Mike Scott 

26 October 2008 tbs.pm/2318

Michael (John Christopher) Scott, presenter and executive, possibly the longest serving member of screen staff at any ITV company in his day, died aged 76 on the 30 May. He enjoyed a lengthy and extraordinary career of almost 40 years at Granada, the great northern pillar of Independent Television, as established by Sydney Bernstein in 1956.

Mike Scott served in front of and behind the camera on a huge range of regional and network programmes until his retirement in 1993. He was probably one of the few broadcasters left alive who served virtually all his time in the media with one master.

Things are very different today. Scan the pages of Broadcast, the trade magazine or Media Guardian and the chances are that several people at the top of the tree in broadcasting, either behind the screens or front-line presenters, will have played musical chairs and swapped roles or ‘channel hopped’. These people come and go with some rapidity. Back in the 60’s and before, senior names would stay with the same employer, often for the bulk of their working life.

Scott was educated at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith London and at Clayesmore School at Iwerne Minster in Dorset. A contemporary at Clayesmore commented “…Mike had a show business bent, running a school cinema and hiring 16mm films to play each month. He customarily included a second feature which showed where his interest would later develop in subject balance and TV scheduling. They were typically factual features, about for example, parts of the human body…”

He had ambitions to be a film editor but after doing National Service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Scott settled for a job as a soap salesman at Unilever – but he hated this work. His father – a timpanist in orchestras – secured him a job as a stage-hand at the Royal Festival Hall. It was the first rung on the show-business ladder and it helped to secure an Equity card, enabling Scott to became an extra in mid fifties films like the wartime submarine drama Above Us the Waves and the sci-fi classic The Quatermass Xperiment.

Scott moved behind the scenes again in 1955 when he secured a job as a trainee cameraman with The Rank Organisation, working in cellars under the old ‘Gaumont State’ cinema in Kilburn. The Rank Organisation was bidding with partners (Associated Newspapers and D.C. Thompson publishers) for upcoming commercial TV contracts in the new ITV. The problem was timing. The Independent Television South Coast franchise, which Rank wanted, was not due for launch until 1957. It was in the event further delayed and eventually made it to air in 1958. Scott wanted to move more quickly into this exciting new television network.

While at The Gaumont State he overheard Dennis Forman, (alongside the Bernstein brothers a founder of Granada Television) offering jobs at the soon to be launched ITV northern region in Manchester. He landed the last one as a floor manager at £10 a week and began work shortly before the company’s began transmitting to the north of England in 1956.

Scott was employed by Granada for almost forty years and is probably the best-known exponent of a job definition that among television companies, only Granada based in Manchester really acknowledged. He became a producer-performer, fronting programmes for which he was also responsible. At first these were mainly regional miscellanies researching directing and producing shows like We Want an Answer (1958-59) in which politicians and other figureheads were questioned by sixth-formers from all over the country.

While still appearing in a more familiar capacity as nightly anchorman of Granada’s regional news magazine, Scene at 6.30, Scott was the messenger in an historic Granada coup. On November 22 1963 the programme had been on the air five minutes when the telephone rang in the newsroom adjacent to the studio. It was CBS in New York with the tip that President John Kennedy had been shot. There was a rule that individual programme companies should never pre-empt ITN on big news. Denis Forman, the senior Granada executive present, called ITN and was told they were not going to break into the schedules with the story until they had it from their own reporter in America. On the impulse Forman decided to go ahead and Scott broke the news to northern viewers half-an-hour before it reached the rest of the country.

His life-long friend and former Granada staffer Barrie Heads once commented: “When I was producing Scene at 6.30 in the mid-Sixties, I remember that I would groan with frustration if Mike was having the day off, even though the team included such luminaries as Michael Parkinson and the witty ex-Guardian journalist Peter Eckersley. With his lean, rangy good looks and breezy affability Mike was an essential presence in the mix of the day’s show, deft and quick-footed for the lighter items, sharp and probing for the more serious ones and invariably fizzing with ideas at the daily conference.”

