Sir Jeremy Isaacs: History man - a life in pictures

The career of broadcaster and former Channel 4 chief executive Sir Jeremy Isaacs is almost as long as the existence of British television itself. He talks to Raymond Snoddy about the medium's past, present and future

In researching his new book on a life spent mainly in television, and mainly making programmes, he has used the Act to get hold of files held on him at the BBC, where he formerly worked.

Not only did he find himself described as "a small, dark, Glaswegian Jew" but he also was finally able to uncover the details of the BBC politicking that led to one of the most harrowing episodes in his career, a bitter row that led to him losing the editorship of Panorama and heading off in a taxi for a weepy lunch in Knightsbridge.

Isaacs wanted Panorama to be a single-issue programme. The old guard wanted it to remain a magazine programme with many items, as it had been for years under its legendary presenter Richard Dimbleby. Isaacs was offered a choice. In effect, return the programme to a multiple format, or go. Isaacs decided to go and was snapped up by ITV.

"I found out from the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act that [the old guard] had presented me with this ultimatum two days before the governors were due to meet to consider whether or not they wanted a one-subject Panorama," says Isaacs with a wry smile. It turned out the governors shared the same view as Isaacs, but he was already off to join the world of commercial television.

Before long he was in charge of the rival single-issue current affairs programme This Week. He never looked back.

His book, Look Me in the Eye, A Life in Television, published this week, is not noticeably devoted to axe-grinding or savouring revenge over old tormentors. It is, he says simply a book by "a happy man looking back on what I enjoyed doing" and one that sought to return, after the event, some of the items in his CV that have been overlooked.

He fears his working life, which has spanned almost half a century of British broadcasting, has tended to be overshadowed by his majestic series for Thames - The World at War - and his years at Channel 4. "There was a bit more to it than that," says the 73-year-old.

He is keen to talk about how wonderful Thames Television was to work for in the old days when he was director of programmes long before the company was ruthlessly dispatched in Mrs Thatcher's franchise auction. "Thames was a really terrific company and people still today recognise that it was a loss," says Isaacs, who argues there was a fatal contradiction in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. On the one hand there was a quality threshold, which everyone had to get over, but the ability to determine what went in the schedule was taken away from the big ITV companies and given to Network Centre.

It gave Michael Green of Carlton what Isaacs calls "the perfect alibi" for not making the programmes he promised in his bid document including an ambitious series called Century on the 20th century which would have been made by Jeremy Isaacs.

Despite his abiding interest in programmes past, Sir Jeremy still runs a cool, experienced eye over the current broadcasting scene. His main preoccupation, not surprisingly, is the present state of Channel 4. "Channel 4, my baby, is not a baby any more. But I want to hear it praised for doing right, not sneered at for programmes that would make a tabloid blush," he says.

In his day Isaacs was not averse to using imported American programmes to help to pay for more adventurous domestic programme offerings. But although Kevin Lygo "is an extremely impressive director of television" and Andy Duncan " good chief executive", Isaacs believes they have to make up their minds whether Channel 4 is a public service channel or a commercial channel.

"I believe it is clear they are saying they are a public service channel. Well, all I can say is, it will be very, very difficult to claim whatever rewards they think might accrue if they are principally known for Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother," says Isaacs.

The former Channel 4 chief executive who launched the channel on 2 November 1982 with a schedule that included the film Walter, in which Ian McKellen played a mentally disabled man, dislikes Big Brother intensely. He concedes he cannot talk about it in detail because he makes a point of not watching. It is still, he writes, "a cynical money-spinner" and a programme that is "tacky and getting tackier".

"If Channel 4 were a gutter tabloid, bent on maximising profit, there would be no problem. But Channel 4 aims to be a public service broadcaster," he says.

A quizzical eye is also raised at the fact that the channel was "incredibly" prepared to flirt for a time with the idea of merging with Five. The idea was the brainchild of the then chief executive of Channel 4 Mark Thompson, now director-general of the BBC.

Isaacs is more than prepared to acknowledge that Channel 4 makes many terrific programmes. Indeed, as he speaks the word comes out that the channel has picked up the same number of nominations for the Royal Television Society's programme awards as BBC1 and BBC2 combined.

