A Family at War

June 2017 – A Family At War (52 episodes) has started being repeated on the ‘Talking Pictures’ channel  Freeview TV http://talkingpicturestv.co.uk/

family at war tv series

john finch television writerYou can view some short interviews with John here >

The production of A FAMILY AT WAR
family at war tv seriesAfter 30-odd years my memories are a bit hazy and I never kept a diary, so this is based on a very few documents, an understanding of the production method and some guesswork. The easiest way is to work backwards:

The 52 episodes of the series were broadcast on the ITV network between April 1970 and February 1972. Each segment of 6, 7 or 13 episodes was shown on a weekly basis and there were intervals in the schedule while the production team drew breath and the ITV network decided how best to place the next series. I believe the first 13 episodes were scheduled in consecutive weeks but, because each episode took at least two weeks to make, we had to have more than half of them in the can before transmission could begin.

This two week production schedule for each episode was based on a method which has been abandoned now but was, in the early decades of TV drama, a most economical pattern. On the morning of day 1 (which was usually a Wednesday) the cast assembled for a read-through of the script and there was then a discussion between the writer, the director and producer about the length of the piece and any necessary changes. That afternoon we would rehearse the scenes to be filmed on location in the following two days. Then everybody had a weekend off.

The second week was devoted to rehearsals for the studio scenes which made up the major portion of the show. These took place in a large room where the ground plan of the sets was marked out in adhesive tape, a different colour for each set. The furniture was rudimentary, the props were laughable but by Thursday of that week the director and the cast were ready to show the lighting director, technical supervisor and senior cameraman what they would have to shoot on the following Tuesday.

Rehearsals on the Friday of week 2 were devoted to fine tuning the acting performances of the cast and making any minor changes deemed necessary at the technical run-through on the previous day. After that the director completed his camera script which was typed by his production assistant. Our studio would have been used for another programme on that Friday – those sets were struck on Friday night and our sets put in their place. These were lit over the weekend and sometimes we had a walk-through on Sunday to familiarise ourselves with the actual sets. Then, we were ready for camera rehearsal on Monday morning.

This was the first time that the rest of the camera crew, the sound crew, the vision mixer and most of the technical staff had seen the show. So we would progress slowly through it, scene by scene, until everyone knew what they had to do when the time for recording arrived on the following day. At that time we recorded on videotape the whole piece from opening titles to closing captions, playing in the film inserts and stopping only for the advertising breaks. Mistakes could be edited out at a later stage but this was not popular. The aim was to make a recorded programme on the same basis as a live transmission.

This method which equates to the “principal photography” of a film showed a great saving in costs. The four cameras, two sound booms and a large technical crew – not to mention a big studio – were tied up for only two days and they cost a lot of money. The days of outside rehearsal were very cheap by comparison. But this method of programme making involves considerable compromise and eventually gave way to the making of drama all on film. It’s interesting that John Finch, the creator of A Family at War, was also a pioneer of all-film drama for television at around the same time. This method of telling a story on location with a film unit shooting every day for twelve or more days is now the accepted pattern – it offers high quality pictures, flexibility and a wide-ranging style. For a serial like Family in which the same sets were used over and over again, the studio offered a budget economy. It also offered the possibility of shooting a whole 50 minute programme in two days. A film unit seldom delivers more than three or four minutes a day.

So you could say that the 52 episodes of A Family at War, each of which took two weeks to rehearse and shoot, were spread over two years of continuous work. In fact the pressure of transmission and the need to have more than half the episodes ‘in hand’ before starting a run, dictated another economy. In order to get ahead John often devised stories which could be made side-by-side with the cast split between the home front and one of the theatres of conflict

The work of rehearsal and recording is, of course, only the end of the production process. Before that could begin the man who created the series had to write a substantial number of scripts, plan the storylines for those to follow and a commission a handful of others writers who shared the burden. The producer, the series planner and the designer needed all this knowledge in advance to organise their work. The casting department needed to know which characters would appear in each episode in order to arrive at a system of guarantees on which the actors’ contracts were based.
So we are now looking at 1969 – the year before transmission began – a crucial year for the planning of the series. It is important to remember that this was a completely original piece of writing, not based on an existing book which would have provided the outline of what was to come. This was primary work for the medium, the first of the television novels and one on a Dickensian scale. In that year we had to cast the main characters for something which would certainly run a year, possibly two. That’s quite a responsibility because, as one of the directors said, “Two years is a hell of a long time to be wrong!” It was thought wise to make a pilot episode so that the production team and the company executives could judge how successful our efforts in casting had been. In the event we scored quite highly, deciding to replace only two actors in a cast of a dozen.

Over the two year run the cast became household names. A particular favourite was Colin Douglas who crowned his career as Edwin Ashton. We should never forget that the title of the series has a double meaning and Edwin’s battles with his brother-in-law, played by John McKelvey, were at the heart of the story. Colin Campbell and Coral Atkins who played David and Sheila Ashton were also particular favourites and Coral was later the subject of a television biography on account of her work with deprived children. Many of the cast of Coronation Street made early appearances in Family: Julie Goodyear, Bryan Mosley, Bill Waddington, Geoffrey Hinsliff and Barbara Knox among them. Kathy Staff went on to appear regularly in The Last of the Summer Wine, Diana Davies in Emmerdale and Trevor Bowen who played Tony Briggs became T R Bowen a successful writer for television. Family also launched the career of two very well known actors: Barbara Flynn and John Nettles.

