published 25/02/2013 at 13:46 GMT by Philip Purser
Dedicated chairman of Granada who championed high-quality popular TV
Sir Denis Forman, who has died aged 95, was a driving force in Granada TV, one of the leaders in the first batch of independent regional commercial television companies, from its beginnings in the mid-1950s through to his lengthy spell as chairman (1974-87). Though scarcely ever named as producer, he was directly responsible for many programmes and ran his favourite series as personal fiefdoms. His greatest achievement in this capacity was The Jewel in the Crown (1984), based upon the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott.
Forman threw himself headlong into many other enthusiasms, including atheism, battle drill, Mozart and Scottish country dancing. A large man in every sense, he was affable, eloquent and determined. At Granada's Manchester studios in the early days, the shortest path to lunchtime refreshment was barred by a waist-high wall. Forman would lead the way and, despite having lost a leg at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944, would vault briskly over it.
Born in Dumfries, Denis was the rebel among the six children of the Rev Adam Forman, who had been ordained in the Anglican church and would end up a Presbyterian minister, but meanwhile was leading the life of a country gentleman as the factor of his wife's family estate in Scotland. The tone of the household was devout: prayers were said daily and church on Sunday was compulsory and interminable.
As he recounted in his memoir Son of Adam (published in 1990 and filmed as My Life So Far in 1999), Forman hated and secretly rejected it all. One morning, when he was 15, the sermon set off a lunch-table discussion on predestination versus free will. His father closed it by ruling that God did offer people a genuine freedom of choice but, being omniscient, always knew what they would choose. Man could never surprise God. "Well, I have a surprise for him," Denis piped up. "I don't believe in him." The ensuing row lasted all day and into the next, and though it eventually petered out, the emotional damage was such that relations between Forman and his parents were never the same.
Years later, Forman made somewhat clumsy amends when he bestowed his father's forename on the hero of a Granada religious drama series, Adam Smith (1972-73), about a radical Church of Scotland minister. But even here, he admitted, the tenor grew so irreligious that in the end the show had to be moved out of the "God slot", as it was called, and into the regular schedules.
Educated at home, then at Loretto school, Edinburgh, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Forman was 21 when the second world war broke out. Instead of girding up for the exhausting and hard-drinking round of Highland balls that rounded off the Scottish social season, he was commissioned in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and might have spent the whole war in remote northern outposts had it not been for his interest in military training.
He was disheartened by the archaic training the infantry was still being given, based on drills more appropriate to Waterloo than the German blitzkrieg. When he heard of a revolutionary new Battle School at Barnard Castle, in Durham, teaching "battle drill", he agitated to be sent on one of its courses, in order to set up similar training in his own division. The doctrine was the brainchild of a peacetime solicitor and territorial officer, Lionel Wigram. It concentrated on tactics for basic groups of infantry, and sent them over punishing assault courses, under fire from live ammunition, to develop fighting spirit.
Forman became Wigram's disciple, and succeeded him as commandant of the Battle School when Wigram was sent out to the Mediterranean to see how his ideas were working in real warfare. Arriving in the same theatre a few months later, Forman was horrified to find his hero in disgrace. Wigram had duly observed the Sicilian campaign. In his report he had criticised the performance and morale of Eighth Army troops taking part. General Bernard Montgomery was outraged. Forman devoted much of his second slice of autobiography, To Reason Why (1991), to defending Wigram, who was killed in 1944 while leading a troop of Italian partisans.
Forman received his grim wound at Cassino a few weeks later. A smoke canister fired by a supporting gun battery smashed his leg. "Hopping about on crutches," as he put it, he was back on duty towards the end of the war at an officer cadet training unit. There, he met Fred Majdalany, who had been a journalist and theatre publicist. Majdalany had just published The Monastery, a soldier's-eye account of the Battle of Cassino that won critical acclaim. As his demobilisation approached, Majdalany landed himself a job as the film critic of the Daily Mail. Forman had already acquired a practical interest in the cinema – he and Wigram had planned to make instructional films to augment their battle drill courses. Inspired by Majdalany's example, he thought now about making the cinema a career.
After a spell as chief production officer in the Central Office of Information's film division, in 1948 he was appointed director of the British Film Institute, an influential position in the heady postwar years when the UK film industry was booming but had not lost its wartime ties with governmental aims. Forman was a popular director of the BFI for seven years but as that patriotic spirit gave way to strictly commercial considerations, it became plain to him that the job no longer put him in the mill of the film business. It was more like being its industrial chaplain.
One of the BFI governors was Cecil Bernstein who, with his dynamic brother Sidney, owned the Granada chain of cinemas and had been awarded the weekday independent television franchise for the north of England. Forman dropped a word in Cecil's ear, and was immediately offered a position in the new company. Granada TV launched in 1956 and would always display a knack of being high-minded and public-spirited while doing well in the ratings. Forman fitted into this pattern easily, and was soon regarded as the Bernsteins' natural successor.
Until he became joint managing director in 1965, he had no title but masterminded many programmes, including What the Papers Say (1956-2008), World in Action (1963-98) and A Family at War (1970-72). One which he regarded very much as his own was The Verdict Is Yours (1958-63), a series of fictional trials which the actors improvised as they went along, and whose outcome depended on the verdict of a jury drawn from the general public.
When the company's early financial struggles were forgotten, things improved. Forman, who had been made an OBE in 1956, was knighted in 1976. In 1981 he put out a series devoted to another of his enthusiasms, Mozart's piano concertos, the subject of a book he had written in 1971. He was deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House from 1983 to 1991, and in 1994 published The Good Opera Guide (brought out in a new edition last year). The Good Wagner Opera Guide followed in 2000.
After his retirement in 1987, he wrote his memoirs and presented a Channel 4 series, Beyond Belief: Religion on Trial (1992), which challenged all faiths. He remained a staunch unbeliever and was genuinely distressed, he once told me, when Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a star performer for Granada, embarked on his public conversion to Christianity. "It worried me to see that fine sceptical mind slipping away. I wrote and challenged him to a two-hour debate over dinner at the Cafe Royal, during which I would try to convert him back to sanity. He sent word politely refusing."
Forman's first wife, Helen (nee de Mouilpied), whom he married in 1948, remained a power in the BFI long after his own departure from the organisation. She died in 1987. They had two sons, Charlie and Adam. In 1990 he married Moni, the widow of their friend James Cameron, the celebrated journalist. Moni and his children survive him.
Denis Forman, television executive, born 13 October 1917; died 24 February 2013
published 25/02/2013 at 13:46 GMT by Philip Purser