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01 August 2011

The secrets of discovering and working with onscreen talent

Finding and keeping presenter talent can be a golden ticket. But, with a relentless demand for new faces, how do you discover or attract talent or is it a game of chance? Pippa Considine finds out

Open up any TV listings page and it’s the same story. Across the top of each channel listing there are pictures of people, mostly celebrities. Factual programmes get that picture billing if the presenter’s face fits.

Talent can be the making of a production company. Take Jo Frost and the Supernanny franchise at Ricochet, or Optomen’s celebrated presenters, including Gordon Ramsay and Mary Portas.

There’s a common perception that talent has become more important to factual programming; an idea that needs a presenter is unlikely to be given a second glance if pitched to a broadcaster without a credible presenter. Jobbing presenters have been all-but side-lined by charismatic experts with passion and celebrities with enthusiasm for travel or Victorian culture. “Next they’ll discover that Stephen Fry is an engineer and that Joanna Lumley is a seamstress,” comments one agent looking to place new talent.

Naturally, demand has driven up the price and power of many presenters. Jeremy Paxman is, according to The Guardian, believed to be on a £750,000 deal covering Newsnight and University Challenge, with a £20,000 ‘presenter bonus’ for each documentary that he fronts. Meanwhile, Richard Hammond is thought to be in the BBC’s £1m plus league.

Commissioning editors aren’t shy about their talent cravings. “My first priority is talent, talent, talent,” says Channel 4 commissioning editor for specialist factual Ralph Lee. While Channel 4 is jealous of the BBC’s stable of popular and respected presenters, the BBC is anxious to carry on attracting those presenters, whether they are well-known faces or the next discovery. It’s the same story with broadcasters the world over – good presenters are vital, they win audiences and help to sell a channel.

“Talent is very, very important,” says BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow. “I’m not sure if it has become more so, but talent, particularly in factual, is a really important part of how we engage audiences.”

Hadlow has a reputation for finding talent, having brought David Starkey and Simon Schama to the small screen and, more recently, encouraged both Mary Beard and Amanda Vickery to front successful productions for BBC2. “As a channel controller I feel as interested as I was when I was a producer,” she says. “However, I do have a day job, so I need to make it very clear to inhouse producers and independents what kind of talent would work for the channel.

“The key thing for BBC2 is authority, our audiences want someone that they can identify with and they want to spend time with – someone who has the authority to be telling them things.” She also insists that risk-taking is vital. “We have to be prepared to give new talent a try and be prepared for the long haul…Part of my job is to have the ability to recognise talent and be willing to put it on screen.”

At Channel 4, Lee admits that “in specialist factual, we haven’t been as bold and adventurous as we should have been in backing new talent. We want both new and established talent.” Discovery, with its cabbie-turned-presenter Harry Harris, alongside Bear Grylls (Born Survivor) is saying the same thing. As is Channel 5 – on the hunt for new experts, especially engineers, as well as celebrities who can live their dreams, like Robson Green in Extreme Fishing.

But how does a producer find the right face to fit the brief? How much time and resource should they commit to relationships with talent agents, reading the words of academic experts or combing restaurant kitchens and market stalls to secure the charisma that might underpin a programme idea?

Gareth Malone’s arrival on screen was a case of idea first, talent second; the producer that found him, Ana de Moraes, now head of development at Twenty Twenty, says that a commission wouldn’t happen that way around five years on. Former commissioners at BBC2 Ben Gale and Richard Klein had liked the idea of taking a school choir to the Choir Olympics, but only with the right talent attached.

De Moraes started to hunt around and the first person she found, through the London Symphony Orchestra, was Malone. “The minute we played the taster tape everyone said he’s going to be eaten alive in the kind of school that we want to film. But he was confident and good, so he had a good chance of pulling it off.” The fact that he seemed like a lamb being fed to the lions gave him the edge. “There needs to be that extra something. There are so many experts, but if they don’t have charm, it doesn’t really work,” says Moraes.

Having spotted Malone, she’s often asked who will be the next Gareth. “It’s very hard to find someone special and you have to think why haven’t they done TV before. It’s very rare.”

