Richard Hopkins: Producer of 'Big Brother' and 'Strictly Come Dancing'
Wednesday 11 January 2012
Richard Hopkins embraced the age of reality television. He steered Big Brother to both fame and infamy before launching Strictly Come Dancing, then took that format to the US and more than 30 other countries as Dancing with the Stars. The idea of teaming celebrities with professional ballroom dancers to impress judges and viewers caught on quickly after the BBC first screened Strictly Come Dancing in 2004.
The programme's title effectively fused the long-running Come Dancing, which had finally bitten the dust the previous decade after almost 50 years, with the 1992 Australian film Strictly Ballroom, whose maverick young dancers challenge the fuddy-duddy rules and make the hobby relevant to a new generation. Hopkins, then creative head of the BBC's format entertainment department, devised Strictly Come Dancing after the idea, from another executive, Fenia Vardanis, was passed on to him – although he was initially unsure about reviving Come Dancing until realising the potential glamour of the new show.
"A mix of professionals and celebrities would be perfect," he recalled. "There would be the fish-out-of-water drama, tension, self-discovery and perhaps even a twinkle of romance between the couples to keep viewers hooked. The series would also have a compelling narrative as viewers watched famous contestants struggling during rehearsals or finding delight in their ability to improve their skills."
Hopkins' hunches were right. The programme was not only about the winners – from the news presenter Natasha Kaplinsky to the cricketer Darren Gough and the McFly drummer Harry Judd – but also the losers and also-rans. In 2008, the broadcaster John Sergeant provided drama by consistently being voted last by the judges but being saved by the viewers' votes. Believing that the pitch was almost as important as the programme itself, Hopkins presented the proposal for Strictly to Lorraine Heggessey, Controller of BBC One, accompanied by ballroom dancers. He took the format to the US himself after being told by BBC Worldwide executives that it was unsaleable because it was peculiarly British.
Born in 1964 in Buckinghamshire, where his father owned a scrap metal business, Hopkins attended Bedford School before graduating in English literature from University College, London. After a short time working for a publisher he became a reporter on Kiss FM, then operating as a pirate station in London. He moved to France as a presenter on Sunshine Radio and Skyrock before returning to host shows on WNK and Ocean Sound. Then he returned to Kiss FM, which by then had a licence to broadcast, as a producer.
His creative talents were spotted by the independent production company Planet 24 and he was hired as a researcher, then associate producer, on Channel Four's Big Breakfast, which had been launched in 1992 and was presented by Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin. He then became producer and director of the late-night music, entertainment and style series Hotel Babylon (1996), made by Planet 24 for ITV.
Switching to Wall to Wall Television, he was series producer on Baby Baby (1997), a daily magazine programme aimed at new parents presented by Yvette Fielding and Rowland Rivron. His next project, made by TalkBack for Channel Four, was The 11 O'Clock Show, a satirical late-night programme written and performed on the day of transmission, three times a week, by performers new to television – boosting the careers of Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker. It had been running for two years when Hopkins joined it as producer in 2000.
The same year he was given the chance by Endemol to produce the first series of Big Brother, the British version of a Dutch reality television show. The format – a group of mostly young adults living together for nine weeks, monitored by cameras 24 hours a day, and voting to evict one of their fellow housemates – was not only simple, but conducive to providing dramas and tensions without the need to commission a script and hire actors. Hopkins' voice was heard instructing evictees: "Please leave the Big Brother house."
Big Brother earned public plaudits and critical derision in equal measure, but it was certainly noticed, and Hopkins was beginning to make a name for himself as a producer who was unflappable, no matter what disasters befell him in a live television programme. Before 2000 was out, he had moved back to Planet 24 to revamp The Big Breakfast, this time as executive producer. However, he failed to find the magic formula and left after six months. The programme ended in 2002, having run out of steam.
Moving back to Endemol he produced the game show Fear Factor (2001-03) then Fame Academy (2002-03) for the BBC, seeing it as a mix of Popstars and Big Brother, with a £1m recording contract at stake and "spy" cameras following the contestants. Then he was presented with a new challenge: the BBC hired him to run its format entertainment department (2003-06), desperate to find popular shows for Saturday evenings – even debating whether there was still a demand for entertainment at the weekend. As executive producer he oversaw Mastermind, The Weakest Link and A Question of Sport and, as well as Strictly, was responsible for launching Celebrity Mastermind and Junior Mastermind.
At the BBC, he found himself often competing with David Mortimer, the head of factual entertainment. In the end, they stopped battling for commissions and teamed up, leaving in 2006 to launch their own independent company, Fever Media, as a joint venture with Sony Music. Their first success was the National Lottery gameshow The People's Quiz (2007), which aimed to find the country's leading quiz player. Later, they launched Move Like Michael Jackson (2009) a nationwide search for talented and original dancers.
Before his death, from a brain tumour, Hopkins was finishing work for an American network on Catch, a gameshow based on the fact that all major sports in that country revolve around catching balls – but introducing other items to the mix.
Richard England Hopkins, television producer and executive: born Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire 15 December 1964; married 1988 Cecile Couillet (marriage dissolved; two daughters), 2011 Katy McLachlan (one daughter); died London 7 January 2012.
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