I met Michael Darlow through working with a society dedicated to the work of playwright Terence Rattigan as he was one of Rattigan’s biographers. Not only did we get on very well, but also found we shared the same school and service in the RAF (a good few years apart, of course). I knew Michael had been the driving force behind some great television, but it wasn’t until I was reading Robert Hilburn’s biography of Johnny Cash that I came across the reference to Michael’s having been behind the Granada TV film of the San Quentin concert. When I mentioned it, he immediately recounted some fascinating moments from the experience, and I asked him if he could possibly jot down a few recollections to share on my blog or, if there was enough to make an article, in ‘Now Dig This’. With someone like Michael, I should have known better than to expect just a few random reminiscences, but I could never have dreamed that to hope that he would dedicate himself to producing such a detailed record of the project. An edited version appeared in two parts in Issue Nos 432 and 433 of Now Dig This in Spring 2019 (back issues available from the magazine website) but, to ensure that this wonderful first-hand record is available on line, I’m publishing it in instalments here. Clearly, the number of still photos available to accompany this unique text is limited, so I’ve drawn liberally from shots of Johnny Cash more generally, including those from his Folsom Prison concert of around the same time. All text © Michael Darlow, January 2019.

24th February 2019 was the fiftieth anniversary of Johnny Cash’s famous concert in San Quentin prison.

A year earlier, on 13th January 1968, Johnny had given a similar concert for the prisoners in Folsom Prison. In May that year the LP of the Folsom Prison concert had been released and become an instant hit around the world, winning two Grammy Awards.

In 1968 I had been working for Granada Television for three years, first as a researcher and then as a producer-director. That summer Granada had put me in charge of a new, small production unit tasked with ‘breaking-down the usual boundaries’ between different kinds of TV programmes – documentaries, news, music, arts, drama, etc. The aim was to find new and more imaginative ways of making programmes which dealt with the ideas and issues which were more normally covered by news and current affairs programmes.

Soon a succession of all kinds of, mostly younger, programme makers, writers, choreographers and music makers were coming to me with a whole range of programme ideas. Among the programmes we commissioned were new ballets dealing with contemporary themes, a film following the casting, rehearsals and West End opening of the controversial musical Hair, The Doors Are Open – a film about a concert at London’s Roundhouse by the controversial rock group “The Doors”, a television folk musical devised by a rising young folk music specialist and a film with The Rolling Stones about their huge free, open-air concert in Hyde Park.

Shortly before Christmas 1968, by which time the Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison album had become as big a hit in the UK as in the USA, Joe Durden-Smith, one of Granada’s brightest young producers who had been recruited straight from Oxford to work on Granada’s current affairs programme World In Action, and Geoffrey Cannon the rock music critic of The Guardian, came to me with a proposal to make a film about Johnny Cash doing another prison concert, similar to Folsom. By filming Johnny Cash, a country singer from a poor rural family singing both new and traditional country music to convicts, America’s outcasts and social rejects, in an American jail, they hoped to reveal to a British audience a side of American society largely unknown to people in the UK except as depicted in Hollywood gangster movies. At that time I knew very little about American country music or Johnny Cash, nevertheless I was enthusiastic about the idea. It called to mind Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. Perhaps Jo and Geoffrey’s proposed film might give British audiences an insight into “the degree of civilisation in American society”.

So off I went upstairs to get permission from Granada’s bosses for Joe and Geoffrey to make their film. At that time very few Granada programmes got made without the producer first having obtained specific permission to make the programme from either the owners of the company, Sidney Bernstein and his younger brother Cecil, or the managing director Denis Forman. I was immediately given the go ahead but with one condition: I must direct the programme because, at that time, I had more experience as a director than either Joe or Geoffrey.

The next thing we needed to do was contact Johnny Cash to see he was up for the idea. Geoffrey got hold of the phone number of Johnny’s manager, Saul Holiff, and I called his office in Canada. Saul was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Up to this point we had thought in terms of filming Johnny doing another concert in Folsom, but Holiff suggested that rather than Folsom we should see if we could get permission to film Johnny doing a concert he was scheduled to play for prisoners in San Quentin. San Quentin was far better known in Britain than Folsom and we jumped at the idea. San Quentin was not only notorious as one of the toughest and most dangerous prisons in America, it was also home to California’s only death row. So for the programme we had in mind it was just about perfect. When I explained to Saul that as well as filming the concert we would want to take shots of life in the prison and film interviews with some of the prisoners, Saul said that was fine with him and that he was sure that it would fine with Johnny. Finally Saul offered to contact the Warden of San Quentin for us and ask for his permission for us to film there.

