Denis Forman 

9 January 2014


Sir John “Denis” Forman OBE was a founding executive and later Chairman of Granada Television (1974-1987) and Deputy Chairman of the Granada Group (1984-1990). He made a substantial contribution to UK commercial television, mainly with the north-west regional ITV contractor and major supplier to the ITV system, Granada.

Although not very often credited as a “producer”, make no mistake about it, Forman was very influential behind the scenes at Granada and responsible for some of the station’s most well known and iconic programmes. This would range from the part-networked What The Papers Say, to an initial six-week continuing drama with the working title “Florizel Street” created by Granada researcher Tony Warren.

Until he became joint managing director in 1965, he had no title, but masterminded other early successes including World in Action. This was one of the major current affairs documentary series pioneered by ITV in the days when it had a “real” public service remit.

One series seen very much as his own pigeon was The Verdict Is Yours (1958-63), a series of fictional trials which the actors improvised as they went along and a jury formed by members of the general public decided the verdict. Only the jury foreman was an actor, as he or she had to say “guilty” or “not guilty” as the case may have been. This series was reformed and resurrected again in 1972 when ITV was allowed to increase broadcasting hours in the daytime, and programmes like News at One from ITN had light entertainment shows and drama wrapped around it. The Verdict Is Yours became Crown Court, and its well known theme “Distant Hills” was the B side of the hit single “Eye Level”, the theme to the Thames series Van der Valk, which became No 1 in the hit parade.

Forman also brought classic quality drama to ITV with series like A Family At War, a John Finch blockbuster from 1972, a 26-part series set in wartime Liverpool. It was the most expensive ITV drama in its day, and part of its production was caught up in one of the trades union disputes that seemed to so affect mainly ITV throughout the 70s. Many of the actors called to film, for example, on the sand dunes of Formby in Lancashire had to be recalled due to a strike at Granada. However, the series went on to be a huge success, and later Forman was behind even bigger-budget quality drama including Brideshead Revisited, and a major series part-filmed in India, Jewel in the Crown. This 15-hour series was shown by Granada in 1985, cost £5.5 million and involved 20 weeks’ filming on location. The cast included Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Pigott-Smith, Charles Dance and Geraldine James, and the series went on to amass more awards than any other series in the history of British television.

Denis Forman was undoubtedly a huge player in ITV and he would attend meetings of other ITV executives at the Independent Television Authority (ITA) headquarters in plush Knightsbridge. Forman would attend black-tie dos with the likes of Sir Lew Grade of Associated TeleVision, Sir Paul Fox of Yorkshire Television, Muir Sutherland or Jeremy Isaacs from Thames Television and Sir John Freeman, Cyril Bennett or Brian Tesler from London Weekend. This all-white, upper-middle-class band of gentlemen ran Independent Television and decided on the bulk of its output and when each programme would be screened.

Squeezing into the photos of these large scheduling and dinner events were of course the Chairman or Managing Directors of some of the smaller minnows in ITV. The likes of Sir John Davis of Rank, who ran Southern Independent Television (part owned by Daily Mail group, part by Rank and part by non-union Dundee comic publishers of the Beano and Dandy DC Thompson) based in Southampton, stood side by side Lord “Aubrey” Buxton, Chairman of Anglia Television based in Norwich. Southern provided ITV with networked opera from Glyndbourne, which must have delighted the opera-loving Forman.

Denis Forman was one of the early ITV managers to promote women. In the post-1968 contract era, Muriel Young was offered a post uniquely suited to her at Granada, head of the newly created Children Television department. Young worked out of an office at Granada’s London offices in Golden Square. Forman was supportive of Young’s efforts to improve TV for children with shows like A Handful of Songs, Shangalang (with the Bay City Rollers) and Lift Off (an inter-regional ITV children’s quiz and talent series).

In supporting women like Young and promoting women like Pat Pearson to direct Granada football matches, unheard of at the time, to TV drama producers and directors like June Howson who worked on almost all conceivable Granada drama, including Coronation Street and Adam Smith (initially a Sunday religious drama placed in the protected “God Slot” from 6.15 until 7.25pm). He gave the church minister Smith the forename of Adam after his father, as he tried to make up for what will later be explained in his youth was a major doctrinal row with his parents, his father Adam being staunch Presbyterian. The church drama consequentially had such little religious content that is was removed from the God Slot into general programming.

With Young, Pearson and Howson supported by Forman, it was not long before other women “made it” within the male world of Independent Television, as evidenced by Linda Agran, who came through Thames’s Euston Films and shows like The Sweeney, Dawn Airey, an early head of Channel Five and Sky TV executive, and Denise O’Donaghue, manager of the hugely successful independent production company Hat Trick.

During Forman’s tenure at Granada he was regarded as a democratic, middle-class intellectual with an affable, diplomatic manner and Labour sympathies. “It takes a lot for me to get over the fact that a man’s been to Eton,” he observed. At Granada he held to the view that television programme-makers should never underestimate public taste. “It’s very easy to make programmes that are bad,” he would explain. “It’s very easy to make elitist programmes that are good but that nobody wants to see. What is hard is to make popular programmes that are good.”