But Isaacs is still concerned about whether Channel 4 is really fulfilling its remit to offer something for all sections of the audience. "The marketing decisions that were taken some years ago to target particularly one audience, the 16-34-year-old audience which is particularly valuable to advertisers, has dominated too much of the channel's thinking and too much of its provision," he argues.

He points an accusing finger at the More4 channel for saying it would be "more Wife Swap than Wagner". Isaacs suggests that maybe it should be the other way around. "Does that mean perhaps we are going to get Wagner on the main channel, which I strongly doubt," says the former general director of the Royal Opera House.

Isaacs is concerned there is still a danger that "difficult subject matter such as the arts" will be shunted off to minority digital channels, an issue he sees as every bit as big a problem for the BBC. Channel 4, he believes, must remain a wide-ranging channel, as should the main terrestrial BBC channels.

He says: "I am one of those who adamantly thinks that up to and beyond the day when there is complete digital choice for everybody, the big BBC channels should be channels which address all our principal areas of interest. There should be science and current affairs and the arts on BBC1.".

He says he knows "for a fact" that Lygo increased the number of the current affairs series Dispatches from 12 a year to 40 only in response to he complaints of a number of "old codgers" such as himself, former Channel 4 chairman Sir Michael Bishop and Anthony Smith, the academic who fought for the creation of the channel.

They were denounced as "men in tweed" and, indeed, Sir Jeremy admits to having two tweed jackets. Today, dressed in a natty corduroy number (he also wears bright yellow socks), Isaacs is every bit as scathing about the BBC. "The BBC cannot get away with maintaining that Alan Yentob imitating Christine Keeler or Alan Yentob reporting on whatever happened to situation comedies at 11.25 at night is an adequate gesture in the direction of the arts," he snorts. "It is simply not and the governors should be ashamed of themselves - again - because that is what they have allowed it to come back to." The previous chairman of the BBC governors, Gavyn Davies, insisted that arts should be restored to the mainstream schedule, having virtually disappeared from BBC1 and BBC2.

ITV, Isaacs believes, is still hanging in there but isn't what it used to be. "Nobody will persuade me that Tonight with Trevor McDonald is the equivalent of This Week and World in Action and Weekend World and First Tuesday on Yorkshire," he says.

The broadcaster believes that despite the commercial and competitive pressures of multichannel television, ITV could and should do better rather than apparently trying to "slough off" some of its public service obligations. Commercial companies have to make profits and pay their shareholders, he acknowledges. But do they have to have profits in mind every minute? Couldn't they afford to let up here and there in the direction of quality, he asks rhetorically.

The Isaacs view is very much that of the programme-maker who wants to get brilliant programmes made. "I believe human beings always have a choice. I think there is no such thing as determinism that tells you 'You can't do this'. You can do it if you want to," he insists.

Isaacs believes the main problem with modern-day consumer-based television is that all the programmes about what we cook, eat, wear, drive and where we go on holiday crowd out other things. "This leaves little room for poetry, for religion, for medieval church architecture, for books, for ideas," concludes Isaacs, who sits surrounded by books and paintings in his stylish, two-level apartment on the South Bank of the River Thames.

He doesn't watch as much television these days as he used to, often preferring to read a book. But he still has firm favourites, including old staples such as Newsnight, Channel 4 News - he insisted there should be an hour-long news programme on the channel - and live football.

But he also is a big fan of Jamie Oliver's Jamie's School Dinners even though it has left dinnerladies up and down the land chopping tons of carrots when the children still pine for chips and crisps. "I enjoyed very much Strictly Come Dancing because I was a fan of the old original. My absolutely favourite programme at the moment is Who Do You Think You Are?. It's dazzlingly sympathetic and human and good and an intelligent way of helping us to understand ourselves - doing exactly what television should do," he says.

Sir Jeremy's influence on the shape of British television might have been greater if he had managed to become director-general of the BBC in 1988. In his book he sets out the pitch he made to the BBC governors. It was to stop the corporation's institutional expansion and spend more money on quality programmes.

He also addressed an issue that still hasn't gone away - the fact that the BBC director-general has two quite different jobs, running the organisation and being editor-in-chief responsible for all programmes.

