John Grist and pebs in the 1950s

John Grist played an important part in the production of political television in Britain from the 1950s onwards. He was responsible for most of the party political and election broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s and later helped to bring about the televising of Parliament.

In 2006, he published one volume on the life and work of Grace Wyndham Goldie who had played a critical role in the development of political broadcasting in Britain. Her book, Facing the Nation, Television and Politics, 1936-1976 (1977, The Bodley Head) chronicles the development of political broadcasting in Britain.
 
John Grist’s book on Grace Wyndham Goldie, GRACE WYNDHAM GOLDIE, THE FIRST LADY OF TELEVISION, was published in 2006 and is available from AuthorsOnLine
 
 
Volume Two of GRACE WYNDHAM GOLDIE, THE FIRST LADY OF TELEVISION, sub-titled JOHN GRIST’S BBC AND OTHER BROADCASTING TALES, remains unpublished. The extracts below are from the second volume and relate to party political and election broadcasting in the 1950s in which Grist was heavily involved as a producer.
 
In general, these extracts reveal the complex negotiations that came to play a part in the production of political communication in the form of election and political broadcasts. 
GRACE WYNDHAM GOLDIE
 
THE FIRST LADY OF TELEVISION
 
VOLUME TWO
 
 
JOHN GRIST’S BBC AND OTHER BROADCASTING TALES
 
… Lime Grove from 1955 to the ’70’s was the home of a prodigious flowering of factual television …
In matters of communications with politics, Lime Grove dealt directly with the House of Commons and with the party headquarters, it was just more convenient; there was no time for BH (Broadcasting House) to act as broker. If the Prime Minister and Vice-President of the United States could come to Lime Grove it did give a certain cachet to the place. Daily and weekly programmes, last minute filming and editing schedules needed quick decisions. The management had either to trust the editors or sack them. Lime Grove had no administrators or bureaucrats, everybody, engineers, stage managers, scene shifters etc. were entirely engaged in making programmes; there were no diversions, so the few meetings there were, and meetings were a rare phenomenon, were about programmes. The quality of staff and contributors attracted there was quite exceptional and they enjoyed their independence and the opportunity offered to them. …. (p.40)
 
