Sunday 28 June 2020

In Discussion with Joy Whitby

It's easy (and fashionable) to label individuals as pioneers, but it's much harder for those individuals to justify such plaudits. Joy Whitby, however, is an exception. Her career is one that speaks for itself and underlines its credentials in the boldest marks imaginable.

Starting her career at the BBC in the mid-1950s, Joy has spent nearly 70 years ensuring that children are entertained. Now, column inches may tend to be reserved for those in front of the camera, but it's important to remember that television is a team effort. Those behind the cameras are equally important and that's why I decided to get in touch with Joy and find out more about her story.

You started your career in television at the BBC, but how did you end up working there and, in particular, the children’s department?

I got married in 1954 and needed a job. I thought of becoming a social worker and joined the London Mayfair Clinic as one of several secretaries working for a small group of psychiatrists. Patients would leave their young children in the waiting room which must have been an anxious time for them. I started telling them stories and one day, one of the secretaries took me aside and showed me two advertisements in The Times. One was for a studio manager (the BBC culled about 50 graduates a year) and the other was for a producer on Listen with Mother.

I applied and was boarded for both but didn’t get the LWM job. In fact, a year as a studio manager proved invaluable experience, watching different producers at work and making sound effects for dramas. A year later, the candidate they had chosen for LWM left and I was boarded again - this time successfully. The Head of that unit was a wonderful woman called Jean Sutcliffe who invented the phrase “Are you sitting comfortably” and helped to create a new literature for the under-fives. I learned a great deal from her.

You helped to create and launch Play School in 1964, so what was involved in getting it to air and what did you want to achieve with it?

From radio I applied for attachments to television - to Blue Peter under its creator, John Hunter Blair, and to Schools Broadcasting. Whilst there, BBC2 came on air and the new Head of Programmes, Michael Peacock, decided to set aside half an hour for small children, Monday to Friday. There was a dearth of nursery schools at the time and with a young family of his own, he could see the potential for a television programme to fill the gap. I was appointed to run Play School which was an exciting challenge.

I consulted experts in the education world, but for the most part was given an amazingly free hand. I appointed a new and largely untried production team including talented graphic artists. I devised the content, selected the presenters and wrote many weeks of scripts to set the format. The aim was to stimulate children at home in different ways on different days with a team of interchanging presenters, not all English. There would be songs and stories, toys and pets, opportunities to join in and magical windows to look out on the world beyond the Play School set. We had no idea how long the programme might run - I don’t think any of us would have predicted 24 years.

There were a wide range of presenters involved in Play School, but one of the best remembered was the late, great Brian Cant. What was it that impressed you about Brian at his audition and how was he to work with?

Brian was one of Nature’s gentlemen with an extraordinary range of talents.  A joy to work with, he could improvise, dance, sing, be both funny and serious and he connected with his young audience without ever talking down.  He was totally committed to the job and became a role model for others in the team. He often recalled his audition as one of the first presenters. Without advance warning, I asked him to get into a cardboard box and pretend it was a boat sailing across the sea. He set off on a wonderfully zany journey - fun for anyone watching and proof of his charm and ability to improvise, seemingly effortlessly.

What did you feel were your biggest achievements at the BBC?

Play School and Jackanory.

The success of Play School led to being offered another daily slot a year later. This was to be for slightly older children at teatime and as a team we decided to fill it with storytelling. There was a treasure house of children’s literature to draw on from all over the world, novels and picture books, legends and new writing. Most of it had hardly been touched for television and I thought if we could marry great stories to talented people in the adult world of entertainment, we might achieve something original and exciting – within a modest budget.

Sir Compton Mackenzie had just presented a programme for adults called The Glory that was Greece and agreed to tell Greek legends. The eccentric old actress, Margaret Rutherford, read Beatrix Potter stories. We also invited people who were not necessarily famous but had made a name for themselves in their profession, like Eileen Colwell, an elderly storyteller in a children’s library. Soon it became fashionable for leading actors and actresses to queue up for a week on Jackanory. The series ran for 30 years.

You moved to the newly formed LWT in 1968, but what prompted this move and how different was the world of commercial television from the BBC?

When Michael Peacock was appointed Managing Director of the new television franchise, London Weekend Television, he asked several BBC colleagues to join him. I felt honoured to be included with people like Humphrey Burton and Frank Muir and my admired boss, Doreen Stephens, Head of Family Programmes.

I felt I owed Michael loyalty in return for his support at the BBC. Now he was offering new opportunities which were irresistible. I was given shares in the company which proved very useful later when it came to raising funds for my own ventures as an independent. But that wasn’t the main reason for jumping ship. There had been an embargo on BBC Children’s producing drama - a great frustration. At LWT there would be money and encouragement for such projects. Whilst there, I produced Knock Three Times with Hattie Jaques, The Growing Summer with Wendy Hiller and Catweazle with Geoffrey Bayldon.

I remember being quite shocked at first by the difference between working for the BBC and commercial television. At the BBC, there was established expertise to draw on and pride in belonging to such a revered organisation. The studios were backed up by first class make-up and wardrobe, design and sound departments, largely based at Television Centre. At one time I had an office looking down into the central courtyard. At London Weekend, we started in a small office in Park Lane before moving to an open plan, modern block on the Western Avenue. Then there were apartments in Old Burlington Street which felt more like a hotel than a broadcasting base. The studio we used was at Wembley.  

The granting of new franchises led to a lot of ill feeling and redundancies. Many of the people who had lost their jobs in the re-shuffle needed to be taken aboard, whatever their qualifications for working on Children’s Programmes. At LWT we were all settling down after the first challenging years when there was a palace revolution. Michael Peacock was sacked and most of his appointments from the BBC felt we owed it to him to resign in protest.

