Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Richard Drewett |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Richard Drewett

Surely destined to be remembered as one of the most inventive television producers of his time, Richard Drewett always had the admiration of his colleagues, but would have been a legend far beyond the borders of the television industry if only the public was able to tell what a producer does. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the general viewer, the competence of a television producer is never visible except when it is absent.

Richard Drewett’s competence determined the tone and intelligence of every programme he put to air, so he barely left a trace. He just brought the best out of everyone involved, and they got the credit. Since I was one of them, let me speak briefly for all the others, the hundreds of people who worked with him during a tireless career that never faltered until the day his illness kept him out of the office.

It’s in the office, not in the studio or on location, that even the most hands-on producer does the work that makes the difference. Richard was the executive producer for every programme with my name in the title between 1982, when I left Fleet Street to go into television, and the turn of the millennium, when I left television for a retirement which is proving quite busy, but which would be a lot harder for me to make sense of if he had not taught me so much about the fruitful use of time. On top of his charm and good manners, that was the thing he was best at, the thing that ruled all the other things he could do. He was mad about his family and fast cars, but when he was working he was perfectly sane: far too sane to be interested in power, which he could have had, but didn’t care about.

He cared only about getting good programmes made. For doing that, his first rule for business was to prepare thoroughly in the office so as to save time in the studio or on location, and thus earn the capacity to pack the air-time tight. Securing the essential early so as to leave room for exploiting the unexpected, he was always able cram the screen with value. A performer like myself, by nature prone to enthusiasm and thus to impatience, could only benefit from his strict sense of priority.

In my raw and uninstructed state, I could hardly have been an enticing prospect when he first took me on. He was in charge of Special Programmes at LWT and I was hanging around the building while various attempts were being made to get me on camera so that I could work off a salary which continued to drop out of the sky because the company still had to pay me even though Saturday Night People, for reasons too complicated to go into, was off the air. Though the studio producers were encasing me in several different examples of the classic three-piece suit by that stage, I still looked pretty scruffy, whereas Richard looked dapper and well groomed, with overtones of a military background.

Rendered permanently thin by the kind of metabolism which apparently imposed no necessity to eat anything at all, he looked neatly correct from his fine-drawn features all the way down to his ankles, after which a strange thing happened. He wore white plimsolls, one of which had the top cut away. He never apologised for the odd effect of his footwear and quite a lot of people knew him for years without ever finding out the reason. In my role as brash colonial, I asked him, and was told that the foot in the skeletal plimsoll had been smashed up, the operation on it had been bungled, and any vertical pressure put on it would cause so much pain that he couldn’t work.

Work came first. Kindly he listened to my plans for being a literary man and just walking into the studio a couple of times a week to go on air. Kindly but firmly he insisted that it couldn’t be like that. If I wanted to do this stuff properly, I would have to work a full week. He set the example by being first into the office every day and the last to leave. From early on, I got a close-up of what it meant to prepare properly. It was the secret of his authority. Since he knew everybody else’s job as well, he couldn’t be buffaloed by expertise. On the first documentary special we did, The Clive James Paris Fashion Show, he could tell from the rushes that Terence Donovan, our director, was skimping on the bread-and-butter coverage.

Richard turned up in Paris and read Donovan the news about the necessity of doing the boring stuff properly if he wanted to make an exciting film. For the task of dressing Donovan down, Richard was wearing real shoes, a sign of how serious the situation was. When standing on his dignity he wanted the right kit. Donovan was a tough customer but he shot the coverage. The scene taught me a lot about Richard and about life. Short on moral courage, I would always avoid telling people what they didn’t want to hear. Richard didn’t enjoy doing that either but he could do it. Over the next twenty years I didn’t see the real shoes very often, but every time I did see them it was for a crucial confrontation that would never have taken place if it had been left to me. I remember one studio director, intent on spoiling the clean effect of the set by adding some superfluous scaffolding, who said, ‘It has to look designed.’ I thought, ‘That’s just how we don’t want it to look.’ But Richard actually said, ‘That’s just how we don’t want it to look.’

