John Finch, who died on 13 February, the day after his 97th birthday, was one of the last survivors of the first generation of Granada Television writers who helped to establish the company as the most progressive of the original ‘Big Four’ ITV companies that launched in 1955-56. While Associated-Rediffusion, ATV and ABC Television were the foundation of the ITV network, producing the major share of the network’s programmes, it was Granada, under the leadership of Sidney Bernstein, that produced some of the most enterprising and original programming for the network, much of it imbued with a northern regional ethos represented most famously by Coronation Street, which launched in December 1960.
As he recalls in his forthcoming autobiography, He Who Would a Writer Be, Finch submitted his first play, Dark Pastures, to Granada before the company went on air and Silvio Narizzano wanted to make it Granada’s opening night play, but Sidney Bernstein vetoed the idea and the play was eventually produced by Associated Rediffusion in 1958. Although it no longer survives Dark Pastures set a benchmark for much of Finch’s subsequent work. He based it on his experience of growing up during the Depression in a Yorkshire mining community and in the 1970s, having established himself as Granada’s most successful writer with the epic World War Two drama, A Family at War (1970-72), Finch got the opportunity to recreate Dark Pastures on a much larger scale with the semi-autobiographical Sam (1973-75), for which he wrote all 39 episodes.
Although Dark Pastures was turned down by Granada they recognised Finch’s facility for writing northern drama and subsequently recruited him for Coronation Street when it became clear that the serial was going to continue beyond its initial 13 episodes. In his first episode (number 24, 3 March 1961) it was immediately clear that Finch, despite only having had one play produced, had a natural talent when writing about northern working-class life, not only with the fast-talking dialogue delivered by the likes of Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples but also in more contemplative moments, such as when Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) tells a visiting doctor (Fulton Mackay) the ‘real reason’ why he does not want to leave Coronation Street to go and live with his daughter:
“Well the plain fact is doctor that away from ‘ere, I’d be lost, just lost. You see I’ve lived in this ‘ouse for forty years, ever since I were married. I come through that door the day I was married and I’ve never been out since, in a manner of speaking, if you know what I mean, and when I look through that window I sometimes see folks passing, folks that’ve been dead and gone for years, but they’re all in ‘ere you see [tapping his head]. Now I wouldn’t see them looking through our Beatrice’s window. Now you may not think that’s a very important thing doctor, but you know to me it’s my life, such as it ‘as been. Mind you if I could write like that there Charles Dickens I could write twenty tales about this ‘ere street and this city, about all the grand times it’s ‘ad and the bad times and the good folks that’ve lived ‘ere, and the other kind as well. You know doctor, this morning you said that some folks are like plants, well you’re right there, I’m like a plant meself, and that’s why I can’t be moved. I’m deep rooted.”
It was an auspicious debut and Finch went on to write many more than twenty tales about the Street, writing 140 episodes between 1961 and 1970, with spells also as script editor and producer on the serial. He also wrote episodes for two Coronation Street spin-offs: Pardon the Expression (1966) and Turn Out the Lights (1967), both featuring Arthur Lowe as Leonard Swindley, the character Lowe played in Coronation Street from 1960-64. Other Granada series for which he wrote in the 1960s included The Verdict is Yours (1963), The Odd Man (1963) and The Villains (1964-65), while he also wrote episodes for ATV’s The Plane Makers (1963) and ABC’s Sat’Day While Sunday (1967).
Although he was mainly a Granada man, Finch wrote several plays for the BBC in the 1960s including one for the Suspense series (1963), two for Thirty Minute Theatre (1966-67) and The Old Man of Chelsea Reach (1965) for the Londoners anthology series, a play which was inspired by the time Finch spent living in the London house of the sculptor Jacob Epstein after the war, working as Epstein’s secretary. In his autobiography he recalls how, one evening, Winston Churchill, who lived in the house opposite, knocked on the door for a sitting with Epstein and, while waiting, Finch told Churchill about the time he spent with the merchant navy during the war, journeying to Africa, New York and elsewhere on merchant navy ships when he was still in his teens, fearing a torpedo attack at any time. Finch joined the merchant navy at the age of fifteen as an alternative to going down the pit, as his grandfather had.
