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Interviews: 30 years in TV and film

Blog
13 March 2013

Here are a series of interviews with leading industry figures that we published in the magazine to mark Televisual’s 30th birthday in December.

The likes of Jane Root, Mick Luckwell, Nik Powell, Jimmy Mulville, John Willis, Lorraine Heggessey, Steve Morrison and John Smithson reflect on their 30 years in the business – how they got to where they are now, what they’ve learned, what they been inspired by, their regrets and their predictions for the next 30 years.

It’s taken a while to publish the interviews online (it’s been a busy few months…). But hopefully you’ll agree they make a fascinating read.

Jane Root
Chief executive of Nutopia. Former controller of BBC2, president of Discovery Networks and 
co-founder of indie producer Wall to Wall

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I was a freelance journalist for women’s magazines like Cosmpolitan, 19 and Honey, and I worked for the BFI in their education department.
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
I made two really big, bold moves, which were scary at the time. One was leaving Wall to Wall [the indie she founded] to go to the BBC. I knew that I really wanted to run a network and I had done ten years at Wall to Wall by that point. I thought if I didn’t move then I never would. The second one was to move to America and run the Discovery Channel after BBC2.
And your worst?
I always regret that I never managed to persuade Ricky Gervais to make more than 12 episodes of The Office.  I had lunches with Ricky and Stephen Marchant in every nice restaurant in London. They would always say, ‘we’ll think about it’.
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
The growth of the independent sector. And how global the TV industry has become.
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The creation of BSkyB and the digital world. When I started working at BBC2, on a good night the channel would get 4-5m viewers. Those kind of numbers are extraordinary now. The sense of the audience changing is just huge.
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
There are some that stand out – like Tony Garnett’s This Life, Peter Bazalgette’s Changing Rooms, Brookside and The Office. In their wake came a whole load of other programmes like them.
The most influential person or people?
There are two men who I think have changed TV enormously: Alan Yentob and Michael Jackson. Alan Yentob really created the modern BBC2 and then the modern BBC1. He brought a sense of energy, connectedness, usefulness and ambition. Michael Jackson, at BBC2 and Channel 4, changed two networks in a huge way. Michael was the person who made C4 into a youth network which it hadn’t really been before. He aligned it with that demographic which it still holds in that way.
The most important technical advance/s?
The first documentary I was involved with, Open the Box, was shot on 16mm and that was how all docs got made. Then the next thing we made, The Media Show, was shot on video. The fact that you shot pretty standard TV programmes on 16mm and edited it on a Steambeck – that now feels like the olden days when people wore suits of armour. And I remember at Wall to Wall when we wanted to buy our first fax machine. Our head of production complained, saying ‘why can’t we just use motorbike messengers?’
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
People work much harder now, but it is more fluid and open that it used to be. It used to be that directors were directors and mostly men. One thing that has changed enormously is the number of women in jobs. When I got the job of running BBC2, it was a news story that the BBC gave a woman a job to do. I did tons of TV and radio interviews – now it seems so bizarre that it was newsworthy.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
You have to be very careful of predicting the end of television, which many people do. People predicted the end of movies and the end of radio, but all of those co-exist together. I think you will see TV co-existing with digital. You won’t see the end of it. It would be out of sync with what has happened with the media industry of the last 100 years. Forms don’t die – they co-exist with other forms. And then they change and grow.


Mike Luckwell
Founder of MPC in 1970, former md and largest shareholder in Carlton Television, and major investor in media companies such as WPP and Hit Entertainment. Chairman of Ignenious Media Active Capital

What were you doing 30 years ago?
Getting The Moving Picture Company, at that time both an independent producer and video facility, ready to go public.
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
Staying to work predominantly in the UK rather than moving full time to the US, tempting though that was on a number of occasions.
And your worst?
No regrets! I have loved every minute of the last 30 years of television. Every day has brought something new, exciting, fascinating and rewarding.
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
The tremendous impact of digital technology on every aspect of television and the industry at last becoming more businesslike in its approach.
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The move from, to all effects, TV monopolies to robust and dynamic diversity.
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
Those that have made the powerful accountable.
The most influential person or people?
Too hard to call with so many people, and such diversity of ability, emerging.
The most important technical advance/s?
The revolutionary impact of the constant reduction in equipment costs putting TV production tools, even mobiles, combined with internet dissemination, in the hands of an ever expanding pool of new talent.
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
Better, and more professional, but more competitive and more challenging – both for individuals and corporations.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
A continuing trend to an ever broadening dissemination of television. New interpretations of the meaning of ‘television broadcaster’ with multiple categories of company entering that arena. An increasing trend to innovative low cost production in parallel with an increase in, and broadened applications for, sophisticated ‘artificially created images’ (CGI). Increased censorship whilst press, internet and TV regulation are aligned. Hugely increased involvement by both advertisers, and new audience aggregators, in all aspects of production and distribution. A diminution in the importance of conventional television, as we have known it for the last 30 years, as the integration of television with other media and cross platform video exploitation inexorably increases. Sadly - increased internationalisation of television will lead to a reduction in the importance of UK television on the world stage. Emergent challenges at every level of television from China and India.


