EARLY CAREER and DOCUMENTARIES SERIES AT THE BBC IN THE 1960S

Remembered by Lawrence

Including:

  • The Human Side
  • Six Sides of a Square
  • The Widows Warriors
  • Who Raised his Voice Against it?
  • In A Class of Their Own

 

I joined the BBC in September 1963 as a trainee assistant film editor at Ealing Studios which they had taken over from the renowned Ealing Films. There was still a long defunct lot which had been used to shoot part of the Ladykillers in its glory days. There was still a formidable output of film. Ken Russell was editing his tribute to Elgar which was screened on Monitor while I was there and I was later to return to edit my ghost stories with the incomparable Roger Waugh.

My beginnings were suitably humble. After a brief induction course, the twenty-odd trainees were sent to assist or hinder individual film editors and hopefully learn something of the art from them. My first editor was Ian Callaghan whose task was to edit the film excerpts in Z Cars which mainly consisted of exteriors of houses with policemen walking in or out of them which were put on what was called a telecine machine and run when a character exited an electronic studio to appear outside on film. The production assistant shouted ‘Run telecine” at exactly the right time to effect this. In 1963 almost all programmes, including Z Cars were broadcast live in this fashion and there was no room for error. There was a visible contrast between electronic recording and sixteen-millimetre film. One of the Monty Python sketches ten years later sent up this technique when John Cleese looked out of a window from an electronically recorded set and shouted, “We’re surrounded by film”. ‘

I worked for four or five l film editors including a lovely man called Jim Latham who edited It's a Square World which starred the incomparable Michael Bentine whose sublime idiocy rivalled Spike Milligan. When we went to the dubbing studios they had a newly installed machine called the Melotrone which had been invented to produce sound effects for the huge series the BBC were making on WW1. Heavy artillery, mortars, machine gun fire were there at the push of a button.
Bentine rushed towards it mad with excitement.
“We can play the whole war, Lawrence,” he shouted. You be Germans!”

After a year and a half I was beginning to wonder if I'd made the right career choice and was sitting in the canteen at Lime Grove where I was working then when a shadow fell over me and a voice said: “You look about as miserable as I thought you might.”

I looked up and saw it was the man who'd presided over my board when I got the job. He was later to write and produce the classic Yes Minister and work in partnership with John Cleese at Video Arts. Tony Jay. He told me there was a post going for a junior director in a department called Talks Features and I should apply for it.

So began my work in documentaries under an inspirational department head called Gordon Watkins. Paul Bonner had been the producer for a series called the Human Side that was intended to do for sociology what Horizon did and still does nearly sixty years later for science. It crashed in flames unfortunately after a season but Ian Martin anther producer took over and largely because of the fire of a fiercely intelligent researcher called Richard Broad who was to become a close friend we embarked on the project which was to become Six Sides of a Square, six half hour documentaries about Gibson Square in Islington.

It was a time when the Middle Classes were being priced out of Kensington and Chelsea and sought the attractions of Islington whose early Victorian house had largely become divided into flats for the working classes or single-room tenements for the aged or extremely poor. Rachmanism, named after the villainous landlord who bought occupied house dirt cheap and evicted his tenants by foul means or fouler was rife and the misery I witnessed was a shock to my privileged eyes. Richard and I spent nine or ten weeks knocking on doors and talking to people before we filmed. Richard had several rules for behaviour which I cherished. Among the best was:
“You don’t talk to a racist. You hit them on the head with a pick helve.”
By which he meant the system that produced racism was what you had to analyse and if possible, rectify. Chatting to racists only gives oxygen to their prejudices.

We met some great people filming and some of them remained friends and the series was a great success.

The following year 1966 Gordon Watkins introduced me to a Welsh actor called Kenneth Griffiths who was a talented supporting actor in comedy films. He'd played a notable Welsh librarian with Peter Sellars in a film called Only Two Can play. On top of this he was an enthusiastic amateur historian of the Boer War and he wanted to tell the story of the Siege and Relief of Ladysmith, the town in Natal. Gordon thought we'd get on famously but I'm afraid he was wrong. I was initially very interested because my grandfather had fought right through the campaign as a second lieutenant in the Thirteenth Light Dragoons and I was very keen to learn more about it.

In those days we had considerable freedom about crewing and I was able to recruit a South African war photographer called Ernie Christie who'd distinguished himself in the Congo when he'd filmed an ambush that went wrong when Gurkha troops had shot up a car full of unarmed white Belgians. Ernie lived in Joburg and had his own light aeroplane and his assistant would drive to Ladysmith with the gear. Kenneth and I would drive in another car and filming would begin.

