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Isaacs, Jeremy (1932-)

Producer, Executive

Main image of Isaacs, Jeremy (1932-)

The producer of some of the finest British television programmes of the 1960s and 1970s, before becoming the pioneering chief executive of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs remains among the most respected figures in the industry for his wholehearted commitment to the medium.

Isaacs' consistent philosophy has been that there is no contradiction between innovation and popularity. His well-publicised skirmishes with the television establishment (the BBC in 1966, Thames TV in 1978), defending his belief in making programmes accessible, direct and compelling, without compromising their intellectual integrity, have hindered his career as well as charged it.

He was born in the Hillhead district of Glasgow, Scotland on 28 September 1932 to a modestly successful Jewish couple. After attending Glasgow Academy, Merton College, Oxford in 1952 (where he was president of the Union) and military service with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, he worked briefly as a computer programmer.

In 1958, he joined Granada Television - then a Manchester-based regional station - as producer. His production chief was former Daily Express managing editor Tim Hewat, who taught him that television was primarily a mass-audience medium and that programmes always had to have something to say.

Isaacs was producing such popular Granada programmes as What the Papers Say (ITV, 1956-68; 1970-82), Searchlight (ITV, 1959-60) and All Our Yesterdays (ITV, 1960-73; 1987-89) when, in 1963, he was asked by Rediffusion producer/series editor Cyril Bennett to produce their current affairs series This Week (ITV, 1956-92).

He transformed the segmented format of the programme into single-topic half-hour editions devoted to social issues. Working with a team that included Desmond Wilcox (then a reporter), he produced a series of groundbreaking documentary programmes on such subjects as poverty, homosexuality, and drunken driving.

By 1965, his success with This Week brought an invitation from the BBC to produce their current affairs flagship, Panorama (1953- ). Rather recklessly, he announced that he would bring major changes to the august programme by turning it into a filmed, single-subject series and largely dispensing with talking heads. Unfortunately, these included the powerful television figures of Richard Dimbleby and Robin Day. After editorial disagreements (the BBC gave him an ultimatum: return to the old format or else...), in 1968 Isaacs returned to Rediffusion - which soon became Thames Television due to franchise changes - as Controller of Features.

While he was at Thames in 1973, he made the award-winning, 26-part series The World at War (ITV, 1973-74). A remarkable documentary achievement, narrated by Laurence Olivier, it told the story of the greatest conflict in history, from Hitler's pre-war Germany to the horrific climax at Hiroshima. It proved to be his masterwork as an actual maker of television programmes, and shortly after he was made Director of Programmes at Thames.

He was instrumental in bringing Jack Gold's dramatised portrait of Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (ITV, tx. 17/12/1975), to the screen (after the BBC had turned down the idea) and gave Head of Drama Verity Lambert a free hand with series such as Trevor Griffiths' gritty essay on Westminster politics, Bill Brand (ITV, 1976), and Howard Schuman's sour-taste account of the music business, Rock Follies (ITV, 1976).

In 1977, when Thames brought in Bryan Cowgill from the BBC as Managing Director - a position that Isaacs had wanted for himself - his days with the ITV company were over. He left in August 1978 to work as a freelance producer on programmes like Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's epic silent era history, Hollywood (ITV, 1980), writer-presenter Robert Kee's Ireland: A Television History (BBC, 1980-81) and A Sense of Freedom (ITV, tx. 17/2/1981), a dramatic telling of the brutal life of Scottish criminal Jimmy Boyle.

While Isaacs has admitted that he enjoys the executive position, and the authority that goes with it, he is also very much a hands-on programme maker, having worked on the cutting of every episode of The World at War. It was this separation of combined managerial and editorial responsibilities that had created a clash between Isaacs and Cowgill at Thames.

When Channel 4 came along in 1981, Isaacs was not, initially, considered a front-runner for the post of Director General, despite his impressive track record. But with its original remit to encourage experiment and innovation in both form and content of programmes, some of which were to be educational, the favourable evidence on Isaacs' behalf was persuasive. When chairman Edmund Dell and the Channel 4 board eventually decided that the Director General be both Chief Executive and the man responsible for programme content, it became a position ideally suited to Isaacs' abilities.

From its launch in November 1982, Channel 4 proved slow to establish itself as Britain's fourth network. It was beset by many problems (including disrupted reach of transmission, and a dispute over fees with Equity which kept many advertisers off the air) but eventually viewers accepted it as the 'alternative' channel.

Isaacs' Channel 4 legacy is manifold, with programmes catering for individuals rather than the family audience, giving a higher priority to younger viewers and the arts, and, by filming a lot of fiction, making a positive contribution to the British film industry. His other policies, like bringing in foreign programmes from sources other than Hollywood and encouraging innovation across the board, were also vindicated. He further demonstrated his ability to understand his viewers by introducing the prestigious Film on Four slot, the viewers' response platform Right to Reply (1982-2001), the hour-long Channel 4 News (1982- ) and a whole host of minority-interest programmes.

When he left Channel 4 in 1987 for the general director's office at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he was at a pinnacle of success, despite being turned down for the prize job of BBC Director-General , following Alasdair Milne's resignation in January of that year.

Towards the end of his decade at Covent Garden, he was contacted by Ted Turner, head of America's Cable News Network (CNN) and Turner Network Television (TNN), to executive produce the ambitious 24-part documentary series The Cold War (BBC, 1998-99) and, later, the 10-part look at world history, Millennium (BBC, 1999), the latter co-produced by his own company (Jeremy Isaacs Productions).

Jeremy Isaacs was awarded the Desmond Davis Award for Outstanding Creative Contribution to Television (1971), the George Polk Memorial Award (Television Documentary) (1973), a BAFTA Fellowship (1984), a BFI Fellowship (1986), and an International Emmy Award (Directorate Award) (1987). He was knighted in 1996 and made President of the Royal Television Society from 1997 to 2000.

Tise Vahimagi

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