March 29

John Finch Reflects on Writing From Home at 95

writing coronation street

At the age of 95 in the midst of the Corona-virus emergency, John reflects on ‘Working From Home’

WORK at HOME seems to be the current slogan on the television and on the media generally. In fact, for more than sixty years, I always mostly worked at home..   I work now in one room created from the last house which once sheltered four of us.  The walls are covered with photographs and cuttings taken from my voluminous files.  I should know better than to let my ego include a number of awards, but they were hard earned and are a reminder.  Many are of fictional families I created, and since almost all are no longer with us represent a kind of multiple bereavement.

My real family is now dispersed to various parts of the United Kingdom.  Home is one room in which I live most of my life.   “I am alone on this earth,” I had written after the death of my wife.  This is true of the greater part of me. But I cannot ignore the content of the files which are distributed in no particular order in various parts of the house.  They do not form any kind of ordered existence. They lay wherever I put them down when for no particular reason I have left them in file boxes. Or simply in drawers,, wherever was convenient.  Some I must have destroyed.

I reach out now and pick up the nearest of the survivors.  It  is one of a pile of letters, and copies of letters which must have pleased me to prompt me to make a copy for no other  particular purpose I can remember.

The sheet of A4 is headed UNITED NATIONS.  It is a letter dated 1975 and is from the producer of United Nations television, dated 1975 and from their headquarters in New York.  The writer, the producer of UNITED NATIONS TELEVISION has obviously just watched the last episode of A FAMILY AT WAR which was transmitted in the US at that time.  Following a long chapter of praise of the serial it reads:

“They’ve been gone for good about two weeks now.   While they were with us they constituted the single best television series it has been my good luck to view.  Gushing fan letters are not exactly my forte, but as an American I’ve long been burning to tell you what a magnificent thing it is that you and your people accomplished for me.  Among other things, some cliches about wartime Britain are laid to rest.  Instead the nuances and ironies of “Britain’s finest hour “ are all there, intertwined with the universal melancholy of life in any era. “

There are other similar  letters from various parts of the world, and various classes of people. The subjects are mostly pieces of work I have done over the years.  They are a bit creased and grubby now,  carelessly stored , and more or less on the same theme.   Frankly I had forgotten I had them.  The sky outside grows old and it becomes too dark to read more.  As I sit with  them scattered around me I remembered the kitchen table on which much of my early work was written. I remembered the faces of actors to whom I am greatly indebted;  and others less so.

Roughly three years ago I responded to pressure from colleagues and others to write my autobiography.  A proof copy has been circulated by my son to a variety of publishers listed in THE WRITERS AND ARTISTS YEAR BOOK, my agent of forty years having died shortly after I completed it.

No publisher or agent has yet appeared.   Given choice, which is highly unlikely, the agent I would like is one who would agree with the late David Lean, who wrote of the writers pre-eminence in the field of drama. I try not to dwell too much on the characters of the entrepreneurs whose prostitution of talents they do not themselves possess lead to a pathetic triviality of the species, a culture dominated by  dubious celebrity.

 

March 25

Coronation Street 1962 – part2

While developing his autobiography John Finch recalled how the worlds longest running drama nearly ended in its early years.

This is a Blog in 2 parts: Part 2

See Part One

 

It was two o’clock in the morning. The building that housed what has since been christened as the headquarters of Granadaland cast its dark shape against the night sky.   A few lights were on where the security staff had their office, but apart from a single lit window on the fourth floor there were no signs of what in the daytime was furious activity.

Two men were seated at a desk on the fourth floor office.   One was Harry Driver, a Mancunion freelance writer, the other was me.  The building was silent, as were the streets around it.  I was there as temporary editor of Granada’s serial, Coronation Street.  Harry was the programmes story editor.   The strike, called by the actor’s union, Equity, was in its fifth month. As the weeks went by various characters disappeared, never to be seen again. At this point in time fourteen characters remained.  Coronation Street was the only ITV drama to stay on the nation’s screens.  It was the job of Driver and myself, as regular members of the script team, to find stories, at short notice, for the shrinking cast.   The reason we were working so late is that the situation was becoming increasingly serious and, at weekends, executives vanished on the train to London where most of them lived.  Harry normally worked with Vince Powell,  but Vince was taking a well deserved break.

