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Garnett, Tony (1936-)

Producer, Director, Writer, Actor

Main image of Garnett, Tony (1936-)

From the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s Tony Garnett was one of British television's most controversial figures, responsible for producing some of the most politically radical drama ever to have been made in the UK, much of it in collaboration with director Ken Loach. After spending most of the 1980s in America, Garnett returned to a changed political environment and a more commercial television industry in Britain but continued to impose himself as a creative producer of innovative and socially challenging drama series such as Between the Lines (BBC, 1992-94), This Life (BBC, 1996-97) and The Cops (BBC, 1998-2001).

Born on 3 April 1936 in Birmingham, the son of a toolmaker, Garnett was educated at a local grammar school and studied psychology at the University of London. Having developed an interest in acting in his school days (the teenage Garnett frequently visited Stratford, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company), he subsequently acted for local repertory companies and continued to pursue an acting career while an undergraduate in London. After graduating he appeared in a number of BBC television dramas - one of his early roles was in Troy Kennedy Martin's first television play, Incident at Echo Six (tx. 9/12/1958), and he went on to appear in An Age of Kings (1960), David Mercer's A Climate of Fear (tx. 22/6/1962) and The Birth of a Private Man (tx. 8/3/1963), early episodes of Z Cars (1962-78) and 'Catherine' (tx. 24/1/1964), a play in the BBC's Teletale series written by Roger Smith and directed by Ken Loach. For a forgotten, now lost, 30-minute play, 'Catherine' has a significant place in the history of British television drama. Not only did it bring Garnett and Loach together, but it was Roger Smith, in his capacity as the main story editor on The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70), who recruited Garnett as an assistant story editor for the new anthology series, a career change which was to prove momentous for British television drama.

Garnett and Loach were soon embroiled in controversy with 'Up the Junction' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 3/11/1965). Filmed largely on location, it established a new benchmark for social realism in TV drama, including a 'backstreet' abortion sequence which contributed to the debate about the legalisation of abortion in Britain, achieved two years later. 'Cathy Come Home' (The Wednesday Play, tx, 16/11/1966) confirmed Garnett and Loach's determination to take television drama out of the studio and onto the streets. This was Garnett's first role as producer (he was credited as story editor on 'Up the Junction' but his contribution was far greater than typical of that role) and 'Cathy' confirmed the agitational nature of Garnett and Loach's work for The Wednesday Play, highlighting the plight of the homeless at a time when all the talk was about 'swinging London'.

'Cathy' also cemented a highly productive 13-year partnership with Loach, embracing David Mercer's 'In Two Minds' (The Wednesday Play, 1967; remade for the cinema as Family Life, 1971), Neville Smith's 'The Golden Vision' (The Wednesday Play, 1968) and After a Lifetime (1971), Jim Allen's 'The Big Flame' (The Wednesday Play, 1969) and Days of Hope (1975) and Barry Hines' Kes (1969) and The Price of Coal (1977). Their last collaboration was the children's film Black Jack (1978), adapted by Loach from Leon Garfield's novel. All these productions were shot on film, utilising a documentary-drama style which enhanced their social realism. In the dramas written by Jim Allen, which also included 'The Lump' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 1/2/1967), directed by Jack Gold, Garnett produced some of the most political plays seen on British television, both 'The Big Flame' and the four-part Days of Hope delivering a revolutionary message which reflected the shared radical, socialist politics of writer, producer and director.

While his work with Loach and Allen resulted in some of the more controversial dramas of the 1960s and 70s, Garnett produced a range of plays in the 1960s by writers such as Nemone Lethbridge, Leon Griffiths, Charles Wood, Peter Nichols, Tony Parker and David Mercer ('The Parachute', Play of the Month, tx. 21/1/1968), working with directors including James MacTaggart, John Mackenzie, Christopher Morahan, Roy Battersby and Anthony Page. Throughout this period at the BBC Garnett was on a series of contracts, rather than on the permanent staff, an arrangement that gave him more room to manoeuvre than some other producers, who had to work on many more plays each year.

