Ben Frow is bringing real passion to Channel 5. Andrew Billen discovers a TV executive like no other
Ben Frow is not as other directors of programmes. They tend to be sober, jargon-ridden and cautious – at least when speaking to me. They talk of "passion" but rarely show it: steady as the ratings sink or, occasionally, rise. Frow is funny, camp and outspoken, easily bruised and easily enthused.
He was obviously not what Richard Desmond, the Daily Express publisher and, for four years, owner of Channel 5, was expecting either, when he summoned him for a job interview in 2012.
"His opening words to me were, 'Fuck me, you're short.' I said: "Not that short.' And he said: 'And you're a poofter, too.' And I said: 'I'm a short poofter and I'm very good at my job.'
"And I just thought, 'You know what? That's great. I know exactly how I have to perform.' There is no room for vulnerability with Richard."
He even says he misses his old boss. Frow is dressed in a black designer suit. For the time being, despite Viacom's takeover of Channel 5 last year, his office remains at Desmond's Northern & Shell headquarters.
I am almost as interested in how Frow, a former costume designer who boasts of having rinsed Judy Finnigan's tights on This Morning, got on as head of features under Tim Gardam at Channel 4 in the early 2000s.
Now principal of an Oxford college, Gardam may be the most ascetic intellectual ever to have reached the heights of television. Frow commissioned for him Property Ladder and Death of a Porn Star.
"I loved Tim. He is probably the greatest mentor of my entire career," he says. "They used to call him pointy head because he's so clever. And I am so un-clever but really instinctive. We had this very bizarre meeting in the middle."
It all suggests to me that Frow is much easier to work with than he thinks he is and that, despite his protests to the contrary, he can play the "political nice game".
That said, if you are Frow's boss, as Paul Dunthorne, Channel 5's Chief Operating Officer, is now, you need to be prepared for the occasional onslaught.
"I did shout at my boss a couple of weeks ago, yes. In fact, I shouted a few times. About once a year I have an hour where I vent. And I said, 'Thank-you for that. I'll see you again in another year.'
"I sort of store up a year's worth of anxiety and frustration, and, God love him, he sits there and looks at me and just takes it all."
As an emotional man, Frow was prepared for volatility when Viacom bought Channel 5 in May 2014.
The transition has, however, turned out to be painless. The new owner has bought into Frow's vision much as Desmond had, but with the bonus of wanting to put in money rather than take it out.
No one, he says, is giving him an extra £100m to spend, but money is around for big buys such as Gotham or to back a hunch that will enhance "ratings, revenue or reputation".
On the day he took over from Jeff Ford, Frow addressed staff and told them that the station was positioned somewhere between C4 and ITV2.
"Psychologically, we had to make a decision. Did we want to be a really big digital channel and compete with the E4s and the ITV2s, and so on, or did we want to be one of the big five?
"And I said, 'Let's be one of the big five. You know, we are one of the big five. We just need to up our game a little bit.'"
An early indication of that was his commissioning of Suspects, an own-grown police procedural to sit among Channel 5's many crime imports.
He has scheduled history programmes, disguising the Plantagenets as Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty, and plenty of "benefits" documentary series, such as On Benefits and Proud. Frow says that this is a subject that "resonates" with his viewers, although he thinks it may be time to pull back.
He admits ratings are challenged when one or other version of Big Brother is not running. Hardest to get right are the "grunt" programmes: returnable, reliable show such as The Dog Rescuers, The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door, Britain's Horror Homes and GPs: Behind Closed Doors.
Despite the decline in availability of the American bankers CSI and NCIS, Channel 5 was last year the only major UK commercial channel whose ratings did not decline. ABC1 and 16-34 audiences actually grew. The year started with the channel's best ever January and February. The station is, he says, "competitive", "funny", "self-deprecating", "opportunistic" and "very cheeky".
With Viacom – the owner of MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon – comes opportunity. The reality show 10,000 BC, in which Brits tried to survive in the "stone age" – beset with productions problems, incidentally – was aired on Channel 5 with a spin-off, Meet the Stoners, airing on MTV.
The arrangement worked, says Frow, better for his channel than it did for MTV.
He is working on a two-year strategy with Jill Offman at Comedy Central to bring scripted comedy back to Channel 5 eight years on from Angelo's, the sitcom set in a greasy spoon.
A comprehensive rebrand this autumn will, he hopes, allow reputation to catch up with content. Says Frow: "The content is good, the ratings are good, the story is good – and yet people still have a misperception of Channel 5, that it's a bit shit. And I'm really fed up with that."
"The content is good, the ratings are good, the story is good – and yet people still have a misperception of Channel 5, that it’s a bit shit"
Although he says that having a £3m drama budget would freak him, greasepaint is in his veins. His grandfather was Bernard Miles, who built the Mermaid Theatre.
One of his sisters, Jo, is a stage manager, the other, Dido, an actress on Doctors (both use Miles as their professional surnames).
His mother, Sally, Bernard's daughter, died of motor neurone disease in 1986. His father, Gerald, who died 10 years ago, was a writer and author, who worked with Hinge and Bracket and wrote a history of pantomime.
