The producer formerly known as Prince

A new satirical TV soap sounds fun, but far more interesting is the man in the background: Edward Windsor, the prince who pays his way. Jim White reports
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The Independent Online
For the launch of a new programme, Channel 4 might well have been thrilled at the turn-out. Annie's Bar, a soon-to-be-broadcast satirical soap opera set in the world of the parliamentary backbencher, held an extremely well-attended publicity party in a House of Commons dining room last Friday. Dozens of press and radio reporters (television cameras are banned from the body politic) turned up and drank coffee, dipped mini- sausages in mustard and mingled with actors, directors and Michael Brown MP, parliamentary consultant to the programme. "I couldn't possibly tell you who that character is based upon," Brown confided loudly to the man from the Mail. "But if Peter Mandelson was to see our portrayal, I think he might do one of two things: shake me by the hand or by the throat. Hahaha."

It might make a line, but it was not the real reason why the man from the Mail was there. Unusually for a television programme, it was one of the names buried in the small print of the credits that had drawn the press in such numbers. Annie's Bar is the first major drama from Ardent Productions, whose joint managing director is Prince Edward or, as he is known about the office, Edward Windsor.

Annie's Bar is a weekly soap spread across 16 weeks, with a possible additional five should things go well; it has cost Channel 4 pounds 2m. Its topical content means the show will not be completed until the day before transmission, so no one yet knows what it looks like. "You're right," says Eben Foggitt, Windsor's joint managing director at Ardent. "It is an enormous leap of faith on Channel 4's part." As such, it is the programme that will make or break the notion of the prince who earns his keep.

"Sadly," explained one of Channel 4's press officers, as she fielded yet another inquiry as to where that morning's star attraction might be, "he won't be joining us. He is unavoidably detained elsewhere on personal business. But everyone else from the show is here; would you like to meet the executive producer?"

Unlike his sister-in-law, Prince Edward has long been keen to earn his way through life. After a spell in the Marines, which he found loathsome, the Prince, a keen amateur thespian in his youth, landed a job as production assistant for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company. The cruel rumour at the time was that the most useful thing he did was make the tea. But Edward maintained he got a lot more out of his job, including one of his favourite dining-out anecdotes. After his first day at work, the tale runs, he slumped into a chair beside the Queen and said: "My God, I'm tired! You have no idea what a 10-hour day in the theatre is like." To which, he says, she replied: "Oh, but I have. I've been to the Royal Variety Performance."

Unplugging himself from the Lloyd Webber kettle, Edward branched out with his own stage production company, Theatre Division. When that company crashed, littering the West End with debts of pounds 600,000, the Prince moved into television and Ardent was born on 1 December 1993.

There are, trade legend has it, two ways of setting up as an independent television production company: you either have no money and a good idea; or you have a lot of money, which you spend in pursuit of a good idea. Ardent clearly adopted the latter course.

"In 1981 when Channel 4 started there were literally only a handful of independent companies in Britain," says Foggitt. "Now there are 1,400. It's tough out there. And we looked at the business and noticed that too many small companies were going to the wall because they specialised in one area. We thought it was sensible to staff to a level where we could look at drama, arts and documentary."

Foggitt took control of the drama division, while Windsor concentrated on documentary; Graham Macdonald, once controller of BBC2, joined the pair as head of drama. They soon found that the Windsor name opened doors. "Well, there's no question of that," says Foggitt. "Everyone wants to meet him, but in the end only the quality of the idea delivers the commission."

Indeed, much of the company's time in its first year was spent giving commissioning editors something to talk about at dinner parties ("you'll never guess who we had in this afternoon pitching an idea ..."). But then, meetings and lunch and juggling several projects in the air at the same time are in the nature of independent television production. Every year, a survey undertaken by Price Waterhouse revealed, 48,793 days are spent by independent producers on development: finding an idea, talking it up, then selling it.

