In the spotlight… BAFTA Chair Jane Lush
Newly appointed BAFTA Chair Jane Lush is the former BBC Controller of Entertainment and Comedy. She tells WFTV’s Emma Morgan about standing up for daytime television, championing diversity at BAFTA and saying hello to The Weakest Link.
So you started at the BBC at 18, as a trainee secretary?
I started at what is now the Langham Hotel, on a 15-week BBC trainee secretarial course. I was incredibly young and naïve and I just wrote to the BBC and said ‘Here I am!’ and they responded ‘The only thing we’ve got that’s suitable is this course. It filled up ages ago but somebody’s dropped out, so you can come in for an interview’. They gave me a spelling test – nerves made me spell three out of ten words wrong, but luckily I still got the place! I was sent to Bush House, to work in radio at the World Service.
Was it always your aim to get into programming?
Yes, but I was quite overawed. It was very hierarchical in those days and very male of course. As a young secretary, I was invisible! Once, someone poked their head round the office door, saw I was in there alone and said ‘Oh, nobody here then?’
On my course, as well as being taught typing and shorthand, we had a series of talks entitled Me and My Secretary from people such as David Attenborough, who was then Director of Programmes, and Biddy Baxter, the infamously intimidating editor of Blue Peter. Hilariously, we also had visits from the florist at The Dorchester hotel who taught us how to arrange flowers in a paper cup, and a beautician from Boots who demonstrated how to apply make-up suitable for the office! One day I need to write a book about it all…
So how did you make the move?
I started off as second secretary to the head of the English-language programmes department, and went on to become a radio production secretary on The World Today, a daily current-affairs show; one of the producers was Trevor McDonald. I stayed at Bush House for two years, and then applied for a job on Panorama as secretary to three of the producers. It seemed a huge step up and, indeed, immediately they had me doing the work of a researcher – on the pay of a secretary! Panorama’s offices were based in a house in Lime Grove in Shepherds Bush. The rather glamorous BBC2 drama series The Hour was based on this period, but the legendary Grace Wyndham Goldie (from before my time there) was nothing like Romola Garai!
My next move was to become a Producer’s Assistant, a job that doesn’t exist these days. It actually encompasses what would be several different roles today, doing everything from budgets to studio-gallery work. I was sent to work on Tomorrow’s World and, rather bizarrely, I also worked on Open University productions for a while, at Alexandra Palace, for a producer making unbelievably dull maths programmes. Literally, a man and a blackboard…
Then you made a move into producing.
Yes my next assignment was in a department called Presentation, where they were responsible for running the networks, weather forecasts and making trails. But they also produced a small number of programmes and I was working with a group of women who gave me a big break, which led fairly quickly to my becoming the producer of Barry Norman’s Film programme. They must have seen something in me and pushed me which gave me the confidence to believe I had the potential to become a producer.
Do you think if those women hadn’t seen something in you, you’d have dared to go for these positions?
I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have done. The senior women in the BBC in those days seemed to work mainly in the children’s department and, to this day, there has never been a female Director General at the BBC despite the fact we’ve now had two women Prime Ministers. There’s still some way to go.
You’re a mentor on the WFTV Mentoring Scheme; how important do you think mentoring is?
I’ve never had an official mentor but I’m sure I’d never have progressed, without the support and encouragement from the people I worked with, especially the women. In my own experience as a Women in Film & TV mentor, I was very lucky that Nicola [Lees] paired me with two incredibly bright women. The first one has gone on to be mega-successful and the woman I mentored this year has just started in a new, senior role, and I have no doubt she will be equally successful. I don’t think you’ve ever too old or too experienced to have a mentor.
Television is a tough industry to combine with motherhood, so it’s no wonder we lose so many capable and creative women. Back in my day, I had to pretend that having children made no difference to my ability to work very long hours. And, because the workload is unpredictable, it’s even harder to make provision for childcare. Of course this is true for fathers, too, especially if you’re working in production. I don’t know what the answer is to combining parenthood with a career in our industries.
So how did you become Controller of Daytime?
At the time, I was Deputy Head of the Features department and also the editor of the Holiday programme and running the development slate. I saw the Daytime job advertised and, although I’d had no experience in daytime programming, it sounded incredibly appealing and I had an instinct that it would suit my skills. Once again, it was a woman that encouraged me to go for it. She was my predecessor in the daytime job, and she convinced me it was the right move.
