Andy Harries: UK television at risk of being a ‘service industry’ to the US

Chief executive and co-founder of Left Bank Pictures Andy Harries’ BPG Awards Speech on 21st March 2024, accepting the BPG Harvey Lee Award For Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting

Did you see clip from the second series of Mad Dogs with our baddie in the Tony Blair mask? It reminded me of the casting session in Madrid. We turned up at the offices one morning to find it overflowing with very small Spanish men. We assumed they must be casting another show at the same time – a Time Bandits 2 or something – and as we threaded our way through them, we were astonished to hear that they were there to meet us. How so, we asked? These, said the casting team, are your “Tiny Blairs”…and yes…a small typing error in our production office had turned Tony into Tiny…and it seemed rude not to keep it that way.

To get an award from a bunch of top journalists is particularly special to me as I started life as a young reporter on the Peterborough Evening Telegraph when I was 17, so in some ways I have come full circle. I might have clambered up to Fleet Street like my primary school pal Richard Littlejohn (as opinionated in the playground then as he is today) – who knows – but my life took a sharp turn into TV when I was offered a job at Granada TV, scriptwriting the trailers when I was 21.

Granada was a proper northern powerhouse in its heyday.
The Bernstein family created the company in the northwest because it had the most rainfall in the UK and therefore, they believed that more people would watch TV there than anywhere else.

The company was a fabulous creation with deep showbiz roots – the very name suggested scale and sunshine. The building in Quay Street in the centre of the city had 4 studios – 2/6/8/12 – think about it – and adding to the illusion of being a much bigger TV station than it really was, was the large fake tower on the rooftop, built of wood, which appeared to be beaming its shows into outer space.

The ethos of Granada was simple – the company was very proud of being in the north – deeply suspicious of the establishment and the London bias, and we were always expected to punch above our weight. It was an inspiring place to be as a youngster in the late 1970’s working on shows like World In Action and maverick geniuses like presenter and Factory Records boss, Tony Wilson. Many of my obsessions, my ideas, and my attitude to making television comes from these formative years.

The real touch of class in those days was a huge Francis Bacon painting in the foyer and a grand collection of Modern British art along the corridors – and the day that Gerry Robinson and Charles Allen sent it all to the auction house in the late 1990’s, I knew the very heart and soul of the old Granada had properly gone.

Today, the stylish 50’s building in central Manchester is about to open this autumn as a Soho house. The very offices where groundbreaking shows like Prime Suspect, Cracker, Coronation Street, Brideshead Revisited and Stars in Their Eyes were created will soon be home to a bunch of bars and restaurants with a roof top pool! As with the BBC’s White City HQ – the private members club created for creatives in TV has taken over the very factories where we learnt our trade. A small and cosmetic change in a world that is dramatically different today – but ironic.

Granada was the company that trained me, but it also dismissed me when I was 26.
I was told by a dull mid-level executive that, “I was wasting my time… I had absolutely no future in TV”.  Depressing at the time – but to be honest – his words were like rocket fuel propelling me to London and into the new freelance world as a documentary director created by the arrival of Channel 4 and a ton of small production companies.

12 years and a hell of a lot of documentaries and mad adventures later, I found myself in another of those sliding-doors moments in your career. And this is where I have to thank two very important people. Comedy had gripped me since taking Lenny Henry to New York as part of the South Bank Show profile. I watched him turn a live set round in 4 days performing at a New York club and I fell in love with the edge and excitement of comedy – there is no safety net – its either funny or its not – it works or it doesn’t. But trying to move from documentaries to comedy was hard given the Oxbridge biased domination of the British comedy scene at that time. I was drifting, not sure how to set up a very funny play I had bought at Edinburgh called An Evening with Gary Lineker. Everyone I went to turned it down and, as a last resort, I sent it to my old friend – David Liddiment…the man who had sat opposite me as a promotion script writer all those years ago, but who was now the deputy director of programmes at Granada. We arranged what became a long, hugely enjoyable, and rather drunken lunch in Kensington.

