Nutopia to co-pro Civilisation revival
29 April, 2015 | By Matthew Campelli
Jane Root’s Nutopia is to co-produce landmark BBC series Civilisation, with former BBC1 controller Michael Jackson acting as executive producer.
Speaking at a Westminster Talks event earlier this week Jackson revealed the indie, of which he is a board member, will work closely with BBC in-house production on the revival of the arts series.
Nutopia’s Peter Lovering will also exec produce with the BBC’s Janice Hadlow and Jonty Claypole.
Director general Tony Hall unveiled Civilisation, which was fronted by Kenneth Clark across 13-parts in 1969, as part of a wider commitment to arts programming from the BBC in March.
US broadcaster PBS will also act as a co-production partner.
Separately Jackson revealed that he was exec producing a five-part drama based on the novels of Cornish author Edward St Aubyn.
Interviewer John Mair suggested the show was being produced for Channel 4 but Jackson claimed the project, which is not connected to Nutopia, was not being developed for a specific broadcaster.
It has been quite a roller-coaster for Top Gear in recent weeks, a show loved by millions that is about to enter its next reincarnation.
Executive Producer Andy Wilman has written an article in the latest edition of the Top Gear Magazine all about the start of the show which features Nutopia’s Jane Root in her previous guise as BBC2 controller. You can read the full article below.
The Story of Top Gear Telly Part One: Getting to the Start Line
I can’t remember exactly when it was, but around 2000 or 2001 the Controller of BBC2, Jane Root, had had enough of Top Gear and put a bullet through its head.
She’d watched the show plod on, each series looking more and more dated alongside new and fresh factual shows like Ground Force and that one where Handy Andy did houses up, and no attempt at perking up the dear old car show was having any effect. News of the show’s demise was met with sadness by a few, indifference by many more, but with intense interest from a tall curly-haired man who’d quit that very show a couple of years earlier. When Jeremy rang me and we met in the pub that lunchtime, he was already bouncing of the ceiling with enthusiasm for resuscitating the old corpse. In fact, he’d already mapped out some of the key elements: the new Top Gear would be anchored from a central place, with an audience, so that the presenters could talk to each other instead of presenting on item after another in isolation.
This studio base would also allow us to do a news section, so that important cars could be discussed without us being forced to shoot a film about them. Jeremy, like most 40-something chaps, had devoured Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and, if you too have read it, you’ll know how beautifully it illustrates the male brain’s love of lists and Top Fives. From there, it was only a small mental leap to having lap board, which in turn would require a track, which in turn meant we could film Italian supercars actually giving it what for instead of dithering around Cotswolds corners at 38mph. And since we had a track and a studio, why not get guests on and make them do a lap? One of us – we’d had a few by now, so I can’t remember who – then had this vision of a black-tie-clad Bryan Ferry hammering round in a small Hyundai or something equally un-Bryan Ferryish, and when we’d finished laughing at that, the Star In a Reasonably Priced Car was born.
I contributed bits and bobs as we went along, but, in truth, Jeremy had already built the structure of the new Top Gear by the time he walked through the pub door.
And as I sit here now in April 2015, in a completely empty office, I think that faraway lunch absolutely encapsulates the tragedy of what the BBC has lost in getting rid of Jeremy. It hasn’t just lost a man who can hold viewers’ attention in front of a camera, it’s lost a journalist who could use the discipline of print training to focus on what mattered and what didn’t; it’s lost an editorial genius who could look at an existing structure and then smash it up and reshape it in a blaze of light-bulb moments. Just as a small example of that latter point, I remember Jeremy insisting during that lunch that the new Top Gear should not worry about being the first to drive a new car, even if it were the Ferrari Enzo. To me, as a producer, this logic was madness, because being first meant being exclusive, but he said: “No, think about it. To be first with a new car, you have to go on the car launch, drive it abroad in left-hand drive, three or four months before it goes on sale, and it means nothing to a punter at home. Let’s wait. Let’s film a car when it’s actually on sale here, posters on the high street, in the showroom window, so that what we’re doing actually means something to viewers.” I still thought he was talking absolute bollocks, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – in the end, we didn’t lose a single viewer because we were two years later than everybody else with our Enzo film.