At the end of the 1960s Garnett left the BBC to set up independent production company Kestrel Films, through an arrangement with London Weekend Television (LWT). Having taken over the weekend ITV franchise for London in 1968, LWT approached Garnett and Kenith Trodd to produce drama for the new company. To LWT's surprise, Garnett and Trodd agreed and Kestrel Productions was set up, with Clive Goodwin, James MacTaggart and David Mercer also part of the team. Garnett's productions for Kestrel included four feature films: Kes, The Body (1970), directed by Roy Battersby, Family Life and Black Jack, made several years later. Only Neville Smith's After a Lifetime was made for television during this period, although there was also a 50-minute film, In Black and White, directed by Loach, about the work of the charity Save the Children in Africa, which was never transmitted by LWT.

In the early 70s Garnett returned to the BBC, producing a version of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (tx. 7/11/1972), directed by Jack Gold, and commissioning the first television work of two directors who worked in an improvisatory manner with actors: Mike Leigh and Les Blair. Leigh's 'Hard Labour' (tx. 12/3/1973) was the first Play for Today Garnett produced; it was followed by Blair's 'Blooming Youth' (tx. 18/6/1973) and Brian Parker's 'Steven' (tx. 4/6/1974). Garnett also produced Blair's The Enemy Within (tx. 11/6/1974), set in a Midlands comprehensive school, and a series of five-minute films made by Leigh in 1975 but not transmitted until 1985. After Barry Hines' two-part 'The Price of Coal', Garnett produced his last play with Jim Allen, 'The Spongers' (Play for Today, tx. 24/1/1978), directed by Roland Joffé, a bleak response to 1977's Royal Jubilee celebrations in which the disenfranchised working-class, often described by the right-wing press as 'spongers', suffer from social cutbacks while money is lavished on the Jubilee celebrations. Here the Royal Family become 'the spongers' in a prime example of the 'cynical realism' which characterised much of Allen's work - a genre that Garnett was soon to abandon.

One final work in this mode, however, was G.F. Newman's four-part Law and Order (1978), directed by Les Blair, a controversial examination of the British judicial system seen alternately from the points of view of police, criminal, courts and prison system. Throughout the four plays corruption was seen to be endemic and the series drew criticism for its perceived 'bias'. Garnett was ready with an articulate refutation of the criticisms put forward, a practice he has always followed, and which has made him a leading spokesperson for progressive TV drama over five decades.

At the end of the 70s, however, after a feature film about prostitution, Prostitute (1980), which he wrote, produced and directed, Garnett went to America to produce feature films. Handgun (US, 1982), about a woman who takes revenge for being raped, was, like Prostitute, a belated response from Garnett (who again wrote, produced and directed) to the politics of feminism, something which had been largely absent from the 1960s-70s work. The more commercial Follow That Bird (d. Ken Kwapis, US/UK, 1985) and Earth Girls Are Easy (d. Julien Temple, US/UK, 1988) could be seen as parables about racial prejudice, respectively disguised as a children's film and a space comedy about aliens, whereas Fat Man and Little Boy (aka Shadow Makers, US, 1989), which starred Paul Newman and reunited Garnett with director Roland Joffé, was a serious examination of the Los Alamos project to develop the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a decade in Hollywood, Garnett returned to a British broadcasting industry undergoing major change, and was invited to become head of Island World Productions, an independent production company co-owned by John Heyman's World group of companies and Chris Blackwell's Island Records. When Blackwell sold Island Records in 1994 the company became simply World Productions, by which time Garnett had produced 'Born Kicking' (Screen One, BBC, tx. 20/9/1992), written by Barry Hines, and Between the Lines, a series created by J.C. Wilsher about a unit investigating corruption within the police force. Following a decade of Thatcherite politics and the decline of the single play/TV film, Garnett saw the need to work in the arena of series/serial drama for the first time, and he reinvented himself as a producer and executive producer of popular series such as Cardiac Arrest (BBC, 1994-96), This Life, The Cops, Attachments (BBC, 2000-02), Buried (Channel 4, tx. 2000), Outlaws (BBC, 2004-05) and No Angels (Channel 4, tx. 2004-06), engaging with social, political and institutional subjects - the NHS, the legal system, current policing methods, the internet, the prison service - through popular genres, utilising a fast-moving narrative style, reworking and updating 1960s/70s social realism for a new audience and a new social context.