They sent their son to St Paul's Cathedral School, which he hated "every single day" because he was neither academic nor posh, although he made friends with Simon Russell Beale, with whom he put on plays that required them both to drag up.
Failing the exam to City of London School, he was sent to a comprehensive in north London, where he was, conversely, bullied for having an accent that was too refined.
"I remember being in the playground and thinking, 'I have to make a decision here. I either put on a cockney accent and merge in or I stay true to who I am.' And I decided to stay true to who I am."
He left school, "wearing pink from head to toe", with an A-level in stage design to tend costumes at the National Theatre ("The first thing I ever did was alter a skirt for Peggy Mount"), studied costume making at the London College of Fashion for a year, went to the Bristol Old Vic and then found work at This Morning.
For a year, he made Finnigan a suit every afternoon from two and half metres of fabric that he would buy at lunchtime, sewing as the journalists set up the next day's programme, absorbing their news values.
For a spell, he was on camera, demonstrating clothes-making, but he decided he was not "pretty enough or confident" to be a presenter. "So I decided to go behind the camera, where you have the power."
He moved in 1995 to GMTV and then to the BBC in Manchester, where he worked on Wipeout and Wogan's Web, before arriving at Channel 4 in 1998 as Editor of Leisure Programmes, rising to Head of Features and Factual Entertainment.
He spotted Nigella Lawson when she was a guest on Nigel Slater's Real Food but it took him a year to get her on screen in her own show, Nigella Bites. Objectors said that she was a woman, posh and from London.
"And I said: 'She is a woman. She's curvy. She's had tragedy and difficulties in her life. No woman will resent Nigella. They will just love her.' And I was so proud of that show. It was my first real, pure commission."
Other cookery programmes, including Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, followed and a spate of property porn shows.
"I did shout at my boss a couple of weeks ago, yes. In fact, I shouted a few times"
Frow left for his first stint at Channel 5 in 2004 after Kevin Lygo made the reverse move. "I don't think I was Kevin Lygo's type of person. But I didn't feel I had to leave. I had done a really good job and I was ready for a new challenge."
As Controller of Features and Entertainment at 5, he developed programmes such as The Farm and The Hotel Inspector, but left in a clear-out of staff in 2007.
He joined TV3 in Ireland as Director of Programming – "I wanted to prove that I was good and they shouldn't have got rid of me. I do bear grudges.
"The first year was tough, the years two, three and four were fantastic and year five was bloody. It was simply gruesome."
A change of personnel had made it "pretty clear" that his time was up. The reason that he no longer burns scented candles in his office is that he never again wants to mistake a workspace for home.
The day his resignation was announced in October 2012, he got the call from Channel 5, which was saying goodbye to Jeff Ford. Coincidentally, Ford would then take Frow's old job at TV3.
Frow lives in north London with his civil partner, Nigel Boyd. They met at the National in 1990 but Boyd, a movie costumier, returned from 18 years in the US only last year – "We had never really lived together before."
How's it going? "It's challenging. I wish I had a two-bedroom flat."
Surely a man of his distinction should live somewhere bigger? "I made some mistakes."
In property? "Yes – for all my property programmes."
Every day, he goes past the house of his opposite number at Channel 4, Jay Hunt, who famously took exception to claims that Channel 5 had beaten Channel 4 in the ratings.
"It is like a knife in my heart," he confesses. "It is the house that I want to live in."
There is nothing personal in this. Both feeling that life is too short for feuds, he and Channel 4's Chief Creative Officer lunched recently.
"We both talked about the jobs we were in. We have to wiggle our finger in the air and ask, 'What is coming down? What do people want? What is the country thinking about? What are viewers going to be engaged with in nine months' time?'"
And, in that sense, Ben Frow is exactly like every director of programmes: someone with an awful lot resting on his finger's best guesses.
How now, Ben Frow?
Ben Frow, Director of Programmes, Channel 5
Born London, 14 July 1961
Parents Gerald Frow, writer, and Sally Miles, daughter of character actor Bernard Miles
Brought up London and Steeple Bumpstead, Essex
Education St Paul's Cathedral School; Woodberry Down Comprehensive, north London; London College of Fashion (studied theatre costume)
Civil partner Nigel Boyd
First job National Theatre costume department
1990 Dresser for Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan on This Morning
1995 Senior Producer, GMTV
1997 Executive Producer, BBC
1998 Editor of Leisure Programmes, Channel 4
2003 Head of Features and Factual Entertainment, Channel 4
2004 Controller of Features and Entertainment, Channel 5
2007 Director of Programming, TV3 in Dublin
2013 Director of Programmes, Channel 5
Hits Nigella Bites, Property Ladder, How Clean Is Your House
Misses From House To Home (C4), Britain's Biggest Primary School (C5)
Faith Buddhist. 'I chant for a tax rebate from the tax man'
Hobbies An animal lover; owns a Westie-Retriever cross called Dorothy Parker
Watching 24 Hours in A&E and Bake Off. And Poldark because his partner does. 'We go: "That bodice is so badly made'"