What follows is a transcript of a Q&A session with director Roy Battersby, following a screening of two episodes of Home and Away (Granada, 1972) at HOME, Manchester on Monday 27 March 2017, shown as part of a short season of Forgotten TV Drama. Home and Away is a 7-part serial written by Julia Jones which I’ve written about here (includes clips from the serial). The Q&A was chaired by Lez Cooke.
LC: They are quite extraordinary episodes Roy. I just wanted to go back a little bit and say something about you. You worked at the BBC in the 1960s and you had a rather turbulent time at the BBC with a couple of your films being banned and your involvement with the Workers’ Revolutionary Party was looked on with a great deal of suspicion by BBC management and eventually you were blacklisted. So, you can say whatever you like about the intervening period, but I know before you did this you worked with Ken Trodd on Colin Welland’s Roll on Four O’Clock (1970) at Granada and I was wondering, given your background, how much of you went into those episodes? How much of it was Julia Jones, how much of it did you bring to those episodes?
RB: Well it was Julia’s project but then I did have the opportunity to make two films really, which meant there was a lot that had helped to form me that was very activated in those stories. For example, when I came out of the theatre – I was in the theatre for a year at Nottingham – I was madly keen on film and I was offered a job in television and I did a kind of apprenticeship, but I then applied for a job at the BBC for the year before the opening of BBC2 and I was very keen to learn how films are made, what they are, and there was no film school, there was no videotape, it wasn’t easy to, for example, get a copy of a film that you could roll backwards and forwards and see what it’s made of, what it is. I was very lucky that I had a wonderful old chum who was an editor at the BBC and I used to go into his cutting room several nights a week about 6 o’clock when he finished and I would hire prints from a great old guy in Soho who imported European films and he’d let me have them for 10 bob and I could have them for a night. I used to collect them, cans of 35mm film and take them to the cutting room, schlep them upstairs, lace them up on an old pre-Steenbeck editing machine and spend the night running them and I could go backwards as well as forwards, that was the great thing.
One of the great filmmakers that I was able to study was Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director and Wajda had made the first of a trilogy called A Generation (1954), the second one was Kanal (1956) and the third one was Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and it was that trilogy of films that for me changed everything. I can never, as long as I live, forget the night when I first understood that each one of those films began with a long, long, long tracking shot following the opening action and when it dawned on me, first of all that each of the films opened with that kind of a shot, but secondly why, what that did in terms of filmmaking. Really I got more from Wajda and studying his films about editing, about rhythm, about what shots are, that they’re not just recording things, that they’re penetrating, when you start bringing them together consciously and thoughtfully. So, for example, I learnt that each one of the trilogy of Wajda’s films and the one that particularly stayed with me, every single shot stayed with me for my whole life, was Kanal and it starts with this long tracking shot through the ruins in Warsaw and I suddenly understood, you follow this tracking shot, following the people and they’re going through the ruins, avoiding being detected by the Nazis, by the Wehrmacht and then suddenly it ends and the first cut does something to you that prepares you for what’s going to happen in that film and then the rhythm of the dialogue and how it’s shot.
So, Warsaw was a big thing for me, because of Wajda. I’d never been, but Wajda represented so much and of course, the Prague Spring in ’68 and the fact that Poland was the country that has the history that we only just hint at, what Poland endured and what it actually did rebuild and of course, the ambiguity that Claude Lanzmann penetrated in Shoah (1985), the ambiguity about Auschwitz and what the Polish country/people collaborated in, all of that. So, Poland for me was very strong, very rich and when we had the opportunity to go I was delighted because it meant that I could find the way in which it might transform her life [the central character, Brenda, played by Gillian Raine], the way that Julia’s life had been transformed, and also I had some German so there’s plenty of that in it.
LC: Yes, I’ll ask you about that in a minute. There are certainly some of those long tracking shots in those episodes we’ve just seen. Was that something that you were able to use for the first time really in these films or had you been able to use that previously? It’s a long while since I’ve seen Roll on Four O’Clock …
RB: There’s a couple of particularly good tracking shots in Roll on Four O’Clock but we had to do them handheld, Charles Stewart did them handheld, there’s several in that.
LC: Can you say something about working with Julia Jones on this because, obviously, it is her serial, she wrote it, but as I said at the beginning she wrote another episode because of the Polish sequences when you got the permission to film in Warsaw and that was expanded a bit, so I just wondered how closely you worked with Julia on these particular episodes?
