Tony Garnett obituary

Producer of film and television drama whose collaborations with Ken Loach included Cathy Come Home and Kes

Tony Garnett, who has died aged 83, was a hugely influential creator of British film and television drama, from excoriating early work such as Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, to the classic film Kes and the popular television series This Life and Ballykissangel.

He left acting behind to become a groundbreaking producer who made waves with both the socially and politically charged stories he brought to the screen and the chillingly realistic way in which they were filmed. The early part of his career was dominated by his partnership with the director Ken Loach, who pioneered a social-realist style of film-making that blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

Tony Garnett and David Bradley, left, during the filming of the 1969 film Kes.
Tony Garnett and David Bradley, left, during the filming of the 1969 film Kes. Photograph: Allstar/Woodfall Film productions

Among the first to put working-class voices on screen, they joined the BBC during a creative period that flourished under the liberal regime of director general Hugh Greene. However, their two most explosive dramas together – for the Wednesday Play slot – were challenging even to “benign” BBC bosses.

Garnett was still a story editor on the stand-alone drama series when they made Up the Junction (1965), adapted by Loach from Nell Dunn’s 1963 book of vignettes depicting everyday life in Battersea, south-west London. It featured “factory girls”, dirty streets, crumbling houses, bawdy language and casual sex. At its core was a scene of a backstreet abortion, two years before terminations were legalised.

Garnett knew the Wednesday Play’s producer, James MacTaggart, would be unhappy with it, so set the production in motion while his boss was on holiday. “It was a case of, ‘If the cat’s away, the mice will play,’” Garnett explained to me in 2002. “When Jim arrived back from his holiday, he hit the roof. I had a huge, apoplectic, stand-up row in his office that went on for days.” Nevertheless, MacTaggart allowed filming to continue because Garnett felt so strongly about it. “It was very important to me, for personal reasons,” added Garnett.

Fourteen years later, in his memoir, The Day the Music Died, he revealed that his mother, Ida (nee Poulton), died of septicaemia after having a backstreet abortion when he was five. His father, Tom Lewis, a garage mechanic who switched to selling insurance, took his own life 19 days later. When Up the Junction was screened, it caused uproar in the rightwing press and was attacked by the Clean Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse, although Garnett seemed to relish this as “an added frisson”.

Cathy Come Home, 1966, starring Ray Brooks and Carol White.
Cathy Come Home, 1966, starring Ray Brooks and Carol White. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

He then became a producer and with Loach – who regarded him as being good at the “corridor politics” – made an even bigger impact with what became the most famous TV play of the 20th century, Cathy Come Home (1966).

Jeremy Sandford’s script about homelessness was brought to Garnett’s attention by Dunn, the writer’s then wife. It was an attack on council house waiting lists and the policy of separating husbands from their homeless wives and children. Loach reworked the script with Sandford while Garnett was “economical with the truth” in discussions with BBC management.

The public and political outrage that followed the screening of Cathy Come Home, featuring Carol White and Ray Brooks as the couple whose family was torn apart, speeded up the formation of Shelter.

It was another experience of his own heartache that led Garnett to commission In Two Minds, David Mercer’s 1967 Wednesday Play about schizophrenia. Repudiating the traditional view that it was a disease with an organic basis, the play incorporated the ideas of a new wave of psychiatrists, led by RD Laing, who believed it could be caused by internal family relationships.

Mercer had experienced depression himself, and Garnett had been witness to the sudden decline in mental health of his wife, Topsy Jane, who starred with Tom Courtenay in the 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and had seemed set for a glittering screen career.

Up the Junction, 1965, directed by Ken Loach and produced by Tony Garnett.
Up the Junction, 1965, directed by Ken Loach and produced by Tony Garnett. Photograph: Ken Loach Films

Cast as Courtenay’s girlfriend in Billy Liar (1963), she fell ill several weeks into filming, was replaced by Julie Christie, diagnosed as schizophrenic and given electroshock therapy. “She had been sent back someone else … the opposite of the woman I knew,” wrote Garnett. Later, he and Loach remade In Two Minds as a feature film, Family Life (1971).

