SIR DENIS FORMAN
Denis Forman was born in Scotland in 1917-2013 and educated at Loretto and Pembroke College, Cambridge. During the war he served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, being wounded at Cassino in 1944. His war experiences are recounted in To Reason Why, which appeared in 1991. After the war he began producing films for the Central Office of Information and in 1948 he became a director of the National Film Institute. He was the inspiration behind the establishment of National Film Theatre before joining Granada Television in 1964. His latest book, Persona Granada (1997), charts the history of Granada Television of which he was chairman form 1974-87. His interest in music culminated in his directorship of the Royal Opera House and in his books, Mozart’s Piano Concertos and The Good Opera Guide.
Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1996.
In your reminiscences you describe how two people inhabited the one person. One was perplexed and often unhappy, the other was extrovert and charming. Do these two people still co-exist?
Over the years they’ve become familiar with each other and although they haven’t moulded into one person, they are much less dissimilar than they used to be in the early days.
You grew up in a prosperous Scottish family with all the trappings of the upper class – nannies, under-nurses, afternoon tea, servant halls, and so on, yet you never really felt comfortable…
No, I was not happy with the upstairs life. The top part of the house in which I grew up was the nursery, and there were eight children, six brothers and sisters and two adopted, and they made up one community, one culture. On the ground floors were the grown ups, people who were remote and a bit pompous, people we didn’t really know very well, and below that were the servants. These three cultures co-existed, but my favourite culture was the servants; I preferred them to the noisy nursery and the posh middle floor.
Did that remain the case as you grew older?
I’ve always had a strong prejudice against well-bred, aristocratic people. It takes a lot for me to get over the fact that a man’s been to Eton. I really have to struggle to like a man who has been to Eton. That has stayed with me all my life, and the upper-class accent is something that sets my teeth on edge, and when I hear the royals speak I have to close my ears.
Do you think you were born with an innate sense of independence, as it were? The structures of your upbringing were so firm it’s difficult to see how you could have questioned them and rejected them so completely without a strong freedom of spirit…
It was more that I refused to accept any convention, any received wisdom, or indeed any view if I had not convinced myself that it was sane and sensible. This came about by reading. My father, who had been a clerk in holy orders, had a huge library of theology and amongst this was an encyclopaedia of ethics. I found in my reading that most of the Christian ethics were actually remnants of tribal beliefs which had been going on for thousands and thousands of years. If the tribal beliefs were no longer thought to be valid, I couldn’t see why the hell Christianity should still be thought to be valid, and I was very firm on this from an early age, from about twelve or thirteen. I found that the Christian religion was unacceptable.
Did this apply to all religions?
It was particularly the self-confident religions, including the whole of Islam, which I found unacceptable. And because I grew up with Christianity, and people were always praying or talking about God or giving you a lecture, Christianity was on the doorstep all the time, and that made it worse. Hinduism and Buddhism seemed more tolerant, more agreeable, and I loved the Greek myths. I thought they had the right way to treat gods – that was the proper place for them.
Looking back, do you feel grateful that you had something to rebel against?
I suppose it served a purpose. It made me self-reliant and you also have to have a great deal of stamina and courage, if you’re going to rebel and stick to it, because you make yourself exceedingly unpopular. Nobody likes a rebel who contradicts their deepest and most dearly held beliefs. I mean, I loved my mother and father, I loved my brothers and sisters, and to offend them so deeply was not easy, but it seemed to me I had to do it.
Were you the only rebellious member of the family?
I was the first, but one by one they dropped off the perch. By the time they were mature people there was perhaps only one out of the eight who still believed in God. It wasn’t particularly my influence – they were sensible people and they came to their own conclusions.
In many ways you rebelled against the things you also loved best. Was it painful to you that you couldn’t enjoy the circumstances of your childhood – the countryside, the privileges – without the evocation of class which they entailed?
Actually I had a great capacity for enjoyment, especially with the servants and my brothers and sisters. My deep disquiet with the upper class didn’t in any way inhibit me from having a happy childhood. I just cut myself off from the nonsense that was going on upstairs.
So did you in fact enjoy the privileges of your upbringing?
I took them for granted; all children do. I knew there were poor people, but I absolutely never questioned the fact that we had a lot of cars and ponies and servants. That was just the life we led.