 
Party Political and Party Election Broadcasts were not considered at Lime Grove to be amongst the highest endeavours of the new art form, but much to a later (BBC) Chairman’s surprise, most of the production staff thought they were a necessary evil because they gave the political parties free access to television without interference from the broadcasting authorities and the on-screen announcements made it clear that they were just that. … The BBC provided the basic studio and technical support and sufficient rehearsal time, the lunch, refreshments and the producer. Until 1972 I had overall responsibility for these half-breed programmes and until the mid-sixties produced many of them myself. At one time I claimed, pointlessly, to have produced more party political broadcasts than anybody else in the world; it was rather like claiming I had infected more people with the common cold than anybody else.
The first thing that I learned was that working for the political parties I was not a producer in the ordinary sense of the word, but a sort of television housemaid to the great and good; but accepting that important limitation, it was a privileged way to see the powerful politicians at close range and, since television was in its infancy and many of them were, at least apprehensive, if not, down right scared, it was a unique experience. I went to the senior committees of all the parties, from 10 Downing Street, to the Leader of the Opposition’s office in the House of Commons, to both the party headquarters in Smith Square. There was a lot of hanging about while the great officers of state, or more likely their friends, worried away about their images or their ties or their shirts. Each political party had a television officer and staff or, in the case of the Liberal Party, a single lovely lady called Phyllis Preston …. As each party had professional assistance from their own staff, this was more reason for the BBC producer to keep quiet and just occasionally to point out tactfully that it was difficult to film the Chancellor of the Exchequer hanging on to the clock face of Big Ben or to bring back to earth whatever flights of fancy they might have.
The arrangements were often chaotic; at the beginning of the campaign for the 1959 General Election each senior Conservative minister was given a programme and got on with it in his own way; that was before Lord Poole, the Party Chairman, got it under control. For instance R.A Butler, the Home Secretary, collected two junior Ministers, Edith Pitt, Sir Keith Joseph …, and a couple of hangers-on and decided he would do it himself. He, himself, was the problem because he could never decide what he wanted to do; and we had two run-throughs in the morning in the studio which were pretty hair-raising, but at least we thought we knew what it was going to be like and they went away for lunch. Apparently going to lunch and through lunch and throughout the afternoon they kept on going through the running order and it changed each time. When they came back to us in the evening, it was clear that the cast were on the edge of hysteria and the last rehearsal was totally different from everything they had done previously. Since I was responsible for putting this show on the air, they had infected me with their fear. Somehow we got through the live transmission, although the politicians were very hot and bothered, nobody could see the sweat running down my face, but they were in vision. Coming out of the studio, and Butler was a man to get in his retaliation first, he complained to me that it was so hot in the studio that he found it difficult to carry on and somehow this view was rapidly conveyed to the papers which the next day shouted about the heat of the lights killing the intellectual efforts of the distinguished cream of the Conservative social thinkers, blaming the BBC for everything that went wrong. Since the whole thing was done in an ordinary studio in normal conditions; it was a bit hard to blame us but we survived because one of two newspapers pointed out what a nonsense it was.
Once it became disturbedthe Conservative Party was much more ruthless than Labour and in the light of this fiasco Lord Poole, the chairman, stepped in and brought in Christopher Chataway, a competent professional with an international reputation as a runner. After the Butler epic there was an article in the ‘Daily Mail’ saying it was my fault, this and other failures. … However, Brigadier Hinchcliffe (from Conservative Central Office) … took me out to lunch to apologise for his colleague who had given the story to the ‘Daily Mail’. 
The Labour Party was different, engaging, human, slightly preposterous but all their arguments were political or personal. In the ordinary course of affairs, I went to the meetings of their broadcasting committee, which met to discuss every programme and I remember one about education, when all the top intellectual dogs like (Anthony) Crosland and (Richard) Crossman were fully engaged, we all had a lovely argumentative time, and in the end even I joined in, until Hugh Gaitskell, told me, quite correctly, that I was the producer not a member of the National Executive Committee.
Gaitskell was a most impressive person, direct, passionate, very human; what you saw was what you got. … His many solo or other broadcasts were always fraught, because we all had to wait for the telephone call from Mrs Gaitskell after the transmission. We would all troop down to the hospitality room on the ground floor at Lime Grove and we would wait uneasily, then came the telephone call, which I always took and it would be Mrs Gaitskell and he would take the phone and there would be a long pause and silence while we all looked nonchalant, knowing that she could be very tough with him, but there would be nothing to show from his demeanour whether he was getting it in the neck. Finally he would put down the receiver and turn to me and almost invariably, he would say, ‘the photography was excellent.’ That was all I, and the BBC wanted to know. To hell with the policy, if she thought it was a good picture we were in the clear.
My Diary dated April 26th 1959 describes a day with Gaitskell which ended with a party political broadcast in the evening, when he was interviewed by Woodrow Wyatt. It started at 9am in Hampstead where Christopher Mayhew, Woodrow Wyatt, Tony Benn, Ken Peay, the then Labour Party Broadcasting Officer, and me gathered to see the film. It started, I wrote as a lovely spring morning ‘with the air in Hampstead even more buoyant than in Richmond’ but at the end of the morning ‘the brightness of the morning was tarnished’ mainly because of the scrapping between the advisers.
It ended with Gaitskell saying, “it is no good you trying to alter me” and my comment, “it’s a pity the three prima donnas, Mayhew, Wyatt and Benn, could not take this to heart.” Tony Benn, I wrote, was depressed by his leader but did concede “that it was only a man like Gaitskell who could hold the Labour Party together.” The argument went on with Gaitskell after Tony left. I note, “he listened to all the advice, he always listens, although with increasing impatience. He rejected most of their ideas”.
Before the broadcast in the evening, Gaitskell and Wyatt had dinner with Gerald Beadle, the Director of Television, and much to his surprise Wyatt and Gaitskell continued to argue all through the dinner. I comment that: “Wyatt behaved extremely badly in the studio. It was the first time I had worked with Wyatt and I must hope it is the last.” The programme went off quite well, although they overran by a minute, because Wyatt got the timing wrong and Gaitskell, not surprisingly, was tired. ITV cut the last 8 seconds. Mrs Gaitskell rang up to say the pictures were good. …
… For the 1959 General Election the Labour Party asked for Alasdair Milne from ‘Tonight’ to produce their broadcasts, which was a very good idea and a huge relief for me; but since he knew I was technically in charge of all the broadcasts at the election, Gaitskell wrote me a note saying, that I should not take my exclusion in any way personally or as a reflection on my ability. …
 