In between, they made the film Kes (1969), which became a British classic, based on Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave. The story, adapted by Garnett, Loach and Hines, features a 15-year-old Yorkshire boy, Billy Casper (played by David Bradley), who – failed by the education system – finds satisfaction in training a wild bird while facing a certain future down the local pit. Garnett was one of those who gave Loach an awareness of socialism that would inform all his future work, and to Hines he gave encouragement.

Another writer he encouraged was Jim Allen, who wrote Days of Hope (1975), a four-part epic for the BBC tracing the betrayal of the working class by the trade union and Labour party leaderships in the years leading up to the general strike of 1926.

Then, in 1979, worn down by years of battling to get TV and film productions made – and a dissatisfaction with the country’s move to the right politically – Garnett left Britain for the US.

His decade there was relatively fruitless, but he returned home to create World Productions and launch a new wave of innovative, challenging dramas such as Between the Lines (1992-94) and This Life (1996-97), alongside the more mainstream Ballykissangel (1996-2001). For the first time, while bringing on a new generation of writers and directors, he was producing series designed to have long runs, with repeat commissions.

Garnett was born Anthony Lewis in the Birmingham district of Erdington. Following the death of his parents, he was brought up by his Auntie “Pom” (Emily) and Uncle Harold, while his younger brother, Peter, went to other relatives. “I automatically closed down, feeling nothing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I never cried.” He retained his father’s surname but switched to his uncle’s, Garnett, in his late teens.

As a child, he was an inveterate reader and attended Birmingham’s central grammar school, where he acted in school plays. While performing with amateur groups, he fell in love with Topsy Jane Legge.

Garnett then joined rep companies before studying psychology at University College London, where he acted with its drama society. Spotted by a BBC producer, he was given small roles in An Age of Kings (1960), an anthology of Shakespeare’s history plays. More screen appearances followed, including parts in Mercer’s television plays A Climate of Fear (1962) and The Birth of a Private Man (1963), and in the film The Boys (1962), as a teenager on trial for murder.

He joined the Wednesday Play as an assistant story editor and, on promotion to story editor, worked on Dennis Potter’s Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton and Stand Up, Nigel Barton (both 1965).

In addition, Garnett produced two other plays by Allen, The Lump (1967) and The Spongers (1978), as well as Hard Labour (1973), the director Mike Leigh’s first TV drama, and Law & Order (1978), GF Newman’s controversial take on the legal system, directed by Les Blair, another of Garnett’s proteges, who also included the writers Leon Griffiths and Charles Wood, and directors Jack Gold, Roy Battersby and Roland Joffé.

Garnett left the BBC for a couple of years, and with Kenith Trodd set up Kestrel Productions, making dramas for the newly launched ITV company LWT. These included his own collaboration with Loach, After a Lifetime (1971).

During the 1960s and 70s, Garnett often hosted evening meetings on Fridays with Trodd and like-minded leftwingers – at a time when MI5 was secretly vetting those employed by the BBC. There was an attempt to block Garnett’s return to the corporation that was overruled because of his professional ability. Later, he himself had to threaten to resign in order to be allowed to employ Joffé.

Garnett then wrote and direct- ed two films: Prostitute (1980), focusing on the working lives of sex workers, in Britain, and Handgun (1983), about a female victim of rape seeking revenge, in Texas.

His time as a film producer at Warner Bros in Hollywood bizarrely yielded only the Sesame Street spin-off Follow That Bird (1985) before he made the musical Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and the atom bomb drama Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), starring Paul Newman.

Setting up World Productions in 1990 enabled him to work outside the BBC, which he criticised as having become a massive bureaucracy that stifled creativity. His company’s other programmes for it included Cardiac Arrest (1994-96), The Cops (1998-2001), Attachments (2000-02) and Rough Diamond (2006).

On his return to London in 1990, Garnett set about exorcising the demons of his past and underwent five years of psychoanalysis. He said it moved his grief on to mourning and accepting the deaths of his parents and the “existential death” of Topsy Jane. Their 1963 marriage ended in divorce; she died in 2014.

He is survived by his partner, Victoria Childs, and his sons Will, with Topsy Jane, and Michael, from his second marriage, to Alex (nee Ouroussoff), which also ended in divorce.

Tony Garnett (Anthony Edward Lewis), producer, writer and director, born 3 April 1936; died 12 January 2020


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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