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A Journey Through Euston Films by Ian Jones
First published March 2006
A survey by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in 1979 found that only 44% of viewers living in London knew that Thames Television was their local ITV station. This, despite schedules being stacked with programmes niftily titled Thames at Six, Thames Report and Thames Debate, wall-to-wall continuity plastered with the distinctive Thames logo, and an in-house jingle famous enough to be parodied by Morecambe and Wise.
The official explanation for this curious statistic suggested that, despite being the largest ITV company with the highest number of staff and greatest number of programmes on air, Thames had become too big to be noticed. Its ubiquity was so taken for granted it had simply lost any significant identity.
With hindsight such an assessment seems not just half-hearted but also somewhat ironic. For in 1979 Thames’ most watched and ubiquitous shows weren’t actually Thames’ at all. They were the creation of its subsidiary company, Euston Films: the smallest ITV operation with the least number of staff and lowest number of programmes on air. Yet in the shape of The Sweeney and Minder it had bequeathed to its parent two of the most successful dramas in the history of commercial television.
Euston Films was born in 1971 to no acclaim whatsoever and died in 1992 pretty much the same way. Over the course of its 21-year existence it was responsible for a battery of exciting, entertaining and groundbreaking TV shows that turned the industry on its head, delivered more ratings bankers than any other ITV company, and helped launch the careers of scores of influential individuals both in front and behind the camera. But although it’s a fair bet somewhat more than 44% of London viewers could identify a Euston Films production in 1979, throughout its life the company never seemed able to punch above its weight, nor amass enough momentum to survive outside of its father’s wisp-like shadow.
OTT has cast its eye over the Euston Films balance sheet and compiled a rundown of its respective hits and misses. It’s a salute to the company’s somewhat mercurial fortunes, its singular working practices, its sometimes demented obsessions, and above all its ability to deliver the goods on a ratio far in excess of any of its ITV bedfellows.
Six of the Best
1. THE SWEENEY (1975 – 78)
“It was obvious that in the crime area if we could find the right people and the right sort of format, that was perhaps the most useful thing Euston could do.” So spoke the famously frugal Jeremy Isaacs, who as Director of Programmes at Thames had ultimate say over Euston’s purse strings. As such the timely arrival of The Sweeney not only appeased the men in suits, but helped focus the fledgling company on playing to its strengths and seeing just what it could do with a shoestring budget, a job lot of free motors from Ford and, literally, a couple of desks and chairs. Euston’s founding bosses, Lloyd Shirley and George Taylor, ran a tight ship, but this in turn helped establish The Sweeney’s pioneering style: filming done on the fly using as many natural locations as possible, each episode shot in just 10 days, and the cast changing costume in the back of a car. The fact it all worked, and went on working for 53 episodes, was thanks to John Thaw and Dennis Waterman’s enduringly fresh patter (fiercely antagonistic one minute, amusingly flippant the next) and the fact first class actors, writers and directors clamoured to be involved. Plus there was Harry South’s title music, one of the best to ever grace a crime drama, and the first in a splendidly long line of infinitely hummable Euston theme tunes.
2. OUT (1978)/FOX (1980)
Writer Trevor Preston and director Jim Goddard had known each other for years, but had never worked together – despite pitching an idea for a Euston Films-type organisation to ABC way back in 1965. When Verity Lambert arrived at Euston and commissioned Out, Preston – wearied by endless episodes of The Sweeney – was about to quit and start a boat-building business. Enthused by Lambert’s commitment (“I’ve never seen anybody make a decision so quickly”) he came up with a six-part revenge saga featuring newly released prisoner Frank Ross (Tom Bell) settling scores with people and places of his past. And he insisted on working with Jim Goddard. The pair delivered one of the most persuasive depictions of an ex-con’s life, besides handing Euston its first purely character-led hit drama serial. Then they proceeded to do it all again two years later, but on a far bigger scale and to even greater success with the dazzling Fox: a 13-part “South London Godfather” (Preston’s words) boasting much soapbox grandstanding, a truckload of emotion, and Peter Vaughn, Bernard Hill, Ray Winstone, Larry Lamb and Elizabeth Spriggs. Jeremy Isaacs rated it one of his favourite series of all time – no mean feat for a man whose preferred idea of popular entertainment was televising a four-hour Greek opera.