Isaacs suggested that the model brought from the Financial Times to Channel 4 by Justin Dukes, the channel's first managing director, should be used at the BBC. He would be editor-in-chief and that someone else - Isaacs suggested it should be Michael Checkland, who was actually appointed director-general, would run the organisation.

Isaacs realised he would never be director-general of the BBC when one of the governors, the Salvationist Sir John Boyd, remarked: "You don't look to me like a man who takes kindly to discipline."

The Channel 4 chief executive could not help smiling. "I can see by the smile on your face that you take that as a compliment, but I can assure you that I, and others here, see it as a criticism," said Sir John.

Isaacs believes that if the role had been split as he recommended, he might have been "a passable" director-general - certainly one who might have improved the morale of programme-makers and protected a wide range of programming. He concedes that he would not have been "anything like as aggressive" as John Birt in restructuring the corporation or had either his vision or boldness in planning the digital future.

"If your principal concern - and the book says I am a programme-maker first and last - if your principal concern is what you are putting on the screen this week, next month, next year, the year after that, then it is hard to keep that in your mind together with changing everything," Isaacs admits.

After nine years at the Royal Opera House, Isaacs returned to programme production and with the encouragement of Rupert Murdoch and Sky set out to create a television arts channel. After a tough year raising the money, Artsworld was set up and run with John Hambley, a former Thames executive.

"Sky was tremendously welcoming and supportive," says Isaacs. But in retrospect a few things could have been done differently. Too much money was probably spent on programmes. Viewers mainly wanted great performances and lots of recorded material was available relatively cheaply. Launching an arts magazine at a cost of £1m was probably an unnecessary expense. And anyway not all fans of the arts wanted to have to get a Sky satellite dish and take out a basic Sky subscription before being able to pay for Artsworld.

Somehow the channel survived and Isaacs declares himself "more than content" with the final outcome, now that Artsworld is part of the general Sky line-up. "Here is Sky committed to supporting the English National Opera with Artsworld and the programming is just as solidly satisfying as we offered," says Isaacs.

In the UK Isaacs chaired a BBC2 series called Three of a Kind involving newspaper editors, football managers and opera directors stressing their common professional interests. It was not re-commissioned.

In recent years his large television projects have come courtesy of CNN founder Ted Turner rather than any British broadcaster. Turner wanted a television history of the Cold War and demanded that his staff got "that Jeremy Irons" to do it. Isaacs got a budget of more than $10m to tell the story across 45 years and more than 500 interviews. The series won a Peabody award.

Then Turner came back for "a millennium project" which turned into Millennium: a Thousand Years of History over 10 hours of television.

He is very circumspect about family matters in his memoirs. Of the death of his first wife Tamara from cancer he says simply: "I carry memories of her. It was time to begin again."

Asked about the unusually laconic sentences, Sir Jeremy replies: "It's all very private. Family matters are private matters."

Yet after a pause he does explain further - expressing the regrets of a generation of broadcasters that spent too much time making television programmes and too little time with their families. "If you are a workaholic and you work in television and work too hard - Panorama was seven days a week, The World at War six and a half - the family is playing too little a part in your life," he admits. He welcomes the fact that today's broadcasters are much more likely to be off with their children at half-term.

Sir Jeremy claims he is retired now and is not going around trying to sell television ideas to people. There has been a pause of the past two years to concentrate on the book. But if he had the chance to do something again?

"I wouldn't mind chairing an intelligent discussion programme which we badly need," he says. He would also like to put on screen arts performance programmes which would be neither very grand nor very expensive but would allow a painter, a poet or musician to communicate with the viewer.

"I would like to do that on BBC1, BBC2 or Channel 4 if anyone would have me as a sort of impresario," says the man who once received a school prize from the hands of Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC.

The BBC comment about a "small, dark, Glaswegian Jew" was made by one NS Holmes after a young and unemployed Isaacs had applied for a post as a general trainee. Holmes also wrote of his interviewee: "Very much alive. Should be invited to board." He may not have been politically correct, but Holmes could at least recognise talent.

Jeremy Isaacs' Look Me in the Eye, A Life in Television is published by Little, Brown, price £20.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'