David Plowright

Old-guard chairman of Granada who championed quality programming in commercial television


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.

Derek Granger

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015