3. MINDER (1979 – 95)
A mark of how quickly Verity Lambert made her presence felt at Euston was the comparatively huge amount of new programming she chaperoned onto screen in a relatively short period of time. Despite the entire network being blacked out for 75 consecutive days thanks to strike action, 1979 saw wall-to-wall Euston efforts on ITV, of which Minder was undoubtedly of chief importance. Unlike The Sweeney, which was the most influential programme the company ever made, Minder was far and away the most successful. It kept Euston in pocket throughout the ’80s and early ’90s (until the show was snapped up by Central TV) and opened up many lucrative international markets. Then there was the heady brew of ingredients on screen: a brazenly unique mix of low drama and high farce; dependably preposterous plotting; shameless outbreaks of bare breasts and knuckle sandwiches; one of TV’s greatest ever double acts; and of course another superb Euston title theme, memorably performed by Dennis Waterman and the Dennis Waterman Band. Among its many other accomplishments (including turning a sheepskin shyster into a national icon), it’s also worth noting the way Minder perpetrated that rare act of jumping the shark (Minder on the Orient Express) only to jump back again when Waterman was replaced by Gary Webster.
4. DANGER UXB (1979)
“One looked at the budget,” reminisced a typically selfless Jeremy Isaacs, “and did a series about World War II.” Blessed with a fantastic hook – which member of the titular bomb disposal squad would get killed off this week? – yet another superb theme tune (courtesy of Simon “Eye Level” Park) and the steady hand of Upstairs Downstairs‘ John Hawkesworth on the tiller, Danger UXB had everything going for it … except the potential for a second series. There simply wasn’t the money or the stories (taken from the real-life defusal exploits of Major Bill Hartley) for a return run, and hence Danger UXB became the only drama series in the history of Euston not to be recommissioned. It was a shame, because the mix of attention to detail, high production values and judicious casting (handing Anthony Andrews his big break) set a new standard for period drama. It also, thanks to the “no videotape” rule, left the recent studio-bound historical efforts of Thames (Edward and Mrs Simpson) and LWT (Lillie) looking hopelessly ineffective.
5. THE KNOWLEDGE (1979)
The last one-off drama ever to be made by Euston was a real gem: Jack Rosenthal’s expertly crafted tale of the part-comical, part-convoluted shenanigans involved in becoming a professional London taxi driver. A candidate for the best script Rosenthal ever produced, The Knowledge’s outstanding asset was what TV Times always used to call a star-encrusted cast. Nigel Hawthorne stole the show with a relentless turn as the examiner Mr Burgess (“I won’t take offence if anyone here decides to call me ‘Sir’”), but was ably supported by the likes of Jonathan Lynn, David Ryall, the obligatory Maureen Lipman, Lesley Joseph, Mick Ford and Michael Elphick. Transmitted to warm acclaim at Christmas 1979, The Knowledge capped one of the most productive years in Euston’s life, and though it was the last of its kind, at least the company signed off its association with the genre on a high.
6. REILLY – ACE OF SPIES (1983)
Conceived by Verity Lambert to be the most expensive Euston production to date (£4.5m), Reilly – Ace of Spies had been doing the rounds of commissioning offices for over a decade before it made it onto air. Troy Kennedy-Martin wrote 12 scripts, according to producer Chris Burt, “in a vacuum by himself in a room in Notting Hill Gate”. They subsequently had to be completely redone when new facts uncovered by professional historians rendered them out of date. In fact, the titular agent’s tortured life increasingly mirrored the tortuous business of bringing his career to screen, with crucial last-minute information only coming Kennedy-Martin’s way thanks to the location manager’s mother being married to someone who knew where to find Reilly’s old letters. A frantic production requiring the largest amount of set construction Euston had ever done belied the finished results: an epic travelogue across numerous continents and decades, revolving around a gruff yet moving performance by Sam Neill, peopled by the likes of Leo McKern, Peter Egan, Diana Hardcastle, Norman Rodway, Bill Nighy, Michael Aldridge, Kenneth Cranham and, famously, David Burke as Joe Stalin, all topped off by yet another brilliant title theme.
