It was only last week that I heard of the recent passing of Tony Garnett, who will need no introduction for anyone on nodding terms with British television history. Back in October 2010 I was fortunate enough to interview Tony at his home in London while conducting research for my PhD. I was investigating changes in UK television performance style, and he had worked for some time as an actor before becoming a script editor and producer. Tony had until recently been a visiting speaker at Royal Holloway, where I started my thesis, and my supervisor, Cathy Johnson, encouraged me to make contact with him. He kindly invited me over for ‘a cup of tea and a chat’, and a transcript of the result is included below. Tony gave his approval for me to use anything from the conversation I thought would be of use, and though sections have appeared in some of my publications (not least his extremely amusing account of acting in a live TV production in the early 1960s), this is the first time in several years that I have gone back to the full interview. Reading it again, I marvel at the wealth of material I did not use – and feel a renewed sense of appreciation for how patiently and thoughtfully he responded to my questions. This was only the third interview I had conducted, and it gave me a much-needed boost in confidence – not to mention some invaluable material. While we spoke, a technician named Paul was working on Tony’s home computer, and when he got up to leave he commented on how interesting it all sounded – which gave me the feeling I was on the right lines. So, whether you would like to hear Tony Garnett’s views on the then recently launched Downton Abbey, or are interested in knowing just how proud he was of Earth Girls are Easy, hopefully you will find it worthy of perusal. Sections in brackets represent Tony’s own typed additions to what he said, which he provided when I sent the transcript for approval. The responsibility for any errors remains my own.
RH: You started acting in rep after grammar school, and you were acting in television while you were doing your studies at the University of London, in Psychology. So, did you get any kind of training in acting at all, and if so, what kind?
TG: No, I got no training in acting. I ran away to rep from school, and I was lucky. In those days – this was the 1950s – the Ministry of Education had given me what they called a state scholarship. They don’t have them any more, they haven’t had them for a long time, and it meant that if I did go to University – which they expected me to do – I would get a grant of something over three hundred pounds a year from the Ministry. And after a couple of years in rep I wanted to come, like actors do, to town, as they say; you know, come to London. And I realised that there was this grant just waiting for me. So I applied to UCL, and went into their Psychology department to do a first degree. Which meant I had this grant, and in the ’50s three hundred pounds a year was a lot of money; you know, you could live quite well on that. So I thought that would underwrite me if I don’t get any luck.
RH: So, the rep was in Birmingham?
TG: The rep was at John English’s Arena Theatre, which played Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle. I did two seasons: a summer season and a winter season there. I played fortnightly rep, which was a step up. One week in Blackpool and the second week in St. Anne’s, where I shared a dressing room with the man who was to become the landlord of the Rover’s Return – so he had a great future – and it was just typical of the rep of the day. You’d provide your own clothes; I was not well thought of – I must have been the worst dressed actor in rep – and it was classic, old-fashioned stuff. It was a thriller one week and a comedy the next. I did, years later, work with a man called Peter Dews, who was a producer and director, who did for the BBC all the Shakespeare history plays, called An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960).
RH: In the ’60s.
TG: In the early ’60s, yeah – and he took me into the permanent company. And there were some guest people who just came in, like Sean Connery came in to play Hotspur, those sort of names, and I was one of them (in the company). So it was a speech one week, and playing a spear the next.
RH: Yes, you were a Messenger one week, and …
TG: … and a few lines the next. And Peter Dews had a marvellous turn where he had a few lines of dialogue which summed up the whole of that repertory experience, and if I can remember them they went like this (adopts broad Yorkshire accent):
“I came straight up by tram as soon as I ’eard o’ trouble, Martha.”
“But the trams don’t run up our way.”
“I’m not without influence in Ardsley.”
And that’s how he summed up all the rep. So anyway, I did a couple of years of that.
RH: Were you just playing juveniles, or…
TG: It was called ‘character juvenile’, which probably meant I wasn’t good enough looking [laughter]. But at the time I had no other wish to be anything but an actor, but you learn from experience. And I came to London and I wasn’t in UCL much, except to run the Drama Society, which I started to do. And then I started work on television and, sort of, B-films, and the odd A-film, like The Boys (1962), and I was just a very lucky actor.
RH: So you were very interested in theatre at an early age?
TG: I was absolutely passionate about theatre; I lived for theatre, and then I discovered the screen.