All we needed now was a name for our new Top Gear, and, after a few more drinks, we decided on “New Top Gear”. With that sorted, we went and pitched our idea to Jane, the BBC2 controller who, after a few minutes suffering our babbling stream of consciousness, told us to get out of her office and get on with making it. It’ll hopefully become apparent as you read on, but there’s no doubt in my mind this show wouldn’t have existed without Jane. She gave us the freedom to cock up and try again, she pushed us when we were timid, and she had real TV nous. I remember, for instance, sitting in an early meeting with her and some BBC execs, discussing what sort of stories this new Top Gear would film, and I mentioned an item Jeremy and I had once made on old Top Gear about Siamese Banger Racing, where the drivers race in two cars chained together.
Naturally, being a BBC meeting, somebody then erupted at me for having said “Siamese”, and as I was busy trying to work out how we could announce: “On tonight’s show, Conjoined Banger Racing”, Jane called everyone to order and said the point was we should forget about reporting on other people’s car events. “Make your own world,” was her advice, which when you think about it, was precisely what we ended up doing – James, Jeremy and Richard lived in their little juvenile bubble, just doing their thing. But I digress. Back then, in 2002, the first job was to find some new presenters, so we rented a small studio in Acton and started to screen test the long list of hopefuls, with the audition involving them standing next to a Renault Avantime and talking about it for a bit, and then doing some news items with Jeremy. Quite early on, a fat bloke with a Shakin’ Stevens quif called Jason Dawe walked in, cracked us up with his wit and bowled us over with his ability to make secondhand car news sound exciting.
James May then rocked up. Jeremy and I had known James for years as a motoring journalist, and he’d been hired, briefy, then fired, quickly, from old Top Gear. This audition, then, was important if he was to get another shot at the prize. So, James, being James, took one look at the Avantime, dismissed it as marketing bollocks, scanned the news stories he was supposed to go through with Jeremy, threw them to one side and proceeded to tell us how his old Rolls-Royce was costing him so much in fuel he’d had to take up Sainsbury’s offer of cheap petrol with every £200 shop, and consequently he was now a bachelor with a fridge full of rotting lettuce. Then he left, leaving some bemused BBC execs staring into the middle distance.
Back in our tiny office at the BBC, the amount of VHS tapes sent in by would-be presenters had now reached the ceiling. We got them from car dealers, students who’d run out of daytime telly to watch, classic-car nerds with real-ale beards, even lingerie models who’d blown their life savings in tanning booths. My favourite, though, was of a spirited chap whose flm consisted solely of him trying to do handbrake turns on an industrial estate in his 3-Series. He never said one word, and, from memory, he never actually managed a handbrake turn.
Then, on day one thousand and six million, a producer called Kate Shiers walked into the tiny office brandishing yet another VHS tape and said the guy on it was worth a look. He was small, energetic and doing a terrible car review while dressed for some reason as Batman…but Kate was right, there was something about the chap, so Richard Hammond was invited to come in.
On the day, he turned up in a bad shirt and waffled some old nonsense about the Avantime, then trotted through the news bits OK, but there was nothing that lived up to the promise of his tape. Then, as the audition wound up, he started to talk about his woefully unsuccessful career as a radio DJ, with the highlight being his late-night spot on Radio Cumbria, reading out the names of lambs that were up for adoption. By the end of this tragic anecdote, Jeremy, and everybody else in the room, was crying with laughter. It takes some balls to come into a hotly contested audition and roll the dice on tales of your failures, but it was the right move because self-deprecation, although we didn’t know it at the time, was going to play a big part in Top Gear’s humour.
With the auditions complete, it was time to choose. All of us were in agreement we wanted the funny little failed radio DJ, but, beyond that, it was a world of arguments. The plump car dealer, Jason, was a front runner, Jeremy was campaigning for James, but the BBC grown-ups were adamant a woman should be in the line-up. Now, I’m a big, big fan of the Beeb, but, my God, do they stretch your patience when they start “applying their marketing logic”, or to use another word, meddling. Their theory behind a female presenter was that if you want women to watch something, you need women presenting it. I pointed out many times that I was an avid viewer of What Not to Wear despite Jimmy Nail not featuring in the line-up, but my protest fell on deaf ears. The problem was that most of the grown-ups in the BBC management didn’t care about the car world, and basically there’s this weird logic whereby the less their interest is in the subject, the greater their compulsion becomes to meddle.
As it happens, we’d auditioned lots of excellent girls who were more than up to the job of presenting a car show, but Jeremy and I had already started to realise that bloke banter was going to become an important part of the show – not macho, stag-night banter, just ordinary-bloke banter that would involve a journey into that massive black hole that is the male brain.
