Last week I provided the first half of an interview I conducted with the late Tony Garnett back in 2010 as part of the research for my PhD thesis. Here is the second and final instalment, in which he discusses soap, the virtues of working with non-actors, and Ricky Gervais…
RH: You know Jonathan Bignell at Reading University?
TG: Yes, I know Jonathan.
RH: He was involved with a project called Acting with Facts, and last year at a symposium I saw Ian McNeice and Phil Davis talking about working for Mike Leigh, who I know you’ve worked with.
TG: I’ve worked with Mike, yes.
RH: On ‘Hard Labour’ (BBC, 1973). And Phil Davis was talking about playing a motorcycle courier for Leigh on Life is Sweet (1990), and actually going out and doing the job for two weeks.
TG: Of course. I mean, it’s so obvious when you say it. But they don’t do it; very few. So, there’s been… it’s a few of us, isn’t it, really? So one of my problems talking to you about changes in acting style and the technological changes, which we haven’t really come to yet, is that – with only one or two other people, or a small handful of other people – I’ve been ploughing a lone furrow, so I’ve got a very distinct view of the business, but it’s not…
RH: The mainstream view.
TG: The mainstream.
RH: Going back to what you said about providing the space to play, for actors that must translate into time and money in terms of rehearsal, which has diminished to practically nothing in the modern era. It now seems that actors are expected to do their ‘homework’ prior to arriving on set or location, quickly run through a scene for the camera, and then go for a take.
RH: Is that the best way for an actor to work?
TG: Well, I’m not usually that keen on too much rehearsal time, but I’d like some research time.
RH: Right. So, still preparation time; not ‘blocking’ rehearsal.
TG: Yes. I mean, whoever they’re playing, if they’re playing a doctor in a hospital, go and be there for as long as you possibly can; just soak it up, so it becomes second nature to you, the business of it, the feel of it. Now, it’s less and less and less; it’s more of an efficient factory than it used to be. Because it’s all manufacturing, whereas in the old days, like fifty years ago, it was a kind of inefficient manufacturing, where there was time and it wasn’t that brilliantly organised, but in the interstices you found little ways of doing things and you bought yourself a bit of time. Now it’s more efficient, it’s ‘just in time’ manufacturing; it’s Japanese [laughter]. So it saves money, but you lose things on the way.
RH: And do you think modern generations of actors, who have had that Stanislavski training – where you can do your homework, go away and prepare yourself, you don’t need to go into a room and be told where to stand for two weeks – are better suited to that production process than the older actors? On DVD commentaries older actors often complain that they have no time now to get to know their fellow cast members; they don’t really feel part of the production.
TG: Well, I’m not interested in whether they feel part of the production in that sense, and it’s not necessarily a help for them to ‘get to know’ all the others. You know, this isn’t a social club. And if their character doesn’t happen to know – because of the way a story is – another character, why should the actors be paid to be chummy with each other? They can be chummy with each other in their own time. It’s not going to help the piece. I think actors are better prepared now than they used to be.
RH: Because of the training they’ve had?
TG: Well, possibly, but I’m not an expert on the training now. I think some of the training is probably better, but whether it’s necessary or not for the kind of work that I spend my life doing I’m unsure. I think that if you’re planning on playing a classical part, maybe with some fencing, eight times a week, then the training is probably very useful – particularly if you’re trying to put some verse intelligibly to the back of the 2,000-seat theatre. I would say two years at a good drama school has got to be a plus. Whether it helps you much in the kind of work that I’ve devoted my life to, I’m not so sure; it might even hinder.
RH: So is there a place in modern television – and the kind of work you produce – for old-style actors?
TG: You say old-style actors; some old-style actors are absolutely wonderful and utterly credible, and it’s been a privilege to work with them.
(Break in recording while TG thanks Paul for his work on TG’s computer)
TG: Also, I love comedians. I think that’s absolutely brilliant acting, and brave. I’ve got a great affection for old comedians, and we’ve cast comedians, comedians in the working men’s clubs and they’ve been absolutely brilliant; and what they’ve been most brilliant at is not just making you laugh, but moving you, and I’ve learnt a lot from acting by watching them. In the end it’s whether they’re truthful or not, and old-style actors who’ve come through with all the old tricks of the business, if you give them a chance and just say “Well, just do it”, they’ll break your heart. They’re marvellous sometimes.
RH: I was going to ask about actors you’ve used more than once. I haven’t seen enough of your stuff to know whether you have a kind of repertory of actors that you like to use, but I noticed that Paul Kerrigan played very similar characters in ‘The Big Flame’ (BBC, 1969), Days of Hope (BBC, 1975) and ‘The Spongers’ (BBC, 1978) – and later in Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982).
