Media: Why the Beeb begs Noel to party on: Which show does Alan Yentob think is best? Eat your heart out, Panorama] Sue Summers meets the BBC's Very Important Party-host, Noel Edmonds
Wednesday 28 April 1993
There are not many television presenters who can boast that they have Britain's most important network controller sweating at the other end of the line. And, it must be said, the BBC's need to keep him sweet is more than justified. Noel's House Party, watched by up to 13 million viewers every Saturday night, is the most unequivocal of the BBC's few peak-time hits. The new ITV network, led by LWT's boss, Greg Dyke, was reported last weekend to have bid pounds 3m to entice him away. 'If all I wanted to do was have a lot of money,' Edmonds admits, 'I'd go to ITV.'
Yentob may be better known for his taste in recherche arts programmes such as Arena and The Late Show, but he recognises a ratings gold mine when he sees it. Even before being confirmed in his new appointment, he told Edmonds that Noel's House Party was 'the most important show on the BBC'. Eat your hearts out Panorama, EastEnders and the Nine O'Clock News.
Anyone seeking to interview Edmonds, 44, goes through an extensive vetting procedure. He and his production team have all 'had it up to here' with the sneering Noel's House Party receives, and the snide comments about its star - his Seventies-style streaked beard and hair, his multi-coloured silk shirts, and his unchanging humour, described by one critic as 'that of an upwardly mobile bank clerk'.
Having a taste for none of the above, I was expecting the worst. But, as so often in the interview game, it failed to materialise. Edmonds is not smug, boring and cliche-ridden but likeable, sharp-witted and outspoken. In his suit and white shirt with a conventionally jazzy tie, he could be a successful businessman in the Richard Branson mould. Which is exactly what he has become.
Alone among late Sixties disc jockeys, he had a keen business brain. 'I've never had an agent or manager. I've always negotiated my own contracts,' he says. 'Which makes some people uncomfortable. Everyone expects DJs to be thick.' From his first day as a newsreader at Radio Luxembourg in 1968, he was carefully planning his next move - first to Radio 1, where he presented the breakfast show for five years, then into television, with the children's programme The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and the ill-fated Late, Late Breakfast Show, axed by the BBC after a member of the public fell to his death during an amateur stunt.
At the same time, he was building up his business interests. These include a helicopter company based at Battersea - from which Today newspaper once hired a helicopter to take aerial pictures of Edmonds' 450-acre Devon estate - and a 12 per cent stake in Unique Broadcasting, a radio production company chaired by the former BBC 2 controller and Video Arts founder, Michael Peacock.
It was his foray into American TV in the Eighties, when his show was briefly broadcast by the ABC network, which showed him how to combine the two sides of his career. 'As broadcasters, I thought the Americans were a bunch of idiots,' he says. 'But I noted that all the big performers there owned the rights to their programmes. It occurred to me that would be a very good idea for Noel Edmonds.'
Edmonds already owns the rights to his long-running quiz show, Telly Addicts. But with Noel's House Party, he has struck gold. Devised in concert with Edmonds' BBC producer, Michael Leggo, the programme shows Edmonds as the ultimate practitioner of children's television for grown-ups. Beamed live from the mansion of Crinkly Bottom - a good natured send-up of Edmonds' own home - it is a quick-moving mixture of audience participation, including home video clips and hidden cameras in viewers' homes, with items such as the 'gunge tank', in which celebrities from Robert Kilroy-Silk to Edwina Currie and Mary Whitehouse have begged to be ritually dunked.
According to Private Eye, Noel's House Party owes its huge ratings to the fact that 'every moron in the country watches it'. Putting it more kindly, however, it is all good, clean, harmless fun, which has not only beaten sleazier ITV competition like Gladiators but has won this year's Bafta award for best light entertainment programme against trendier shows such as Have I Got News for You and Whose Line is it Anyway?
The rights to all this are owned by Edmonds himself, via his personal company, the Unique Group. No wonder he says it is 'quite fun being me at the moment'.
It has, one suspects, been considerably less fun for Alan Yentob, who at one point last week was facing a 24- hour ultimatum from Edmonds to come up with an acceptable deal, or lose both the star and his show to ITV. 'We have had one or two problems,' Edmonds says. The stumbling block seems to have been Edmonds' desire to make Noel's House Party as an independent production through Unique Broadcasting, rather than as an in-house programme. There is likely to be a compromise. House Party will stay inside the corporation, but a guaranteed number of other shows will be made by Unique for BBC 1 over the next three years.
Meanwhile, he has the consolation of knowing he can carry on selling foreign broadcasters the rights to create their own House Parties. He has also devised his own lucrative spin-off from the show - a travelling theme park called Noel's Garden Party, which will be staged this summer at four different venues. With television rights bought by the BBC and sponsors including Sony and Cellnet already on board, it could make his company pounds 1m this year. Ten Garden Parties are already being planned for 1994.
After 25 years with the BBC, Edmonds says he would have been sad to leave it. But he is far from uncritical of the corporation.
'The last couple of years of very public self-analysis have dealt a grievous blow to BBC staff morale,' he says. 'I go to Pebble Mill to do Telly Addicts and when you see make-up girls crying because they've just found out the entire department has just been closed, it's hard not to be aware of it.
'The BBC is having to redefine itself and that's a painful process. But it's a very emotional thing, making television shows. It's a close-knit activity that relies on a degree of bonding and if people are worried about their jobs it's very difficult.
'The BBC will say that it must always be totally accountable because of how it gets its money. But the fact of the matter is that being too accountable is a stifling process.
'It's a fairly unusual situation when the controller of BBC 1 leaves a year before the end of his contract. Then there was this two-year period when we had almost two DGs. There's been an awful lot of soiled BBC laundry washed in public recently. I've found it all very unsettling.' As far as ITV is concerned, clearly not unsettling enough.
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