Peter Fincham: The back-room boy steps up

He's the brains behind such television hits as 'Smack the Pony', but you won't find Peter Fincham blowing his trumpet. As the former indie producer takes the reins at BBC One, he tells Raymond Snoddy why he's happy just to be working
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Spread over eight or more episodes, Origin of the Species will be broadcast in 2009, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's revolutionary book. It was a thrilling moment for the new BBC One controller, who was one of the UK's leading independent producers before he jumped over the fence and became a broadcaster, following his appointment last March.

In his first newspaper interview since his appointment, Fincham poses a question: "What can we do that's more ambitious, that's bigger, that goes further, goes deeper than we have been before. Is this something that frankly no one else, no other channel would do?"

There can be few more ambitious productions than a televised version of Origin of the Species, which Fincham describes as "a big natural history, specialist factual programme in the tradition of Blue Planet and others, and absolutely in line with what I think BBC One is there to do and should be doing."

Shortly after he took up the post, Fincham, who as an independent has been involved in everything from Da Ali G Show and Smack the Pony to the perennial sports quiz They Think It's All Over, noticed the unexpectedly successful BBC Beethoven season hadn't made it onto BBC One.

Fincham, who turned to television after an early unsuccessful career as a musician, would like to find ways of doing programmes like that on his channel, as part of expanded arts coverage on BBC One.

Just as his appointment was greeted with a little surprise, so it also met with a little jealousy. Fincham, who has always tried to avoid the limelight, was quickly taught a lesson on how public his life at the BBC was going to be - and how little is private at the Corporation - when he made an internal comment that the BBC One schedule should be a little less miserable and a little less depressing. It was immediately leaked.

"There is sometimes a tendency with BBC One to take the viewer to a darker place, but in the variety of things the BBC is there to do, it is absolutely there to entertain. I would not have wanted that remark to emerge as a sort of all-purpose characterising of BBC One, which has every mood and flavour in its schedule," says Fincham. In his crisp white shirt and easy manner, he seems completely at home in the BBC corridors of power, despite never having worked for the Corporation before.

He did apply once for a researcher's job on a BBC arts programme but didn't make it. In fact, Fincham is the first controller of BBC One since the days of Michael Grade, now BBC chairman, to be appointed despite never having worked at the organisation.

That gap in his CV may have been responsible for some of the surprise at his appointment. The rest can be accounted for by the fact that he wasn't desperately looking for a job. He had successfully built up the production company Talkback, which had been founded by the comedians Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, into one of the leading independents of the day and seen it sold to Pearson for £62m (making around £12m himself).

When Pearson sold on to Europe's largest commercial broadcaster RTL, Fincham was asked to run the merged indie giant TalkbackThames. When early this year he fulfilled his commitment to stay for five years, he gave up his job as chief executive, deciding he had reached the end of a natural chapter of his career. "I thought a long break would be a good thing and give me a chance to reassess what I wanted to do. It turned out to be a very short break."

With money in the bank, he could have done nothing, had another go at writing music and songs or started again by setting up an new independent company to make even more money. None of it was tempting.

If you have been lucky enough to create "some financial independence", Fincham believes, the least imaginative, least interesting thing you can do is set out to make even more money. "The second most unimaginative thing is to do nothing. I'm in my forties and I don't want to put my feet up. What is actually interesting and appealing is to take on a challenge and I can't think of a more interesting one than BBC One," he says.

When he was offered the job there was no doubt in his mind. "Nobody who is interested in television and interested in challenges could say 'no' (to BBC One) because it is a great job," says Fincham, who adds that as an independent producer he has always been fascinated to know more about broadcasting.

His move (and by chance the move of his predecessor at BBC One, Lorraine Heggessey, to his old job at TalkbackThames) is, he believes, exactly what should be happening in the television industry. The days are gone when indies and broadcasters were two separate species who never crossed over.

"I think it would be better all round if that happens more often and we understand each other's point of view and see things from the other side of the fence."

Many have still wondered if the BBC was not going to be a strange and alien place for him to operate in after 15 years of indie freedom. Not in the slightest, insists Fincham.

