Old-guard chairman of Granada who championed quality programming in commercial television
Tuesday 29 August 2006
David Ernest Plowright, television producer and executive: born Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire 11 December 1930; News Editor, Granada Television 1957-60, Producer, Current Affairs 1960-66, Editor, World in Action 1966-68, Head of Current Affairs 1968-69, Controller of Programmes 1969-79, joint managing director 1975-81, managing director 1981-87, chairman 1987-92; Chairman, Network Programme Committee, ITV 1980-82; Chairman, ITCA 1984-86; deputy chairman, Channel Four Television 1992-97; Visiting Professor in Media Studies, Salford University 1992-2006; CBE 1996; married 1953 Brenda Key (one son, two daughters); died Prestbury, Cheshire 25 August 2006.
For over two decades David Plowright was a leading and much-respected figure in the British television industry, one who had made an outstanding contribution to the high reputation of Granada Television. As he himself liked to quote, not for nothing had Granada been dubbed the best commercial television company in the world. The rancorous manner of his going was, therefore, dismaying and shocking to his colleagues and, after his own 35 years' service with Granada, a traumatic event for Plowright himself.
Plowright's sudden ousting occurred in 1992 shortly after he had pulled the brilliant coup of securing a new franchise for Granada with a very low bid, in the justified belief that there could be only one outcome. But it was also shortly after the board of the Granada Group, in order to arrest the group's declining fortunes, had enlisted the skills of Gerry Robinson, a notably resolute young Irish business leader who had recently achieved great financial success with his Compass catering company.
Robinson determined to turn the Granada Group towards financial health, while strenuously insisting on demanding new controls and frequently updated business plans across all the group's divisions including the television sector. Plowright, however, was not entirely willing to comply with all his new boss's orders, particularly when those demands included an increasing sacrifice of creative staff.
Plowright could have justly argued that he was producing such hit programmes as Coronation Street and World in Action while Robinson was still at school and that after five years as chairman of Granada Television he was sufficiently experienced to be allowed to run his own department.
His defiance certainly had an element of quixotic courage and his departure created a storm of anguished protest. His supporters recognised the respect which he had come to command and Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and John Cleese were among 100 writers who signed a letter to The Guardian. Protests also came from cast members of Coronation Street, members of the actors' union Equity and the Directors Guild of Great Britain.
John Birt, his former protégé as a young producer on World in Action and then Director-General Designate of the BBC, invited him to a dinner where his old colleagues, as a token of their loyalty and admiration, presented him with a BBC microphone.
Plowright's own views of these turbulent times were rueful but typically robust. "I'm not an easy man to tell what to do," he said in a newspaper interview:
I was quite a difficult problem with Granada. I was quite a difficult problem for the industry, come to that.
Now, after the sudden resignation of Charles Allen who succeeded Plowright as chairman of Granada, and with ITV rudderless and in disarray with the long-mooted closure of the Granada studios in Manchester - and the hallowed Granada brand name now removed from ITV's programming - Plowright's sacking comes even more to seem like a symbolic moment in the fortunes of British commercial broadcasting.
The era when Sidney Bernstein established the Granada ethos as a dedication to quality programming, and which had been continued under the charismatic leadership of Denis Forman, had been buoyed along by a spirit of high idealism and flowing profits. Today, in a multi-channel world with advertising spread thinly over many outlets, the competing lure of the web and seismic shifts in the national culture, Plowright's admirers will probably reflect that the golden age is well and truly over.
Plowright had arrived at Granada in 1957 at very beginning of that age. He was recruited from the Yorkshire Post where he was a reporter, and where his youthful passion for riding led to his being given the occasional byline of Equestrian Correspondent when it became his style to cover gymkhanas on horseback, appropriately dressed for the occasion.
His early assignments were on outside broadcasts and as a television news editor often working in the multi- purpose Granada manner as reporter, producer and presenter. He played a key role in Granada's pioneering election programme, Marathon, in 1968, in which every political candidate was given a voice, and in the coverage of the party conferences. His reporting style, characteristically dry and terse, became very much part of Granada's distinctive northern voice.