For the studio shows, Richard was the kind of executive producer that every producer fears most: the kind that never leaves the control room. Most of the producers who had to live with him watching their every move were grateful for the lesson. Directors were often less so, and especially when they were shooting on film out on location — a context in which every young director tends to think that he is Fellini. I always preferred to narrate in voice-over rather than do a walk-and-talk. A walk-and-talk looks so unnatural that only David Attenborough can make it interesting, and mainly because you suspect that he is about to be attacked by a buffalo. But fledgling directors like the shot that moves: the shot that draws attention to itself by smoothly linking things up. I wanted less spectacular shots of single subjects, so that I could narrate at my own pace back in the editing room, without being forced to a thought just because the shot was panning. Richard would appear suddenly out of the sky on various continents and tell the director to stop trying to win a BAFTA. The directors who took the lesson in were the ones who went on to prosper. (One of our directors, Laurence Rees, is currently producing the best documentaries ever made about the Nazi era, and I am sure he would agree that Richard taught him a lot about never letting the technique become the subject.)

Financially, the ‘Postcard’ programmes were made possible by the weekly studio show. Under various titles on different nights of the week on different channels, the studio show was the one that earned the bread. Most of the many innovations of the studio show have by now been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream that everybody has forgotten where they started. One-line captions over photographs, fake commentaries over re-edited news footage, satellite interviews — none of it would have been possible at that time without Richard’s ability to run a creative office, because the easier the results looked the harder they were to get. In later years, to get the script, Richard would lock me and our brilliant writing staff, Colin Bostock-Smith, into my office for three days at a stretch. In early years he would lock me in alone, and when I came out to go and buy a takeaway lunch he would have me followed. Everybody knew that Richard was the man in charge, so when Michael Grade moved to the BBC, a phone call to Richard was one of the first he made.

We arrived at the BBC just in time for Grade’s resignation, after which we were at the mercy of the managerial revolution. An incomparable scrounger, Richard managed to convert half a floor of the Beeb’s new White City building into a special unit devoted to programmes with my name in the title. This was very flattering for me, but Drewett’s independence made him a target for re-education into the managerial ethos. He could have taught the managers more than all of them knew put together if they had been capable of learning, but he patiently went off for a whole day per week of the kind of meeting where six grown men work out the best way to lower an egg out of a window with a piece of string.

For once usefully impatient on his behalf, I persuaded him, when the chance came to jump ship back to ITV, to take it. Within ITV’s embrace, we started Watchmaker Productions, a company run by us along with Elaine Bedell, one of Richard’s many discoveries among the new wave of female production talent. Whether male or female, the production staff at Watchmaker had to spend only a few weeks under Richard’s tutelage before they realised that they had enrolled themselves in flying school. Some of the men are now tycoons, having built companies that they could sell for millions. But the blazing career paths of the women alumni are what please me most, and I think Richard felt the same. One day somebody will tell the salient truth about Watchmaker: it was certainly full of knockout females, but they were treated neither as eye candy nor as wage slaves. They got their chance, and an unusually large proportion of them went on to great things. Generally, when we recruited the women, we followed the principle of hiring nobody that we couldn’t see ourselves working for when she came to power, and generally the applicants who got the job didn’t mind being called the Drewettes. After all, it wasn’t Richard who invented the term. It was one of them.

Eventually, as the turn of the millennium approached and television veered inexorably downmarket, Watchmaker was sold to its backers as per contract, and Drewett and I were left with the only real money either of us had ever made in show business. We had always been well recompensed, but on the whole, in television, nobody who cares a lot for the finished programme makes much money out of it, and we cared a lot. Richard cared even more than I did, and for a man who never had much to apologise for he gave me a deep and touching apology when he proved too ill to supervise the editing of the last show we made, at the end of the year 2000. He was right: the show would have been better if he had seen it through to the end. Those of us who knew him well are now feeling the same about our own lives. A great one for catch-phrases, he had a line with which he started every meeting: ‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve asked you all here.’ A lot of people will be saying it at his funeral, and smiling at the memory.

(Guardian, February 4, 2008)