Prime times

Prime times

Tom Gutteridge, one of the world’s most influential TV producers and co-creator of Loveland, talks domestic bliss and mind-boggling business risks with Jane Pikett.

Tom Gutteridge is on the phone. “Remember, there’s Cilla’s dress to sort out as well,” he says just a tad wearily to whoever is on the other end of the line, referring presumably to the wardrobe of the acclaimed Ms Black, presenter of his new TV dating show, Loveland.

I settle down in the waiting area of the Standing Stone Productions office in Newcastle with a couple of back copies of Grazia magazine while he takes another couple of calls, wrestles with the fax machine and apologises profusely.

“So sorry, so sorry, Jess [his amiable assistant] is off sick.

Never had a day off before, and she’s off today when everyone’s in London filming...

Did you say coffee? Oh hell, I’m not sure how you work it.” By contrast, I am relaxed and relishing the prospect of a full-colour celeb fest courtesy of Standing Stone’s well-stocked magazine table while Gutteridge struggles to answer all the phones, work the fax machine (in vain) and keep an eye on his email.

I’m proud to announce that by the time he joins me, I am able to inform him, with the air of a woman who knows exactly what she is talking about, that Jennifer Aniston has lost ten pounds (how do they know?), Cameron Diaz is to marry Ms Aniston’s ex (gosh!) and Angelina Jolie is in hiding after having twins.

Obviously, this is all absolutely fascinating, at least for about five minutes, but as a man who once made his own salacious headlines (he was caught in an LA hotel with a married TV presenter many years ago) I wonder what he thinks of the celebrity culture which his own medium, entertainment TV, has done so much to perpetuate? “Celebrity culture’s fine; I’ve built a large chunk of my career on it,” he says, adding that celebrities have to take the rough with the smooth.

“At my former production company, Mentorn, we were the first to seriously get into entertainment news programmes.

We were totally immersed in it until the mid 90s, when magazines like OK! and Hello! started and the world was swamped.

That’s when I got bored with it.” Celeb news also works far better in print, he asserts.

“Look at that picture of Jennifer Aniston,” he says, picking up the copy of Grazia I have been coveting.

“They’re picking up on her looking miserable, but for all we know she might have been perfectly happy, it’s just the way the camera’s got her.

“I have no problem with the cult of celebrity, so long as they know what they are doing.

It’s not so good when the press intrudes into lives just for the sake of prurience.” It’s a philosophical view from a man whose dalliance in LA all those years ago was interrupted by a 3am phone call from Nigel Dempster, gossip monger of the Daily Mail, who told Gutteridge, ‘we know whom you’re with and, thanks to our front page this morning, so does all of Britain.

Just look out of your hotel window’.

Gutteridge peered round the curtains to find the massed ranks of the Paparazzi outside.

He was forced to make an immediate call home to his wife, before sneaking out of the hotel’s back door to make a shamefaced flight home.

He avoided the Paparazzi that time, but they camped outside his family home for days and he was, he wrote on his Blog recently, absolutely shattered by the experience.

Gutteridge’s Blog in the North (you can find it through www.tomgutteridge.com) is written with a light touch and a searing honesty which had me in tears recently, when he shared his desperate sadness on the occasion of his much-loved dog’s demise.

His readers have also lived through some of the angst Gutteridge and his partner Joanna (Jo) have suffered through IVF, and their joy at her current pregnancy.

We are treated weekly to his deeply personal observations of life with an openness and an honesty that is delightfully beguiling and fully in tune with the gentle, charming soul he is in person.

Having said that, we all have our limits and the day of our interview is clearly a fraught one.

“You should have cancelled me,” I tell him, as the clock ticks to close to 5.30pm (three hours after my arrival) and he asks, ever so gently, if he might be left to get on with things now as Jess is off and the team are all away and, well, he has to go to London tomorrow, and then on to LA, and he is so busy, and …well.

The trip to London the next day is for lunch with Cilla (as you do) and then to catch a plane to LA (ditto).

“Cilla is the queen of dating shows,” he says.

“Probably the best woman presenter there has been in the last 30 years.

She’s personable, she’s great live, she listens to people and she’s professional.” But is TV in general any good these days? “Yes of course, it’s never been better in terms of quality,” he asserts.

“Whether it’s as important as it used to be I don’t know, but it’s still a driver of popular culture, and it still unites the family and the nation.” So what does he watch? “I watch the news most of the time on BBC News 24 and Sky. Jo and I also love American comedies. They’re so well made. We’ve also got a massive feature film library at home because, as a member of the Bafta voting panel, I have to watch just about every film that’s released.

I also watch lots of British TV, if only to see what other people are doing.” He has such a zest for his professional life that he can’t fix on only one highlight in his 35-year career, though winning an Emmy for The Bullion Boys starring David Jason (the biggest award in the world for drama) comes pretty high up the long list of great moments.

At the other end of the scale, he loved doing Space Precinct with Gerry Anderson which, as he says, was never going to win any awards, but was huge fun to do.

“Robot Wars also became massive worldwide, and I loved doing that.

To go past every playground in the country for a while and see all the kids playing it and using the 3, 2, 1 Activate catchphrase, was just brilliant.

“I directed the General Election coverage in 1983 and was in the studio in 1979 when Thatcher got in.

