A pioneer in the world of documentary TV
Peter Morley joined ITV just as it was taking off leading him to a trailblazing career which included filming Churchill’s funeral
AJewish �migr� from 1930s Germany, Peter Morley returned to Berlin as part of Churchill’s victory parade in 1945 and, 20 years later, organised the broadcast of the statesman’s funeral.
By that time, he had built a glittering career in the fledgling days of commercial television. He went on to win two Baftas for documentary film-making.
“The Independent Television Authority asked me to be in charge of the first live state funeral: Churchill. I was delighted to lead an enterprise which would say goodbye to such a great man,” says the Highgate resident.
“I have very fond memories of him. I was in Berlin with the victory parade as part of the Desert Rats and I was one of his guards at the Potsdam Conference, stood in the bushes when he met Stalin and Truman.
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“For someone basically ignorant about history like me, it was still a very exciting time. Little did I know then that I would be doing the outside broadcast of his funeral.”
The filming of the funeral was a massive undertaking. It required 45 cameras for a five-hour broadcast that involved television crews from all the regional ITV companies to be ready, all working toward an unspecified date.
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“It was a huge logistical nightmare but it was a great success and, some months later, a heavily edited version of the broadcast was entered at Cannes festival. There were some people at the BBC who never forgave me.”
Morley’s first steps into the industry were as a rewind boy at the Dominion cinema in Tottenham Court Road. Although he was rapidly promoted as others were called up, his own career was interrupted when he joined the army in 1942.
When he returned, he managed to find work as a projectionist in a small documentary film company.
“I was desperately keen to get into documentary films. It just intrigued me. I loved the tactility of film and it was editing that drew me into it. I had been much motivated by Citizen Kane and I loved every single scene of that film – so I became an editor.”
By 1955, he was writing and directing documentary films, when a friend told him that commercial television was going to “come big” almost overnight. Before he knew it, he was contracted to ITV.
“I knew nothing about it – I didn’t watch any TV except the coronation. When I was doing my first programme, I had never seen a TV studio before. They took the most appalling risks at the time.
“It was all so new. No matter how awful the programme you made, it was original. It was primitive in a very exciting way, but we were too busy to ever think of ourselves as pioneers.”
Among his television “firsts” was the one-hour documentary The Two Faces Of Japan and the live production of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn Of The Screw.
“My sister was a Britten fiend and, in 1954, took me to the premiere at Sadler’s Wells.
“It just did something to me – I thought it would make terrific TV, never mind that it was an opera.
“I took the idea to my superior John McMillan and said, ‘It’s not a play John, it’s an opera.” He nearly fell off his chair. It would be broadcast live and there would be no commercial breaks.
“Then I asked about the budget and he said, ‘Leave that to me dear boy.’ That was the way TV was run in those days.”
He remembers how he tried to get the great composer on board.
“We walked along the seaside with Britten. I said that I knew little about music and I couldn’t read notes.’ ‘I think you and I are going to get on very well,’ was his reply.”
Morley’s programmes often caught the public imagination, from Black Marries White, which examined the taboo of interracial marriages, to the Bafta-winning Kitty: Return To Auschwitz, following a Holocaust survivor on her return to Poland – both pushed forward the documentary form by removing the narrator.
“Black Marries White is a graphic example where there is no interruption. It had never been done before. The best thing on TV is when I can have as little as possible between the person on camera and the camera itself.
“That really has become the highest level of not using a narrator. That was an extraordinary programme.”
Today, Morley, who has two children and six grandchildren, lives in Hillway with his wife Jane, who is disabled, and has little time to watch television.
“I am still on duty in the most pleasant way and so I don’t have a lot of time.
“I am certainly a slave to the news but I find that, with this proliferation of channels, it takes more time to find out what you would like to see than time to see it. There’s so much dross, trash and triviality.”
o Peter Morley’s autobiography: A Life Rewound: Memoirs Of A Freelance Producer And Director is published by Bank House Books (www.bankhousebooks.com) priced �20.