TG: Yes. Peter Kerrigan.
RH: Peter Kerrigan, sorry.
TG: Well, I met Peter Kerrigan through Jim Allen, and Peter Kerrigan was a docker…
RH: A real docker?
TG: … a real docker, on the Liverpool docks, and consulted him about ‘The Big Flame’ – which you may or may not have seen – because he was an active trade unionist and a socialist, and a very, very fine man. And so he was in ‘The Big Flame’, and with Ken directing it he did very well. And then he just went on to do other stuff, and he was an example of a man who was just so honest, so believable, you wanted to go and cast him again. And he had a scene in ‘The Spongers’ with his daughter in front of a committee interviewing her about her welfare payments, and he was very, very moving. So there you go. But I never say “I’ve worked with you once, I’ll never work with you again”, but I don’t have a repertory.
RH: And Paul Copley; very different – although two decades apart – in Days of Hope and This Life, and totally natural in both. He’s one of those people whose name I wouldn’t remember; he’s not a ‘star’ actor, but always believable.
TG: Well, he was a boy in Days of Hope and a very mature man in This Life, but you know in This Life he wasn’t my idea. I can’t remember; it might have been the director’s idea, or the casting woman’s idea, and when they came onto the set, old Paul Copley, I thought, “Bloody hell!” That’s good, I like him, but I didn’t even think of him.
RH: So it wasn’t a deliberate choice.
TG: I was pleased, but I didn’t think of him.
RH: You’ve said that even in old days of multi-camera you could still get wonderful performances, and also in the modern era of mass-produced ‘junk food’ TV you can still get those performances which go against the grain of the production. What would be the ideal to ensure those wonderful performances? Is it a question of time, or money?
TG: Well, it’s not about money, although you’d always like a bit more money. And it’s not crucially about time; and of course time and money often go together. It’s about attitude, I think. It’s about what I was talking about earlier; it’s about, first of all, the material, because the actor can’t work without the material. But secondly, how you set up the actor to work; all the things I was talking about. So, preferably single camera – the less technological detritus in the actor’s face, the better. Lots of love and encouragement. If the circumstances are right, then it’s a question of not accepting lies. And a lot of actors… some actors just lie – some of them are very successful, and they shouldn’t be doing it – but a lot of actors lie; they don’t even know, really, they’re lying. They lie out of defence, because they’re hiding behind something; they’re protecting themselves from humiliation. And if you love them enough, they might – a lot of them, and I’ve seen them do it – relax into a truthfulness, and they’re better than they ever thought they could be. So it’s attitude more than anything.
RH: And are you seeing that in modern TV production?
TG: Not much. I see more and more – not just in the acting, but in a lot of the aspects of television, and in art films – much more professionalism, much more technical expertise, including the acting. But the sap has gone out of a lot of it; there’s no life in it. There’s no sense of danger; really, really truthful actors, you’re watching them a bit on the edge of your seat because you never quite know what they’re going to do next. You never quite know what’s going to happen next…
RH: Which brings you into the moment…
TG: … it brings you into the moment, and you think, “Fucking hell, I wonder how they’re going to react to that?” Too much of it now looks a bit smooth, and funnily enough so do the so-called documentaries and reality shows, because they are now so orchestrated, so rehearsed, so planned, and the people in them are so directed, and the structure now they’ve stolen from conventional dramatic fiction. You know; there’s an exposition, they set it up, they have a sort of active conflict, then a complication, and then a little resolution, and usually to do with the ad breaks.
RH: Yes, I saw Gordon Ramsay’s programme, where he goes in to sort out a failing kitchen, and you could see that it had all been set up a certain way: he goes in, ruffles some feathers, the staff have been told to react a certain way, there’s a crisis…
TG: [laughter] Yes, yes – and that’s supposed to be factual!
RH: Yeah! What impact do you think reality TV – which there’s always been in some form, of course – had when it really exploded in the ’90s? Did it affect what audiences would accept as realistic performance from actors in television drama?
TG: Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? I don’t know how much it did, but you’d think so. And that’s been one of the differences between the Hollywood movie – let’s exclude the art film for the moment, because very few people go to art films, and they’re sophisticated in particular ways – so, compare the Hollywood movie with the TV drama. The difference is not just the scale and the money and the stars and so on; you go out into a special place to watch a Hollywood movie, and you watch it for and of itself, quite separate from everything else, don’t you? Whereas all the TV drama – I realised when I first started in TV – it’s all within the context of the evening’s viewing. Because most people don’t just sit down and watch one thing, do they?
