British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Michael Darlow – In His Own Words

Michael Darlow is a television director, writer and producer, who has also worked in theatre and film. He writes about television, theatre and film and also about rare breed Soay sheep. We interviewed Michael on 9th December 2011.


Michael Darlow's Photo

Michael Darlow has directed, written and produced award-winning documentaries, arts, music and drama programmes for the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and major broadcasters around the world. Awards include Baftas, an Emmy and gold at the New York Film & TV Festival. He is a fellow of the Royal Television Society and holder of the RTS’s silver medal for services to television. His programmes include The World at War, Auschwitz: The Final Solution, Secretary to Hitler, Johnny Cash in San Quentin, Cities At War, Bomber Harris, Suez 1956, The Sun Is God – JMW Turner, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, with Anthony Hopkins, Diana Rigg and Peggy Ashcroft, Crime And Punishment with John Hurt, Mr Pye with Derek Jacobi, Make And Break with Judi Dench and David Mercer’s Dinner of Herbs.

His books include Independents Struggle: The Programme Makers who took on the TV Establishment (Quartet Books, 2004), an insider’s history of TV over the last 40 years and of the development of the independent television production sector; Terence Rattigan – The Man and His Work (Quartet Books, 2010) and Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior and His Legacy (Quartet Books Ltd 2010 and Sky Horse Publishing USA 2012). He has contributed to numerous other books on media topics (most recently Holocaust and the Moving Image, Wallflower Press, 2005) and written widely for newspapers and magazines.

Darlow has served on many TV and film industry bodies including the Arts Council of England’s arts and low budget film production committee and lectured on TV direction and production at the National Film and Television School, for the BBC and at other institutions in Britain and Europe. He was a leading campaigner for the creation of Channel 4, headed the independent producers’ team that negotiated the original 25% independent production quota with the Thatcher government and chaired the independent producers’ trade association, IPPA (now PACT) from 1989 to 1991.

He lives with his wife, Sophie, in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire and keeps a small flock of rare breed Soay sheep – often referred to as “Iron Age sheep”, the most ancient surviving breed of sheep. He is currently completing a documentary, Lot of Living, made with leading documentary cameraman Charles Stewart and narrated by Dame Judi Dench, about the work of the Dorothy House hospice near Bath.

Becoming a filmmaker

How did I come to make my first film? My Mum was the local organizer of a refugee appeal for World Refugee Year. And she’d done a deal with J. Arthur Rank that they would have a midnight matinee in the local Odeon for some latest blockbuster …and then the British film industry has a crisis, one of its biennial crises…J. Arthur Rank pulls the movie, my Mum hadn’t got her main event. Cornered by a journalist she said ‘I’ll make my own bloody film!’ It is reported, she is stuck with it, so she then turns to me and one of the other people on the committee – Tony, who worked as an assistant editor at Shepperton – and said ‘for God’s sake you’ve gotta make it!’ She provided the money to buy some film, Tony had a wind-up Bolex, and it really started from there! …We used the cutting room at night when Tony was working. We were privileged….But now…you can go out with a baby (digital) video camera…when kids used to come to me with a job, I used to say ‘what have you made?’ …If you’re really interested you’re going to do that, aren’t you, just because you want to do it. It’s like a painter’s gotta paint, or a writer’s gotta write…

Getting into Television

If you got into ITV you were pretty restricted because of the union arrangements. If you got into the BBC you had to adopt the civil service code, which was very hierarchical. I don’t know what the civil service is like now, but in those days it was very regimental – it was very much like joining the navy, you get promoted slowly, by keeping your nose clean! People like Huw Wheldon and Hugh Carleton Greene tried to free things up…So there was always this sense of frustration…that…free voices weren’t allowed, or couldn’t get, in. …The interesting places in the in the arts in the 1950s were really in the theatre. There was Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, the influence of the French theatre, and later of the Berlin Ensemble. There was also Royal Court Theatre, which interestingly embraced part of that Free Cinema [movement] because Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson worked there…where, you know, you’d go off to make a film for the National Coal Board, or something. A wonderful young director who sadly, sadly, committed suicide, he’d got out during the Hungarian uprising in ’56, Robert Vas. He went and worked for the Coal Board, and he actually made wonderful films. Forgotten now…but a wonderful filmmaker who died too young. And there were those of us fiddling about on the periphery. I remember a mate of mine, born here in Portsmouth, he and I, and this other man, had this great plan that we were going to start theatres in the round in this country, very much influenced by Roger Planchon in Lyon. The other man was Ken Loach. We were all in the theatre, in the peripheries of the West End and television and so on. And um I remember the head of the Drama Department of the Arts Council took Ken, Bill Hayes, his partner in the venture, and Nick and me out to lunch at Scott’s restaurant, which was at the top of Coventry Street, kind of looking down Haymarket, it was frightfully grand you know, with waiters in tuxedos and all of this stuff. We were taken out to lunch there, and we were told that ‘you are the people we want to be the next generation coming up in the theatre’, and we were frightfully chuffed with this. We got nowhere of course, but there was a moment a year or two later when things were beginning to change in television. And I remember saying to Nick, ‘I’ve gotten the chance, I think, to start doing interesting things in television. It’s going to be possible to do more interesting work in television than in the theatre, and certainly than in the cinema’…I remember years and years later bumping into Ken at a party… and Ken said, this is only 6 or 7 years ago…‘We were going to revolutionize the theatre! Whatever happened to it?’ Well I said, ‘you revolutionized the British cinema, so that’s good enough’, you know!