We were never claiming that an all-male line-up would give us a superior dynamic to a boy/girl set-up, it was just what we were after. And so, hearts in mouths, with warnings from her underlings of the terrible fury that would be visited upon us, Jeremy and I went to see Jane Root to tell her we didn’t want a girl. She looked at us for a moment as we braced ourselves, then said: “Fine, do what you think’s best. I’m not fussed either way.” What we’d just experienced was a classic case of BBC management playing their favourite game of Second Guess The Person In The Bigger Office.
With Gendergate sorted, we were then free to finalise the line-up, or so we thought, but the BBC Meddling Dept wasn’t quite finished. Jeremy was campaigning for James to get the gig, but we were told a trio of Jeremy, James and Richard was a bit too “three middle-class public-schoolish type blokes of a similar age”. “And?” we replied. “Well, it’s all a bit cheese and cheese, as opposed to chalk and cheese,” came the response. We then argued Trinny and Susannah were cheese and cheese, the Two Fat Ladies were cheese and cheese, and so on, but eventually, after much cheese-related arguing, we lost, and cheesy James was kicked into touch in favour of chalky Jason Dawe, who I recall was fairly middle-class and of a similar age.
Our line-up problems were not quite over though. We still needed a real ace driver, with a racing background, and Tif Needell was not an option because the Beeb wanted a new-look Top Gear. And if we had a racing driver, he would, like Tif, have to present films, but a) there weren’t enough films in the hour to go round and b) apart from the odd ones such as Tif and Jason Plato, racing drivers aren’t known for their camera charisma. One evening, I was wrestling with this problem in the office, trying all sorts of presenter permutations on our massive whiteboard until it looked like a scene from The Theory of Everything. Then Jeremy rocked up. “You know what, I can now actually do the slidey tail-out driving like Tif did on old Top Gear,” he said. “But what I can’t do is precise laps, the kiss-the-apex stuff we need to get the lap times for the board. We still need a racing driver for that.”
“Yeah, but then we still need a racing driver, who then needs to be able to speak, and we’re back where we started,” I replied. A minute or two later, one of Jeremy’s light bulbs lit up: “Hang on, why does he need to speak?” he said. “He could just be a bloke, in a suit and helmet, and he does the lap times and he never speaks… and we never even have to see him, or know who he is! He’ll be like a thing on the show!” Clarkson was by now very excited. “He could be like The Gimp in Pulp Fiction; we could call him The Gimp!”, he exclaimed.
And, thus, The Gimp was born. All we needed now was a racing driver to fill the role, preferably someone who was discreet, a shrinking violet who didn’t like to talk too much, and so, for reasons I still don’t understand, we chose Perry McCarthy, the only man whose mouth works faster than most of the cars he’s driven. Perry also told us exactly where we could stick our notion of calling him The Gimp, so we settled on The Stig.
With the line-up now complete, it was time to film a pilot, which is a sort-of dress rehearsal where you iron out your mistakes. Full of ambition and good cheer, we had a set built that looked like the core reactor on the Death Star, and only a tiny bit smaller and somehow crammed it into the hangar we’d hired. Then, when the lighting technician said, “How many lights would you like?”, we replied, “Er… give us lots,” which he did. Next, we stuffed in an audience of several hundred, shut the doors on our metal hangar, switched on all the lights, and began filming our first show… in the middle of July.
I can’t remember exactly when, but it wasn’t long before people started fainting, and, two hours in, most of the audience was in a coma. Our guest, David Ginola, not an unfit man, just sat glumly in a lake of his own sweat, silently praying for death as we watched Jason, who by now resembled a bucket of water wearing a shirt, go gamely for his 18th stab at recording Used Car News. The recording was supposed to take a few hours but, what felt like three days later, we finally wrapped and edited together the results, which were, well, abysmal.
Jane Root watched it silently as we edged nearer the window ledge of her sixth-floor office, and then she said: “Guys, just relax. I expected to see camera cables in shot and people walking about with cups of tea.” Taking her advice very literally, we then shot a second pilot, which was so relaxed the presenters started performing before the cameras were even switched on. And when they finally were fired up, the place was in such anarchy they couldn’t actually pick out the presenters in among the crowd.
