Media: Turn on, tune in, switch over

At least two of the recent defections from the BBC have involved Peter Bennett-Jones, a man who acts as agent for the cream of British comedy. And it is greater artistic flexibility - rather than greed - that is motivating them, he insists. By Paul McCann
It's a mark of just how many pies Peter Bennett-Jones has his fingers in, that he managed to get embroiled in two stories about two different programmes leaving the BBC last week. When Sky claimed to have poached Harry Enfield from the BBC it was Bennett-Jones - who as chairman of Tiger Aspect productions, makes Enfield's programmes, and, as chairman of PBJ Management, is Enfield's agent - who had to weigh in and convince the press that Enfield would still be working for the BBC in the future.

Then later in the week, when Sky claimed to have the rights to the special Blackadder time travel film that is being made for the Millennium Dome it put another of Bennett-Jones' programmes in the spotlight. Indeed the Millennium Blackadder is only happening because Bennett-Jones made his old friends Ben Elton and Richard Curtis feel guilty about refusing to do it.

Bennett-Jones put out the statement about Enfield working for the BBC in the future as a favour to Peter Salmon, controller of BBC1. Mr Salmon had had a bad enough August, what with the loss of Des Lynam and supposed departure of Noel Edmonds, and he needed the support. Sky then accused Mr Bennett-Jones of not supporting them enough, but in reality Bennett- Jones, as he is known, need not sweat at the opprobrium of either the BBC or Sky.

Where other independent production companies have a distinctly supplicant relationship with the main broadcasters, you get the impression that Bennett- Jones is in a rather more powerful position.

For starters his artist management company represents the cream of British comedy. On top of Rowan Atkinson and Harry Enfield, his company handles Eddie Izzard, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Lenny Henry, Chris Morris and the League of Gentlemen, to name just a few comedy top-liners.

The other side of his business, Tiger Aspect, is one of Britain's most successful production companies. Whether it be the weird and award-winning League of Gentlemen series for BBC2, or the distinctly populist and lucrative Mr Bean, Tiger Aspect dominates television comedy along with its rival independents, Talk Back and Hat Trick.

It is currently making Harry Enfield's Kevin and Perry film and has just completed Let Them Eat Cake, BBC1's big sitcom hope for the autumn that stars Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Next year should see a Tiger Aspect-animated version of Beryl Cook's paintings of fat women become the British challenger to The Simpsons from America.

The extent of the Peter Bennett-Jones empire - both as a producer and as an agent - means that he is uniquely placed to take a view on the apparent outflow of talent that provoked the BBC's Peter Salmon to accuse his commercial rivals last week of "poaching" his stars with big money offers because of a lack of imagination.

"I weighed in with a bit of damage limitation last week," says Bennett- Jones, who was referring to the statement he issued about Harry Enfield and Sky, "because Harry will be working for the BBC again, and I didn't want to get involved with Beeb-bashing. But there are tensions. As you get more television outlets the talent base doesn't grow at the same pace. So the BBC and Sky both want Harry, and then they have a scrap about it in the papers. From my point of view he should work for both of them, and then they'll all be happy.

"I'm against exclusive deals, certainly for comics and actors. It may be different for presenters like Des: there's an argument that presenters become the face of a channel and maybe should be on just one channel. But for entertainers it is limiting to be tied to one broadcaster - they're all different and what works for Channel 4 may not work for BBC1. If you are multi-talented like say, Lenny, you will want to do something about soul music for BBC 2, and a broad comedy show for a mainstream channel. Exclusive deals don't let that happen."

In many ways Bennett-Jones' story is like that of many of his stars: he was in the right place at the right time. He went to Cambridge to study law, but became friends with Griff Rhys Jones and Jimmy Mulville and was dragged along, against his will, by another friend to an audition at the drama society.

This led to him producing a number of plays and a tour of the Cambridge review, Footlights. At the Edinburgh festival he came across the Oxford review starring one Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson - they became friends and Atkinson was to become his first client.

After leaving Cambridge he toured the world with a number of plays he produced before coming back to England to set up his company in time for the comedy boom and the launch of Channel 4. He first launched Talk Back with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones before moving on to create his own companies - the talent agency PBJ Management and Tiger Aspect, the producer.

Despite describing his career as "someone vaguely entrepreneurial working with his chums in what is effectively a hobby", he denies that an Oxbridge mafia runs British comedy. It is, he says, just that Oxbridge attracted a lot of people interested in performing - in the same way that another university might have attracted a lot of people interested in nuclear physics.

As a talent agent Bennett-Jones is the man who should be trying to screw as much money as possible out of broadcasters, but he doesn't believe star performers are moving channels because they have become money-obsessed. "Des Lynam went to ITV because the BBC has something like two live football matches this year. And there are so many other facets to where people work that are about more than the simple fee. Especially for writer-performers like Harry. If you've created something it would be unnatural if you don't then care about everything about it - how it is promoted; when its put on; how many people see it; how it is critically responded to; where it is sold to.

"It's really not a world people enter because they want to make lots of money. You do get some greedy performers, but in 12 years I've only had one client whom I parted company with - and that was because he was too greedy. Someone who has moved publicly recently is a greedy bastard, and he treated people really poorly, but you can only hope that these things catch up with you in the end."

Bennett-Jones believes there is a very good reason why British talent costs will not go through the roof as they have with American television stars like Jerry Seinfeld: the market won't support it.

"On the whole there is a finite amount of money and if too much of it is going to an individual then the programme itself is going to suffer. Greed is not a general trend," he insists. "Instead you have to be much more aware of relativity. Stars don't want to find out they are getting less than the other people in the show."

That said, Bennett-Jones believes stars should benefit when programmes or films become runaway successes. Rowan Atkinson owns a part of Tiger Aspect and so he and the producers took no fee when they were making Mr Bean for ITV.

In return they held onto the international rights to the show. They were then able to turn it into one of Britain's most successful-ever film exports - grossing more than $215m (pounds 135m) worldwide, and selling some 13 million videos of the television series. "We knew because of the nature of it, that it would sell overseas," says Bennett-Jones. "And Mr Bean has been very good to all of us."

Yet Mr Bennett-Jones insists that money is not the main reason for what he and his chums do: "In fact having too much money can be something of a de-motivator." Something that Peter Salmon and the BBC must hope turns out to be true.