“Olivier was jealous of me”: TV series pioneer Derek Granger at 100 | Step

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TThere are over 22,000 centenarians in the UK, and on April 23 there will be a happy addition to their numbers: Derek Granger, a former Grenadian television producer whose credits include Brideshead Revisited and Coronation Street. Speaking to Granger in his apartment on the Thames, I don’t get the feeling of a man living in the past: the latest books are on his desk alongside current copies of The New Yorker and The Times Literary. Supplement, and he talks enthusiastically about pre-lockdown theater visits to see Andrew Scott in Present Laughter and Ian McKellen in King Lear.

One of the figures who finds his way into Granger’s extraordinary life – and of whom he speaks with caustic candor – is Laurence Olivier. It was thanks to Olivier’s intervention that Granger, then a drama critic for the Brighton Evening Argus, was recommended in the mid-1950s to the editor of the Financial Times, Garrett Moore, later Lord Drogheda.

“Drogheda,” Granger said, “was a wonderfully civilized and dark man – a sort of Jane Austen Darcy figure. It was his idea to bring the arts to the financial pages, even though editor Gordon Newton thought he was crazy. But it started with my theater reviews and then I hired my old friend Andrew Porter as a music critic. This created a lot of harm, as Andrew was always very honest and Drogheda, who was president of the Royal Opera House, was often furious. “Do you know what that little bitch you introduced to us did today?” he cried. But he stayed with him.

Derek Granger and 2016.
“I had my own ideas”… a night on the town, at 94. Photographie: Joanne Davidson / Rex / Shutterstock

Granger was fortunate in that his stint as a critic of the FT coincided with a post-war resurgence in British theater. In 1956, he understood the importance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, praising it for its thorny honesty and “raspberry belligerence.” He was less perceptive, however, about The Birthday Party in 1958, of which he wrote: “Harold Pinter’s first play comes to the school of random silliness deriving from Beckett and Ionesco and before the flourishing continuation of which one quails with consternation. . Granger, who would later work with Pinter on TV, said, “I apologized to Harold and he was very lenient.”

But what prompted Granger to switch from the calm, salmon-pink pages of FT to the hustle and bustle of television? “I was extremely bored with the reviews,” he says, “and I wanted to be on TV. At that precise moment, I received a phone call from Sidney Bernstein, the founder of Granada TV, asking if I wanted to join the company. My first job was to run the drama department alongside Sidney, which was very practical. Jeremy Isaacs, director of television and director of the opera, later dubbed Bernstein “a brilliant tyrant”.

“We fought a lot,” Granger says of his relationship with Bernstein. “He loved the realistic drama of Arthur Miller, when I was a man from Tennessee Williams. But we’ve done an extraordinary variety of work: classic writers adaptations from Maupassant to HG Wells, new plays like Jack Rosenthal, and versions of plays. I was especially happy to do a Manchester School of Playwrights season that included Hobson’s Choice, Hindle Wakes and Mary Broome.

Violet Carson (Ena Sharples) and Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) on Coronation Street in the early 1960s.
Titanic clash… Ena Sharples vs. Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street. Photograph: PA

Compared to today’s monotonous, albeit dazzlingly executed diet, cop shows, and medical sagas, this seems like a golden age. Granger agrees, but points out that there were inevitable problems. “Most of the drama was done live, and on one occasion the costume designer was caught on set and seen by viewers running around the studio like a scared bunny.

They were heady days. One of the happiest moments in Granger’s life was working as a producer on Coronation Street for 10 months in the early 1960s. The series, which had only started six months earlier, was created by Tony Warren , which Granger has fond memories of. “He was a bit fearless – very funny, charming and hugely tough. He would take me to the most amazing places in Manchester, saying, ‘I’m going to bring out your eyes tonight. But Tony had a middle-class father who married a working-class girl, and many of Corrie’s characters were closely linked to his relationships. Elsie Tanner, for example, was one of Tony’s aunts on his mother’s side.

