Twice Bottled Grief: the defiant life of Tony Garnett

Unlike Ken Loach, his friend and frequent collaborator, Tony Garnett remains a shadowy figure in the story of British radical film-making – yet has been just as vital, responsible for a string of pioneer productions from Cathy Come Home and Kes to Law and Order and This Life. Reflecting on some of the emotional reasons for his relatively low public profile, he comes to the conclusion that it is because “I didn’t want to lie”.

At one level, this makes complete sense: for much of Garnett’s life, his tragic family story was deeply buried. What this impressive and moving memoir shows is that his approach to almost every aspect of his political and professional life has been marked by a refusal of even the most ordinary, socially acceptable levels of mendacity.

A ferocious sense of purpose – born of the alchemy of emotional pain, high intelligence and creative ambition – powers the many overlapping narratives at work here. At its simplest, Garnett’s memoir gives us a spare and cogent account of his life as a cineaste, fighting for the right to make original work from within the establishment, largely the BBC but also Hollywood.

Born in Birmingham into a large, self-confident and loving working-class family (a lost world he evokes beautifully), he had his life chances transformed by the achievements of the postwar welfare state. Garnett then arrived at the BBC at the beginning of the Sixties – what today looks like the creative heyday of the corporation: a time when a fresh young generation of risk-takers was given its head.

Figures such as Loach and Garnett – who began life as an actor – were determined to bust through the stuffy conventions of ossified, upper-class, mostly period TV drama to capture working-class lives out in the world. Often they did this literally: trailing actors, most of them not professionally trained, in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible, capturing naturalistic speech and action on location, using only a “16mm handheld, blimped camera”.

They faced formidable obstacles. Films that showed the reality of backstreet abortion or homelessness were attacked publicly by such figures as Mary Whitehouse, whom Garnett rather admired as “a fine debater that no one could safely underestimate”.Possibly more frustrating was the resistance he encountered inside the BBC. There are wonderful portraits here of a parade of senior managers, from the director general Alasdair Milne, who parried Garnett with subtle charm and a fine single malt, to the choleric, red-haired controller of BBC1 Bryan “Ginger” Cowgill, who, objecting to a single use of “f***” in the 1975 serial Days of Hope, produced by Garnett and directed by Loach, exploded, declaring without the slightest self-consciousness or irony: “If you think you can f***ing well say ‘f***’ on my channel, you’ve got another f***ing think [sic] coming.”

This book could do with an index, such are the numbers of well-known figures from politics and the film industry that pass under Garnett’s perceptive, steely gaze. Loach takes modest centre stage: talented, loyal, unbelievably tenacious and elusively self-contained, even to his closest friends. In harsh contrast, Garnett finds the playwright Dennis Potter a “controlling, manipulative, egotistical self-publicist”, though the two men get to share a tender last drink at a pub on the Portobello Road as Potter tells Garnett that both he and his wife have only weeks to live.

Outside work, Garnett befriended the charismatic Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, who could drink even hardened alcoholics under the table, and the clever, convincing, but somewhat threatening figure of Gerry Healy, the leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party who managed to win over many of the leading actors of the day to his left-wing sect. In Hollywood in the late Eighties, Garnett produced a film with Paul Newman, who did not disappoint as a star, but had “thin legs that he was rather self-conscious about”. Back in London, he had occasional encounters with a washed-up but ever-buoyant and eternally cigar-chewing Lew Grade, who loved to dispense paternal advice.

During the making of This Life, an iconic BBC series about a group of young lawyers sharing a house in London in the Nineties, Garnett hired the then unknown partner of his bright young producer, Jane Fallon, to choose the opening music and create a tailor-made soundtrack for each character. With his “encyclopaedic knowledge” of music, Ricky Gervais did a fine job.

The book opens and closes with the double tragedy that defines, and has powerfully shaped, Garnett’s entire life. When he was five, his gentle mother, Ida, died of a botched backstreet abortion; 19 days later, his father, Tom, committed suicide, out of grief and guilt, and possibly for fear of being prosecuted. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle he barely knew, a move that at first feels brutally Dickensian, the little boy never shed a tear; nor was anything explained to him about his parents’ deaths until years later, though Uncle Harold and Aunty Pom come more than good by the story’s end.

Tragedy stuck again when a passionate affair with Topsy Jane, a beautiful actress, ended in her terrifyingly swift descent into a schizophrenically induced torpor, from which she never emerged.

Twice-bottled grief and anger drove the intense years of Garnett’s adult life, the decades of non-stop working, drinking and ­socialising. It was only when he returned from a frustrating spell in Hollywood, “frail, dangerously thin, exhausted and a washed-up failure at 52”, that he determinedly decided to enter psychoanalysis – the second attempt on his part. This time, he was lucky enough to be treated by the eminent and ­independently minded Charles Rycroft, who helped free him to far greater enjoyment of life and to write this book.

The Day the Music Died is a fine portrait of a fine individual, tested cruelly early in life, who has pulled through somehow as an artist and as a human being. Garnett is even able to give us that most untypical thing, certainly in the social-realist tradition of which he is such a proud exponent: a genuinely happy ending.

This article was published in the New Statesman on August 15 2016