RH: Right; I was going to ask if you had a similar interest in cinema…
TG: Well, I used to go to the pictures, but as soon as I started acting on the screen – both cinema acting in particular but also television – my interest in the theatre waned. I was a very lucky actor, because I was fashionable. You know, I played either a teddy boy or a neurotic CND undergraduate: one with glasses and one without. But the sort of parts available at that time, just… I fitted in with. You know the old saying that if Albert Finney had been a young actor in the ’30s, he would never have got a job, and if Gerald du Maurier had been an actor in the ’60s he would never have got a job. You know; you’re fashionable or you’re not.
RH: So you were the man they went to if they couldn’t get Albert Finney, or Tom Courtenay…
TG: Well yes, I say that; it’s true. You know, they’d want Albert, and he wouldn’t be free. And then they’d want Batesy, probably – Alan Bates – and he wouldn’t be free. And then with a bit of luck I’d get it. But I didn’t have any training as an actor.
RH: So you were learning on the job, in TV and film?
TG: Yes, I mean I started off in my teens in an amateur dramatic – you know, one of those little theatres, in Sutton Coldfield – and then went into rep and then into television and films. So I didn’t go to a drama school.
RH: Were you unique in that regard? Were you looked down on by older generations of actor who had been through RADA or Central or places like that? Or was it not an issue?
TG: I don’t remember being looked down on, but it’s very possible; there was a sort of snobbery, particularly about RADA, which was the prestige school at the time. But they were starting to take working class kids in some numbers, even at RADA. I mean, I was at UCL with Tom Courtenay, who went to RADA, and he was a working class lad from Hull, just as I was a working class lad from Birmingham. And Albert had been to RADA, so it wasn’t quite as class divided and as snobbish as it would be easy to caricature.
RH: So you got an Equity card by doing rep?
TG: By being in rep, yes. So that wasn’t a problem at the time.
RH: Which now is not really an issue, is it?
TG: It’s not an issue now, but it was for a long time, years ago.
RH: Stanislavski had become influential in America by the ’40s, via people like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, but only really seemed to filter through here in the ’60s, at places like the Drama Centre and East 15, with others like RADA and Central following suit afterwards. Were American ‘Method’ actors like Marlon Brando an influence on younger generations of actors like yourself, who were coming through in the ’60s?
TG: Yes. In fact most young male actors of my generation would decide that they were either Marlon Brando or James Dean. Rather dependant on their size [laughter]. So I decided that I was James Dean; Albert was, of course, Marlon Brando. So yes, that style of acting in American cinema was very influential on my generation. And you can see it in the films that start coming through, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and so on. But I’d been reading Stanislavski as a schoolboy.
RH: Right, that’s what I wanted to ask. So you were aware of the theories that underpinned his work?
TG: An Actor Prepares (1936) was one of my Bibles at school, in sixth form. So I was very interested in that. I mean, there was – as you know – a traditional form of English acting. As Noel Coward said: “Learn the lines and avoid the furniture”, that old saying, which is from the outside in, to oversimplify. And the Stanislavski method was, as you know, from the inside out. And one way of looking as Stanislavski was the Actor’s Studio in New York; but that was only one way of looking at it. And clearly, as you say, it affected a whole generation of actors who ended up in Hollywood movies.
RH: So young actors would discuss Stanislavski’s work?
TG: Very few. I mean, some of my generation would. It was certainly never mentioned by directors; not in my experience. When you’re in weekly rep they plot the moves and you learn the lines – and you do avoid each other – and you get ready to open on Monday night.
RH: Just voice and movement, basically?
TG: Yes, get on with it; you know, and a lot of clichéd performances.
RH: Did you feel that there was a generation gap between yourself and older actors who probably hadn’t even heard of Stanislavski?
TG: Well, yes and no, because the theory is one thing and the practice is something else. And there are a lot of bad, mechanical, unbelievable actors, who can bore you to death with their knowledge of Stanislavski.
RH: But they can’t apply it.
TG: And there are a lot of old school actors who have learned their lines and do avoid the furniture, but have retained a truthfulness, and I’ve always thought the test is: do you believe it?
RH: Well, some actors can instinctively find that truth without having read Stanislavski; there are some actors who are ‘naturals’ when it comes to finding the truth of the character.
