Sunday, 29 May 2011

Small but perfectly formed

"Throughout the company's...existence, a close-knit group of freelance producers, writers, directors and technicians has enthusiastically collaborated with a tiny nucleus of permanent staff to produce [their] inpressive body of work within tight financial constraints".
BFI listing for their Euston retrospective in January 1985

Lloyd Shirley in 1975
George Taylor in 1983
Euston Films Ltd was formed by Lloyd Shirley and George A. Taylor in March 1971, respectively Controller of Drama and Head of Films for Thames Television Ltd, the ITV franchise holder for the London area, Mon-Thu, since July of 1968.

From the very beginning it was intended as a small company, with the only permanent staff being an administrative unit and the creative personnel for each individual project being freelancers.  Indeed, it is difficult to pick out exactly who the permanent staff were over the 21 year history - nevertheless, I will try!

In the early days of the company, before commissions became more regular, there was no headquarters as such, at least not separate from the parent company but eventually office space was rented at 365 Euston Road in London, just across the road from Thames itself.  Staff remained at a minimum.

Just how much of a minimum can be seen from this photograph from the 1985 BFI publication "Made for Television: Euston Films Limited" by Manuel Alvarado and John Stewart.  Just the eight employees in April 1984, around what was arguably the peak of the company's success: PAs/reception staff alongside projectionist Roy Baker and production controller Bill Launder 2nd & 4th from left in back row; plus Head of Scripts & Development Linda Agran and Executive Director of Production Johnny Goodman in front.

Euston were of course lucky to a large extent.  They operated at a time when the BBC and ITV were the "comfortable duopoly" of broadcasting in Britain, neither chasing the same source of revenue.  Indeed ITV's "licence to print money" allowed Euston to be formed in the first place, Thames's profits being so very high in the 1970s.  It's unusual for production companies to be allowed the luxury of such control, but something of an artistic Shangri La when it does happen.

Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman talks in his  "More Adventures in the Screen Trade" about working for Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Productions on the 1997 feature Absolute Power and how wonderful an experience it was dealing with just three staff - Eastwood himself included.

So as for Euston's staff over the years?  Well, as mentioned Lloyd Shirley and George Taylor were the pioneers and commissioned the likes of Armchair Cinema and The Sweeney but second thoughts from the Thames management about how autonomous Euston should be led to their resignation - although their close involvement remained - in June 1976.

Verity Lambert
The new and most celebrated era for the company then saw Shirley's replacement as Thames's Head of Drama, Verity Lambert, being appointed Chief Executive.  Linda Agran joined as script executive that same year.  In 1977 they were joined by veteran producer Johnny Goodman as Executive in Charge of Production, alumnus of Lord Grade's ITC organisation and the likes of The Saint and The Persuaders!

With Verity Lambert in charge of commissioning, Linda Agran working with writers and Johnny Goodman keeping a close eye on budgets this exceptionally creative force worked together for 7 years and oversaw Out, Minder, The Knowledge, Fox, The Flame Trees of Thika, Reilly - Ace of Spies, The Nation's Health, Widows and many others.  I mean, wow.

John Hambley, Euston's last CEO
Sadly for Euston, Ms Lambert moved on to film production at EMI in 1983, at which point Johnny Goodman became Executive Director of Production (not a hugely different job title from before, but a more creative role) and for a couple of years Lloyd Shirley returned as Chief Executive before handing over the reins to John Hambley in January 1986.  This period saw the likes of TVMs Monsignor Quixote and Minder on the Orient-Express plus Channel 4 comedy-drama Prospects and ambitious John Mortimer serial Paradise Postponed.

Hambley had been part of the Thames management and was already CEO of their animation subsidiary Cosgrove-Hall of Danger Mouse and The Wind in the Willows fame.  His tenure at Euston encompassed the final phase of the company.  Linda Agran departed in March 1986 for LWT and Johnny Goodman followed suit for HTV the following year.

To replace them, Hambley appointed acclaimed drama producer Andrew Brown as executive in late 1987, but whilst there were still some triumphs to come they were hamstrung by the fact that Thames's time as a franchise holder was coming to an end.  An unsuccessful foray into feature film co-production in the late '80s didn't help matters but a revamped Minder remained an audience favourite and the centennial mini-series Jack the Ripper starring Michael Caine proved good fun.