It struck me when reading your memoirs that many people would have given anything to have the advantages of your childhood, not just in material terms but in the sense of it not being banal. At least your parents discussed the nature of sin, the problem of evil…in other words, it can’t have been dull. Have you thought of it in that way?
Yes. One of the great advantages of being brought up in our household was the constant debate on every topic – music, poetry, literature. My grandmother in particular was a great taster of new novels. She read all the brilliant new novels that came out, although every now and then she would reject one because the characters were too disreputable. Music was always a subject which was very close to everyone’s interest, and of course religion was always being debated. I didn’t care for that so much, but the debate itself was good fun. All my life I have enjoyed debate, even though I’m very often arguing a case I don’t really feel very strongly.
Your feeling of being different from those in the outside world was developed fairly early on. Has this sense of being different from others continued throughout your life?
There are of course different ways of being different. The fact that I am a Scotsman born and bred has given me a particular view of the English whom I still see as a foreign race. I have worked with Jews a lot in my life, and I see them as a race for whom I have more affection and with whom I have more affinity than the English. I have never been able to tolerate the top class English very easily. During my upbringing I formed a very close association with working people, and I still feel that they are the basic human ingredient in life, those people who worked on the farm in Dumfriesshire. Subconsciously, I think I measure important people, rich people, clever people, against that inbred feeling that the farm workers really were the guys I liked.
You say you sometimes felt ashamed for not liking your father better, especially when everyone else thought him such a decent chap. Why did he disappoint you so much?
That is a very fundamental question about fathers and sons. He was a decent chap, but he was also unconscious of the fact that he was treating his wife as if she were a second-class person. He behaved towards his family as if he were the major general and they were all private soldiers, and he treated the outside world very often as would a public relations man. He was extremely good at ingratiating himself with certain kinds of visitors, churchmen, for example, and within his own orbit he was very well thought of. In my home town even today, they speak of my father with great affection. But there was a very firm code of conduct which you could not break.
What sort of father would you have chosen for yourself?
I think I would have chosen a more open-minded and better educated father. I would have liked a father who was prepared to discuss and debate on equal terms with me, not simply hand down received wisdom and tell me it was true. There was no interplay, only commands from on high. One of the awful things, of course, is sending children to boarding school, a terrible thing to do. It emphasises the fact that father and mother are home, but you have to leave and get educated. I don’t like that.
You described attendance at the United Free Church as the greatest penance of the week. Why do you think you reacted so much against it when for most children it was a normal part of growing up in Scotland?
Two reasons. One was that I’m very susceptible to boredom; I can’t stand being bored, and I bore very easily. I regard it as the greatest penance in life. I’ve done a great deal to enquire into what makes a bore, because I find it a very interesting and underdeveloped study. The other reason was that what the minister said in his sermon was such rubbish, and he said it with such unction and with such certainty that I found it deeply offensive. But I couldn’t tell him. I just had to sit there and take it.
Your atheism caused quite a stir in the family. Have you ever had doubts about your atheism, if I can put it that way?
Never, no. It’s the foundation of my belief and thought. One of the great regrets for mankind is the delusion of religion; it’s done so much harm, it’s caused so many wars, so much hardship, so much intolerance. Even today one of the greatest threats is Islam. Many of the religions are running out of steam, which is good, and of course even though people get married in church and bury their fathers in the church graveyard, their actual faith is very weak. They pretend, but there is a lot of hypocrisy.
Do you think as you grow older you might change your mind about religion?
No, I don’t. I’m completely comfortable with the thought of dying, although one always hopes for a fairly peaceful and orderly exit. I mean, I have seen rabbits die, I have seen horses die, and I’ve seen men die; I think they cease to exist, and that’s it. It is a very deep human instinct to try and pretend there’s an after-life, because it’s consoling and people don’t like to think they’re going to be rubbed out. But they will; they will be rubbed out completely.
Was your lack of belief just another kind of challenge to your parents or was it a separate thing?
I think it was self-generated. I used to count all these messiahs who preceded Jesus Christ – there were seventeen of them – and I used to look at the incidence of virgin birth in other religions, and also crucifixion – the rarest of the lot – but nevertheless it was there. All the great phenomena of the Christian religion which are treated with such enormous respect are duplicated in other religions. People want it that way, therefore they believe in it. I’ve never been able to understand, for example, why people think God is good, but people want God to be good and so they believe in the goodness of God.
