Stella Richman was born in the East End of London in 1922 and died in 2002.
After early theatre experience she began her career in television at ATV where she was in charge of the script department. She then moved to Rediffusion, becoming head of series there in 1967.
In 1970 she was appointed controller of programmes at London Weekend Television, thereby becoming the first woman to sit on the board of a television company. In partnership with David Frost she formed the first independent TV company, Stella Richman Productions, creating series like Jennie, Clayhanger and Bill Brand. For nearly thirty years she was chair and owner of the famous White Elephant Club and author of the popular White Elephant Cookbooks.
I interviewed her in 1993.
You were born in 1922, the year the first war ended. As a child, were you aware of the aftermath of grief and horror resulting from the war, or were you completely sheltered from it?
I was only aware of the fact that everybody around me was poor, but since I lived in the East End of London and the country was in a state of such poverty, it seemed to me a natural thing that people begged at street corners. I would sometimes see a man with one leg selling matches, and I would ask my mother why he only had one leg and she would reply, ‘Well, that was the war, dear.’
How do you remember family life? Was it a happy time for you?
It was both happy and unhappy. My family were Polish Jews, living originally right in the heart of the East End of London. Gradually they moved a little way along, just off the Mile End Road, into Drogheda Square which has now become so fashionable. We never went without but it was a struggle to earn a living. The reason for my unhappiness was that Jews who had emigrated from Poland, Lithuania and Russia had created, without knowing it, a little ghetto around themselves and once I started going to school and mixing with everybody, I always had a feeling that I wanted to go over the wall. I thought there must be something more than the street in which we lived. But I wasn’t beaten, I wasn’t starved, and within the limited experience of my parents, I was treated very well.
Did you experience anti-Semitism during those days?
We did a little at school. I went to an ordinary state school round the corner and there were some girls who would say, ‘You’re only a bloody Jew, what do you know about anything?’, but I can’t say it plagued me night and day. There were also a couple of teachers who would use any reason to get the word ‘Jewish’ into a sentence – that wasn’t so much open anti-Semitism as implied. But by today’s standards it didn’t amount to much. Within my own family I think anti-Semitism was created to some extent. For example, if ever I brought a girlfriend home for tea my father always wanted to know if she was Jewish. ‘I don’t want anybody non-Jewish coming into the house,’ he would say. Similarly if anyone had done anything wrong my father would always put it down to being anti-Semitic. It was something he had learned from his parents, something he said automatically, but luckily I managed to stop myself being brainwashed.
Do you believe that all the keys to behaviour in later life are to be found in childhood – in other words, that early experience sets the pattern for life?
It takes all of one’s life to get out of the repetition of early experience. One inherits things without knowing it from one’s parents and one’s surroundings, until one day one realizes that something isn’t right. Your past should be put through a sieve; the good things should be allowed to drop down, and the things that are only repeated because they were done before 71 should be left to rot. It’s taken all my seventy one years to arrive at this way of thinking.
But would you say that the principles by which you came to live your life were learned in childhood, or did you work them out for yourself later?
A lot of things my mother taught me have stuck, but I had to acquire knowledge as I went along. I picked up from anybody and everybody but I had a very good way of rejecting other people’s influence if it wasn’t right for me. I never thought it would be possible to have an open mind at this advanced age, but I have. It helps me a great deal with my children and grandchildren.
I believe you always had aspirations to be on the stage…was this something that was encouraged or disapproved of at home?
My mother approved of anything I did, my father disapproved of everything. At the beginning of the war I trained at a marvellous school called the London Art Theatre, and then I ended up in Scotland and Ireland, and acted quite happily on and off. But once I had my daughter, Cookie, I felt it was awful to sit by a phone waiting for people to say they wanted me to work, so I turned my hand to other things.
You married the actor Alec Clunes during the war. Was there something special about marrying in wartimes? Was it a way of saying there would be a future, a time of peace again?
