Television and film producer

Born: April 3, 1936;

Died: January 12, 2020.

TONY Garnett, who has died aged 83, revolutionised British television drama in the 1960s in partnership with the director Ken Loach, producing landmark TV films with a striking new documentary realism. Up the Junction (1965) influenced the national debate on abortion – which was still illegal at the time – and Cathy Come Home (1966) had a huge impact on public attitudes towards homelessness.

Garnett first worked with Loach as an actor, but went on to become his producer in a 15-year-long relationship. They set up Kestrel Films, whose first film was the cinema classic Kes (1969). They worked closely together on everything from choice of subject matter to casting and tackled issues that meant much to them personally and politically, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Garnett revealed just how personal the abortion story in Up the Junction was to him.

It was an adaptation of a short story collection by Nell Dunn about factory girls, one of whom goes through a botched back-street abortion. Six years ago, interviewed by The Guardian to tie in with a celebration of his half-century career, he revealed that his mother had an abortion during the Second World War because she could not afford a third child. She died of septicaemia a few days later and his father then killed himself.

“I was in bed with her the night she died, my father was on nights at the munitions factory”, he said. “That was why Up the Junction was so very personal. No one ever knew it, the BBC didn’t know. When Father came home the next morning he found her dead… If abortions had been legal, I wouldn’t have lost my parents.”

Ironically, his name appears on the credits merely as “story editor” while James MacTaggart was credited as producer. Up the Junction was shown in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot and MacTaggart was the series producer. He was actually on holiday when Garnett and Loach started work on Up the Junction, knowing that he would probably have vetoed it if he had been around.

“If the cat’s away the mice will play,” said Garnett. “I set it in motion knowing that if we got quite a way down the line we would have to be allowed to make it because it would be too late to stop it, and if they did so there would be a hole in the schedule.” Mary Whitehouse led the charge when it was broadcast. “The BBC are determined to do everything in their power to present promiscuity as normal,” she said. Abortion was legalised three years later.

Garnett was born Anthony Edward Lewis in Birmingham. His parents died when he was five, he was separated from his brother and lived with an uncle and aunt, whose surname he adopted. He acted in school plays, at University College London, where he studied Psychology, and in rep theatre. By the early 1960s he was getting work in television and acted in Loach’s first TV play Catherine (1964), playing the title character’s estranged husband.

Within a few months they were a team, developing a new school of social realism or socialist realism on TV. Others had pioneered such an approach in literature, theatre and film, but this was new to the cosy world of BBC drama, which was not nearly as permissive as Whitehouse would have the world believe.

As well as presenting social issues through drama, they pioneered technical innovation and included an interview with a real doctor in Up the Junction, a technique that confused viewers and critics at the time, but has subsequently been used by numerous other dramas and films, including the Second World War mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

By the late 1960s Garnett and Loach were finding it increasingly difficult to work with the BBC, so they set up their own film company. They made Kes, about a working-class teenager in the north of England who builds a close relationship with a kestrel in contrast to his difficult relationships at home and school. In 1999 it was number seven in a poll to determine the best British films of all time.

Garnett produced the controversial mini-series Law and Order (1978) without Loach. Their partnership ended after the film Black Jack (1979), an adaptation of a historical children’s book, for which Garnett had little enthusiasm. He wrote and directed two films, Prostitute (1980) and Handgun (1983) and worked as a producer in Hollywood where his credits included the Sesame Street spin-off Follow That Bird (1985) and the sci-fi comedy Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), with Jim Carrey – still under the Kestrel Films banner.

He returned to the UK in the early 1990s, set up a new independent company, World Productions, and was executive producer on several hit series, including Between the Lines (1992-94), which focused on police corruption and won a Bafta award as Best Drama Series; Ballykissangel (1996-97); and the twentysomething drama This Life (1996-97).

World Productions was taken over by ITV and made Bodyguard.

Garnett went through years of psychoanalysis to help deal with the death of his parents and the collapse of his first marriage. He is survived by two sons from his two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, and by his partner Victoria Childs.

Brian Pendreigh