Amanda Ross's TV Book Club
The creator of Richard and Judy's Book Club is on a mission to spread the printed word with her new TV show. John Walsh meets publishing's first lady of letters
Thursday 21 January 2010
In the split-level atrium of Channel Four's London headquarters, an unusual literary party is in full swing. The people from Harper Collins and Penguin and Bloomsbury are here, sipping wine with famous authors – William Boyd, Sarah Waters, Liz Jensen – and putting a brave face on the dire state of British publishing. But there are television people here too, like Hamish, the genial boss of More4, who's about to fly off to the Sundance Festival. Smart young marketing chaps from Specsavers are here too, all (a bit suspiciously) wearing glasses. Also present are famous faces off the telly: the fashion androgyne Gok Wan, the grouchy sea-witch Jo Brand, Nathaniel Parker the actor with the matinee idol looks, Chris Evans wearing a hoodie inside his jacket...
Hang on. This is a book party. What are these people doing here? Well, Gok and Jo and Chris are, or have recently become, published authors, but all these disparate elements have converged for a venture that may transform the way we regard books. For tonight's party is to launch of the TV Book Club, a spin-off of the interactive club that was such a runaway success on The Richard & Judy Show. Over the last six years, according to The Bookseller, the club influenced TV viewers to buy the 100-odd titles it recommended in such vast, such eye-popping numbers, the revenue thus derived (£183m) represented nearly 4 per cent of total high street sales.
Behind the show, overseeing the choice of books and masterminding the club's operations – and hoping to perform the same book-shifting miracle, now that Richard and Judy have decamped to Nowheresville – was, and is, our hostess this evening, a blonde bombshell in black décolletage, called Amanda Ross. She makes speeches, thanks the sponsors (Specsavers,) meets, greets, kisses, gossips, dashes here, flirts there, exchanges banter with Evans (an old friend) and organises the cars to the Groucho Club at 9.30. She is a force of nature – and a figure of some controversy. Refusing to give herself airs as a literary pundit or know-all critic, a publisher (or indeed novelist) manqué, she has become "the most powerful woman in publishing." Her Midas touch has transformed the fortunes of most authors she has favoured: Alice Sebold, Victoria Hislop, Joseph O'Connor, Audrey Niffenegger, Khaled Hosseini, Kate Mosse all sold millions because of her. And millions of readers now wait avidly, twice a year, for Ross, or at least her show's recommendations, to descend from on high and tell them what next to read.
Heaven knows what they'll make of the TV Book Club. Instead of finding a substitute Richard and Judy to front the show, Ross has signed up the aforementioned Gok, Jo and Nathaniel, added Dave Spikey, a Northern comedian best know for writing Phoenix Nights for Peter Kay, and the actress Laila Rouass from Footballers' Wives, to form an unlikely quintet of book pundits. Their job is to discuss the 10 paperback books chosen by Ms Ross and her colleagues, and tell viewers what they make of them.
In the first show, when they discussed The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters's long, teasing ghost story set in an old manor house in 1947, none of the quintet sounded at all comfortable in their unfamiliar role. PG Wodehouse once remarked on the "the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French." Talking about books seems similarly alien to celebrities. Jo Brand declared that she expected to dislike the book because she didn't like ghost stories or "posh people" (she must have a hard time reading Jane Austen – and, come to that, King Lear). Gok Wan regretted the lack of lesbians and said the story "didn't fascinate me." Only Nathaniel Parker had interesting points to make. After five minutes of vacuous philistinism, Jo Brand asked "Are we agreed that it's a good read?" and everyone dutifully nodded. You didn't have to be VS Naipaul to feel that good books deserved better coverage.
We met in her glass-walled office at Cactus TV, the production company that Ross runs with her husband Simon Ross, (brother of Jonathan and Paul) in the run-down wasteland of Kennington, south London. Ross was poring over the sales figures for The Little Stranger. "It looks like we've given it a massive sales boost," she said with satisfaction, "but we won't know exactly how big until 10.45." I pointed out that the book was the lead paperback review in Friday's Independent, which could just as easily account for its sales hike. She gave me an are-you-kidding look.
Ms Ross is beadily focussed but also chatty, confiding and apparently guileless. Once I took her to review a restaurant with me (coincidentally about the time I had a novel coming out, ahem); she took it so seriously that she criticised everything in the place, including the wallpaper and the dado-rail.
