Interviews – Media – Graham Stuart

Graham Stuart first brought the hit Channel 4 TV show So Graham Norton to our screens while controller of entertainment at United News & Media. In September 2000 he and Norton set up their own independent television company, So Television, to continue making the award-winning show and develop new comedy. He offers his advice on making a career in the television industry.

So talented

How did you come to meet Graham Norton?
We met about four years ago while I was working at United News & Media and doing a lot of talent searching. He was a friend of a friend of mine. In this business the talent pool’s a shallow pool and you just hope you’ll meet somebody who has got it. And it happens very very rarely, and Graham’s got it.

How does the partnership work?
Graham’s from a similar background to me. Bizarrely for southern Ireland, he’s Protestant, and from the kind of Presbyterian background I’m from on the east coast of Scotland. We coincide on our work ethic and our attitude.

I’ve worked with a lot of stars and presenters in my time, but Graham’s different. He’s here every day and is as involved as anyone. He’s got a talent, no-one disputes that, but he also works at it and people can learn from him.

I work with him and put him in the right shows, but if I go under a bus, his career goes on. If he goes under a bus, we’re in deep shit. Talent is everything.

What’s the corporate culture at So Television?
I hate the words corporate culture, but the ethos of the company is creative. We’ve a creative area where the teams come down to talk, not round a table, but on sofas. It’s about being approachable and having the right feel.

What’s the best part of your job?
It’s an incredibly interesting time in the history of media and I like being part of it, feeling a player, albeit in a small way.

In the begininng

How did you get into broadcasting?
I’d done hospital radio and all that stuff and made little movies and things. I went to Aberdeen University which at that time had the finest student broadcasting operation in Europe. I had a BBC job before before I finished my degree, as a studio manager with BBC radio in London.

How did your career progress from there?
The local commercial station was opening up in my home town and I wrote to them saying I would like to be part of it. The next thing I knew I was working nine til twelve five days a week on a music and interviews show and doing four hours of sport on a Saturday. I did 19 hours of presentation a week. It killed me but it was fantastic.

To what extent is working in radio a good place to start?
Local radio used to be the traditional way into the BBC. It gives you a lot of valuable experience and provides, in purely technical terms, a big step to a broadcasting career. But radio’s changing now, it’s more formatted, more computer-driven, even commercial radio. It all sounds the same.

Getting into broadcasting

Is work experience a good way to start a media career?
It can certainly help. Not doing it because it’s a chore, but because you actually like doing it. We’ve a guy on our team who used to do work experience with the show. He was around so much I thought we were paying him. I then discovered he was doing it for free. He’s now a senior researcher. He is brilliant and he made it by being part of it.

How do you go about getting work experience?
It’s about making the right connections. Find out the names of people who make the decisions and then get in touch with them. You have to get the balance right, obviously. If you end up stalking someone that’s not going to work!

What advice do you have for graduates who want to get into broadcasting?
The single most important thing, if you want to be in media, is – and it sounds obvious but isn’t – try watching a wee bit of television. I’ve sat with very qualified people, who have wanted to get into it and talked to them…and they’ve never watched any television. Television’s not very cool, it’s not very interesting and it’s not what they do. And more than that, they have not watched the television that the person across the table from them, in other words me, makes. That’s a big, big mistake. And everybody does it. The attitude is, and it’s a fatal one, ‘what we make isn’t really what we’re interested in’.

What are the most important characteristics if you want to be in media?
Foremost you have to be interested and committed and you have to be creative. If you’re brilliant and talented then you’ll go into the fast track, But if you’re like everyone else, plug away and the most important thing is, make yourself a commodity. It’s a selling thing. No-one teaches you how to do that, but selling yourself is a real art and you need to learn it in this industry.

What’s the most significant lesson you’ve learnt about TV production?
The most important thing is to know how to manage people. That’s where all operations, big and small, have their problems. You’ve got to know how to find the right people, make them work together, make it a good place to work, and manage them.

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