LESSONS OF HISTORY / Flagship blown by TV trade winds: Lord Bernstein's creative legacy is proving difficult to live up to, writes Michael Leapman
Monday 29 March 1993
That in itself is no real surprise. Vested interests - a combination of defeated bidders, displaced employees and those who predicted that the 1990 Broadcasting Act was a recipe for disaster - were always going to make life tough for the victors.
Less predictable was the target of the heaviest assault. Granada, the venerable contractor for north-west England, has for years been lauded by the liberal establishment and the arts elite for programmes ranging from Coronation Street through Brideshead Revisited to World in Action. It seemed the one company whose history would render it impervious to blame.
Yet Ann Clwyd, the Labour national heritage spokeswoman, has made an official protest about the departure of key personnel and important programme commitments allegedly unmet. Her campaign has been supported by big names in television and the arts.
Ten days ago the Independent Television Commission rejected the complaints out of hand. Not even its friends, though, deny that Granada, the only original contractor left from the start of ITV in the mid-Fifties, is not the company it was.
Sir Denis Forman, who helped Sidney Bernstein set it up in 1955 and was its chairman from 1974 to 1987, said: 'It had a special quality that is not replicable today. What made it special was Sidney's selection of people, who together sparked an approach to television and an ethos that was particularly Granada. He had to like them.'
Leslie Woodhead, on the staff for 28 years until 1989, agreed. 'The great joy of working there was a sense of shared purpose. It was never spelt out or laid down but all of us knew why we were there and what we were doing - making good television for the widest possible audience without compromising standards.'
How that philosophy has been trimmed to the new ITV environment can be seen by comparing Granada's application for its latest franchise renewal with the one it made in the previous round in 1980.
Then, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the ITC's predecessor, had suggested to the Manchester-based broadcaster that some of its programmes were attracting fewer viewers than was desirable for the main ITV channel. The company was not standing for any of that nonsense.
'Granada does not believe that research into audience appreciation should become a factor weighing too heavily upon the creative people who make the programmes,' it replied witheringly. 'The most efficient form of audience research has usually proved that since Rin Tin Tin is the most popular film of the year, the producer would be well advised for his next venture to make Son of Rin Tin Tin.
'We believe that, particularly in areas of drama and imaginative programmes, creative talent should lead and not react to public opinion.'
In other words, we make the programmes we want to make and trust the audience to tune in: the Granada creed at its purest. In the next few years the company produced the classic but scarcely populist drama series Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown.
Then came the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the fruit of Margaret Thatcher's personal crusade against ITV's self-satisfaction and wasteful industrial practices. At the same time, new satellite and cable channels brought the first real competition for advertising revenue.
In its application for its current contract, Granada adopted a less haughty tone: 'Quality cannot be detached from economic realities . . . Granada is proud of its record but it prefers to plan ahead rather than dwell on the past.' Maybe Son of Rin Tin Tin would not be such a bad idea.
Yet to cite history to support attacks on the recent changes is an over-simplification. Sidney Bernstein's Granada was far from a profligate company bent on quality at any price.
Lord Bernstein, who died this year aged 93, kept a sharp eye on costs. 'Sidney would have accepted the economic necessity of making changes,' Sir Denis Forman said. 'He ran the group on a very tight economic rein.'
Legends of his parsimony abound: he is said to have once complained that there was too much sand in the fire buckets at the Manchester studio.
Derek Granger, a long-serving former executive, recalled giving a party at a local pub to celebrate the first anniversary of Coronation Street in 1961. 'The champagne ran out and I ordered some more. The bill came to pounds 115 and I got into the most terrible trouble. Finally I got a letter from Sidney with his personal cheque. He said he wouldn't put it to the board as a legitimate public expense, but would instead pay it himself.'
Mr Granger added: 'It was a matter of honour to him that something should be profitable. He thought it was scruffy if it wasn't. He felt a moral obligation to make a profit.'
Granada's original decision to go into television was essentially a business one. It was a thriving cinema chain in the southern half of England in the 1950s, run by Sidney Bernstein and his brother Cecil.
They could see that the advance of television would make inroads into cinema audiences and they were straining to breach the BBC's monopoly well before Parliament passed the legislation to establish commercial television in 1954.
When applications for franchises were invited, Granada plumped for the North - an ITV region that then included Yorkshire as well as Lancashire.
Although the Bernsteins had no roots there, they knew that the London weekday franchise would go to the powerful Associated Rediffusion consortium and persuaded themselves that they could make money as well as high-quality programmes in Manchester.
Sidney made the point that it was a strong base for the theatre, music and arts and added, only half joking, that the wet weather would encourage people to stay indoors and watch.
His concern for the financial viability of the project led him into a controversial deal with Associated Rediffusion, which remained secret for some years and which would not have been approved by many of his idealistic staff if they had known about it. It was complex, but in essence it meant that the London company funded all Granada's programmes for the network, in return for a high percentage of the revenue it earned.
Paradoxically, Bernstein had reservations about allowing commercial messages to be beamed direct to homes. An idealistic socialist, he feared their corrupting influence.
In evidence to the Beveridge Committee examining the question of commercial television in 1949 he said: 'The right of access to the domestic sound and television receivers of millions of people carries with it such great propaganda power that it cannot be entrusted to any person or bodies other than a public corporation.'
