Sir Denis Forman: Granada executive hailed as a pioneer of commercial television

 

The pipe-puffing, braces-wearing Denis Forman was one of the godfathers of commercial television in Britain. He firmly believed in making high-quality programmes that were also popular. Under his stewardship, Granada Television was particularly noted for the investigative journalism and dramas that it produced for the ITV network.

From 1956, when he had no job title and the Manchester-based company first broadcast to the North of England (reduced to the North-west in 1968), Forman gave staff the freedom to make programmes such as Coronation Street (launched in 1960), the quiz show University Challenge (from 1962) and the current affairs series World in Action (1963-98). Granada carved out its own identity, gave a different voice to the network – and was often seen as a dissident within the system. Forman and the Bernstein brothers, Sidney and Cecil, who founded the company, were glad to cultivate this image.

Forman gave his programme-makers his unwavering backing – even on facing the wrath of ITV's own regulator, such as when John Pilger's first documentary, "The Quiet Mutiny" (1970), made for World in Action, provoked fury from the Independent Television Authority. Pilger had revealed that thousands of American servicemen were refusing to follow orders; some told him of soldiers shooting their own officers. When Walter Annenberg, the US ambassador to Britain, complained, the ITA's chairman, Sir Robert Fraser, summoned Forman and World in Action's editor, the late Jeremy Wallington, to London.

"I've never known anyone go for us quite so ferociously," Wallington told me when I was researching my 2001 book In the Name of Justice: The Television Reporting of John Pilger. "He said, 'This is absolutely outrageous. Do you realise what you fucking people are doing? You're exploiting the generosity of the Americans, their commitment to broadcasting and publishing. You use their helicopters and their press officers, then you go in and totally abuse the American way of life and way of war.'

"He then said: 'What about Russia? What about China? Why don't you do something about them?' I made the point that we could not get access to those countries. Denis then told Sir Robert, 'I've heard what you have to say and taken note of it.' That was the end of the meeting, but we knew we'd lost a lot of Brownie points and were in dead trouble."

In the event, Forman not only rode out more battles with the television regulator, but he enabled his programme-makers to bring a new form to television – the drama-documentary, beginning with The Man Who Wouldn't Keep Quiet, a dramatisation of the diaries of the Russian dissident Major General Grigorenko. Later, Forman survived the threat of prison when Granada refused to reveal the sources of another World in Action programme.

Many of those who worked under him went on to forge illustrious careers inside and outside Granada. They included the directors Mike Newell, Michael Apted, Roland Joffé and Paul Greengrass, and the writers Jack Rosenthal, Jim Allen and Paul Abbott, as well as the producers Jeremy Isaacs, who became chief executive of Channel 4, and John Birt, a BBC director-general .

Granada's reputation soared to new heights following the appointment of Forman as chairman in 1974. The sumptuous Brideshead Revisited (1981) appeared to be the zenith of drama production, but he tried to eclipse it with another lavish adaptation, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), which was his own baby.

After reading Paul Scott's Staying On and Raj Quartet, entranced by the story's "ghosts and broken promises, and the inability to fulfil what might have been in terms of what the Raj could do for India", Forman resolved to make the 14-part series, filmed in India over four months, and took a credit as executive producer. The massive £5.5 million budget proved to be warranted when eight million viewers tuned in.

Forman was born in Dumfriesshire, the son of an Anglican priest who later became a Presbyterian minister. He recounted his rejection of religion in his childhood memoir Son of Adam (1990), which was later turned into a film, My Life So Far (1999).

After being educated at home, Forman attended Loretto School, Edinburgh, and Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1944, during Second World War service in the Army, he lost a leg at the Battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy. Keen to work in the film industry, Forman joined the Central Office of Information and became its chief production officer in 1947. A year later, he was appointed director of the British Film Institute, where he founded the National Film Theatre, on London's South Bank. (He was later the BFI's chairman, from 1971-73.)

Cecil Bernstein, one of the BFI governors, offered him a job at Granada Television in 1955, as the ITV franchise holder prepared for its launch. He retired from the company in 1987 but continued as deputy chairman of the Granada Group for three years. An opera lover since his post-war days, Forman served the Royal Opera House as director (1981-91) and deputy chairman (1983-91). He was made a Fellow of Bafta in 1977 and of the BFI in 1993. He wrote two further volumes of autobiography, To Reason Why (1991) and Persona Granada (1997).

John Denis Forman, television executive: born Craigielands, Dumfriesshire 13 October 1917; Director, Granada Television 1959, Managing Director 1965-81, Chairman, 1974-87; Kt 1976, OBE 1956; married 1948 Helen de Mouilpied (died 1987; two sons), 1990 Moni Cameron (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died London 24 February 2013.

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