Eric Harwood

‘As a Scally-lad growing up round the corner from Priscilla White (aka Cilla Black) in the back-to-back terraced houses of Everton in gritty, post-war 1960s Liverpool, I never imagined I would bring my own kids up in the idyllic rolling hills of Dorset on the shores of the Jurassic Coast.
Aged five, in the Siberian Winter of 1963, our mid-Victorian terrace house was probably more like something from the 1930s. That “wicked” Winter, every house in our cobbled street had their lead pipes frozen solid: we all collected water from a stand-pipe in buckets. My mum and dad were like a Cathy Come Home couple when they married at 20 and 21. Virtually homeless, my lovely, smiley mum was an “Irish” Roman Catholic from a family of 12, my dad from a large Protestant family: no-one came to the wedding. They met in Liverpool’s Meccano toy factory in 1957 and their wedding photos only show their work-mates because both parents wouldn’t accept a “mixed-religion marriage”. We left Everton in 1970 when we moved to a council house in Knotty Ash: land of Ken Dodd, the Diddy Men and mythical jam-butty mines. By 11, I was back in Everton at The Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School. Founded by Gladstone, it was fiercely full of intellectual aspiration. I never knew how I passed the 11-plus exam, I didn’t even know I’d taken it. That door to learning and knowledge was opened wide…I was welcomed in, changing me, firing up my ambition, pushing me way beyond my humble origins. By 18, like a third-rate Beatle—Pete Best went to our school, as did Holly Johnson—I was off on a magical mystery tour…not before seeing The Clash, The Damned, The Jam and just missing The Sex Pistols in Liverpool’s iconic punk club, Eric’s.
After school, I landed a job as a trainee reporter for the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo Group. This was mainly thanks to my thoughtful English teacher, Mr Pritchard who felt the mix of my “chatty, gob-on-a-stick character” and “accomplished writing skill” made me a natural journo. His faith, plus the warmth and unconditional support of my mum and dad, has fired and fuelled my 43 years in the British media. But that early working-class warmth, humour and open-heartedness remains lodged deep inside me even now.
After working as a reporter and sub-editor, I returned to education when at 22 I started an English degree at University College London. Next I became a journalist on The Daily Mirror, spending two years continually trying to get into the TV industry. Failing by each and every method, I never even got to the interview stage. Finally, my launch into telly at London Weekend Television was nothing short of miraculous.
I’m on a train from Liverpool en route to the first proper TV face-to-face interview I’ve ever had desperate to get this researcher job on a £4 million epic series called The Trial Of Lee Harvey Oswald. On that train, I meet a man, whose friends actually travelled and conversed with Oswald on a long bus journey just weeks before the assassination of the President in 1963. Details of the conversation were kept in a diary, and he could give me access to them for this new programme. The jaws of my LWT interviewers dropped when I revealed this information—finally the job was mine: I was in!
That was the turning point in my ambivalent journey to becoming a fully-paid-up member of the bourgeoisie. Once at LWT, I suddenly found myself catapulted in front of the cameras as “the-lad-next-door” reporter on an innovative “pirate-TV channel” called Network 7 in 1987. It was Channel 4’s new “yoof” series, my boss was the tough-talking Janet Street-Porter and we won a BAFTA for originality. After two years travelling the Network 7 rollercoaster across the globe, I got serious and made a hard-hitting ITV film about mothers and kids with AIDS in the South Bronx. That story, as I turned 30, made me determined to make powerful, worthwhile TV in future. I set up my first TV company, Wild & Fresh Productions—an ethos I have fought hard to hold onto! In our first doc series, Summer On The Estate, we spent a year living on a tough Hackney council estate filming dozens of tenants, squatters, gang members and drug-addicts. We won an RTS Award for Best Documentary Series, but when the Minister for the Environment saw the film he came to meet the tenants and pledged he would demolish the estate. Five years later our follow-up film captured the tower blocks exploding in slow motion. For me, it was profoundly moving to help transform the environment of hundreds of decent council estate tenants thanks to a bit of telly. Rarely would I feel such a sense of purposeful vocation.