News and current affairs is very important to me.

Somewhere amongst all of this, I directed opera and ballet, and an ice ballet with Torvill and Dean which won a Golden Rose of Montreaux.

“I loved the day that my company, Mentorn, first went into profit, and I loved the day that I sold it.

The high points in my career are many and yes, I am an optimist - you have to be in this industry.” Certainly, it is an industry which demands huge investments of time and money with minimal chance of actually getting your programme to the screen.

“Normally, about one in 50 pitches are shortlisted,” Gutteridge explains.

“Of the shortlist, one in 50 get to the controller.

Of those, 1 in 30 get commissioned and of those, only one in 30 are series and of those, one in five pilots get to series (one in 60 in the US).

“There are 1,700 proper production companies in Great Britain and the BBC works with 276 of them.

Of those 276, only 17 work in entertainment and of those 17, only four, including Standing Stone, are outside London.

Getting any programme to TV is a long and expensive process. We’re doing well. We have sold a game show in the US and are making the pilot in LA now, and we’re making the Loveland pilot in London now also.

“The US pilot is small, but the rewards are great because it’s a daily show.

Since we formed Standing Stone in April 2007, I have made a seven-figure investment to get tothis point, and it is totally high risk.

But I didn’t want to follow the conventional approach and start small here, so we immediately went for a couple of major shows and, if they take off, they will become global brands.

Assuming we get it right, you will see Loveland, or a version of it, on TV throughout the world.” The inspiration for Loveland, a dating show on which contestants are depicted as avatars (animated versions of themselves), came from Tom’s partner Jo, a TV producer originally from LA who now lives with Tom in rural Northumberland.

“She is very good at spotting the next big thing,” he says.

“We were talking about Second Life [the online world where users connect through avatars] and she said that it was, in reality, just a huge dating thing and wouldn’t it be great to do a dating show that used avatars.

At the time I was looking for a studio dating format and we decided to go for it.

Now, after a lot of searching, we have a company in Belgium who can do the technical side and we’ve invested a lot of money in it.

Sky made us the best offer for it, and we own the rights worldwide.” Gutteridge is used to handling a global TV brand, as evidenced by Robot Wars, which at its height was shown in 26 countries simultaneously, including the US and countries throughout Western Europe.

“Once you’ve had the idea, you just make sure you have the paying-in book handy when the cheques start coming in, the rewards are so great,” he says.

“But the risks are huge, and this is a really nerve-wracking business.” Robot Wars took four years to take off, the pilot having cost £95,000 from Gutteridge’s own pocket.

“It was presented to the controller of BBC2 and it took three years to get to the point where they commissioned six episodes,” he says.

“The controller, Mark Thompson, eventually rang me in ’98 and told me he wanted as many as we could make.

We did 26 a year for three years and we made £8 million, which is a good return on that £95,000 investment, but it took a long time to get there.” With that, he jumps up to take another call, which requires him to send a fax, which takes a very long time and several attempts punctuated by much swearing.

“Can you tell that I don’t normally operate this thing?” he says. “Did I tell you Jess is off.

I’m so sorry…” So what’s been his best decision of his career, I ask, as he dots from phone to fax to email inbox.

“Moving to Northumberland with Jo,” he says without hesitation, another aborted fax in hand, “because from the date of that decision almost everything has gone right.

Of nine projects we have pitched, we have had two successes, which is a fantastic success.” But what brought him back? A Tynemouth lad and a former Newcastle RGS boy, he had been away for more than 30 years and one might imagine that the bright lights of London and LA (where he retains homes) might have more of a pull to a man who has lived his life in the bright lights of television.

“The summer before last, I took Jo and my youngest son to Scotland for a holiday.

We were driving back and Jo just said, ‘this is the most beautiful place in the world, you come from here and you’ve never brought me here before’.

My son then said, quite simply, ‘why on earth do you live in Hampstead when you could live here?’ Actually, I was rather proud of our house in Hampstead, which is right by the Heath, but it really is wonderful to be in Northumberland and we have now settled here very happily.” So settled indeed, that Jo is expecting a baby in January (her first, his fifth) and Tom is effusive about his domestic bliss.

“It’s been great professionally and great personally. It’s all working very well,” he says, his broad grin lighting up his wide, boyish face.

In fact, he says, domestically at least, he wants for absolutely nothing. “And professionally, if it all ended now I’d be quite satisfied.

Having said that, there’s always more I want to do, and I still enjoy it all so much so I’ll keep on going.” His biggest mistake? “Getting married last time around! It ended up costing me a fortune.

It cost me more money than most people should ever expect to make in a life time,” he says, with the openness that readers of his blog will recognise.

Is he sure of himself? “I’m too confident. It’s the glass is always half full mentality.

If you thought what you have to do to achieve here you wouldn’t be here.

Robson Green’s drama production company, Coastal Productions, is in Newcastle, but there is not a single entertainment production company in the North East.

In fact, there are virtually no network companies in the whole of the North East.

“There is little production talent here and it’s basically the worst place to set up a production company in the country. Whether it shows huge misjudgement or a ridiculous faith in my own self, I don’t yet know, but the lifestyle is wonderful and I’m more creative here than I ever was in London.

“Now, I really must get on. Will that do?”