"Although I have never worked at the BBC I felt I knew the BBC very well and was comfortable with its values. I really believed in the BBC. I have never been an independent by philosophy. It happened by chance. I stumbled into it," he says.

At the Edinburgh International Television Festival at the weekend everybody - independent producers particularly - were listening to his every word as he spelled out his vision for the future of BBC One, his priorities and what sort of programmes he will want to commission.

Drama, he says, will be the key to maintaining the BBC's position and reputation in the digital age, when more and more people will be able to call up individual programmes on demand. "Drama has been one of the areas in which the BBC has made most progress over the past five years. It's really shed a skin of old-style drama, and there is a lot of modern and very good drama," he says.

The BBC One controller does think there is work to be done on the early evening schedule, where there are still too many docu-soaps. Well-made programmes they may be, but not, he believes where television is today.

As ITV appears to be cutting back on its regional programme aspirations, so Fincham is looking at the possibility of boosting the half hour of BBC regional news and magazine programming between 6.30pm and 7pm, which already attracts large audiences.

Another mark of his controllership will be to try to uncouple BBC One from the sense of being in a historic competitive battle for viewers with ITV 1, as if there were still only two national channels. Fincham will watch the overnight ratings as closely as any television executive, but he believes the paths of ITV 1 and BBC One are already diverging. "I think they (ITV) will probably do more different things and you will perceive that gap widening over the next few years," says Fincham. The BBC executive also warns that getting rid of all repeats in peaktime - as some have advocated - is just not possible in the short term without more funds. He says it will could £100m to make BBC1 a repeat-free zone by the end of the decade.

He also thinks he is the first BBC One controller to have to come to terms with the planned move to a wholly digital universe, where every home in the UK will be able to chose from several dozen, if not actually hundreds, of television channels.

He says that because of the way that technology is changing viewing habits, it is imperative to establish now what BBC One represents for the future. "I am a great believer in channel brands in a digital age because they represent signposts, they hopefully bring expectations of quality and they also have a heritage that much of multi-channel television doesn't have."

In fact, the heritage of a channel such as BBC One is what will secure its future, the BBC executive believes, as long as it finds ways of connecting with younger viewers. Here step forward programmes such as the recent Doctor Who series, which brought family viewing into the Fincham household where there are four children aged from eight to one.

"It was a bit lost on the one-year-old but not on the other three, who are fanatical fans of Doctor Who and, echoing myself 40 years later, have been running round the house saying, 'exterminate, exterminate', which I loved," says Fincham.

Before Doctor Who, people were saying that family viewing was dead and that people will increasingly watch alone in their bedrooms. "It's a perfect example of what television is full of - the false prognosis. This genre is dead. This way of viewing is dead. In five years, television will be piped through radiators and we will all watch it. The reality is that the way we watch television is changing hugely but the appetites, the tastes the audience have, in many ways don't change although they have to be reinterpreted," he says.

To survive in the multi-channel age he believes, more than any other terrestrial channel, BBC One has to continue to cover a wide range of genres and aim to appeal to a wide range of audiences.

Anyone mad on stamp collecting will be attracted to Stamp Collecting TV, he admits. "But we absolutely want BBC One to be your number one favourite generalist channel, one that offers the full menu, because very few will," Fincham believes.

Given his background in the independent sector it is hardy surprising that he wants to throw open the doors of the channel to the widest range of talent from wherever it comes. Naturally he is a supporter of the Window of Creative Competition - the plan to put 25 per cent of BBC production up for grabs between in-house production and independents. This, in addition to the existing 25 per cent independent's quota, could mean as much as 50 per cent of BBC production coming from outside the Corporation.

Is 50 per cent a problem? "Not necessarily, is the answer. The argument that it is a problem is a critical-mass argument. If you are from an indie background where you may run a company that has existed on one commission a year, or even 10 or 50, the critical-mass argument doesn't make sense to you. The important thing is the quality, the creativity of any production entity rather than its size," the diplomatic answer goes.

