Tracking changes: Tony Garnett interview

‘I’ve never got locked up in the idea of “art cinema”. That’s masturbation.’ Never mincing his words, producer Tony Garnett reflects back over his groundbreaking work in television and film, as a two-month celebration of his career – from Cathy Come Home to This Life – plays at BFI Southbank.

Chris Fennell
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David Bradley and Tony Garnett, Kes (1969)

David Bradley and Tony Garnett, Kes (1969)

Born in a working-class suburb in Birmingham, Tony Garnett was one of the first of a generation of revolutionary TV creatives who sought to address serious social and political issues in their influential BBC dramas of the 1960s and 70s. After starting out as an actor, Garnett became assistant story editor, and later producer, on The Wednesday Play – an anthology series of plays for British television which included Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), both directed by Ken Loach.

Garnett went on to produce feature films with Loach, including Kes (1969) and Family Life (1971). The first part of the Tony Garnett: Seeing Red season at the BFI Southbank focuses on his lesser-known work from the same period and confronts themes that remain – to his devastation – worryingly contemporary.

After growing exhausted of British film and TV production in the late 1970s, Garnett relocated to the United States where he continued to develop politically motivated films such as Handgun (1984), a searing indictment of American gun culture, alongside strikingly different mainstream cinema, such as Sesame Street: Follow That Bird (1985) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988). 

Family Life (1971)

Family Life (1971)

Upon his return to Britain in the late 1980s, Garnett encountered a radically different industry and set out to subvert the genres of mainstream television, to further success, with Between the Lines (1992-94), Cardiac Arrest (1994) and The Cops (1998). These form part of the second half of our season on Garnett, starting in June.

We spoke to him about his 50 year career, the future of television, and working with Big Bird.

What took you towards television – first to acting, then to producing?

When I was young, television had just become the most important medium. In those days, my very large extended family in and around Birmingham never went to the cinema. Everybody was in front of the television. So that was where I wanted to be. If there was a chance of getting political drama on the air, I wanted to make sure I could reach the largest possible audience.

I’ve worked on European films in this country and spent some years in Hollywood working on movies but my true love has always been television. I’ve never been taking in by the snobbery of the cinema. I’ve never got locked up in the idea of ‘art cinema’. That’s masturbation.

What was it like working with the BBC in the 1960s?

There were aspects of the BBC which were worse than now and there are some aspects which were better. I think the biggest change has been in the attitude of management. There was then a capacity to allow. There was then, within very strict limits, the presupposition in favour of the creative impulse. However, now producers have been more or less abolished, in the sense that the crucial decisions are taken by managers further up the hierarchy. This of course has a dampening effect on creativity.

I have criticised the BBC in the past because I think it’s very important for all of us. The BBC enriches our culture. We would be so impoverished without it so I want it to be better. I’m a defender of the BBC but at the same time a loyal defender of the opposition.

Did you find that your early work had any discernible social impact? What do you make now of film and TV’s power to affect social change?

The Spongers (1978)

The Spongers (1978)

I don’t think film and TV do directly affect social change. In the arrogance of my youth I thought we could make a film and change the world. But a film is not legislation – the most a film can do is ask questions and awaken consciousness. What saddens me and makes me ashamed as a citizen is that so many of my older films remain contemporary.

The Spongers is more contemporary now than it was when we made it in 1977 [broadcast 1978]. There are more people that are homeless now than there were in 1966 when we made Cathy Come Home. In the early 1980s, I made a film in the US about gun crime and rape [Handgun] and those two issues are now even more brutally real to us. I could go on and on with this – and that is sad.

The first part of the season at the BFI focuses on your early career – from In Two Minds to The Spongers. What do you think characterises your work during this period and has this changed or evolved over the years?

What characterised my work then is what has characterised all of it for 50 years. They’re all political but then all films are. Beware those who say their films are not; that means they’re very right-wing. But all my films are overtly political. Love and politics are all that interest me. There has been no change in my work – it’s the industry and the world that has changed. It’s not very productive to operate on a basis on how you wish the world would be; you have to operate on how the world is.

In Two Minds (1967)

In Two Minds (1967)

Was it difficult moving from TV to film in the late 1960s?

First of all, I think people get too obsessive over the terms. I’ve done nothing but work in films since the middle 60s when I persuaded the BBC to allow us to go out on location and shoot films. Films are not even shot on film anyway – we only call them films. Whether a film is financed by a television company or by a major Hollywood studio, it’s going to be experienced by an audience on multiple devices. I’ve always rejected the rather snobbish idea of the cinema as opposed to ‘telly’ because it’s not helpful. We made films.

There must have been major differences between the industries?

