms for Bill Podmore, which I talked about last week. I was also part of a stand up double act with my friend James Maw, one of the cleverest and funniest men I’ve ever met. It was a gay/straight act (loads of politics it was after all the eighties). In the middle of it we showed a couple of super 8 movies we’d made which the audiences seemed to absolutely love. I was dressed very smartly in one of James’ Anthony Price suits and he was in full eighties Village People leather gear. We were very nervous before our first gig at a pub just round the corner from where I live now, called the Hemingford Arms. It was a little black room above a pub. I remember the pair of us vomiting spontaneously, and with the complete synchronicity of a well-honed double act, in the urinals “backstage” just before we went on. The evening was compared by Arthur Smith and the act before us was Clive Anderson. We had a great time, got more confident, puked less and gigged more over the months. Then I got a call from Jules Burns up at Granada as my period of unpaid leave came to an end, telling me that there was going to be a directors’ board the following month and applications were due in by the end of the next week. This was to be an internal process this time round and not advertised in the Guardian. It was really kind of him to call me as he knew me not being due in the building again for a couple of months, I could well miss it. He was always a bemused supporter of mine and I will always be grateful for that call, it was very thoughtful. A few years later when he judged that my career, or rather I, needed a kick up the arse he said to me, ‘When are you going to get a move on. You’re getting too old to be “promising”’. I think I was all of twenty eight at the time.
Anyway back to 1984. I got through to the final board and I did something which I have, on occasion, advised other people to do when going for a job interview – if it’s done in the right way. If it’s something you want desperately, as I did with this, it’s all about that thirty minutes in the room. I didn’t want to leave not having answered every question, not having said everything I wanted to say. The interview was really important to me as I’d decided that if I didn’t get through I was going to leave Manchester and Granada. I thought that if I didn’t get it this time, I never would and so I needed to go. So in my mind there was a lot at stake. At the end of the interview on the sixth floor Mike Scott, the programme controller, brought things to a close by saying “Was there anything else you wanted to say?”, I was ready for this and so played my trump card. “Yes,” I said nervously, “I’d like to go round the table and as each one of you, individually, why you wouldn’t give me the job so I can answer that before I leave.” There was a pause then Scott said, “Because I think you’re an arrogant so and so and wouldn’t suffer fools gladly,” “Perfect qualifications for the job I’ve thought,” I replied. I moved on to Joyce Wooller who was an inscrutable ice queen in senior management, who refused to give an answer. Then Johnnie Hamp, “I’d give you the job,” he said laughing. Mike Cox, Rod Caird and Steve Hawes said the same. There were a couple of further abstentions but most people, like Steve Morrison smiled – I suppose at the cheek of it – and said if it were up to them, I’d get the job. I left the room feeling I’d done as best as I could. I felt I’d asked the question respectfully, but looking back on it I wonder whether I just came across as a cocky little shit.
The next day, or maybe it was that afternoon, I got a tiny envelope with a formal note from Jules Burns telling me I had the job. I couldn’t believe it. It was genuinely one of the happiest moments of my life. I reflect with interest now that the first people I called were the two Dereks, Granger and Jarman, both of whom were really pleased for me. Not my parents, I realise now, who sadly had never really been supportive of my choice of career. But I was swiftly brought down to earth when I got to Morrison’s office. I was working for a director called David Liddment who was making a musical called “There’s something wrong in Paradise,” starring Kid Creole and the Coconuts and written by the late Mustapha Matura. Instead of congratulating me ,he said I had a major problem with Mike Scott which I had to sort out immediately. He had single handily tried to persuade the board not to give me the job. This was news to me, I had hardly had any dealings with the man. Morrison said he had to take up some set models for the musical up to Scott, with Jim Weathrup the designer, and he needed me to help. “When I leave Scott’s office, stay,” he instructed me. So I did. The presentation was made, I hung about and Scott looked up and said well done on getting the job then warned me that he had his eye on me and if I wasn’t up to it I wouldn’t be made a director at the end of the course. To this day I have no idea what I did to him. But he was perfectly charming from then on. Morrison’s behaviour was classic Steve, but also typical of the kind of thing that happened in Quay Street. The older management or producers looking after the young as they made their way up. It was a very paternalistic organisation in a sense, an attitude which I think must have come down from the Bernstein brothers.