While most of his work was original and written from his own experience as a northerner, Finch also wrote three adaptations in the 1960s including a not very successful version of Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (BBC1, The Wednesday Play, 1966) which was slated by most of the critics. Far more successful, because he was writing about people and a situation he knew well – 1930s poverty – was his adaptation of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (Granada, 1967) which Greenwood himself preferred to the 1941 film version. Finch’s third adaptation, Number 10 (Granada, Playhouse, 1968) was adapted from a play by Ronald Miller, based on a novel by William Clark about an international crisis involving a fictional African state which is threatening to nationalise British-owned mines. The studio-based action is set almost entirely in 10 Downing Street and the play marks a rare engagement in Finch’s work with contemporary international politics. It was directed by Michael Apted, with whom Finch had a good working relationship at Granada in the 1960s, as he did also with Mike Newell, another Granada director who went on to work in Hollywood.
The adaptations expressed Finch’s growing desire to branch out from writing episodes of Coronation Street and in 1967-68 he was given the opportunity by Granada to create City ’68, an anthology series about a fictional northern city with stories written by several Granada writers, including Harry Kershaw, who produced the series, and Finch himself. Michael Apted directed four of the thirteen episodes. It was followed by a second series of six plays called The System (1968) which Finch produced in addition to writing three of the plays, one of which, Them Down There, was directed by Mike Newell and filmed entirely on location at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors. Them Down There was the first all-film drama to be transmitted by Granada and it was followed a few days later by another one, Jack Rosenthal’s There’s a Hole in Your Dustbin Delilah which had originally been intended for City ’68 but ended up being shown as a feature-length play in the Playhouse series, produced by Finch and directed by Michael Apted.
The first half of the 1970s was taken up with Finch’s two great serials: A Family at War and Sam. Supported by Granada’s Managing Director, Denis Forman, and by producers Richard Doubleday and Michael Cox, these were not only the greatest triumphs of Finch’s career they were also Granada’s most successful productions, regularly attracting 20 million viewers per episode. Finch personally wrote more than half of A Family at War’s 52 episodes and was script editor for the rest. The idea to base the serial around one Liverpool family during the war years was an inspired one, combining the domestic narrative of soap opera with the greater narrative of World War Two, which many viewers had lived through.
If A Family at War was a remarkable achievement Sam was arguably an even greater one, not least because it was a drama which resonated with so many northern viewers. The essay on Sam which I posted on the Forgotten TV Drama website in 2014 has been one of the most viewed posts on the site and the comments show that it has not been forgotten by many of the people who watched it in the 1970s. The clips I used in the article also attracted many comments on YouTube from viewers who remembered the series fondly, including a viewer from Scandinavia where both A Family at War and Sam were very popular. Many of these viewers bemoan the fact that Sam is no longer available on DVD (it was released as a box set in 2010 but withdrawn in 2014) and has not, at the time of writing, been shown on television since the series was repeated in 1976-78.
The serial was drawn from John Finch’s own experience of growing up in a Yorkshire mining town and while much of the drama was studio-based there were plenty of exterior scenes to ensure it conveyed a sense of industrial northern realism in the 1930s of the first series, when Sam (Kevin Moreton) is a young boy, to the post-war period, ending in 1973, when the adult Sam is played by Mark McManus, a decade before his career-defining role in Taggart (1983-95). The opening of the serial, with the ten-year old Sam arriving with his mother in the pit village where his grandparents and other relatives live, after her husband has left her, was based on Finch’s own experience when, as a nine-year old boy in 1934, his father left and was never seen again (unlike in the serial where Sam’s father returns in the third series).
The disappearance of his father was a defining moment in John Finch’s life. In his autobiography he describes it as the ‘neurosis’ which motivated him to write:
Yet my father did not leave me completely disinherited. He left me with a neurosis which I have never tried to analyse nor have dwelt on in any great measure. It simply existed, until in my adult years it became rooted in the spoilage of the years. It insinuated itself into some of my writing and played a major part in earning me a living. A few lines here and there, or a character in a story; my unsought inheritance. Every writer should have one. (He Who Would a Writer Be, forthcoming)
After Sam John Finch wrote three more series: the 13-part This Year Next Year (Granada, 1977), set in the Yorkshire Dales, where he lived for the rest of his life; The Spoils of War (Granada, 1980-81), a sequel to A Family at War for which he wrote 16 of the 20 episodes; and two series of Flesh and Blood (BBC1, 1980-82), another northern family drama, featuring Bill Fraser and Thora Hird. The exploration of family relations and blood ties in Flesh and Blood is a theme which runs through all of John Finch’s work. It was evident in his first play, Dark Pastures, and the first (and many other) of his Coronation Street episodes, through all of his 1970s and early ‘80s serials, reaching its fullest expression in Sam, his magnum opus.
