Jeremy Wallington

Friday 14 March 2014 06:04

Jeremy Francis Wallington, publisher and television producer: born Watford, Hertfordshire 7 July 1935; Head of Documentaries, Granada Television 1972-77; Director of Programmes, Southern TV 1977-81; chief executive, Limehouse Productions 1982-86; director, Wallington, Irving, Jackson Ltd 1990-2001; publishing director, Headwater Cross-Media (formerly Headwater Communications) 1994-96, managing director 1996-2001; managing director, The Magazine Channel 1998-2001; married 1955 Margaret Willment (three sons, one daughter); died London 14 August 2001.

At any time in the middle 1970s a rather remarkable collection of talent could be found working, arguing and socialising in the London offices of Granada Television, in Golden Square in Soho. It was then arguably the most adventurous and in its way the most serious centre of television journalism anywhere outside the BBC. The cast included the present Lords Birt and Macdonald, one to become Director-General of the BBC, the other, after a successful business career with Scottish Media, transport minister in the second Blair cabinet.

Others who worked for Granada's flagship current affairs show, World in Action, or for the corona of documentaries and special programmes that surrounded it, included Barry Cox, now an elder statesman of commercial television; Norma Percy, then a researcher, now, with The Death of Yugoslavia and other documentaries, one of the most admired film-makers of her generation; other brilliant film-makers such as Roger Graef and Leslie Woodhead; and a floating population of television producers, journalists and film-makers with enough awards between them to fill anyone's silver cupboard.

Presiding over this ministry of all the talents for a decade between 1967 and 1977 was the debonair figure of Jeremy Wallington. His job title varied in the course of the fierce internecine struggles that were only to be expected when so many able and intensely ambitious young people were thrown together like cats in a sack. But many of his staff called Jeremy "the General" because of his remarkable gifts as a leader of gifted journalists, many of them more radical than he was.

His style was that of the Fifties, rather than the Sixties. He was a child, not of the Mersey or the Clyde, but of the suburbs: he could have been more easily imagined in a 1940 flying jacket with a polka-dotted foulard than in overalls and workboots. But his dandyish manner and light touch covered fierce commitment, great journalistic skill, and a relentless ambition, not to move up the executive ladder, but to stir up the complacent with great stories.

Jerry Wallington was one of the last generation to do National Service, and he was one of those who saw those two years not as an imposition but as an opportunity. Unlike many of his contemporaries in journalism, he did not go to university. After leaving Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, he worked briefly on the Slough Observer, and while in the RAF he wangled a job, in civvies of course, selling advertising for a service magazine. It was just enough experience to get him hired as aviation correspondent of the Bristol Evening Post. Always fast-moving, he soon switched to the Daily Mirror's gossip column, and from there he moved to the ill-fated Topic magazine, where he worked as head of the production team.

When in 1963, in spite of the rescue efforts of Michael Heseltine and his partner Clive Labovitch, Topic collapsed, Wallington's colleague Clive Irving sold himself and two colleagues, Wallington and Ron Hall, subsequently an influential journalist in his own right, to Denis Hamilton, editor of The Sunday Times, as a unit to start the once famous Insight team.

Wallington was in the right place at the right time. Fleet Street was expanding at last. Advertising was booming. And the times they were a-changing. It was not only sexual intercourse, as Philip Larkin said, that was invented in 1963. That miracle year also saw the arrival of the Beatles, Twiggy, satire, and a new journalism.

Early in 1963 Wallington, Hall and Irving arrived at The Sunday Times in Wallington's vintage Bentley, in time for the Profumo affair and its attendant ramifications. Their coverage was a revelation to those brought up under the old Fleet Street conventions. They called it the "news in a new dimension", and it soon delivered a series of journalistic hits. They turned their Profumo coverage into a successful book, Scandal '63 (1963), first of a catalogue of Insight books.

Their triumphs were not easily won. Hamilton was a wise and tolerant editor, but he had to take a lot of flak from friends who thought his young Turks were turning a Conservative paper into one that constantly attacked all that was dear to Tories. Especially bitter was the row, won by the Turkish persuasion, over a story linking the Tory MP Robert Boothby to the Kray brothers.

There were two strands to the new spirit that was tormenting Harold Macmillan's government and the clubland and grousemoor way of life he cherished. One was cheerful mockery, as represented by the satire boom and by Private Eye. The other, just as irreverent but more serious and more scrupulous about the facts, was the new investigative journalism.

Clive Irving was promoted to managing editor, responsible for news as opposed to features, and he took Wallington with him as his deputy. By this time the young Turks were hot items, and Wallington was hired away by Mike Randall, the able young editor of the Daily Mail.

In 1967 Wallington moved to Granada Television to start an investigative unit there, inspired by the prestige Insight had acquired. Again, he had arrived at the right place at the right moment. The brothers Bernstein ran Granada as a very successful business. But they were also willing to back up, and pay for, the kind of serious journalism that World in Action was doing under the blunt-spoken Australian Tim Hewat and his successors.

Jerry Wallington took over as editor of World in Action in 1970 and stayed on in various combinations and in various jobs until 1977. By this stage he was already drinking a lot, though how much his drinking was the result of frustrations in his relations with colleagues, and how much management lost confidence in him after a number of furious drink-fuelled rows, is something even close friends cannot be sure of. Colleagues greatly preferred Wallington's gentler style to the hobnailed approach of his rival Gus Macdonald, whose style then was a far cry from his urbane manner of recent years.

Unable to choose between them, management promoted a blander figure, Mike Scott, to be programme controller over both of their heads. But Wallington had achieved some notable successes, such as the first exposure of Idi Amin, in the face of the Foreign Office's insistence that he was a gallant British ally, and a powerful exposure of the dangers of asbestosis, The Dust at Acre Mill, that would have saved Lloyd's of London a few billion if they had taken any notice of it. "Jerry had an instinctive talent," one colleague remembers, "for seeing the point of a story, for marshalling the facts, and for developing narrative in a concise form."

In 1977 he left Granada and moved to Southern, where he introduced some original programming. But in 1981, for reasons unconnected with him, the company lost its franchise.

With impressive foresight, before Channel 4 created a new demand for independent production facilities, Wallington set up Limehouse Studios, in a lavish purpose-built production centre in Docklands. The site has disappeared under the office towers of Canary Wharf, but in its day it was the most advanced facility in London. Spitting Image, which kept the flame of 1960s irreverence alive in the age of Thatcherite triumphalism and business hegemony, was only one of the programmes produced there. Friends speak with misty eyes about the splendours, and the high alcohol content, of the party with which Wallington launched his new venture.

His later years were disappointing to him, and to those who admired him. But he was an important man. Much of the credit belongs to Wallington for the achievements of two of the most serious and courageous journalistic enterprises of his day. To paraphrase Burke, the age of journalistic chivalry is gone. In television and in newspapers, "that of sophisters, calculators and economists has succeeded". Or, in the words of a modern master, "Attention – attention must be finally paid to such a man!"

Godfrey Hodgson

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