Media: The executive who likes to say 'yes': Maggie Brown meets Andrea Wonfor, Granada's new director of programmes, who has produced some of TV's most inventive shows
Wednesday 24 November 1993
Granada, says Wonfor, its newly appointed director of programmes, 'invented the idea of a remit before Channel 4 was born. There was always an agenda. What was Coronation Street, after all, but an attempt to get working-class Northern life on to the screen?
'It still runs through the company, it doesn't matter how strong the commercial pressures are. There is something gutsy and feisty about the North. The fact that the region has paid its dues so heavily, taken a pounding, that texture adds something to British broadcasting.'
Wonfor, aged 49, is gutsy and feisty herself. Her face looks lived-in and rumpled; non-designer clothes are the order of the day; she smokes non-stop. She has been married twice, and has two children.
She is on the rise because she is responsible for some of television's new-style hits (see box). These prove that she knows how to attract younger audiences, a group that ITV is desperate to woo, with entertainment and drama.
'I'm accused of being a bit of a workaholic,' she says. 'If anyone takes their work seriously they want to do it well. I do work long hours. I do care about things. But I've always seen work as part of life, not necessarily the most important part. Without a secure emotional base, the whole thing would have been a bit meaningless.'
She went to a state grammar school in Canterbury and won a scholarship to read history at New Hall, Cambridge, the one college at the time that you could write your way into with essays. 'Is it better to be a sheep or a goat; why the poor man is never free,' she recalls the questions with glee. 'Far better than swotting.'
At Cambridge she was only the second woman to be a member of Footlights, along with Germaine Greer, then a research student. For a time she was taken with the idea of show business and acting: 'Perhaps I'll be a rather good character actress when I'm 60,' she grins.
On the way to a postgraduate course on African tribal systems, she saw an advert for membership of a very different British tribe - a two-year Granada traineeship - and applied. The eight trainees included John Birt, now director-general of the BBC, and Nick Elliott, now managing director of LWT Productions. They met for a reunion last year at Brown's Hotel in Piccadilly: John Birt, she recalls with amazement, showed his sentimental side and produced a little pile of memorabilia, including old football match tickets.
As a trainee in Manchester, he was the only one who was married, 'with a big flat. He was a lot more sophisticated, with a wife who was an artist.
'John and I applied to the BBC and both got turned down. It just shows you how ad hoc it all is.'
She completed the course, which included serving in Granada's hotels, counting lavatory rolls and filling sauce bottles, before leaving - 'I was madly in love' - to move to Newcastle, where her first husband, Paddy Masefield, was a trainee theatre director.
She started work at Tyne Tees Television because they were absolutely broke: her first daughter, Abigail - now a lecturer in media studies, with a baby of her own - was 15 months old. 'I was forced to go back to work to buy her food and clothes.'
Her first marriage lasted five years. Then she married Geoff Wonfor, also a television producer, and a Geordie. She now regards herself as a Geordie too, since her father came from Newcastle. The family home is now in the North-east, where she returns at weekends.
As a big fish in a small pond, she rose swiftly in Tyne Tees: from researcher to head of children's and young people's programmes in 1976. In 1982, she became director of programmes.
The challenging bit of her job was to win commissions from the ITV network, at that point dominated by the five biggest companies, which were guaranteed work. Her national breakthrough came with Highway with Harry Secombe, Face the Press and, most importantly, The Tube, the original Channel 4 youth programme of music and zany comedy with Jools Holland and Paula Yates.
The Tube made her name, yet seemed, at one point, to cast a shadow over her. The live New Year's programme for Channel 4 welcoming 1987 went out of control as she sat in the studios. There was a combustible cast, including Ruby Wax, Jools Holland and . . . Leon Brittan. There was bad language and bad taste. Holland had already caused problems by appearing at 5.15pm advising 'all you groovy f******' to watch The Tube.
She had fallen foul of David Reay, then managing director, who had started the ruthless business of slimming down Tyne Tees. Cameras would disappear, programmes would be cancelled, recalls Wonfor. At the time of the programme, the two executives were at odds: and there was a feeling of revolt in the air when she left early in 1987.
What do you do when a live show goes wrong? 'You wait until the next commercial break, and get them against the wall . . . I still love live television,' she says. One of her most recent live contributions was Channel 4's Love Weekend, on Valentine's Day, with its Naked Chat Show.
Wonfor, with characteristic energy, went independent, set up Zenith North, a Newcastle branch of the independent production company. She thought up Byker Grove, the compelling children's drama set in a youth club which, five years on, is still going strong on BBC 1, its Britishness a sharp contrast to the imported Neighbours, which is shown after it.
In 1990 she returned to the fast track at Channel 4, as controller of arts and entertainment. She became deputy director of programmes last year.
One her first decisions was to give the go-ahead to Drop the Dead Donkey, which, along with another of Wonfor's projects, Concerto, won an Emmy award this week: 'It was a delightful chance to say yes. The only talent a television executive has to have is to say 'yes' to the right things.'
Michael Grade, the channel's chief executive, gives her the credit for backing, out of 32 rival proposals, the Big Breakfast format. She has described it as a programme for people whose brains aren't working, and is certain that the show can maintain its energy.
'The easiest thing to sustain is trivia. It is brilliant at dealing with trivia, magnificent at invention.'
She joins Granada as its battered and reduced programme-making side is seeing morale somewhat restored with the runaway critical and popular success of Cracker, 'a brilliant example of reinventing the Inspector Morse detective genre for a younger audience', according to Wonfor. She succeeds David Liddiment, who has joined the BBC to revitalise its entertainment programmes.
She sees her role as acting as a super-salesman, making programmes that ITV wants from this key regional centre of excellence, while building the best relationships possible with regional independents such as Phil Redmond, one of Granada's harshest critics. After all those years working at Tyne Tees, on the fringes of ITV, she says that suits her fine: 'I'm used to pedalling doubly hard just to get somewhere,' she smiles.
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