Is it quite a sea-change to move from bring a programme-maker to a commissioner?
It was a huge change, yes. It was a fantastic job, probably the best one I ever had. I had huge autonomy, because daytime wasn’t considered prestigious, so I was left alone. I loved the range of output, which covered everything from News to Entertainment, Factual to Programme Acquisitions.
My proudest achievement was commissioning Doctors, working with Mal Young, the then Head of BBC Drama. There was no original drama in the schedule and I felt this was a big gap. We knew that the snobbery about daytime would mean that we had to work even harder to get the quality our audience deserved. When we commissioned the scripts, we didn’t mention it was for daytime, so the writers thought they were working on a peak-time series. And that made all the difference. It now runs year-round and it’s a fantastic training ground for actors, writers and directors.
And then there was The Weakest Link.
In the morning schedule, our main competitor was ITV but in the afternoon it was Channel 4 – they had a fantastic line-up of Pet Rescue, Rikki Lake, Countdown, Fifteen to One, all very popular shows in those days. It seemed invincible.
There were far fewer quizzes around, and we didn’t have one in our schedule. We put the slot out to tender but back came some very dull ideas. Then along came David Young, then the Head of BBC Entertainment, and, with some help from BBC Worldwide, I commissioned three pilots.The Weakest Link wasn’t the one we had the highest hopes for but when we took delivery of the pilots, it was sensational. I was discouraged by our Head of Audience Research from showing it to focus groups because she said their opinion of Anne Robinson would make me lose my nerve. Even the Controller of BBC2 and her team wanted me to put someone less controversial in the role.
We launched it in the middle of August – some people say don’t launch programmes in the summer – and I was actually on holiday, waiting for the overnights to come in. Without any marketing or publicity, the audience found it immediately. It was extraordinary – that rare alchemy of a fantastic format paired with a brilliant and brave presenter.
And then you moved to become Controller of Entertainment and Comedy, with huge budgets.
Yes, and it was much more exposed. It’s a huge challenge to find big Saturday-night entertainment shows that connect with an audience. When Strictly Come Dancing was in development, the rest of the industry thought we’d lost it: ballroom dancing on a Saturday night? I believe it’s now the most successful format in the world. As the writer William Goldman famously said, ‘Nobody knows anything’. It’s impossible to predict which shows will be the stand-out hits, you just have to be prepared to take a chance on something you believe in.
So was it a wrench to finally leave the BBC?
I needed a change and a new challenge. I’d been at the BBC my entire working career, and I loved my time there, but it’s good to go out on a high. It was a bit of a purple patch, with a number of successful shows on the air including The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den.
So now you’re developing you own shows with your own company, Kalooki Pictures, and you’re the new Chair of BAFTA – do you have a vision for what you want to do, during your tenure?
At Kalooki Pictures, my partner, Badannie Gee, and I are co-producing with Hat Trick. I can’t think of a better production company to be working with. We have already had some big shows on the air with the BBC and our aim is to develop high-quality, popular programming with the ambition, of course, of finding that elusive breakthrough show.
My time as Chair of BAFTA lasts two years so I feel a bit like Cinderella – when the clock chimes midnight at the end of my tenure, my carriage is going to change back into a pumpkin. This is a truly exciting time to be leading BAFTA. There’s a great team working there, led by the extraordinary Amanda Berry, and I’m fortunate to have some excellent colleagues on the Board. We are just starting a big fundraising initiative to transform the Academy’s HQ in Piccadilly. A major refurbishment programme is planned, to enable us to double the capacity and increase the scale and scope of our charitable activity. BAFTA runs an extensive programme of scholarship and mentoring schemes covering film, television and games, so it’s a huge opportunity and a challenge to reach out and help more talented young people from all walks of life and to ensure our work is even more accessible to a global audience.
It’s vital that as we grow our membership, it’s as diverse as possible. There are very tough barriers to entry to our industries – women still struggle, particularly in the games industry and in the craft areas of film and television. The ethnic mix on and behind the screen is still woefully inadequate. Class and age are an issue, and disability is underrepresented. We all need to play our part in making it better. I was very involved in the BBC’s early initiatives in diversity and it’s a very important issue for me.
I look back to the start of my career as a trainee secretary at the BBC and could never have imagined becoming Chair of BAFTA… It’s a huge privilege and an honour.