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Vietnam: A Television History (1983)

I’ll start with a couple of quotes from the Museum Of Broadcast Communications:


Vietnam: A Television History’, was the most successful documentary produced by public television at the time it aired in 1983. Nearly 9% of all U.S. households tuned in to watch the first episode, and an average of 9.7 million Americans watched each of the 13 episodes."


"The final cost of the project totaled approximately $4.5 million. At the time of its broadcast in 1983, it was one of the most expensive ventures ever undertaken by public television. While the initial funding came from WGBH-TV Boston and the National Endowment for the Humanities, additional backing came from Britain's Associated Television (later to become Central Independent Television)."


As part of Central’s strategy to get programmes on the new Channel 4 Charles Denton asked me to get involved in co-productions. We developed a number of projects but struggled – the BBC appeared to have all potential co-producers sewn up. 


And then Zvi Dor-ner, an Executive Producer from WGBH in Boston walked into my office, the morning after the BBC had turned down his ambitious Vietnam: A Television History project on the grounds that ‘it wasn’t British enough.’


It wasn’t British at all, but a couple of weeks later, after Charles Denton had got Jeremy Isaacs (Channel 4s boss) on sid, I flew to Boston to meet with Peter McGee, WGBH’s Programme Chief,(see pic) to do a deal. Peter suggested Central send an executive producer “Zvi would benefit from experienced support”, followed by two post-production teams to Boston for a year. Instead of putting up a share of the budget, I suggested we pay the full cost of the four programmes we would postproduce. Central would also take the lead on filming inside Vietnam as we’d shot there before. This in return for the UK broadcast rights to all 13 episodes.


That was all a lot easier written than done. Zvi Dor-ner and Central’s executive producer, Martin Smith, fought tooth and nail on just about everything. Indeed Martin, who had produced many World At War episodes for Jeremy Isaacs and consequently ‘knew his stuff’, fought with just about everybody at WGBH, which meant I had to fly out to Boston regularly. 


At the end of the day the disagreements, which ever calm Peter McGee and I couldn’t resolve, were edited out in an cutting room and dubbing suite in London, because ITV’s running time was shorter than PBS’s.


Soon after the series ended its hugely successful run on Channel 4I was invited to a media ‘love-in’ at London residence of the US Ambassador - Winfield House, in Regents Park, where my dripping wet cycle cape was taken away by a doorman wearing white gloves. The Ambassador was glowing about of this exceptional series.  


A week later I peddled through London to a terrace house in Victoria where Vietnam’s Ambassador was cooking our lunch himself, and during it apologized that his country didn’t pay anything for this excellent and remarkable series.  Remarkable principally because it was the first Western documentary to screened without the need for any censorship - they’d broadcast Martin Smith's UK version.


Six or so months later I flew to New York to pick up a Peabody award. 


Every winner’s acceptance speech had to be less than a minute. Mine was even shorter but when Ted Turner picked up a Peabody for CNN – he talked for a full ten minutes and I listened spellbound.



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