Her office is full of small dogs, photos of her meetings with famous people, posters of Richard & Judy and sets of the 10 titles her show will plug. No, not plug – discuss. "We got some things wrong with the first show," she conceded, "Our guests were so carried away by being critics, they forgot to mention that all the 10 books we've chosen are really good books." Were they discouraged from finding fault with them? "Oh, I want them to be honest," she said. "I want a lively debate. We chose books that would incite a lively debate. It would be so boring if everyone sat there and said, 'It's really great' wouldn't it?"
But if, say, Gok Wan and Jo Brand both hated one of your selections, wouldn't that send negative signals to the TV audience? She was unabashed. "You know how, sometimes, you read a book and, though you might not like it, you still think it's a worthwhile experience, that's opened your eyes to a different kind of writing? We've picked books which are representative of what's out there, and we tell people they're worth reading, and they're not going to waste their £6.99."
The book-selection process remains shrouded in mystery. The core unit of pickers and choosers has always been just three or four people at Cactus TV. But behind the pickers stands a multitude of advisers, recommenders, word-of-mouth prosyletisers. "I have an incredibly wide net," says Ross, "and if we've passed over something, and a person we respect says, 'You should take another look at that', then we do. Nobody's an expert. We're just lucky to have a massive army of readers."
How did she come up with such a random squad of B-list celebrities as her bookish guests? A weary look crosses her handsome face. "We had so many people to please. The broadcasters and sponsors had their own ideas about who'd be good. And we'd had six years' experience of inviting people on Richard & Judy, non-booky people chatting on the sofa. We ended up with a massive long list with infinite permutations of five. We had to balance different age groups, different backgrounds – so Nathaniel's posh, while Dave, ah, isn't. Really it could've been anyone. The only criterion was, we didn't want known critics."
She makes it sound like "known criminals." Ms Ross has a real bee in her glamorous bonnet about book critics. You get the feeling she would have hated watching Tony Parsons, Mark Lawson or Tom Paulin on Newsnight Review. She is not a fan of high-flown literary discourse. Anybody using words like "genre" or "dichotomy" in her presence would probably see a contemptuous curl of her upper lip. Did she want to demystify the way we talk about books?
"No, not demystify – I want to empower people to talk about books in the way we talk about EastEnders or Mad Men or Robbie Williams's new album. I want them to feel it's okay to discuss a book in the way you might discuss a recipe you saw on Saturday Kitchen. A book is a leisure item. You want people to say, 'This is enjoyable, I particularly admired this bit...' and to use books to make their conversation sparkle."
Ross is an Essex girl and talks guardedly about her past. She was born in Pitsea ("Literally a pit by the sea, not a very nice place to be") and her father worked in an oil refinery. "I haven't seen him since I was 13," she says shortly. Her parents split up when she was 11, and their house was compulsorily purchased by the council. She was close to her brothers, especially the younger, Simon, now a designer for Conran and John Rocha. At school she was Mandy Stephens; she recoils at the memory. "I hate anybody calling me that now. Growing up with an Essex accent and people saying 'Maaain-dy,' it was horrible."
Her mother taught her to read and write before going to school. While the infants class took it first baby steps, she was "stuck in a corner, reading all the Junior books." In Junior school, having exhausted the library, she was given classic fiction to read. Her mother joined a book club and brought her two-for-one volumes – Black Beauty and Call of the Wild, back to back. Her total immersion in fiction evidently started there. As a teenager, she flourished in music and drama. "I was in The Boy Friend at school when I was 14. I was really embarrassed about having to kiss the lead boy, Grant. We didn't do it for real until the opening night. Yeesh. It was the most unrealistic stage kiss ever."
Life took an upward turn when she attended a 6th-form college miles away in Thundersleigh, and found a new group of friends. At 16, she was a backing singer for the Kursaal Flyers, the Southend pub rockers (her many gentlemen fans will pray some video footage survives.) Using her mother's rail season ticket, she used to nip to London at weekends to see plays at the Old Vic and the National Theatre, and formed a schoolgirl crush on David Threlfall, years before he became Frank Gallagher in Shameless. At Birmingham University, she read drama and theatre arts, "and fell out of love with the theatre because I'd studied it too much."
Ah yes, too much of that academic stuff... And here she is, in her middle years, bestriding the publishing world like a colossus, campaigning for good, accessible, readable books to reach the widest audience – and encouraging readers not to be afraid to articulate their enthusiasm without sounding like Umberto Eco. It's a double agenda which it's hard to fault, unless one is a raging literary snob. And it's the reason why she, and her show, are trusted by British readers in their millions.
The TV Book Club – More4, Sundays, 7.30pm.
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