The silences grew longer between the two of us as the cast shrank .  At the end of one particularly long silence Harry suddenly said, “Now we know how long a long running series runs for.”

There was a terminal quality about the statement.   Harry was not a quitter.  Dead from the neck down,as a result of polio,  he had been known to use a knitting needle between his teeth to write the television comedy series  on which he depended for a living. Tired, in silence we gathered our scribbled foolscap  pages together and prepared to leave the office.

I lugged him into his wheelchair and we set off in silence to where I had left my car. The light of what became Greater |Manchester flickered in the vast exterior darkness.

“I hope they appreciate that we are doing  our damnest,” said Harry.

The next day Equity lifted the strike.  There were other strikes in the Street’s long history but this is the one I never forgot.

March 21

The story of how Coronation Street nearly left the screens in 1962

writing coronation street

While developing his autobiography John Finch recalled how the worlds longest running drama nearly ended in its early years.

This is a Blog in 2 parts: Part one

See Part 2 here >>

The building stands impressively new on a side street off Deansgate in Manchester. Specially designed for the production of television programmes in the ITV north Western region, but also for viewing nationally, it is the child of the Bernstein brothers, Sidney and Cecil. When I first visited the site the only building was a wooden hut. A carpet had been laid but the furniture had not yet arrived. I sat cross –legged on the carpet with a young Canadian, Silvio Narrizano, who had been imported by the Bernsteins to create a drama production unit, the expertise required having been largely taken over by the BBC.
I had been invited for the interview after I had submitted a play with the title Dark Pastures, the first I had ever written, after reading about Granada’s ambitions for the North West in The Guardian. Silvio had read it and decided it was ideal to be Granada’s first play. Sidney thought otherwise, and it was later produced by Rediffusion. There wer e later developments involving Granada, but that’s another story.
At this time I was employed as a technical writer by Leyland Motors Ltd., the largest heavy vehicle manufacturer in the world, but not the best payer. I had recently married, acquired our first off-spring, and needed more money. I swallowed my pride and sent in my play again, as a sample, when Granada announced that it needed writers who could write Northern dialogue and had an understanding of the Yorkshire character. V ery quickly, as they decided they might have a winner in the field of television serials, I was offered a two year contract.
The year was 1960 and the programme was titled Coronatioin Street. I became its first free-lance writer,and very shortly after, its editor. Later I became, briefly, its producer.
The year I am particularly interested in, however, is 1962. It was the year in which Corrie came very close to disappearing from the little box, and failing to become , in its 60th year the longest running drama serial in the world.

March 26

Some new comments

sam tv series

There have been some very nice comments added to this article on ‘Forgotten Television Drama’

Sam (Granada, 1973-5)

It’s a real pleasure to find there are other fans of this superb series out there! I’m not exaggerating when I say I have watched the series at least 10 times since I first bought it. I never tire of watching it. In fact, the more I watch it the more I pick up on subtle connections in the writing and plot.
The characters are absolutely compelling and the acting as others have mentioned is bang on.
John Price as Alan Dakin and Michael Goodliffe as Jack are particularly impressive to me.
It’s a real shame the series has not reached a wider audience – although what todays TV viewers would make of it I wouldn’t like to say.
As one representation of a bygone era it is wonderful to immerse in.
If Mr Finch ever reads this I would like to say thank you for a monumental piece of writing.

Read More Here

https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/sam-granada-1973-5-by-lez-cooke/comment-page-1/#comment-1841

November 6

From John’s poetry collection ‘Before, During and After The War’

john finch author

John joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 16 and sailed from Liverpool in 1941

john finch author

North Atlantic 1942

Nothing you said
As your hand lost its grip on mine
And you drifted away into the cold darkness
The little red light on your lifejacket
Bobbing goodbye.

Sharing our sixteen years we‘d rarely if ever
Talked about the possibility of dying
Though from beneath the deck we stood on every day
High octane petrol perfumed the cold air
With terror.

Instead we had lived with wondering intensity
The amazing streets of Manhattan where we shopped in Macey’s
For fully fashioned silk stockings and cold cream
To shyly delight the cupboard-loving girls
Back home.