TG: Yes, and reading Stanislavski is not going to help you do it. I mean, all my life, when I’ve been auditioning – which I’ve spent more time doing than I have acting – I just ask the simple question: “Do I believe it?” And it is very difficult to act in a believable way. If you haven’t done it you can underestimate how difficult it is. If, for instance, you ask an actor, “Would you please just walk across the room?”, seven or eight times out of ten, you will see them and they are ‘acting’ walking across the room. Just occasionally, someone will just walk across the room; and that’s the one you cast. Do you know the work of Erich Fromm?
TG: OK, it might be worth looking at; he was an interesting psychoanalyst in the ’30s. He made a distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’. And so when I started to wake up to all these things, and I was in my middle twenties before I did, I decided that I was only interested in the acting that was ‘being’, and I was not interested in acting that was ‘doing’. For instance, I’ve spent my life being hostile to the kind of acting you get from, say, Meryl Streep – who is absolutely brilliant, one of the cleverest in the world.
RH: You can see her giving a performance?
TG: Well, you just see the wheels going round. And you compliment her, because the wheels going round are very sophisticated, and they’re going round in a very lubricated way, but I don’t want to see the wheels going round. I don’t want to watch somebody ‘acting’; I want to watch somebody ‘being’. Let me contrast that with another big star: Spencer Tracy. You’ll never see him acting. Except sometimes as he looks down, that mannerism; I think he was looking for his marks. But apart from that, he ‘is’. Even when he’s bouncing out enormously complicated, very fast dialogue in a comedy of manners, you still think he just ‘is’.
RH: But he’s another one who said – perhaps disingenuously – “I learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” He said that.
TG: Yes, but remember – who was the great director who said “Oh, I just shoot westerns”? – there’s that understatement, that people don’t want to be thought pretentious. You know: “Oh, I just get a living”, Robert Mitchum said, didn’t he? I don’t believe a word of it. Do you know the story about Spencer Tracy and the young actor who went up to him and said, “Oh, Mr Tracy, I am an actor too.”?
RH: And he said?
TG: And he said, “Well, just don’t let them ever catch you doing it.”
RH: [laughter] Yes, if you’re seen to be acting, that’s a bad thing.
TG: Which is exactly what I’ve spent my life trying to…
RH: Get away from…
TG: Yeah. So I woke up to a whole number of things in my middle twenties which changed what I wanted to do, and a lot of them were to do with acting. But also the circumstances within which an actor is asked to do the job. I used to be acting in this, that or the other – either a high quality bit of writing that David Mercer did for the BBC, or a B-movie – and I always thought the same thing, that if ever I got the chance I would change the way this was done. And I did get the chance.
RH: Indeed. With the early stuff that you did for television, was it the case that if you were in a one-hour drama you would have two weeks’ rehearsal away from the studio, blocking, then you’d go in and do the technical run, and record it in the evenings (or do it live)?
TG: Yes, that’s absolutely right. You’d go to a rehearsal room with tapes on the floor, running around as though they were sets, and you’d have a day rehearsing on the set, and the next day you’d go through it again, and then you’d have a tech run, and then you’d do it. And to begin with, it was live. I was in a live performance of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist. Terrifying; just running from set to set. I mean those days were just utterly ridiculous.
RH: Would that have been at Lime Grove?
TG: No, that was in Birmingham, before they built Pebble Mill. In the centre of Birmingham, in Aston, there was an old church, the inside of which they used like a studio; thick walls. It was insane. I mean, for someone of your generation it’s almost impossible to imagine. I remember being in a play at the Television Centre – this was live – and I was playing a boy who had a number of girlfriends. And I would be sitting in a scene with a young woman, and we would have a two-hander. So there would be a camera on her – there – and a camera on me – there. And it was written in such a way that hers was the last speech; and as soon as she started her last speech, an AFM (an Assistant Floor Manager) would come and just tap my leg, and I would just quietly move away, and she would have her eye-line and go on speaking as though I was still there, and I would run across the studio floor, changing my clothes as I went. And before I got there that scene was over, and another scene had started with another young woman, looking straight ahead of her, and I had to sit in, pick up a drink, and be ready with my line when she’d finished that. That was the kind of nonsense that you were put in for. Even after they were able to record, and even after it was live.
