Lorraine Heggessey: Still searching for the x factor

The former head of BBC1 is passionate about the need to reform the TV industry and has big ambitions for her company, talkbackThames. Ian Burrell tunes in
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The Independent Online

Lorraine Heggessey is the only woman to have been controller of BBC1, she was the longest-serving head of Britain's biggest channel since the 1960s and now she is one of the most powerful players in the independent television production sector.

The chief executive of talkbackThames last week unveiled a £40m-strategic plan which will see her company greatly expand into the fields of drama and comedy, through a series of joint ventures, including alliances with Trevor Eve, the actor and producer, and Graham Linehan, the Irish comedy writer behind Father Ted and Black Books. These deals build on Talkback's immensely valuable collaboration with Simon Cowell, with whom it makes such hit shows as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

It is two-and-a-half years since she left the BBC in a job swap with the former Talkback CEO Peter Fincham that took the television industry by surprise. Such a background gives her a unique perspective on the recent travails that have undermined the credibility of the independent sector, left dark clouds over the BBC and cost Fincham the job that she helped to persuade him to take. She has strong views about the whole business.

The problems exposed by a succession of industry reports have "majorly damaged the relationship between the broadcaster and the viewer", she says. "I have been surprised by the fact that a lot of people working in productions have thought that this is acceptable because frankly it wouldn't be acceptable within talkbackThames and I don't think it is acceptable to knowingly deceive the viewers."

The crisis of trust is of such proportions, feels Heggessey, that industry leaders should come together to reform the entire culture of factual programme making. "There's a huge pressure to deliver in television. People can sometimes respond to that pressure in the wrong way. They are so afraid of failure [that] making it up can seem like a safer option to them than failure. It is driven through fear. What more senior people in the industry have to do is create a climate which is forgiving of failure."

Those working in factual programming need to undergo improved training that will insulate them from the corrosive influence of reality television. "They need to be educated in what compliance procedures there are, what the law is and what standards are expected. In drama it is fine to make it up – in factual it isn't," she says. "It shouldn't really be called reality television because it couldn't be further from reality but it's kind of become accepted that ...you make up the rules and place them on (top of) real situations.

"If you are out there making a documentary and things don't happen the way you wanted and you are used to working in that [reality tv] world where you make up the formats and say to people 'these are the rules and this is what I want you to do now', there is that terrible tendency to ask them to do something that otherwise they wouldn't have done. I can completely understand why sometimes people do it but we have to create a climate where everybody realises it's not acceptable."

Asked about the most notorious recent incident of "making it up", the Queen's mythical flouncing out of a photoshoot, Heggessey is forthright, though mystified by the behaviour at rival indy RDF Media. "They had amazing access to the Queen. Hardly anybody gets access to make that kind of documentary. It didn't even need to be sexed up. I can't even begin to impute motives. It was completely unnecessary and was over-egging an already very rich pudding."

She was clearly unimpressed with the way the matter was handled by Stephen Lambert, the RDF creative director, who only resigned following publication of the damning Wyatt report, which also led to the departure of Fincham. "I actually think [Lambert] should have stood down sooner. And I think if he had shouldered the responsibility sooner and resigned then things would have been a lot different," she says. "There had to be an investigation to find out what had happened. It could all really have been nipped in the bud."

She says she feels "dreadfully sorry" for Fincham. "I think he was doing a really good job and would have done an even better job if he'd stayed because inevitably you learn a huge amount in your first two years – and you start to get your head round the schedule and learn as much from your failures as successes. You start to understand more what the audience wants and your vision for the channel becomes much more sophisticated. I'm sure he would have had an absolutely brilliant next couple of years. It will be a real shame now if there's a hiatus at BBC1."

Heggessey has a track record of challenging media colleagues on their standards, having been the founding editor of the BBC right-to-reply show Biteback and long before that a hard-nosed deputy editor of the Channel 4 show Hard News, which exposed flawed reporting in the press. Her own company did not emerge entirely unscathed from the shocking Deloitte report into call-TV deception on ITV.

Talkback and Cowell's production company Syco announced they would repay £900,000 to viewers of The X Factor who were found to have incurred charges for phone votes that weren't counted. Heggessey argues that this is very different from consciously deceiving the viewer. "The mobile phone operators couldn't cope with the number of calls. We still have a relationship of trust with our viewers and our broadcasters."