RB: The collaboration was in the form of: Julia wrote and trusted me to realise what she was doing and I made quite considerable ‘on the ground’ developments, which I believe absolutely were expressions of her work but often they were different from precisely what she’d written, but I think we collaborated completely in the spirit of the thing. I was so moved, seeing it after all this time, it’s 45 years since I made it! I was so moved by the performances and particularly by Julia’s writing.
LC: It is amazing, the amount of Polish and German which is spoken, some of which is interpreted, translated, but not all of it by any means and for a primetime ITV programme it just seems extraordinary.
RB: It was wonderful that that was accepted because I was a working-class boy from Willesden Green and I had the good fortune to be part of the first free-milk generation and I was able to stay on, I went to a grammar school. I had no idea what a grammar school was when I did the 11-plus and I had the good fortune to have that and part of that was going to Europe, those first trips to Europe, not school visits, but hitchhiking and going on my own and going with a couple of friends and getting a German pen friend, this is like 1952/53, something like that. There were so many echoes, they’re not precisely the same but I can remember exactly, garlic was a big thing! There was no garlic in Willesden that I knew of, but I’d had garlic and I’d tasted real coffee, ‘cos before I went, coffee meant Bev or Camp, that bottled stuff, that my Mum used to make on Saturday mornings when Mrs Weeks came round, with half milk, half water and a lot of sugar! I’d had coffee in Austria, in Salzburg, I was 16 or something and the world changed. People had spoken to me in German and I’d been learning German at school and it opened suddenly to be able to speak, like ‘My god, I can speak’ and beginning to understand what Europe was, that it was very different from Britain.
LC: Were you involved in the casting of George Sewell, as a German speaker?
RB: Yes, I knew he was a German speaker and I was a great fan of George’s anyway so it meant we could be sure there would be no problem about it. I also so enjoyed the lady who played the older Polish woman, the gardener, that we could dare to do that and have conservations in which you don’t understand what she’s saying, but you understand everything, in the same way that one learns, that’s one of the great joys I think of getting out of the smallness of things.
LC: How did you find her?
RB: Just being there and of course all our Polish friends, as it were, the people that we’d met, the actors that we met first of all and then they pass you on and they tell you who you’ve got to see. Also, I never got to meet Andrzej Wajda but I met Krzysztof Zanussi and he was very kind and helpful. I tell you the other thing about Warsaw was going to the cinema. It started at 8 o’clock and we got there at quarter to eight and by five to eight every single seat was taken and the lights were still up and everyone was quietly talking and thirty seconds before 8 o’clock – there was no clock – it went silent, everybody went silent, settled down and I never had this experience again, but I was with people who needed this film – it was one of Krzysztof’s films – this audience had come because they needed to be spoken to in the secret language that could resist censorship and control, the secret language, the emotional language of the heart, that’s what they’d come for and that silence and attentiveness, it was wonderful. It absolutely kind of cemented in me that whatever trouble I’m getting into back home, I have to persist, if I’m going to get into trouble, I’d better get into trouble for my own stuff. It’s always that thing that maybe if you can persist, you don’t know who you’re speaking to, you don’t know who’s hearing you, the big problem is getting it out there.
One last thing, Elem Klimov, the great Russian director who made Come and See (1985). I saw him interviewed and he was asked by the interviewer ‘What was it like trying to make films under the Russian Stalinist dictatorship?’ And this extraordinary, austere man, who’d experienced everything said: ‘Well, you know the problems facing filmmakers are much the same wherever you are’ and I thought ‘My God, can this be true?’ He said ‘The problem is discovering what it is that most needs to be said, which by definition is what most cannot be said and then to find the way of saying it’ and I thought ‘Yeah well I would never be as good but that’s a pretty good thing.’ I thought Julia was touching very profound, important things. It’s wonderful to see it, I’m so thrilled to have seen it. It was really good.
LC: Did you have any problems filming on the streets of Warsaw? Presumably Ken Trodd was quite important in enabling all of that to happen?
RB: He was and it was a very delicate thing because all our actor friends and the techies and everybody were very collaborative and supportive but we couldn’t compromise them by being too chummy, because it would have compromised them. One of them explained it to me on the street one night, how to be, but we were okay pretty well on the streets. It was still a time when seeing a camera was quite fun really. Then there was a suspicion of ‘Is this a Party camera? Who is this?’
LC: Was there something about Granada at this time which made this possible? Could this have happened anywhere else?
RB: No, I don’t think so.
LC: Or was it just down to Granada being very liberal, very permissive about what they were commissioning?
RB: Yes, and what the Bernsteins and the others were inspired by and what had formed them. I think it did make a difference and I nearly started my career at Granada, but that’s another story.
AQ: I’m just wondering how well it was received at the time?
