Saturday 29 April 2023

How I Wrote Lytton’s Diary: Writer Ray Connolly Tells All

Nearly four decades after its pilot episode aired, Lytton's Diary writer, Ray Connolly, remembers the series being a big hit with the very people it was profiling "All the journalists I knew loved it. We got Fleet Fleet as right as we could."

Connolly, who had worked as a journalist on The Evening Standard, began work on Lytton's Diary hot on the heels of TV projects which included the trilogy of plays Almost Tomorrow, Our Kid and An Hour In the Life in 1977 as well as the ATV series of comedic plays Honky Tonk Heroes from 1981. The initial seed of Lytton's Diary came from Peter Bowles. However, as Connolly explains, it was down to him to structure it into something which met the high standards expected from Thames:

"The series was actually Peter Bowles' idea. He used to read Nigel Dempster's column in the Daily Mail and thought it might make a series. At the time he was extremely bankable after the success of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh. So he first asked a friend of his, Philip Broadley, to write a pilot script, which he then sent to Thames TV.

The head of drama at Thames TV, Verity Lambert, liked the idea, but not the script. She also felt that the series had to be written by someone who had a knowledge of Fleet Street and how newspapers worked. Philip Broadley wasn't a journalist. I never met him, nor did I see his unmade script. He was never involved. I'd spent ten years in newspapers before I wrote Lytton's Diary, and knew the internal politics, rivalries, vocabulary and pace of working in them."

Connolly was well placed to step in and, before long, he entered the fold with a clear vision for the series.

"Anyway, Verity rang my agent and they asked me if I was interested. I wasn't particularly, but I agreed to meet with Verity and Peter Bowles. We all got on. But it would have to be a complete restart if I was to write it. Which it was. We agreed I would write a pilot and see how it went. Which I did.

When it was written, I got on well with Peter and the Executive Producer, Lloyd Shirley, but fell out immediately with the suggested producer, who thought he knew more about newspapers than I did. So, I was going to walk away, but the producer was asked to walk away instead. And I stayed. 

I can't remember much about the Storyboard episode, other than we got a proper producer with whom I got on with. To be honest, I was always confident that it would be commissioned as a series. I knew it was good, as did Peter, who became a good friend."

Lytton's Diary aired during a time where newspaper based TV series - Mitch, Hot Metal and Hold the Back Page - were regularly popping up on British television. But, for Connolly, these were far from his mind and, instead, he wanted to deliver a programme steeped in realism.

"I never saw any of the other TV series. The only thing I saw was the film All The Presidents Men. I wanted Lytton's Diary to be real, not comedy and not a soap and not exaggerated. The only unreal thing about it was that most of the stories that Lytton covered would actually have been front page news in reality, rather than on an inside Diary page.

It was important to see Lytton's personal life. It's impossible for viewers to understand anyone unless you know a bit about them. The actor who played Lytton's wife was a friend of mine called Fiona Mollison, who had been in an earlier play I'd written for the BBC. What was important was to build the team on the Diary, and make them all different with their own lives, and hope that the director and casting director would cast them well. That was done. They were all excellent.

The idea of the Murdoch character was because newspapers were at the time in constant uproar with new buyers coming in and jobs were insecure. John Stride was brilliant in the Murdoch role. So Lytton had always to be aware that he could be sacked, as Henry Field had been in the first episode.

The other crucial thing was the newspaper office, which was built from scratch, inside an unused office (actually we used another office for the second series). The designer went to the Evening Standard (my old paper) in Shoe Lane, EC4, to take photographs so that he could reproduce the shape of the office. Another important element was to have a lot of extras looking as though they were working in the background, and also lots of small parts for messengers and various editorial types."

Connolly remembers the writing process being primarily a solo process, as the credits suggest, but there was some input from the star of the series.

"Peter had a few ideas, a couple of which used. The Lady In The Mask was his one line idea, but a good starting point. Each episode had about three little plots going. The scripts each took about four weeks to write, so the series took many months."

Lytton's Diary ran for two series and was a regular fixture in the top 50 performing broadcasts each week it aired, with viewing figures hitting between 8 - 11 million over the series lifetime. And, as Connolly explains, there should have been more.

"I was asked to do a third series after the second series went out, and was happily getting on with planning how the newspaper would go digital. But then a new head of Thames TV decided to scrap it. We never got an explanation. Peter Bowles was very upset. I can only imagine that it was too expensive."

Ray Connolly, however, has continued to write extensively for a wide range of mediums and more details of his work can be found on his website.

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