Now, more than half a century on, the young as we were young
Glance briefly at the carnage of the holocaust and once a year
Ignore the pageant by which we seek to perpetuate
The remembrance of your light as it fades
Into the darkness of history.

June 13

SAM remembered

SAM television series

Very grateful for this recent post on social media 

SAM television series

and a comment from a talk group:

Well, it’s rather like watching a DH Lawrence novel come alive. Sons and Lovers and all that.

I don’t want to be read as making light of anything because I believe Mr. Finch wrote it in a crucible of personal pain and knowledge, and that accounts for the series’ accuracy and detail. And, for what it’s worth, I appreciate the absence of music (although John McCabe’s piping trumpet and flute theme does stay in the head), not turning “real life” into a literal melodrama.
One stunning aspect is that several of the lead actors died before old age: Alethea Charlton, James Hazeldine, Mark McManus, Ray Smith, John Price (among those I’ve so far seen).
It’s been a truism for well over 50 years: the very best American television is…British!
Please take us back…we honestly don’t know how to behave ourselves!

 

sam the television series

February 27

Forgotten Television Drama

From: https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com

you’re reading…
1970s, Granada Television, ITV, John Finch, Lez Cooke, Sam

Sam (Granada, 1973-5)

In my book A Sense of Place: Regional British television drama, 1956-82, I argued that the 1980s saw a shift away from the production of regional television drama in Britain towards more expensive filmed dramas that were attractive to overseas markets.

This was especially evident at Granada Television where the production of Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), with their exotic locations, at home and abroad, represented a departure from the more parochial, indigenous regional drama Granada had been producing since the early 1960s.

In the 1960s and 70s there were a number of Northern writers at Granada, several of whom began their writing careers on Coronation Street. They included Jim Allen, Stan Barstow, John Finch, Harry Kershaw, Jack Rosenthal and Tony Warren (Granada was rather male-dominated in those days). Of these John Finch was the most prolific, writing 200 episodes of Coronation Street, creating the anthology series City ’68 and The System, as well as A Family at War (1970-72), which ran for 52 episodes and was a huge success. After A Family at War Denis Forman, then Managing Director at Granada, asked Finch what he wanted to do next. As he describes it in Granada Television – the First Generation, the book Finch edited with Michael Cox and Marjorie Giles (Manchester University Press, 2003): ‘We spent half-an-hour chatting about my early experiences in a mining community, and at the end, without asking for a pilot or even an outline, he simply said, “Go and do it.” Trust was a major factor in Granada’s creative approach to drama.’ (p.109)

The idea Finch outlined to Forman was similar to one he had originally submitted to Granada in the mid-1950s, when the company was preparing to go on the air, about a mining community in Yorkshire. The play, called Dark Pastures, was turned down by Granada and produced instead by Associated-Rediffusion in 1958. Two decades later, having proved himself as a successful writer at Granada in the meantime, Finch changed the name of the central character in the play from Jack to Sam Wilson, developed the play into a 13 episode series, and renamed it Sam. The series was transmitted in 1973 and two more series followed in 1974-5, extending the serial to 39 episodes, every one written by John Finch, an unparalleled achievement in British television drama. It was one of the most popular series on British television at the time, knocking Coronation Street off the top of the ratings at one point, winning the Television Critics Award for Best Series in 1973 and the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Series Writer in 1974. Yet today, despite being released on DVD in 2004, the series is largely forgotten.

Set in Yorkshire in a fictional mining town called Skellerton (based on Featherstone, near Leeds, where Finch grew up), Sam was a semi-autobiographical series set, in the first series, in the 1930s, during the Depression when many miners were out of work. The series was written from Finch’s own experience. Like Sam Wilson, who is ten years old when the series begins, in 1934, and whose father has left to go to Canada, Finch’s father left home when he was nine year’s old and he never saw him again. Like Sam, Finch was sent away to a boarding school for orphans and the children of single mothers. Like Sam, Finch went away to sea to escape working down the pit and later worked in an engineering firm. The first series, set between 1934 and 1938, depicts the poverty endured by households where the main breadwinner is out of work and the way in which families rallied round to help each other. The second and third series show the growing affluence in post-war Britain, ending in 1973 at the time of a new economic crisis.

