My wonderful teachers at Chichester, Mr Gahan and Mr Smart, would have been mortified to hear that, in Doug Murgatroyd’s words, I “got bored” with Latin and Greek at Oxford. Languages, including dead ones, remain a passion of mine (I got GCSE Irish a couple of years ago). But I had an existential crisis at Oxford, right down to the clothes – everything black, turtle-neck sweater, the lot. I morphed from homme moyen intellectuel to homme moyen créatif . Never better than a terrible actor, I found directing plays an all-consuming activity which, after a while, people were prepared to pay me for. Sent down for missing six tutorials, I had only one career choice. The school plays had pointed towards it; Oxford, with its many opportunities to fail as a director, brought me slap up against it.
I was in the theatre for seventeen years, doing upwards of a hundred and fifty productions – most of them new plays, several by my friend and classmate Howard Brenton. I had a Fellowship in Theatre (not an academic redemption: it was a creative post). I ran the Sunday night programme at the Royal Court, London, for a couple of years. And for six years, I was Artistic Director at the Traverse, Edinburgh – the hub of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. By then I’d married the actress Tammy Ustinov.
In 1978 the Old Man and Mrs Anderson dropped in. I hadn’t seen them since I left the school. Sitting in my cramped office, the size of four broom cupboards, the Old Man waxed lyrical about David Horlock’s productions (RIP, David). God knows what he’d have made of the very different kind of theatre – the anti-establishment attitude, swearing, nudity – I’d sometimes been involved in up to then. I never saw him again.
Then, out of the blue, I was headhunted. The Head of Programmes at BBC Northern Ireland flew to Edinburgh and invited me to go to Belfast and commission scripts. He wanted to get BBC NI into network TV drama. It was breaking new ground – just my style. The Theatre Fellowship had been like that. So had the Traverse. I became the founding producer of the BBC NI TV drama department. My first production, “Too Late to Talk to Billy”, starring James Ellis (Bert Lynch in “Z Cars”, for those who remember it) was not only my debut as a producer but also that of Sir Kenneth Branagh as an actor. I spent three exciting, highly charged years, both professionally and personally, in Belfast. I produced, among others, two more “Billy” plays and the first two TV plays of Anne Devlin, who has been my wife for thirty years. It is my third and, surely, last marriage. From Belfast, I was invited to BBC Pebble Mill – for those who don’t remember it, Birmingham or Midlands. I began there with what still is, thirty-odd years later, my biggest high – becoming a dad – and a real low: a huge professional mistake. I’ve been asked for a BBC story: here it is.
“Negative checking” is a process by which producers of film, television and radio programmes seek to ensure that the names of fictional characters cannot be confused with real-life people. And not just individuals: the names of institutions, organisations, groups, etc. have to be checked as well. A department in the BBC (or whichever broadcaster) handles it: you send them the script(s), they check the names and come back to you with any that need to be changed, often suggesting substitutes. The primary reason for this practice is to prevent any possible legal action for libel which could result.
There’d been no better place to cut my teeth as a TV drama producer than Northern Ireland, except in one respect: there was no negative checking procedure when I was there. Or if there was, I wasn’t made aware of it. Instead, what happened was this. I passed any script going into production to the Head of Programmes to read. He might come back with a comment such as “You can’t use the name MacSwiggers for the Belfast car dealer. There’s a real Belfast car dealer called MacSwiggers”. And the name of the dealer would be changed. It only happened a couple of times early on during my three years in Northern Ireland. And I simply forgot about it.
So I went to Birmingham without the negative checking tool in my producer’s toolbox. Almost at once I was sent a script which I liked a lot. Let’s call it City Maze – I can’t use real names, as will become painfully apparent. A dark gleeful comedy, the play snaked its highly entertaining way through the underbelly of a northern city which had known better days, when the British Empire was at its zenith, and to which that Empire, in the form of thousands of people from former colonies, had now come home. I knew the city it was based on – I had spent three and a half great years making theatre there. And the writer, one of my successors in that job, knew it as well. In the play, he didn’t use the real names of the city, the local paper which featured in the story (its lead character was a reporter), a local police station, factories, clubs, streets…..his instinct had been right. If only we had stuck with it…. Anyway, clever-clogs here phoned the writer to say, “Why not use the real names? We both know what they are”. And the writer, eager to please, and not knowing about negative checks (why should he?), re-wrote the script, using all the real names. And we went into production. We had a wonderful cast: the lead actor is now an international film star, the second lead (alas, no longer with us) was one of the UK’s foremost comic actors, and the rest of the cast featured several household television names. We had an inspired director. All worked their socks off. The budget (it was a studio play, of a kind hardly ever made nowadays) was getting on for £200,000 – around £375,000 in today’s money.
Seven months later: City Maze was about to be transmitted. It was billed in the trade papers. The previews were good. Then the Head of Drama rang. Would I step by his office? I thought – there must be something wrong. And there was. The Head of Press and Publicity at TV Centre had rung. Had no negative checks been done? He’d consulted BBC lawyers. City Maze, it seemed, was actionable to the sum of almost its entire budget, plus costs. I offered my resignation: it was declined. Transmission of City Maze was cancelled. Again I offered to resign, and again the answer was no. And I treasure the postscript. The Head of Programmes at Pebble Mill (with whom I was later to become on the best of terms) wrote giving me a final warning and concluded: “I hope you realise that for the cost of City Maze, we could have made a hundred and fifty editions of Gardeners’ World”.
I was at the BBC for another fifteen years, twelve of them at Pebble Mill where, despite the inauspicious beginning, I eventually became Head of Drama. I produced a film written by my wife which took us back to Belfast, and her adaptation for BBC1 of D H Lawrence’s the rainbow. I also produced David Lodge’s adaptation of his novel Nice Work, and his adaptation of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. I worked across the range – contemporary and classic drama, TV films, serials (stories in several parts, e.g. The Night Manager), series (often police, medics, or lawyers, in many episodes, and returning year in year out, e.g. Casualty), and, yes, soaps. I worked at BBC Scotland and then London, where I was BBC Head of Series. Finally, I left the BBC to become Head of Drama, making programmes for ITV (The Bill) and Channel Five, at what started as Pearson and finally became Talkback Thames. I won a number of awards, including Baftas and Royal Television Society awards, which look good on the mantelpiece. And during all this, there was the delight of watching my son grow up to become the academic I had failed to be.
And now I’m back in Belfast, mainly developing movies through my own small independent company. Movies are hard – they can take years to reach the screen. Much of the work of a movie producer is taken up not with creativity, the nice part, but with logistics and, particularly, finance. In my own experience, roughly speaking the ratio of creativity to logistics/finance in my theatre work was 85:15. In television, it started as 60:40 and ended up as 40:60. In movies, so far it’s been 15:85. I’m an old dog now. But I hope there are enough years left for me to bring a movie or three to the big screen.
PS As a one-time classicist, I can’t resist chipping in on the matter of the translation of the school motto. I don’t think any of the three alternatives is satisfactory. The first depends on a now-defunct meaning of the word “issue”, and suffers from the baggage of more modern meanings of that over-used word. The second has the ghastly anachronism of the word “one”, a usage even Prince Charles has abandoned. The third strays so far from the sense of the Latin as to be a mistranslation. One of the staff, my Latin teacher I think, gave me a clear and still idiomatic translation: “Studies Lead to Character”. How about “From Studies Comes Character”?