In October 1991, the full implications of the Broadcasting Act of 1990 became known when Thames Television, perhaps the greatest of all the ITV companies, lost their franchise to Carlton on account of the absurd ruling that it be awarded to the highest bidder.  Yes Carlton who, in the view of at least one television executive, went on to produce not one decent programme in their entire history.

With the loss of 1,400 jobs pending, Euston began to wind down, shedding what little permanent staff they had and yet, they did live to enjoy one final triumph: their 3-part adaptation, by Andrew Davies, of Angus Wilson's 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, featuring very early roles for future A-listers Daniel Craig and Kate Winslet, proved a huge hit and won the 1992 BAFTA for Best Drama Serial, amongst other awards.

But it was the end of the line.  With the loss of the franchise on 31 December 1992, the company was bound to fold and fold it did, save for one final, reduced budget, series of Minder broadcast via Central.

But then all production companies eventually expire.  The only important thing is if they made a mark while they were there.  Euston certainly did, and probably directly because there were only ever a handful of people making the decisions.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Nation's Health @ the BFI Southbank - 10th May 2011

Kicking off a 3-week season at BFI Southbank exploring British television's long relationship with the medical profession, was a rare screening for Euston's first exploration of the subject matter, author G F Newman's uncompromising 4-parter The Nation's Health.

Originally screened on Channel 4 in 1983 and one of the less well known Euston Films productions, it was a welcome opportunity for me to see the serial for the first time and to hear Newman himself in a Q&A afterwards.

The Nation's Health is four linked plays, each approx. 1hr 25m, about the NHS in the early 1980s, as seen through the eyes of junior doctor Jessie Marvill - played by Vivienne Ritchie - when she joins the surgical staff of teaching hospital St Clair's.  Over the course of the 2 years covered in the serial, she experiences different branches of healthcare, all the while gradually becoming disillusioned by the lack of humanity on display, with the medical fraternity increasingly removed from the patients and interested only in the cure and never the cause of their ailments.

ER, it ain't.

The serial had a circuitous route to the screen.  Newman was most famous for his earlier 4-part exploration of the British judicial system, BBC2's Law and Order from 1978 - which has no connection to the later Dick Wolf-created franchise.  When its producer Tony Garnett left the BBC in 1979, he tried to interest Euston and its Chief Executive Verity Lambert in a Newman series about organised crime in the 1960s, but she felt the company had covered this ground enough.

Lambert was, however, interested to hear any other ideas the writer might have to offer and when he suggested a series dealing with healthcare in the same way as his earlier series had dealt with the law, she jumped at it.

Originally slated for ITV, around this time Channel 4 was gearing up towards transmission and it became evident to all that this was the better home for the idea, with their remit to offer 'distinctive' programming catering to minorities.  Newly appointed Senior Commissioning Editor for Fiction, David Rose felt that it was exactly "what we should be doing".

The cost proved to be a sticking point on negotiations however, and in the end Thames ended up footing most of the bill for what was a very long shoot.  Filming began in May 1982 with the project originally intended to be ready for Channel 4's launch in November.  However, it was not and didn't go out until October of 1983, which may be partly why it has disappeared into obscurity.  Had it been integral to the channel's launch, it would've proved more of a talking point.

So what did I think of it?  Bearing in mind I have lived through 15 years of the sublime ER since The Nation's Health was made and am therefore used to a much faster pace of medical drama, I liked it.  I had no difficulty with the demanding running time and found it to be compelling stuff.

Is G F Newman's stance perhaps a little too one-sided?  In the Q&A afterwards he proved to be just as sceptical 28 years later about the pharmaceutical industry - but then this is the author's prerogative.  He was honest enough to admit that if there is a lack of balance in the piece, it is down to his skills as a writer back then.

It is bloody depressing mind you.  I don't recall hoping against hope never to fall seriously ill so much in watching a hospital drama before.  The decline is relentless, with little hope of improvement on display.

Verity Lambert felt afterwards that the public didn't go for The Nation's Health, perhaps finding it slightly inaccessible.  A shame, given that it's such an interesting series the likes of which we are unlikely to see nowadays.  "What recent drama has made you angry?" Newman rhetorically asked during the Q&A.

The author proved a satisfyingly formidable presence in the talk, convinced the pharmaceutical-medical construct would never allow such a critical series to be produced now; and vehement in his belief that life expectancy has increased over the last couple of decades thanks to greater public awareness of how to live healthily and not on account of any medical breakthroughs.

A worthwhile evening at the BFI Southbank celebrating a Euston Films production.  The Nation's Health is available on DVD from Network.