That didn’t apply to us because Alec was a registered conscientious objector. He ran the theatre in Great Newport Street, which is where I met him, and we just assumed we would go on for ever. People in uniform thought differently; they felt being married established a bridge for the future. But Alec and I had lived together for ages, and when he suddenly asked me to marry him, it took me totally by surprise.
The marriage didn’t last very long…
No, but we’d been together for about seven years beforehand and we did a great deal together. We were the first English company to be sponsored by the British Council to tour nine countries, starting in Prague, so we were the conquering heroes in a city which had just been liberated. We performed Hamlet and the whole house just cheered and cheered, not so much for the quality of the production but because there we were, Churchill’s people. We went all over Europe doing that, it was lovely.
Why do you think the marriage failed?
Because I had changed and he hadn’t. I had always been in a subservient role as his girlfriend and his one time secretary, and when we got married he thought that I would stop work and suddenly overnight turn into a housewife. Nowadays the fashion is to talk out these things, but we never did. When Alec married me he thought I would give up running theatres and sit at home, waiting for him with the supper. I never thought that way, so it came as a great shock to my system that I was suddenly expected to be a different person. It was as simple as that.
In 1953 you married Victor Brusa, with whom you had your two children. Did motherhood suit you?
Yes. My daughter had the benefit of me being at home for four years. By the time my son was born I was already at ATV – I had signed the contract without knowing that I was pregnant. I wore men’s shirts, thinking rather stupidly that these people didn’t know me at all, so they wouldn’t care whether I was pregnant or fat, but in the end I knew I had to tell them. Lew Grade said, ‘God in Heaven, what are we going to say to the governor?’ I had my baby and went back to work in two weeks, so my son got the au pair girls. But in retrospect I think I was quite a good mother.
Would you say the relationship you have with your children is better than the one you had with your own parents?
I would say yes, but they might say, who is she kidding? There was a terrible generation gap between my parents and their children, but I think for people like me who have been in the entertainment business, there’s been a necessity to know what youngsters are doing. We have made a greater effort to understand what it is that makes children tick. Now I rely on my grandchildren to keep me informed.
You started your career proper at ATV and before long you had created the highly acclaimed ‘Love Story’ in 1963. Was that the first real success for you?
Yes. I had moved from the script department to production and the first thing I did was to think up this idea for an anthology series, even though anthology is a dirty word in television. I called it ‘Our Romance’, because I knew that they’d never pass anything called ‘Love Story’ – there’s a difference in sophistication. It was so wonderful in those days because once Lew Grade had said, ‘Don’t drive me mad, go away and do it’, I just went away and did it. I was incredibly fortunate because all the writers I used then- Richard Harris, Freddie Raphael, Edna O’Brien, Doris Lessing – they all wanted to write a love story. I could not believe this was happening – it was beginner’s luck.
How close was your relationship with Lew Grade?
Unbelievably happy. It’s a great pity that the possibility for such relationships has died with the present way of running things. At first when I knew him it was very much Mr Grade and Miss Richman, but when I came back as the controller it was Stella and Lew. He was always absolutely marvellous to me, and it’s sad that youngsters starting out today don’t have a boss figure who just lets them alone. From what I hear today, both at ITV and BBC, it’s like those Russian dolls: every boss you take out has another one inside. There are always at least six people telling you what you have to say and do, and that is an impossible way of working. You only have to look at the screen to see the results of that system. Whenever Lew did want his own way, it was usually about money. I remember when we employed Doris Lessing, she’d never written a play before, and I paid her £400 instead of the £350 everybody else was getting. Lew rang me up one day and said, ‘Miss Richman, who is this Doris Thing you’re paying £400?’ I had to do him a little précis of what Doris Lessing had done, and then everything was all right. One of the things Lew taught me was that you never say no irrevocably; you must always leave a little space for manoeuvre.
Did you always have a special interest in romantic stories? Was love a guiding force in your life?