Scott also directed the three historic outside broadcasts from the Rochdale by-election in 1958, which successfully challenged the official view that such coverage, before the imminent vote, was then still technically illegal. He appeared on the screen as well as working behind it – a role for which his extrovert but laid back personality well equipped him. He also directed drama series like Knight Errant (1960) and the documentary A Roof Over Our Heads (1962), highlighting the extent of unfit housing in Britain and well pre-dating the BBC’s Cathy Come Home which highlighted tenancy issues.

It is little known that Scott, alongside Derek Bennett, was a pioneering director on Granada’s fledgling twice weekly soap, originally named ‘Florizel Street’ which changed before first airing in December 1960, to Coronation Street. Scott had little faith in it surviving beyond the 12 episodes that would act as a trial run. “It is fortunate that nobody took much notice of my first response to Coronation Street,” he later explained. “As a young director I was asked to read scripts and opined that it would do well in the north-west of England but that it would never succeed in the rest of Great Britain. How wrong you can be!”

Scott directed episode three, when lay preacher Leonard Swindley (Arthur Lowe) told Ena Sharples (Violet Carson) that it was ‘unseemly’ for her as caretaker of the Glad Tidings Mission Hall, to drink in the Rovers Return; to receive the wrath of the hair-netted harridan in response. This set the tone for the gritty drama that made Coronation Street and its working-class terraces a television version of the socially relevant dramas that were already invading literature, theatre and cinema. It was said to be an ‘eye opener’ for middle class viewers, as to ‘how the other half lived’.

As presenter of Cinema, a networked weekly film review programme which notched up 534 editions between 1964 and 1975, he took his turn in a distinguished batting-order – Bamber Gascoigne, Derek Granger, James Cameron, Mark Shivas, Michael Parkinson and Clive James. Scott’s two-and-a-half years as resident cinéaste gave him one of his few bad moments. In a live special from the British Academy film awards ceremony in 1967, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were to receive a joint award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As it was well established that they never gave interviews, Scott did not bother to prepare any questions. When the floor manager Walter Mariner wheeled the pair up to him, all too ready to talk, he was flabbergasted. The result according to Mariner was probably the worst interview in TV history but it was a tiny debit to be set against the good responses Scott regularly drew from his guests.

Cinema was a breeding ground for people who would later become huge names in front of and behind the screen. Derek Granger became a prolific Granada drama producer. Mark Shivas was later a prime mover in the BBC Drama department with Play for Today, ‘Talking Heads (the legendary Alan Bennett BBC series) and and Winston Churchill The Wilderness Years for Southern Independent Television in 1981. Bamber Gasoigne fronted University Challenge and The Christians. The glittering careers of Michael Parkinson and Clive James just speak for themselves.

From 1975 to 1978 came the fully networked Nuts and Bolts of the Economy, which strove to explain the underlying causes of the economic troubles of the time, which culminated in the famous if short lived ‘Winter of Discontent’, with the miner’s strike, coal shortages and threats to the electricity supply.

Scott was front-man to this ground-breaking ITV current affairs series, in days when there were only three channels, and ITV lived up to its public service commitment in dazzling form. During 1974 he moved to Granada’s flagship current affairs programme World in Action as interviewer, while continuing to serve as producer-performer on a range of other programmes.

In 1978 Scott became a director on the main board at Granada, was promoted to deputy programme controller and the following year he moved up to programme controller. He retained that position until 1987. From 1984 until 1987 he was also a director of Channel 4.

People fronting programmes at regional ITV stations often rose to become executives. Derek Batey, for example, fronted many Border Television programmes like Mr and Mrs and Look Who’s Talking and soon became Assistant Controller of Programmes there. Jack Hargreaves, known to millions as one of the presenters of ITV’s ever popular How and presenter of Out of Town was also a Deputy Controller of Programmes in Southampton for Southern Independent Television.