Six of the Worst
1. VAN DER VALK (1977)
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Handing responsibility for Thames TV’s flagging detective series to Euston Films would surely give Van Der Valk a timely makeover and new lease of life. If nothing else it would banish the memory of two series filled with clumsy segueing between videotaped inserts in a studio at Teddington and glamorous location filming in Amsterdam. Now the entire show would be on film and hence resemble a far more glossy, substantial product – and one, crucially, that could be flogged to America. In reality the decision spelled disaster. “It went off at half cock,” recalled associate producer Chris Burt. A huge row blew up between different branches of various trade unions over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to work on a programme that had previously been made by Thames, and hence was covered by TV-related working practices, but was now being done on film involving a whole new set of terms and conditions. The infighting sapped morale and distracted Euston from investing any real care into the end product. “All the energies of the production team went into just ensuring that it would be done,” noted Burt. “The scripts got behind so it didn’t have the sort of smooth run up it should have had or the real sort of location finding it needed.” Despite high ratings on transmission, the amount of bad blood sloshing around prompted Jeremy Isaacs to axe the show immediately. “Van Der Valk was a mistake,” he curtly concluded.
2. QUATERMASS (1979)
Another of Euston’s class of ‘79, debuting the first night ITV was back on air after the strike, Quatermass was a further attempt by Verity Lambert to get the company noticed in America. Coming in at £1m, Nigel Kneale’s tangled tale of dystopian nightmares, sparring generations, post-punk flowerchildren and lots and lots of chalk dust wasn’t the most obvious tonic with which to welcome home ITV viewers, but network bosses were looking for a big hitter and Sir John Mills saving the world was as big as they could get at the time. Euston tried to eke every possible mileage out of the production, re-editing it for general release in the cinema. But although it did as Lambert intended and got shown in the United States, the film failed to secure distribution in this country. A sprawling, semi-coherent philosophical tract-cum-adventure romp, Quatermass was a far cry from its thrilling 1950s antecedents. The title of the first episode said it all: “Huffity Puffity Ringstone Round”. Producer Ted Childs got it right when he diplomatically concluded Quatermass to be “perhaps too depressing a story for a popular television audience”.
3. NIGHT TRAIN TO MURDER (1984)
One of the main reasons Eric’n'Ern followed the money to Thames in 1978 was the promise of celluloid. The pair hadn’t made any forays onto the silver screen since 1967, and as such the chance of utilising Euston Films to satiate their cinematic yearnings seemed ideal. Sadly it was not to be. For a start it took ages before anybody got round to writing a script, thanks partly to Eric’s failing health and partly because nobody was available to write it. Then it turned out nobody had the money or inclination to turn the script into a full-length feature. Then the duo themselves seemed disinterested in working at all. Finally Euston cobbled something together, the result being the simply woeful Night Train to Murder: an under-produced over-inflated pastiche of Agatha Christie roustabouts, which even the presence of Fulton MacKay and Lysette Anthony could not enhance. Rubbish from the start to finish, Euston had the misfortune to premiere the film just before Eric’s death, thereby ensuring Night Train to Murder – along with all its other faults – became the most inappropriate epitaph in history.