“When I got there, Corrie was already a big audience success, but I had my own ideas. One was to introduce long-running themes that could survive up to eight episodes. Another was to make the plots stronger: I wanted to avoid if Elsie lost her purse in the mission house and have titanic clashes. One episode is based on High Noon, with Elsie and Ena Sharples meeting on the street for a heated argument and advancing on each other like Gary Cooper and the villains of the film. In fact, we borrowed stories from everyone from Dickens to Dostoyevsky. “

After Corrie, Granger did a variety of jobs in Granada. including the making of groundbreaking documentaries like the one on homosexuality and the law. But by the end of the 1960s, he was back in the theater as a literary consultant at the National Theater (a position he shared with another former critic, Kenneth Tynan). More importantly, he was responsible to Olivier, and their working partnership was renewed when, in the mid-1970s, he was asked to produce, with Olivier, a six-game season for Granada. This memorably included Pinter’s The Collection, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Bates, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Natalie Wood. Since Olivier performed in five of the plays and directed the sixth, much of the daily production has gone to Granger.

How would he describe Olivier? “The best word is turbulent. He was an incomparably great actor but we had a pretty difficult time together. I remember going to see David Plowright, Granada general manager and Olivier’s brother-in-law, during this season and say to him: “I can’t go on with that old motherfucker anymore. David asked me to calm down. He said that Olivier couldn’t stand playing second violin and that he was jealous that for practical reasons I had to take responsibility for studio productions. But there is no denying its greatness. I loved that while he was decidedly heterosexual there was a campy streak that was a filigree addition to his personality.

Stéphane Audran, Olivier and Granger during the filming of Brideshead Revisited in Venice.
“Campy steak”… Olivier, center, with Stéphane Audran (left) and Granger during the filming of Brideshead Revisited in Venice. Photography: courtesy Derek Granger

Olivier and Granger worked together more harmoniously on the famous 1981 Granada production of Brideshead Revisited. As Granger remembers the series, you realize how dramatically television has changed in an era of accounting reigns. “When I proposed it,” he says, “it was for six episodes, but in writing and filming it went up to 11. I once asked David how he left me. get out of it and he said, “were doing, so we thought we’d let you go on.”

“But we were lucky in that our principal manager, along with Michael Lindsay-Hogg, was Charles Sturridge, an upper class Catholic boy who had gone to Stonyhurst. [boarding school] and understood the world of Waugh. Our main problem was John Mortimer’s scripts – which were decent but a bit ordinary. I remember a German co-producer saying: “Where are the Proustian nuances you promised us? And I said to him, “Don’t worry, they will be there. So a young BBC writer Martin Thompson and I rewrote the scripts entirely, although John’s name is still in the credits.

Jeremy Irons et Anthony Andrews dans Brideshead Revisited.
Rewritten… Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited. Photograph: ITV / Rex features

Granger went on to do a host of other things, including as a producer on the Sturridge-led films Where Angels Fear to Tread, starring Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham Carter, and A Handful of Dust, which earned Judi Dench a Bafta. Today, he leads a comfortable life in an apartment he once shared with his late partner, Kenneth Partridge.

Granger never hid his homosexuality and I wondered if he had encountered any prejudices in his professional life. “In the world I have worked in,” he says, “there has never been a problem. I’m sure if I had been a baker in Solihull I might have had some difficulty. But the big change in my life is that my generation could never come out to their parents; it was an unspoken subject. But now parents are supporting their gay children, which is infinitely healthier. “

Granger has led a rich life but doesn’t dwell much on the past, despite my promptings. He reads voraciously, tests his mental alertness by doing the Guardian’s quick crosswords every day, and is a discriminating TV watcher. He admits he was fortunate enough to work in the golden age of TV drama, but he’s as excited about Russell T. Davies’ It’s a Sin as he is about any of his own accomplishments. This ability to live in the moment is, I guess, the secret of a satisfied centenarian.

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