The State of Independents

Ian Potter reveals the story behind his book, The Rise and Rise of the Independents: A Television History

First published January 2009

The Rise and Rise of the Independents

The Rise and Rise of the Independents

I’d been a curator of TV at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford for 13 years, writing an assortment of bits and pieces in my spare time – everything from Week Ending quickies to Doctor Who short stories – and had left to try to write more, after a commission to script a radio comedy show came together in 2006.

One of my old museum colleagues, the writer Tony Earnshaw, a man who knows more about Richard Burton and Peter Cushing than you might think humanly possible, was writing a book on film for a man called David Nicholas Wilkinson, the founder of Guerilla Films, and Guerilla Books. Knowing David was looking for someone to write a TV book, he recommended me.

A call to David revealed he was interested in mapping the history of the TV indies, which he’d been active in at the end of the ’70s and early ’80s, and was disappointed to find wasn’t well recorded.  He felt the TV industry (ever youth orientated) had forgotten some of its own heritage, that this needed redressing, and that there was an interesting story to be told about the growth of the independent sector in modern British TV.

It sounded slightly dry at first, but I became more and more interested as I thought about it.  Firstly, it was an opportunity to combine my writing with some of the TV history I’d gleaned  over my years at Bradford. Secondly, to tell the story I was going to have to interview a load of TV producers past and present, which would be a great chance to meet some heroes. And thirdly, I wanted to meet David too, because my post-chat Google of him revealed he’d produced Coast to Coast, a rather fine BBC comedy drama film from 1987, and he’d been in The Sweeney!

If I’d known then he was married to Doctor Who costume designer Amy Roberts, I’d have probably been even more keen.

I worked up a short proposal for the book in which I mainly focused on developments from the 1980s onwards, with brief mentions of the some of the pre-Channel 4 independents in a section I naively called ‘The Prehistory of the Indies’, and met up with David to talk it through.  I was pleased we both agreed the way to make a story like this one readable was to focus on programme makers and their shows rather than launch into a year-by-year rattle through their records at Companies House, and I was also really pleased to discover filming the kids of Kirkby chasing the ice cream van mobile disco in Coast to Coast had been just as hairy as it looked on screen.

I ended up penning a short sample chapter to see if I might be the man to write the whole thing.  Being the kind of spod who reads a lot of books about telly I reckoned there might be a readership  for David’s idea beyond the industry, both in higher education and amongst other spods like me so I tried to write in a way that offered something for all three potential readerships – practitioners, academics and enthusiasts.  David liked the sample and we agreed to go ahead.

Once my radio show had been safely written and recorded in the summer of 2007, I started work on the book in earnest, which initially involved going back to Bradford where I spent several weeks scouring back issues of the periodicals Broadcast, Television, Televisual and a large number of industry memoirs in the museum’s research centre.

Basically I was trying to get a detailed history of industry developments together, identify key interviewees and learn their careers inside out before heading out to chat to them. 

I had a theory from interviews I’d conducted in the past that if I knew two or three obscure facts about someone’s career that were off the usual interview radar, they’d tend to assume I knew lots more about other areas of their work and talk more frankly than they might otherwise do. This does seem to work (though it helps to have a passion for the work too) but can run the risk of you suddenly finding yourself talking about the intimate personal lives of 1950s TV directors who you previously only knew for their fine body of work.

The research period at Bradford was vital because it gave me time to get my head around some of the knottier business affairs of TV I’d blithely ignored over the years, helped identify a few potential interviewees neither David nor I had thought of and it introduced me to Michael Darlow’s book Independents Struggle which became an invaluable guide to the late ’70s and  early ’80s TV scene, and helped shape my book a great deal.

I also discovered Leonard Rossiter, Don Warrington and Richard Beckinsale did an eight-minute promo for Betamax in their Rising Damp personae in 1978 to be played in electrical goods showrooms… which is the kind of stuff that keeps the likes of me going.