Seven years on, I was at the other end of the social spectrum: filming Princess Diana’s dresses and possessions as they returned to her family home, Althorp, just months after her tragic death in 1997. At this point, I had punched way above my social weight when Emma, a bright, beautiful BBC Arts producer from Hampstead Garden Suburb, somehow agreed to marry me at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead … and there were no objections. We moved into up-and-coming Crouch End, within a year, we had our first daughter Ella and every two years another lovely daughter turned up: Holly, then Rosie.
When Holly arrived at the Royal Free Hospital in April 1998, I raced back from Althorp where we’d been filming the world exclusive first interview with Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer. This was the first production of my new Liverpool-based TV company—BBC1’s Diana, The Princess, My Sister—the first film to show Diana’s memorial and island resting-place to the world. Shown in 200 territories it raised $2m for Diana’s charities. Oddly, at the same time, I was producing a film with screen-writer Jimmy McGovern about how 500 Liverpool Dockers were suddenly sacked and lost their jobs. Channel 4’s Dockers: Writing The Wrongs and Diana, The Princess, My Sister were two films in 1998 that marked how far I had come from the streets of Everton. Had I moved from being “the rebel outsider” to becoming dangerously “establishment”?
By the turn of the millennium, my company made what I feel was a pinnacle production: The John Lennon Night for Channel 4. On December 9, 2000, we marked what would have been John’s 60th birthday—and 20 years since his tragic death—with a 90-minute film The Real John Lennon and a live music special presented by Jools Holland from George Martin’s Air Studios in Hampstead with sets from Oasis, Stereophonics, Lou Reed, Paul Weller, Ronnie Wood, Donovan and Lonnie Donnegan. This marked a personal coming-of-age for me as, two decades earlier I had shot my own super-8 film of John’s Liverpool memorial just days after his tragic murder in 1980. A working-class hero is something to be: finally, I was beginning to understand that song.
That same year, my company and its parent Planet 24 Productions was sold to Carlton Television, so I found myself on the board of Central Television PLC, overseeing £12million of TV production from the Midlands as its new Controller of Programmes. Within four years, I fell on my sword, escaping the claustrophobia of the corporate world for ever. In August 2003, Emma and I uprooted our family from London and settled in Charmouth. We knew no-one: everything slowed, I took 6 months off, spent time with the girls (now 3, 5 and 7) and rediscovered the person trapped within the corporate carapace. Perhaps like many who recently dropped off the working hamster-wheel after lock-down, I pressed my life’s re-set button and felt re-born: walking, sea-swimming and living a present-tense life with my kids. We discovered a wonderful close-knit community of families around Charmouth Primary School and created the “Charmouth Fat Dads”—an unofficial men’s group of 40-somethings who playfully organised fun, outdoor events for families, the kids and each other. Now I realised there was another way to live.
The only work I undertook in that first year in Dorset was to help a young Geordie lad make his first film about an extraordinary character called Jonny Kennedy. The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off was shown on Channel 4 in 2004 to a stunned audience of five million. It raised almost £500,000 for charity, won 17 awards including a BAFTA, Grierson, RTS and International Emmy and was voted by Channel 4 as “the sixth best documentary ever”. Proof that returning to powerful, meaningful, human film-making was where I belonged.
Over 16 years, I’ve made many films remotely from my Dorset haven. After producing the BBC feature drama-doc Wainwright: The Man Who Loved The Lakes, it rekindled my childhood memories of The Lake District. With TV presenter Julia Bradbury, this led to eight BBC walking series including Wainwright Walks and Coast To Coast, as well as two ITV series of Britain’s Best Walks—including the Colmer’s Hill & Golden Cap walk—still repeated now. With my current company, Heart & Soul Films, we shot the Ming Dynasty Great Wall of China from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert for our BBC4 film—A Slow Odyssey: The Great Wall of China.
I feel privileged to walk this wonderful land, travel the globe and come back to Dorset to edit my adventures. But what I’ve learnt is that my family is my best production ever… it’s them I am most proud of: Ella, 24, working in Paris fashion; Holly, 22, getting a First at LSE in Politics & International Relations and Rosie, 20, studying Politics at King’s College Cambridge and my ever-patient, clever wife Emma, an accomplished therapist, tutor and counsellor for young people in West Dorset. As the song says… “I’m a lucky man”.’