A couple of days later Saul called me back. The Warden of San Quentin – equivalent to the prison governor in the UK – was happy for us to film Johnny’s concert in San Quentin and, in principle, for us to take shots of life in the prison. However, before giving the final go-ahead he wanted me to fly out to San Quentin to meet him and discuss our plans in more detail.

So in early January 1969 I flew out of cold, grey London to San Francisco to be woken next morning by a hotel maid opening the curtains in my room on to a view of the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the California sunshine. As I sat up in the bed she brought me over a tray with a plate of piping hot pancakes, a large bowl of fresh berries and a jug of steaming hot coffee. I began to think that making this film might even turn out to be fun.

A couple of hours later I was driving a hire car north out of San Francisco on Interstate 580 across the Richmond – San Raphael Bridge. A couple of miles ahead of me, slightly to the left, bathed in the California sunshine, stood San Quentin Prison high on the north shore of San Francisco Bay – huge, grim and forbidding. Having driven up to the prison’s outer gate, and checked in with the guard on duty, I parked my car in the prison car park and paused briefly to admire the view back across the bay to Berkeley and the City of San Francisco. I walked across to the Prison Warden’s official residence which, I soon discovered, was also his family home. Although inside San Quentin’s outer security fence, the Warden’s residence was firmly outside the prison’s high, fearsome main walls.

The Warden turned out to be charming and easy to talk to and we quickly got down to business. I explained that for the concert itself we would need to bring in four film cameras plus crews to operate them, lighting and sound equipment and that during the week leading up to the concert Joe and I would like to come into the prison with a single camera and crew to film life in the prison and do interviews with some of the prisoners and staff. The Warden readily agreed to each of my requests and said he would take me into the prison and introduce me to the Head Guard so that I could explain to him what I needed and discuss the practical details. When I asked the Warden if the prison would want a fee for allowing us to film in the prison he said “No”, nothing was needed beyond a standard exchange of letters granting us permission to enter the prison and film at our own risk on the undertaking that while in the prison we would at all times obey any instructions given to us by the prison authorities and staff. The Warden added that he personally would also very much appreciate it if Granada could get him a good, modern cabinet radiogram for his family to use in their living room. Greatly relieved that there was to be no hefty fee for permission to film in the prison, I said “No problem!” I would see to it that he received a new radiogram for his living-room. The Warden then walked me the short distance over to the main gate of the prison itself.

Hidden behind its high, forbidding stone walls, on top of which uniformed guards patrolled armed with loaded rifles, San Quentin was enormous. It had started out in the 1840s as a prison ship anchored close to the north shore of San Francisco Bay. But when the number of prisoners being sent to the ship became greater than the ship could hold, a more permanent prison was built onshore, next to where the ship had been anchored. Over the years this had expanded until, by 1969, it covered 40 acres and held almost 4,000 men, including many of the most dangerous criminals in the United States, and employing more than 1,000 guards and other staff.

By the 1960s San Quentin had acquired a reputation as being the toughest and most dangerous prison in America. There were between six and eight murders every year inside the prison itself and in the past two years there had been a succession of riots and prisoner rebellions, the most recent in May 1968. San Quentin also contained the largest death row in the USA which at that time held 70 prisoners awaiting execution in the prison’s gas chamber.

After having my identity papers checked by the uniformed guards at the gate, my passport scrutinized and my left hand stamped with a rubber stamp coated with invisible ink that only showed up when held under a special ultra-violet lamp, the heavy metal barred gate swung open and I was admitted into the prison itself. The Warden then escorted me along a corridor to the office of the Head Guard who, as the Warden had explained to me, would make the day-to-day arrangements for our filming in the prison.