He came into his own when, in 1966, he took over the company's flagship current affairs programme, World in Action, to which he devoted great energy and canny editorial judgement, taking the programme frequently into dangerous political waters but giving it a new penetrative power.
In 1968 he became Head of Current Affairs and after this last assignment as a producer rose rapidly through the Granada ranks as a leading executive. For 10 years, from 1969, he was Controller of Programmes and then between 1975 and 1981 shared with Forman the managing directorship of the company. In 1975 he was made a director of the Granada Group and in 1987 became chairman of Granada Television.
Plowright was born in Scunthorpe in 1930, the youngest of three children, who all distinguished themselves in their chosen careers. His father, Ernest Plowright, was the Editor of the Scunthorpe Star. His elder brother, also Ernest, was to become Professor of Music at the Trinity College of Music, London, while his sister, the actress Dame Joan Plowright, in 1961 married Laurence Olivier and two years later helped found with him the National Theatre Company.
David Plowright, like his sister Joan, attended Scunthorpe Grammar School but left without greatly distinguishing himself except for demonstrating his strong interest in sport. Although he had worked at odd times on his father's newspaper, it was while he was doing his National Service in Germany with the Royal Corps of Signals that he undertook a special course in journalism; and after demobilisation he got his first job on the Yorkshire Post.
Plowright, a ruggedly handsome and powerfully built man with a dour and somewhat shy exterior, liked to present himself as a gruff northerner but beneath that exterior possessed a deep fund of warmth and sensitivity. His popularity with producers derived both from his stern integrity and his instinctive understanding of their problems.
Gus Macdonald, now a Labour peer and a former Minister for Transport, remembers going to him with Birt as two young World in Action producers to share their worries about the programme's getting into difficult territory - only to be boisterously encouraged to go even further. What, they enquired, should they do to keep the Independent Broadcasting Authority at bay? Plowright's reply was crisp: "Tell them to fuck off."
Friends suggested to him after he had become managing director to take a more flamboyant approach and go walkabout in the studios glad-handing the staff, a notion he coolly rejected as not being his style. A quiet chat, one-to-one, in the office, was his preferred method; during such encounters problems could be mulled over and tough decisions taken in a cool, pragmatic way.
After Brideshead Revisited was disrupted in 1979 by the three months' ITV technicians' strike, I warned him, as producer of the series, that, if relaunched, the show might easily founder. It was his bold decision to continue. As the schedule grew ever longer the only rebuke I received from him was a Telex with the simple message: "Do you ever intend to return to base?"
After his sister's marriage he established a strong bond with his brother-in-law and when Olivier was stricken by a life-threatening disease of muscular degeneration it was David Plowright who decided that Olivier's recuperation would be best served if he came to Granada to produce a series of six plays that were to include Pinter's The Collection and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams - in both of which Olivier also starred.
After Olivier's performance as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited Plowright had also arranged for him to film The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, J.B. Priestley's The Lost Empires and, last of all, Olivier's monumental King Lear, which was honoured in America by President Ronald Reagan with a special reception at the White House that Plowright also attended.
Plowright had kept his roots firmly in the North and in his large rambling house in Prestbury, Cheshire, always remained very much a family man. His one recreational diversion was sailing and, after several family holidays with caravan and dinghy, he took a master mariner's course in 1973 and acquired a streamlined motor-sailing launch which he would adventurously sail either to France or round the coast of Britain, often accompanied by David Scase, a former director of Manchester's Library Theatre, and Michael Winstanley, the Liberal peer.
Although his separation from Granada was wounding Plowright did not repine and threw himself into numerous public activities, becoming deputy chairman of Channel 4, Visiting Professor of Media Studies at Salford University and Chairman of the Manchester City of Drama Committee all in the same year.
In that same year, 1992, he was made a Fellow of Bafta and four years later he was appointed CBE for his services to television.
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