Kevin Lygo: The art of television

He's the man all eyes are on for the BBC1 job, but Kevin Lygo insists he is only interested in Four. He tells Ian Burrell his big plans for the future of the channel
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Taxi for Lygo? The obvious answer is "yes" - in front of the Channel 4 headquarters on London's Horseferry Road, a black cab is parked with a a marker-scrawled message in the window: "Hello, Mr Lygo." Which is strange, because the Channel 4 director of television has an imminent appointment with The Independent in his office. Could he be running scared of questioning over his possible departure to the BBC, where he is tipped as a front-runner in the race to succeed outgoing BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey?

In the event, Kevin Lygo has not left the building. He finishes a business meeting and prepares himself for interrogation. So will he go to the BBC, walking out on the channel with which his name has been most closely associated, in order to link back up with his old ally, Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general? Before giving Lygo's answer, it is worth recalling a moment in this same Horseferry Road building 10 months earlier.

It was the occasion of Channel 4's last annual report launch, and Thompson, the then Channel 4 chief executive, was at the centre of great speculation that he was about to leave to become the BBC's DG. Under questioning from Ray Snoddy, now a writer for The Independent, Thompson said something that would have been unequivocal if it hadn't come from a television executive. "I absolutely intend to stay at Channel 4," he said. "I don't intend to take part in any process leading to any kind of recruitment at the BBC. I'm staying at Channel 4." Lygo was present and looked across to the newly appointed Channel 4 chairman, Luke Johnson, and exchanged a smile. Neither man would have been greatly shocked when, three months later, Thompson was crowned at the BBC.

So, will he follow in Thompson's footsteps? "Honest to God, I have not been approached by anyone at the BBC and I can't believe they will, because Mark knows me well," he says. "Channel 4 is on such a roll. We are in expansion mode, the shows are working, the share's up, we've got a lot of new things coming - financially in the short term, we are doing well. I cannot imagine leaving here for anything in the world at this time, so I'm sure they won't bother to call." Okay, so he can't "imagine" leaving but, then again, he hasn't been asked. Does he recall the exchanges at that annual report launch in April?

"I was at that meeting and everybody remembered the question and the answer differently," he says. "I don't think Mark categorically denied that he was going to the BBC." He thinks for a moment and then says something categorical himself. "Honestly, I'm not going, I promise you," he says. "I don't want to be in your paper saying, 'I'm not interested' or 'I turned it down' when no one's offered it to me, because I kind of think it's rude and slightly insulting to the person who is their first choice and who is going to get it. I'm only interested in Channel 4 and making things work here, as they are just starting to."

It's not that he doesn't rate the BBC1 job. "BBC1 is an incredibly important channel, and an incredibly challenging and wonderful job for someone... but it's not me," he says. That would appear to leave BBC internal candidates Jane Tranter (the head of drama commissioning) and Alison Sharman (the controller of daytime television) in pole positions to be Heggessey's successor. But if the BBC1 controller's post is "just not" Lygo, perhaps his old pal Thompson (who is a great admirer of his talents and lured him back to Channel 4 from Five in November 2003) has something more prestigious to offer?

There is a rumour at BBC Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush that Thompson might regard Lygo as a possible successor to his director of television, Jana Bennett. Lygo seems amused by this suggestion. "You can never say... I don't know... all I know is that nobody has offered me any job, anywhere, and I'm absolutely enthralled and invigorated by doing this job," he says. "Is that any good? That's pretty categorical, isn't it?"

Being Channel 4's director of programmes (in effect, the creative chief in a three-headed hydra that includes Andy Duncan, the chief executive, and Johnson) "is as good a job as there is", says Lygo. "I don't think it's a better job to run BBC1 or ITV. Money is not the issue here. If there's something we want to do, we always seem to be able to find the money. It's not about having more money [a sentiment that does not entirely tally with Duncan's dire warnings that Channel 4 will need £100m to keep it afloat after 2009]."

Crucially, Lygo's role is set to expand in the autumn when Channel 4 launches a new channel, More4. "I would be amazed if we didn't launch more channels over the next few years," he says, talking of the Channel 4 "portfolio". "More4, if we get it right, will be a breath of fresh air. When we launched E4, we joked it was Channel 4 without the boring bits. More4 is Channel 4 without the stupid bits. If we can get it to be that intelligent, thought-provoking, documentary, factual, window-in-the-world thing that Channel 4 is in one part of its schizophrenic existence, it will really have some impact [but] there's no need for it to be dry and elitist."