The Budget. I wish I could offer more help on this but I really cannot remember what the figure was. I only know that the budget was very tight and the administration of it an endless agony for the heroic producer, Richard Doubleday. If a figure emerges, however, it must be treated with caution for two reasons. First and most obvious is the inflation of all figures over a thirty year period. Second is the fact that television budget methods have changed considerably. In those days the producer was accountable for only the direct costs of the programme – the cast, the sets and props, travel and subsistence – all big items which provided headache enough. The indirect costs of resources – the crew, the studio, the management overhead – were dealt with separately. Later a system of total costing was introduced which included all these factors so, of course, budgets had to increase. This was a two-edged sword: the cost of resources could erode the money available for what was actually seen on the screen but the producer could sometimes juggle one area of cost against another. The best and most revealing comment about the budget of Family was Denis Forman’s, “It was the most cost effective television series ever made.”

Locations. Although the series was set in Liverpool most of the home front exteriors were shot in Manchester where Granada Television was based. Location scenes for the Spanish Civil War were shot in Derbyshire and a freak snowfall had to be written into the script. The Western Desert was re-created on the beaches of the Fylde Coast near Formby. Manchester’s Central station, long closed by the time the series was made, was brought to life again with set decoration, smoke and sound effects – but no trains.

Michael Cox October 2003


Jun 23, 2017 | Blogs, Costume/Historical Drama, production, Transnational TV, UK TV | 4
ITV recently broadcast Goodbye Granadaland, a 90 minute valedictory celebration of the output of Granada’s studios in central Manchester ahead of its forthcoming relocation to the nearby Salford Media City complex. The programme lined up a nostalgic parade of programmes from Granada’s programming history: the television milestone Coronation Street –obviously – as well as pioneering factual series running the gamut from World in Action to This Morning. However, among the impressive line-up of prestige drama production that was cited in the programme, including Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown and Prime Suspect, no mention at all was made of one of Granada’s biggest hits of its formative years: the epic series A Family at War (1970 to 1972).


