Tag Archives: NUJ

Margaret Thatcher, UK trades unions and my first job in television production

An NUJ card was easier to get than an ACTT card

I had an NUJ card because I wrote words

Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister in 1979.

In 1979, I was working at ATV in Birmingham as a Scriptwriter in their Promotion Dept. I had to be in the NUJ (the National Union of Journalists) because I wrote scripts. I wrote scripts for the announcers but I could not edit promotion trailers because that area of work was controlled by the ACTT, the technical union for film & TV workers.

It was impossible to work in specific jobs in TV without being in the appropriate union.

In 1979, I realised that 14th November 1980 would be the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry by German aircraft. The raid destroyed 75% of the city. So I suggested to Brian Lewis, head of documentaries, that ATV should film a programme about the raid. Coventry was in the ATV region.

He was interested in the idea and asked me to do some preliminary research on the background to a documentary film, but made it clear that I could not be employed or credited as a researcher on any production, because I was a member of the NUJ, not the ACTT.

At the time, the ACTT seemed more of a protection racket than a union. The employers had to do what the unions demanded or their TV signal would be taken off air and the TV companies would make no money. The workers had to pay the union money in order to work. If you were not a union member, you were not allowed to work. Most television and film work was a closed shop and there was a Catch-22. You could not get specific jobs unless you had a union card. It was highly difficult to get a union card without already having the specific job.

I did some preliminary research for the Coventry film and talked to director John Pett who had been assigned to the project. ATV, being an honest company, paid me for my work. But I could not work on the production and got no credit. That was fine. That was the way things worked at the time.

The hour-long documentary was made, with two ACTT researchers working on the production. It was transmitted on the ITV network as Moonlight Sonata in 1980.

The ACTT - more of a protection racket than a union

ACTT – more protection racket than union

Eventually, I managed to get an ACTT union card as a Researcher by getting a job on the ATV children’s TV series Tiswas.

Much later, I was able to get a coveted ACTT card as a Director in the Promotions Dept at Central, the successor to ATV. It was a long, complicated and slightly Byzantine process to get the card. At around the same time, Margaret Thatcher stopped union ‘closed shops’.

So I needed an ACTT director’s card to work as a director… I eventually got one… but, by the time I actually got a director’s card, I could have worked without having one.

Margaret Thatcher destroyed the unions’ closed shops.

Good for her.

And good everyone else except the power-crazed union bosses of the time.

Now she is dead. Her funeral is today.

So it goes.

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Showbiz and TV talent shows before Margaret Thatcher

I had lunch last week with the highly entertaining Derek Hobson, host of ITV’s seminal talent show New Faces, which was responsible for the ‘discovery’ of Michael Barrymore, the wonderful Marti Caine, Jim Davidson, Les Dennis, Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood etc in the pre-Thatcher 1970s. He reminded me about the old union-dominated days at ATV (where I worked a various times). Lenny Henry was chosen by the producers to be on New Faces and it made him a star, but it took a whole year before he was seen on screen because the unions only allowed card-carrying Equity or Musicians’ Union members to appear on the show.

Derek told me that, when Yorkshire TV recorded its classic sitcom Rising Damp, which was screened on ITV as six-part series, the company used to schedule recordings for seven episodes per series on the basis that one entire episode would always be lost due to Luddite practices during the recordings by the all-powerful ACTT union. I well remember their pre-Thatcher power. The ACTT was less a union protecting its members, more a protection racket threatening employers and running a heavily enforced closed shop.

As a member of the National Union of Journalists at ATV, I suggested a documentary to be transmitted on the 40th anniversary of the 1940 Wartime bombing of Coventry (and provided research and sources) but I was not allowed to be employed nor credited as a researcher on the show because I was not an ACTT member and researchers could only be ACTT members.

Derek also told me the story of a singer who triumphantly performed on one edition of New Faces, wowing the judges, the studio audience and the viewers at home. The response was immense. On the Monday after the show was transmitted, the singer received a phone call from the manager of two of the biggest music acts of the time – acts with a similar style. The manager wanted to sign the singer to an exclusive management contract. The singer was overwhelmed and flattered to be approached by the high-profile and highly successful manager; he  thought his career was made and his life would be transformed. But, in fact, the manager wanted to sign the singer because he saw a potential threat to his two existing acts. The singer was too similar; he was given ten duff songs in a row to record, his potential career was destroyed and the manager’s two existing acts continued to prosper with no threat of competition.

So it goes.

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