4. PROSPECTS (1986)
Not a massive flop by any measure, Prospects was more a somewhat laboured attempt by Euston to try something self-consciously “new” that didn’t quite work but didn’t go horribly wrong either. The first major project to be mounted after Verity Lambert’s departure from the company, it was everything Reilly – Ace of Spies was not: low budget, no frills, downbeat, contemporary and made for Channel 4. Writer Alan Janes had brought Prospects direct to Euston, pitching it as an underside-of-Thatcher’s-Britain 12-part amble through the lives of unashamedly working class unemployed Londoners trying to make ends meet. What emerged was neither rampantly political, nor waspishly satirical, but a bit of both. The two leads, Gary Olsen and Brian Bovell, clearly had a great time filming the whole thing, but given each episode found the boys trying and failing to pull off yet another zany scheme, ultimately nothing was proved. Prospects was a worthy stab at a different kind of London-based street drama that nonetheless didn’t quite come off.
5. JACK THE RIPPER (1988)
Another misguided foray into made-for-telly film. Originally conceived as a vehicle for no less a pairing than Barry Foster and Brian Capron (together at last!), the money ran out after 20 minutes of footage had been shot. Euston scrabbled around for pennies but to no avail, ultimately heading off, cap in hand, across the Atlantic. Demanding “names” in exchange for cash, the Americans would settle for nothing less than a complete recasting, resulting in those well-known masters of underplayed period melodrama, Michael Caine and Lewis Collins, assuming the lead roles of Inspector Abberline and Sergeant Godley. Not that the script wasn’t a concentrated muddle to begin with, having been penned by erstwhile Sweeney director David Wickes with the intention of “finding out why Jack was never brought to justice”. What with Caine’s histrionics, Collins’s gurning, cameos by Gerald Sim and Edward Judd plus an inordinate amount of business from smoke machines, by the end of Jack the Ripper just as much mystery surrounded the titular felon’s escape as why the film had been made in the first place.
6. CAPITAL CITY (1989 – 90)
“If he doesn’t break even, he breaks his phone.” With taglines like that, how could Capital City possibly fail to not be a complete failure? Euston threw everything at this earnestly promoted cocktail of high finance, greed, sexual horseplay and shouting. Everything, that is, except anything close to a credible plot or particularly likeable characters. All the employees of Shane Longmans, the show’s crux and fictional City of London banking house, occupied dreary storylines and drab conversations. It proved impossible to care for either their high living or even higher stock market portfolios. All the ’80s clichés were there, which was another fatal mistake given the ’80s were almost over and all the depictions of economic boomtime and financial fecundity jarred with the reality of looming recession. Things just got worse when the series was recommissioned, Capital City looking even more irrelevant in a 1990 where unemployment, repossessions and interest rates were all spiralling seemingly out of control. A rare failure on all levels – conception, execution and delivery – the show portended ill for Euston’s survival. Sure enough, the company’s death sentence was served 12 months later when its parent, Thames, lost its licence. When the time came to begin divesting its assets, Euston was top of the list.
Special Branch was where it all began. Euston inherited the studio-bound show from Thames in 1973 after two series, and went on to turn in two more entirely on film. Considered groundbreaking at the time, nowadays it doesn’t stand up at all well in the light of what followed. There are just enough cameos, however, to forgive the lacklustre plots and Patrick Mower’s posturing. Widows 1983 – 85) remains hugely watchable, despite the weaker second series, and is still one of the best thing Lynda La Plante has ever written. The Nation’s Health (1983) was an absolutely archetypal Isaacs-era Channel 4 affair, each of its grisly episodes being followed by a studio discussion about the decline of the NHS. By complete contrast The Flame Trees of Thika (1981) was, at the time, the first Euston production to be set abroad. Boasting Hayley Mills wielding a shotgun and lots of shots of Kenyan coffee plantations, it did enough business to justify the huge travelling expenses. John Mortimer adapted his own Paradise Postponed (1986) for Euston to great success, while the similarly epic Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1992) at least guaranteed the company didn’t bow out with Capital City. Other odds and ends worth investigating include the various Armchair Cinema productions (1974 – 75) including, of course, Regan; and the only children’s programme Euston ever made, the bizarre animation-meets-puppetry-meets-live-action Stainless Steel and the Star Spies (1980) starring the memorable combination of Derek Guyler and the voices of Bob Hoskins and Ed Bishop.