The one horrible thing was that the more I researched, thought and read, the bigger the book became, as I began to populate my hazy 1950s to 1970s prehistory with more and more forgotten production companies. I realised to tell the story properly I was going to have to also give a once over lightly history of TV legislation, regulation and ownership from the 1950s to present (touching on developments in the US as well as the UK) without getting sued by anyone. What we’d thought of as a 100,000 word book slowly expanded to 150,000.

Interviews began in November 2007 and stretched through into the spring of 2008, and we got almost everyone we wanted, though sadly Waheed Ali, Denise O’Donoghue and Phil Redmond eluded us, and I had to accept my desire to talk to Kenith Trodd, Patrick Dromgoole and Anne Home was too much of a fan’s one.  I would have loved it, but I wouldn’t have been doing it to serve the book.

My deepest regret was that we’d been bothering the office of Verity Lambert trying to secure her involvement during her final months in a way we wouldn’t if we’d been aware of her illness.  Her influence however ran deep, and it was a delight to discover in Sophie Balhetchet, a key figure in the story of the early days of Channel 4, a TV producer who had been inspired by Verity’s work in her youth and had later become a friend and colleague.  You go into an interview with an industry heavyweight expecting many things but a fannish chat about Adam Adamant Lives! is rarely one of them.

Highlights of the interviews are so very many and varied but to pick out just a few:

It was an honour, as a fan of TV comedy, to sit with Beryl Vertue, holding a Men Behaving Badly mug and surrounded by pictures of Steven Moffat and her grandkids, discussing her incredible career from the 1950s onwards  (and to tell her the internet thinks she produced a lesbian vampire movie: “Wait ’til I tell Steven!”).

It was a delight to hear James Gatward, so often caricatured as a buffoon for the collapse of TVS under his management, tell his side of the story with such great candour and relate his incredible production career with such charm.  History is written by the victors but there are other sides to every tale.

It was a privilege to be able to ask Tony Garnett nerdy questions about using telerecordings to make the join between film and studio less obvious in ’60s BBC dramas and get a fascinating reply even when I was ploughing such obscure ground (when the nerdery gets dark, it gets dark).

It was an absolute treat to talk to Charlie Parsons about Network 7 and Club X in a way that went beyond the usual gags and looked at what an influence those shows had on modern telly. 

It was distinctly unnerving to walk down a corridor on the way to see Peter Bazalgette and find myself in a page from Charlie Brooker’s TV Go Home book (and even more odd to come out afterwards and nip to an office loo from another page in the book).  Zeppetron went far and wide working on that one!

 Piecing the book together after the interviews was a hard slog, not least the transcribing of all the interview recordings complete with mumbles and occasionally incomprehensible names, though the whole process greatly aided by the wit and wisdom of BBC4 pundit and BFI writer Alistair D McGown who designed, set, proofed and chivvied the thing to completion, all the while offering suggestions, useful background details and an alarmingly in-depth knowledge of Yvette Fielding trivia.  In another world he’d have been the man recommended to David for the project, I’m so glad I got the chance in this one and he was on board to help out.

 More than anything else, the model for the book in my mind became the old James Burke Connections series, trying to trace an accessible way through the book’s complicated story by highlighting the links between programmes and programme makers that reflected or influenced the industry’s evolving landscape. This unsurprisingly means that you find The Frost Report comes up a lot during the 1960s and you develop a heightened awareness of just how Northern Ireland has dominated our cultural lives over the decades but curiously also leaves you reflecting on the pivotal importance of Richard Stilgoe and Jasper Carrott to just about everything in UK TV from about 1978 on.

 Hopefully the finished publication captures some of the voices of the incredible people I met along the way and helps you join up The Prisoner, Death of a Princess, Drop the Dead Donkey and Life On Mars in a way you’d never thought of before.   Now all I need is for someone to find that Rising Damp Betamax promo and my work will be done.

Find out more about the publication at the Guerilla Books website>