"It is a peculiar lifestyle," says Sarah Littlejohn of Broadcast magazine, the trade bible. "It is all about building a relationship, making contacts, establishing rapport. Commissions are often won between friends, and most business is done socially, after hours. You try getting independent producers on the phone before 10am."

Windsor, however, when he is not engaged in royal business, prefers to be in his office in Charlotte Street, London W1, by 8.30am, arriving as discreetly as is possible when one is accompanied by two police bodyguards. Friends and colleagues alike are keen to praise the effort he shows and the manner in which he is prepared to muck in. When he went to the Cannes Television Festival, for instance, an essential sales and schmoozing ground, he flew economy class, stayed in a modest hotel and tried, like most sensible producers, to limit his restaurant bills by filling up on canapes at official receptions.

But graft and parsimony are not enough. The most up-to-date figures available reveal that independent companies earn an average pounds 84,000 an hour from Channel 4 for their wares. After paying actors, camera crew, expenses, tax, VAT, insurance and the other myriad costs of making a television show, there is barely enough left over to meet the cappuccino bill, never mind get rich.

"Television these days is being used to line the pockets of the shareholders of the big broadcast companies," says Dan Patterson of Hat Trick, independent production's great success story. "The margins are being squeezed and squeezed, and the independents are constantly being told to cut their costs."

In the first year of Ardent's life, Edward had a good time (he interviewed Nelson Mandela for a putative documentary series about the Commonwealth) but the company did not win a single commission; like an estimated 25 per cent of all production shops, it registered an annual loss. In its case the loss topped pounds 450,000. Life had become a bit like the plot of Martin Amis's novel Money: spending lots of cash chasing a commission with the slow-dawning realisation that it is you who are picking up the bill. And even when you take home pounds 96,000 a year allowance from your mother (Edward receives nothing from the Civil List), it was quite a bill.

In July last year, Ardent announced a breakthrough. Windsor would front a short series on the esoteric game of real tennis for Channel 4.

"I made the mistake of saying I'd do the whole programme myself," he said of it, clearly thrilled that he had. "Which meant finding a sponsor, writing the pitch for the commissioning editors, then producing and presenting it. This first production is crucial to our success and, as with any small business, the first three years are vital. I think we've made an encouraging start, but it's a cut-throat world out there."

Soon after that, Ardent scored again. In a joint production with Meridian for ITV, Windsor was asked to write and present a history of the Duke of Windsor (a brave move domestically, given that he is engaging with a subject his granny regards with such venom). Called Edward on Edward, it is nearing completion with a view to being screened in the spring.

The depressing thing for Edward about those commissions, however, is that they relied entirely on his celebrity. A series about real tennis, a sport played by fewer than 2,000 people worldwide, could scarcely be justified by the broadcaster unless it came with the added value of a royal presenter. Equally, a series on the Duke of Windsor by a historical broadcaster with no track record would scarcely have been taken up unless the broadcaster in question had the unique qualification of being one of the family. Far from being the vehicle that allowed the Prince to find a proper role for himself in life, Ardent looked worryingly like a vanity publishing operation.

Which is why Annie's Bar is so vital: it is an Ardent production taken up on the merits of the idea, not the royal connection.

The omens are good: a strong cast (including Sarah Jones, daughter of Davy Jones of the Monkees), writers of calibre (Andy Armitage, who wrote Starlings) and a nicely ironic take on the Commons (the series is filmed in a former Victorian lunatic asylum) promise well. Otherwise engaged on his own project, Windsor has limited his input to attending an early read-through of the first script at which, apparently, he behaved like Gus in Drop the Dead Donkey ("imagine I'm not here, folks") and laughed uproariously at some of the weaker jokes.

While he did not make it to the launch party, his name is registered in Companies House as director of the firm and he will have to reap the bad publicity if the programme fails. Thus he is entitled to enjoy it if it works. Not least because, if it does, he will become the first Windsor in history to make his own way in the world.

'Annie's Bar' begins on Channel 4 on 1 February.