In the eighties, R.B. Henderson, Managing Director of Ulster Television, chaired a Royal Television Society seminar at the Independent Broadcasting Authority headquarters in Knightsbridge, about Race and Television. This was organised jointly with the Equal Opportunities Commission. Mike Scott, then Controller of Programmes at Granada, was a key speaker and the present writer was in the audience.

He was asked directly from the floor, “Why are there no black actors in Coronation Street, your flagship programme?” There were indeed at the time no black or Asian cast members in ITV’s most popular drama, – which Scott himself had directed in his earlier career. His reply was perhaps rather a cop-out: “The difficulty I have about bringing multi-cultural casts into the Street is the fact that to be realistic, there would inevitably need to be negative reactions from regulars like Vera Duckworth and that this hostility might undo any good that could come about”. This was a reaction ‘of its time’ and not then as shocking as it might seem today.

It was not long however before black and Asian actors did appear in the Street and indeed other programmes, with comedies like Desmonds from London Weekend. Trevor McDonald took the helm of News at Ten, and all channels began to take multi-cultural television more seriously. It was an irony that the famously progressive Granada had been so slow off the mark – mesmerized perhaps in the headlights of Northern viewers’ assumed sensibilities. There are more training courses and growing numbers of black and Asian people in front of and behind the screen today.

Scott was one of few employees able to tackle Granada’s boss, Sidney Bernstein, on personal matters. This he frequently did with a measure of good-natured cheek. Bernstein’s driving was known to be appalling but Scott managed to amuse colleagues by quizzing him innocently about why he’d given it up. Whenever the wealthy Bernstein complained about his own modest annual salary, Scott would assume a puzzled air of concern, asking: “But have you not got anything else?” With others trying the same thing Bernstein could clam up and even leave the room, but Scott made him laugh.

Scott’s return to active broadcasting was mooted during a programme controllers’ meeting in which Andy Allan (Programme Controller at Central) sent a note asking Scott if he would like to be “ITV’s Phil Donahue” (the American talk-show host). Scott’s note in reply indicated his belief that Allan was pulling his leg but in fact Allan was serious. Within two weeks Scott accepted the job on The Time, The Place, a live and networked discussion show.

The programme covered a range of topics, from the silly to the weighty, and placed Scott and his show directly opposite the BBC’s Robert Kilroy-Silk. In the race to establish the kind of reputation enjoyed by Donahue, his permanently tanned rival was perhaps in the lead but Scott took greater risks, transmitting live from the start and committing himself to a first series almost twice as long as Kilroy. As if that were not sufficiently onerous, Scott also took his morning show round the country travelling each afternoon from one city to another.

Spurning the traditional warm-up man, Scott liked to perform a jig 30 seconds before transmission to put the audience at ease. During discussions he would jokily raise a hand to get a word in. He managed the entire show without an earpiece, having become fed up by the sound of directors screeching at him. Live broadcasting threw up regular difficulties. Scott might occasionally need to disregard a loud and violent coughing fit or the sound of low-flying helicopters (when broadcasting from a football stadium). During the last years of the Soviet Union, the show pioneered live debates with citizens of Moscow and Riga.

Scott gave up The Time, The Place in 1993 and other regionally based ITV presenters hosted editions of the programme. Khalid Aziz hosted the show from Television South and John Stapleton presented some editions from London.

In retirement, Scott enjoyed collecting and repairing clocks and driving his 1932 Lagonda. However, his health deteriorated in the 1990s and he had been in a care home for most of his last ten years. He died on May 30th 2008 and is survived by Sylvia and their daughter, Julia. Mike Scott was a regional TV legend who became a national figure. His career spanned almost forty years, presenting and producing programmes for the same company.

Scott was a notable figure in UK television as a whole and his contribution and professionalism is well worthy of being remembered. We value the contribution he made and feel that television feature programmes in the UK would not be of the quality that we take for granted today without pioneers like Mike Scott of Granada.

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