There are several good stories arising from this early primitive period. Bill Deedes, later editor of The Daily Telegraph, a Minister and a Lord, has a long description of a day he and Harold Macmillan spent with Mrs Goldie before a Party Political broadcast. After many run throughs he and Harold Macmillan were sent to a darkened room with some bunk beds, to rest before the transmission. Macmillan said it was like being back in the trenches. There was also the time when Morgan Phillips, then General Secretary of the Labour Party and not being in the programme, shouted from behind the scenery, “what about the Trade Unions?” There was a formidable lady from the Conservatives, Mrs Crum-Ewing, who was not at all keen on BBC producers. She became famous for telling senior chaps in the party that, “it is the smile behind the eyes that is important.”
If the parties wanted to use film in their broadcasts, the BBC producer, technically had to decide whether it was suitable or broke any rules. On the whole, at that time, senior politicians did not like having their speaking time cut down for a film on tractors or house building, so a lot of expensive film was not used. The Parties were also great on visual aids, cumbersome cardboard statistical or other charts operated by anonymous men who pulled cardboard levers just off camera, indicating rising or falling unemployment or balance of payments or something. Sometimes the whole creation would shudder in front of the camera. Senior Ministers were much intrigued by these toys and Alfred Wurmser, a charming Austrian, who had the monopoly of this type of display, was a great favourite. They talked about him as though he were a trusted and much loved gamekeeper.
The final Party Election Broadcast of 1959 was caught up in the campaign nerves and caused turmoil in the Conservative Party but in the end they pulled themselves together and it was Norman Collins then, I think Vice-Chairman of ATV, who got through to Mr Macmillan and played a clever and successful role. But even he was frustrated by the machinery of the Party until the PM just ignored everybody but him. Collins was a likeable rogue and an operator of quality who had been in charge of television in the BBC but fell out with Broadcasting House. … Collins was seen as a man who ‘deserted’ the BBC for the fleshpots of commercial television, he was regarded with particular dislike by (Ian) Jacob and (Harman) Grisewood. It was particular gall to them when it became clear that Collins and his company were masterminding the broadcast, which was put in the hands of Bill Ward, a senior and very experienced producer, who had also started in the BBC. The BBC was to be totally excluded, except me, which let me off the hook. I told the BBC who seethed. 
It sounds ridiculous, but I was given instructions to tell the Prime Minister that he was behaving illegally if he did the broadcast in the ATV studios, because the Act setting up commercial television specifically referred to ‘the BBC’s party election broadcasts’. Commonsense had clearly deserted the powers-that-be. I did try and get some illumination but nobody seemed to want to talk to me. However it was all put right and Ian Jacob earned my total and everlasting devotion when he rang me in my office late in the afternoon before the Prime Minister’s broadcast. Now I was a pretty junior producer and in the BBC of my experience the DG (Director General) didn’t ring up any Tom Dick or Harry but here he was calling me. He said that the BBC had put me in an unenviable position and he recognised this and went on to say that if, on the following day, I had to make a decision on behalf of the BBC and was not in a position to seek advice from him, he would support any decision I made. It was a bit like advice to a young subaltern called by the Commander-in-Chief the night before the big offensive.
The next day in the ATV studio, it was quite evident that this was the Prime Minister’s broadcast and the BBC was nowhere. As I was the so-called producer, I was given pride of place but the whole thing was entirely in the hands of Bill Ward and Collins, quite rightly, and to my utter satisfaction. But I was there with all the party bigwigs and when the broadcast was safely in the bag, according to instructions, I did say to the PM, “I believe Prime Minister there is some sort of legal problem about this broadcast.” Chaps have been knighted for less. He looked at me benignly and said to John Wyndham, “John, have a word with Jacob, will you?” Wyndham and I went off to find a telephone; I got on to the DG’s Secretary and she greeted me warmly; the DG came on the phone and I gladly handed it to Wyndham. The BBC had sensibly prepared a compromise. The tape of the broadcast would be taken to the BBC and it would be played from our machines, but to make sure that nothing went wrong the Prime Minister would go to Lime Grove and would be in a studio, which was a direct replica of the studio at ATV in case anything went wrong so he could step in and do it live. The studio director, in Lime Grove was to be my old friend and best man Paul Johnstone. Wyndham went back to the Prime Minister, explained the plot and everybody seemed pleased because the recording was a good one, in which Macmillan’s presentation was quite masterful, showing himself as a distinguished, experienced leader of the people. He did make the journey to Lime Grove in the evening; but he did take me aside and said he was very tired and did not want to have to do the programme again, but he did sit in the studio ready to go. This was the Tuesday evening and the election was on the Thursday; he won a substantial majority. It was “the never had it so good” election. (pp. 52-57)
 
Harold Wilson has a major role to play in this narrative, but at this stage he had just become Leader of the Labour Party and in the 18 months up to the 1964 Election he showed a masterly control over his own image, in Parliament and in the country.            He used television with great effect, far ahead of any other politician up to that time, because he understood that it was a way to get his message across, not so much to get his policies known, but to create an image of himself, as a genuine human being, by appearing on all sorts of programmes, religious, children’s entertainment, sports and other occasions where television was to be present, nothing was too unimportant for him.
 
At one time the appearances of senior politicians had to be cleared through my office if they were to appear in other than News and Current Affairs contexts, but Harold Wilson rapidly made this unworkable, because of the number of his appearances. …            He liked to appear on soft programmes and he showed a lack of interest in his own dignity or what was taken to be the dignity of a senior politician.            Mrs Thatcher, after his example, learnt the art of appearing on very popular shows like Jimmy Young. Tony Blair also cultivated the ‘soft sofa’ presenters where the atmosphere was friendly, cosy and “pleased to see you” rather than interrogative and sceptical. Ted Heath liked to appear on television at musical occasions, but being in the audience of live broadcasts from Glynebourne won few votes. In image making Wilson was the daddy of them all, rather like Jack Kennedy in America, who discovered that if you ran down the steps of the aircraft when your arrived in a place it created the impression to the television audience that you were thrusting, energetic and positive, and that was what people remembered rather than what you said. (pp. 65-6)