Anorak with a cutting edge
Close-up: Independents' day beckons as a new player gears up for a place in television's major league. Andrew Baker reports
Sunday 06 October 1996
See him in his office, though, a converted church in north London, still in jeans and stubble but this time with Bernie Ecclestone on one line and a Channel 4 bigwig on the other, and Neil Duncanson stands out from the crowd. He is the managing director of Chrysalis Sport, the television company that brought us the Graham Taylor "Do I not like that" documentary, that tomorrow presents a similarly revealing portrait of Paul Gascoigne on Channel 4, that produces Rugby Special for the BBC, Spanish football and fishing for Sky and, in its biggest project so far, is about to take over grand prix motor racing coverage for ITV. "I'm a sports nut," he said, sipping a much-deserved early-morning cuppa. "I'm a sports anorak." He needs to be.
When Duncanson joined Chrysalis five years ago as a freelance producer, the sports department employed three people. Now there are 50, with more arrivals imminent to handle the grand prix coverage, and recruitment is one of his biggest problems. "It's a very time-consuming process. But I hire everyone, and I take inordinate care over it. There is a limited number of good people around, though, so we use the MTV model, bring in bright kids and train them ourselves so they don't pick up bad habits."
One of the reasons that there are so few good people around is that the industry of putting sport on television is booming. Channels want viewers, viewers want sport, sport wants money. But the orbits of this triply symbiotic relationship are erratic: for instance, some of the money that Chrysalis Sport makes is spent by Loftus Road Ltd, where Duncanson has recently joined Mr Chrysalis, Chris Wright, on the board that oversees Queen's Park Rangers football club and Wasps rugby union club. "It's like being in a Lewis Carroll story," he says. "Stepping through the mirror to the other side. It's very interesting."
But when he steps through this sheet of glass - a mirror or a screen, depending on your point of view - does he take viewers' interests with him? Is there a conflict of some kind between producing Rugby Special and being on the board of a rugby club? "Put it this way," he said. "There is a big running feature on Rugby Special at the moment that features the same club every week. You know which club? Saracens. Chris Wright is mighty pissed off about that."
Duncanson's reputation as a straight dealer is rare in the crowded shark pond of British television. BBC executives are reluctant to go on the record praising one independent when they have so many to keep happy, but anonymously they consider the Essex man a true gent. "There are a lot of two-faced shits in this business," as one BBC operative put it. "Neil is not one of them."
He is held in high regard too at Sky, where his former boss at Chrysalis, Mark Sharman, is deputy head of sport. "Neil gets on with everybody, from the tea lady to the chairman," Sharman said. "That has always been his best asset. But he is creative as well. Ideas are the currency by which you live in the world of the television independent. Chrysalis have great ideas and deliver on them."
As Sharman pointed out, Duncanson's ideas tend to be big. He it was who suggested the Taylor documentary, when all around said they would never get permission. He again who came up with the idea of getting Paul Gascoigne to present programmes about Italian football, an initial commission that blossomed into a frequently fruitful relationship with Gazza: The Fightback, which followed the player's recovery from injury, and Gazza's Italian Diaries.
The latest Gascoigne documentary, like the Taylor programme a part of Channel 4's Cutting Edge series, has already received more than its fair share of advance publicity. But a more interesting question than "How many pints?" is "Why does such an apparently volatile and vulnerable figure allow cameras to get so close to him?"
The answer, according to Duncanson, is a matter of trust. "Contrary to the public perception of his character, Paul is now a very private person. He has a small circle of loyal friends, and he doesn't need to make any new ones. He just doesn't want to work with anyone else apart from us. He knows he is not going to get a public relations effort, he doesn't want that. But he also knows that we are not going to turn him over."
Duncanson's next fly-on-the-wall project will also involve a high degree of trust. He has managed to persuade Jackie Stewart to allow cameras to follow every stage in the setting up of his new grand prix team. Stewart is the opposite of the guileless Gazza, having perfected the art of public relations over many years since his retirement as a driver, but Duncanson remains confident of candid results. "We've got guaranteed access to drivers and sponsors," he declared. "The whole nine yards."
Attempting to pierce Stewart's immaculately maintained carapace will be an interesting spin-off for the Chrysalis team from next year's big project, which is to supply ITV with the grand prix coverage for which it has paid so many millions.
This is a technical and stylistic challenge made more difficult by the fact that the vast majority of regular viewers were more than happy with the job that the BBC were doing. "Grand Prix coverage is a big step for us," Duncanson admitted. "It will be tough because the established programme had a loyal following. But we need to pull off a balancing act, retaining something from the past - Murray Walker, for instance - allied to other ideas that we have. The whole circus that follows grand prix racing around is fascinating, and it seems crazy not to see it. We want to provide some journalistic insight into all that."
There are other projects bubbling under: a diversification into radio work, for instance, and searching for new opportunities overseas. But one area that Duncanson has had to pull out of is active participation in the company's weekly five-a-side football tournament, courtesy of a Gazza-style injury. "I destroyed my knee," he winces at the memory. "Pulled all three ligaments off the bone." So football is out - but he is resisting the final descent into executive, middle-aged complacency. "I'm not playing golf. I'm just not. I'd rather go bungee jumping."
Four you watch without knowing
TWI: Huge world-wide operation with 70 offices in 30 countries. Package big events (i.e. Wimbledon, Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race) for world-wide distribution; compile sports news programmes for ESPN. In UK: Cricket highlights for BBC; American Football Big Match and Blitz (Channel 4); Golf PGA European Tour and Solheim Cup (Sky); Snooker (ITV); High Five, extreme sports (Channel 4); Oddballs (ITV).
Venner TV: Badminton (Sky and international broadcast); Cycling, Tour de France, Leeds Classic and British Mountain Bike Tour cycling (Channel 4), World Track Championships (Granada/Eurovision).
Three on Four: Channel 4 racing (Channel 4).
API: International work, i.e. Wills Cricket World Cup, World Judo Championships. For UK: Paralympic Games (BBC); Snooker World Championships (BBC); Women's Golf European Tour (Sky); Boxing (ITV).
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