Obituary: Tony Garnett, producer famous for social realist dramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home

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Tony Garnett, television and film producer. Born: 3 April, 1936 in Birmingham. Died: 12 January, 2020, aged 83.

When film and TV producer Tony Garnett made Up the Junction in the 1960s, abortion was illegal. He worked regularly with ­director Ken Loach and they often chose subjects for political or personal reasons, but just how personal Up the Junction was for Garnett became clear only decades later.

Up the Junction, which was shown in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot in 1965, focused on three factory girls, one of whom has an illegal abortion. It was only in an interview in 2013 that Garnett revealed that his mother had died following a botched back-street ­abortion during the Second World War. He was in bed with her when she died. Three weeks later his father killed himself.

“No one ever knew it, the BBC didn’t know” said ­Garnett, who spent years in psychoanalysis trying to make sense of the loss and of his life. “If ­abortions had been legal, I wouldn’t have lost my ­parents.”

Garnett worked with Loach for 15 years, making controversial social realist dramas, including Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, which had a huge impact when it was broadcast in 1966, pushing homelessness to the front of the political agenda. Such was Cathy Come Home’s ­power as drama and polemic, and its enduring reputation, that it came second in a ­British Film Institute poll in 2000 to ­determine the greatest British TV programmes of all time, ahead of Doctor Who, Monty Python and Blue Peter. The issue continued to mean a lot to Garnett. Eighteen months ago he spoke at a conference in Edinburgh organised by the homelessness charity Crisis.

When Garnett and Loach’s agenda proved too contentious for the BBC, they moved on to cinema with Kes (1969), about a working-class teenager in the north of England who builds a close relationship with a kestrel in contrast to his difficult relationships at home and school. It was No 7 in a 1999 poll on the best ­British films of all time.

Eventually Garnett and Loach’s paths diverged and Garnett headed for Hollywood. There was little sign of the social conscience that had been evident in earlier work when he made the Sesame Street spin-off Follow That Bird (1985) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), the sci-fi comedy with Jim Carrey and Jeff Goldblum as colourful, fluffy aliens, though it was made under the Kestrel Films banner, the company that had been set up to make Kes.

Garnett returned to the UK in the early 1990s and set up a new independent company called World Productions, which made a string of hit TV series. He was executive producer on Between the Lines (1992-94), which focused on police corruption and won a Bafta award as Best Drama Series, and This Life (1996-97), which followed five young ­people, three men and two women, living together in London. They came from very different ethnic and ­cultural backgrounds and the show again caused some controversy with attitudes to sex and drugs.

This Life also made it into the BFI list of the 100 greatest British television programmes of all time. World Productions continues as a force in British television. It was taken over by ITV and made the recent hit series Bodyguard.

Garnett and Loach’s legacy can also be seen in the the way the lines are now routinely blurred between drama and documentary.

Garnett was born Anthony Edward Lewis in Birmingham in 1936. Only five when his parents died, he was ­separated from his ­brother and lived with an uncle and aunt in a house with no books. He said later that he never cried and just “closed down”. He adopted his uncle’s surname.

He acted at school and ­university in London, where he studied psychology, and in repertory theatre in ­England. By the early 1960s he was ­getting work in television and appeared in Loach’s first ­television play Catherine in 1964, playing the title character’s estranged husband.

Very soon they were working together as producer and director, developing a new school of social realism or socialist realism on television. Others had pioneered such an approach in literature, theatre and film, but this was new to the cosy world of BBC drama.

Garnett’s name appears on the credits of Up the Junction as ‘story editor’ with James MacTaggart credited as ­producer. MacTaggart, the Glaswegian after whom ­Edinburgh Television Festival’s key annual lecture is named, was the series ­producer, but he was on ­holiday when Garnett and Loach started work on Up the Junction.

“I set it in motion knowing that if we got quite a way down the line we would have to be allowed to make it because it would be too late to stop it and if they did, there would be a hole in the schedule,” said Garnett.

Viewers and critics were ­confused by the sudden appearance of an interview with a real doctor in the ­drama – and morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse led a flood of complaints.

“The BBC are determined to do everything in their ­power to present promiscuity as ­normal,” she ranted. ­Abortion was legalised three years ­later.

Garnett is survived by two sons from his two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, and by his partner, Victoria Childs.

Brian Pendreigh