A controller who set free creativity

Look Me in the Eye
March 17, 2006

Jeremy Isaacs is a workaholic who thrives on risk, finds Winston Fletcher

As Look Me in the Eye makes clear, the two landmarks in Jeremy Isaacs's career - his footprints on the sands of time - have been the television documentary series The World at War and the creation of Channel 4. The World at War , a magnificent, mould-breaking, 26-hour history of the 1939-45 conflagration, narrated by Laurence Olivier, was three years in the making. It has been garlanded with awards, achieved audiences of about 10 million when first transmitted, has sold hundreds of thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs, and is still constantly broadcast around the globe.

The launch of Channel 4 was also mould-breaking. Far from being just another new channel, it was from the start infused with Isaacs's determination to make it completely different. Its programming philosophy brilliantly anticipated the fragmentation of television audiences that has been so prevalent in recent years.

Of course, Isaacs held many other major jobs in television, and made many other fine programmes. For Granada, he launched and produced What the Papers Say and All Our Yesterdays ; for Associated Rediffusion, This Week ; and for the BBC, Panorama . He returned to Associated Rediffusion (later Thames Television), first becoming controller of features and then director of programmes. He worked for Turner Broadcasting and set up his own production company. In every case, he brought new thinking to the job and reappraised what was wanted - by viewers, not necessarily by his bosses. ( Look Me in the Eye is replete with Isaacs's battles with his various bosses about the content and structure of programmes.) Nonetheless, had he not achieved the twin peaks of The World at War and Channel 4, this book would hardly have been worth writing or reading - and it shows.

Isaacs's reporting of the more humdrum bits of his career is, well, a bit humdrum. He records the events at length, in too much detail. Unlike most media moguls, he is never pompous, rarely boastful and often self-deprecating. He tells amusing anecdotes. But he often fails to bring to the page what he achieved so signally on TV: narrative drive and ruthless editing. Having been so immersed in his work, perhaps he imagines readers will be equally engrossed in the minutiae.

But I suspect younger readers will be baffled and bored by the endless references to individuals they have never heard of. And older readers will not fare much better, as unknown bit players appear and disappear with little or no introduction.

Yet even when the text is a mite dull, no one can accuse Isaacs of being mealy mouthed. This is not one of those media autobiographies in which everyone is a luvvie. Isaacs is abrasive to the point of waspishness. His scorn is sharp and pithy. Here are a few of his thumbnail comments on TV bigwigs of the era: "Robin Day was a fine political interviewer, but pompous with it... Ian Trethowan, professional but colourless... David Frost had an entourage, a bodyguard - who sat around and obsequiously offered suggestions. No one ever told him he was talking nonsense." Isaacs is equally forthright in his praise of those he likes and admires - which brings us back to The World at War and Channel 4.

The chapter describing the making of The World at War is masterly: full of the gusto and exuberance he manifestly felt about the project at the time. He was in total control - he likes to be in total control - and personally chose all of the 50 or so key people who worked with him.

Recognising talent and selecting the right individuals for a job are among Isaacs's strengths, reflected in his sharp appraisals of people. He always aims high and often takes risks. Casting Olivier to narrate The World at War seems an obvious choice now, but at the time it was fraught with difficulties. Isaacs's excitement as he selected, briefed and responded to those he employed leaps from the pages. Discussing the recruitment of people for creative projects, he once said: "In inviting them to do the job you've made your creative decision, which is which creator to work with.

It's no use turning round afterwards and saying I didn't want this, I wanted something quite different."

The same applies to his creation of Channel 4, but here he is more cloying. Again, he recruited his own people to the key jobs, off his own bat and seemingly without consulting anyone. "The board, the chairman particularly, were furious," he admits. Maybe he is still, however subconsciously, defending this quasi-insubordination, because he goes over the top in praising the team he recruited. This not to say they were not first class. But his praise reads vaingloriously - "wasn't I clever to choose those people?" - and is a rare lapse in his otherwise modest tone.

Much more important was Isaacs's vision that Channel 4 should be targeted at a plethora of minority groups - "to cater for substantial minorities presently neglected", as he put it. None comprised a mass audience in itself, but when aggregated they encompassed a significant majority. This was radical at the time, and brought him into constant conflict with his detractors.

Comedians and cartoonists, politicians and press, invented ludicrous Channel 4 series - "Sisal-weaving in Uzbekistan", or "Backgammon for lesbians" - as they lambasted him for aiming at tiny groups. Isaacs held his ground. Today, such fragmentation is commonplace and universally accepted. But Isaacs and Channel 4 were first, and established how well it could be done.

Look Me in the Eye is not a conventional autobiography. Though there are some poignant personal moments, this is a book about a workaholic at work.

Yet, despite the dull parts, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how British television developed in the 20th century.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Royal Institution.

Look Me in the Eye: A Life in Television

Author - Jeremy Isaacs
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 438
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 316 728 8

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