The irreverent young men of World in Action 

5 February 2018 tbs.pm/14789

From the TVTimes London for 18-24 November 1967

Taken at their own assesment, the producers of ITV’s World in Action are up among the pacemakers of “current affairs.”

They see themselves advancing across the dross of yesterday’s ideas in search of tomorrow’s trend, elevating impudence, fighting boredom.

Their view of society emerges in a weekly 30 minutes of fairly highly-charged “actuality.” David Plowright, 36, the executive producer of the programme, has a flat, dry, disputatious voice and would sound, but for his subject matter, like a works manager settling a pay dispute.

Plowright has presidential powers over World in Action. He has the authority to scatter his militant producers, reporters and cameramen around the contentious zones of world and domestic affairs to “scratch about and see what they come up with.”

Drugs … coloured babies … Ronan O’Rahilly . . . poverty . . . Rhodesia . . . violence: the worst enemy is irrelevance and the gift prized most of all is the ability to reach the undiscovered nub of today’s — preferably tomorrow’s — debate.

It is probably the most exacting area of activity in television. Relevance can suffer in the frenetic hunt for newness and topicality.

According to Plowright, the meeting between Harold Wilson and Ian Smith aboard the Tiger would have made a bad current affairs programme because it would have been merely an extension of newspaper journalism: a reporter looking out at an empty sea, a lot of surmise and a panel of experts.

Television, he thinks, must reach the heart of the matter or it is wasted. So far in the present series World in Action has not once resorted to the studio interview or the set-piece political discussion which, Plowright says, “bores the pants off” the modern viewer.

For this they could have been jailed: Jeremy Wallington, right, head of the World in Action unit that probed the effectiveness of sanctions against Rhodesia, waits with producer Leslie Woodhead for trains carrying asbestos to Portuguese Mozambique

Of the nine regular producers in his team, three are products of Oxford, three of Cambridge and one of redbrick.

They are mostly in their 20’s — Plowright is the oldest — and express their thoughts in a kind of rough-and-tumble intellectual patois from which it emerges that they respect irreverence, scepticism, liberalism and tolerance.

The subjects chosen for World in Action are finally Plowright’s responsibility, but if the programme is to follow its set course he needs to give reign to new “aggressive” attitudes that may not be shared yet by society as a whole.

Although the new series started only in July, its makers have challenged the law at home, risked arrest abroad, suffered a legal injunction which was later lifted, and earned a crop of angry letters.

After the programme on poverty, sub-titled “The Born Losers,” viewers in the South wrote in protesting bitterly at the probing, personal questions which were put to a family living on the breadline.

One of the team’s scoops was getting hold of Mick Jagger for an exclusive interview. Here he is seen at a conference before appearing in the World in Action programme

Northern viewers, by and large, found nothing wrong with the questioning, but preferred earthy suggestions about what the family ought to do.

Plowright insists that the questions were necessary to make the important point that what keeps many people poor is their own basic inability to communicate with society.

What good, he asks, is another 4s. a week on family allowances to people like that? They were making a point which some viewers found unacceptable.

The programme has grown out of a series of ITV experiments in current affairs dating from 1959: Searchlight, the first World in Action, The World Tonight and The World Tomorrow.

The first series to bear the present title was distinguished principally by its anguished pace. The succeeding ones tended to rely on an ambitious pattern of world coverage rather than on the merits of working out a single idea.

But there are other differences: a generation of television current affairs producers who were basically newspaper journalists has gradually been supplanted by a new generation nurtured on the television techniques.

This is the period in which television current affairs has grown up, and is one of the reasons it remains comparatively rootless and freebooting.

Former television journalists thought in terms of scripts and written reports which could be transmitted with film shots.

The new breed think in terms of experimental film shots, involving the camera in society and expressing their ideas and facts with as little interruption by reporters as possible.

The World in Action organisation, in which about 40 people are directly involved, makes an attempt to use television and journalistic skills without compromising either.

It has sprouted an off shot called the “action bureau” which, based in London, consists of a small, though growing, team of journalists who can develop ideas and pursue inquiries without the demands of a deadline. Its editor, under Plowright’s overall control, is Jeremy Wallington, one-time Fleet Street executive.

Television ought to reach the heart of the matter, says David Plowright, executive producer, who is pictured above with Manchester-based members of the production team

Once a story has reached a stage at which it could be translated into television — it could be weeks or months — a producer and camera unit are assigned to complete the job.

