Phil Redmond, who created some of TV’s best-loved series – Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks – talks to Lee Randall about his new autobiography and what’s wrong with British television entertainment
SOME people shed skins as they move through the world. Humble beginnings are hidden, working-class vowels smoothed over and biographies polished to a hard, impenetrable brilliance. Others are accretive: they build up in layers, each informing its successor. Phil Redmond is like that. His experience of attending one of Liverpool’s biggest comprehensive schools led him to write Grange Hill, and when he conceived Brookside an earlier career as a quantity surveyor influenced the innovations he introduced to ensure that it broke ground economically, as well as socially.
It’s clear from his memoir, Mid-Term Report, that a bit of QS still resides in Redmond’s soul. He’s thorough to an encyclopaedic level, publishing details to warm the heart of any accountant. Anyone curious about how television is made – or was in the 1980s and 90s – will find the answers here.
In person – well, by telephone – Redmond’s soft cadences and frequent laughter make him an amiable conversationalist. He’d been asked to write his memoirs many times, he says, but the 30th anniversary of both Channel 4 and Brookside this year provided the necessary impetus.
“I thought if I’m going to do it, now is the time. Also it’s given me the kick-start to do what I said I was going to do when we sold the [television production] company back in 2005, which was get back to writing. So I spent a year in ‘therapy’ going through this book, and I’m on to the novel that will follow, because the book ends with the question: ‘What would Brookside be like now?’ And the answer is: find out next year when the novel comes out.”
The wealth of detail is so vast – costs, contractual clauses, comments passed over meeting room tables, construction details – I presume he has stacks of diaries? Laughing, he says, “I don’t keep diaries, but I keep everything else. It’s just these moments that get burned into you. The event is so meaningful to you [that] you do tend to remember all the fine details. And then, of course, I’m a serial hoarder. Everyone around me goes, ‘Throw something away,’ and I go, ‘No, it’ll be useful some day!’ So there were moments where I could dip into the archives.”
Born in 1949, Redmond grew up in the Merseyside suburb of Huyton. His family came to Liverpool from Ireland around 1918, but, he writes, “by 1949 found themselves among the socially cleansed, those people moved from the city centre during the great post-war slum clearances.” Nevertheless he was immersed in the city’s history and cultural legacy. That, he writes, “is what gives the Scouser their ability to find an angle on any ball, and learn to read between the lines before learning to read; what creates their typical toughness … which is too often mistaken for being aggressive or quarrelsome. It is what gives them the need and the ability to face up to and speak about inconvenient truths … Yet with this hard edge comes a softer, almost sentimental side, that knows life can be brutal, jobs will come and go, but … people should still be treated fairly and with decency.”
His parents worked hard – his dad variously as a bus driver, ambulance driver, and bread delivery man – but money was tight, a situation exacerbated, Redmond speculates, by their predilection for alcohol and cigarettes. The family was religious, and after passing his 11-plus, encouraged by their parish priest, Redmond went to Saint Kevin’s Roman Catholic Comprehensive School for Boys. It was 12 miles away from home, adding two hours of travel to every day.
From 1967 he trained as a quantity surveyor, where he developed a work ethic and learned “to count every brick, bag of cement, length of copper tube and light switch”. But on 28 July 1972 he gave up the life of a QS for that of an aspiring comedy writer. The rest, as they say, is history. He made his name, his fortune, and a great many controversial headlines as the man behind Grange Hill, Brookside, and Hollyoaks.
He reminds me that in the 1980s, young people weren’t well represented on television. That, plus the fact that issues arising from his schooldays were still so vivid, made Grange Hill an obvious pitch. Yet even now, he tells me, the Holy Grail for programmers is securing that 50 per cent male audience. But, I counter, Baby Boomers make up the bulk of the population, and all I hear at interviews is that it’s not youngsters planted in front of the telly, but those 40 and up. Aren’t television executives missing a trick here?
“That is the big issue with the business. The people running it are disconnected from the audience, or potential audience, because it is immediately seen as a young person’s game, and always has been. They all want to go away with funky haircuts, to cool bars, and talk about the kind of programmes they’d like to make or the type of marketing deals they’re doing. They want to say they’re dealing with Nike and Coke.