It was an important force in my own life, and when I fell in love I fell in love good and hard. In television I liked doing stories about personal relationships, as long as they were sophisticated and real. I was never into the Barbara Cartland market.
In 1965 your husband died tragically in an accident. You were only 43. How did you cope with the grief of it all?
I can only say that it’s friends who get you through. I was cushioned by an incredible number of people from television and also by the staff at the White Elephant. The difficulty, or perhaps the blessing, is that when something like that happens you have to deal with the children first, and because you have to deal with them, you don’t deal with yourself. I went on working for a bit and then suddenly I couldn’t. We went away, the children and I. And when I came back I was a bit thinner and sadder. That grief has stayed with me 29 years.
After your husband’s death you became the owner of the White Elephant, the club in Curzon Street. How important a part of your life did that become?
More important than anything. At one point I was employing 95 people. There was a very strong Italian element and I was in love with all of them, and they were in love with me. It lasted for 28 years till 1988 – I got out just in time before the recession was officially announced.
Was your heart in the restaurant business or did your heart belong to television?
That’s a difficult question. When I was doing television my heart was very much there. I never liked doing anything unless I believed in it, unless I loved it. It’s always had to be something that was mine – I couldn’t really enjoy doing other people’s ideas. So I was split down the middle, which is probably one of my problems.
In 1967 you went to work for LWT and within three years you had become controller of the programmes, the first woman ever to sit on the board. Did you feel you’d arrived?
[laughs] Oh, I don’t know. It’s a very difficult thing when you find there are 34 men at your first meeting, and you feel you’ve gone into the wrong room. It’s rather like Kafka. The crunch came when I desperately wanted to go to the loo. I was listening to all these men without understanding a word, and eventually the chairman asked if there was something wrong. When I told him he said, ‘Have my key. It’s on the eighth floor.’ All the heads turned to watch me trip out, and everybody waited till I came back. It was unbelievable. I didn’t feel I’d arrived at all – in fact I thought it was a bit of a joke. I thought we were going to be discussing the programme content, not finances. Nowadays we all know that the bottom line is finance, but then it was very subtly done so you had to get through a whole wadge of rubbish before it became clear that you were there to price programmes. It was an interesting year, which I wouldn’t have missed for anything, but it isn’t a life for a woman. In my experience women don’t like sitting for long meetings. I shall probably be criticized for this, but some things need saying: I think certain kinds of men in big business and in television love being able to say to their wives, or mistresses, ‘Unless somebody dies, there’s no way you can reach me, because I’m at the IBA board meeting.’ The whole of the morning is spent rustling papers, scribbling, then there’s lunch, and there’s more scribbling in the afternoon; and I never remember during that time anybody receiving a phone call. It’s a way of escaping the real world, I’m sure.
In 1972 you formed Stella Richman Productions with David Frost and there followed some productive years. Was that a good period for you?
That was probably the best period of all. David was the most perfect chairman. Nobody wanted to know about independence but until we got the things up and running David saw to it that there was enough money, and I was allowed to develop about 12 different projects. It was an extremely happy time.
Your planned series on Clementine Churchill was axed by Nigel Ryan of Thames TV. Was it simply a cost cutting measure, or were there other reasons in your view?
Entirely other reasons. Thames was a very rich company then, as it is now. It was actually internecine warfare between the managing director, Brian Cargill, and the controller of programmes, Nigel Ryan. Clemmie just happened to be convenient cannon fodder. I know this to be true, I’m not making it up. It was a great story, yet it was axed after they’d spent three quarters of a million pounds of real money. And all to massage somebody’s ego. That’s an expensive massage, isn’t it?
Was that typical of your experience?
There are always clashes in any big enterprise, but if people are well mannered they manage to keep them under wraps. This incident was different because it was open warfare. There were two men at each other’s throats; they sat in their offices and refused to see each other. And to write off three quarters of a million pounds was really extraordinary.
