Producer David Rose, Channel 4’s first Commissioning Editor for Fiction, was honoured at a ceremony on 20th April 2010 for his career contribution to British television drama and film. The BFI Fellowship, the Institute’s most prestigious award, was presented by the current Controller of Film and Drama at Channel 4, Tessa Ross, before an audience of former colleagues, film-makers and well-wishers at London’s BFI Southbank. In conversation with Channel 4’s founding Chief Executive, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Rose, now 86, recalled his BBC apprenticeship, producing the long-running police series Z-Cars during the 1960s, and promoting cutting-edge television drama at Pebble Mill in the 1970s. That wealth of experience, and unflinching support for new talent, underpinned the enormous contribution David Rose made at Channel 4 where, between 1981 and 1990, he and his assistants Karin Bamborough and Walter Donohue sponsored 136 feature films almost half of which enjoyed cinema releases.
As Isaacs observed, in a warm and appreciative tribute, ‘David is totally without vanity, and never has very much to say. When I would ask him what he looked for in a subject, he would mutter something about “the rough edges of truth”. But he always knows what he wants, and is respected by all who worked with him, as simply the best’.
Away from the limelight of the award ceremony and the champagne reception, in the leafy tranquillity of his North London garden, Rose was more forthcoming, though characteristically modest, about his achievements. ‘For me, personally, the Roberto Rossellini Award, which Channel 4 was awarded “for services to cinema” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, was the culmination. It brought it all together for me. At last film and television were recognizing one another formally, it seemed. Until that time there had been so much bitterness: snootiness of the part of the cinema, and fear on the part of the BBC. Channel 4 changed all that, and I’m very proud to have played a part in that.’
It was fitting, perhaps, that Isabella Rossellini, one of the greatest daughters of European cinema, should have presented the award which bears her father’s name to David Rose at Cannes, the European centre of world cinema. For, as Rose explained to me, Isaacs’ template for Channel 4’s film policy was derived from the German example. ‘I went to Germany with Jeremy two days before I joined Channel 4 in 1981, which was eighteen months off going on air. We went to Munich to a meeting of television and film producers. And that night we went to the opera and saw Don Giovanni. And then we went on to ZDF who was the real model for us in supporting films which could be released theatrically before being shown on television.’
I asked Rose about the challenges involved in setting up Channel 4’s film infrastructure at the same time as ensuring enough work was commissioned for its first season of Film on Four in November 1982. ‘For me the transition (from the BBC) was very smooth. For me, I was doing pretty much the same job that I had been doing at Pebble Mill. I was supported tremendously by Justin Dukes, then Managing Director, who negotiated with the unions and the CEA to achieve a waiver in the three year rule which allowed us the flexibility to select certain films for cinema release – Angel (Neil Jordan, 1982) was the first. And Sarah Geator dealt with the film budgets and schedules, and if there were problems which arose editorially she would come to us. I was blissfully in a position where there was so much support, which enabled me to focus on the work itself. And of course the independent sector for feature film hardly existed at this time. So people were queuing up. We had a wealth of scripts to deal with. And for every project we green-lit there must have been another five we rejected. I brought on board Walter Donohue and Karim Bamborough to assist me. But it was very significant – I think with hindsight – that those people that I encouraged to work in television had no experience working on the visual side, which meant that they had no baggage. But they were all literary and therefore knew about scripts. That was crucial. We knew we were going for variety. I was anxious that we should have a fair representation of the political scene in the country. And it seemed to me that in the 80s it was even more difficult than in the 70s, to get writers’ attention in that direction. There were really very few things like Ploughman’s Lunch. But we had no editorial policy as such that we ever discussed. We took it for granted that it was about good scripts, but also, when you hired someone, that they were of a like mind.’
And how aware was Rose, in entering this brave new world of television-sponsored feature film, of the need to commission material that was inherently cinematic? ‘Some people say that they can’t visualise when they read a script. But I think some of us can. You can see it in your own way. I don’t think I ever got to the end of a script and thought, “Well that’s a bloody good script but it’s not visual enough!” One just hopes always that it will be made by a director and particularly a cinematographer that have a visual eye and that the script affords them the opportunity to do that.’ And, of course, as Rose acknowledges, any film needs to engage an audience’s attention in order to stand a chance of being commercial.
For a stalwart of public service broadcasting, Rose was possessed of a remarkably keen eye for a commercial property. And his example set the standard for those, from David Aukin to Tessa Ross, who have followed at Channel 4. I left the silliest question, pacé Sir Jeremy, until last. For the canny commissioning editor, what is it in a script that separates the wheat from the chaff? He paused to consider. ‘I’ve always hated fades to black. Why not fades to pink?!’ Ask a silly question…
Justin Smith, October 2010