Alongside factual programmes about "parenting, the way we live, what's happening in the world", he wants to show Channel 4-acquired hits like The Sopranos and The West Wing, which "aren't really appropriate for E4 and are more appropriate for an older, more considered audience".

He promises more than just Channel 4 repeats. "These three or four hundred [digital] channels are nearly all repeated, repackaged, crime American stuff that hasn't made it on to the main networks. It would be a wonderful thing to add two new channels [More4 and a revitalised E4] into this mix and them actually create things by themselves with their own monies and energies."

To do this, he says, money must be spent only on a handful of projects that have a high chance of success. BBC3 - with its widespread commissioning - has cost hundreds of millions of pounds of licence payers' money "to find Little Britain", says Lygo. BBC4, he claims, has had only one memorable show, The Alan Clark Diaries. "It's not a particular criticism of either channel," he says. "It's a reality of what a digital channel can do."

Once every month, More4 will attempt to make a splash with a "noisy drama or factual piece", such as the terror drama The Hamburg Cell. "More4 must have its own babies, otherwise it will just be a repeats channel and it's not going to be that," he says. E4, meanwhile, is being given an extra £20m a year in programme budget. "E4 was launched at a time when there wasn't much competition," he says. "It was clear it was a young, fun, entertaining, brash, but not vulgar, channel. It was Ali G, Smack the Pony, Friends and ER." He says E4 has suffered from the loss of its great ratings-driver, Friends, but will "get stronger" from being brought closer to the Channel 4 offering.

Lygo, 47, does not have the BBC running through his veins in the way that Thompson does. "We are all BBC people in a sense, in that it's the nation's big thing, but I think Channel 4 has a unique place as well," he says. "But I have spent more time at Channel 4 than I have at the BBC in my career and certainly at senior levels."

He joined the BBC as a general trainee after studying music at Durham University. He was one of only three trainees. The others were Peter Salmon (now BBC head of sport) and Peter Kosminsky (the multi-award-winning film-maker). After the two years trainee-ship, Lygo worked freelance before leaving the television industry for more than seven years, part of which he spent in France as a dealer in Islamic art. "I had a gallery in Paris," he says. "I didn't buy anything abroad. That would be very tricky. You could get your head chopped off for that."

Lygo describes the seven years as "a bit of a black hole, from a television point of view" but acknowledges: "There's more to life than just telly, isn't there?" He still refers to himself as a "mad, obsessive art buff". The day earlier, he had been at the opening of the Caravaggio retrospective at the National Gallery, and this week he will perform the role of guide at a private breakfast tour of Turks, the world's largest exhibition of Turkish art and culture, showing at the Royal Academy of Art. "There's not a museum and gallery that I don't know terribly well," he says. "I almost don't want to talk about it, I'm such a bore, but it's almost certainly where I will end up when I'm spat out of television."

Lygo was persuaded back to the BBC by his friend and writer Richard Curtis to produce Comic Relief. "I came back for six months, but I never left television again," he says. After commissioning shows such as Men Behaving Badly and They Think It's All Over, he was hired in 1997 by Channel 4's then chief executive Michael Jackson. At Channel 4, he brought in So Graham Norton, Smack the Pony and Trigger Happy TV. He was briefly lured to Five, but came back after two years, a decision which he has not had cause to regret.

January was a very good month for Channel 4, bringing a share in excess of the iconic 10 per cent figure that was not so long ago disappearing out of sight. At a time when the other four terrestrial broadcasters are all yielding ground to the smorgasbord of digital channels, Channel 4 posted a 10.2 per cent share, up year on year from 9.4 per cent. Among ABC1s, the figure rises to 12.05 per cent and among 16-34s, to 16.06 per cent.

Lygo appears to have benefited from Roly Keating's repositioning of BBC2, where more high-brow content has been brought in to counter previous criticisms of dumbing down. He is convinced that he can further capitalise on what he sees as the failings of rival channels after 11pm ("BBC2 is a right dog's dinner, it's the end of Newsnight and the start of something that was on before on BBC4").