A producer called John Slater and the director David Liddiment were put in charge of myself and Spencer Campbell the other trainee. We both had hair down to our shoulders at the time and soon became inseparable. Indeed he ended up living in my house for the next six years and was best man at my wedding. The day before the course started we were instructed to meet John and David in the Granada bar – called the Old School. They walked in with two cans of unexposed film and two pieces of paper on which were typed two lines of dialogue. We were told that one line had to be shot interior and the other line exterior. We had a film crew for a day and a couple of actors. Where we shot and what we shot was entirely up to us. Who had the morning and who had the afternoon was also up to us. Then they left. We knew each other, but not terribly well. We looked at each other and started discussing what to do. We realised that splitting the day into two would waste a lot of shooting time. It would make a lot more sense if we shared the day, decided on the same interior location and shot it in turn, then an exterior location each within a five minute walk of each other. We also agreed we would floor manage/assist direct for the other. John said later that he was quite taken by the way we co-operated as it made such logistical sense, he had expected us to be ultra competitive with each other. In a way it was our first lesson in directing. In those few days we started to learn about three essentials every director should have – good time management, prioritising and the ability to listen and collaborate. In the end a good director needs to have the largest and smallest ego on set. Unfortunately too many directors only have the former.
One of the things about the Granada system was that you soon found yourself working with several people who had applied for the Directors course themselves – some several times – who all clearly felt they were better qualified and more talented to do the job. It was difficult at times, but in a weird way it was an inbuilt way of forcing you to grow in confidence and learn how to get the best out of anyone working with you.
The training course was great. At one point we had an OB (outside broadcast) exercise and Spencer, who is one of the most imaginative people I know when it comes to ideas, thought up the notion of remaking the famous 60’s Grabada documentary, “Johnny Cash in St Quentin”. Spencer’s idea was to make a show called “Hank Wangford in Strangeways.” It was designed as a training exercise in OB but we did a good enough job directing it together, that it was actually bought by Channel Four and broadcast. We took it in turns to direct the local news, Granada Reports where I met my future wife Rachel Purnell. We did training exercises shooting local bands in a small studio called Studio 2. I remember my frustration when asking a cameraman, probably John Scarott or Ernie Budd, to crab right and nothing happening. I kept asking for the move and nothing happened. They’d been instructed by Slater to say nothing so we could learn by our mistakes. When the camera refused to move on the fourth request I looked at Slater with an indignant “well what am I supposed to do if they’re not going to help?” at which point he told me to go out on the gantry. I went out to have a look only to see all four cameras bunched up together, in a corner against the cyclorama, with Scarrott on the inside unable to move, smiling up at me, knowingly. I simply had no idea about the way the cameras were moving on the floor. I was monitor watching, which is the same as ball watching in football.
Granada Reports was exhilarating, being live. I loved it. We both got through training and then moved through all the departments as was the Granada way. Through children’s TV, Light entertainment (for me travelling round the world in six weeks on Busman’s holiday, a quiz show, with a wonderful crew Mike B, Doug H, John C, Alan, Angela, producer Trish and researchers, Bill, Don and James – blimey that sounds like an acceptance speech…) Comedy and then the ultimate prize Coronation street. In children’s TV one of my favourite memories was working on Hold Tight on the mobile unit. We used to charge round Alton Towers in a Range Rover with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blasting out from the speakers. We shot interviews and bands like Simply Red, Bananarama and one day The Damned. I thought they would be a challenge so decided to dress entirely in leather for the day. When we turned up and put them and their gear in the middle of a field with a banquet table in front of them, they looked suitable unimpressed. However when we reappeared over the trees in a helicopter with the doors off, they sprang into life. Unfortunately we got too close and lifted both the banquet table and Rat Scabies’ drum kit right up into the air. We landed and they were laughing hysterically. We went up for a second take and had a great day with them. A couple of months later their management called and asked me to direct a video for them, which I would’ve loved to have done but I was committed to Granada and so couldn’t.
The comedy was a show called “Stop that Laughing at the Back” again for kids which James Maw, by then a producer at Granada, produced. The double act was briefly back in business. We even shot the titles on super 8 with the help of a bemused film cameraman, Doug Hallows. I remember to this day Roger Beck, who ran Film Operations at Granada, being absolutely appalled when I put the exposed film cartridges into an envelope addressed to Boots and left it in his out tray. It was what James and I had always done to get our films processed with great success and with the way I shot (I think it was 8 frames per second) I knew the result would come back perfectly. I think to this day it must be the only super 8 title sequence to have been shown on network TV.
But going back to the course we were very privileged that John and David concentrated on us, taught and guided us solidly for those six months. We learnt how to think on our feet, were given the time and space to mistake mistakes and learn from them. We understood about shooting music – I learnt how to direct multi camera from an orchestral score. We also had the benefit of learning from an army of amazingly talented women who were labelled “PA’s” but not in the modern sense. A misnomer if ever there was one. They were a mix of continuity, production management, line production and directing. Many of them went on to become producers, executive producers and directors of Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, and Lime pictures themselves. I learnt huge amounts from them, from their wealth of experience. Someone who had only recently been at the centre of the film crew of say Brideshead or Jewel in the Crown was now at your side with you as a trainee, treating you with just as much respect as they had given Charles Sturridge or Jim O’Brien.