RH: So even recording ‘as live’ you’d still be expected to rush around, to save on cutting the tape?
TG: To save on cutting the tape, to save on time… but of course they couldn’t say that, so they elevated it into an aesthetic. And the aesthetic was from the theatre, which was “the performances are better if there’s continuity.”
RH: Right; everything in story order? (TG: NO, that would be a good reason. It wasn’t theirs).
TG: Etcetera, etcetera. And you get the adrenalin rush, and it’s just like the theatre; because the theatre was thought of as being the superior form, because television arose out of the theatre, so they were actually shooting – to begin with – theatre plays, really.
RH: That’s why they used to be on Sunday evenings…
RH: … and one afternoon repeat performance…
TG: Yes, and then they’d perform it again, as you do in the theatre. Absolute bullshit.
RH: Which leads me to my next question: you’ve said that multi-camera studio drama incorporated all the disadvantages of theatre and film, without including any of the benefits. Don Taylor, who directed in you in some of the Mercer stuff…
TG: And other things, too, yes.
RH: … took the opposite view…
TG: Yes, he did.
RH: He loved the continuity, felt that he could get better performances live…
TG: He did. We fell out over it.
RH: He wrote about it in Days of Vision (1990). The one thing you produced that I’ve seen that is not made mainly on film is The Parachute (1968) for Play of the Month, which is a mix of very ‘theatrical’ acting – I’m thinking of Alan Badel as the father – and more realistic acting; John Osborne is very restrained. Were you aiming for realism with that production, or is it inevitable that the theatricality creeps in, because it’s in the studio and it’s that way of doing things?
TG: Well, it was inevitable, but there was a whole number of reasons for that. It was David’s style of writing; I mean, David had started writing more or less in a sort of distilled naturalism that he and I agreed on, but he was getting very theatrical as he got older, and he was changing his style. Plus, I’d asked Anthony Page to direct it, who was mainly – and still is – a brilliant theatre director, and I thought this sort of writing needed this almost sort of camp intensity, and that led to the casting of the actors. Funnily enough, one of the more realistic of the actors – and it was Anthony’s idea – was Lindsay Anderson, playing an SS interrogator. And he played it very well. But I produced that because I was very close to David; I’d acted in David’s earlier plays, the CND trilogy, which I think had been wiped. Do you know about those?
RH: I do, yes; the three in the early ’60s.
TG: The three about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And he and I and Ken had done In Two Minds (1967).
RH: Which I saw bits of on screenonline, and although I’m aware that the actors are actors, it’s shot in such a way that they could be ‘real’ people; the parents and the sister…
TG: ‘Real’ people and actors; I know why you use those phrases. They’re very revealing, aren’t they? As though actors are not real people – and as though the people who are not professional actors are playing themselves; no, they’re not. It’s much more complicated than that. But anyway, we could maybe talk about that later. So, I’d worked with David also on Family Life (1971), which is a film we did for the cinema, so I was very close to David personally and professionally, so when he did The Parachute, my attitude was, “Well, I’ll do the best for him.” But it wasn’t a piece that I was burning to place.
RH: It doesn’t sit with the other stuff you were doing at the time.
TG: No, well there have been a handful of those in my life. I mean, I learn from them but they’re not in the main trajectory of what I was trying to do. I mean, I did a movie in Hollywood called Earth Girls are Easy (1989), which is not exactly my cup of tea – a musical. So, it’s a bit of a red herring, The Parachute. We did some shooting on location, but it was mainly in the studio.
RH: And the Nigel Barton plays?
TG: Well, I was a script editor then, and it was my first year, having given up acting.
RH: You said at the BAFTA interview that Roger Smith had invited you to become a story editor “for a bit”; does that mean that you were trying your hand at it, or was it a definite career move? You’ve talked about the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘who’, and you wanted to get involved with the ‘what’ and the ‘who’.
TG: That’s right, all that’s true. I started to realise, as I think I said that evening at BAFTA, that the penny had dropped. I was in my middle twenties; I’d been acting for a few years, and although I’d been a very lucky actor I’d realised that only a small handful of actors in a generation can ever influence events. You know; all the decisions have been made. So yes, as I say to students, there are three questions in this business: the ‘what’, the ‘who’ and the ‘how’, and I wanted to be involved in the ‘what’ as well as the ‘who’ and the ‘how’. When Roger asked me to work on The Wednesday Play (1965-70) with him and Jim MacTaggart I said no for a while, and in the end I said I’d do it, and then I realised that I wanted to go in that direction.