Breaking the union restrictions

John Boorman had just got the job heading regional documentaries at BBC Bristol. And Tony showed them this film [we had made together] – Tony got taken on, on the strength of the film. And John said, ‘wait a minute, he made this with another chap’….So he [John Boorman] took me on to make a film for them, you see, in Bristol. Now, Tony’d got a ticket. But I hadn’t. You didn’t get an ACTT ticket for working in the BBC. The BBC didn’t recognise the ACTT; it was the ABS, which was the house union, as we sneeringly said! So I made this film… about a group of archaeology students doing a dig in the graveyard in Winchester Cathedral…And they’d got all these things they’d dug up, and they were sitting at the table inspecting these things and trying to catalogue them and all that. George the BBC cameraman, who had worked in the BBC at Elstree for years and had worked at MGM, he had a 16mm blimped Arriflex, and they were pretty bloody big in those days, the blimp was enormous. I said to George what I want, I said ‘I want a handheld pan round their faces’. [He said] ‘What? Can’t do that! Shoddy work!’ I had never seen this before or since. He took the camera body out of the blimp and he tossed it at his camera assistant – thousands of pounds of Arriflex! And he caught it! And he said ‘I can’t do that, you shoot it!’ ‘And write on the sheets shoddy work, shot under protest!’ And I was meant to be shrivelled, you know, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz…So there was huge frustration because there was this lightweight equipment [available elsewhere]. Later I was taken on by Bob Heller, who was Head of Documentaries at ATV…he had worked on The March of Time and had been called before the McCarthy Committee, so…he was sympathetic to people who had fallen foul of the authorities. He took me on but he couldn’t take me on to direct, because I hadn’t got a ticket. But he could take me on as a researcher. And then I could apply for a ticket. So I became a researcher for Denis Mitchell, on Day of Peace…one of those big bloody international series where each country makes one, they’re always disastrous. And it was going to go out on the 20th anniversary of the end of WW2 in Europe. We’d been out and filmed an East End family but Denis wanted to mix it with sort of bits of British heritage, so one of the sequences we were going to do was the Horse Guards, you know, riding to change the guard at Buckingham Palace, and down to the Horse Guards barracks just off Knightsbridge, early in the morning, to film this. I was there as a researcher, negotiating with the police to film this, with an ATV film crew, unionized of course. And Denis was ill. Linda [Mitchell] turned up and said ‘Denis can’t get here, you know what the sequence is, just get it’. So I shot it…as they were there saddling up, polishing their brass…a shot here, a shot here. Denis and I had discussed how we wanted to do it. Word got back to the shop…the balloon goes up. Absolutely disgraceful! Someone without a ticket shooting a film! Black the film! …Eventually it blew over. But it was a very clear example of what you had to deal with.

On meeting Jeremy Isaacs for the first time…

I first met Jeremy in um early 69. I won an award, it wasn’t [called] BAFTA then, it was the Guild of Television Producers and Directors, and the presentation thing was at the Dorchester hotel in Park Lane, and Kenneth Horne was giving out the awards. And in those days you knew you’d won in advance because the press interviews had to be done beforehand. So I was there knowing I’d have to get up on stage to get the award. And Kenneth Horne was giving them out. And literally, he got to us and he just dropped dead on stage. Terrible….appalling. And so understandably there was a bit of a hiatus….Kenneth Horne was rushed off and…eventually, I can’t remember exactly how we got given this award [but] Jeremy it transpired had been I think the Chairman of the Jury on it. And we were sitting there, and the evening had got to be a bit of a downer by then, as you can imagine. We were sitting there around the table. My first meeting with Jeremy, we had got one of these awards, it had a very heavy base – it was a solid lump of stone. And um we noticed when we got given it, it said for Sports Outside Broadcast – there had been a mix-up! Jeremy slammed it down on the table, all the glasses and bottles jingling, ‘They can’t even get that right!’ That was my first introduction to Jeremy!

