March 2

A Family at War

June 2017 – A Family At War (52 episodes) has started being repeated on the ‘Talking Pictures’ channel  Freeview TV

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