The effect of your lack of faith was quite traumatic for your parents, especially your mother. Did you come to regret that you hadn’t pretended to have faith, for her sake?
At the time I was deeply upset, but I felt it was inevitable. Sooner or later you have to come clean on issues that you really don’t feel it’s right to conceal, and I don’t think I regretted telling my parents what I did. Perhaps the way I did it was not very elegant; it certainly took them a long time to come back to having an affection for me. It really wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and was wounded that I rediscovered a warmth between my parents and myself. It took ten years.
Is there any way that the Presbyterian ethic had endured, albeit against your will, or have you managed comprehensively to reject it?
Many of the Presbyterian habits have afflicted or assisted me through life. For example, it took me a long time to throw the sexual taboos off. I felt guilty when indulging in any form of sex, and that was due to an upbringing which was extremely prudish, indeed to a degree you simply wouldn’t believe. On the positive side, the Presbyterian upbringing gave me a certain degree of stamina in thought. In the Scots Kirk you have to argue a thing through, even though it’s a ridiculous argument. That probably did assist me in later life to stick to a point of argument. The Presbyterian work ethic has bugged me all my life too; I find it very difficult not to work.
You say that by the age of nine you had reacted against the smugness of pure faith. Are you still reacting against that today?
Well, of course that smug attitude has diminished. It was prevalent in the Church of England, and also in the Church of Scotland – the idea that we ministers are superior people, we are God’s chosen people, we are here to tell you how to behave. Today the Church of England is grovelling around to curry favour with pop stars, so it has rather lost its smugness, not to mention its dignity. In my view, it is a little despicable the way they try to snatch whatever public fashion will make them seem up to date.
Do you think that smugness can ever attach itself to agnosticism or atheism?
Yes, it certainly can. You can be very self-righteous as an atheist or an agnostic. I would say that of all the Christian religions, Catholicism is obviously the most intellectually respectable, because a very sound thesis has been built and, provided you have the belief, it can be defended at all points since they’ve spent centuries working it out. But atheists haven’t spent centuries working things out; indeed every atheist has his own argument and his own beliefs. What I tried to do for several years was to find fellow spirits who could be put together a decent funeral service for non-believers, but it couldn’t be done, because there is no basis, there’s no common ethic, no common ground. It would be possible to write a funeral service for myself, but no one else is going to use it, or only very few.
You said you got on well with the farm workers – you like their directness, their strength, their endurance…did you really want to be one of them?
I suppose the short answer is yes, I did. They had a canniness, a sense of humour, a sense of perspective; they were the sort of people I wanted to be. Then I went away to school, which was a very disagreeable wrench, we sold this particular estate, but it was my ambition to buy it back, and until I was wounded I was determined to do so and to reorganize the farm and make it so much better than my father had it. I only gave up the idea because I thought – perhaps wrongly – that I ought to be able to do physically what the other men would be doing. Little did I think that farmers would come to sit in front of a computer for three weeks and then go and shoot partridges in Spain, which is what they do nowadays.
You knew you were different from the upper-class boys but you were also different from the workers – your accent marked you out if nothing else. Where did you feel you belonged exactly?
I was bilingual in so far as I could speak Lallans Scots as well as any of the farm workers – it was a completely different language. When I was with the farm workers I could speak well enough not to be identified as an upper-class person, though sometimes it went wrong. Once when I was with them cutting down a tree by the side of the drive, a car drew up and a chap jumped out and asked me if I could tell him where my father was. I replied in English: ‘He’s gone to Edinburgh to see an osteopath,’ and the farm workers all collapsed with laughter. They started imitating me and thought it the funniest thing. I was so ashamed, but I knew I couldn’t have spoken Scots to this guy because he had a bowler hat on.
You talk about the cynicism you developed perhaps as a defence against your upbringing, the idea that you would believe the worst of everyone, not the best. Did you manage to rid yourself of cynicism in later life?