Guy Martin, the new face that recently presented BBC One series, The Boat that Guy Built, was a story of talent-first, idea second. Neil Duncanson, CEO at North One explains that he was spotted during the company’s coverage of the Isle of Man TT racing. “One of the TT race producers said, ‘can you look at a feature I’ve done because I’m having a big row - the editor says it’s too long’ …It was a long diatribe [from Guy Martin] about tea and what makes proper tea and what is an emulsion. It doesn’t happen very often in our business that you’re hit by a bolt of lightning, but this was it.”

North One sent the tape of Martin to the then controller of BBC One Jay Hunt who came back to them 24 hours later, agreeing that Martin was brilliant; together with Alison Kirkham at the BBC, North One channelled Martin’s passion and enthusiasm into The Boat that Guy Built.

Duncanson says that he’s always keeping an eye out for potential presenters, it comes with the territory. Over at Leopard Films, Charlie Bunce, recently appointed head of features and formats and former head of factual at Talkback Thames, says that looking out for talent is part of the job and has been ever thus. “Talent has always been important in factual, always at its heart. As a producer, you are thinking about talent the whole time…through the books you read, the papers, even the people you meet when you’re dropping your kids at school.”

Having worked with Kevin McCloud and Michael Portillo (Great British Railway Journeys), as well as recently “pounding the streets” to cast unknowns in Channel’s 4’s Four Rooms, he makes a crucial distinction: “Either people already exist and you have a pretty good idea, or there’s the perfect person and you don’t know where they are and you have to go out and find them.”

Working with existing talent is obvious and might make so much sense for a programme idea, but the reality of booking an already well known presenter is another matter. In the past, professional presenters were more flexible, but the rise of the expert presenter has seen the emergence of a whole new cult. With recognised talent, such as the Top Gear and Gardener’s World alumni or celebrities transferring their talent from other walks of life, getting them on board may require large amounts of money, as well as artful persuasion. It’s also, of course, down to who you know.

Spun Gold is behind an array of talent-led programming, including Prince William’s Africa, When Piers Met Lord Sugar and The Alan Titchmarsh Show. Managing director Nick Bullen describes how he knew Titchmarsh’s agent – Annie Sweetbaum at specialist talent agency Arlington Enterprises – from his first job in television. Bullen started out in TV on This Morning, with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, where his contacts book swelled and he learnt the importance of maintaining relationships. When Sweetbaum and Titchmarsh talked to ITV about producing an afternoon show, they chose to come to Spun Gold, in part because Bullen had the ability to produce a live, daytime show, but a lot was down to trust.

“We’ve never done anybody over,” says Bullen, who is well aware of the often fragile trust between celebrity and TV company. “Every programme we’ve done has always been with talent approval, though not editorial control….I show them the final production and I’m happy to discuss it with them.” Working with talent, sharing ideas and sharing profits are all part of the game. “You do have to give the love,” he adds.

While Bunce clearly got on well enough with Portillo to be trusted to write the book of the TV series, Ana de Moraes describes how she and Gareth Malone are a team: “It’s quite a close relationship, he trusts us and we’ve become friends…he’s been to my son’s birthday parties. We come up with ideas together with him and he knows that we have his best interests at heart.”

Malone has an exclusive TV deal with Twenty Twenty, as does Guy Martin with North One. In the case of Alan Titchmarsh and James May they have agreed deals with their production companies, on top of their fee; Titchmarsh through Spun Gold and May through Plum Pictures.

Sweetbaum recognises that their celebrity gives them a right to a stake in any show’s IP. “Of course you can only do that when they’re right at the top,” she says. And even with high profile presenters, many of the bigger production companies are protective of rights and not interested in cutting a deal beyond a fee.

While Arlington represents the likes of Kirstie and Phil, Ben Fogle and James May , for the newbies on Arlington’s books it’s a different game. “With rookie presenters you have to try and keep pushing them in front of producers until someone somewhere says yes,” says Sweetbaum.

If and when they do say yes, there’s every chance that a rising star might change production company or channel. Or they might decide to start their own production company in the mould of Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer with Raise the Roof Productions or Jamie Oliver’s Fresh One Productions.

If you do find talent, hanging on to it is another trick altogether. Producers are agreed that it has to be about building trust. Hadlow points to the myriad opportunities for talent on the BBC. While Bullen at Spun Gold suggests that it’s also down to the feel-good factor: “If you look at talent that leaves production companies, it’s hardly ever about money and very rarely about the quality of shows. Invariably they leave because they haven’t been getting the love.”


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