If Ken Loach ever needs reminding about how to champion social justice, then he only has to remember his late best friend, Tony Garnett – orphaned in the most shocking of circumstances at the age of five, Hollywood producer before he’d turned 50. After Tony’s mother Ida (nee Poulton) died from septicaemia following a botched abortion during a night-time bombing raid in the city, his father committed suicide 19 days later – an unimaginable “burden” their young Erdington-born son carried for the rest of his life.

Along with Nuneaton-born friend and director Ken Loach, now 85, Tony worked on landmark 1960s’ dramas Up The Junction about an illegal abortion (two years before termination were legalised), Cathy Come Home (the drama about homelessness which helped to create the charity Shelter) and Kes, the film about finding inner strength which was ranked seventh in the best British films list of the 20th century by the British Film Institute (BFI). Having spent the 1980s in LA, Tony returned to London to co-found World Productions. Launching Cardiac Arrest and Between The Lines opened up career paths for others which, even though he had retired from producing in 2006, effectively made him the spiritual godfather of Line of Duty as well as many other dramas.

Tony Garnett Early Years

Tony was born Anthony Lewis on April 3, 1936, but after the deaths of his mother and then garage mechanic turned insurance salesman father Tom Lewis, he was raised by his aunty and uncle Emily and Harold Garnett whilst younger brother Peter joined other relatives. Such real life trauma would inspire his drive to make dramas with a purpose and authenticity.

From Birmingham Central Grammar School, Tony later became an actor, first meeting Ken at Highbury Little Theatre en route to both arriving at the BBC when it was thirsting to make an original 75-minute Wednesday play every week. Being creative-minded and brave enough to challenge anything in their path made them a formidable pair.

In the 1960s they followed Up The Junction with the groundbreaking Cathy Come Home and Kes, before they went their separate ways at the dawn of Thatcherism. Ken became a full-time film director whilst Tony would become a Hollywood producer working with Paul Newman. Laura Dern and Roland Joffe on the Mexico-based atomic bomb drama Shadow Makers (1989) – a subject matter now being revisited by Christopher Nolan with Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy playing J Robert Oppenheimer in the film Oppenheimer, due for release next year. Other projects that decade included Prostitute (1980) and Handgun (1982) – Tony wrote and directed both – as well as Sesame Street adventure Follow That Bird and Earth Girls Are Easy, a musical directed by Julien Temple and starring Geena Davis, Jim Carrey and Jeff Goldblum.

Tony returned to England in search of creative freedom with World Productions. Early hits included Between The Lines and Cardiac Arrest – the show which gave Birmingham junior doctor Jed Mercurio his big break as an unknown writer before going on to pen other hits including The Grimleys and Line of Duty which would be produced by Tony’s fellow Brummie, Simon Heath. Other hits Tony backed included Ballykissangel, This Life and many more. Tony spent five years at the University of London as a professor of media arts and had honorary doctorates from the Universities of Birmingham and Reading. Having encouraged shooting on the streets instead of on sets, he once said of his work: “I’ve tried to tell the truth, but I would say that wouldn’t I. In any case, it had to be my truth. What other truth could I possibly know?”

Villa fan Tony died aged 83 on January 12, 2020 shortly before Covid-19 would wreak havoc on the world at large. And so 30 members of his family recently gathered at the MAC Cinema in Cannon Hill Park to remember him, partly via his on-screen work but also through the testimonies of Ken Loach and others who said they owed their careers to Tony.

Line of Duty Godfather

Line of Duty executive producer Simon Heath said: “We spent a decade working together and I think (as a Villa fan) Tony enjoyed having a Blues supporter like me – usually doing a lot worse – next to him.

“Tony wasn’t interested in building companies, profits and ownership, but he came back from America and co-founded World Productions because it gave him creative freedom and independence which he often used to give people breaks. He had a nose for brilliant writers, but he was always tough on writers and if they weren’t coming up to scratch they knew about it. He was also not swayed by fashion. You got tough love and if you’d done something wrong he would point it out so that you would want to do it better afterwards, so he was a brilliant mentor.

“Attachments (2000, starring Romola Garai) was a TV series set around an internet start-up company and was ahead of its time. Tony wanted people to be able to interact through a website, but not many people had any kind of access to the internet at that point and if they did it was dial up. It could have been a huge hit if it had been made a few years later. One of the writers was Charlie Brooker – not sure what happened to him!

“Tony told me once: ‘Simon… you need to have the courage of my convictions and I’ve always remembered that’.”