Much later that evening as I sobered up, my partner Rebecca, who I was living with, asked me how the lunch had gone. I mumbled a few things and then about 20 minutes later rather half-heartedly, “Oh and he offered me a job as Head of Comedy”. She looked at me and said immediately, “That’s brilliant – that’s perfect for you”. “But they haven’t got any comedy”, I said. “Even better”, she replied, “You can do your own thing.” I told her I was rather hoping to stay in London, get married and have children, not go back to Manchester!

We headed to Thailand to think it through. We rented a small hut on a large empty beach in the Phi Phi Islands and every day I would draw a list in the sand of reasons for and against the job – decent salary – security etc, against – going back to the northwest – corporate life etc. And on the issue of the marriage – we had lived together for 5 years – I would write only positives and underline “have babies asap!”

I took the job. Manchester was no longer the grey, gloomy city that Joy Division’s music reflected…it was jumping with brilliant new bands like the Happy Mondays and Oasis and a ton of emerging comedy talent to collaborate with like Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, Steve Coogan, John Thompson, Lee Evans, and Rik Mayall. David backed me all the way and has been a huge ally throughout my career – he is a wise and wonderful man – thank you David.

Rebecca and I got married and we had identical twin boys almost immediately – one of them, Jack, is here today. Rebecca has been equally smart and supportive, steering me away from the precipice of lunacy and keeping me as grounded as possible. She has nurtured three amazing children and managed a very successful career as a writer and film maker.

I owe them both my career. Everything flowed forward from this point.
I understood what I was good at, identifying talent – on screen and off – and creating the means and the creative environment for the talent to flourish.

And you lot – critics and media specialists – have been very supportive too. I dug out a review of The Royle Family by the late Victor Lewis Smith in the Evening Standard which meant a huge amount to the team, at the time.

“When a preview tape of the Royle Family first arrived, I thought it was so dire that I ejected it from my video recorder after 5 minutes and threw it in the bin. Yet strangely an hour later, I felt compelled to retrieve it, watched another five minutes threw it into the bin again and so on in a deranged cycle until I finally began to understand what writers, Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal were trying to do. Making a comedy without gags is, on the face of it, as absurd as making champagne without fizz…but once you have overcome the initial barrier of unfulfilled expectation you suddenly find yourself engrossed in a world that perfectly captures the warm bleakness of lumpenproletarian existence, a world so bittersweet and truthful that, at times, it’s almost too honest to watch.

TV critics are commonly perceived to be a misanthropic bunch, yet in reality, we are desperate to find genuinely funny programmes to praise, but the quality and originality that shines through in The Royle Family is sadly all too rare. The fact is, on most days, the only way I could honestly write, “you’ll piss yourself laughing”, would be if I was a TV critic for Incontinence Sufferers Digest.”

TV today is very different from the days of the duopoly of the BBC and ITV.
Streamers, and Netflix in particular, have changed everything, especially for me. The Crown would never have been made if Netflix had not bought it. They had the money – they shared our ambition for it – and they always understood the brand value of the other “royal family” in a global market. There are more broadcasters than ever before, more opportunities, and the tax breaks reflect a government who are slowly understanding how important the creative industries are to our economy. TV is a big business and we are very good at it – much of our top UK talent play a key part in US funded TV shows, and mega Hollywood movies are being shot here in the UK – but despite all our success, I am worried that the very heart of our UK business – our public broadcasters – are increasingly looking vulnerable with ad money now draining from ITV and C4 to Amazon and Netflix, and the BBC’s licence fee falling far short of the rate of inflation.

This means that all of their drama budgets are under huge pressure and the sort of shows that are at risk in the future are the ones about us and our lives in the UK. Neither BBC or ITV licence fees have kept pace with inflation and there is very little appetite from the US and global TV market for shows that are essentially about very local and contentious – and I mean political – subjects.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office was a timely reminder of the impact and importance of a show about a specific British scandal. But it was touch and go on the budget before it was greenlit, and I understand all the actors were paid scale – i.e. they took a pay cut in order to get the show on air. A couple of years ago when we made Sitting in Limbo, a BAFTA-winning single film for the BBC about the Windrush scandal, we had to make a decision at Left Bank that if we were going to make it – we had to do it for cost. More recently – with co-pro monies drying up in the US – I have heard of many uniquely British shows that simply can’t be financed at all.