“But all the data from all over the world shows that the audience for television is on a sharp decline, except in the over-50s, where it’s showing a slight increase. You get to a certain age and at the end of the day, the walking dead syndrome starts to hit you. What you want to do is sit on the couch and press a button. I used to try to get the channel to think about ageing the slot of the programme with its audience, instead of trying to keep [a show] at 8 o’clock, which is why, in the end, Brookside finished, because you could not have this 25 minutes of social reality in the middle of all the froth and the titillation that ran through the rest of the schedule.
“You realise you are talking to people who could be your kids. They’re not interested. They want to see Chris Evans at ten o’clock. They want to see all the wacky stuff. When the regulations got tighter, they could do the rude stuff after ten. This is the problem, when people start to think of television as something separate – telly for telly people. That’s one of the reasons I decided it was time to move on. I was struggling to find writers who wanted to join us because they had something to say, rather then they just wanted to be in telly. Every time [people in the business] talked about new writers, the word ‘young’ got attached to it. I used to constantly be looking for people who’d had a life, a career, and now they wanted to write about something from experience. But the business turns them off always looking for that magic 16-24, and that is partly from the way they view advertising.
“But it’s a fallacy. Look where big money is being spent, in places like Marks & Spencer and John Lewis and car manufacturers, all people who will gladly take the 40-plus market. But the ad sales companies just want to be cool, hip and trendy. We’ve done youth now – they’re everywhere. The people that are missing is the minority ageing population – and I’m using that in the classic media sense, meaning segments of the population not looked at. Because remember, women used to be called a minority, despite being 52 per cent of a male-dominated world.”
Since he’s a member of that age group, what does he watch? “I’m a grazer and let the technology select what I watch. I have all the catch-up devices, so I tend to record them all and then watch them at the time when I want to watch them. I like things like Twenty Twelve, but to be fair, I don’t really have favourite shows. I tend to try and watch every drama that comes up, but I’m invariably disappointed. We seem to have lost the ability to actually tell good stories at a reasonable pace. It all seems so slow. I know the reason: because they don’t get to do it that often, they want to luxuriate in them, and to spread the budget. But that’s a difference between UK and US drama. I think Downton Abbey would have been done in 90 minutes for HBO.”
Earlier I’d asked the by now clichéd question, who has the best output, America or Britain? “I’ve said this for years: we both have the best television in the world for our own cultural systems. British television is the best British television in the world, but we make just as good crap as the Americans. But we do not have anything in Britain that is on par with HBO. Look at what’s coming out of HBO and look at so-called British drama, it’s second rate [by comparison]. I think it’s because HBO is subscription-based, and it’s giving programmes it knows its subscribers will actually pay for. And it’s challenging stuff – look at Sopranos or Homeland. But that’s the thing that people actually want to watch, that’s going to stimulate the old grey matter.”
It’s not simply a question of the Americans having bigger budgets, he says. “We brought very respectable audiences into Brookside and Grange Hill and Hollyoaks, and we were probably on the lunch budget for Mad Men. It’s content which is important.”
And as it does in literature, presumably that starts with strong characters? “It does, yeah. Plot is useful, but characterisation is what engages people. But as a writer, it’s not either/or. You want it all, a good, driven narrative, and nice characters that the audience can think, ‘Oh I know someone like that!’”
We’ve both been tearing strips off a medium we actually love. So on a more helpful note, what does television need to do to complete for our attention in these media-overloaded times?
“One, completely abandon the idea that it can control an audience, just because they say [a programme will] be on at 8pm on a Wednesday. Audiences have shifted and are mobile. They’ll time shift that show to suit their own social patterns. From there, they need to think, what are those social patterns? Instead of putting shows down in genres, like art, music, current affairs, news, they should think in terms of age. What are the 14-17s interested in, what are 16-24s, thirtysomethings and so on? Do those two things and then ask, ‘What are great ideas for that age group?’
“As you get older, you get more fussy because you want things to be less fussy. You want something to work, you want it to be simple. I’ve experimented. I’ve tried everything, and I know what I like. Television needs to stand back and think, the world’s changed, how do we change with it? How do we save the audience?”
Well, for a start, they’d do well to unearth more people as passionate about storytelling as Phil Redmond.
• Mid-Term Report is published by Century, £18.99.