RH: And you started to produce after story editing.
TG: Well, I did a year’s story editing, and then Sydney Newman let me produce. He said, “I’m not going to allow you to direct”; I didn’t particularly want to direct anyway, and I tried directing later and realised how bloody boring it is. But I said to Syd, “Why?” and he said “Because if I let you direct you’ll go on that floor and all the actors will love you…”
RH: [laughter] What’s wrong with that?
TG: “…because actors love directors, and then you’ll never give it up.” And he said “I’ve got lots of directors; what I need is producers.”
RH: He was creating the producer, basically.
TG: Yes, he brought the producer system to the BBC [laughter]; that’s Sydney.
RH: Going back to non-professional actors and ‘real’ people, you used a lot of them in early things like Up the Junction (1965), Kes (1969) and Prostitute (1980), but when you came back from America in the ’90s, your casts for Cardiac Arrest (1994-96) and This Life (1996-97) seem to be made up mainly of professional actors. Soviet directors called these untrained actors ‘actor mannequins’; it’s better to have a real painter and decorator painting a wall on film than to have an actor pretending to be a painter and decorator. Does the fact that you used fewer of these untrained actors in your later productions mean that the training actors receive in Britain better prepares them now to represent the ‘truth’ of what they’re playing?
TG: Well, let’s unpick that. First of all, throughout my working life, whenever I’ve had any real say – by not having any say, I mean producing a $24 million movie for Paramount, where you had to have Paul Newman play the lead or you wouldn’t get the money, plus a lot of young Hollywood stars like Laura Dern, and so forth, that’s a producer not having the say – when I’ve had the say, there has been a mixture of conventional, professional actors and people who have had no experience of acting, or very little. And many of them never thought of being actors, or they’ve been performers in working men’s clubs – comedians or musicians – who had never acted. So a whole range of people, and in some productions more of one, and in some productions more of the others. So, in the early ones that you mentioned there were a lot of professional actors, and in the later ones sometimes there were very few professional actors, and sometimes a great many. For instance, a more formal attempt at film noir in a BBC drama series, like the cop show Between the Lines (BBC, 1993-95), that was mainly professional actors. In another cop show in the ’70s, called Law and Order (BBC, 1978), there was such a mixture of mainly so-called non-actors – some of them actually professional villains – and certainly professional actors who the audience would never have ever seen before, which has always been very important to me.
RH: Yes, I’ve got the feeling that you like to use people who won’t be familiar…
TG: I don’t want an audience to say, “Oh, that’s old so-and-so, he was in so-and-so!”, because they’re not in the drama at all; as soon as they say that, they are standing outside it. But if I’m doing an 8 o’clock Sunday night family drama, for a very big audience, like Ballykissangel (BBC, 1996-2001), then, you know – it’s horses for courses.
RH: You need those familiar faces.
TG: Yes, and that did five or six series and kept the company going while we could do other things. You do it as well as you can. But for instance Buried (Channel 4, 2000), which was a prison miniseries, there were a lot of very good professional actors in that, and also a lot of people in it, playing prisoners, who had fairly recently been prisoners, and we went to Moss Side and cast them. So the mixture is often very useful, because sometimes if you cast the right professional actors, they can bring a familiarity with the work, a confidence, they can bring a professional discipline, and the so-called ‘non-actors’ – if you cast them from the world of the piece itself – they will bring some of that world to the scene, which will rub off on the professional actors.
RH: So they rub off on each other…
TG: And make the professional actors more honest. Just as real locations – which we can come to – I was very keen on, because you can feed off a real location; anything to help. And the people from the working men’s clubs that were in a whole number of our films that we shot in Yorkshire and Liverpool and so on, they brought comedy timing, which was very enriching to the work we were doing.
RH: So do you think using actors who are not familiar to audiences – whether professional or not – makes them more believable for the viewer?
TG: Well, it has to. If the actor is a star, they bring with them the whole baggage of all the parts they’ve ever played that the audience has seen. So my advice is always: if you’re being forced by the money to cast a big name, try to cast a name whose baggage will go with the grain of what you’re trying to do in the piece. At least that means you will damage the piece less.
