In the 1990s, The Late Show, infamous for its esoteric subject matter, launched the careers of many of the defining figures in British film and television. Why?by David Herman / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Things are looking up at the BBC. Greg Dyke and Jane Root have gone. Michael Grade and Janice Hadlow are in and Roly Keating’s taken over as controller of BBC2. Amid all the musical chairs, an interesting pattern stands out. Two groups have dominated the big jobs in British television over the past decade. The first is well known: the executives who moved from LWT to take some of the top jobs at the BBC and Channel 4: John Birt, Michael Grade, Christopher Bland, Greg Dyke and now Grade again. Birt and Dyke were both director general; Bland and Grade both chairman. Grade was also controller of BBC1. The second group is less well known but has been more influential and creative – the products of an obscure late-night arts programme from the early 1990s.
The Late Show ran on BBC2 for five years, from 1989-95, in the post-Newsnight graveyard slot at 11.15pm. Key figures included the programme’s founding editor, Michael Jackson (later controller of BBC2, BBC1 and chief executive of Channel 4), second editor, Roly Keating (former controller of BBC4 and now controller of BBC2), and third editor, Janice Hadlow (driving force behind Simon Schama’s A History of Britain series, now controller of BBC4). Jackson’s number two at The Late Show was Kevin Loader, who went on to become a leading drama producer at the BBC (his credits included The Buddha of Suburbia) and then went into films, producing Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Mother. Other senior executives included John Whiston (who went on to YTV and is now one of the main executives at Granada), Janey Walker (managing editor at Channel 4) and Martin Davidson (now at RDF Media). A number of producers from The Late Show went into filmmaking, including Anand Tucker (director of Hilary and Jackie, producer of The Girl With a Pearl Earring), Sharon Maguire (director of Bridget Jones’s Diary) and David Evans (director of Fever Pitch). Channel 4’s major art documentary series over the past years have been written and presented by two former Late Show presenters, Matthew Collings and Waldemar Januszczak, and the series editor of BBC1’s arts flagship, Imagine, is Ian MacMillan, another former producer of The Late Show.
Why did a BBC2 arts programme, infamous for its sometimes esoteric subject matter, launch so many high-profile careers in British broadcasting and film? One obvious answer is resources. A daily programme, with so many 40-minute slots to fill, needed to recruit a lot of producers and was given a generous budget, at least initially, to recruit talent from elsewhere. However, this doesn’t explain why The Late Show produced so many more senior executives than, say, Newsnight or high-profile, well resourced documentary strands like Timewatch or Horizon.
Another reason is patronage. Alan Yentob was the founding figure behind The Late Show, and he and the programme’s first editor, Michael Jackson, went on to become two of the top executives at the BBC. At one time they were controllers of BBC1 and BBC2 respectively. The rise of a number of Late Show executives within the BBC, and later at Channel 4 when Jackson was chief executive there, was not coincidental. At one time, at least three Late Show alumni served under Jackson at Channel 4. Similarly, when Janice Hadlow started up Schama’s A History of Britain at the BBC, a number of the producers and executives who worked on the series were former colleagues from The Late Show. This doesn’t explain, however, why others rose just as fast elsewhere – Whiston at ITV, or Loader and Tucker in film.
A more interesting explanation is the creative challenges that The Late Show offered. Few other programmes have combined so many different formats, from 40-minute documentaries and studio discussions to short films and live outside broadcasts. That kind of range calls for a special form of talent, and few would deny that Whiston, Keating, Tucker and others were among the most original producers of their generation.
Perhaps the only other television programme to match this range was Tonight, an early evening magazine programme that ran on the BBC from 1957-65. Its progeny included Alasdair Milne, later director general, Anthony Smith, later director of the BFI, Tony Essex, one of the men behind the BBC’s Great War, household names like Alan Whicker, Cliff Michelmore and Fyfe Robertson and directors like Jack Gold. Two other similar creative powerhouses were both products of the BBC at the same time: TW3 and Monitor. Monitor, under Huw Weldon, gave opportunities to a new generation of presenters and filmmakers, including Melvyn Bragg, Jonathan Miller, John Schlesinger, John Berger and Ken Russell. TW3 not only launched the careers of David Frost, William Rushton and Ned Sherrin, but its writers ranged from Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal to Gerald Kaufman.
The lesson from all this is that creative energy in television comes from bringing together constellations of talent, and letting them loose to follow their creative inclinations. It’s not a bad lesson for the BBC’s new faces to recall in the run-up to charter renewal.