It all began over breakfast in St Petersburg. In August 1994 Ted Turner, global TV tycoon, idealistic internationalist and flamboyant philanthropist was hosting the Goodwill Games, his own alternative Olympics aimed at easing East-West tensions. The Cold War was over, but Turner was determined that a superpower stand-off which conditioned every aspect of politics and ideology for half a century would not be casually forgotten by either existing or future generations.
So, he turned to the senior colleague who was his breakfast guest that morning and instructed her to initiate a major documentary series about the Cold War. "And I want it to be headed up by that guy who made The World at War. Go get me Jeremy Irons!"
Thankfully, Pat Mitchell, President of Time Inc/Turner Original Productions, realised that her boss meant Jeremy Isaacs, the man who has initiated and produced some of the defining documentary series in the history of British television.
But, there was a snag. Channel 4's founding chief executive had turned his back on the television industry to serve as general director of the Royal Opera House. Initially, he wasn't too keen to plunge back into his old trade by taking on such a massive commission. Turner wanted 40 hours on the Cold War and Isaacs considered that far too much on anything.
Undeterred, Mitchell convinced Isaacs to stop over for a face-to-face meeting with Turner in Atlanta, Georgia, where his global newsgathering machine CNN is headquartered. The mogul happened to be attending his son's wedding in South Carolina, but he flew down in his private jet for the meeting. It was held in a restaurant called The 24th Flying Squadron in the airport grounds.
The two men talked non-stop for a full hour until Isaacs agreed to find a way to do it. He had only one condition - it would have to be shorter than 40 hours. Turner's parting words were every film-maker's prime fantasy: "Make it however long it needs to be."
Jeremy Isaacs Productions is now well on the way to completing a 24 hours series entitled Cold War, which will be screened in this country by the BBC next autumn. The series, narrated by the actor Kenneth Branagh in the same style as The World at War, is being made at the company's bland modern office building in Covent Garden by a truly cosmopolitan production team drawn from both sides of the old Iron Curtain.
"I'm the only American on the staff," says Pat Mitchell with pride. "We took a conscious decision to make it a truly global production. Ted specifically didn't want an American view of the Cold War."
Isaacs got the same instruction. "Obviously Ted Turner is in many ways irredeemably American, but he is also absolutely, genuinely and sincerely an internationalist," he confirms.
Turner approved Isaacs' treatment for the series in just 10 days. The production team - comprising media savvy historians and eminent journalists such as Neal Ascherson of the Independent on Sunday - then had just four months to write 24 separate scripts.
"Ted has been very involved," says Isaacs. "He views every episode as it's completed and leaves little messages saying how much he's enjoying them. I've never known anyone so high up in a TV company take that amount of interest in his station's output. But he never interferes."
Turner plainly places a lot of trust in Pat Mitchell, who has been been spending a full week out of every month in London since the series went into production. According to colleagues, this former news anchorwoman has been his factual programming "muse" since she returned to her home state of Georgia to pursue her first love - documentary-making.
Recapturing the Cold War has been particularly fascinating for Mitchell, who, as a child, watched her father construct a nuclear bunker in their backyard.
"Ted greeted me with a high five upon hearing that I was a Southerner," she recalls. Their working relationship got off to a flying start when Turner instantly gave her the go-ahead to produce a major series on the history of American women. The idea had been turned down by all the major US networks and by cable channels such as Discovery which specialise in factual programming.
"Ted is a great history buff," says Mitchell. "He really does believe that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past if we understand what happened. He's convinced that the impact of the Cold War will last for centuries and he's determined that his grandchildren will know about it."
To this end, Turner has instructed the producers of the series to hold on to all the material they collect and form it into a lasting archive. The material includes lengthy reflective interviews with every major player in the Cold War drama who's still around, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro and Ronald Reagan. They're hopeful of bagging the Baroness and maybe even the Cuban dictator, but Reagan's advanced illness means he is no longer the Great Communicator.
The producers have also had access to a mound of hitherto highly secret files in Moscow and Washington, which have been opened up to the public. This bountiful source of fresh revelations can be a frustration as well as a thrill, since scripts can only be rewritten so many times.
"Jeremy's involvement has given this project enormous credibility," says Mitchell. "There aren't many producers who would have the intellectual stamina to take on a project as big as this."
Isaacs is evidently back in his element. He has also accepted a commission from Turner Original Productions to produce a 10-part adaptation of Felipe Fernandez Armesto's monumental tome Millennium. That means summing up a whole century of history in an hour, pausing only for the commercial breaks.Reuse content