The proposals are controversial within the BBC because the move to more independent production is one of the main factors in the planned loss of more than 2,000 production jobs over the next three years.

Fincham insists he has always been a believer in a mixed economy in television production, with strong in-house production and a strong independent sector. "In-house production must be nourished, must be supported," he emphasises. And as a controller he says he simply wants the best programmes he can get whoever makes them.

Fincham's obvious pleasure in his new job can be easily explained by his background. He was musical director of the Cambridge Footlights alongside Griff Rhys Jones, Jimmy Mulville (who runs Hat Trick productions), Rory McGrath and Clive Anderson.

But in his late 20s he realised they were all establishing successful careers and he was getting nowhere fast. Fincham was writing songs and music, but none was ever recorded - although he claims there are still people around who can sing some of his songs. He declines the opportunity to sing his favourite.

There was a spell with the Young Vic, working with the touring version of Godspell, and periods of unemployment. "I was sitting in the orchestra hammering away at the piano and thinking, 'What am I doing?'" says Fincham, who admits that he wasn't technically a good enough musician.

In an echo of former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who was unemployed and apparently without much of a future at the age of 30, Fincham remembers a particularly low moment when he finally realised he had been wrong to dedicate his career to music. "I have a memory of going for a walk on Wandsworth Common in the rain thinking, 'Oh my God. What have I done. I have made the wrong decision'," he recalls.

It was a formative experience, so that when the offer came to work for the tiny independent company Talkback, then specialising mainly in voiceovers from an office above a martial arts shop in Carnaby Street, he seized the opportunity with both hands. Rather as he has now done at the BBC. "I actually like being employed, even though my circumstances in life may be different now," says Fincham, who gradually built up the Talkback business.

Both his father and grandfather were accountants. "I ran away and joined the circus, but I used to say to financial controllers, 'Don't worry, guys. I have accountancy in my blood'," he says with a laugh.

He always had a hand on the editorial side of Talkback, whether writing management training scripts for Rhys Jones and Smith videos or coming up with programme ideas.

Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Smack The Pony were two of his ideas, although he is reluctant to take credit for things that are often the work of many hands. "I am an ego-free zone in that sense, and that I think is one of the reasons why I worked well with talent. Coming into this job has put me into the limelight more than I have even been before. I shuffle slightly reluctantly into the limelight," he says.

Tony Cohen, his boss at Fremantle Media, the former Pearson television group now owned by RTL, is unstinting in his praise. "He is one of those rare people who really has a sense of programming, particularly in comedy. He has terrific taste. He just knows it, smells it and he's completely across it in a really impressive way," says Cohen, who believes that whatever Fincham does at the BBC will be distinctive and interesting.

Of his own career Fincham says he couldn't have made what he did of Talkback without Rhys Jones and Smith. But they were very busy being comedians. "It also wouldn't have been what it became without them finding someone like me to do that," says Fincham.

The BBC One Controller's job wasn't his first run at a proper broadcasting job in recent years. Fincham was on the shortlist for the chief executive's job at Channel 4 on the two recent occasions when there was a vacancy. On the last occasion he lost out to Andy Duncan, the former marketing director of the BBC. All that he will say on the subject is that he is completely convinced that television companies and channels should be run editorially. "It's when people with no editorial background, but [who] apparently know about business, get involved they often come unstuck. I believe very strongly in that," he says.

It is far too early to judge Peter Fincham's performance as BBC One Controller: he's still living off Lorraine Heggessey's commissions. The BBC One schedule for autumn 2006 will be his work - his responsibility. Many will be watching to see whether independent producers really can evolve.

Meanwhile, he is looking for new forms of factual programmes. "One of the last things I was involved with at Talkback was the UK version of The Apprentice (recently seen on BBC Two). Where is the BBC One equivalent of that?" he asks.


I was comfortable with BBC values. I have never been an independent by philosophy


I'm an ego-free zone... I shuffle slightly reluctantly into the limelight


The way we watch TV is changing, but audience tastes don't; they need reinterpreting