She expresses sympathy for the BBC staff, many of them former colleagues, who will lose their jobs in the recently announced cuts. Although no modern worker "can expect a job for life", she says there is something different about working for the public service broadcaster. "There's something about the BBC that gets into your bloodstream. It's a very emotional relationship that goes beyond employer/employee.

"In lots of people's cases, it's about committing their whole working life to that public service ethos. And so it makes it much more painful than if you just had a purely commercial relationship with your employer."

She says that the BBC needs to deal with the changes "really, really quickly" because "the whole morale issue can snowball out of control."

The independent production sector that is now her home is currently going through what Heggessey terms "merger and acquisition fever" but she and the Talkback parent company Fremantle have decided on an alternative strategy. "Pretty much all those [acquisition target] companies are in my opinion dramatically over valued it's very difficult to get out the money you put in," she says.

Instead she has decided on a collaborative approach, echoing the relationship with Cowell that has served Talkback so well. "I think creative partnerships where people feel equal are one of the best ways of stimulating people, the moment you get into ownership that relationship changes quite critically and what motivates you changes quickly."

Heggessey can understand why the founders of a small indy might want to cash in on years of hard graft but isn't convinced that there's true value in the deal for the buyer.

"Some [owners of indy companies that sell up] probably can stay motivated but most of them are free spirits who are used to running their own business. A parent company can steer and advise you but you've got to be willing to take that advice."

She has known the Waking The Dead actor since her days running BBC1 and thinks that he can take Talkback's reputation for drama to a new level through contacts he has acquired in nearly 30 years of working in the field. For his part, the actor is looking forward to his own company, Projector Productions, not having to work on such a shoestring, you might say. "We can give them that weight and he can use the time available in the creative development of new ideas," says Heggessey. "Trevor is a very good producer and has lots of ideas of things he would like to make work."

Talkback's drama output is currently centred on the 96-shows a year of The Bill, which Heggessey says she is "really, really proud of" after a creative overhaul. In a separate new joint venture, Talkback will take under its wing a fledgling drama production company, Hillbilly, run by Polly Leys and Kate Norrish, who will move into Talkback's wood-and-glass edifice off Oxford Street.

"They're right at the beginning of their journey and I think we can help [them] grow by removing the headache of having to run production, having the overheads of offices and photocopiers," says the chief executive. "I really liked their approach, their freshness and their enthusiasm." Rather than spreading the Talkback brand, Heggessey wants to have "different labels" within the building, saying she wants to encourage a "boutique approach, giving people a sense of ownership".

Graham Linehan, who is in the process of decamping from Ireland to London, has yet to come up with the name for his own company but he will also be housed within the Talkback building. The writer has a CV that includes not just Father Ted but Big Train and The IT Crowd, which has just been commissioned for a third series by Channel 4. Talkback made the first two series of The IT Crowd and thinks that by strengthening the relationship with Linehan through a joint venture, it will help restore the reputation it earned as a hothouse of British comedy after making shows such as I'm Alan Partridge, Da Ali G Show and Bo' Selecta! "Graham is fantastic at judging scripts and already acts as an unofficial mentor to a lot of comic writers so I think he'll be doing that in a more official capacity here," says Heggessey.

But the most important relationship for Talkback is with Cowell. "Frankly, Simon is the kind of person that if it wasn't working well he wouldn't stay with us, but I think he feels that he has the sort of stability and the right creative team backing his ideas. We pretty much have a dedicated team working on all his shows."

At last week's National Television Awards, The X Factor was named "Most Popular Talent Show", with Britain's Got Talent being short-listed in the same category. Cowell originally managed to get the Got Talent franchise up and running by selling the idea to NBC – after ITV had earlier passed on a Talkback-made promo. It is now in 15 territories around the world, while The X Factor is in 20. "He's a star and a very influential figure in television on both sides of the Atlantic – if Simon Cowell rings you up and says he wants a meeting most people would clear their diaries instantly. The fact he had that pilot and he himself believed in it helped convince NBC because on the whole the US is a quite risk-averse market."

As she grows the company, Heggessey is constantly searching for new formats that have the potential for export. Talkback is working on the fourth series of The Apprentice, which will air on BBC1 in the spring.

Though the format began in the US, the international rights are owned by Talkback's owner RTL and there are now 20 versions around the world. But there is no great science to international success. "The most unlikely shows travel. How Clean is Your House became a global hit," says the woman who wants to clean up television. "The only country they ran into trouble with was Germany. Apparently they couldn't find enough dirty houses."