Since the granadaland oral history project (www.granadaland.org) began we have interviewed well over 120 people who used to work for Granada Television, mainly in Manchester. Most of the interviews have lasted for an hour, some as many as three hours. And many of them have had fascinating stories to tell. As an oral historian I particularly like stories, but then I’ve spent most of my working life as a journalist, so that’s hardly surprising. But I do think that stories add colour and life to an interview. You don’t just want facts, you also want a few tales.
When I compiled an oral history of British soldiers in the Korean War some years ago the best interviews were those when soldiers told of the hardships; living life in the trenches, going to the toilet when the temperature was -20 degrees and with one or two what happened when they were taken captive by the Chinese.
‘If I’d been nicked for stealing a bike back home, I’d know exactly how long I’d be serving in prison,’ one former soldier told me, ‘but when I was captured by the Chinese I had no idea how long it would be. It could be a few months, it could be years, it could be forever.’ It turned out to be two years.
He’d never spoken to anyone about his ordeal and as he delved into his memory, the tears rolled down his cheeks. He was suddenly reliving an experience that none of us have known and which had left deep scars. A 200 mile march, torture, held in a camp, brainwashing, dysentery, fellow prisoners dying. That was when oral history came to life.
There was nothing quite so dramatic in our granadaland oral history but what we did get were some revelations and some extremely funny tales. Like when the manager of the Liverpool office went for lunch one day. Now the office in Liverpool was based in a building in the corner of a rather elegant Victorian square behind the Town Hall. Occasionally we did some interviews out in the square (one day I filmed Red Rum ) and the windows of adjoining buildings would fly open with people looking to see what was going on. Often it would be accompanied by the general manager receiving complaints about the noise. Well, one day the manager went for one of his lengthy lunches and as he returned could hear loud whoops and the sound of horses. As he entered the square he saw wigwams had been erected and men dressed as red Indians riding around on horseback making appropriate noises. He instantly knew he was going to get earache for allowing this to happen. ‘So, what did I do ?’ he asked. ‘Well, I did what every good manager does, I turned around and went back to the pub for another hour or so.’ Yes, it was stories like this that brought our television history to life.
It was a mad world, well it certainly was when I worked there. Long hours, a family atmosphere, a wonderful canteen, award-winning programmes and of course good expenses. The Oscar nominated film director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, News of the World) told how he was rollicked by one producer when he was a young researcher because he’d got something wrong. ‘You say you want to be a director,’ snapped his producer, ‘well let me tell you, you’ll never make a film director, you’re crap.’ Well, he didn’t do too bad in the end.
Andy Harries, producer of The Crown, was told the same. ‘Look for another occupation, you’re not suited to television.’ Fortunately he stuck with it. And Brian Moser told how he went in search of Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. He arrived just a few hours too late, Guevara was lying on a slab dead, surrounded by Bolivian soldiers. But Brian did have the sense to take a photograph which has since been reproduced in countless publication around the world.
And there was a young Leslie Woodhead who was the first person to ever film the Beatles in the cavern, long before they became famous. And the producer of the evening magazine programme who brought in a group called The Rolling Stones. They created chaos. ‘We’re never having them back in this building again – under any circumstances,’ roared the Director of Programmes when he saw the carnage. A year or so later Granada filmed Stones In The Park and even later had Mick Jagger being famously interviewed on a World In Action special.
Television, as you might expect is full of glorious stories. But the project also explores how the technology has changed over the years from crews going out with nine people to today when an item can be filmed, recorded and presented by just one person.
On a more serious note it also threw up stories around trade unions in television, racism, homophobia and of course the issues facing women. One secretary applied for a job as a camera operator. ‘Don’t you think the camera might be a bit heavy for you luv?’ she was asked indignantly. Ah, yes, those were the days. Well not always.
In all we talked to a wide range of personnel from secretaries to managing directors, from film crews to electricians, makeup artistes to film editors in order to look at different experiences. There was the sixteen year old messenger boy many years ago who had to take the post to Lord Bernstein’s London flat first thing every morning where he would be greeted by Lady Bernstein in her negligee !
And there was the transmission controller who also happened to be the shop steward. He was shamefully made redundant one morning. At lunchtime he walked up town into Manchester, bought a pad of yellow A4 paper and a couple of pens and set about writing a novel. He also changed his name to Lee Child.