Tony Garnett produced groundbreaking films and dramas that challenged dominant ideas and gave voice to ordinary people. They tried to show working class life as it really was, not as how those at the top said it was.
A quarter of Britain’s population watched Cathy Come Home, which showed a family facing homelessness, when it aired in 1966. It was just one of the films that Tony produced alongside director Ken Loach—others include Kes and Family Life.
Tony’s new autobiography The Day the Music Died details battles against BBC bosses to make radical productions. It also explains why it was important to do so.
“When I was young I used to think we could make a film and change the world,” Tony told Socialist Worker. “We can’t. But films can raise consciousness and give voice to people.
“That was one of our main objectives. We made sure that working people, from their point of view, were on the screen.”
This was, and still is, rare.
“If the BBC goes to see people in Rotherham or Barnsley, they will send Penelope, who works in central London and was brought up in Surbiton,” said Tony.
“She goes up like a visiting anthropologist to talk to the natives. If it’s the BBC it’s usually done sympathetically. If it’s Channel 4 or Channel 5 it’s to laugh at them or to be disdainful at their lives.
“It’s always a patronising view from the outside. Because that’s what our media organisations are.”
Tony said doing things differently could have a political impact. He said, “People could empathise with our characters and say, ‘Yes, that’s how the world looks to me.’
“And then people gain confidence and connect with each other, which is the beginning of political action.”
Tony took to hiding the content of his films to avoid bosses vetoing them.
“We were trying to make films from the point of view of working people, with a socialist perspective,” he explained.
“And that is not allowed. The BBC performs on a narrow set of parameters—to keep the government and the opposition happy because they are our paymasters.”
Yet there was some space to make radical programmes during the 1960s and 1970s. “The BBC was confident in itself,” explained Tony. “There was no political pressure to abolish it.
“It was run by ex-programme makers with a liberal attitude—because that was the attitude in the country. It was still limited. You couldn’t piss on the queen and you had to be careful about Northern Ireland.
“But producers had a bit of room—and I took advantage of it.”
Tony wrote that he wished he had fought for Cathy Come Home to be more than a “liberal, handwringing piece with no radical solution”.
“I was so preoccupied with gliding it through the BBC without anybody knowing what we were doing,” he said. “I said, ‘It’s just a love story that Ken is improvising,’ and played it down.
“I didn’t pay enough attention to the political implications.”
Tony said that attacks against ordinary people have made it harder to make radical films today.
“It’s more difficult for any organisation on the left now than it was in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “So it’s more difficult for anyone on the left at the BBC.
“Towards the end of the 1970s the ruling class decided that, to maintain the rate of profit, they had to deal with the workers. There was a new climate. And part of it was management’s right to manage.
“Management consultants poured into the public sector, including the BBC, and more creative decisions were taken higher up in the management chain.”
Tony, returning to the BBC after a spell in the US in the 1980s, faced a different culture. “Things got much narrower politically,” he said. “Things were interfered with and cut.
“You couldn’t develop a screenplay without a lot of executives supervising you and telling you, ‘Wrong’.”
But he’s keen to stress that the situation can shift fast.
“In the spring of 1917 the Russian revolutionary Lenin’s view was that no revolution was on the horizon,” he said. “And the people proved him wrong. The one thing you shouldn’t try to predict is the future.”
And for all the “bloodletting” making films was a lot of fun. Tony said, “We were doing something we believed in.”
For Tony, criticising the BBC goes alongside defending it against the right. He said the BBC “shames” right wingers who claim the free market is the only way to organise things.
“It’s absolutely worth defending the BBC,” said Tony. “But huge organisations have vast problems. They need their best friends to criticise them—while defending them.”
He said people must fight to stop the Tories scrapping the BBC without having illusions in union leaders or the Labour Party.
As Tony put it, “They might be nice people but what is their objective role? To betray the working class.”
Tony never joined a political party, partly because he didn’t want to give the BBC an “excuse to get rid of me”.
In the late 1960s he was asked whether he’d be a Labour MP. “I said no, and I’m glad,” he said. “I would never have taken the whip—I’m not obedient.
“So I’d have been a bitter backbench MP that nobody listened to. The scales had fallen from my eyes about Labour even then, just as they had about Stalinism. I thought I could have a bigger effect producing films than being an MP. I had more fun, anyway.”
The book is also Tony’s personal story.
It explains how his mother died when he was just five, after having an unsafe abortion. This was in 1941 when abortion was a serious crime.
His father was harassed by police in the aftermath and killed himself just three weeks later.
Tony would later produce Up the Junction, which features an illegal abortion, and The Spongers, where a woman drowning in debt kills herself and her children.
He wrote, “I didn’t mention to anyone that suicide resonated with me.”
The Spongers was made around the time of the Silver Jubilee and set in the middle of a Jubilee celebration. Tony hoped it wouldmake the audience “want to fight”.
But the awful experiences of his early life left him with depression and feelings of guilt.
They affected how he interpreted other events, such as blaming himself for his partner Topsy’s mental health problems.
For decades he tried to avoid dealing with his problems by throwing himself into work. Eventually this proved impossible.
Tony visited a psychoanalyst three times a week for around five years.
He wrote that the battle to “get myself back” was “the hardest work I’ve ever done and the most painful. It is the work I’m most proud of.”
It is refreshing to read someone write so candidly at a time when mental health problems remain shrouded in stigma.
Tony hasn’t written off the potential for radical change.
He said, “I look at my grandchildren and I think, ‘I wish we’d done better’. But we are small vessels in a stormy sea. And weather changes.
“I think we’re at a point where big things are happening. They’ll provide opportunities if we can be solid. And if we’re not, the opportunities are there for the right.”
Tony said we need “fundamental socialist change”.
“It means working people getting together and fighting these private interests which are exploiting them,” he said.
“It used to be called revolution. It doesn’t have to be bloody. But it has to be bottom-up, drastic.
“Not tinkering at the edges like social democrats do. I often get accused of having old-fashioned politics.
“But if you spend your life holding democratic, socialist beliefs then you have an optimism about humanity. I’m a 51/49 percent optimist.”
An important new book
Activists say why they're marching
Palestinian activist speaks of his experience