RH: Raymond Williams’ ‘flow’.
TG: Exactly. I remember we did The Wednesday Play, and we were following the news. And This Life was just before Newsnight (BBC, 1980- ). And so it’s in the context of location news footage, grabbed with cameras that are not very technically brilliant, and face-to-face interviews, with people’s talking heads, and so on. So that will have to bleed into what an audience will accept, and what an audience expects. I mean, one of the things we were trying to do right from the ’60s on was make our dramas look like and seem like quite a lot of the other stuff. We made it seem more credible. I had two really big rows at the BBC in the ’60s. One was to persuade them to allow me to shoot films, and leave the television studio, and leave the electronic cameras behind, and shoot on 16mm. And that battle went on over a couple of years; the biggest professional battle of my life, because they said “We’ve just built the Television Centre, and the big studios are there mainly for the drama, and big entertainment. We’ll let you produce films, and everybody else will want to do it”; which is exactly what happened. As soon as I started doing the films, all the writers wanted to write films.
RH: You were pioneering filmed drama then, but although Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) had a lot of filmed plays, and there were prestige film productions later on such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979), film didn’t really replace the multi-camera studio drama until the ’90s. Why did it take that long?
TG: Well, it’s a very long process. And it never took over, because of course EastEnders (BBC, 1985- ) is still multi-camera…
RH: And sitcoms…
TG: … but more and more of the serious people wanted to shoot films on location. That was one big battle. But the other big battle was with the traditional current affairs people in the BBC, like Grace Wyndham Goldie and the big names like that, and Huw Weldon – who I was actually very close to, personally – they said that the problem with what I and my colleagues were doing – they actually said this – was that people might believe it!
RH: But you said yourself that you were telling the truth in fiction.
TG: Well, we were telling our truth. But they didn’t like that; they wanted drama to seem like drama. And I didn’t want it; I wanted drama to not seem like drama, but to seem… to take the audience in to believe it. And also, an audience would tend to believe a documentary and not a drama, whereas a documentary is just as created as a drama is – and so is the news.
RH: You select your images, select what the audience will see…
TG: Absolutely. But they didn’t like it when I said that the most accomplished fiction on British Television was The Nine O’Clock News (BBC, 1970-2000).
RH: [laughter] Well, do you think the modern drama that is made on film still has that truth?
TG: I mean, you’re talking about a number of channels, plus American imports, over singles, drama series, soaps… I mean, it’s such a huge range of output, it’s very difficult to answer that question. To give you any kind of opinion you’d need to re-frame that question. I mean, are we talking about Coronation Street (ITV, 1960- )?
RH: Well, with that and EastEnders, which are multi-camera, it would be too time intensive to make them on film, with their massive turnaround. I’m not planning to include soaps in my PhD…
TG: Oh, you’re not? So it’s acting excluding soaps?
RH: I’m looking more at serials and renewable drama.
TG: Oh, OK; we won’t talk about them, then. I mean, they are factories. I’ve often said there are some very, very talented people working on them, but it’s impossible. But if you watch them you can occasionally see a performance that is just… very moving, and truthful. Or a bit of writing; it spills out.
RH: In spite of itself.
TG: It is in spite not of the people but in spite of the rigours of the way of working. But you occasionally get an interesting piece of acting or writing. Are you asking me to compare now and then?
TG: The problem is that you may feel you need to do this academically, but I just wonder whether it’s possible, because there are so many variable factors at work. I mean, let’s take the difference between, say, the late ’50s – when do you start?
TG: Let’s take the 1950s, when I was in acting on television, and now. There are huge differences technically, are there not?
TG: In the sort of cameras, the sort of editing equipment, in the styles of shooting, all of which affect the way actors work. There are huge differences in the style and fashion of writing, all affecting the way actors work. Huge differences in the political climate of the country – that’s changed, therefore, the kind of drama; there weren’t many dramas sympathetic to coalminers in the ’50s and there are none now, and there were in the ’60s and ’70s. That affects the kind of actors that you get, and the kind of acting you get. It’s when people talk to me about a ‘Golden Age’; I don’t know what they’re talking about.
RH: That’s what I got from your piece in Jonathan’s book, British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future.
TG: What do I say?
RH: Well, everyone else in it is harking back nostalgically to the Golden Era and lamenting its passing, and you say that in your opinion studio drama was rubbish…
TG: Well, when I first started out I thought most of it was rubbish. Well, I think most of it is now, but it’s slicker rubbish now. I mean, most of the drama – even in the ’60s, when it did improve – only some of it was interesting and original, and most of it was just… not just amateurish, but pretentious and boring, and the acting utterly unbelievable.