Following this rather acrimonious departure from LWT you set up as an independent production company. How challenging was this move and what were the benefits/drawbacks of going solo?

There was a sense of moral euphoria after leaving LWT. Doors had closed. I couldn’t go back to the BBC and there were no openings at my level in other ITV companies. But we were confident and optimistic. This was before the independent sector became a force through the creation of Channel 4.  But I was lucky. My ex-secretary had social connections and met a financier who would back my first project, Grasshopper Island.

Doreen Stephens was joint producer and Frank Muir agreed to advise on locations and take part in the filming. It was exciting being in total charge, able to engage wonderful talent like Julian Orchard and Patricia Hayes and work with hand-picked experts like The Goodies cameraman, Tony Leggo. When we started out, I had no idea of the difficulties ahead. We were very shocked when the BBC turned down our Grasshopper Island pilot as “too middle-class” – my first awareness of hostility from ex colleagues. I wasn’t able to embark on new independent projects for another fifteen years.

However, we had enough confidence in the project to press on despite this setback. ITV and many other countries bought Grasshopper Island and people are still buying the DVD version. The latest vindication and source of reassurance comes from a long-standing fan in Germany who is currently setting up a Grasshopper Island website to commemorate 50 years since we made the series. You have to be dogged as an independent producer and believe in yourself against the odds!

A lengthy stint at Yorkshire Television started in the late 1970s where you helped to create shows such as The Book Tower, Raggy Dolls and The Giddy Game Show. What was life at Yorkshire like and what did you want to achieve at this point in your career?  

Paul Fox had recently become the new Managing Director at Yorkshire Television. My husband used to work under him at the BBC so we had met and he knew about my credentials. I was widowed in 1975 and a year later, when Paul parted company with Jess Yates, he invited me to become his new Head of Children’s Programmes. My ten years at YTV were very productive. I had an office in London and an office in Leeds and commuted for part of the week, staying at the Queen’s Hotel.

Paul was happiest dealing with Sport and Current Affairs but he took an active interest in the whole of his output and was an inspiring boss. We had weekly meetings in his Yorkshire office to discuss the children’s output, staffing and new ideas. He encouraged me to attend conferences like the Prix Jeunesse in Munich and was generous about visits to colleagues abroad like the people running Sesame Street in New York.  I was the only woman at Heads of Department meetings apart from an accountant, and YTV was fairly chauvinistic at that time. But many of my colleagues were very able and most of them were friendly so the atmosphere was creative. As in the BBC and LWT, the Children’s sector was like a little world of its own.

I’ve never been very career conscious. I enjoy work for its own sake and have been fortunate in being in the right place at the right time. I was at the start of BBC2, LWT, YTV and Channel 4. Becoming an independent has been a huge opportunity to do my own thing in my own way.

What did you find were the biggest challenges you faced during your career both as an individual and as part of a corporation?

Managing teams of talented people is certainly challenging and can be stressful. Those who work for you often think they can do your job better. You need to be a bit of a psychiatrist to understand what’s going on behind the fa├žade. The television arena encourages gossip and I had my share of the damage long-term hostility can do. But I also found loyal friends and had the privilege of working with many memorable people. Stars like Terry Jones, Neil Innes, George Melly and dozens of others who dominated what we look back on as the golden age of Children’s Television. I also had a loving family behind the scenes which I’m sure helped to put ups and downs at work into perspective.

What do you feel is essential when it comes to entertaining and educating children through a television set?

At the risk of being dismissed as an elitist, I’ve always opted for quality programming and been cautious about getting involved with popular blockbusters. It was a factor, but for most of my time as a children’s producer I wasn’t dogged by the need to increase ratings. I was brought up to respect the Reithian ethic to inform and educate through entertainment.

Examples I’m proud of are The Book Tower which ran successfully for ten years. And the European Broadcasting Union’s Drama Exchange for children. Participants as far away as Australia and Japan joined the scheme which presented short dramatized stories about children in different countries.  You didn’t need to understand the language to follow the plot. The aim was to show how like we are all over the world and yet how different in interesting ways. In its first year, the Australian entry, Danny’s Egg, won a Prix Jeunesse award.

Financial pressures are quite different today and the scene has changed drastically from the days when television was the main source of entertainment for children. It must be much harder to be elitist today!

Who were the people you most enjoyed working with and why?  
I particularly enjoyed working with the late Neil Innes who was introduced by Terry Jones, having been part of the Monty Python team. I had admired his series, The Innes Book of Records, and saw him perform at the Edinburgh Festival. He was multi-talented as a composer, singer and performer and our first collaboration was on The Terry Jones Fairy Tales which he adapted for television. He went on to present The Book Tower and worked on other series for Yorkshire Television.  

One of our most charismatic presenters was Tom Baker who launched The Book Tower and fronted it for three magical seasons. But there were numerous other memorable colleagues over the years –  too many to list though I have a special regard for the late Tim Brooke-Taylor who played the six Voices of Authority in Grasshopper Island and remained a family friend.

And, finally, what are you up to these days?

As I approach ninety, I’m still lucky enough to be working through my independent company, Grasshopper Productions. Over the years, I’ve produced both live action and animated films for children. They were all shown first on television but are now marketed as DVDs. Alongside packaging and posting these DVDs, I write and illustrate my own stories for children - a creative solace in these days of lockdown.

More of Joy Whitby's work can be found over at the Grasshopper Productions website.

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