It looks as though this programme may be in danger of dropping off the popular radar, not to mention the academic radar; for instance, it isn’t included in Lez Cooke’s excellent overview British Television Drama (* see |Les Cooke’s further work), even as a footnote. And yet when A Family at War was first shown in the early 1970s it was a quite remarkable success. According to one contemporaneous report, the programme’s ‘opening episode was seen in 6,850,000 homes, probably representing some 20 million viewers’, taking it ‘straight into the top ten with its first programme’, only just below the well-established Coronation Street in the ratings (Sun, 28 April 1970). By August that same year, one of Granada’s press releases was able to boast that A Family at War was now ‘top of the national TV ratings.’ Interesting to note too that this was a series which enjoyed spectacular popularity overseas, especially in Scandinavia where it became one of the top-rated programmes of all time – an interesting reversal of the current British media enthusiasm for all things Nordic.
Such a mismatch between the drama’s immense popularity with viewers at the time and its present critical obscurity points towards A Family at War being another instance, albeit a historical one, of what Brett Mills has described as the phenomenon of ‘invisible television’, the shows that lots of people watch but academics don’t write, let alone enthuse, about. But more than the existence of any blockbusting historical viewing figures, my motivation for writing about A Family at War undoubtedly comes from my personal enthusiasm for the series, interlinked with a considerable investment of time spent viewing its 52 hour-long episodes over a lengthy period: I lived alongside this series and its characters for the best part of a year – including during pregnancy, making me wonder if the programme’s highly distinctive and melancholy theme music (by Vaughan Williams) may also have filtered into my unborn daughter’s consciousness as I sat with my feet up, mug of tea in hand, telly on. Although sometimes working through such a marathon viewing task felt like a feat of endurance as much as a pleasure, on balance I think it was precisely because of the epic duration and stately pace of the series that I became so thoroughly enamoured with it.
Sandcastle under siege: the stately sombre opening and closing sequences of A Family at War
Being able to watch the whole of A Family at War had only been made possible because of its release on DVD box-set by Acorn Media UK, bringing another previously unobtainable television text back into the public domain. My mode of viewing the programme swung between the ‘bingeing’ often seen as characteristic of contemporary TV-on-DVD viewing practices, with several episodes watched in one sitting, and an alternative way of consuming the series that came closer to replicating its original weekly pacing, engendering a far slower rate of progression which actually seemed more appropriate for its subject matter, the duration of the Second World War from the fears of 1938 right through to V.E. Day.
The series follows the lives of the various members of a single family, the Ashtons, of approximately lower-middle-class status (although their class position is actually more complex and piebald than this label might suggest), mostly based in their Liverpool home but with narrative excursions to other locations as various family members were drafted into the armed forces, mobilised or evacuated. The original title for the series envisaged by its creator and main writer John Finch was ‘Conflict’, its dual meaning retained when it was subsequently re-titled as ‘A Family at War’. The war it refers to is both external force, the global struggle that defines the historical moment the Ashtons inhabit, and an internal schism, their own private combat zone which is affected by but by no means entirely due to the exigencies of that larger conflict.
Class conflict is absolutely pivotal to the Ashtons’ story. The apparently happy cross-class marriage of parents Edwin (Colin Douglas), from mining stock, and Jean (Shelagh Fraser), decidedly middle class in background, comes under increasing strain as the years progress and various tragedies impact upon the family. A continual bone of contention is Edwin’s poor treatment at the hands of his brother-in-law and employer Sefton Briggs (a terrifically villainous performance by John McElvey) while further stories of class struggle stem from the different wartime destinies of two of Edwin and Jean’s sons, leftist Oxford graduate Philip (Keith Drinkel) and initially unemployed Angry Young Man David (Morrissey favourite, Colin Campbell). But as its title suggests, A Family at War pays equal attention to private and domestic politics as it does to the public political sphere and its female characters are at least as complex and intriguing as its men, from the matriarchal Jean, to her eldest daughter Margaret (Leslie Nunnerley) who endures a fraught relationship with her jealous mother-in-law Celia Porter (Margery Mason), to David’s long-suffering wife Sheila (Coral Atkins), through to the skittish youngest Ashton daughter Freda (Barbara Flynn). Critics at the time sometimes complained of ‘women’s magazine atmospherics’ (Daily Mail, 21 January 1971), or that the show’s appeal replicated that of ‘the women’s magazines my mother used to read’ (Daily Express, 12 November 1970) or even that its narrative catalysts were nothing more than ‘the puny domestic bombshells that trigger off all soap opera, in fact.’ (Daily Sketch 12 November 1970). However, putting aside the critical bias against media aimed at women evident in such remarks, my impression on watching A Family at War nearly forty years on was of a programme which managed very successfully to interweave the personal and the public and to suggest their inextricable interconnections, invoking both the broad canvas of unparalleled world war and political upheaval and what it meant to live through it for one particular Liverpool family.
A brief scene between brother and sister Robert (David Dixon) and Freda (Barbara Flynn), the youngest Ashton siblings.
Nor does the programme pull its punches: several central characters die during the course of the series and those left behind have to struggle on imperfectly, while the skilful writing makes plain the emotional damage they suffer as they do so. A Family at War never smacks of the plucky ‘keep calm and carry on’ rhetoric typical of more nostalgic visions of wartime, and repudiates any patriotic pleasures in favour of a much more sombre and downbeat vision. Its aesthetic was frugal, quickly-produced studio-bound drama in the main with some location shooting when necessary, but again that seemed to work with the grain of the show rather than against it. The series was often criticised for its gloominess – as one critic wrote satirically of its title sequence, ‘Cue in groaning music. Fade up picture of bleak fortress… time to meet that loveable, laugh-a-minute Liverpool gang, the Ashtons.’ (Sun, 7 October 1971) – but that seems a little unfair. As the series creator John Finch later observed: ‘I have often had to try to shrug off descriptions of my work as “dour” or “glum” – inevitable I suppose since most of my writing has been about poverty or war.’ And in any case, the intrigues and affairs, the stand-up rows and the unspoken tensions are all sufficiently fascinating to make A Family at War a deeply compelling drama. Viewers certainly thought so at the time of its original transmission, keeping at the top of the ratings throughout its long run. One writer even observed that its viewing figures were ‘sufficiently impressive to encourage a “Coronation Street” infinity’ (Daily Telegraph, 5 August 1970) while another ‘bet a year’s supply of the TV Times that it will roll merrily on into student-riot times. Already in Granadaland they are talking about the show going on to encompass the fifties. Certainly I was not the first to suggest the title A Family at Peace.’ (Sunday Mirror, 2 August 1970). All of which commentary prompts an intriguing ‘what if?’ of British television history: ‘What if A Family at War had continued and become a long-running series like Coronation Street?’
But this never happened – although John Finch did write a kind of sequel in the shape of The Spoils of War (1980-81) – and instead this hugely popular programme of the early 1970s occupies a strangely subdued position in television historiography, ‘missing in action’, especially when compared to a television landmark such as The World at War (1973-74), Thames Television’s definitive historical documentary series which came just afterwards but which has been much more widely (and justifiably) celebrated. And yet despite their obvious differences in genre and approach, the two series inadvertently have a lot in common, both being epic in length and driven by a desire to provide as comprehensive a chronicle of the war as possible but one achieving that end through microcosm and the other by macrocosm. And both, it is worth reiterating, were products of British commercial television, testimony to its ability to combine high seriousness and immense popularity. As a totally engrossing television chronicle of the Second World War through the fortunes of a single divided family, Granada’s A Family at War deserves to take its rightful place as a seminal piece of British television drama: a series ‘capable of magnificence’ (Sunday Telegraph, 21 March 1971).
Melanie Williams is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of David Lean (2014) and Female Stars of British Cinema (2017) and a co-investigator on the AHRC-funded project ‘Transformation and Tradition in 1960s British Cinema’.

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