Was it disillusionment at the dropping of the Churchill programme which led to your leaving television, the thought of all that work counting for nothing?
Very much so. It was a bitter disillusionment, not to mention a year’s work – I have the notes and the documentation to prove it. It was almost like having a miscarriage, that’s the only way I can describe it, and I was left with the sorrow of it all.
You once remarked that people who intentionally crossed you in your career have always got their comeuppance. Did you regard this as some curious law of nature?
[laughs] That was not my remark, but one made by my lawyers. At the time when I was divorcing my ex- and now late husband, the lawyer said to him, ‘Don’t be silly, because you know whoever crosses Stella always gets their comeuppance.’ I would never have said it myself. And I wouldn’t waste time wishing anybody ill in that way.
For example, Nigel Ryan, who axed the Churchill programme, lost his own job soon afterwards…it must have been difficult not to feel some degree of satisfaction…
[laughs] I know, I had to laugh. With him it was different. And I also felt satisfaction before he got fired when I made him do an unheard of thing. I felt he owed something to the people at Thames who were working on the programme, so I made him invite them all to the boardroom to hear his explanation of why he had axed it. There were about 30 of us in the room, all sitting round a very long table, and it was very interesting to watch him squirm.
Was he good at wriggling out of it?
For an ex-guards officer who had been head of ITN, no, he was very bad.
Your marriage to Alec Hyams ended in divorce in 1977. Were you able to regard that marriage as a happy period?
Nine years were very happy, the tenth year was very grotty. My children both thought we had some wonderful times together, and my daughter in particular said she could remember only the good things that happened, which is lovely.
What went wrong?
I think having two White Elephants wasn’t good enough for him. Alec was restless by nature and he wanted something which was created entirely on his own. It was that and the other women. I’m not the sort of woman who could sit by and not mind; you either have that marriage or you don’t.
Did you manage to avoid bitterness in divorce?
Bitterness is not part of my nature, thank goodness, but I was intermittently bitter, mainly because I was deceived, and nobody likes being deceived. But it didn’t last very long, which I’m very glad about. Like jealousy, it’s self-destructive.
By that stage in your life, when you had the divorce, you had been married three times. Were you beginning to think that area of your life was ill-fated?
Yes, absolutely. It was my fault in that I was used to ordering people around and running things, and it was very difficult to switch off at 6 o’clock and go back to being Stella the housewife. I’m autocratic by nature, to my own detriment. My better relationships in terms of romance and love have been out of marriage, or between marriages, because I haven’t expected anything from them or they from me and they were much freer as a result.
Do you think that it is generally more difficult to sustain stable marriage when the woman is also highly successful, perhaps even more successful than the man, and therefore perceived to be in competition? Was that a factor in your marriages?
Not so much in mine, but I think it generally is a very difficult problem. Men swear it isn’t, and women swear it isn’t, but if you’ve got two high achievers in the same family a competitive element does enter into it. It is extremely difficult to get the right balance. It is terrible to generalize but a lot of men who consider themselves to be modern and want their wives to be equal in every way, really feel in their hearts that they’re taking second place. They may be very proud of their wives – they’ll tell you she’s pulled off some amazing deal – but there is still an ambivalence. My first husband was half Italian and a very proud man. When I started earning money at ATV, and I wanted a new frock or a new suit or something, I would actually go through the motions of saying, ‘Oh darling, I’d love a new suit’, so that he could come with me and pay for it. He felt insulted if I paid for it myself because he was of a generation of Italians who had to feel they were supporting their wives financially. So I had to be very careful. It was a ridiculous game to play if you think about it, but it was worth it because it saved him from being unnecessarily upset and hurt.