Cardiac Arrest writer Jed Mercurio said: “I was a junior hospital doctor working at the old accident hospital in Birmingham when I answered an advert Tony’s company had placed in the British Medical Journal seeking contributions for a new medical series they had in development. Tony had spent a whole career determined to represent the reality of people’s lives on TV.

“Tony hated the sham of the fake TV world that didn’t represent the true life. He called it the drama of reassurance. He understood the realities of the industry where creative risk must be balanced in inverse proportion to production costs. He was always the smartest bloke in the room.”

Roy Battersby, a friend for more than 50 years, has directed everything from Play for Today to Cracker, Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost as well as Between The Lines. He said: “Truly great work has a necessity about it and all of Tony’s work had that, leaving us glad that it was there. Becoming a human being has always been something to aspire to. It’s a lifetime’s work and often takes great courage. It means finding a home in yourself for all of your fears and failures and never inflating your successes. It takes true modesty, it means opening your heart. Tony fought to go every step of that ancient way, my modest, brilliant friend.”

Professor Roger Shannon on Tony Garnett

Moseley-based film professor Professor Roger Shannon, who organised the tribute through his own company Swish, said he first met Tony at the Berlin Film Festival in the late 1980s when he realised many of the 1960s’ dramas he’s seen as a kid were made by Tony whose work had had “a profound effect on this teenage grammar school boy from Liverpool.”

In terms of the most influential Birmingham-born producers, he rates Tony’s career as second only to Sir Michael Balcon who gave Alfred Hitchcock his first break as director, produced more than 250 films, ran the Ealing Studios, co-founded BAFTA and was grandfather to Daniel Day-Lewis, the only star to win three best actor Oscars

Roger added: “Tony agreed to have a retrospective of his work at the 1990 Birmingham Film & TV Festival and every day for eight days he travelled up and down from Euston to introduce the film and then take part in a Q&A after each screening.

“I thought that was a remarkable example of his discipline and determination. The last time I met him was a couple of years ago when he came to the Mockingbird in Digbeth where Shelter wanted to show Cathy Come Home to some of its new recruits. I’d arranged to have a drink with him – his was a double vodka – and I asked him how many people were there and he said ‘Five’. He was happy to do that for a film he’d worked on more than 50 years before. Maybe Shelter would have wanted more people, but the essence of the story is that he was happy to have been able to chat to five people about the film. That shows the measure of Tony’s passion, concern and of the ideas that were embedded in the work.”

Tony’s first wife Topsy Jane was an actress who starred with Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962) but after falling ill during the early weeks of filming Billy Liar (1963) with Tom, had electroshock therapy for schizophrenia and was replaced on set by Julie Christie. Tony was survived by his partner, Victoria Childs, and his two sons. Will was born to Topsy Jane while Michael was by his second wife Alex (nee Ouroussoff) – a marriage which also ended in divorce.

Ken Loach on Tony Garnett

The MAC Cinema was the perfect place for Ken to remember Tony because 60 years ago in 1962 his own wife, Lesley, had been working with Midlands Arts Centre pioneer Johnny English. Ken’s film Land & Freedom broke all box office records at MAC after it was released in 1995, even though it was about land reforms in 1930s’ Spain.

Ken said his wife Lesley first met Tony and his actress wife Topsy Jane at Highbury Little Theatre. “I was a little intimidated by him because he always wore black,” Ken joked. “I was lucky, I worked with Tony for 15 years from 1963/4 up to the end of the Seventies. He carried that burden (the death of his parents) with him all of his life. Of course, who wouldn’t. The book that he wrote (The Day The Music Died, 2016) is a magnificent piece of writing and nobody could be anything but moved by how he clarified it in the book. We were really pleased to see how he became much more at ease with himself and in the last year or two was happier than we’ve ever seen him so the last moments were very good. But he was a lifelong friend, we set out on our journey of filmmaking together, thanks to Roger, and whatever I’ve done since I owe Tony a lot. He was the greatest comrade, a steadfast friend and we all miss him.”

Ken said they had been “immensely fortunate” to have been working for the BBC just when The Wednesday Play was proving itself to be “an extraordinary moment in television… (with) the brief of making contemporary drama, contemporary fiction, every Wednesday throughout the year.