RH: Going back to what you said about being cast as one or two particular types when you started out – and ‘known’ actors having baggage – to what extent do you think actors are cast (in general, not just in your productions) according to their look or their accent?
TG: Almost always. And typecasting has gone on certainly all my professional life, and before my professional life started, and is still going on after. I mean, it’s a shorthand, first of all. Audiences like it, second. They really like it. They would have felt very uncomfortable if John Wayne – in order to stretch himself – had got cast as a very sensitive, gay fashion designer. I don’t think the audience would have wanted that. Also, the money feels safer with it; it’s a brand, and after it becomes a brand a name signifies a whole lot of things and the audience knows what they’re buying. So there are all sorts of commercial reasons to do with the relationship between the product – and remember that’s what a movie is – and the buying audience, that encourages typecasting. Now, the actor might feel imprisoned, and chafe, but it will go on, and sometimes typecasting makes someone’s career. It can narrow their career but it can make them…
RH: Sustain it…
TG: … sustain it, but sometimes it can kill it, because if you get so identified in a TV soap…
RH: William Roache is never going to be anything other than Ken Barlow.
TG: Exactly. So, you know, you’re playing with fire, but it’s going to happen.
RH: So is television basically antithetical to the idea of rep, playing a wide variety of roles?
TG: Well, I have tried rep, but I would never go near it. I hate it [laughter]; I’m not interested in that.
RH: So is it a question of actors being better suited to certain genres, or is it just that that’s what audiences have seen them in, like John Thaw – well, he did sitcom, but – trying to do a romantic comedy with A Year in Provence (BBC, 1992), and failing miserably?
TG: Yeah. I mean, John – I really liked him, everybody said he was a curmudgeon, but I thought he was a terrific guy, I mean he was somebody I knew, I never worked with him – but he made his name as a real tough cop, as you know, a detective, and that’s what they expected of him. Even as Morse he was bad-tempered. And so they know what they’re going to get.
RH: He did one sitcom, Home to Roost (ITV, 1984-89), which was successful enough to be re-commissioned for four or five series, but again he was a curmudgeon in that.
TG: Yes, he was.
RH: A comedy version of Regan.
TG: Bad-tempered, exactly [laughter].
RH: Watching This Life (BBC, 1996-97) I found Jack Davenport much more credible than he was in Coupling (BBC, 2000-04), though of course sitcom is a different genre with its own performance style. Do you think certain actors are simply better suited to certain genres; it isn’t just a case of what people have seen them in before?
TG: Well, yeah; I mean, some actors just go with the particular grain, and that’s just part of the art of casting. But This Life was… I was lucky because it was a slot that Michael Jackson, the Controller of BBC2, didn’t know how to fill. The budgets were miniscule, and no-one had any particular hopes or ambitions for it. Now that was all a big plus, because it meant that I could do more or less the show I wanted to do, and I wasn’t under any pressure to hire big names; I just had to work within the confines of the budget. And I decided we would play, and do it the way I wanted to do it. And I hired a lot of young people, who had not got too set in their ways…
RH: On both sides of the camera…
TG: … on both sides of the camera, and they showed great courage in having a go. And so we could play, and a lot of the things we tried in This Life, I mean, some didn’t work because you have to go too far in order to find out how far you can go, but that was an example of the kind of thing I believe in. Not just in acting style, because you can’t ever hope to see the acting you want to see just relying on the acting. Because you don’t get that acting unless the writing is right, the directing is right, the way it’s shot is right. I’ve spent most of my working life hating ‘acting’ acting, but that also means I hate ‘writing’ writing, and ‘directing’ directing, for that matter, or DOP-ing…
RH: Director of Photography-ing?
TG: Yes, when I was young they used to be called cameramen, but now it’s Director of Photography. Someone who used to do the sound, now they’re called Sound Engineers… I keep saying this: every rat-catcher wants to be a rodent operative. And I don’t want DOPs messing up my and everybody else’s work, trying to get a show-reel to show Warner Brothers. For instance, as an actor I can remember sitting there at a table with a drink in a scene, and the DOP – because of the lights and the camera angle – saying “Could you cheat it a little, like that, and could your arm be a little… yes, yes, that’s better, just up a little”, and you’d be sitting there like some absolute sort of puppeteer ponce, and because it was visually okay for the DOP and the lighting, then you were told to act, and I thought “I’m getting rid of all of that, all of it.” So we’re going to have screenplays written that don’t read like screenplays; we’re going to have stuff written that actors can say, and we’re going to let them improvise around it, because we are not writing in iambic pentameters. Let me go sideways for a second on that; have you ever acted?
