Essential Tony Garnett
My meeting with Tony and Ken was important in my life, partly because I was finding it hard to cope with the amount of success that Nell was having, and partly because the film we made from my screenplay was to be my most powerful and successful work so far. None of us had the slightest inkling that our meeting would result in what appears to have been the most important and influential single television play ever to be transmitted.
One piece of information that emerged from this first meeting was that both Tony and Ken were Marxists, or occupying some political position fairly close to Marxist, and both members of a small political group, the Workers Revolutionary Party, whose stated aim was to create a revolution in this country.
I later went to one of their meetings, in the Alexandra Palace. The people there consisted of Marxists from the media who did most of the talking; and a few thousand ‘workers’ who has been bussed down from the North.
Tony had begun his professional career as an actor, appearing in a number of television programmes.
In 1964 he had joined the BBC as a script editor for the Wednesday Plays and ‘Up the Junction’ was one of his last jobs as script editor.
Then he got the job of producing six television dramas of which ‘Cathy Come Home’ was to be one of the first.
A day or so before the transmission of ‘Cathy Come Home’, Tony gave an interview to a journalist from the communist ‘Daily Worker’ newspaper, which shows how he viewed his recently assumed role.
‘I carry the can,’ he told the journalist. ‘If there’s anything right with a play, then it’s to the credit of the writer, director, actors, cameramen, and so on. If there’s anything wrong,’ Tony continued, ‘that is the responsibility of the producer.
‘What I have to do is to create an artistic and technical team, a collective, and I am the link between them and the corporation.’
The writer, he maintained, is the most important member of the team since the screenplay is the primary creative act.
‘Obviously, organisation, the question of time, the amount of money we can spend, come into it. But the producer mustn’t give a prescription to the writer; there has to be a dialectic between us.’
The journalist asked him what possibility there was of outside companies setting up independently and selling the finished product to television. Tony felt that this would be unlikely to happen.
The journalist next asked him if there is sufficient talent in this country to keep television supplied with good material.
‘Far too much energy and talent is wasted in turning out “entertainment”,’ Tony replied. ‘As a result a lot of people end up despising themselves and the people they are supposed to be serving.
‘We need more drama that is serious, in the sense that people can believe in it. It’s a wicked statement to say that this country’s short of talent. It’s a question of having enough people caring about talent and bringing it along.’
The journalist pointed out that television drama like ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Cathy’ seemed to be going in for more outside locations.
Tony replied that television’s economic and administrative conventions tended to keep productions in the studio, and that this affected their content. Putting people in a studio and thus removing them from their natural environment does in fact, he felt, ‘lead to false statements’.
As a medium, said the journalist, television had been likened to journalism. Was the increasing use of film in drama an example of this?
‘There’s something snobbish about labelling somebody’s view of reality, of the present, as “journalism”,’ replied Tony. ‘On the other hand, “art” is a word that is corrupted and corrupting. I think life is more important than art, and that art should arise out of life.
‘If, however, a piece of drama is only concerned with surface comment then it fails as drama; in that sense it’s “journalistic”.’
Tony continued, ‘When I say to people that I can’t do what I don’t believe in, they sometimes reply that this means I’m not a “pro”. I say “No, it means I’m not a whore.”
‘Television, because it is in a sense a microcosm of the society in which it exists, and because it is such a powerful medium, reflects the conflicts within our society.
‘There are those who, for various reasons, want to preserve the social, cultural and political status quo. But there are always people – and they exist in the arts as much as elsewhere – who want to question, who want to change, who want things to be discussed.
‘I know which group I am in.’
The journalist asked him what was his view of television output as a whole. Was it as good as it could be?
‘I am offended when I see human life going for nothing,’ replied Tony. ‘Sexual titillation which doesn’t arise out of any genuine feeling but is just there, and it’s the nightly drip, drip, drip of mendacity which I find offensive.’
‘Cathy Come Home’ was destined to be something that transcended the nightly drip, drip, drip of mendacity. Tony already knew enough about the ways of the mandarins who run television to realise that the project would be banned if any of them actually saw the script or the film before it was transmitted.
He therefore requested that we keep all details of the play secret until the moment that it was shown.
There was less supervision in television then than there is now and Tony said that from his end he would juggle the various production processes which, as we would be shooting on 16mm film, would be less familiar to the mandarins anyway, to prevent anyone higher than us in the hierarchy getting to see the film while there was still time to ban it.
Ken and I met for a series of script conferences. He felt that we should cut out the caravan sequence in which Cathy lives with Romany Gypsies and other fellow travellers. He thought it would seem too way out for viewers to be able to identify with. However, a stay in a caravan is a frequent occurrence in the story of the average person’s descent into homelessness, and the incident also provides a moment of lightness in an otherwise grim story, so I persuaded him that it be left in.
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