So I ask – would Boys from the Blackstuff, Hillsborough, or Our Friends in the North be made these days?
How about Five Daughters, This Is England, The Deal, Longford or even The Royle Family? I am not so sure. Are we in danger of our business ending up as a first class, top-end service industry to the US at the expense of our own experiences – shows that reflect our own lives in the UK? Perhaps the answer lies in extending the 40% tax allowance recently introduced in the last budget for British movies to single films and limited series on TV that are specifically British.

Of course, the streamers are spending lots of money here, and Netflix in particular is very committed at present to British producers and locally made shows but streamers like shows that travel, are entertaining, and won’t offend. I know that The Gentlemen or our show Who is Erin Carter will play happily in a bar in Brazil, but Mr Bates won’t. We live in times when drama on TV is becoming de-politicised – no global company is rushing to make dramas which involve religious, racial, or political controversy. For example, who has ever have heard of a plane being hijacked because the guy behind it was hoping to make a few bob through the share price crashing as quickly as the plane! Fun though Hijack was on Apple, the actual premise of the story was clearly apolitical and uncontentious. This is a trend which has spread from Hollywood’s big global movies. The country that Tom Cruise is bombing to shit in Top Gun Maverick is never named – the people are never named – they are just the bad guys.

So let’s have a think about how we can go about protecting original British drama on ITV and Channel 4, and let’s talk for a couple of minutes about the future of the BBC.
Surely, it’s time to stop chipping away at it or giving oxygen to those who constantly call to cut it to the bone – this is NOT the answer.
Do we want it to go the way of collapsing local councils like Birmingham, or the tragic chaos of the NHS, or the failure of our railways to get people where they need to go?
How many British institutions do we want to take the wrecking ball to?

I was at Labour’s Creatives Conference last Thursday, and while Keir Starmer’s words were warm and encouraging, he offered no clear view of the BBC or its future. If Labour achieves power, Starmer and his cabinet should commit to increasing the licence fee, show it the love, and secure its long-term future, once and for all.
The streamers NEED the competition. Our industry needs a healthy BBC, and the BBC keeps us British – its role in our society is unique and unifying.

And let’s stop calling it a TV licence, this tax should not be defined by the way you watch the BBC – it should be reinvented as a cultural subscription – a fee (and very comparable to each of the streamers these days) which gives every British citizen access to its extraordinary range of TV shows, radio, podcasts, orchestras, and music in all its forms.

The BBC and ITV are still the default entertainment channels for millions of people in this country, and always at times of national celebration and crisis.
This country needs a TV industry which remains distinctive, independent, and competitive with US global media companies. Let’s work together to find an inventive way to ensure that all our public broadcasters are a continuing part of the national debate with their drama, and they have some protection AND the funds to make the shows that can shine a light on our lives in the UK and sometimes – make a difference.

One final sliding doors moment for you: In 1979, Granada dispatched me to the Northwest Frontier for several months to set up a film about a small Pathan village in the tribal areas of Pakistan for the anthropological series, Disappearing World. It was not easy and not helped by the fact that the mullah of the village took a bit of a shine to me. The many weeks of filming were a bit of test to keep on the move and out of his way. Finally, we got the film in the can, and we returned to the relative calm and civilisation of the Deans Hotel in Peshawar. Deans, a former British camp with a series of timber-built cabins around a square. One morning, the day before we were due to fly back to the UK, I looked out of my cabin window to see the mullah from the village – and we are talking 6 or 7 hours away – striding across to the cabin of the director, Dr Andre Singer. I watched, horrified, as some sort of argument ensued for about 10 minutes before the mullah finally departed. I waited another 10 minutes and ran across to Andre’s cabin. He was in fits of laughter. The mullah had come to plead with him to leave me behind, and in a curious negotiation, had finally made an offer of 15 sheep to take me away.

Life could have been very different.