His diffidence about soiling culture with commerce explains the curious homily that rounded off the station's first night on air on 3 May 1956 (eight months after Associated Rediffusion's London start-up).
'You can use Granada advertisements as a trustworthy guide to wise spending,' viewers were told. 'Wise spending eventually saves money . . . So before we shop let us say to ourselves: 'Is it essential?' '
As the critic Jack Tinker wrote in The Television Barons (Quartet, 1980): 'It made the whole operation seem as if Lord Reith himself had invented the commercial break.'
Bernstein was a tremendous admirer of the BBC - one of his first night's programmes was a tribute to the corporation - but refused to recruit staff from it. 'We did not want to replicate BBC practices, customs or attitudes,' Sir Denis Forman explained. 'We wanted a fresh stream of television.'
Brian Winston, a former World in Action producer, now head of the School of Journalism at the University of Wales in Cardiff, said: 'He hired all those maniacs and let them get on with it. He was strong enough to know that was how you got it done.'
Maniac in chief, by common consent, was the Australian Tim Hewat, who created World in Action. 'Tim loved to play the role of the appalling Australian,' Mr Granger said, 'the coarse, shocking, rough-diamond hillbilly - the hairy ape.'
Bernstein accepted his excesses with equanimity: 'We can all do with a bit of roughage, Tim,' he would assure him at his most provocative moments.
Mr Hewat worked first on What the Papers Say, commercial television's longest running programme, launched in Granada's first year as a counter to press criticism of the fledgling industry. Then he started Searchlight, examining such sensitive issues as race relations, homosexuality and venereal disease.
That led in 1962 to World in Action, still one of ITV's principal weekly current affairs programmes. It set a pattern for television journalism that infuriated some and caused repeated clashes with the then Independent Television Authority and its successor regulatory bodies.
'Our attitude was to question everything,' Sir Denis recalled. 'The BBC had been very complaisant in complying with authority and praising authority. We wanted to challenge that, to question authority in politics, industry, local affairs and everything else. It was later called investigative journalism.'
One of the first successes was in establishing the right to cover elections. The BBC thought it improper and possibly illegal to discuss elections for several weeks before polling day, for fear of influencing voters. Granada broke the taboo in 1958 at the Rochdale by-election, and in the general election the following year all the candidates in 'Granadaland' - Bernstein's inspired name for the region - were given a chance to put their case. Since then elections have increasingly been contested on the small screen.
'We had rows with authority over everything,' Sir Denis said. 'The Poulson affair, defence, security - I was often hauled up in Whitehall and given dire warnings by ministers and civil servants. We were regarded as a bit of a danger. That's quite gone - you can be much franker and more open today.'
He does not endorse the Clwyd view that today's Granada is ducking its responsibilities. 'The general mood that it's all passed into the hands of people who can only count the money and look at the profits is not true . . . There's too much whingeing. If only they'd get on and make the shows.'
For many, the moment that signalled the end of the old Granada was the resignation of its executive chairman David Plowright in February 1992. Like Sir Denis Forman, Mr Plowright had been there since the beginning. He left because he fell out with Gerry Robinson, the new chief executive of Granada Group, the leisure-centred conglomerate of which the television company is just one component. Mr Robinson, who came from the catering industry, wanted cuts in staffing that Mr Plowright thought would destroy his ability to make quality programmes.
'All pretension of good programme making in ITV now falls by the wayside,' grumbled Sir Paul Fox, a former mandarin of both the BBC and ITV, when he learned of Mr Plowright's departure. In a letter to the Guardian, 112 writers and directors, including Alan Bennett, John Cleese and Harold Pinter, called it 'a black day not just for Granada but for British television as a whole'.
Black day or not, Mr Robinson's changes had a dramatic effect on the balance sheet. The profits of the television division for 1992 were, at pounds 33m, 50 per cent up on 1991.
In a lecture last November, Mr Plowright deplored the shift in power in ITV from creative people to 'those with skills in business administration, care of balance sheets'. He added: 'It is not enough to dismiss concerns about future programme values and policies as nostalgia.'
Steve Morrison, managing director of Granada Television and a veteran of 19 years, said such concerns were misplaced. Although the company has shed 300 staff jobs in two years, it is still the largest employer in ITV and now the largest supplier to the network. It has 900 people on the staff and 400 on short- term contracts.
No company has guaranteed slots on the network schedule and the Broadcasting Act says that 25 per cent of programmes must be made by independents. This makes it risky to employ too many permanent staff. The pressure to maximise audiences could mean pushing serious programmes out of the prime-time schedule.
Yet as evidence of a continued commitment to quality, Mr Morrison can justly point to the success of the two Prime Suspect series and to World In Action, which last week had an audience of 10.8 million for its programme on juvenile crime in Cardiff - the kind of topic with which it made its name in the Sixties.
'The lesson of history,' Mr Morrison said, 'is that Granada is reinvigorating itself to capture some of the vital, popular quality it had at the beginning but not losing the bottle or the ambition to do the major projects.'
Ms Clwyd and her supporters may not accept that self-endorsement. Even so, they must know that if by some mischance the ITC were to succumb to their pressure and take away Granada's franchise, the company that replaced it - a company unburdened with its history - would be even less to their taste.
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