After a career in TV which spanned five decades, former London Weekend Television chairman Brian Tesler has turned his hand to writing, penning his memoirs. Before I Forget takes a look at the early life of the TV executive – who retired in 1994 – from his childhood in London's East End during the Second World War, through to the beginnings of his illustrious career. SJ's Caroline Westbrook visits the 78-year-old's home for tea, and talks to him about working for LWT, unusual surnames and why there are so few Jewish characters on TV.
What made you decide to write your memoirs now?
Well, as I say in the book my mother passed away, and her rabbi was long dead and her synagogue in Brook Green was long closed. So the synagogue in Ealing which had taken over Brook Green assigned a rabbi and he phoned me and said, "I never knew your mother, could you tell me something about her?" So I wrote something for him about the East End and her life and various things and after the service my son Simon said he didn't know those things about his grandma, and he said to me, "Now go home and write everything you can about everything you remember about your grandparents and your childhood and your life as a boy because I don't know anything about it and I'd like to know about it. So that's what made me do it.
Did you do a lot of research?
Well very fortunately when my mother really couldn't handle the family flat and moved into sheltered accommodation she had two boxes full of photographs and she couldn't travel with them because there wasn't any room. So I went through them and put them in a rough chronological order and when I had time, took my time and put them into the album going all the way back to her parents and my father's parents going all the way up to date, and captioned all the pictures, and when I'd finished I took the album to show her, and she looked at it and she smiled, and I said "who is this fellow?" at a photograph of her and my father, and she said, "I don't know, but he looks like a very nice boy." That was the synopsis for me, and I just followed up everything in there, asked members of my family if they had any more details. My cousin Denise in particular had a lot of family details because her mother used to talk to her – my father never did and I never had the sense to ask which I should have done. But Denise's mother loved talking about the family.
You mention in the book about trying to find out the origins of the family name – have you found out anything else since then?
No, that seems to be it. And I find it extremely interesting that there are two Teslers – one is Jewish and one is non-Jewish. Tesler with an 'r' is according to my son's research is a Jewish surname, Tesla with an 'a' is principally a Christian surname. Those two surnames both originated in the Ukraine and Southern Russia at the same time, and you could tell who was Jewish and who wasn't by the way they spelt their surnames.
How did you end up getting into TV?
I originally went into radio. I thought I would do radio when I left Oxford – while I was there I revived the Radio Club and we had a radio play evening, where the audience sat in one room and in the next room we did the play and they listened to it on the radio. But then when I came home and saw the little television set my parents had I thought that was even more interesting than radio. So when it was time for me to get into my career I got the Oxford appointments committee to contact the BBC particularly for television – although if there was nothing in television then radio would be fine, and if there was nothing in either how about the Radio Times – I had done some journalism and had something I could show them. I hoped that one or other would come off, and the television one did, which was where it all started.
What was it like working in TV then?
Well television was very small then, it was only on for a few hours a day, programmes only occupied the last few pages of the Radio Times – it's rather like the other way round now, which is interesting. And we were making it up as we went along, with programme formats being totally new we were inventing the medium. A lot of people came from radio, some people came from theatre and variety. And in light entertainment, I was the only one who came from university. In fact the first question the interviewer asked me was whether I wanted to go into current affairs, and I said 'no, I want to go into light entetainment'. I was told there wasn't a chance as all the people either came from the profession or from the department at Broadcasting House, so it wasn't a pushover getting in.
Would you want to work in TV now?
No. The one thing I never was was a businessman. I was always concerned about costs and so on but that wasn't my primary concern, programmes were always my primary concern. Michael Grade is, I think, ITV's big white hope, because he's what I think ITV needs at the moment – a programme man with business nous, rather than a businessman who has to learn about television.
Do you think that Jewish themed programming in this country is a little lacking?
Well, we've tried it from time to time – Never Mind The Quality Feel The Width was a comedy series which started on ABC many years ago. Other people have tried, and what's so unfortunate is that the ones which have got on to the air have majored on the Jewishness and are almost cariacatures. You wonder if there are Jewish people making them and there always are – they're always grotesquely Jewish. The whole point of any programme is they should feature people you recognise, and their culture should come out of what they do and what they say. I don't think I've ever seen a Jewish programme – and it doesn't surprise me because they'll never be popular done in that way – which hasn't been a cariacature, even though it may have been done with the best intentions, it doesn't come across with natural. If I had the time, the opportunity and the writers it's something I'd love to try to do – a soap opera or a sitcom with mainly Jewish people, which worked and wasn't something which other people found terribly foreign.
What programmes do you watch on TV?
I was hoping you weren't going to ask me that. Well Audrey and I don't watch a great deal of television, I had to watch so much when I was working. I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, I watch The Larry Sanders Show which I think is the best thing on television and always has been. I watch re-runs of Cheers and re-runs of Red Dwarf. I watch current affairs, news, just to keep in touch. But the two of us mostly watch movies, I'm afraid.
Are you religious?
No. I'm religious but not in terms of dogma. I believe but I don't practise. I do normally go to shul on Rosh Hashanah principally because it's my parents' Yahrzeit, but when my mother died, that's when we stopped having formal family meals on special occasions. None of my granddaughters have ever asked the Four Questions – and in fact Simon never did. What happens in some families where the wife is a convert is that they become infinitely more Orthodox than their husbands, and in fact we have friends whose wives practise everything, having been converted. But my wife Audrey never has and I never particularly insisted. But Simon is Jewish and he married a Jewish girl. Jewish life is going through a strange period really – people feel Jewish without observing laws and occasions.
Are you working on the second part of your memoirs?
I'm starting it, yes. In the middle of writing the first one Audrey was diagnosed with cancer so I had to take a lot of time out from it. So it must have taken about 18 months or two years to write as large chunks were spent not writing. But I've put quite a lot of time in on the synopsis for the second one so it shouldn't take as long. I'm looking forward to doing it, and it will be a personal television history, not an academic study.
Before I Forget is out now, published by Mind Advertising Books and can be bought at Amazon.
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