The Head Guard, dressed in a uniform very like that of an American army officer, turned out to be a quiet-spoken, middle-aged man of many years’ experience in the American penal system. He was also the officer who supervised the executions in San Quentin. He had about him an aura of strength, command and quiet confidence. He struck me as the kind of man who, had I had the misfortune to be a squaddie drafted to fight in the war then raging in Vietnam, I would have wanted as my platoon commander. The Head Guard explained to me that although he would detail at least one prison officer to with us at all times while we were in the prison, this alone would not be enough to guarantee our safety. For that we would need to do a deal with the heads of the prison’s most powerful gangs.

So an hour or so later I was shown by a senior prison officer into a room where six men in prison uniform were sitting. After I had shaken hands with each of them we got straight down to business and a deal was quickly reached. In return for each of them getting a front row seat at the concert they would make sure that I and my crew came to no harm while we were filming in the prison.

With the deals all done and the date for the concert set for Monday 24th February, I flew back to London to make all the technical, travel and other arrangements for the filming. The Warden had agreed that we could come into the prison during the week leading up to the concert with one, four-man, documentary film crew and kit – 16mm camera, sound recording equipment and a minimal number of lights, cables, etc – to film life in the prison and do interviews with guards and prisoners. He had also agreed that for the concert itself we could have four film crews and equipment. So Joe and I decided to take one Granada film crew, led by one of Granada’s most experienced cameramen, Ray Goode, out to California with us to film life in San Quentin during the week leading up to the concert, that a second Granada crew would fly out to join us for the concert itself, and that we would hire another two local American crews to film the concert itself.

Two days after I had returned to London I got a phone call from Johnny Cash’s record company, Columbia Records. Could they record the concert? And if so, what kind of deal would we want? I replied that although I would need to get the agreement of my Granada bosses and find out what kind of a deal they would want, I would be happy if Columbia Records recorded the concert provided that, in return, they gave us a copy of their multi-track recording of the concert to use in our film. Joe and I had been worrying about how we were to get a really good quality sound recording of the concert. Ideally, in order to achieve this, we would need a multi-track sound recording machine and enough microphones to record each performer plus the reactions of the audience. Not only would such a set-up be expensive, it was likely to be time-consuming and difficult to set up in the prison mess-hall where the concert was going to be staged. However, if Columbia Records recorded the sound on their multi-track tape recorder, using their microphones, and allowed us to use one of their tape-recorder’s tracks to record the synchronisation pulse from our master film camera and afterwards gave us a copy of their recorded multi-track sound tape with the pulse recorded on one of its tracks, our problem would be solved. The Columbia executive said that they would be happy to do that. I thanked him and said I would call him back as soon as I had spoken to my Granada bosses and found out what kind a deal they would want for letting Columbia Records record the concert.

It so happened that there was a Granada producer, Douglas Terry, working in an office on the floor below me in Granada’s London office who had been a producer at Decca Records. So, before ringing my bosses in Manchester I went and sought Douglas’s advice. He told me that, according to normal record industry practice, Granada could ask for, and expect to receive, 4% of the gross income from all sales of the record and that I personally, as the producer/director of the film, could be expected to receive a further ¼ of 1% of gross. So, armed with this advice, I phoned Manchester and was referred to Cecil Bernstein who was responsible for commercial decisions about Granada’s music and entertainment shows. I explained to Cecil about Columbia Records wanting our permission to record the San Quentin concert for an LP and passed on Douglas’s advice about Granada being able to expect to get 4% of gross income from sales of the record. To my astonishment Cecil’s response to Douglas’s suggested 4% was: “No! Certainly not! Who’s ever heard of Johnny Cash? Ask them for £700 in cash up-front.” I tried to explain to Cecil that quite a lot of people had heard of Johnny Cash and that 4% of the gross income from the LP was likely to amount to a lot more than £700, but he would have none of it. “Ask them for £700 and be done with it!” he said and rang off.

Michael Darlow at the time of the San Quentin recordingWhen I called the Columbia Records executive back and told him of Cecil’s decision he could hardly conceal his surprise: “Seven hundred British pounds?” he asked, incredulously. “And what about you? What do we pay you?” “Oh, don’t worry about me”, I said, “I work for Granada. They pay me.” I have never heard anyone get off a phone quicker than that Columbia Records executive – “Done!” he said and hung up. He clearly couldn’t believe his and Columbia’s luck. As we will see, Cecil’s decision would turn out to be what must surely be one of the most costly financial decisions Granada TV ever made.


To be continued