I remember Jason demonstrating the build quality on a car and, in his enthusiasm, breaking the centre console of it, which we couldn’t film anyway because the camera lens was blocked by a man in a Subaru T-shirt. At this point, Brian the Director stormed out of his special truck and told me he’d never seen such a shambles in 20 years of making top television. But, in truth, there was no time for tantrums and tears, because October 2002 was fast approaching, and in a matter of days we’d be going on air for real…
We are very proud to share that Simon Willgoss, an original Nutopian and now Head of Development, has been nominated as one of Broadcast’s International Rising Stars! The award is to celebrate young executives and their work developing, producing or distributing British TV that has made an impact internationally.
More about the award can be found here http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/news/meet-the-international-stars/5086588.article?blocktitle=News&contentID=42816#.VTYk168D_-Y.facebook
And if you can’t access the site here is a transcript:
Meet the international stars
16 April, 2015
Broadcast reveals its second group of up-and-coming execs making their mark in global TV
The six executives selected as Broadcast’s second line-up of International Rising Stars have been revealed. The winners were chosen because they are making their mark in the global TV business, striking deals, winning commissions and overseeing shows that travel around the world. They were announced at an event at Vega Luna Beach in Cannes, attended by senior television figures. Pictured left to right are John Stack, Stephanie Mavropoulos, Paul Routledge, Katie Mokhtar, Simon Willgoss and Alex Hryniewicz.
Senior multiplatform producer Maverick TV
MipTV is fast becoming a more digital-friendly market and is welcoming more interactive executives. Alex Hryniewicz fits the bill, having worked as a producer on online spin-offs for shows including How To Look Good Naked, 10 Years Younger and Embarrassing Bodies.
Hryniewicz, who had stints at the BBC and Channel 4 before joining Maverick, was responsible for interactive web series Embarrassing Bodies: Live, which was subsequently commissioned as Embarrassing Bodies: Live From The Clinic. The show won an International Emmy Award.
Reverse The Odds, which was ordered by C4 as part of its Stand Up For Cancer strand, also won Best Digital Programme at the 2015 International Digital Emmy Awards this week.
Production executive, Arrow Media
Stephanie Mavropoulos joined Arrow Media when it was formed by Tom Brisley, Iain Pelling and John Smithson in 2011, and has worked across the C4-backed firm’s range of factual and factual entertainment commissions.
Mavropoulos is part of the team that ensures productions for broadcasters in the UK and globally are delivered on budget and on schedule. She has worked on series including two-hour event doc Live From Space for C4 and National Geographic; BBC2 and Smithsonian co-pro 747: The Plane That Changed The World; and C4 factual entertainment format Dogs: Their Secret Lives. The latter was being pitched to international broadcasters at this week’s MipTV.
She has previously held production manager roles at Impossible Pictures and Darlow Smithson.
Development executive, Blink Films
Katie Mokhtar has been responsible for a raft of international co-productions during her two years at Blink Films.
She has developed The Missing Evidence, a Channel 5 and Smithsonian co-pro; Trojan Horse: The New Evidence for PBS and C4; Nat Geo’s Are You Smarter Than Your Pet?; and Nazi Secret Films, a 6 x 60-minute series for Discovery Networks International and American Heroes Channel.
Prior to joining Dan Chambers’ Blink, Mokhtar held various roles at Shed Media and Nutopia, where she worked on BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Nat Geo’s The 80s: The Decade That Made Us respectively. Mokhtar also had a spell at BBC in-house, where she produced BBC1 and Discovery US series Andrew Marr’s History Of The World.
Director, Objective Productions
The Cube and Reflex are two of the best-selling British gameshows of the past few years, with remakes in China and a host of other territories.
Paul Routledge worked on both formats for Objective Productions. As a digital TV creative executive, he created an international hub for the gamefreeze shots on The Cube and was a specialist camera director on BBC1’s Shane Richiefronted Reflex.
Most recently, Routledge directed the first series of E4’s hidden-camera format Bad Robots, which was launched at MipTV. The show is already being remade in Belgium and is nominated for Best Comedy Format at Frapa’s International Format Awards in Cannes.
Producer, Rise Films
John Stack started at Rise Films as an intern in 2011 and has risen to become one of its key documentary producers.
He has since worked on Sundance-winning film Dreamcatcher, which was directed by Kim Longinotto and aired on US network Showtime and C4. His other credits include Oscar nominee The Invisible War for US public broadcaster PBS; Too Fast To Be A Woman?: The Story of Caster Semenya for BBC2; and comedy Plebs, which is being sold around the world by DRG.
Stack is now working on Miriam Lyons-directed feature doc The Love Commandos and Chancers, a Ben Lewis-directed doc for BBC4’s Storyville strand.
