Presenting talent can often be seen by the production community as ‘difficult’, ‘demanding’ or ‘prima donna-ish’. I think, in general, that’s unfair. It’s an attitude that comes from not appreciating what it takes to present. I want to outline some reasons why presenters are, in fact, sometimes right to be ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’, and offer a few suggestions for how to get the most out of working with them.
The first thing to remember is your presenter is exposed. They’re vulnerable. The programme you’re making will be watched, reviewed and publicised as their programme. If people don’t like it, it’s not your name that will be flung around like a dead rat.
What makes presenters even more vulnerable is that, when it comes to the actual content of the show, they can feel they lack control. They’re not sitting in the edit. They’re not necessarily writing the script. They’re not always party to important conversations between you and the commissioning editor, and yet everything in the programme will be seen as theirs.
And actually, if the programme’s good, it should feel like theirs. The producer’s presence in the film should be unnoticeable. It should all feel like a wonderful insight into the presenter’s life, their mind, their world. Every choice of contributor, location, every line of commentary should appear to be an effortless manifestation of the presenter’s personality. Don’t let your ego get in the way – subsume your ego into the presenter’s. What’s good for them is good for you.
It’s a relationship. It comes down to trust. If your presenter is anxious about doing something, or saying something, acknowledge the anxiety and talk to them about it. If you’ve got each other’s backs it’s easier to strike out into daring territory.
We made a series with Rupert Everett earlier this year about prostitution, for which Rupert recently won the Grierson Award for Best Presenter. He was incredibly brave in revealing his experiences, and we also filmed some quite extraordinary encounters. One, in particular, comes to mind, which involved a dominatrix in a cul-de-sac in Hull subjecting one of her clients to some truly infernal punishments. That scene didn’t happen without trust – for all involved. Of course I’m not using this as a crude analogy for the producer-presenter relationship. I’m not, honestly. But if I were, I’d suggest that both producers and presenters probably think they’re the dom, but secretly fear they’re the sub. Either way, all I’d say is make sure you listen up for safety words.
And don’t just listen to their anxieties: listen to their ideas for the programme. A lot of them might be a hell of a lot better than yours. Don’t treat them as an obstacle in the way of your vision. They are an absolutely integral and vital part of it and, let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t have the commission without them.
Don’t waste their time. Structure the filming schedule around them. Don’t keep them waiting around while you shoot GVs or stuff with other contributors that could have been done before the presenter’s call. And engage with them about their appearance. They’re not just being vain. Viewers can be vicious. Reviewers can be vicious. How your presenter looks is a huge part of how your programme will look.
So, I urge you – be kind to your presenting talent. Listen to what they have to say. They’re the most precious thing you have.
Oh, I almost forgot the two cardinal rules of working with presenters. These rules were passed down to me by a very wise producer when I started out and, although they’re not ones I’ve personally had to invoke in recent years, their fundamental truth remains undiminished: 1) Don’t sleep with them; 2) however much they beg and plead, don’t buy them drugs.
Joe Evans is co-founder and managing director of Swan Films. Recent credits include Grayson Perry: Who Are You? and Love for Sale with Rupert Everett.
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