Murder, She Wrote | Betty Willingale, Producer

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With the recent furore surrounding the BBC, women, and the gender pay gap, it seemed like a good time to revisit an unpublished interview I wrote in 2013 with the renowned TV producer, Betty Willingale. I talked to her over the phone, she in her London flat. Sharp as a tack, she ran rings around me with her tales of post-war dramas, Guy Burgess at the BBC, and love in a Cold War climate. While Betty wore the 'f-word', her feminism, lightly, little did she know that in her extraordinary career she was blazing a trail for many to come. Here she talks about the success of Midsomer Murders, and how she kept a cool head in a time when girls in the pre swinging-sixties were expected to make the tea.

Shh. Whisper it – Midsomer Murders has gone cool. Beloved by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ITV’s bucolic police detective series – sold to 230 territories worldwide – is soon to receive an injection of Nordic Noir. As Denmark’s most popular imported show, the 100th episode was filmed recently in Copenhagen in collaboration with DR1, Denmark’s public broadcaster and home to (the eminently more hip) Borgen and The Killing.

All of which must be mightily satisfying for legendary producer and script editor Betty Willingale, who was instrumental in bringing Murders to our screens in the first place, thanks as she puts it, to its mix of, “No punch ups, no car chases and as few sex scenes as possible”.

Always one for sniffing out a good story, as a teenager, avid reader Betty would lie in her southeast London bedroom with the scent of biscuits baking at the local Rotherhithe Peek Freans factory wafting through the window, dreaming of a life in the theatre. A good working-class girl, she knew she needed to earn a living, so she packed up her dramatic ambitions and made a beeline for the BBC. In 1944, aged just 16, she began her now almost 70 year long career, as a junior assistant in Bush House’s reference library.

“The librarian who interviewed me was a good friend of Lord Reith, a very formidable lady. She explained that the European Service broadcast 24 hours a day. I said, 'Well I can’t go and work there because I’ve never met a foreigner!' And of course, they all spoke better English than I did.”

The BBC’s European Service in the 40s & 50s was like an intellectual hothouse

She stayed for 11 years at the “intellectual hothouse,” that was the European Service with no hint of promotion. But as luck would have it she made her move into BBC TV’s script library just as commercial television drama was taking off, which as she puts it, “Knocked the BBC for six”. Speaking from her London flat, Betty gives the crisp impression that this was a turning point for the corporation, indeed a proverbial rocket up its backside, which acted as a springboard for halcyon days. As the BBC started throwing cash at their drama department Betty reflects, “They took on a ‘new wave’ of would-be writers who used to come into the script library and talk”. One can be forgiven for imagining Mad Men-esque scenes of dashing young chaps tossing around ideas, while Betty soaked it all up like a sponge. Names fall thick and fast into the conversation, and Betty recalls how the appointment of Guy Burgess as Director of the BBC brought along with it the go-ahead Canadian Sydney Newman, who joined as Head of Drama in 1962.

He needed script editors, a role Betty gladly stepped into. Though, her turning down a job on a fledgling sci-fi series still raises a wry eyebrow.

“I was asked if I wanted to be involved in a series they wanted to get off the ground called Dr Who – and of course I didn’t want to do it, I couldn’t bear science fiction. But then the funny thing was, when the producer Verity Lambert was appointed from outside the BBC I was told by my boss, ‘Well I don’t think we’ll put you there because I don’t think we should have two women working together’”.

Leading to the obvious question – did Betty, with her stellar career, encounter sexism at the BBC during its post-war, pre swinging-sixties days?

“No not really, I never thought about it because I knew my place. Girls, women then, were expected to make the tea. But that was everywhere and I don’t think the BBC was any different to anywhere else. Now there are more women in TV than ever.”

Although Betty didn’t consider herself an ardent feminist she concedes that she was, “Jolly glad it all happened”. You never get the impression her gender held her back. Having finally made it to the BBC2 Classic Serial, in 1978 she worked with one of the original suffragettes and literary grand dame Dame Rebecca West on an adaptation of her last novel, The Birds Fall Down.

Betty & Liz Leyshon (Dame Rebecca West's Assistant), Paris, 1978.

Betty & Liz Leyshon (Dame Rebecca West's Assistant), Paris, 1978.

“She was a marvellous person, a person of consequence. And what was delightful is she came to every recording.”

“I was very touched because we filmed some of The Birds Fall Down in Paris and she was asked to cover it for the Sunday Telegraph. She asked the BBC if I could go with her. They provided a car so we went in style all through France! She was in her 80s then and she took us out to all her old haunts.”

Other career highlights include the award-winning 1979 BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I, Claudius. By now TV dramas had got bigger and hit the news more regularly. Producer credits came in the 1980s for adaptations of Mansfield Park, Bleak House and Fortunes of War, but not all of Betty’s projects were success stories. The Dennis Potter scripted serial Tender is the Night was re-christened ‘Tender is the Nightmare’ due to appalling Riviera weather and endless logistical problems. But, in her 80s she maintains a staunch passion for TV drama, claiming it as “an art in itself”. Now as Consultant Producer for Midsomer Murders she puts her longevity down to this and an overwhelming interest for working with writers.

Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider stories and a writer she had worked with on Poirot was Betty’s first choice for adapting the antics of Midsomer’s Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby for the small screen, describing the Caroline Graham novels to him as, “Agatha Christie on acid.” Creator of numerous murders and the first ever episode in 1997 – The Killing at Badger’s Drift – he in turn attributes Midsomer’s magic to the fact that, “We don’t like our murders too real, we see too many of those on the news pages. The sort of murder that we can enjoy has to exist in its own world, away from the horrors of everyday life.”

Midsomer Murders is like Agatha Christie on acid

A keen viewer of contemporary TV drama, Betty is circumspect about the nurturing of writers today. “I don’t think we’ll ever throw up another Dennis Potter, I think the will is not there.” But she is “jolly glad,” Stephen Poliakoff is still prominent and rates writer Guy Hibbert and his screenplays for Complicit and Blood and Oil as “marvellous”.

She is also philosophical about the fact that her life, unlike other women of her generation, didn’t take the more ‘conventional’ route.

“I always thought I’d get married but I just never did. The men who wanted me I didn’t want and the ones I wanted were always married! I just got on with the work. And then, ‘Oh dear,’ I thought, ‘I’m 60’. But I was always so busy working.”

So when she thinks back to that dreamy young girl, the daughter of a Thames river lighterman whose dramatic ambitions took her on the long, fascinating journey to a BAFTA Special Award in 2009 where she was honoured by luminaries Alan Rickman, Eileen Atkins and Sian Phillips, what does she make of it all?

“Oh I’m very touched. I think it’s just because I’m so old really. The world has changed enormously in my lifetime. I can’t help but think of my mother who inspired me because she also read a lot, and died at only 42. I wish she’d had chance to live, to enjoy life more. I remember when I got my first bathroom, and I thought, ‘My Mum would be so thrilled that I have a bathroom!’”

 

With thanks to Betty Willingale & Liz Leyshon.

 

Image © 2015 Stuart Grimshaw/Pennleigh Ltd. 2017 All Rights Reserved / Image © 1978 Liz Leyshon