In certain areas I have never been cynical – in the arts, for example. There I’ve been a total enthusiast, not one of those picky people who’ve tried to find something wrong all the time. I think my cynicism diminished with adolescence, and as I grew older I began to be an enthusiast about many things, a cynic about some, but only those concerned with class, religion and literature. I’ve always been leery of pompous people in literature. My cynicism was tempered finally by the army in which I was a wholehearted soldier. I though, rightly or wrongly, that the war was of critical importance to us, that we really were fighting for our lives and our freedom. That was my motivation, not any affection for military affairs, but once I was in the army I realized there was so much wrong with it that I had to buckle down and try to change it.
In your family there were various euphemisms for bodily functions, and mention of sex was absolutely taboo. Do you think that influenced your attitude later on? What I mean is, if there had been greater openness and honesty, would you have become a different person?
I know that I would have become a different person. I was inhibited until I was a mature man by this terrible legacy of prudery. I can’t explain why, but they managed to induce shame in anything to do with physical sex, and that association was so powerful and so deeply felt that I found I couldn’t shake it off for a very long time, not until I was thirty or forty. With religion one could shake it off quite easily, because it was cerebral, but the idea of sex was absolutely taboo.
Are you saying that until the age of thirty or so you were unable to have a sexual relationship?
Well, one had experiments but one was deeply ashamed of them, which sounds ridiculous now and almost unbelievable, but it’s true. One always started to feel uncomfortable, morally uncomfortable. I resented that. I didn’t see why I should have the hang-up when a lot of people around me didn’t.
You describe the process of divesting yourself of a myth and superstition as a very lonely business. Did you ever lose heart?
No, it wasn’t like that. It was a long business and very difficult and complex, but my interest and enthusiasm grew with knowledge. I never felt for one moment downhearted or that it was an impossible task. Sometimes I realized I’d been following the wrong line and that could be frustrating, but the actual fascination of the study itself didn’t impose any kind of feeling of irritation. In fact it was wonderful. This sounds a silly thing, but I felt so proud actually to have done this, with all the people around me not doing it; I had confidence that this was right and never had a shadow of a doubt.
You joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In your book about the war you say that an infantry officer had only two options in the Second World War – death or being wounded. Did you know that at the outset?
Not so, precisely, but it was a pretty good guess. When you were actually in action, you saw your cadre of officers turn over. It just stared you in the face.
You were wounded at Cassino and lost a leg, something you make light of in your book. Did you actually consider yourself lucky to come out of it alive?
Yes, I did. I got off lightly. In a way there wasn’t a worry about death at the time; in fact one felt almost that death was relief. Blindness was the worst, two limbs pretty bad, one limb, damn lucky.
You had some very complicated feelings about the business of war. Did you ever consider not fighting for your country, or did you see yourself as part of the effort to defeat evil, or what?
Absolutely unequivocally I saw a threat to our way of life. I feared the Nazi regime, and it was real fear. When you saw the power of the Wehrmacht, their organisation, their backup, their efficiency, and compared it to our amateur bunch who were still fighting the 1914-18 war, as it were, it was truly terrifying. I wanted to get in there to do everything I could to reform and rebel against the High Command and try and get some sense into infantry training. That was my main mission.
Did you find it difficult after the war to adapt to civilian life?
No, not a bit. I was sad not to be a farmer, but that didn’t last because I enjoyed other things so much. I enjoy nearly everything, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s a terrible fault. I had a wonderful time after the war.
What attitude did you adopt to disability?
Well, it sounds silly, but it didn’t bother me. It was awkward to get mobile enough to do what I wanted to do, but I instantly realized that certain things were out and I just shut them out of my mind. I was an athlete at Cambridge before the war and that had to go. Also I could no longer fish in waders or do highland dancing. But you immediately make your equation, decide what you can and can’t do.
The gramophone was very influential in your life and encouraged you to study music seriously. Was there something more to music than enjoyment? Did it seem to contain a truth that was lacking in everything else?
Music was always music. I’ve always regarded music as its own thing, in its own compartment, and I’ve never drawn any deductions from music to life. I mean, I think of music as an absolute. I know that operas have librettos and stories, but they are of secondary importance. I know that Kurt Weill was a communist, but that is quite separate. Music is enormously important in my life. I can’t tell anyone how important it is; it’s something I can’t put into words.
Why did you pick Mozart to write on? What is it about Mozart that fascinates you?
