Rebel with a cause

Stuart Cosgrove, the new number two at Channel 4, is not worried about stepping on a few toes. By Sheryl Garratt
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The Independent Online
A few weeks ago, diners at London's super-restaurant Mezzo were treated to the kind of spectacle usually confined to the members-only Groucho Club nearby. Burly Scot Stuart Cosgrove, newly appointed controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4, was punching out journalist Matt Baker. Why? Baker had insulted Cosgrove's football team, St Johnstone.

"It was the kind of Men Behaving Badly version of being caught snogging," Cosgrove recounts cheerfully. "A lot of alcohol had been consumed, and I behaved like a national stereotype. It was a bit pathetic - we rang each other the next day to cringe."

Still, Stuart Cosgrove likes a fight, and has always courted controversy, whether it be championing the then-unfashionable cause of dance music during his stint as a staff writer at New Musical Express in the Eighties, or more recently provoking fury over his late-night C4 sex strand, The Red Light Zone.

At the age of 42, the man who now stands at number two in the C4 hierarchy enjoys an enviable reptutation as a kind of artful dodger. Fond of his football and his beer, he also fitted effortlessly into the rarified atmosphere of The Late Show during his time as a presenter there. "I'm probably the first person in this job that feels really comfortable," he says. "I'm quite happy to argue about Strindberg and then discuss Beavis and Butthead."

He is also still rare in that he is a professional who genuinely loves the medium. "I watch a lot. And I don't want it to be something that delivers the equivalent of a Will Self novel. If I wanted to read that, which I don't, particularly, I know where to buy one."

He indicates the wall in his office where four TV sets stand in a line, three silently showing the opposition, the larger one curiously dark. Looking mystified for a second before remembering he has just watched a video on it, he flicks it to C4's coverage of horse racing. Watching all four at once, he says, is a good way of spotting his own channel's weaknesses and seeing what the opposition are doing. At the moment, his eyes must rest most often on BBC2.

"They've been very good at inheriting some of our better suits," he says, citing Have I Got News For You, Shooting Stars and Mrs Merton as the kind of "cultural Xeroxing" that has led some to refer to the BBC2 controller, Michael Jackson, as "the copycat criminal".

Cosgrove concedes he's got a fight on his hands. Daytime is a problem. By moving schools programming and bringing in "welcoming" entertainment such as Ready Steady Cook, BBC2 has increased its figures, while C4 still tends to look down on the daytime audience.

He points to research carried out on Love In the Afternoon, a series that provoked tabloid outrage for its pre-watershed sauce but was seen by most viewers as more sneering than sexy. When one of its presenters, Antoine de Caunes, did a feature sending up Valentine's Day, the audience response was fairly unanimous. They liked getting cards and didn't see why they should be attacked for it."That kind of irony is OK for a Friday night when you're being led by a more youthful, pubby audience, but during the day people want things that are more straight.They want it to be softer - and that isn't anything to be ashamed of. We've still got a way to go to break down the prejudices about C4."

That's just part of what is rumoured to a "clean sweep" agenda. He talks - deliberately vaguely - of clearing out "areas" of programming "which are closer to vanity publishing than they should be, where you can't quite think why anyone would want to see this programme", about rebuilding team spirit and shoring up the channel's strengths, be it US imports like NYPD Blue or home-grown hits like Father Ted. "I'm probably more hands-on than most people who've occupied this job. For the first six months, that'll unsettle people or rub them up the wrong way. But I've got to do it."

One thing already done is the non-renewal of the arts supremo Waldemar Januszczak's contract when it comes up in August. "Well, he's been at the channel for something like eight years and I think it's time, really, in the arts perhaps more than any other area, to look to new ideas. ... When I was looking at the output, I wanted to bring in new blood, people who maybe had a slightly different take on the programming. So I made the decision that we shouldn't renew. ... I think it's the right one."

With Januszczak goes his brainchild, Without Walls. "My feeling is that certain things work for periods of time and then they cease to work. One of the flaws about Without Walls is that many programmes that were in it got lost. Shows like J'Accuse, My Generation and The Obiturary Show [which Cosgrove's production company made]. ... That sometimes damaged the shows that were in it, because it tried to hard to be a flagship. And I wondered if anyone out there was demanding a flagship arts programme."

With less than two months on the job, Cosgrove won't be drawn into any other specifics. His role, he says, is more one of management, of making sure the commissioning editors know what they are looking for rather than signing up programmes himself.

Above his desk are boxes brimming with 600 proposals for new show formats, a response to a tender document sent out a couple of weeks earlier. Somewhere in there, he says, are five great shows, but he has no idea what the content will be. His aim is to wean producers from the kind of "clippings culture", where they take a current news story and work it up into a proposal, and get them thinking more about new ways of presenting entertainment. "Don't Forget Your Toothbrush was one of our most successful formats." He believes that the most successful things in print journalism are clever devices. "I tend to read these more than some of the bigger, cerebal pieces. Formats are a great currency. Audiences like them because they know what to expect."

Where does this leave the channel's charter? Cosgrove says he's committed to the remit to provide an alternative, but "because Channel 4 is a product of the early Eighties, the remit became frozen in a moment of isms: multiculturalism, feminism, etc. But they're not enshrined in the law any more than bareback riding. What we're expected to do is offer experiences to audiences who are not served elsewhere."

He likens his boss, Michael Grade, to Coronation Street's Mike Baldwin, "a flash southern git", while Grade in turn calls his yobbish number two "Rab C Cosgrove". But although his sympathies will remain with the underdog, the role of the maverick is one that he'll find harder to play.

Cosgrove still wears his loafers, jeans and wool check shirt, but his new job brings with it a seat on the board and hanging behind his office door is the grey suit he wears to meetings. It's an Armani. "It's Emporio, though," he says defensively, as if buying from the designer's slightly cheaper diffusion range protects him from charges of Birtist dress. "I'm still trying to be a cheapskate." And, for the first time, he laughs a little uneasily.

STUART COSGROVE: NOTES FROM A CAREER

Brought up on the Latham estate on the outskirts of Perth, Stuart Cosgrove started his TV career as an academic. In his mid-twenties, he could be found teaching film and television at Reading University and at the West London Institute, where he became the youngest head of department in Britain.

He moved on to a staff job at New Musical Express, where he championed hip hop, funk and the emerging dance culture at a time when only indie rock was considered worthy of attentention. (Former NME contributor Barney Hoskins records the time in his novel The Lonely Planet Boy, in which Cosgrove appears thinly disguised as Dave Duncan, Marxist leader of the paper's hip hop/soul boy contingent).

He returned to Scotland in 1989 to set up his own TV company, Big Star In A Wee Picture, with partner Don Coutts, where he produced shows such as Halfway To Paradise, The Obituary Show and Walk on the Wild Side, before being lured to Channel 4 as head of independent film and video production.

His late night sex strand, The Red Light Zone, caused apoplexy in parts of the press but proved popular with viewers, if a little disappointing for those who tuned in expecting the wall-to-wall pornography.

He still returns home to Glasgow every weekend, where he spends Saturday moonlighting for BBC Radio with the hugely popular satirical football show Off The Ball.

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