“Week after week there would be 75 minutes of contemporary fiction that set out to be challenging, critical, subversive… (the bosses) weren’t so keen on the subversive, but they were in for it,” said Ken. “It was produced by a man called Jimmy (James) MacTaggart who was an iconoclast – he wasn’t political, but he liked a tilt at the establishment and hired a script editor called Roger Smith. All of us, including Roy Battersby, owe what careers we’ve had to Roger Smith. Roger asked me to join as a director, he asked (actor) Tony to join as a script editor and that was a life-changing moment – we didn’t realise it at the time, but that paved the way for everything and they found brilliant writers.

“The 1960s were a time when the ruling classes were confident and when they are confident you can get away with most things. When they are worried, when they know things might not always turn out in their interest, then they become more restrictive. The substance of that group was the political development we took in that group. In the fog of memory and haze of anecdotes about ‘Do you remember this and that?’, what tends to get lost are those key ideas. We were at great pains to struggle towards them, to articulate them and to try to understand what was necessary. Every piece we did and every piece we have tried to do since has been because we felt there was no alternative but to do it.

“That was the core, and the ideas were these, and it came out of a new Left movement beginning for us when Harold Wilson was elected in 1964 when some of us joined the Labour Party around about then and some of us delivered leaflets for him. Over a period of a few months, you realised nothing would change. They were the Labour Party committed to the way things were. Out of that grew a new Left movement to articulate those ideas. This was the core of Tony’s work, my work and those associated with us. Tony’s life and work doesn’t make sense without this.”

The five principles of Tony Garnett and Ken Loach

Ken, whose personal honours include prizes from BAFTA, BIFA and the European Film Awards, used the tribute as an opportunity to remind the audience of how they stood up for what they believed in thanks to five key principles.

  • “The first principle was, there is an irreconcilable conflict between those who own and control and those who sell their labour. It is a conflict of interests between one wanting cheap labour, cheap raw materials and access to markets and the others wanting a way to support a family, a house, looking after you when you’re sick, education for your kids, a pension when you’re old. They are in conflict and always will be so until the system is changed.
  • “Second principle – when the working class is immensely strong, nothing’s made, nothing moves, nothing is sold, there’s no transport, there is no education, there is no care without the working class. They are strong.
  • “Third principle – if there is to be change it will be made by that class because that class has the interest in change. Those who have grown wealthy and fat from the present system… they won’t change. They may try to pass reforms to convince people that things will change – but they will never change. The working class is a revolutionary class.
  • “The fourth principle is – if as we struggle for class consciousness, to understand that power, to understand the strength, to realise that it is only through collective action that that change will take place. And that class consciousness… of course the whole media, the BBC as we know, that is what they will not tolerate, that is what they will not allow… that that consciousness should develop. And when there are times in history when it has been developing, that is when they move against us. The miners’ strike is one example, when you heard nothing about the justice for their cause – just ‘picket-line violence’ is all you heard. We know, 30 years odd later, that of course it was the police going in with their truncheons. I saw them in the vans as they went into the pit yards holding their fivers to show the overtime they were getting. The BBC never showed that.
  • “The BBC are apologists for the ruling class, they are an organ of the state and the state is an embodiment of the ruling class. The state is a committee for organising the interests of the ruling class.”

Ken, who has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes on a record-equalling two occasions – for The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) and for I, Daniel Blake (2016), the Jury Prize a join best three times as well as lifetime achievement awards in Berlin and Venice, added: “Those are the ideas, those are the principles on which we struggled throughout the Sixties and articulated and bound us together. “Those are the ideas that Tony embodied in his work and they remained the core of his view of the world as they have with those of us who were there at the time. To my mind, they’ve been borne out ever since.

“It’s really important that we articulate that from time to time because we never hear them – and they drove us. When we were doing the Wednesday plays there was another development that was equally radical and important and that was ‘form’ because – there’s still the idea, the content, the principles – but when we began, television drama was like theatre.

“Tony was momentarily in charge, Jimmy was away… what are we going to do? Up The Junction full of life and vitality. We were given three or four days filming, but it would cost a fortune to put together. We had a 16mm back up… the quality wasn’t good enough, but we cut the film together and because we had the cheek we got it on and then we were able to make Cathy Come Home. The lesson was you’ve got to undermine bureaucracy and get around them in a way they are not expecting. Tony then went to the States and, in a futile way, I tried to make documentaries (before consistently directing films).

“Tony would ask the core questions of any project: ‘Is it true, is it authentic, is it significant, is it worth telling, is it illuminating something we would otherwise not understand or realise, it is worth several months of our time, would it communicate that understanding to ordinary people, not an artistic elite?’ To make revolutionary programmes, you have to destroy the medium.”


Source: www.birminghammail.co.uk

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