Finch initially offered Flesh and Blood to Granada and only took it to the BBC when Granada showed no interest in it, opting for The Spoils of War instead. It was to be the beginning of the end of his long relationship with Granada. In correspondence between them Denis Forman referred to a ‘sea change’ taking place in television drama in the early 1980s. In 1981 Granada produced Brideshead Revisited, a lavish and radically different drama serial to the more parochial northern dramas which had proved so successful for the company in the 1970s. The Jewel in the Crown (1984) was another indication of the change in Granada’s drama policy in the 1980s. Capstick’s Law (1989) was Finch’s last serial for Granada but it was a pale imitation of the great serials which had gone before and he only wrote two of the serial’s six episodes. They were to be his last for television.
In much of Finch’s work there is a sense of loss which can be traced back to the seminal event of his father’s abandonment of the family. Indeed ‘Loss’ was the working title of a play he wrote in the early 2000s (subsequently retitled ‘Deception’) which received a very positive response from the people who read it, including Stan Barstow, Michael Cox and Philip Purser, the Sunday Telegraph critic who highlighted the autobiographical features of the play:
The author is surrounded by the clutter of moving house or maybe going into a home. Before him is a box into which he is delving to fish up sundry memorabilia. Sometimes it is an object, sometimes a poem or a letter. ‘Never go back,’ he has always been told, but willy-nilly he is now being drawn through all the changing scenes of life as he led it — childhood, the pit village, the war at sea, his early strivings, an intense love affair that inexplicably ended, a happy marriage, his kids, his work, his dreams, his nightmares. The other player materialises as all the women, at whatever age. It is rueful, truthful and grabbing.
The actor Alan Rothwell (David Barlow in Coronation Street) added: “It’s a wonderful piece, the distillation of a full life, fascinating in detail and universal in its relevance”, but the play has never been produced. When Finch submitted it to Granada in 2005 the response was:
It has a lovely tone, with some beautifully observed moments and the relationships are well drawn. Unfortunately, however, it is not a project we wish to develop as I think it is too reflective for television and lacking in action, drive and pace. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for such a gentle piece, but it is not something we feel is right for this department to persue [sic] at the moment.
I have always believed that there should be room in television drama for ‘gentle’ plays, as well as those which have action, drive and pace. There is certainly an audience for them, but accountants are alas not especially gifted in an understanding of people, and the commercial pressures today are such that pieces like Loss are bound to fall by the wayside. You should see the letters I have had recently following the issue of Family at War on DVD, which was gentle in action, slow in pace, and, like its successor, Sam, driven only by characterisation set against events which it sometimes seemed hardly aware of. This some thirty five years after it was made.
Like many television writers who enjoyed their most successful years in the 1960s and ‘70s John Finch found himself out of sync with what the television companies favoured in the new era of high tempo generic drama in the 1990s and beyond. His brand of leisurely northern realism, imbued with a strong authorial voice, was destined to live on in the memory of an earlier audience who continued to consume it on DVD (and now on Talking Pictures TV).
Meanwhile Finch continued to write, editing (with Michael Cox and Marjorie Giles) Granada Television: The first generation (Manchester University Press, 2003), a celebration of the first generation of Granada writers, producers, directors and others who helped to make the company so distinctive and successful in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 2015 his semi-autobiographical novel, Cuddon Return (first published in 1979), set in a Yorkshire mining village in 1939-45, was reissued as A Shaft of Light and made available as an e-book, and in 2017, at the age of 92, he self-published a book of poetry, Before, During and After the War.
In 2014 John Finch began writing his autobiography. Provisionally entitled ‘Locations in the Heart’ it is due to be published as He Who Would a Writer Be by Kaleidoscope Publishing in July 2022 and will be a fitting testament to a life well-lived, from one of British television’s greatest dramatists.
 In 1973 Sam won the Television Critics Award for Best Series, and in 1974 John Finch received the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Series Writer.