Like much television drama of the time the series was a production hybrid: mainly recorded in the studio but with exterior scenes shot on film. Consequently much of the action takes place in the homes of the central characters, or in other studio interiors, but the location scenes are important in giving verisimilitude to the drama, showing the landscape and the bleak environment in which the characters live. The setting is established in the opening title sequence.

This title sequence was one of the few scenes actually filmed in Yorkshire. Most of the exteriors were filmed nearer to Granada’s Manchester base, at a former coal-mining village near Wigan in Lancashire, while the studio scenes were recorded at Granada’s Manchester studios. The exceptions were a few scenes filmed in a coal mine near Huddersfield, a scene at an engineering factory, where Finch actually worked, and two trips to the seaside which needed to be filmed on location to show they were special occasions, representing rare escapes from the claustrophobic houses, streets and coalmine of Skellerton where most of the drama takes place.

For most episodes there would be two or three days of location filming prior to a week of rehearsals before going into the studio for two days recording. The contrast between studio and film was quite apparent, but it was a convention that audiences were used to at the time, even when it was used as here, in an episode from series 2, when two characters are waiting for a bus and are recorded in a studio set while their view of Skellerton from the bus stop is shown in previously filmed long shots illustrating the bleak landscape, ironically described by one of the characters as ‘Skellerton Alps’.

Given the popularity of the series at the time it’s interesting to speculate as to why it has been forgotten, never having been repeated, and with the DVD having recently been withdrawn. Other popular series of the period, such as Upstairs Downstairs (LWT, 1971-5), The Onedin Line (BBC1, 1971-80), Poldark (BBC1, 1975-7) and The Sweeney (Thames, 1975-8), have a much higher profile through having been repeated and released on DVD. The Onedin Line and Poldark were even afforded cult status when they featured in BBC4’s The Cult of … series in 2008. Sam wasn’t a drama that was ever going to be included in that series. Even ‘serious’ or radical dramas, such as Jim Allen’s Days of Hope (BBC1, 1975) and John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC 1, 1974), have received far more critical and academic attention than John Finch’s realist serial.

Perhaps the fact that Sam is a realist serial, not a melodrama or crime drama or radical drama, has contributed to its neglect. John Finch specialised in what have been described as ‘telenovels’, long-form realist serials in the tradition of the 19th century realist novel, extending over many episodes and recorded mainly in the studio. In contrast, Days of Hope and The Sweeney were shot on location, on film, and represented a new development in television drama in the 1970s, one that rejected studio-bound naturalism in favour of a new filmic realism.

A useful comparison might be made between Sam and Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (BBC 1, 1978), made shortly after and also set in the 1930s, but non-naturalistic in style with its characters miming to popular songs of the time. Pennies from Heaven is fondly remembered and has become part of the canon of British television drama because of its innovative style, whereas Sam’s realist style has excluded it from the canon and contributed to its critical neglect.

Unlike Pennies from Heaven, Sam was set in the north, which had long since ceased to be a fashionable setting for film and drama. The modernity of a series like The Sweeney in the 1970s had a lot to do with it being set in London. Sam was also a serious drama, dealing with the harsh reality of life in the 1930s in the first series and largely lacking in humour because of the circumstances with which its characters are confronted. But it wasn’t serious in the way that John Caughie has discussed ‘serious drama’ in his book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (Oxford, 2000), a book which, for all its virtues, does not once mention John Finch, or Sam, or even A Family at War, and which only mentions Granada TV with reference to Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown.

Although it has a lot of politics in it, Sam was not a ‘political’ drama in the way that other 1970s dramas were. Its politics are implicit, rather than explicit, emerging through everyday discussion between characters, often in domestic situations, rather than being foregrounded as in more overtly political dramas of the time such as The Cheviot, Days of Hope, and Trevor Griffiths’ All Good Men (BBC1, 1974) and Bill Brand (Thames, 1976).

What it did very well, as producer Michael Cox says in his notes on the production of Sam on John Finch’s website, was to enrich the perception of the lives and changing fortunes of ordinary people. This ‘enrichment’ is achieved largely through John Finch’s writing, together with some excellent acting from a largely unknown cast. As the series progresses the pattern of changing lives is conveyed through the use of flashbacks, mainly from Sam’s POV, serving to show how people’s lives, especially Sam’s, have been shaped by their own past experience.