Music is very hard to talk about, but I regard Mozart as simply the best. In other composers I find great qualities and also considerable flaws, but Mozart’s top class works are for me pretty well perfection, as near perfection as you can get in this world. Mozart was so quick to learn, not like Beethoven, who was slow to learn and very often clumsy. Beethoven stumbled around and is sometimes a bit of a bore, but powerful, immensely powerful.
Are you keen on Wagner?
I have an enormous respect and liking for Wagner, but the minus side of Wagner is so enormous that to do an equation is almost impossible. His political and sexual kinkiness are definitely on the debit side. The basis of his political theory in the Ring is simply ghastly, as is the cheap stuff in Tannhäuser. The only decent plots are the Dutchman and Meistersinger which bring out a Wagner acceptable in words and music, but when you get to the Ring, what he is saying in words is pretty horrible and also extremely boring. The plus is the most amazing score ever produced, the greatest feat of imagination in the nineteenth century. It’s got that power to move which very few possess. There was a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Proms in the 1960s and when they finished, the whole of the Albert Hall applauded for twenty minutes. They just didn’t stop, so eventually the orchestra left, the conductor left, but the audience went outside and applauded for half an hour in the rain. That’s Wagner’s power.
You have been a director and deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Are you dismayed by the chaotic state of affairs at the moment?
Yes, I am. I think that the actual financial management is very poor. I don’t understand how they could have got into this particularly bad mess. When I was there we had our problems, and you could see ahead the possibility of having fewer assets than outgoings, but we took adequate action and we never had a cash crisis. If you can’t pay the wages, you’re in bad nick.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Royal Opera House?
Absolutely. Good institutions always survive. We are the most musical country in Europe bar none, and we must have a major opera house. There are enough people who have the influence, the power and the desire to see a great opera house here, and they will see that it happens.
Your latest book, Person Granada, charts the history of Granada Television of which you were a founding member. Would you say that Granada has remained true to its founding principles?
I don’t think anything remains true to its founding principles, including the Catholic Church. All institutions change with time and the idea that there are principles which are immutable is one of those follies of mankind. Once Mrs Thatcher came on the scene, a lot of principles went out of the window. Until her philosophy encroached upon it, television as set up in a way that it was your duty to provide public service programmes, and if you didn’t do it you had your licence taken away. When that disappears it becomes a free for all and everything becomes dictated by market forces. I have no regrets as far as Granada goes; it’s part of the general sea of change that’s taken place over the whole community.
But do you think these changes are for the good?
I don’t really believe in better or worse when it comes to changes. I believe that changes are inexorable and you adjust to them. They are absolutely inevitable…the tide comes in and then it goes out.
Well, do you think Mrs Thatcher was right to do what she did?
It was very much against what I would have liked, but it was a tide in human affairs, and she caught that tide. Whether it’s Napoleon, or the Pope, what they’re doing is riding a movement of what people are thinking, how humanity is changing. Thatcher caught that, and she jumped in the saddle just at the moment when the horse was going to run. I’d like to put a lot down to her, but she was only a pawn really in a much greater movement which I think was inevitable. How many of us now believe in the principles of the Labour government of 1945? I remember passionately believing in them, but pretty well every one of those principles has disappeared. Better or worse, I don’t know…principles are as mutable as opinions.
Granada had a reputation for first-class drama programmes right from the start. Why do you think that talented writers and programme makers were particularly drawn to Granada?
The people who ran the company understood writers, we were writers ourselves, or people who were musical, and artists responded to that, they know when they’re getting a sympathetic response. They know when the front office are bastards and when they’re friends, and we were friends. Simple as that.
Granada made its mark with outside broadcasts. You say at one point in the book that these outside broadcasts would now seem to us grotesquely primitive, and even then they were exceedingly boring. Would you say that today a great deal of news coverage, in its endless repetition and search for new angles, is also very boring, perhaps dangerously so, in the sense of numbing the mind?
