Tony Garnett: the film-maker with his own epic story to tell

David Bradley and Tony Garnett on the set of Kes, 1968

Let us prey: David Bradley and Tony Garnett while filming Kes in 1968

As autobiographies go, Tony Garnett’s The Day The Music Died: A Life Lived Behind The Lens is as gritty, honest and heart-wrenching as the film and television work that he’s known for. In the Sixties and Seventies, his career was entwined with that of director Ken Loach, a producer on such notable dramas as Kes (possibly the finest film ever made), Cathy Come Home and Up The Junction. In the Nineties, Garnett’s BBC projects This Life, about a group of hedonistic law graduates, and The Cops, focusing on a police station in the fictional northern town of Stanton, were both controversial and strong signifiers of their time.

Born in Birmingham before the War, Garnett’s early upbringing in an extended working-class family was vivid and colourful but after his mother died in 1941 following complications caused by a back-street abortion and the subsequent suicide of his devastated father, Garnett’s story descends into nightmarish uncertainty. He’d borrow from the experience when filming Up The Junction in 1965, a BBC Wednesday Play that proved a powerful voice in the debate for legalising abortion (the Abortion Act followed in 1967).

Losing both parents within days had a profound effect on Garnett’s life, as did the sudden mental breakdown of his girlfriend (and later wife) Topsy Jane, a gifted Midlands actress who starred alongside Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. Misfortune struck when Topsy was cast as Liz in the 1965 John Schlesinger film Billy Liar.

“Topsy was the love of my life,” Garnett says, now aged 80. “We met when she was 15, when I was still in the sixth form. She was very talented. We were both actors at the time but she was a much better actor than me. She went away with Tom to do Billy Liar for John Schlesinger but was sent back soon after, a different woman. She never recovered; a mysterious mental illness. Julie Christie took over her part. Topsy died in 2014.”

Topsy’s condition was labelled schizophrenia simplex, a “dustbin diagnosis” according to Garnett, who’d started to believe he was somehow the harbinger of destruction, that if you grew close to him, grief would follow. Despite his inner turmoil, Garnett was able to propel himself, alongside Loach, into the fabric of the BBC, although this was no easy placement as Garnett spent much of his time in the warrens of Television Centre fiercely arguing for scripts to become a reality.

“Ken and I have been friends and political comrades for over 50 years,” Garnett says. “We fought for and worked on a way of approaching film-making which we have practised since. He is the best director of actors I have come across, conjuring up completely credible performances. He has never sold out or compromised his politics. We are joined at the hip.”

David Bradley in Kes, filmed in Barnsley
Headline act: young actor David Bradley had a paper round while filming Kes

Garnett and Loach filmed Kes in Barnsley in 1968 during the six-week school holiday, one of the wettest summers on record. “It rained every day,” Garnett states. Realism was the ultimate attainment for the film-makers. For instance, the schoolboys who were caned in the film were properly whacked and were paid for each strike so genuine emotion could be captured.

As for David Bradley who played Billy Casper, it was noted that the young actor was looking tired during filming and Garnett worried that Bradley was being worked too hard. It transpired that Bradley did a paper round each morning before filming and was unable to work on Saturdays because he sold programmes at football matches. “I couldn’t believe it,” Garnett recalls. “Careful negotiation was needed.”

Kes’ world premiere was not the glitz of Leicester Square but the ABC cinema in Doncaster. The unorthodox venue was, Garnett believes, to dispose of the distributor’s embarrassment of a film that contained such strong dialect. The film proved an unlikely hit in the UK, quickly turning a profit. It’s still loved today. “I’ve no idea why it has an enduring appeal,” Garnett admits. “I’ve never been able to predict audiences. They always surprise you. The distributors and the cinemas didn’t even want to open it, thinking it wouldn’t make a penny. The public is always the boss.”

Ultimately, The Day The Music Died is a story of triumph over adversity. It’s rough going at times – how can anyone function after such colossal misfortune? – but it’s far from an exercise in despair. It’s wonderfully well-written and roaringly funny in places and as such, is one of the finest autobiographies to have hit the bookshops in recent times.

There’s no doubt that Britain is culturally richer because of Garnett’s contribution to cinema and TV but are today’s burgeoning film-makers able to ask similarly relevant questions? “The film-makers are there now,” Garnett reckons. “This country is teeming with creative talent. The question is, where is the encouragement, the capacity to allow, the political tolerance? Ask the management.”

The Day The Music Died: A Life Lived Behind The Lens by Tony Garnett (Constable, £20) is out now.

For more details about the book, visit tonygarnett.info/the-day-the-music-died/

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