The commissioner that fully opened the window of 'Operatunity'

Jan Younghusband continues her quest to popularise arts as entertainment on Channel 4
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The Independent Online

The winners of Operatunity, Channel 4's unlikely hit talent show for aspiring opera singers, now have recording contracts. Many of the stars of its follow-up, Musicality, have become professional performers in the West End. So, having established herself as something of a talent-spotter in the world of music, Jan Younghusband, Channel 4's commissioning editor for arts, is now turning her attention to theatre and ballet.

The winners of Operatunity, Channel 4's unlikely hit talent show for aspiring opera singers, now have recording contracts. Many of the stars of its follow-up, Musicality, have become professional performers in the West End. So, having established herself as something of a talent-spotter in the world of music, Jan Younghusband, Channel 4's commissioning editor for arts, is now turning her attention to theatre and ballet.

In a series provisionally entitled The Play's the Thing, the channel will search for a new playwright, and commission a new play to run for several months in a West End theatre. And another series, Ballet-Hoo, will follow a group of young people in Birmingham in a two-year project with the Birmingham Royal Ballet to create a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Younghusband would love it if they found a real-life Billy Elliot, capable of winning a place at the Royal Ballet School.

"I see my role very much as an impresario," she says, with a confidence much boosted by the success of Operatunity and Musicality, which were widely predicted to be disasters.

" The Play's the Thing will combine everything Channel 4 is about: commissioning new work; encouraging new talent; inspiring an interest in the subject. By the end of the series, you will know how to put on a play. I want to put forward the enthusiasm of the theatre and the incredible family of people who are deeply committed to it, but also the jeopardy of the business."

Having worked in theatre and opera alongside directors including Peter Hall and Richard Eyre for 15 years before moving into television, it matters to Younghusband that her programmes prove positive for the arts. She is thrilled, for example, that the musical Chicago boosted its takings by £60,000 a week after featuring in Musicality.

"I don't just want to make arts programmes that speak on television, but arts programmes that speak in the community where they belong," she says. "So we're not replacing the real thing - quite the opposite. We're saying, 'This is the theatre and you need to go to it; it's a wonderful thing'."

After a rough patch, she thinks the arts on television are booming. "There was a big panic when BBC4 opened - that this was the beginning of the arts being marginalised and being put into a box in the corner. No doubt about it, things have moved off BBC1 and BBC2, but I think that's changing [again], which is a good thing. All of us need healthy competition. There's still a corner to fight with the arts on television. But I think if you make really great programmes, they can play in the main schedule alongside everything else and people will watch them."

She claims it is the response of the viewers that is fuelling her ambitions, and points out that even programmes with comparatively small audiences can be seen as successful compared with how many people might see a performance live.

Channel 4's film of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer was seen by around 600,000 viewers, but that is "a three-year run in the West End". It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and is still being screened around the world, yet had received perhaps a maximum 20 performances in opera houses. "Now I can't imagine how many people have seen it," Younghusband says.

New projects in the pipeline include working with the director of Klinghoffer, Penny Woolcock, who wants to stage the book of Exodus in Margate, casting members of the Kent resort's immigrant population and seeking input from artists, including Tracey Emin, the town's most famous daughter. Younghusband has co-commissioned a piece about Colonel Gaddafi with the English National Opera, and a new opera for television from the composer Judith Weir. She is planning a series on bad architecture, which will end with the most hated building being demolished, and a series of late-night slots of more shocking material.

Asked how much she has to spend on all this, Younghusband, who has worked at Channel 4 since 1999, looks genuinely at a loss. The amount has been rising year on year, but she now commissions the good ideas as she finds them, she says. Eventually, Younghusband says her budget is probably £6m or £7m this year.

That's to say, enough financial clout for this television impresario to leave a lasting impression in theatreland and the arts.

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