You were undoubtedly one of the most successful woman in television, but your success was not achieved without a lot of hard work and the ability to stay perhaps one or two steps ahead of the men in the business. I imagine that you weren’t altogether sympathetic to the feminist view that women had an automatic right to be in the top professional jobs…
I always thought that was a monstrous idea. On my very first day as controller of programmes at London Weekend, two very senior women staff came to me, and the opening remark, was, ‘Now that we’ve got a woman in charge we can get our ideas accepted.’ I told them that it would depend on the ideas. In the event they were absolutely terrible, just not worth thinking about, but I decided to pay them the courtesy of explaining why I couldn’t accept them. They became frostier and frostier and assumed that I was turning them down because I didn’t want any other women doing anything, which goes to show you can’t win anyway. I was very against militant feminism and the idea that women should be given more consideration than men. What the Labour Party has done is absurd. By all means let us have more women, but only if women with brains are available. Pretty dresses are not enough.
Do you believe that women are still discriminated against?
I certainly read and hear that they are, but I cannot say that was my own experience. For 20 years I have been asked the same question: ‘What does it feel like to be a woman in a man’s world?’ Well, there’s only one answer to that – it feels marvellous, thank you. But I disappointed those women who expected me to say that I had the most terrible time getting to the top. I remember arriving in America at the time of the burning of the bra. Fashionable writers were writing anti-male pieces and women’s lib was everywhere. I went to a meeting of 7000 women in broadcasting and they wanted me to talk about bodies strewn around, the corpses I had walked over to reach the top. But I could not claim that men had stood in my way at every turn, and because I didn’t conform, my audience became very fed up with me. I think this eternal war between men and women is stupid. The final issue must be that all individuals, men or women, have to make the best of themselves and what they have to offer. It’s no good to say, oh I didn’t get on because I’m Jewish, or I didn’t get on because I’m a woman; you’ve got to have enough confidence in yourself to overcome all these negative.
You are the living proof that there is nothing to stop women reaching the top in television, but presumably you paid the price for success. How would you analyse the price, and was it worth it?
It was worth it then. These days I would not want to rise to the top in television because I think the top is ugly. There are no human faces there; it’s simply business, business, business. You’re not your own boss any more, you’re at the beck and call of the money markets. Television very much reflects the state of the nation; the country’s in a muddle, and television is in a muddle. I should hate it now, because I don’t see there’s anything but a business empire to go to the top of. The days would be spent talking about the cost effectiveness of everything.
You have always had a consuming interest in the lives of other people – you even list ‘reading biographies’ as your recreation in Who’s Who…why has it mattered so much to you to know and to understand other people’s lives?
I think it was AJP Taylor who said that without history man knows nothing about himself. I think that’s it really. Without history you don’t know about the present, and biographies give one an insight into history. Reading about other people helps you to understand a lot more about what is happening, how everything repeats itself. Sometimes you find a spark which runs parallel to something in you and helps you understand yourself better. I get very disappointed with a biography which is not up to standard. For example, I recently read Daphne du Maurier’s which everybody’s raving about, but I found it the dullest thing because she is such a selfish, dull woman.
You have now passed the famous three score years and ten. Are you reluctant to grow old?
Not reluctant to grow old, but reluctant to accept the fact that in this country once you reach the age of 50, you’re over the hill. I don’t wasn’t to believe that because I’m 71 I must become a cabbage and that my mind doesn’t work properly, and that I can’t walk properly…because it’s all rubbish.
Were you never tempted to marry again?
No. Definitely not. There are some people who don’t have the talent for it, and I’m one. If you have the ideal companionship in life, it is much to be envied, but there is no point in putting up with somebody just because you happen to be together, or have been married a long time. I used to feel lonely but I don’t any more. I have stopped feeling sorry for myself, because I realized it was absurd.
Has the physical desire disappeared?
No, of course not. It’s not like one used to have, but one still has the desire to have a cuddle, let’s say. It’s not just a question of age; with some people, let’s face it, sexual desire has gone at age 21 because they’ve never known the joys, poor things. But now at my age instead of behaving badly, I think, phew, come along Stella, you’re a grandmother…