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
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The Independent Online

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.