Survival can be murder

Twenty years in TV has given Lis Howell ample material for her first novel. She talks to Meg Carter about wr iting and UK Living
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Lis Howell has a startling ability to reinvent herself. A former managing editor of Sky News, she is perhaps better known for her ill-fated stint at GMTV, where she created the celebrated "F-Factor". She then developed the concept that become UK Living, the satellite channel for women, where she is director of programmes. Now she has turned novelist.

Ms Howell's authorial debut, After the Break, is published this month - the first fruit of a three-novel deal struck with Hodder & Stoughton. It is a story of murder and betrayal set in a fictitious northern ITV station. But above all, she says, it is "atale of coming through".

Kate Wilkinson, once a top TV producer, has fled London for the relative safety of Northern TV, after her failed affair with the power hungry ITV boss, Frank Rattle. But Rattle reappears on the scene when his own company, Londonvision, makes a takeover bid for Northern. Banished to the night shift of Your Morning, a national daytime TV show, Kate begins to uncover a web of deceit.

Pure fantasy, Ms Howell insists. "No character is based on anybody real." Londonvision is the capital's third ITV licensee and Northern an invented fusion of elements from Border TV to BBC Midlands. But the intricacies of the ruthless TV world, its offi c e politics and clashing egos, is drawn from personal experience. And, she confesses, the feeling of bitterness is very real.

"Within television, the capacity for unethical behaviour is almost limitless," she says. "I have always been interested in the idea of unaccountable evil. The idea that sane people can get away with it. And, to a certain extent, that's what happened to me." So is her book a form of revenge? "Absolutely not. People don't want to read a grudge book. They want something true to them. After the Break is about coming through after being betrayed."

Besides, she says, she has always wanted to write. "Fifteen years ago I tried a romantic novel, but it was a disaster, which is inevitable if you write a format you don't like." But she has always liked thrillers. "Crime is the nearest one can get to truly asexual writing," she says. "It is genuine manipulation of the plot and the human condition."

She began her novel after her abrupt departure from GMTV two years ago. She resigned when GMTV had been on air only six weeks, following criticism surrounding the breakfast station's troubled launch. Poor audience figures put pressure on GMTV to change its formula. Ms Howell still seems to see herself as the scapegoat.

With significantly less than the £200,000 pay-off rumoured at the time, she immediately joined Good Morning with Anne & Nick, which, she admits, provided the inspiration for the Your Morning production office. Working a four-day week, she began to write."My self-respect was at rock bottom, so I had nothing to lose and what I wrote was unpretentious," she says. And with more than 20 years in the business, she found significant material to draw on.

Lis Howell began her broadcasting career in 1973 at BBC Radio Leeds. Three years later she joined Border TV as a reporter/presenter and from 1978 worked at Granada and Tyne Tees TV. In 1984 she took off 18 months when her daughter, Alex, was born. But by1986 she was back at work, as head of news at Border TV.

While at Border she was named co-winner, with ITN, of an award for coverage of the Lockerbie air disaster. "After that, I was offered a lot of things, but Sky News was different - like Border it was on the fringes. I've always been better in an environment where I've had to fight." She joined Sky News as managing editor in 1989.

In charge of 150 staff, Ms Howell oversaw coverage of several big stories, including the Gulf war. The working environment was youthful, positive, even bullish, she says. "You were judged by what you did. If you were feisty and made a noise, you got on well."

It was the chance to be a pioneer that led her to join GMTV as director of programmes in October 1991. But she soon realised she had been mistaken: "All we did was get TV-am rewritten."

Pragmatism ruled, she says, not vision. She saw the writing on the wall even before launch. But that was small consolation. " The main thing is to survive. I did. But I'm still angry."

In contrast, UK Living, part-owned by Pearson and Thames Television, is a vision that survived launch and retained its integrity, she says, thanks to management, led by its chairman, Richard Dunn (also Thames Television chief executive).

Ms Howell joined the cable and satellite broadcaster in April 1993, the channel launched the following September (see box). "Between January and December 1994, it doubled its ratings," she says. "The real judge is the audience, and the audience is votingwith its zapper."

Ms Howell has no regrets about turning her back on ITV and has little desire to return. "I can't imagine a situation where that would arise now. Besides, I was never really `in' ITV. I happen to believe that a lot of women work best outside a conventional framework," she says. "Rather than bashing your head against the glass ceiling, it's possibly better to go around it."

Her desire is to see UK Living develop as a growing force. "I'd like to set up another channel, maybe `daughter of UK Living', although not quite yet." There is still much to do - and two more novels to write.

The events of the last few days are proof that she is unlikely ever to run out of inspiration. Last week, the former LWT managing director Greg Dyke (one-time GMTV chairman) was appointed chairman and chief executive of Pearson TV.

How does Ms Howell react to the possibility that Mr Dyke will again become her boss? "If it were to happen, I could almost relish the challenge".

`After the Break' is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99.