Television Documentaries: ITV's golden boy from a golden age

Documentaries made by Peter Morley - including an interview with Hitler's sister - remind us that independent television was not always just the home of populist television. He talks to Louise Jury about the National Film Theatre's ITV retrospective
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The Independent Online

Peter Morley was once the golden boy of ITV. As a television director of just four years' experience he flew to Munich in 1959 to carry out the only interviews ever given by Hitler's sister, his adjutant, his chauffeur and his pilot.

The resulting programme, Tyranny - the Years of Adolf Hitler, the first one-hour documentary on the comparatively new ITV, won 10 million viewers. He quickly - and, perhaps, curiously - capitalised on his success by persuading the programme controller to commission an original studio production of Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw, which Morley, an opera novice, had fallen in love with. It went out without a single note of music being cut and without commercials. "Can you imagine that happening today?" Morley asks.

Then he made programmes on post-war Japan, a player's eye view of the London Symphony Orchestra and mixed marriages - a hugely controversial subject in 1964 for which he received threats in the post.

Morley was in the enviable position of being there at the outset of TV documentary making, working on the blank canvas of a new medium where almost all subjects were new. "I just thought of those first 20 years of [independent] television as being a great adventure before it became the highly organised 'industry' it is now," he remembers.

From directing coverage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill to monumental The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, he built a heavyweight CV which overturns any misconceptions, should they exist, that ITV was only ever the home of populist programming.

His output was so significant that it is being featured in no fewer than three events at the National Film Theatre in London during November and December in celebrations of ITV's 50th birthday.

Morley, who was born in 1924, began work in a cinema projection box at the age of 16 because he wanted to get into film-making. After doing his wartime service with the 8th Hussars in tanks, he wangled a job as a film editor and made government information broadcasts and the like until, in 1955, a colleague suggested he join him at Associated Rediffusion and the new Independent Television empire.

Despite admitting at interview that he did not own a television and the only programme he had ever seen was the Queen's coronation two years earlier, Morley was in.

"They took the most appalling risks," Morley says now. "We were on the air fairly soon after that, having never been in a television studio. I got a ring binder called How to Budget a Programme. That's the only training I've ever had."

His first programmes were advertising magazines, which advertised products in a 15- to 20-minute scripted drama. "They were awful, but a marvellous training ground." He rapidly progressed to documentaries, starting with Fan Fever in 1956, an investigation of the new phenomenon of fan hysteria, a 17-episode series on MPs handling their constituents' problems, and a weekly show devoted entirely to London theatre.

"It was wildly exciting and huge fun. When it came to the actual programme-making part, there was nobody to tell you what to do or how to do it. There was no yardstick to go by," he recalls. "Everything was live. The word video, let alone video-recording, hadn't been invented. If you missed a programme, tough luck; I don't think we ever thought we were pioneers, but looking back we couldn't help but do pioneering work."

There was instant access to the controller of programmes. If he said yes, then shows were made - often quickly. Tyranny - the Years of Adolf Hitler was turned around in four weeks.

By that stage, Morley had teamed up with Cyril Bennett, a former Fleet Street journalist, and they wanted to tackle Hitler because they had not seen anything on him on TV before.

The programme was a live show involving figures such as Lord Bulloch, the historian and Nazi expert. But the element that grabbed headlines was the filmed inserts of the interviews carried out by Morley in Germany, thanks to an Austrian journalist who acted as go-between. "None of these people had ever been interviewed before or indeed since. They had refused so many offers of interviews. Somehow this Austrian journalist had some leverage," Morley says.

"They came in one by one and I did these interviews. You could see that all of them revered [Hitler] without embarrassment. It seemed perfectly natural to them to be still very much under his spell. What they said wasn't earth-shattering but the fact that they said anything at all was interesting. They gave enough to get a little insight into the Führer. Hitler's sister was very shy. It was quite difficult to get things out of her."

Paula Wolf, Hitler's sister, is seen discussing how her brother adored his mother but went against his father and how he was always the leader when the children played. "They must have had an instinct that his will was stronger than theirs," she said.

"The programme caused a great stir and got a huge rating," Morley says. Yet astonishingly, after broadcast, the footage was sold to America and rediscovered in archives in France only this year.

Morley was put in charge of Churchill's funeral arrangements for ITV; the five-hour programme was the first time ITV had ever covered a state occasion and beat the BBC to secure a Bafta. He also revitalised the current affairs series This Week before handing it over to Jeremy Isaacs. If there was one factor that distinguished his film-making, he believes it was a desire to remove unnecessary intrusion. For his award-winning documentary Kitty - Return to Auschwitz, in which he took an Auschwitz survivor back there for the first time in 1979, he simply put a microphone on her and let her talk.

"In the programmes I made, I tried to get the links between the person who had something to say and the audience as direct as possible, ideally without the intervention of a go-between or interviewer," he says.

He believes ITV's achievements should not be underestimated. "The advent of ITV broke the BBC monopoly and the BBC made the shock discovery that all of a sudden there was a huge audience out there they hadn't spoken to before. ITV made the BBC the great broadcasting organisation it became."

Peter Morley takes part in a screening on 'This Week' at the National Film Theatre on 23 November, and presents his Hitler footage as part of 'Missing Believed Wiped' at the NFT on 11 December.

'Kitty - Return to Auschwitz' is being shown with a discussion at the NFT tonight