The cinema is a pain in the arse. There are three aspects to it: one is making the money, the other is making the film, and the third is marketing the film. I’ve always been bored with the first and the third – I’m only interested in making it. The problem is that television is becoming like that itself. More television in Britain is now being run more like a Hollywood studio in terms of financing and executive creative control. I used to say that in Hollywood they’ll fuck you around but at least you’ll get a swimming pool. In the UK, they’ll fuck you around and you’ll get nothing at all.

Was it difficult in 1980 when you turned to directing with Prostitute? Was it a valuable process for you?

Prostitute (1980)

Prostitute (1980)

No. I never wanted to direct. It never attracted me but people kept mentioning it so I decided to do one. It was boring. I’ve got a very low boredom threshold. I liked working closely with actors but most of directing is just hanging about. I don’t like waiting. I like to have a whole number of projects so that I don’t get bored. I was just as bored with Handgun. If I’d enjoyed it more I would have directed more.

You avoided a particularly volatile political situation at home when you moved to the United States in the 1980s. Tell me about your time in the US.

I avoided Thatcher and walked straight into Reagan. Neither was a lot of fun. I went to the US because I was exhausted here and I wanted to be refreshed. I thought moving to the US would help me. There was a shift in the US towards independent filmmaking in the 60s and 70s and I thought I could find a place in the interstices of that. But when Reagan came in, it withered on the vine. All Hollywood wanted to do was to make big action movies with Americans shooting foreigners with lots of special effects. Not only ideologically could I not do that but I wouldn’t know how to. It was not an easy environment.

You stayed through most of the 1980s and made political films, as well as a Sesame Street movie and Earth Girls Are Easy…

I have my name as sole producer on Earth Girls Are Easy – and I love the film, but I can’t take credit for it. I hired Julien [Temple, director] because he was very intelligent and he understood music – and coming from London he seemed like he was from Mars too – but then I got out of the way. I can’t say it is my film.

And then I did a film with Roland Joffé [Fat Man and Little Boy, 1989] because he asked me to, but I can’t say I produced that either. It was a Paramount picture and they wanted a star [Paul Newman] who was a brilliant actor but miscast. Nobody wanted to listen to me; it was an expensive Hollywood movie. Again, I can’t claim it as my film.

Handgun was my film, as was the Sesame Street movie. I did that because my younger son was a toddler at the time and he loved Sesame Street. I thought if I said no to this, he’ll never get a chance to meet Big Bird or Bert and Ernie. Just to see his face was worth going through the agony of making it.

Handgun (1982)

Handgun (1982)

What else do you think you gained out of your time in America?

I learnt a great deal about the US. Most people in the UK know nothing about the US but think that they do. I also learnt a great deal about my own country by being 6,000 miles away from it. I learned a tremendous amount about filmmaking because movies are taken very seriously in LA. Some of the most talented people in America work in the movies. Why wouldn’t they? It’s got sun, money, fame and sex – and all four on tap. This of course also means it’s full of functioning psychopaths. I was much better equipped to deal with the changed climate in this country when I came back because of my experiences there.

What was it like returning to Britain? You obviously had the same objectives and interests but could you represent these in the same way?

No, the industry had changed and the country had changed. It was a much more difficult environment for any creative impulse, particularly for a left-wing political one. I had to become cannier.

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

What do you make of the future of television?

Television will last for a long time yet but it’s gradually being subsumed within new technologies which are disruptive, challenging and enormously exciting. Just as the cinema did not lead to the abolition of the theatre, television will continue but as part of a bigger framework in the new technological ecology. Governments and big corporations are going to try and close it down. They are trying to close it down.

All the great new technologies in media started out with individuals with ideals wanting to promote freedom of expression and within a few years the big corporation and the governments took them over. This happened with the telephone, it happened with the radio, with television, with the movies and it will happen with the internet. But at the moment, there is a comparatively free window. Who cares what it’s called? What device it’s on is a detail. What matters to creative people is the freedom to develop your impulse and the means to reach an audience.

Do you revisit any of your work?

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

Whenever I’ve finished a film, I look at it and I kick myself because I think, “I know how to make that now”. There are films playing in my head that I could never get made and they’re perfect, believe me. But otherwise, no, revisiting my work is painful. This season that the BFI is running has forced me to look at things I haven’t thought about for decades but that is painful for another reason, because so many of my colleagues have died. That’s sad and painful.

You’re currently writing your third novel…

It’s coming out in a week or two. When you finish a novel you read it and there’s the proof and then you think I know how to write that now. It’s there forever warts and all. It’s another way of telling stories, it’s a new challenge and it’s a change for me.

So you wouldn’t think about going back into producing films?

I’ve been resisting all temptations to seduce me back so far. I’ve not followed the industry too closely for the past few years. 

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