INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES
by John Finch
"A Family at War" had an odd beginning. In the Sixties, Granada held an annual discussion/conference to look at the possibilities for drama in the coming year. So far as I remember, there were at least a couple of dozen people present—a mixture of writers, directors, producers, and company executives. For a writer to be invited, he or she had to put forward a drama format on which they would hope to work. Although I was perfectly happy with a contract for plays which guaranteed me enough money to live on in the following year, I was interested to see what went on at the conference.
I had spent the previous eight or nine years writing for "Coronation Street," and, for a time, producing it. I had occasionally branched out with some additional work in the form of adaptations (notably "Love on the Dole"); had formatted and contributed to a series of my own called "City 68" and an anthology of six plays under the title of The System. I wrote two of these and produced the rest. I had also contributed a number of plays to the BBC. I don't think Granada were at all keen on my doing work for the BBC; they had a tendency to want to possess writers exclusively, body and soul, and had offered me an exclusivity fee which I turned down. I was perfectly happy working with Granada, but I wanted the freedom to choose. In the twenty-five years I worked for them, I was never an employee of the company, and my contributions to BBC drama were never more than a small percentage.
Purely to gain access to the conference, I sat down to think of some idea I might put forward. Eventually I came up with an idea for a series about World War II, in which I had taken part in the Battle of the Atlantic. I decided to build the series around a Northern family. Knowing, as an occasional producer, the likely cost of a series focussed entirely on the war, and aware of Granada's aversion to big budget drama, I envisaged a series in which much of the action would be family based with the war as a continuing background. I called it "Conflict," the conflict being within the family and set against the wider conflict of the war.
My format occupied a couple of foolscap pages. I didn't feel it would gain much interest, but it might get me into the meeting. It did. In fact it was almost the sole object of discussion, and seemed to be of particular interest to Denis Forman, Managing Director of Granada. After the meeting, he called me into his office. He said he didn't like the title but wanted to go ahead with a thirteen-hour series based on my format. Within a matter of weeks, it was decided that the canvas was so wide that there was even the possibility of a series of fifty-two hours, taking the action from the outbreak of war to VE Day. It was, for me, a gratifying, though frightening, prospect. It would probably be the most important and also the most expensive drama ever to be undertaken by Granada, who at the time was the most respected company in ITV.
I sat down with a foolscap pad and started to sketch out the problems of shaping World War II as a thirteen-hour series. I began by outlining the characters, and in the main the shape of the family stayed as envisaged throughout the extended series. I then looked at the timeline in relation to each of the characters as they related to the historical development of five years of war. The whole outline filled only two foolscap pages, but compressing the history of the five formative years was a major problem.
Along the way, it would be necessary to develop stories which would guarantee the main actors something like nine episodes out of the thirteen. This was essential if the quality of acting we were looking for enabled actors (and their agents!) to commit themselves financially. It would mean a guarantee on their part that they would not take on other work. Moreover, to retain the kind of interest which could produce first-class performances, it would not be possible to give an actor a couple of lines in an episode simply to meet the guarantee. I was very much aware of an incident when Jack Howarth, one of the leading actors in "Coronation Street," had said to me, with some disgust, "I'm going home to learn my line."
There would be other problems not immediately apparent, including the size of the budget, which would determine the amount of exterior filming as against the usually less expensive studio time, but on the whole it looked very viable, and it seemed to me that (barring accidents and unforeseen circumstances) it would form the basic outline of the series, albeit somewhat compressed, which had begun to take shape in my mind as what could well be the first television novel.
There remained the almost impossible task of creating the scripts in the time available. It was obviously desirable, to maintain the style of the series, that all thirteen episodes should be written by one writer. It became equally obvious that this would not be possible when the date of first transmission was mooted. Although I would have preferred to write the whole myself, especially with the concept of a television novel in mind, I was obliged to concede that other writers would be needed. "What happens," said Denis Forman, somewhat insensitively, "if you get run over by a bus?"
"You'd have a problem," I said.
So we were faced with the desirability of not only finding writers of quality, but preferably writers with wartime experience to create the kind of atmosphere we envisaged. It soon became apparent that it was going to be extremely difficult to meet this dual demand. I therefore suggested that I write as many of the scripts as was going to be possible in the time available, and acted as editor of the program to ensure that we retained the style of writing, and especially character development, which would be required. It would also be my job to shape the overall story and ensure that the individual scripts fitted into this.
It was a pretty formidable undertaking, but it had become obvious that Granada desperately needed a quality drama series at this point in the history of the company. In helping to meet this need, I came to be greatly supported by three people: Denis Forman himself, whose support would enable us to overcome any production obstacles; Richard Doubleday, who had been appointed producer and who, like me, had been through the war and was dedicated to the visual accuracy and general reality of the whole; and Michael Cox, senior director who ultimately became assistant producer and then producer when Richard fell ill. I had worked with Michael in the past on drama we were modestly proud of, and our relationship which developed against the background of what was described as "Granada's most costly series ever," survived the trials and tribulations of the next few years, so that at the end of it we went on, in tandem, to work on another equally successful enterprise.
The title, "Granada's most costly series ever," which was taken over by the media, was, to put it mildly, a misnomer. The budget was pathetic when set against the size of the project. In particular, it limited the amount of film, which, one would have thought, was essential. Many years later, Denis Forman (now Sir Denis Forman) described it as "the most cost effective series ever." This was no exaggeration, but the price was high. Richard Doubleday, who suffered greatly from the stresses and strains of the enterprise, later died at the early age of fifty-two.
It was decided that one of the early episodes should be made as a pilot script, to consider casting among other things. The result was not encouraging, as a few of the characters were miscast. Episode three, by Stan Barstow, had been chosen for the pilot, but it was now decided to re-cast and run episode one. Granada staff throughout the building were invited to watch the result and to say what they thought about audience reaction. Their comments were almost totally positive, and the episode was eventually transmitted as made.