RB: I honestly don’t know! I don’t remember I’m afraid!
AQ: Did the critics review it?
RB: I don’t have any reviews of it no, I just don’t honestly remember. It came at an interesting time because we’d done Roll on Four O’Clock, Ken and Colin Welland and then while we were setting up Roll on Four O’Clock we came upon the notion of doing Leeds United! (1974) about the Leeds clothing workers’ strike and Granada said they would pay for the research, they’d meet our fares and the odd hotel and so on and we’d done the research and we were well into getting it written, Colin was working at it, but then once Granada read it they panicked and suddenly Granada knew where the North comes from! They understood. ‘Oh my god, this is the clothing industry in Leeds, for Christ’s sake!’ So they kind of lost their nerve. Chris Morahan, who had briefly been Head of Drama at Granada when they had Leeds United! left and went to the BBC as Head of Drama and Trodd’s genius was to get to Chris and get him to buy it from Granada. So it was a strange interim period this, we were sort of a bit radical but we’d been allowed in and we’d done this and we’d had a really good time but it was sort of getting a bit tougher.
LC: So you’re saying that Leeds United! was a bit too close to home for Granada whereas filming in Warsaw was okay!
RB: It turned out that way, yes!
LC: Even though it’s quite … I’m struck by how radical it is, really, as a popular primetime ITV serial.
RB: I was too.
LC: And so much of it is documentary in style, it’s really cinema verité isn’t it?
RB: Kind of.
LC: And there’s a real contrast between the studio scenes and all of that footage you shot in Warsaw.
RB: That’s right, because it was originally seen as a six-part, seven-part, TV studio-based with a few locations thing. Then once we came up with this notion of getting out and getting it on film and of course we had Tony Imi, the great Tony Imi shooting it and so we were kind of comfortable with that combination of finding narrative in verité, that you’re not just shooting randomly stuff on the streets, you’re not looking for that particular thing because you couldn’t have imagined it, but you’re sensitised because of what you want to be expressed, but it takes a great cameraman because that was also the days of ‘It’s film in a camera and you ain’t going to see it until tomorrow at the earliest!’ It’s going to be shot and processed before you’re going to see it. The only person who’s going to see it at that moment is the cameraman, so having that kind of relationship, we worked together several times, having that trust … It’s one of those things you can’t explain, you can only understand that you share a vision of what this thing is and talk about it and all that. Tony was very big, Italian family, big black hair, he was the shyest of men. His mother and father were both deaf and dumb and he was brought up in a family of sign language. It’s like all great cameramen, they always have a unique something about them, there’s something in their history and Imi could be on the street with his camera up on his shoulder and everybody would smile and would sort of be at ease. He was unthreatening with this enormous size and presence! He was a very beautiful guy.
LC: Yes, he worked with Ken Loach a lot.
RB: Yes, he did. He started in projection at the BBC. We all got him out.
LC: I haven’t yet found the reviews to find out how it was received but it’s a good question. Are there any other questions?
AQ: It’s funny that you should mention Ken Loach because I was going to ask who you thought your peers were at the time in terms of making this?
RB: We were straight contemporaries, yes, and my closest friend was Tony Garnett and we’d known each other since university and Ken was at Oxford, but Tony and I were in London and then I met Ken. Ken and I were never close but we were respectful colleagues, also doing anything possible to encourage the other one to get into more trouble! Cheering a lot, you know! It was an interesting time and there were quite a lot of us who were directly or indirectly that first generation after the war. A lot of us were grammar school boys but from working-class families and we just knew we owed a debt. I’m not being funny about it but the audience for me was my aunties and uncles, that’s who it was and I remembered, never forgot, my mother, when we got our first television, seeing my mother being as close to the screen as she could get when one of the great ballet dancers was doing her turn and being transported by it.
You know the joke we always used to make was that TV is much too important to be left to the executives, that we have to be good. Garnett used to say it’s easy in a way to be popular. It’s a bit more difficult to be good but it’s not that difficult to be good. The big problem is being good and popular and we always felt that was a responsibility. We’d been given this education and this space and although there were a lot who would like to have stopped immediately, it was a gift to us and we owed that back to try and make sense of it. Not in a sentimental way, not just to patronise or anything. In fact, on the contrary, my experience was that the closer you got to the nerve the more appreciative big audiences were. Even when I did Cracker, that was the last time I worked for Granada in the ‘90s and I did the first one in the third series. The second series had ended on a phenomenal cliff-hanger and I had taxi drivers asking me what was I doing and I’d say ‘Oh I’m doing the first one in the new Cracker‘, stop the car and say ‘Did she …?!’ and we started that third one with 17 million and they stayed for the three hours over three weeks. I mean that was the opener, 17 million, and it wasn’t unusual. That was still TV when it had a united audience and it’s why I get so impatient with all this talk about ‘Oh the audience is fragmented, you couldn’t do that anymore, you couldn’t do this and you can’t do that.’ Well they did choose, nobody made them come and watch it for Christ’s sake! There were four channels at the time and I know it’s not the same as 54 but there’s something very important there that we’ve forgotten. When Garnett started The Wednesday Play, it is true that after the news on Wednesday night the streets were noticeably emptier, because they were all indoors watching The Wednesday Play.
