Thames, too, had contributed other stories aside from Death on the Rock – such as a This Week episode (which I produced) that led to the release of three teenagers convicted of murdering Maxwell Confait.
The absence of recordings of police interviews had allowed false confessions to be extracted from vulnerable suspects. It was not ended until the passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, in 1984.
Thames had also commissioned a documentary in 1987, Murder on the Farm: Who Killed Carl Bridgewater?, based on the book of the same name by Paul Foot.
Dear Sarah, on the other hand, was not envisaged as a campaigning documentary: rather, a personal drama, suffused with love and patience rather than anger.
McGurk brought one other element to the table: his close working relationship with the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, which – he told us – was keen to co-produce the film with Thames. That connection, coupled with Frank’s famously economical directing style, meant that a two-hour drama would cost Thames just £500,000.
When I mentioned Dear Sarah to the board as a prospective Thames/RTE co- production, the reaction was almost wholly negative. The industry awards that Death on the Rock had gained had proved small consolation for the upheaval endured (and perhaps were seen as confirming Howe’s dismissive view of television people). Richard understandably wanted to ensure that the wishes of the board were respected; and he was also concerned about the continuing problems with the prospective Broadcasting Act.
Yet it did not seem likely that ITV would be let off the Thatcher hook by Thames ducking a difficult project with a Northern Ireland angle. Two of the other five major ITV companies (those companies with permanent seats at the Network Controllers Group, recently joined by the largest of the regional contractors, TVS) were heavily committed on that front: Granada and journalist Chris Mullin had led the campaign to release the Birmingham Six, which had just succeeded, and Yorkshire’s First Tuesday strand had recently returned to the fray in support of quashing the convictions of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. By comparison, Dear Sarah was a much less strictly journalistic production.
Nor was there any chance that Thames withdrawing from the McGurk project would go unnoticed, both inside and outside the ITV family. The NCG would cease to take Thames seriously as a supporter, let alone provider, of controversial programming, which would in turn undermine its ability to shape the ITV weekday schedule according to its best judgment. As London was the only region split into weekend and weekday franchises. Thames and London Weekend Television were keenly competitive, and their constant efforts to strengthen the weekday and weekend schedules were for the most part respected by the seven-day companies as despite the good work of the other regional franchises, it was the capital’s competitive tension that was the main driver of ITV’s success.
The external verdict would surely be that Thames had lost its bottle, much to the glee of those newspapers which had condemned Death on the Rock, and the dismay of those who had applauded it. Our ability to attract, perhaps even retain, journalistic talent, would be undermined. For Thames to be seen to have been cowed by hostile politicians would only encourage more hostility.
My colleagues on the NCG put aside a certain schadenfreude at the spectacle of disarray within Thames management, and tried to rescue me from my predicament. Steve Morrison of Granada and John Fairley of Yorkshire were natural allies, as their own ability to offer bold documentaries was protected by the wider spread of such projects within ITV. Andy Allan, of Central, had long worked at Thames as a producer, and knew me well. Alan Boyd of TVS was another personal friend, and even my natural rival, Greg Dyke of LWT, had earned his stripes as a current affairs producer, so understood the broader editorial considerations.
It was Fairley, as chairman of the Film Purchase Committee (all NCG members ran specialist committees, my own responsibility being finance), who offered a way forward. If RTE were to take lead responsibility for the production, then ITV could buy the finished programme from them for the planned co-production amount of £500,000, and schedule it like any other acquired film or TV series. To make this a painless decision for the other NCG members, he wanted Thames to waive its right to deliver an equivalent amount of programming from its agreed supply of drama to the schedule.
By doing so, Thames made room for another ITV company else to fill the gap in the network schedule with a prestige drama of their own. Whoever filled the gap would win additional bonus points with the regulator who, before 1992, made licence renewals on the basis of hours of quality programming produced. Hence the support of my fellow controllers of programmes at the Network Controllers Group.
For Thames, there was no cost, and only a modest step back in terms of quality programming contributed. Indeed, our Finance Director would have noted that given that the complex tariff mechanism meant quality drama costs were not always fully recouped, it was a cost effective move.
But this wasn’t enough for Richard Dunn, at that point chairman of the ITV Council and its public-facing spokesman. At the next ITV top management meeting, he raised the case of the acquisition of Dear Sarah, arguing that it was an unnecessary risk for ITV to take.
I responded on behalf of the NCG, saying we were content with the proposed purchase, and had no problems with the script. The committee finessed the issue by inviting the Managing Director of Ulster Television, Desmond Smyth, to read and advise. After all, if he could live with such a programme being put out by UTV’s transmitters, who else in ITV could object?
Desmond reported that he had no objections. The film was completed by RTE, and its first broadcast was on ITV on July 2nd 1990 (it won an acting award for Stella McCusker, playing Sarah Conlon). By coincidence, a week later, the new Home Secretary David Waddington released the findings of an inquiry into the convictions of the Maguire Seven that had been set up by his predecessor after the Guildford Four convictions had been overturned in 1989. All the Maguire convictions were overturned in 1991.
Jim Sheridan’s version of Gerry Conlon’s story, In the Name of the Father, arrived on cinema screens in 1994, and earned four Oscar nominations, but by then all the heavy lifting on the multiple miscarriages of justice relating to IRA attacks had been undertaken by television, mostly by ITV (the BBC’s admirable Rough Justice series did not deal with IRA cases).
Waddington also inherited from Douglas Hurd the broadcasting legislation that was enacted in November 1990. Richard had succeeded in cementing the “exceptional circumstances” clause into the bill – the chairman-designate of the new regulator had made the clause a condition of accepting his appointment. Sadly, reliance on the clause proved to be Thames’ downfall.
Popular mythology blames the Death on the Rock controversy for the loss of Thames’ franchise, but the truth was that the company simply underbid its main rival, Carlton Television. Any hopes that Thames would win out via the “exceptional circumstances” loophole – effectively, that they would produce more high quality programming – were dashed when the regulator’s lawyers advised that such a move would be wide open to legal challenge, because it was so subjective. The clause was thus never used.
The problem for Thames was that its long track record and demonstrable capacity to deliver large volumes of high quality programming became irrelevant with the new proposed structure of ITV, whereby the guarantees that the existing main ITV companies had for providing programming to the ITV network, would be replaced by a Network Centre, deciding every single programme commission. All a new bidder had to show was that its ambitions were suitably high. The fear was bidders could win by pitching at the right cost whilst simply proposing high quality – in other words, expensive – programming, safe in the knowledge that it would never actually have to be made, if the Network Centre rejected it. One former colleague who worked for a rival told me later that he had simply copied out the Thames schedule, changing the names of all the programmes, and promising to offer them all to the new Centre. In the end, the cost of the bid would be what counted.
Richard was trapped by his loyalty to long-term staff, which made Thames highly vulnerable to a greenfield bidder with no fixed costs. When he recruited me to re-join Thames in 1986, his Finance Director, Derek Hunt, had asked me how much of ITV’s Teddington production site I really needed as Director of Programmes. I told him that, based on my four years as an independent producer, I would need none of it, as there were ample alternatives – studios, editing, dubbing and so on – available in the market. Most of the £35 million annual cost of its Teddington production studios was simply surplus to requirements.