Nik Powell
Director of the National Film and Television School. Co-founder of Virgin Group. Founder of Palace Pictures (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and Scala Pictures (Fever Pitch, Ladies in Lavender).

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I was selling out of Virgin and getting married to a sixties pop singer and having my first child. I was moving from the rock ’n’ roll business to the moving image business. With my then partner Stephen Woolley I was starting Palace Pictures, Palace Video, The Video Place and PVG, a joint company with Virgin. We were signing the video cassette rights to famous television series like Coronation Street, the rights to Thriller and to films like The Evil Dead and Diva as well as talking to Channel 4 about making our first film Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves which was then made by ITC and sold back to the channel! Their support was crucial. Times they certainly were a changing!
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years? 
To go into partnership with producer Stephen Woolley.
And your worst?
To not utilise the £1m overdraft facility I had negotiated with Barclays in 1990 so they could withdraw it when the 1991 recession struck. Had I been using it, they would not have been able to. This led directly to the bankruptcy of Palace. The subsequent mega success of our own production Crying Game and the subsequent success of titles we had signed to distribute like Reservoir Dogs, Howards End and others showed we would have survived if I had managed to stop the overdraft facility being cancelled.
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
Golly so many! The two biggest must be the advent of Channel 4 and Sky and satellite TV in the 80s and the pervasive digitalisation of the airwaves in the noughties.
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
I suppose we have to say Big Brother, but the lasting impact of the Pythons on the last 30 years of TV is incalculable even though they started in the seventies.
The most influential person or people?
The Pythons! And under the heading, ‘he would say that wouldn’t he,’ I would have to say NFTS graduates for their demonstrable impact populating the television schedules in every role from show creators, show writers, show directors and every other major role on British productions from editing and sound to production design and effects and everything in between!
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
It’s just as great and just as galling as its ever been. Never a dull moment.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
God laughs at those who…

Jimmy Mulville
Co-founder and chief executive of Hat Trick Productions

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I was producing Alas Smith and Jones and about to do Who Dares Wins on Channel 4.
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
Setting up Hat Trick Productions.
And your worst?
Selling half of it to an investment bank (before buying it back again in 2009).
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
The establishment of the indie production sector as the creative engine of the TV industry.
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The creation of Channel 4 in the early ‘80 s which crucially broke the duality of ITV and the BBC and created an explosion in the indie production sector.
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
For good and for bad – Big Brother.
The most influential person or people?
30 years ago you would’ve answered this question with a name of someone who was working in the big broadcasters but sadly for them this is no longer the case.  It would be invidious to name one but there are many highly innovative entrepreneurial figures now working in the industry who can lay claim to being one of the architects of modern television.
The most important technical advance/s?
Globally, the Internet. Selfishly, Sky Plus.
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
It depends on where you’re sitting.  If you’re a creative talent, it’s much better than when the TV world was a feudal system back in the early ‘80s.  However, if you’re working in one of the larger media institutions, I would think you’re constantly looking out of the window into the middle distance remembering the good old days.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
Yes, it’ll be nothing like the way people who spout on panels at the Edinburgh TV Festival predict it will be.

John Willis
Chief executive, Mentorn Media and chairman of Bafta. Former BBC head of factual and learning; WGBH Boston vice president national programmes; chief executive of United Productions; director of programmes at Channel 4; Yorkshire Television controller of documentaries and current affairs

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I had just completed my epic two hour  asbestos documentary Alice – A Fight for Life. Then I was moving onto series editing for a 1983 tx the new documentary series First Tuesday at Yorkshire TV where I was head of documentaries and current affairs.
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
To move to Channel 4 in 1988 as controller of factual programmes from Yorkshire Television where I had been very happy. It was an incredibly difficult decision.
And your worst?
When Granada bought United News and Media I chose to go with my creative team to Granada rather than take up an interesting senior role at the BBC. Loyalty overtook good sense and an unhappy year later I left Granada to work in the USA.
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
The greatest influence has been Channel 4 because it created an  unstoppable wave of independent producers which changed the shape of our industry for ever. More than that, C4 through its diverse range of programmes has significantly influenced social attitudes, eg Brookside’s lesbian kiss..
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
Seeing wars, revolutions,and global disasters close up and in real time. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the Asian tsunami etc more or less as they happened and in real time. OBs from the frontline which shaped the understanding and perceptions of viewers very rapidly.
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
Big Brother. Teletubbies. The Simpsons. Blackadder.
The most influential person or people?
The biggest influence on me was Tony Garnett, the legendary drama producer. Growing up his Plays for Today with people like Ken Loach and Jim Allen made me realise that television can aspire to do great things and should never sell itself short. Tony unwaveringly believed in attracting audiences ‘the hard way’, with imagination and quality rather than cheap tricks.
The most important technical advance/s?
It has to be the rise of the internet.
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
There is no point in looking back to some apparent golden age. It was just a different age. Television for me has so many fresh opportunities – new channels, global horizons, interactivity – that it is as exciting to work in now as at any time.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
Mad to predict anything. No one had heard of Twitter a few years ago, so a thirty year horizon is unimaginable given the speed of change. But, whatever happens in terms of technology, the power of narrative and the human need to relate to individual characters and their lives will still be very strong in thirty years time however we watch TV or whatever it is then called.

