Tony Garnett, one of the most respected figures in British television drama, is also one of its most reclusive. Most people these days have almost certainly never heard of him, or, if they have, probably think he is a distant relation of Alf Garnett, of Till Death Us Do Part fame.
Even though the cantankerous Alf was a fictional character (played by the great, late Warren Mitchell), there is a slight connection between place and time. Both Alf and Tony Garnett were creatures of BBC Television in the monochromatic 1960s. While Alf made Britain shudder with his crude pre-Trumpist views that embraced racism and sexism, Tony, a producer who joined the BBC fresh from university, made Britain think hard about social realism. He was one of that generation of so-called radical creators who tackled the economic and social issues of the day, highlighting endemic problems such as housing, child care, police corruption, and psychiatric cruelty.
Through the use of such formidable directors such as Ken Loach, Garnett was responsible for a string of social-realistic documentary-dramas, all shot on grainy film stock and always on location, the most famous of which were Cathy Come Home (1966) and Up the Junction (1968). Garnett had a thirteen-year association with Loach (‘We were joined at the hip,’ Garnett recalls), which also resulted in the feature film Kes (1969) about a young Yorkshire lad who befriends a kestrel. It nearly didn’t get made, when a financier, turning it down, said, ‘Sorry, not for us. Wrong kind of bird.’