In recent years Garnett has continued to speak forthrightly about the state of British television drama, and in July 2009 he circulated a lengthy polemic criticising the BBC for restricting decision-making to an executive elite and failing to take risks, citing the freedom he had been given as a BBC producer in the 1970s to commission the first television work of Mike Leigh and Les Blair, despite their unorthodox working practices:

Without the BBC neither would have been given a chance to explore their style, creating work in their own way. Would they get a chance in today's BBC? A centralised structure where there are many who can say no and only one who can say yes results in a narrowing of taste on the screen. We need a range of sensibilities at work. This can only be achieved if power to commission and transmit is passed down to more people.

After 50 years in the business Garnett is still flying the flag for original, intelligent, socially-conscious television drama.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Beautiful Thing (1996)Beautiful Thing (1996)

Low-key account of a tentative relationship between two teenage boys

Thumbnail image of Black Jack (1979)Black Jack (1979)

Ken Loach's only children's film, an adventure set in 18th century Yorkshire

Thumbnail image of Family Life (1971)Family Life (1971)

Ken Loach's big-screen remake of the David Mercer TV play 'In Two Minds'

Thumbnail image of Kes (1969)Kes (1969)

Masterly Ken Loach film about a lonely boy adopting a wild kestrel

Thumbnail image of After a Lifetime (1971)After a Lifetime (1971)

20th-century class politics explored through the death of a lifelong activist

Thumbnail image of Age of Kings, An (1960)Age of Kings, An (1960)

Ambitious history of medieval British royalty, adapted from Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Big Flame, The (1969)Big Flame, The (1969)

Incendiary drama about a dockers' strike turned workers' takeover

Thumbnail image of Cardiac Arrest (1994-96)Cardiac Arrest (1994-96)

Hard-hitting portrait of junior NHS staff, written by a disaffected doctor

Thumbnail image of Cathy Come Home (1966)Cathy Come Home (1966)

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Days of Hope (1975)Days of Hope (1975)

Ken Loach TV drama spanning the 1910s and 1920s

Thumbnail image of Golden Vision, The (1968)Golden Vision, The (1968)

Witty Ken Loach drama-doc about obsessive Everton fans

Thumbnail image of Hard Labour (1973)Hard Labour (1973)

Mike Leigh's first TV drama, about the travails of domestic drudgery

Thumbnail image of In Two Minds (1967)In Two Minds (1967)

David Mercer and Ken Loach's controversial study of schizophrenia

Thumbnail image of Parachute, The (1968)Parachute, The (1968)

David Mercer's imaginative look at Germany between the wars

Thumbnail image of Price Of Coal, The (1977)Price Of Coal, The (1977)

Comic and tragic events at a Yorkshire pit in Ken Loach's two-parter

Thumbnail image of Spongers, The (1978)Spongers, The (1978)

Acclaimed dramadoc showing the tragic impact of welfare cuts on a family

Thumbnail image of Up the Junction (1965)Up the Junction (1965)

Ken Loach's powerful drama about young women in Clapham

Thumbnail image of Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)

Second of Dennis Potter's dramas sees Nigel trying to enter politics

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: Television DramaKen Loach: Television Drama

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Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach and his collaboratorsKen Loach and his collaborators

Collaboration is key for Britain's foremost political filmmaker

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Blair, Les (1941-)Blair, Les (1941-)

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Thumbnail image of Loach, Ken (1936-)Loach, Ken (1936-)

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