AQ: I would like to know – I can’t be the only one – what happened to Brenda? Did she leave God [Godfrey, her husband in the series, played by Tony Melody]? Did she go back to Poland?
RB: I don’t think I’ve ever known!
LC: You didn’t direct the next episode!
RB: I didn’t direct the next two or the next three, they were my two.
LC: You did a third one – just to say that in the next episode she does leave, she moves out of the family home and she gets her own apartment and then the episode after that, which was episode 6, was the episode in York when she goes to see her other son, who’s mentioned but we don’t see in those episodes, the eldest son, Walter, who’s at university in York and that’s an episode that you filmed as well.
RB: Yes, that’s right, I’d forgotten, gosh.
LC: So you did the sixth episode and then there was a seventh after that. Did you work with the other directors, because there were two other directors on the series?
RB: Not directly, no. We each did our stuff separately. The first director, Donald McWhinnie, who was of course a major figure and he wasn’t a collaborator and anyway I was the lad and he would have been the senior guy. And then who was the other one?
LC: It was Vivian Matalon.
RB: Vivian Matalon, oh yes that’s right. No, we all three just got on with it really, separately.
LC: Because when Julia emailed me she mentioned there were some ‘vigorous discussions’ before production started and I don’t know whether she meant that was between the directors? Do you remember anything about that? I don’t know the nature of these ‘vigorous discussions’ but it would be interesting to know.
RB: I mean the people who used to have vigorous discussions was Ken and me! We used to have very vigorous discussions, that was one of his great qualities. We shouted at each other quite a bit!
AQ: Roy, do you have the energy left to show some young filmmakers today some of your methods and comment on the big events going on today?
RB: I think I do. I’m not asked much but I’m pretty alive to what’s happening today and I could be very dismayed. It just feels like getting older beyond a certain point it’s best to stay a little bit buoyant, because it’s quite bad enough! But yes, I’m very interested in what’s happening and what’s not happening, insofar as I know about it. I wish it were better, is how I feel about it, and at the same time I’ve seen some wonderful films in the last five/six years. We should be doing better, particularly the telly here. I really feel that it’s so impoverished and pumped up and kind of masking its own … there are some wonderful documentaries, but the drama on telly I find very pumped up and kind of samey. I don’t want to be funny but I watch Broadchurch and I’m going what a waste of time, what a waste of screen time, what a waste. How desperately we need to be spoken to from the screen! So much we need to hear! What a waste of everything this is! I do feel that about British television and I’m not mad about British cinema, but there have been some very decent films.
Andy Willis (HOME programmer): Roy, just out of interest, because we’ve shown here at HOME over the past few years a few sort of leftist TV dramas and Peter Kerrigan who appeared as the husband’s friend in the club, is a face who has appeared a lot in those dramas. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about Peter Kerrigan and his politics and how he came into the sphere of television at the time.
RB: Peter was a Liverpool docker, born and bred on the dockside and I think it was Ken who found him first. We had a period in the early ‘70s, we were looking for actors who could actually play convincingly working class, serious working-class people and one of the great sources turned out to be going to the clubs. There was a great agency in Leeds and they were the major agency that booked artists for the working men’s clubs all around the North and we went to them and started a collaboration with them of meeting a lot of their people and of course you found people who were completely at home in the working-class culture, they weren’t condescending and most of them were from working-class families or working-class histories. Peter wasn’t an entertainer but I think it was through the contact with Bill Dean who was an entertainer and someone else and I’ve just forgotten for the moment who it was. I know, I know how we found Peter Kerrigan, he was a friend of Jim Allen’s, the great writer, and Jim had been a Trotskyist activist of the highest order and made great sacrifices and Jim had been a miner and a docker, worked with the dockers and organised on the docks and it was definitely through Jim that we met Peter and of course just tried to have him in everything we did, because he was such a fine, fine guy.
(Thanks to Rachel Hayward and Simon Bland at HOME and to Steph Janes for transcribing the Q&A)