TG: So you know just how difficult it is. You know just how brave you’ve got to be to do it, to get up there and do it at all; you deserve a medal whether you do it well or badly. So actors, first of all, they have to be loved, and they have to be congratulated for trying it at all. But if actors get up there and they’re afraid – and most actors have spent years in the business being directed by idiots, and produced in bad things – they develop tricks to hide behind; anything to hide behind. So they’ll have bits of business they can hide behind with cigarettes and God knows what, and pens or drinks or anything, anything to hide. They will also hide behind the script itself. If you allow them to improvise around the script, to be in the moment – which is really all you’re asking them to do…
RH: What, ‘all’? It’s not that easy.
TG: No… then they’re not hiding behind the script, and nine times out of ten, the take that you pick will be the script. Because writers tend to write better lines than actors can make up on the spot. But that’s not the point.
RH: Improvising frees them up.
TG: It frees them up. Just – let’s go on with this, then we’ll come back to your point, while we’re on it – just as – and I keep saying this to students, it’s true about all people in the arts, really, though we’re talking about actors – in order to do it well, you need to be childlike, which as I say is different from being childish. And if you’re childlike you’re in the moment. You’ve only got to watch… do you have any children?
RH: No, but I know what you mean…
TG: If you watch little children at play, they are in the moment. They are – without knowing it – inside Stanislavski’s circle of concentration.
RH: Fredric March said that little girls playing were the best Method actors in the world.
TG: Absolutely. I didn’t know that; absolutely correct. What you have to do is to create the kind of atmosphere which supports that possibility. So, let’s say, take This Life, for instance, as well as giving them a script that was as believable as we could possibly… our talented writers could provide, which wasn’t drawing attention to how beautifully written it was, they went on the set, much of it was pre-lit, and it was a camera operator’s show, not a DOP’s show. Now, some movies need to be DOPs’ movies; I’m not interested, personally, in being in focus to infinity in the Nevada desert, and saying “What a beautiful sunset.” I mean, that’s one kind of film-making; it’s not my kind of film-making. I’m interested in the human face, which is the most interesting landscape in the world. So let’s concentrate on that; so I want the operator to catch it. I don’t want the operator to say “Do it like this because I’m there”, I want the actors to be who they are in character and the operator to catch what they’re doing.
RH: I noticed that on a lot of the stuff that you’ve done on film, the camera isn’t on the person who’s speaking; it’s on the person who’s reacting, or someone walking past, blocking the view…
TG: Because that’s what happens. But also, in life, you’re not looking at the person who’s speaking, you’re thinking “What’s that doing to so-and-so?” So the drama is on what’s happening to somebody else, which is where we ought to be. Also, go on long lenses, get out of the way… I mean, I remember as an actor sitting there, just about to play a big emotional scene, they spend a long time lighting you, and then some hairy-arsed lad comes over and has a big clapper-board right in front of your face, goes (mimes clapping the board) “Action!”, shouts a number… and then you’re supposed to be in that moment; absolute horseshit. So, we’ll end-board, and good directors… I mean, Loach is a good example; at the end of almost every take he’ll say “Well done. That was really good. Excellent. We’ll just do it again. Just one more, for me.” It’s a joke, because after take seven it’s “Just one more”, but it’s always congratulations; “Try it a bit different, just keep it a bit fresh.” And feed off your locations, feed off real props; anything and everything to help the actor be in the moment. Now that’s Stanislavski in practice, it’s not giving them the book to read, it’s making sense of the difficulty of acting and how central it is to what we’re up to. And I say to everybody on the crew and everybody involved in the thing, “That’s what you’re serving.” Everybody’s job is to deliver to the camera exactly what the camera wants at that moment. And then fuck off out of the way. And the camera – which is the director and the operator – (is to not get in the way of the actor being in that circumstance, because that’s what we’re all going to see.) So the actor is paramount to me. People have said, “Oh, they’re not really important to you, because you use amateurs.” And they don’t understand what we’re trying to do.