Coronation Street was created in 1960, many considered that it, and many other series, enjoyed a golden era under Forman’s enlightened stewardship. Above all, his guiding principle was to create circumstances in which talented people were allowed to make the best possible programmes with the minimum of interference — “it’s as simple as that”.

John Denis Forman was born in Dumfriesshire on October 13 1917. His father, Adam, was a clergyman-cum-country gentleman and his extended family lived at Craigielands, a beautiful Palladian house near Moffat, which had been bought by his grandfather. In “Son of Adam” (1990), Denis Forman would write a highly entertaining memoir of his childhood there. Young Forman was made to attend kirk on Sundays, and by the age of 15 had become quite rebellious and unbelieving of any god. One Sunday there was a huge family row about Christianity and his lack of faith, and it is said this day had such a marked effect on the family things were never entirely the same again.

Forman was educated at the Loretto School, where the requirements were that a boy be “manly, truthful, pure and a sportsman”. In consequence, he was beaten more frequently than any other boy at the school, though among his peers he acquired a heroic reputation as a bad boy who would stop at nothing. Despite everything, he was chosen as Head Boy. Post-Loretto, he attended Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was 21 when the Second World War broke out, and instead of girding up for the exhausting and hard-drinking round of Highland balls that rounded off the Scottish social season, he was commissioned in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders where he developed a keen interest in military training.

Forman failed his Part I exams in Classics and the next year took an aegrotat in Rural Economy, thus “gaining the distinction of being the only MA Cantab who had never passed any exam”.

While serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders he was badly wounded at Monte Cassino when an exploding smoke canister shattered his lower left leg. The leg was amputated in a field hospital and Denis returned to the UK as an invalid. When he had recovered, he was sent to Dehra Dun in British India to assist in the handover of the military academy to soon-to-be-independent India.

While recovering in the field hospital he met Fred Majdalany, a writer and theatre publicist, who had just published “The Monastery”. This was a soldier’s-eye account of the Battle of Cassino that won critical acclaim. Demobilised after the war, Majdalany landed himself a job as the film critic of the Daily Mail. Forman had already acquired a practical interest in the cinema and through Majdalany’s example, he turned his thoughts to see if he could make something of a career in the cinema. He applied to Alexander Korda, whom he had been assured would see him; he sat in Korda’s waiting room for six days and never saw him once. He found a vacancy at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM), but on the morning of his first day was summoned to a staff meeting where it was announced that MGM was closing its London office with immediate effect. His plans to get into films therefore stalled at the first hurdle.

He joined the Central Office of Information’s film division as a senior in production and in 1948 he was appointed director of the British Film Institute (BFI). In the immediate post-war years this would have been seen as an important position, as the UK cinema industry was in full flow, but retained its wartime ties with governmental aims. Forman was a well-liked and popular director of the BFI for seven years, but as the years passed and there was increasing commercialisation of the cinema and filmmaking, he decided it was time for a new challenge.

One of the BFI governors was Cecil Bernstein, who, with his dynamic brother Sidney, owned the Granada chain of cinemas and had been awarded the weekday Independent Television franchise for the north of England. Forman dropped a word in Cecil’s ear, and was immediately offered a position in the new company. Granada TV launched in 1956 and would always display a knack of being high-minded and public-spirited while doing well in the ratings. Forman fitted into this pattern easily, and was soon regarded as the Bernsteins’ natural successor.

After his retirement in 1987, he wrote his memoirs and presented a Channel 4 series, Beyond Belief: Religion on Trial (1992), which challenged all faiths. He remained a staunch unbeliever and was genuinely distressed, he once told me, when Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a star performer for Granada, embarked on his very public conversion to Christianity. “It worried me to see that fine sceptical mind slipping away. I wrote and challenged him to a two-hour debate over dinner at the Cafe Royal, during which I would try to convert him back to sanity. He sent word politely refusing.”

He was appointed director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1980, becoming deputy chairman in 1984 and in 1988 chairman of the Opera Board. He was a member of the Council of the Royal Northern College of Music (1977-84). Forman’s “Mozart’s Piano Concertos” (1971) was a thoughtful and articulate analysis of musical themes in the concertos. Less successful was his “Good Opera Guide” (1994), a racy compilation of operatic plots in which his enthusiasm for his subject got the better of discretion.

Denis Forman was appointed OBE in 1956 and knighted in 1976. He married Helen Blondel de Mouilpied in 1948. They had two sons. She died in 1987. He married Moni Cameron (widow of journalist James Cameron) in 1990, with whom he had a stepson and a stepdaughter. He died on 24 February 2013.

This article has been corrected since publication to note that DC Thompson is based in Dundee, not Glasgow.

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1 response to this article

Joseph 24 February 2014 at 11:33 pm

“The Verdict Is Yours” was based on an American TV show (CBS-TV) which, like its British spin-off, dramatized trials with a jury assembled from the studio audience and an actor/foreman who read the verdict a majority (not necessarily unanimous; they had only one minute to decide) the audience members had made during a commercial break.

The first “Court Reporter” on the original CBS version was Jim McKay, who later became a top sportscaster for ABC, including “Wide World Of Sports” and numerous Olympics.

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