Profile: Jeremy Isaacs: The nice Jewish bruiser is coming round again

The man who put controversy into television will not lie down.
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The Independent Online
THE NAME of Sir Jeremy Isaacs has been popping up all over the place. He was among the awe-inspiring roster of commercial television mandarins who the other day signed a magisterial letter to the Times admonishing the chairman of the Independent Television Commission, Sir Robin Biggam, not to allow ITV to get News at Ten.

Sir Jeremy, as Covent Garden's general director until last year, has inevitably been mentioned in background reports accompanying last Wednesday's news that Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the Royal Opera House board, has cut Floral Street's Gordian knot by shutting down operatic performances and taking the axe to staffing. And, with the advent next Saturday of the first in a six-month series, Cold War, to be transmitted on BBC TV, Sir Jeremy as co-executive producer has been to the fore in puffing the programme.

But then it almost seems that there has never been a time when Isaacs has not been to the fore. Coming up to his 66th birthday in a couple of weeks, he has had his name before the public for 40 years, ever since he became producer of Granada TV's What The Papers Say.

He looks like a thruster, even a bruiser, short and thick-set, with features and accent which confirm that he is a nice Jewish boy from Glasgow (with parents named Isidore Isaacs and Sara Jacobs). His sharp, staccato delivery of firm opinions seems to imply, however, that he is capable of not being quite so nice and that anyone who disagrees with him has got something wrong with them. When engaged in controversy, as he not infrequently is, he tends to go in with all guns blazing. In expressing disagreement in a magazine article with the report on Covent Garden issued by the parliamentary select committee of which I am chairman, he discarded our points by calling me his "erstwhile pal".

On the other hand, when I subsequently encountered him at a party, he was customarily cordial. He later wrote me a letter trying - in vain, I am afraid - to touch me for a contribution towards erecting a statue of Oscar Wilde, yet another of his multifarious causes. He is, in fact, a very nice man, whom it is advisable not to get on the wrong side of.

He is a nice man who has endured personal traumas and sadness. His brother Michael was, with Michael's wife, killed by a Palestinian terrorist bomb in Jerusalem in 1974. Jeremy's first wife, Tamara, whom he married in his mid-20's (they had a son and daughter together) died in 1986.

Isaacs has had disappointments in his career, too. He took it badly when he was passed over for the director generalship of the BBC; though, when he was producer of Panorama, his rough and tumble relationship with the Beeb showed he and that stuffy institution were not precisely soulmates. A member of the BBC's interviewing board was probably right in telling him: "Mr Isaacs, you don't seem to me like a man who takes kindly to discipline."

Sir Jeremy was the son of a jeweller domiciled in perhaps the only refined district in Glasgow, Hillhead. At Oxford he became president of the union. He did his National Service, some might think incongruously, in the Highland Light Infantry. He found his metier in commercial television, perhaps surprisingly since he has always been a lefty in politics - though his chairmanship of Oxford University Labour Club is one of the few distinctions not listed in a Who's Who entry replete with honorary degrees and awards from all over the world. Yet ITV gave him scope to innovate.

It was Isaacs who, as producer of This Week, used that peak-hour ITV documentary slot to cover one-theme issues. It was he who created one of the most impressive series ever to run on British television, The World At War. And although he displayed a formidable talent at the sharp edge of frontline programme making, he went on to demonstrate that he possessed the qualities needed for distinguished tenure of executive positions in a succession of ITV companies.

Then came Channel 4; and, if Isaacs had done nothing else in his life, his creation of that idiosyncratic TV channel - a unique hybrid in being a public sector service funded by commercials - would justify his entire career. Channel 4 is sui generis in that, of all the television channels, it alone is required to conform to a statutory remit to "appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by Channel 3" and to encourage "innovation and experiment". Isaacs abided punctiliously by the dictates of the broadcasting act. He created an admirable - if controversial - television channel with perhaps the most distinctive personality in world broadcasting.

Then came the poisoned chalice of the general directorship of Covent Garden. There are those who sniff at Isaacs' musical credentials; but he is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a wide musical spectrum. Since he left Covent Garden I have seen him at many concerts where he clearly has bought his own tickets - a far from customary procedure in a world where free seats are regarded as an automatic perk. He is almost invariably accompanied by his second wife, Gillian Widdicombe, who was a newspaper arts editor and a powerful figure in advocating the introduction of surtitles which Isaacs, who took criticism at the time, brought to Covent Garden where they have proved a popular feature.

Isaacs cares about opera. I had a sharp difference of opinion with him at the Wexford Festival, when he championed one of those "concept productions". Concept productions were certainly not absent from the ROH when he was in charge; Electra in a Sewer, Idomeneo After a Nuclear Holocaust, Fidelio with Stilts.

Yet it is acknowledged that, in partnership with Bernard Haitink, he elevated artistic standards to impressive heights; just about as impressive as the heights of the prices he introduced for top tickets (pounds 200-plus in some cases). As the flak rained about him, Isaacs must have yearned for the tranquillity of television's World At War. There were strikes; there was the problem - notoriously not solved - of finalising a home for the opera and ballet companies during the closure period brought about by the massive reconstruction that Isaacs instituted.

There was the controversy surrounding the television series The House when - not entirely happy to be at the receiving end of investigative journalism - Isaacs let the BBC's cameras into Covent Garden, revealing a world of confusion and back-biting that came as a shock to innocents with no experience of how artistic institutions operate. There were the questions about his continued receipt of the pounds 105,000 annual salary months after he left the ROH at the beginning of last year (working out his contract, he explained). There is argument about his period at Covent Garden. A report by Lady Warnock appeared to criticise him. Someone with whom he worked closely in television had said of Isaacs: "He is wonderfully creative. But keep him away from the money." This was not, of course, any kind of reflection on his personal integrity. It was a forerunner of a statement in the Warnock report that, during Isaacs' regime at Covent Garden, there was a tendency "to decide what is right artistically first and to count the cost later". While Isaacs felt able to demonstrate that he eliminated the financial deficit, by the time he left prospects were dire. The crisis broke after he had moved on.

While Isaacs was still at Covent Garden, he was contacted by Ted Turner, the eccentric boss of the American CNN channel. As Isaacs has recounted, Turner instructed his underlings to find him "that Jeremy Irons, who made The World At War". This week's Cold War inaugural programme is the result, and already Isaacs is preparing for a further series, Millennium.

Sir Jeremy's talents have been recognised not only by an American tycoon but by Her Majesty The Queen, who two years ago conferred a knighthood on him. "Sir Jeremy, at last", proclaimed Isaacs in a magazine article, as though his appearance in the honours list should have been automatic, and was in any case long overdue. Isaacs' remarkable career has certainly earned plaudits. There ought to be a television series about him. Maybe Ted Turner could commission Jeremy Irons to produce it.