1 9 6 3 – 1 9 9 8 (UK)
Granada TV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action was first transmitted in 1963 and set a consistently high standard in investigative journalism. Each programme examined in depth a major story of contemporary interest and importance.
Later in the year, World in Action ran into trouble over an exposé of the appalling living conditions of black people in South Africa and Angola.
The ambassadors of those countries protested and the ruling body of Independent Television – the ITA – decided that the programme was not impartial and decreed that the authority should vet future editions.
In those early years, World In Action reconstructed the Great Train Robbery and the Lakonia Disaster and lived inside the sealed-off town of Zermatt for a week to report the typhoid epidemic. When Australian producer Tim Hewat arrived in Switzerland to film the story about the outbreak at the height of the winter tourist season, he so incensed the normally mild-mannered locals with the prospect of adverse publicity that they pelted him with rocks.
World in Action continued to upset those in high places, particularly with programmes about Northern Ireland.
Even a 1964 edition about the poor facilities available to British athletes training for the Tokyo Olympics was banned, and when a film on defence spending was vetoed in the 60s, part of it was broadcast instead on the rival Panorama, to the acute embarrassment of the ITA.
1973 saw programmes on social areas such as employment prospects for Britain’s disabled, the plight of caravan dwellers and the position of the immigrant community, as well as investigations into the Poulson affair and the purchasing policies of the National Coal Board; while from abroad, there were reports on allegations of torture in Turkey and Spain, and the latest elections in Guyana.
The programme was strengthened by an investigation bureau staffed by ex-newspaper reporters who specialised in in-depth inquiries and exposés. Arms dealing to Biafra; sanctions-busting in Rhodesia; election rigging in Guyana; industrial espionage in Britain; contract rigging in construction; starvation in the Bantustans of South Africa; and torture allegations in Northern Ireland were all subjects for rigorous and often dangerous investigation.
Scoops of their time ranged through interviews with Ron Hubbard the Scientologist; Sean Burke, the man who sprang George Blake the Russian spy from prison; Mick Jagger meeting with the Editor of The Times; a Bishop, a Jesuit, and an ex-Home Secretary; the funeral of Jan Pallach, the student martyr in Prague; the two female members of the Angry Brigade who got 10 years; and Leopold Trepper, the anti-Nazi spy who couldn’t get out of Poland.
World in Action teams were there to document the rise of the new and often violent politics of the late sixties: a dozen films on the war in South-East Asia; the first report on the Guinea guerillas; the first report from the guerilla camps along the Zambezi, with film reports shot clandestinely inside South Africa, Rhodesia, Uganda, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Turkey.
A producer was on the spot to photograph the body of Che Guevara just after he was killed. And if the subject was inaccessible, it was reconstructed like the trial of General Grigorenko, the Russian dissident confined in a mental hospital, or the ordeal of the Basque nationalist imprisoned for attempting to burn himself to death.
Probably the most famous product of The World In Action is the 7 Up series of documentaries – a delicate essay in the sociology of childhood and the formation of class prejudice with Michael Apted monitoring a dozen school children every seven years; 7 Up in 1963, 14 Up in 1970, 21 Up in 1977, 28 Up in 1984, 35 Up in 1991 and 42 Up in 1998.
The cancellation of the programme after 35 years was seen by some as part of a general dumbing-down of British television and of ITV in particular.