Bill Freedman really cannot see what all the fuss is about. He is, after all, a distinguished theatrical producer, a cinema boss and a former owner of West End theatres. He has staged productions in the West End, on Broadway and in plenty of other countries around the world. So why would anyone be surprised that he is now producing his first television series on national TV?
The answer probably has something to do with Freedman’s age. He is 85, which makes him quite possibly the world’s oldest debut programme maker. It has to be said that he is a particularly sprightly 85. In fact, the only old-school thing about him is the smart bow-tie he wears to work. He is twinkly-eyed and sharp-witted with a level of physical fitness that would shame a man 30 years younger. He still plays golf, tennis and is a keen exponent of pilates (in fact one of his many businesses is a pilates studio).
Although Freedman has never played football, he is a big Arsenal fan — a passion he discovered three years after moving to London from Canada 50 years ago.
And it is football which gave him the idea for Warren United — an ITV4 animated comedy for grown-ups about a family man whose obsession for his local football team, Brainsford United, has devastating and hilarious consequences for his family life.
Had Freedman been able to bring the idea to the screen sooner, his age may have been less of an issue. However, Warren United has been eight years in the making, with many setbacks along the way. But in a long career in business, he has overcome plenty of those.
“I started working for my father, managing a Toronto movie theatre when I was 17 and I have been in the theatrical business one way or another ever since,” he says. “I’ve seen too many people retire at 55 and sit around with nothing to do. I enjoy my work, even on a day like today which has been a little aggravating.”
This is not a project that even this most energetic of octogenarians could bring to fruition on his own. And Freedman has gathered a great team around him, with heavyweight writers Simon Nye, David Quantick and Dominic Holland, plus the production company Baby Cow which made Gavin and Stacey and Alan Partridge. Even so, it has not been plain sailing, with a deal with the TV channel Dave falling through before the ITV4 one was signed.
But Freedman has always had a huge amount of faith in the product. “I was upset when Dave backed off but I had to carry on — it’s a passion for me. It’s about the two great ‘f’s in life, family and football, and I think it’s unique. People say it’s a little like Family Guy but it’s not really.
“We could have done it straight, without the animation, and some days I regret we didn’t because it has taken a lot more money and a lot more time, but the feedback has been great. A lot of women have really enjoyed it, which was something we didn’t really expect.”
Freedman’s own family have become involved in his passion for Arsenal, which came about quite by chance. He recalls having lunch with Eli Wallach in 1967 in a Jewish deli to discuss a possible Broadway transfer of one of his West End productions. “Eli was asking me how I enjoyed living in London. I said I loved it but my wife was urging me to quit my fascination for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Cleveland Browns and find an English sport. The deli owner heard us and said: ‘I’ll get you tickets for the Arsenal.’ I replied: ‘What’s the Arsenal?’” He bought tickets and went to a match. It was the start of a near 50-year love affair with the game and with the club, although when we meet on the day of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final second leg tie with Paris St Germain, he is more concerned about a win for the Blues. “Warren United goes out on ITV4 on the night of the first Champions League semi-final and it will be trailed during the match coverage. It will make a huge difference if one of the English teams is playing because so many more people will be watching. We even have Clive Tyldsley commentating on Brainsford’s games as well as on the Champions League.”
Nonetheless, pilates is his biggest passion. “I’ve always put my longevity down to 80 per cent luck and 20 per cent pilates. I think the NHS could save millions if they promoted it.” He cites the example of his medical examination after falling on wet steps and breaking an arm a couple of years ago.
“The doctor was amazed. He said that I had the bones of a 20-year-old. That was the pilates.”
Pilates is not his only foray into the world of health. Twenty-five years ago, following the death of his wife Toby from breast cancer, Freedman founded the Breakthrough Breast Cancer charity which has raised millions of pounds for cancer research.
Although proud of the achievement, he is sad that the great leaps forward in cancer care that have occurred in the past quarter-of-a-century came too late to save Toby.
“My [actress] wife was a huge star in Canada. She was only 55 when she died.
“She was slim, rode a bike, played tennis and did all the right things. She was treated by the best guy at the Marsden but four years later the cancer came back.
“So we decided we were going to do something unique. The charity is doing fantastic work. They discovered things which are now being tested clinically. One of the doctors there told me that if my wife had the same disease now she would not die from it.”
Family is still very important to Freedman. And he is very happy to point out that six of his seven grandchildren are Arsenal fans, with only one errant girl supporting Chelsea.
But his biggest hope for this season is that the nation falls in love not with the Gunners but with a struggling club called Brainsford United.