RH: Which brings me to Joan Littlewood. I know you went to see a lot of Theatre Workshop stuff…
TG: Oh, Joan was an enormous influence on me, even though she was in the theatre at a time when I was moving away from the theatre. I would go to Stratford East and watch everything. And I also got to know her, and we were going to do a film together, but the problem was that I was at the BBC, and it was after I’d persuaded the BBC to let me produce actual films – I think she’d done Sparrers Can’t Sing (1963) by then, I’m sure she had, yes – but the problem was, Joan would call me on a Thursday and say “Great, excellent; let’s start Monday.” I’d say “Joan, it doesn’t work like that at the BBC. I mean, we can think of something, and maybe by after Christmas we could just –”, well, she couldn’t. So it never happened. But we worked with a lot of her actors.
RH: You had Tony Selby, George Sewell, Rita Webb…
TG: I mean, George played the lead in one of those Jimmy O’Connor plays. Yeah, a lot of them. And I had enormous respect and admiration for Joan, and learnt a lot from her.
RH: Reading Joan’s Book (1994), her attitude to actors didn’t seem to be “What have you done?” but “What can you do?”…
RH: … she wasn’t bothered about where or if they’d been trained.
TG: She didn’t give a shit.
RH: And she did a lot of improvisation…
RH: … placed emphasis on natural accents…
RH: Which now in TV … well, arguably…
TG: Oh, don’t get me started on that!
RH: … and combined Stanislavski and Laban. Laban she’d learnt at RADA, but she hated RADA because it was posh people playing polite drawing room comedies. You obviously believed that her training resulted in a more realistic style compared to traditional methods. Did other producers share your opinion?
TG: Well, not many that I knew. I mean, we were whistling in the dark, really. But there were some.
RH: But some of her actors went on to have long careers in television. Tony Selby…
TG: Tony Selby, yeah. A lot of those actors got a lot of good work. In fact Tony Selby was in a half-hour play called ‘Catherine’ (BBC, 1964) – which was wiped – and that’s where it all started. Because the producer of ‘Catherine’ was Jim MacTaggart, the writer was Roger Smith, the director was Ken Loach [laughter], and I played the lead with Kika Markham, and Tony Selby was in it. And it was a half-hour drama that we did up in Manchester, just before we started working on The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-1970), and it was one of the first things Ken did after the director’s course. So, we were talking about Joan and… ah, accents. I couldn’t stand this. It was not a two-way street. It actually should have been a no-way street, because it was perfectly OK for posh, southern RADA actors to do their ‘Eeh, by gum’ acting; patronising ‘Eeh, by gum’ acting – because it wasn’t possible for some kid from Doncaster to play a lord. But I didn’t want either, because I didn’t believe any of them. But it’s all come back now; the posh actors are back, most of the stuff is posh, and they’re allowed a much bigger range. So when I started casting I said, “I don’t want any RADA actors up here”; I would cast in Manchester, I’d cast in Liverpool, I’d cast wherever we were going to do the piece, that’s the first thing, and I said “Don’t send some posh RADA actor up here, or some kid who lives in Kensington, trying to pretend to be a scouser, or a docker, because I’m not interested.” It’s not just a question of can they do the accent – and anyway, acting is nothing to do with ‘doing the accent’ – it’s whether they’re entirely credible; which is why in ‘The Price of Coal’ (1977) we had a lot of miners playing miners. And when we did The Cops (1998-2001) the actors rehearsed by putting the uniform on and practising getting in and out of the car with a bloody uniform on, and all the belts and apparatus and things. I mean, do it. And any case, they had to go out with the cops, just as the writers did. I wouldn’t allow the writers to write an episode unless they spent a week or two out in the cars with the cops. What are they going to write about? If you don’t actually do it, or if you’re not actually it yourself, then research it and do it and live with it. Or otherwise, what you’ll be doing as a writer – and what you’ll be doing as an actor – is rehashing a whole lot of clichés from previous stuff that you’d seen which are cliché-ridden in themselves. So what’s the point?
And that’s all for now; given the length of the interview, we have decided to split it over two weeks. Tune in next time to see read Tony Garnett’s views on soap, the virtues of working with non-actors, and Ricky Gervais…
Dr Richard Hewett is a lecturer in media theory. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, was published in 2017, and will be out in a slightly more affordable paperback edition this summer.