Jeremy Clarkson: TV producer reveals what it's like having to endure presenters' tantrums

As the Jeremy Clarkson affair shows, the job of television producer is often an impossible exercise in ego management - as Melanie Jappy has learnt at first hand
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The Independent Culture

Mont Blanc pierces the cerulean blue of the Alpine sky in front of me. I'm standing halfway along a piste on the best day of this year's ski season. Next to me is the director, the cameraman, a soundman and a researcher. We have all spent the previous day on a recce (ie ski-ing between restaurants above the glamorous resort of Megève). Yes, sometimes even we can't believe we get paid to do our jobs.

Also with us are two shiny new TV presenters. They're gifted, keen to please and working incredibly hard to make us love them. So far, it's working, and I adore them both. I tease them about being divas (they're not), I rib them about going to their trailer (they don't have one) and I make them carry gear (there's a lot of it). But all this good humour still makes me nervous. How long will it last? Will cracks begin to appear? Will the team players they are now start to become "other"?

I've been in TV long enough to see careers start, peak and wane. I appreciate that the pressures of being on the other side of the lens are unique. But they're not that bad: it's just television. Nobody's life depends on the spinach soup being perfect (though the abuse I once saw heaped on a hapless home economist made you wonder). And yet, for some reason, we in television production indulge and endure a degree of abuse that I doubt a Royal Marine could take without a quick blub in the latrines.

Take this story from a young assistant producer: "X said he would stab me in the neck and leave me to bleed to death in the car park if I didn't get him to the station in time for the train home." This was a train the presenter had previously refused, insisting he would drive there, so the team was left with a car they had to get from Wales to London in their own time.


In the end, it was all patched up: a resilient AP, an effusive apology. But it isn't always so. And besides, a threat of physical violence like that is not just a potentially criminal offence – it's plain offensive. What's more, the continual diminishment and bullying of production staff has a profound psychological effect on them over time. Gallows humour and communal loathing generally get us through the worst of it. But I do worry…

What has it come to when even Kirstie Allsopp tweets that she once threw a shoe in the direction of a director, suffering from the "unique frustration" of being "directed"? Well, try not being able to throw the shoe back. That's frustration. Imagine the humiliation: being diminished in front of a team whose respect you value. And when it happens every day, you really do start to wonder if there might not be something in voodoo dolls.

It is possible to be a good presenter and a team player. I've worked with people who are always polite, arrive on time, don't throw tantrums and appreciate that the producer's only job is to make them look good. Ben Fogle once got up and helped carry kit for a dawn shoot for which he wasn't required, just because he didn't want people to think he was lazy. And Davina McCall lent me her car and driver to get me home when I got the call to say my father was dying. (I doubt she'll even remember who I am, but I won't ever forget that kindness.) And this is the thing about many presenters. They have a natural charisma that not only makes them great on TV but also invites forgiveness and wraps you up in their aura.

True, the worst have a toxic mix of monumentally high self-regard and low self-esteem – the ego constantly fighting the id – but the clever among us aim to harness that energy. (As the veteran producer Robert Thirkell so eloquently puts it in his superb book C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T., we power our presenters with the "dual fuel of arrogance and insecurity".) Even then, though, managing the imbalance between us and them is hard. There's no denying it: we in production are always replaceable; and generally, "the talent" is not. However, I sometimes think presenters are more replaceable than channel controllers might believe.

It's not that producers don't welcome their input. It's fine for a presenter to discuss an approach or suggest a different way of doing things when on location. It's the tone with which it's done that's important.

Jeremy Clarkson told reporters that he was 'just off to the job centre' (PA)

Surely we can agree that, just as it would be unacceptable for me to scream publicly at a presenter and call him or her a "useless idiot" who only had the job "because I said you can have it" – as one presenter did to me – it is not an acceptable way for a presenter to talk to me? (On that occasion I went off like a volcano and finally understood that seeing red is a real phenomenon; it must have worked because that presenter behaved perfectly for the rest of the day.)

Ultimately, however, we toilers in television production are to blame. We have let the weird excesses of the motion picture industry permeate what is today, essentially, the cottage industry of television. We send cars for people to attend voiceover sessions in central London. (Even the cast of Friends drove themselves to and from the set in LA.) I've heard of one British presenter who complained when a people-carrier arrived at her door, because she only rides in saloons. The journey was costing the same as we would pay a cameraman for the day, and she could have taken the train for £50 return.

Once aboard, I'm told, another minor celebrity redirected the car provided – which was booked to go from a BBC studio in central London to Ealing – all the way to the south coast. We provide meals on demand, buy underpants, apply liniments to places only spouses should go, collect their lost clothes, pick up after them, drop dogs at the vets, carry dozens of pairs of reading glasses. Oh, I could go on and on.

Kirstie Allsopp revealed she once threw a shoe in the direction of a director, suffering from the 'unique frustration' of being 'directed' (Getty)

And yet we protect the presenters. There is an omerta among TV people. We all talk about the abuse, we hand each other tissues when it all gets too much, we threaten to quit – and then worry about paying our bills. You see, we are nearly all freelance. As a series producer, I'm lucky. I'm paid well and my contracts are generally long. But the average contracts for assistant producers are about 12 weeks.

There's no security. There are no pensions, too many people and not enough jobs. Still, we love it. For the most part, it's enormous fun and we get to see great things, meet amazing people and have doors opened to us that are closed to most. So I breathe in the clean Alpine air, pray I've filled out the risk assessment correctly and smile protectively at my two lovely, obliging newbie presenters. I just hope I can help them grow into the well-rounded stars I know they can be, keeping their feet planted firmly in the snow.

And pray they never, ever do a Clarkson.