On the Campaign for a Fourth Channel

…Where the Channel 4 campaign came from…was a sense that television wasn’t free enough, whether it was by dint of the unions and the commercial management [of ITV] or the civil service [style organizational culture] of the BBC which we talked about before. So the logical extension was to you know try to infiltrate that [freedom] into the established broadcasters. So [the 25% independent production quota campaign] made principled ethical sense as well as good commercial entrepreneurial sense. You could combine a pretty good mixture with that, but you were going to run into trouble with the unions particularly who would see you as an undercutting threat, so you had to handle it within that context…When Thatcher had got in, we were so gloomy. That evening when we were all sitting there, saying oh God, you know we’ve kind of blown our careers up potentially and all for…God…you know, and then somebody, nobody seems to know which person it was, said ‘wait a minute, wasn’t there all that stuff about small businesses?’ ‘Wait a minute, yeah! That’s us! What does it say again? Because there were people who had contacts, which was a help. I can’t imagine having contact with Keith Joseph but…it happened that because we were a broad church of people and with lots of different contexts and life experiences and so on, that we had the vital contact with the Head of the Policy Unit…It was possible for Sophie Balhetchett and me to be taken in then…and then start talking to them. Now that was the…that was probably the critical thing.

On Making Accounts (1983), one of the first Films on Four

Mike Wilcox had…won, jointly with Hanif Kureishi, the year before, the new writing award for the play of Accounts at the Royal Court…When David Rose and Jeremy were setting up Film on Four they took on Walter Donohue, who’d been at the Royal Court as well…I think it was Walter Donohue’s idea that that would make a film. He talked to David, David said yes, and they approached me. So that’s where it started….we were running a company [Partners in Production] which worked effectively like a collective – it wasn’t a collective, it was a company limited by guarantee but in which we were all equal therefore shareholders. Producers, technicians, make-up people and so on. Otto Plaschkes…who had worked on Georgy Girl (1966)…became the producer. And then Charles Stewart who was…more known for documentary, um famously Ethiopia [Moments of Truth in 1984]  but also Roger Graef’s Space Between Words (1972), he was the cameraman. And he hadn’t done much drama then. But for that sort of film I felt we wanted [a documentary feel] anyway. The designer, Tony ‘Foxy’ Abbott, wonderful man, he’d been um the Head of Design at the BBC and I think he’d…finally got fed up with the BBC. He’d been at Arnhem…he was known as Foxy because he could find the best camouflage foxhole when you were in trouble, he was a Para, and he got the MC – never talked about it…Channel 4 allowed you to use 16mm, and then if it was going to get shown in the cinema, which was always the hope, they would get it into a form in which it could be shown in the cinema….We did it with an unknown cast pretty much….Cecil Taylor, C.P. Taylor, the playwright…pointed us in the direction of trying to find these real people because that Borders Northumbrian accent is quite something. And if you don’t speak that accent almost nobody can do it….We didn’t want stars or anything. And Channel 4 was very much against that [stars] actually, in principle. I set the boys [Robert Smeaton and Michael McNally play teenage brothers who are trying to run a freehold farm] up and they lived on a farm for 3 months, worked on it. So they had to learn to handle the animals and all that. You know and so when they’re doing the sheep dipping, they’re not complete experts but they’re not complete amateurs either. When they were doing the lambing the farmer was there – the difficult birth scene, he was there ready to put his hand in and pull at the right moment! But we could shoot it for real. When went in to the rugby club – I don’t know what Health and Safety would say now – we put lights in the shower! There’s a point in the film when the brothers are out in the town and one of the boys tackles the other. And they were having problems with doing this. We didn’t want stunt men. I said, come on, just rugby tackle him. I’d forgotten I had a radio mic on me, because there were other parts of the unit around, being a night shoot there were lights and things. So I tackled…threw myself at him in a way I wouldn’t have done normally, in the heat of the moment. Brought him down, said ‘do it like that’. Got up and realized I had terrible pain. I remember saying to John [Wilcox], through gritted teeth, ‘when we’ve finished this get me into a car and get me out because I think I may have to go the hospital!’ I’d broken 2 ribs! It was very much that way, you didn’t have stunt men…The scene in the slaughterhouse was for real. We went to a slaughterhouse and did it while they were slaughtering the animals…you could do [things like] that and boy, was that a freedom.

On Film on Four and the aesthetics of film and TV

One part of Jeremy’s aim had been to make films to go into the cinema [first] and in a sense he did it almost too well. It became the British movie industry, but as we all know, the British movie industry is one of those industries with a chronic illness, every 2 years there’s the great revival then its bust again 2 years later. For the whole of my lifetime it’s been like that, since the era of quota quickies. What Film on Four did do was to start to prioritise, as happens in film, the director over the writer. And in TV drama the writer had always been prioritized over the director. If you look at The Wednesday Play they may have been directed by Ken Loach or whoever, but you remember who they were written by. That is the difference I think….If you think about the experience of sitting in your living room, looking at the television, I believe that it is in some ways its closer to the theatre than it is to the cinema. Also what is the most powerful thing on television? The most powerful thing on television is the camera…watching Richard Nixon or whoever is the potentially guilty man lying….It’s akin to the face across the table to you. In the cinema that relationship is not quite the same because it dominates you….and in television that’s the most powerful thing. And if you look at the best of the Wednesday Plays, frequently they depend on that. Look at the work of David Mercer…That is what I think it’s lost, with that prioritizing of the director over the writer.