The bureau — like the entire World in Action unit — operates on a world scale. One of its reporters, Meb Cutlack, an Australian, spent three weeks in Rhodesia for the recent programme on sanction-busting: he was joined by Wallington for a fortnight and finally by the producer of the programme, Leslie Woodhead, and by a cameraman.

All risked £1,000 fines or five months in prison for shooting film of prohibited subjects, particularly railway installations.

Woodhead, 29, a Cambridge graduate who has been with ITV since 1962, says they set off into the country on the pretext of looking for hippo. They drove about 2,000 miles in five days, lying for hours beside railway tracks — particularly the suspect line between Salisbury and Laurenço Marques, Mozambique — and keeping out of sight.

Once a helicopter appeared suddenly only 30ft. up: Cutlack dived into a thorn bush, Woodhead hid in the grass and Wallington leapt behind a boulder. When they got back to Salisbury on a Friday, security officers were vaguely suspicious and asked them not to leave the country until Monday.

Woodhead says that Cutlack was sent off to Lusaka in Zambia the next day to post off the film to London, and the rest left for home on Sunday.

Although many World in Action programmes are the result of editing up to six or seven hours of material, the evidence of sanction-busting was packed into 45 minutes.

Plowright is an “up-through-the-mill” journalist who started on his fathers weekly newspaper, the Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, and joined ITN in 1957.

He recognises that, because of its rootlessness, television is apt to be an enclosed world wrapped up in its own language, attitudes and techniques.

This is a particularly difficult problem for current affairs, which needs the kind of links with society which newspapers have traditionally had through their armies of reporters.

He solves it, to some extent, by using producers to go out and work on a story themselves, by encouraging them to become committed enough to their subject to have a point of view, and, where possible, by using their voices in the finished programme rather than the impersonal, artificial voices of professional talkers.

The team of producers, who commute between Manchester and London when they are not overseas, seldom come together as a group.

John Macdonald, a former writer on Life magazine, runs the New York bureau with a camera unit, and Brian Moser, a former geologist who wrote a book about exploring the Amazon, has gone to open a new bureau in Latin America which Plowright senses is going to be one of the world’s major news areas in the future.

Jo Durden-Smith, who is only 25 and television-trained, has been working in Cyprus with Michael Wall, a former Guardian reporter.

Ingrid Floering, the only woman producer in the team, and Brian Armstrong, a former university teacher, have been in Persia and Bahrein, and Russell Spurr, formerly of the Daily Express, has been knocking about Europe on an investigation on breathalysers.

Plowright himself has been Moscow to arrange cooperative projects with the Soviet information organisation, Novosti.

When all the film has been shot, much of it on the spur of the moment and nearly always unscripted, the programme itself has to be created in a tiny box of a room in Manchester where the producer sits in shirt sleeves and directs the cutting and editing of his material.

A former BBC man, John Sheppard, 27, brings back the film he has been shooting in London about women who foster coloured children. How much ought he to leave in of the woman — a good subject — who suffered from an unfortunate speech defect? How much poverty would it be fair to show?

Is he trying to present a balanced report or simply to produce riveting television?

Later, in the viewing theatre, Plowright sees the rough cuts and, probably for the first time, makes his judgments with one eye on propriety and the law, and the other on the constant need to make every minute earn its place.

How successful is the formula and how relevant are the results? The programme secured an exclusive by whisking Mick Jagger away from the Fleet Street men on his release from custody — following the drugs case against him — and depositing him, from a helicopter, in a country garden to be interviewed.

What was the chief motive — to pull off a scoop or offer informative television? Before the programme on Radio Caroline was transmitted there was vast Press publicity about the daring of the World in Action crew in boarding the ship and risking prosecution.

Yet the result was simply a straightforward interview with Ronan O’Rahilly, broken up with shots of a disc jockey in a flowered shirt who might have been anywhere. Was O’Rahilly worth half an hour, or merely five minutes?

These are the sort of questions in Plowright’s mind.

The team’s assumption that better television can be made by allowing the camera “eye” to participate in society, and by minimising vocal reporting, seems progressive and convincing enough.

But what of the other assumptions? Is it still true, for example, that current affairs programmes need to be selfconsciously quick-fire and laced with technique?

Yesterday’s formalised hysteria has gone. The series is not, apparently, seeking a single identity: the subject governs the style, and the style depends largely on the producer.

Certainly World in Action is popular. It is generally seen in more than seven million homes in Britain.

As its team moves about the world, and its taste for investigation becomes known, its task may become harder: an inquiring camera is not always welcome, even in Britain.

But the advantages of a courageous current affairs programme in a democracy ought not to be overlooked.

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