Dingle man Matthew Grimes was interviewed by John Berger at Granada Television Studios on 19th July 1963, just months after the first ever live television performance of a quite-well-known rock ‘n’ roll group, also from Liverpool, was broadcast out of the very same building.
Far from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the fab four, though, the Liverpool described by Grimes was one of a different era altogether. Born in 1885, Grimes was 78 at the time of recording – old enough to be the grandfather of any of John, Paul, George or Ringo, and old enough to remember a city that none of them had ever seen.
Granada Studios, the northern franchise of ITV, first went to air in 1956, and so was just seven years into its long life when a young John Berger, also at the beginning of a long and illustrious career, worked for them on a documentary programme called Tomorrow Couldn’t Be Worse.
Granada had set out to be the channel of choice for Northern England, offering a welcome alternative to what founding chairman Sidney Bernstein called the stifling ‘metropolitan atmosphere’ of the BBC, based in the capital. Discussing the choice to base Granada in Manchester, Bernstein explained:
“Granada preferred the North because of its tradition of home-grown culture, and because it offered a chance to start a new creative industry away from the metropolitan atmosphere of London … the North is a closely knit, indigenous, industrial society; a homogeneous cultural group with a good record for music, theatre, literature and newspapers, not found elsewhere in this island, except perhaps in Scotland. Compare this with London and its suburbs—full of displaced persons. And, of course, if you look at a map of the concentration of population in the North and a rainfall map, you will see that the North is an ideal place for television”.(1)
As Grimes, the son of Irish immigrants who daily encountered a diverse spectrum of people around Liverpool’s docks would point out, Liverpool was not quite so ‘homogeneous’, however ‘socialist entrepreneur‘ Bernstein’s idea proved successful, and Granada offered its viewers more accessible entertainment , whilst maintaining its determination ‘to develop a strong northern identity’, with ‘northern voices’ and ‘northern programmes‘.
Up-and-coming writer and critic John Berger, who proudly self-identified as a Marxist, ostensibly fitted the bill for this new style of broadcasting, and his show Tomorrow Couldn’t Be Worse gave ordinary working-class people, Grimes amongst them, a voice on television that had previously never been heard.
Berger would go on to win the Booker Prize with his 1972 novel G (notably donating half his prize money to the Black Panthers), and his TV series Ways of Seeing and the accompanying book are still highly respected amongst those who study art.
“I have claimed myself to be a Marxist… it’s not something I deny… My reading of Marx, from a very early age, helped me enormously to understand history, and therefore to understand where we are in history, and therefore to understand what we have to envisage as a future, thinking about human dignity and justice… If we look at the world and the decisions being taken every day… all those decisions are really made in the name of one priority… that priority of ever increasing profit… at that moment Marx doesn’t seem quite so obsolete, does he?”(?)
Taking what Berger says here into account, it makes sense that he would want to interview a man like Grimes, who in Marx’s view would be a typical member of the proletariat (the labouring classes), and who was involved in fighting for better wages and conditions for himself and others like him.
Berger’s Marxist approach may go some way towards explaining his desire to foreground a voice like Grimes’ on his programme, where he seems to be chiefly interested in the topics of class, work, and political protest.
Another statement revealing Berger’s political outlook includes the following comment:
The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing”(?)
Looking at what Berger thought were the most important issues in his conversation with Grimes, it is clear that these political views played a part in the interview. On the title page of the transcript, under the heading ‘main themes’, Berger has summarised: ‘Life in a poor area of Liverpool, late 19th early 20th century. Work on Midland Railway. General Strike in Liverpool 1911’.
That Berger considered these the main themes of the interview reveals his ambitions for his show, and as discussed above, the ambitions of Granada as a channel, which were to provide viewers with a sense of real-life, local, working class history, not to be preached at them from a haughty, academic historian in received pronunciation (or ‘BBC English’), but direct from the mouths of the people who lived it.
It is easy to imagine that many working class viewers would have found it quite refreshing to hear regional dialect on TV, and the impact of The Beatles along with as voices like Grimes’ on the box would have no doubt been a source of immense civic pride in Liverpool.
Berger clearly felt that it was important to provide a platform on television for Grimes, as a working class scouser with a story to tell, and this relates to his own political views, making the interview a suitable match. However, the interview setting as a platform for this life story is problematic in some senses.
For instance, on a few occasions, Grimes starts to veer off on a tangent from the original question being asked of him:
Grimes: ‘well, to get to school… another anecdote for you…’
Although Grimes’ anecdote is fascinating, Berger moves on to his next question swiftly, without any further comment on Grimes’ heartbreaking but humorous story (which will be discussed in my Education and Schooling post).
The reasons for this could be many. For example, Berger likely had limited time in the studio to conduct the interview, or may have had a strict agenda to stick to in terms of the aim of the interview, which would mean it was important to get the most important information as succinctly as was possible.
This seems most likely, as Berger allows Grimes to talk at length about subjects that match his own political interests the most, such as his work on the railways, the general strike of 1911, and his involvement with left-wing political organisations. On the other hand, subjects that don’t seem to be as important to Berger, such as Grimes’ family life, are kept to a minimum.
Another important point to bear in mind with this particular example of working class autobiography, is that Grimes is responding to Berger’s questions, which means all of the information he provides is basically dictated by Berger. This is completely different to, for example, a personal memoir, such as one written by one of the many other working class autobiographers whose writing can be found in the Burnett Archive and on Writing Lives. Many of these display a freedom of expression that cannot be achieved in the confines of a televised interview.
Finally, it was probably quite daunting for Grimes, at the age of 78, to find himself being questioned in a brightly lit TV studio, with cameras pointed at his face. His awareness that thousands of strangers would be watching him could very well have affected his responses, but, true to his Scouse roots, it certainly didn’t stop him from cracking a few jokes!