It was a great story of colonial aggression and the bungled campaign of General Buller who despite overwhelming British superiority managed only bloody draws in the battles he fought to get through to the besieged town. The final one at Spion Kop was a particular disaster. The Kop was a mountain top in the Drakensberg range and Buller was drawn into a completely unnecessary encounter with the Boer sharpshooters. Notably present at the battle were Mahatma Ghandi who was a young lawyer practising in South Africa and had organised the stretcher bearers for the war and the equally young Winston Churchill who was present as a war correspondent.

The filming was spoilt by Kenneth’s massive ego and my insistence on keeping to the schedule. When I had collected enough materiel to complete the show as I saw it, I told him we were leaving next morning. In the row that followed he told me he would take the train back as he never wanted to see me again. I returned by car to Joburg and spent the weekend with Ernie and his wife before flying back to London. Ernie received a phone call from a journalist friend telling him that the South African Special Branch reported the film crew had left Ladysmith in highly suspicious circumstances. One in a car, two in a plane and the little Welsh bugger taking the train, leaving the agent at loss as whom to follow.

The completed film The Widows Warriors, went out later in the year. Kenneth went on to make several more films with Anthony Thomas which were very good.

Gordon Watkins was to give me several other great assignments but the one that really stretched me was the story of the German resistance to Hitler, Who Raised His Voice Against It? I made it with a co-producer called Bridget Winter who was a redoubtable researcher and woman of great courage and integrity. When we were in East Berlin with hard won visas to stay for a week and a sanctimonious member of the Foreign Office there said there was no mention of the mass uprising of the proletariat in our script Bridget told him sharply that there was no mass uprising by the Germans against Adolf Hitler anywhere.

What we did find were stories of great individuals who stood against the regime, ranging from right wing soldiers and aristocrats to hard-line Communists and it was a great privilege to meet them and talk to them. I think that the lesson we took from them was never let such people come to power because once they hold power it's almost impossible to depose them. Witness Putin, the Generals in Burma, the Chinese in Hong Kong, Belorussia etc, etc,

I don't think I really did justice to these heroes or told their story very well. The films in the archives, I think. I'll try to get it out.

After the resistance film Gordon gave me one last great brief to make six half hour docs about brilliant teachers. In a Class of Their Own transmitted in 1969. I directed three and David Gerard did the others. It received critical acclaim and a complimentary letter from Huw Weldon.

Post 1969 Gordon left the department to be replaced by Chris Brasher of London marathon fame. Chris ‘s short stay was regarded as a disaster and resulted in an open revolt of the departments producers but he did submit my idea for a Christmas Ghost Story to Paul Fox so I should be grateful to him for that.

 

About Six Sides of a Square

This programme is from a series looking at the lives of the inhabitants of Gibson Square in Islington, north London. Some of the families it follows have working mothers and it explores how they cope with combining their housewifely duties with the demands of employment. We meet an actress, an office cleaner and a mother who chooses to stay at home to look after the children and hear from the narrator about how it is beginning to 'look like a woman's world'.
Gibson Square is in the heart of Islington and was built in the late 1830s. At the time this programme was made, the area was quite run down, but the square is now in a very fashionable postcode and in 2019 properties there were being sold for over £1.5m.

 

Opening Narration to "6 Sides of a Square", BBC documentary, 1966

Gibson Square, Islington, London. 10 minutes from St. Paul’s, and 15 from Piccadilly. A house here will cost you from eight to ten thousand pounds, yet most people living here are working class. Seven years ago, you could afford one of these houses for a couple of thousand, and there weren’t too many takers. But since then, these late Georgian houses have become increasingly fashionable, and there’s been an invasion of young professional people. So now, the 400 people who live in these 70 houses, range across the social scale, the identical facades are misleading. Here you find rich and poor, old and young, workers and bosses, behind uniform front doors, all kinds of condition of men. Knock on these doors and you enter squalid rooms, or beautiful homes.”

Fifty years ago, a BBC documentary director knocked on the doors of Gibson Square to learn more about the residents that lived there. Across six episodes he told their stories, and through them the stories of London and Britain, with its housing, class, feminism, and family values. At the time it was groundbreaking, with a fantastic cast of honest and open residents. Newspapers praised the BBC for this documentary achievement, but little did they realise that it would also become a capsule, recording these moments forever.