If it is an advantage for a biographer to have known his subject personally, Denis Forman clearly has a head start with his book on Sidney Bernstein, the founder of Granada Television. He and Bernstein spent most of their working lives together at Granada, where their collaboration was a key factor in creating what many came to regard as the most successful of the Independent Television companies. A knighthood for one and a peerage for the other were part of the rewards for their efforts.
Despite the difference in their ages, the pair seem to have taken to each other from their first encounter. Certainly, once in harness, they proved an effective partnership. It is to them jointly, and to their ability to choose the right staff, that the mixture of vitality, imagination, commitment and irreverence that gave Granada programmes a distinctive and frequently controversial character, can be attributed. By temperament, both men were not only able to stand the heat in the kitchen but ready to turn up the oven if they felt some issue of importance needed to be brought to the boil. They were to be alternately the pride and despair of those at the Independent Television Authority (later the Independent Broadcasting Authority) who had the sometimes thankless task of monitoring the companies' performance. Forman does not disguise the fact that he and Bernstein rather enjoyed their confrontations with the officials, the more so perhaps because they knew the authority had the power, in extreme cases of defiance or misbehaviour, to take them off the air. Their behaviour at times had a touch of the bravado of a matador flourishing his cape at a bull.
"Every other ITV company stood to attention when hauled up before the authority," he writes. "Occasionally there might be a token show of resistance, but for the most part they would pull their forelocks and vow not to sin again. So it was that Granada's exceptional arrogance, obduracy and plain insubordination gave the authority so much pain and grief... Yet neither Sidney nor I ever felt the slightest apprehension that our rebellious ways would threaten the renewal of our licence."
At times they sailed close to the wind, for the clashes with the authority were more than mere skirmishes. World in Action, the hard-hitting current affairs series, was frequently in trouble. The IBA was outraged, for example, when, having banned a Granada programme dealing with defence, it learned that the company had given it to the BBC and persuaded Panorama to screen an excerpt. Occasional investigations into corruption also generated much heat in high places; and even a programme calling attention to the alleged under-funding of the British Olympics team caused a rumpus. But World in Action was well researched and, more often than not, when the full facts were known, Granada was able to prove that it was on the side of the angels. The protesters were sometimes left with a satisfying amount of egg on their faces - as when a programme critical of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was held to have failed to recognise his true qualities - a charge that looked absurd once the facts about his regime's brutality became known.
Oddly enough, it was the non-transmission of a World in Action programme at Granada's behest that put thoughts of resignation into Forman's head (and the inclusion of this story is evidence that he is no less candid in dealing with matters that went wrong from his point of view as in commenting on the mistakes of others). Sidney Bernstein's brother, Cecil, who had always had a leading role in the company, was a keen and influential freemason. He told Sidney in writing that if the company went ahead with plans for a World in Action programme on the masons, he would feel obliged to resign. On hearing this, Forman told Bernstein, who was in deep distress. "If the show does not go out, Sidney, you may keep Cecil but you may lose me." The programme did not go out. Forman spent five days at home thinking matters over, but finally decided that no useful purpose would be served by his resignation. So he went back to work.
For most of the time, however, the Bernstein-Forman partnership undoubtedly worked well. But even after reading Forman's engagingly frank and amusing account of their years together, it is not easy to decide what his feelings about Bernstein really were; perhaps because he is not trying to reach any final verdict. There is high praise for Bernstein's personal charm, courage and powers of leadership - a "great and wonderful man", he calls him at one stage; and there are ample recollections of their "easy friendship" in the early days. But some barbed comments are made as well.
One of the factors that seems to have irritated Forman increasingly over the years and led him to try to set the record straight was Bernstein's habit of focusing all the praise for the company's achievements on himself and thus making it appear to the outside world that he was the "only true begetter" of Granada programmes. Forman saw that "one of his greatest strokes of genius was his ability to conceal under a front of exceptional modesty a ruthless drive to ensure that none of his colleagues was visible to the public eye... It was not his custom to acknowledge that anyone within the portals, even his brother Cecil, contributed anything of significance to the onward march of Granada."
Forman cites some examples of this hunger for centre-stage attention. The pioneering coverage of the Rochdale byelection - a watershed occasion in political reporting on television - led The Guardian to praise Bernstein as "a real innovator in television programming". Forman points out that at the time Bernstein was on holiday in Jamaica and out of touch with events in Rochdale. Similarly, with the bold gesture of handing over to the BBC the banned World in Action programme mentioned above, Bernstein claimed it was he who had given the necessary permission. "As I recall it," says Forman, "Sidney knew nothing of this affair until I called him just before Panorama went out."
But, as though to balance the negative side of his assessment, Forman also draws attention to the practical advantages of having Bernstein permanently in the spotlight: "I for one was quite content to see him credited with shows in which he had taken no part (or which he had even opposed) on the grounds that, in the wider scheme of things, to have him perceived as the benevolent patriarch of all Granada's output, indeed of everything that made up Granada, was a positive plus."
One can only conclude that, despite the occasional clashes between two independent-minded men, there was more to unite them than divide them. They can both afford to stand by the record.
Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.
Author - Denis Forman
ISBN - 0 233 98987 0
Publisher - Andre Deutsch
Price - £17.99
Pages - 320