RH: You’ve said that television – and the BBC – is or should be big enough to accommodate a range of sensibilities.
TG: I think so, yeah.
RH: So there’s room for the fodder?
TG: Well, there has to be. I’ve often said it should be a bloody great circus with lots of acts really, and you’re going to get different producers with different ideas of what good acting is. Remember, I’m in a minority; what most people in the industry – let alone the public – think of as ‘good’ acting I would throw out.
RH: The kind of showboating…
TG: It’s all horseshit I’ve spent my life trying to get rid of. And I don’t believe a word of it. If I sit down and put the television on, I’ll probably say I don’t believe a word of it. But the people making it, in their view, they’re making high quality work; and the people watching it, that’s what they want to watch.
RH: In the piece I just mentioned you said that most of these things seem to take place in Holby.
TG: Yes, I think the whole television industry’s there. But, I mean, you look at that ITV period piece that’s on at the moment…
RH: Downton Abbey (ITV, 2010-2015).
TG: I saw a little bit of it, just out of curiosity. Now, I don’t usually talk about other people’s shows, but I mean, is that different from stuff in the ’50s? Is its politics, is its preoccupation with the landed gentry, and England’s aristocratic past, is its acting style? Is it an obsession with every little prop and costume? I mean, they come out humming the costumes. Is that different from what was going on in the ’50s or ’60s on a Sunday night? It looks better in the colour and probably it’s better shot, with better equipment, but apart from that – apart from a gloss… it’s slicker, the pace is faster. I think that’s really changed. But otherwise, is it different? I don’t think so. I mean, I think I’ve been fighting a losing battle all my life. Or basically, I think I’m up here with my banner, saying, “OK, follow me!”, then I look round, I mean… there’s nobody there!
RH: [laughter] Blazing a trail.
TG: Yeah, like hell.
RH: I originally thought about costume drama or adaptations being a nice model for the PhD; I could just choose some that have been produced, like Wuthering Heights, in a live version, a studio version…
TG: That’s a thought, yeah.
RH: But I’m just not that keen on adaptations.
TG: No, but you are anchored in a few things.
RH: What I’m doing now is looking at telefantasy – which I know is not your thing at all – things like The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, 1953), which has been re-made, in 2005…
TG: Oh, I see, yes.
RH: … Survivors (BBC, 1975-77) from the ’70s, and Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005- ), comparing them with the modern re-makes to see how things have changed.
TG: That’s a neat idea.
RH: And now it’s very much bought into the soap thing of continuing storylines…
TG: The special effects are better! [laughter]
RH: Yes! And the pace is much faster.
TG: Exactly. Yes, the pace has improved, but that’s because people got used to watching commercials. When you see something like Alan Parker back in the ’60s and ’70s, I mean… how many cuts in 45 seconds? How complicated a narrative in 45 seconds? And also an audience getting used to following things that fast.
RH: Yes. One thing about watching This Life was that it felt like watching something that could have been made yesterday.
TG: Oh, good.
RH: Reviews of the time say “Oh, it’s so shaky, the hand-held camera”, but that’s become such a standard style now.
TG: Oh yes.
RH: For sitcoms, even; the camera constantly moving.
TG: Well, Ricky shot his first series… took a lot from This Life. Ricky Gervais.
RH: The Office (BBC, 2001-03).
TG: Because the kid I was training up on This Life as a producer, I took from EastEnders – she’d just been promoted to produce outside – lives with Ricky.
RH: And he chose the music.
TG: He organised the theme and chose most of the music. He’s brilliant at that. So he was very close to that show. But that’s good, I mean; no problem.
RH: But things like The Office established a new visual style for sitcom, and they seem to have gone away from that now and moved back to studio sitcoms.
TG: They do seem to be, yes.
RH: I’ve been to see things being recorded, because it’s the closest I’ll get to seeing how a drama would have been made. It’s not the same of course.
TG: No, no, no.
RH: Seeing the actors move between the sets, and then lights out at ten o’clock…
TG: [laughter] Oh well, there you go…
It tailed off a bit at the end, admittedly, but Tony had been extremely generous with his time. I was dreading his response when I told him I was intending to look at television science fiction, but as you can see, he took it on the chin. As I left, he suddenly apologised for not having supplied the promised beverage, which had been forgotten as he became more involved in our conversation: ‘People will say, “What, he couldn’t even be bothered to make you a cup of tea? What a mean old man”.’
Somehow, I think that is unlikely to be Tony Garnett’s epitaph.
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.