Yes, I would. I’m very critical of the present standard of news, which is very low and very poor. There are elements in news that should not be there. Very often the news is simply a list of murders, accidents and rarely, very rarely is there any point beyond a general portfolio of crime and disaster. Crime is popular, but what the hell does it matter if someone is murdered, except to the police and the people directly involved? We make the mistake of regarding rape and murder as news, whereas in fact they are a form of rather salacious entertainment. There’s also an awful lot of people’s insides, and new genes that have been discovered. I wouldn’t say it was unhealthy, but it is again not news. The presentation is also very tedious, two newscasters who have been doing it for fifteen years. Sky News is better than BBC and ITN because they have fresh people, but otherwise it is terribly boring at the moment. They handle big stories fairly well, but all in the same sort of sermonizing voice, which is quite wrong now.
Isn’t the emphasis sometimes wrong, the coverage disproportionate?
Oh, crazy. But when the country has a fit of hysteria as it did over Diana, or minor hysteria as it had over Louise Woodward, it’s very difficult for the news editor to know how far to run with that hysteria. If he doesn’t run, he’s going to lose ratings, so there’s always a professional equation. The equation of favour is that you don’t get ratings by talking about people’s stomachs the whole time, or by reading a police gazette. News should be fun when it’s not serious. The present attitude by those rather boring people who run the news is to give a sort of mock Elgarian trumpet horn arrangement to introduce it. Who the hell wants a fanfare before the news?
Do people have an endless capacity for being bored? And should television recognize that and cater for it?
Boredom is really a fascinating topic. You can suck people into an exceedingly repetitious line of thought which deprives them of the capacity to reject it; that’s what boredom is, the couch potato variety. People are deprived of the power to say, oh Christ, let’s switch this off. They have somehow been brainwashed and conditioned into keeping that glazed look when something is happening on the screen which they don’t really care about at all. That sort of subconscious magnetic attraction doesn’t get a lot of ratings, but it will give you a fundament of ratings. People will sit watching without really knowing what the hell they’re watching.
Broadcasting, like publishing, used to be headed by giants, larger than life people who were supremely individual and often autocratic. For example, as you say in your book, Sidney Bernstein was extremely litigious, and given to rages, so that people were afraid to go against him. Is there room for a Sidney Bernstein or a Lew Grade in today’s very different industry?
No, it’s changed. Now you have enormous giants out of sight. Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black – they’re not hands-on giants, they are giants who work in the background secretly and manipulate their staff and pull the strings. Another reason that broadcasting and publishing are now businesses, and they are run by people who are more accountants than impresarios. I was brought up in the impresario age, but the age of the impresario is over. What you get now is a committee looking at a proposal and a businessman saying, ‘It’s only going to deliver 4 per cent of profit.’ Once again, I don’t challenge change; it happens.
Your relationship with Sidney Bernstein did not always run smoothly. You had different origins and backgrounds – Sidney being the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor. Did that ever get in the way?
Absolutely not. I liked that Jewish, continental culture to which he belonged. Lew Grande had it too. I found them wonderfully quick people to work for, down to earth and very often funny. The Jewish sense of humour is wonderful. The differences between Sidney and me were those of two stags on the same hill; I was doing something that he had done before, and he did not really like to see the younger generation taking over. I think it was as simple as that; I felt that at the time, and I still feel that. If Sidney and I had not been very close friends, as we were before I started working, and as we were at the end. But we had our problems in the middle, because he resented what I did very much, and I resented his interference. He was a perfect pain in the arse.
Your comments about John Birt have received quite a bit of attention. After giving an account of how he squandered money on programmes which were never made, you rather damn him with faint praise…you seem very unimpressed by him.
Yes, I’m not impressed by John Birt. I think he is a nice man, and he has a certain ability, but both he and his employers have enormously overestimated that ability. The BBC is not a happy place, and it’s no good defending the license fee, and having all these wonderful new schemes if the place is unhappy and if the basis for making programmes is not a good one. The whole purpose of administration is to give the programme people a chance and to hell with everything else. They have to have enough money, they have to have a firm base, but this idea of accountability right, left and centre in everything is hopeless. Hugh Greene was a great director general and he kept that sort of thing down by force of personality and strength of character. If a minister or an MP criticized Hugh he would put him down by what he said and who he was; he didn’t need to keep working away, making friends with people in high places and producing new schemes and so on.
If I can quote from your book: ‘Even then John Birt had such a passionate belief in his own intellectual process that he could persuade others he was as clever as he believed himself to be, which was a matter open to some doubt.’ Do you think Birt is dangerous as well as deluded?