As a long-running serial drama Sam was able to show how the lives of ordinary people in the industrial north of England are affected by changing social conditions and class relations over a period of 40 years. This strength of the series may be another reason why it has been forgotten. It would be a big commitment for a television company to repeat all 39 episodes of Sam today and it may not be coincidental that the canon of British television drama is largely made up of single plays and mini-series, more easily digestible by audiences and critics than a 39 hour drama.

One of the key scenes in this epic serial occurs at the end of the twenty-third episode, called ‘Land’. It is a three and a half minute scene shot on film, featuring Sam (played as an adult by Mark McManus), and his grandfather Jack Barraclough (Michael Goodliffe), perhaps the two most important characters in a serial featuring literally dozens of characters. The scene illustrates the importance of place in the serial and how people are shaped by a sense of belonging to the place in which they grow up, and the scene needed to be shot on location in order to illustrate this. The iconography here is of an alternative English heritage, an industrial heritage, far removed from the iconography of Englishness which features in the later, far more celebrated, Brideshead Revisited. Incidentally, this episode was directed by Roland Joffe, one of four episodes he directed for Sam, early in his career. Ten years later he would be nominated for an Oscar for directing The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).

(This is a slightly revised version of a paper given at the Screen Studies Conference, 27-29 June 2014 and at the Media and Place Conference, Leeds Metropolitan University, 11-12 July 2014)

February 27

It’s Dearer After Midnight and The House That Jigger Built

From https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com

‘Forgotten Dramas 2’ at BFI Southbank: ‘It’s Dearer After Midnight’ + ‘The House That Jigger Built’

dearer-than-midnight-01

Our Forgotten Dramas season continues on Friday 10 February at 8.40 pm in NFT2 with a double bill of two Granada dramas from 1968.

It’s Dearer After Midnight and The House That Jigger Built were both written by John Finch, a writer probably best-known for A Family at War (Granada, 1970-72) and Sam (Granada, 1973-75), the semi-autobiographical series for which Finch wrote all 39 episodes. While both series have been released on DVD, A Family at War is probably better-known than Sam, even though the latter was hugely popular in the 1970s, getting audiences of up to 20 million.

After writing a single play, Dark Pastures (Associated Rediffussion, 1958), John Finch became one of the main writers on Coronation Street in the 1960s, writing 135 episodes from 1961-70 and producing 111 episodes in 1968-69. By the late 1960s he was looking to ‘do his own thing’ rather than continue writing for the established format of the Street and he devised an anthology series called City’68 which was intended to explore the social problems of a fictional Northern city. 13 episodes were produced, of which Finch wrote two, the remainder being written by other Granada writers.

It’s Dearer After Midnight (23 February 1968) was rather different to many of the other plays in the series and could easily have been a standalone play. Shot on video by Michael Apted it is essentially a two-hander involving a woman (Sian Phillips) who is picked up by a taxi driver (Keith Barron) late at night on the outskirts of the city. She asks to be taken to an address in the city, which turns out to be a strip club. All of the action takes place during the course of one night, with a lot of exterior night-time filming, including the opening scene up on the snow-covered moors outside the city. Rather than focusing on social problems or city politics, as most of the other plays in the series did, It’s Dearer After Midnight reveals a different side to the city, with most of the second half of the play set in a seedy nightclub. At the end, after a high-angle shot looking down on a city street as the woman leaves in a taxi, the camera tilts up to present a panorama of the city at night.

The System (Granada, 1968) was devised by John Finch as a follow-up series to City’68. It comprises six plays, of which John Finch wrote three. The House That Jigger Built (17 September 1968) is again different in tone to the others, being more of a comedy than an attempt to explore ‘the constant clash between individuals and society’, which was the loose theme of the series. This was largely due to the casting of Harry H. Corbett, at the time riding high on the success of Steptoe and Son, as a property tycoon whose values are at odds with those of his working-class ex-miner father (Wilfred Pickles). The play is really a satire of the modern-day property developer and it may be no coincidence that Jigger’s surname is Barrett (Barratt Developments was one of the largest residential property developers in Britain at the time).

City’68 and The System are now both forgotten series, yet they are just two of the many series which made Granada Television the leading regional television company in Britain in the 1960s-80s and John Finch was one of the Northern writers who helped to put Granada on the regional map.

Lez Cooke