Channel 4 is "at it's best", he says, when its programmes are "attracting audiences, attracting attention, getting in the papers, annoying some people, provoking everybody". He cites Channel 4's Anatomy for Beginners series (in which Dr Gunther von Hagens dissected bodies for the pleasure of the viewing public) as an example of good, late-evening scheduling. "I bet people learned more about the human body watching those programmes than they did in 10 years doing biology," he says.

Lygo's next offering will be a season on torture, starting tonight and including a reality television experiment simulating, for 72 hours, the conditions of the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. "The [volunteers] are quite tough young people and they all crack essentially," he says. "This is not really torturing them; it is what you'd think would be probably alright - sensory deprivation, leaving them tied up for hours, but not beating them up. It just goes to show how ghastly it would be."

Is this not likely to generate similar criticisms to Shattered, a Channel 4 programme (shown just before Lygo returned to the channel) which saw contestants forced to go without sleep and was condemned as a reality idea gone too far? "Shattered was entertainment, whereas this is television engaging with a current affairs issue," he argues. "But I think Shattered was fun - there was nothing wrong with that."

The torture series will also include an examination of Britain's own record in treating detainees, at a time when civil liberties campaigners believe human rights are under pressure from laws introduced to fight terrorism. "We think the whole debate about what's now allowed and not allowed in terms of torture has not been brought to the public attention," says Lygo.

On Thursday, he will be unveiling his spring schedule, the highlight of which will be a dramatisation of the death of Dr David Kelly, made by Lygo's old BBC trainee pal Kosminsky. "It's bound to cause trouble, but it's about a crucial moment in British politics and we examine it under the microscope," he says. "I don't believe anybody else would do that. The BBC couldn't, God bless it, and it's not particularly a commercial thing to do."

Channel 4 is also about to show a sitcom, The McGoons, based in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow. Comedian Johnny Vegas is to be given his own show from May, with Lygo hoping it will meet with similar acclaim to Peter Kay's efforts. Paul Abbott's Shameless he describes as "our best ever drama series". He was proud of Yasmin, a brilliant one-off drama about a Westernised, Muslim Yorkshirewoman's experience of the 9/11 backlash.

Channel 4 was quickest to latch on to the phenomenal interest in Dan Brown's best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, and commissioned a television investigation presented by Tony Robinson. "There's such an interest in that, all you have to do is say, 'Oooh, the Knights Templar', and everybody goes weak at the knees," he says. "For Channel 4, it was about getting the timing right and then making a comprehensive and entertaining but, nonetheless, serious trashing of the nonsense that is the Holy Grail." He is delighted with the hit US acquisition Desperate Housewives and the coverage generated by Jamie's School Dinners (Jamie Oliver's project for improving the culinary efforts of the British education system).

But the rhythmic sound of tub-thumping comes to an abrupt halt with the mention of Chris Morris's latest venture, Nathan Barley (a satire on fashion victims from London's trendy Shoreditch quarter), at which point Lygo screws up his face like he's just bitten into a lemon. "I think, Chris, you know... part of Channel 4 is about picking some people and backing them, and that's what we've done with Chris Morris," he says. "We've done Brass Eye, Jam and now Nathan Barley. It's the right thing to do and we are happy to do it. Nathan Barley is only two weeks in and it hasn't found a particularly overwhelmingly large audience shall we say - but it's a magnificently made piece of television, so that, in itself, is fine for us." Lygo says he can "only applaud" the fact that we haven't spent any time discussing Big Brother, saying: "We can't talk about it anymore can we? It just is."

There is just time to ask if he is still smarting from last year's broadsides against the Channel 4 output by former channel stalwarts Jeremy Isaacs, Vanni Treves and Michael Bishop. Lygo swats the criticisms away with a reference to a subject that he didn't want to bring up. "It was Big Brother that they had the issue with," he says. "It's all fine now."

For the past 25 years - since he was a hard-up BBC trainee and before Channel 4 was even on the air - Lygo has lived in rented Thameside accommodation, 500 yards from his current office. He spends most evenings "watching telly" at home with his young family. "I'm not interested in a big house to be honest," he says. "I've always lived around here. It's my manor." No need for that taxi just yet then.