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.”…