John Slater, who has died, aged 63, of mesothelioma, the asbestos-related cancer, was a big man; or rather a man of slight build, but with huge energy and a grand capacity for joy.
As a historian, he wanted to know what really happened; as a programmemaker, he wanted to reach out to the viewing public; and as a friend, he was a brilliant iconoclast, robust intellect and funny as hell.
Slater, as he was universally known, was educated at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, where he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. While at university, he joined CND and was an active organiser and co-founder of the campaign’s paper, Sanity. John died, as if by design, on August 6 – Hiroshima Day – a date that marks the dropping of the first of two atom bombs on Japan, an event which moved John to campaign for nuclear disarmament.
After Oxford, he spent time teaching in Africa. He married Gilly Baldwin and had children. By 1968 he had joined Granada Television, and worked on World In Action (WIA), first as researcher, then producer/director.
The journalism of this cutting edge current affairs programme was of the best and Slater fitted perfectly. He made important films on topics such as the battle of the airways between the US and the Soviet radio stations during the Cold War and, most chillingly ironic, Slater also worked on a groundbreaking WIA on the lethal effects of asbestos.
(It has been established that it was not during the making of this film that Slater came into contact with the lethal fibres.) In early 1974, John’s creative imagination saw him invited by Gus (now Lord) Macdonald to revitalise Granada’s local programmes. Slater became editor of Granada Reports.
To those who founded and ran Granada, local programmes were an important part of asserting the company’s non-metropolitan identity as well as a training ground for emerging talent. While Slater was daily active in deploying journalists to root out corporate and council wrongdoings in the north west, his approach also embraced the anarchic.
Slater was keen to populate the programme with people from the northwest, not carpetbaggers from the south. He made the programme a showcase for personalities from the region, making them local stars.
No story was too big nor too small and Slater asked us to do improbable items; to find the biggest eyesore in the northwest or to name and shame the skimpiest, emptiest, meanest sandwich in Manchester.
After leaving Granada in the late 70s, Slater freelanced as a programme maker at the National Film School, regularly returning to Manchester to train new directors. Slater set up his own production company, Mirageland, and ‘discovered’ David Starkey, using him as a presenter on his first major independent commission for Channel 4, This Land of England. In 1990, Slater headed the BBC’s history unit at Elstree, subsequently running the BBC’s southeast region. By 1993, he had been made redundant, so used the opportunity to return to matters nuclear and began working with his partner Fiona McKenzie, with whom he had been living since 1983. Through their company Black Hill Productions, they made a nuclear history for BBC TO, called Geiger Sweet, Geiger Sour.
In 1994, to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of radiation and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs, they jointly made a magnificent three-parter for Radio 4, called Atomica America. In 1997, Slater won a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to research the history of the British Nuclear Bomb. The shelves of his research files stretch for metres.
The Slater Trust has been established by his wife and six children, to enable the completion of this investigation.