Head of development, Nutopia
Nutopia is known for producing high-end docs, docu-dramas and factual entertainment formats for broadcasters in the US and UK, and Simon Willgoss is responsible for creating them.
Willgoss was part of the team that launched Nutopia in 2009 and developed series including Sky Atlantic’s The British, History’s America: The Story Of Us and Nat Geo’s The 80s: The Decade That Made Us. He also had a stint as head of development at CB Films, which produced C4’s Dreamboys and TLC’s I Cloned My Pet.
Sunday 1st March saw the debut episode of Finding Jesus. Faith, Fact, Forgery on CNN. The programme, which focused on the Turin Shroud, topped the ratings charts with 1,14 million viewers.
You can find out all about the show here https://www.facebook.com/FindingJesusCNN
Inventions guru and writer Steve Johnson, presenter of BBC2 series How We Got To Now, introduces us to six men who changed our lives:
Who are the people who really shaped the modern world? Is it the likes of Stalin and Chairman Mao? No, says inventions guru and writer Steven Johnson, who plumps for six men you’ve probably never heard of. They’re all responsible for low-tech breakthroughs from refrigeration to drinkable water. While historians tend to construct timelines of social and political upheavals, Johnson thinks an alien studying us would look at basic technology to map our species’ progress. Mankind’s journey is “as influenced by the invention of the refrigerator as it is Magna Carta. But we tend to teach Magna Carta,” he says.
Johnson’s book How we Got to Now is a companion piece to his BBC2 series and covers much of the same territory. Its author is a 46-year-old based in California, who’s amassed 1.5 million Twitter followers and who, in 2005’s Everything Bad Is Good for You, argued that TV and video games are making humans smarter. Think Malcolm Gladwell with a more rigorous historical bent.
When we switch on a lamp, or safely drink tap water, says Johnson, we forget the ingenuity that was required to do those things for the first time. He debunks the idea of a eureka moment: “People coming up with something new are always supported by the building blocks of ideas coming immediately before them.”
Australia the Story of Us begins on Channel 7, Australia this Sunday, 15th February. Following on from the formats original “America The Story of Us” the Eight part series is an extraordinary narrative about the people, places and events that have shaped Australia from the first footprints to the present day.
Nutopia CEO, Jane Root, recently spoke to C21 about all things factual.You can read the full article below or on the C21 website
Jane Root, former president of Discovery Channel in the US, has said the network’s move away from ‘fake’ documentaries is part of a shift towards more authentic unscripted programming.
Discovery Channel’s new president Rich Ross said this month that the US channel would be abandoning shows such as Mermaids: The New Evidence. He left his position as Shine America CEO to succeed Eileen O’Neil at the end of last year.
Root, who was president of Discovery from 2004 to 2007 and previously controller of BBC2, told C21 the new strategy is part of a growing trend as the unscripted industry attempts to tackle the “creative crisis” outlined at numerous TV conferences last year.
Root, who launched factual prodco Nutopia in 2009, said: “Casted reality shows haven’t been having much success recently. It was a huge roller coaster for a while but broadcasters are looking for new kinds of content. We’re being asked for big event series and drama-docs that combine real knowledge with audience-friendly perspective.
“There’s renewed enthusiasm for authentic content. The comments from Rich Ross at Discovery show they’re turning much more into our territory, having played in a different space.
“There’s a burgeoning documentary world in the US and internationally. Docs are coming into cable in the US that are more authentic, have stronger points of view and are less formulaic. There is definitely a shift away from shows the audience perhaps felt were becoming a bit predictable.”
Root credited online platforms such as Vice Media and Netflix for giving hard-hitting factual programmes a platform and said the change in mindset will play right into the hands of companies like Nutopia.
The prodco is about to launch Australia: The Story of Us on Seven Network, a local adaptation of the prodco’s America: The Story of Us and Britain: The Story of Us. Root said advanced discussions are underway for adaptations for the same format in other territories.
It is also working on six-part Jesus Code for CNN, which examines artefacts said to have links to Jesus Christ, as well as projects for US cablenets Esquire and Smithsonian.
“The rise of docs and their availability on Netflix, as well as Vice, are important. You got the sense that younger audiences want things immediately that are entertaining but don’t draw a strict line between entertaining and factual content. Those silos we got used to thinking in – it’s either entertainment or it’s got information – are breaking down and we’re dealing with different content in different ways,” she said.