Not dangerous. I think he’s doing absolutely his best by his own lights, but his beliefs are misguided. In an institution like the BBC people are more important than anything else. People should look after other people, and those at the top will pick others as good as themselves so that the pyramid goes down, and at the bottom of the pyramid you have the producers working in a helpful climate. John Birt does not rate that as highly as I would. He wants the system to be right, to be efficient, he will spend hours, days, years trying to make it so, but he will not build the pyramid of people, he will concentrate only on the structures and the forms.
If, as you suggest, he has no talent for the management of people, how does it happen that such a man can be in charge of a creative organization?
It was a matter of fashion in a way. The BBC had a number of really outstanding personalities as its director general, and then there was a feeling, quite justified, that the spending got out of hand and there was money being wasted on a rather disgraceful scale. It needed tightening up and it needed a director general who would look at the economics. They got one. Meanwhile the poor buggers who struggle away making programmes are desperately unhappy, no question of that.
Of course John Birt is operating within a very different ethos from the one which characterized your days at Granada…this is an era of top-heavy management and accountants – the same has happened in publishing. Is John Birt just a product of the prevailing spirit?
He has adopted the fashion of the outside world, but the terrible thing is that there is no need to do so. You have to make a commercial profit everywhere else, but in the BBC you do not need to do so. As long as you organize your resources, your income and expenditure, you do not have to produce 25 per cent profit on capital or whatever the parameters are in business today; all you have to do is to get the housekeeping organized in such a way as to permit your programmes makers to do their very best. My belief always was that if you called in a consultant it meant failure; you had failed to solve the problem which you should have been able to work out for yourself. The consultant will in the end give you something you usually don’t want.
Which things, if any, would you say are better on television now?
Variety. Things are being channelled by subject – there are four sports channels, for example, and I think that’s good. At almost any time of the day or night you can see first class sport. I like the canalization of broadcasting. I think the BBC and ITV were very slow to see it come, and they still have hardly caught up with it.
If you were running television now, what would be your guiding principle?
Always to create circumstances to allow talented people to make the best possible programmes – it’s as simple as that. To let talent do what it wants with the minimum of interference.
I was rather surprised to discover that you are an admirer of Rupert Murdoch. What is the basis of this admiration?
Admirer is the wrong word. What I happen to be is a defender of Rupert Murdoch against people who totally malign him. Rupert’s responsibility for publishing a lot of the rubbish is criminal, but on the other hand, he’s absolutely straight, so when I hear him roundly condemned I always say this. He is reliable, he is honourable, and until recently I would have said he kept his contracts. The other thing is Wapping, which was a very brave thing to do, whether you approved or not. Even though I don’t like his publishing policy, I acknowledge that Rupert has done good things.
Isn’t it dangerous when too much power rests with one individual?
Yes. And so far every country who has tried to limit it has failed. To me it’s a comment on the fallibility of politicians, who are blackmailed into permitting this to happen for fear their own popularity will be impaired.
A recurring theme in your book is your passion for asking awkward questions. Has that got you into a lot of trouble in your life?
It’s got me into trouble with governments and sometimes with my superiors, but on the whole I would say it has been a profitable exercise. Asking awkward questions is an extremely important part of negotiating your way through life. If you put diplomatic demeanour ahead of getting results you’re a goner. I would do anything not to be bullied by the politician or the editor who usually says something is against the interests of the nation, or if you publish that story the country is going to lose millions of pounds. It’s invariably absolute rubbish. The last resort is the official secrets act; people who want to stop a programme always cite the official secrets act. I don’t believe there is any security matter today that merits censorship. Northern Ireland, terrorism and the drugs scene require a degree of secrecy, but the idea of national security is total rubbish. There is nothing to be secure about – the Russians always knew more than we did anyway.
Would you say you are a contented man?
Contented with my own lot, but I thrive on discontent. To be critical and constantly searching for improvements is necessary for a fulfilling life. There are angry old men, just as there are angry young men. While I’m not so very angry, I’m still alert to a feeling of things being abused or going wrong. I’m constantly feeling I want to pick up my pen, and though I don’t usually do it, there is a mental letter going on most days. I don’t feel in the least serene.