Lorraine Heggessey

Executive chair, Boom Pictures. Former controller of BBC1 and chief executive of TalkbackThames

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I had just moved to Panorama from Newsnight.  I was the only assistant producer on the programme and everyone seemed very grand and intimidating!  The Falklands War was the big story that year.
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
Taking the role of controller of BBC 1 – it was a fantastic job and my brief was to overhaul the channel so we made several dramatic changes including moving the news from 9pm to 10pm, introducing a fourth EastEnders, and scrapping the balloon idents and replacing them with the dancers.  The BBC decided to reinvest in BBC1 which was starting to look weak and tired through lack of funding, so we were able to launch lots of new programmes including Dr Who, Spooks and Strictly Come Dancing.
And your worst?
Taking the role of deputy chief executive of BBC Production. It wasn’t my kind of job – hard work, but a thankless task sitting in endless meetings mostly dealing with internal strife and not feeling like I was achieving very much.
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
I have seen so many changes it’s hard to say.  Digital technology has changed the industry beyond recognition. When I started even news was shot on film (reversal) and the video machines were for 2inch tape which you couldn’t fast forward in vision. Our play-in logs on Newsnight had to be very precise! Graphics were animated by pulling strips of cardboard manually and the names on maps had to be done with letraset!  I know, I know – it sounds like the stone age.
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The launch of Channel 4 and creation of the independent production sector
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
That’s hard as there are so many – but Roger Graef’s Police series on Thames Valley police, which was made 30 years ago is hard to beat for the impact it had in changing attitudes to rape victims. In entertainment, Celador’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? breathed new life into the quiz show and showed the UK could create global hits – and that they could come from an indie. Paul Smith’s determination to make this happen was admirable. In drama, Denis Potter’s Singing Detective remains up there as a trailblazing creatively ambitious work.
The most influential person or people?
Michael Grade has to be up there – he’s had so many influential roles. His charisma and passion are always inspiring. Rupert Murdoch for proving multi-channel TV could be a sustainable business in the UK
The most important technical advance/s?
The new wave of interactivity from second screens is opening up so many possibilities.
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
I think it’s always been a great place to work.  There are definitely more opportunities now – when I started the BBC and ITV were the only employers in town. Now there are hundreds of channels  and production companies to work for in addition to lots of jobs in the digital space doing everything from designing apps to platforms.
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
Experience has told me that whatever I say will probably be proven wrong, but I believe content will reign supreme however it is delivered.

Steve Morrison
Chairman of All3Media. Former chief executive of Granada plc, director of programmes at Granada Television and founder of Granada Film

What were you doing 30 years ago?
I was On the Road to 1984 and the Spanish Civil War and driving Granada mad to let us start Granada Film!
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
Starting All3Media with Jules Burns and David Liddiment. Now I’m pleased to say we are enhanced by our new chief executive, Farah Ramzan Golant and our excellent group team of Adam Jones, Jane Turton, Andy Taylor and Louise Pedersen and of course all of our terrific production companies. We celebrate our 10th anniversary this year.
And your worst?
Turning down 911 which became 999
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
First pay-TV, then digital
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The start of Sky
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
Formatted talent shows, fifty shades of reality
The most influential person or people?
David Plowright, md of Granada TV;  Colin Young, first director of the National Film School
The most important technical advance/s?
PVR, iPlayer, smartphones
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
Better
Any predictions for the next 30 years?

There’ll still be a BBC – in the good hands of 
Tony Hall


John Smithson 

Co-founder of Arrow Media; former chief executive of indie producer Darlow Smithson

What were you doing 30 years ago?
Having fun on World in Action. Working on great stories, travelling the world and not worrying about programme budgets
What is the best career decision you have made in the past 30 years?
Entering the brave new world (it was then) of independent production
And your worst?
In this business I only look forward, not back, although there are a few programmes I wish I had never taken on
What’s been the biggest change about the TV industry in the past 30 years?
The rise of the independent sector and the resulting change in our ecosystem
The most significant event/s in the TV industry over the past 30 years?
The growing global appetite for high end factual programming guarantees the genre will prosper and not be displaced by low-rent reality shows
Which programmes have had the biggest impact in the past 30 years?
Those unmissable live events that unite the nation, from 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana, to the London Olympics and those live Saturday night entertainment shows
The most influential person or people?
Those visionary and inspiring individuals who have been prepared to take a chance on me at various points in my career
The most important technical advance/s?
The digital revolution – from research to delivery everything has changed about how we work, and for the better
Is the industry better or worse to work in now?
Undoubtedly better. Talent has never been more rewarded – creatively and commercially
Any predictions for the next 30 years?
Whatever the distribution platform, nothing will beat the power of a good story
   


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