The RTS learns how the influential indie helped reinvent entertainment genres.
Over the past couple of decades, production company Monkey has made some of TV’s most innovative entertainment shows. Love or loathe it, no one can doubt the pioneering success of, say, Made in Chelsea. It’s a show that, along with Lime Pictures’ The Only Way Is Essex, rewrote the script for reality television.
Monkey, aka Monkey Kingdom, celebrates its 21st birthday this year. The indie’s founders, Will Macdonald and David Granger, had previously run Chris Evans’s production company, Ginger Television. In the mid-1990s, Macdonald even found fleeting on-screen fame as Evans’s sidekick on Channel 4’s boundary-pushing TFI Friday.
However, Ginger, which was sold to the Scottish Media Group (later STV) in 2000, was “coming apart”, recalled Macdonald.
He and Granger had enjoyed their autonomy at Ginger and wanted to keep it. The duo told the RTS that, although they had been successful at getting ideas such as Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush on TV, they were less sure about how to set up an indie.
“I’d love to say there was a master plan but, like all good things, it was by default,” admitted Macdonald. Monkey “started off with me and [Granger] on a park bench, and we bumbled our way through setting up the company”.
Monkey’s first success – the hidden-camera show Make My Day, for Channel 4 – gave unsuspecting people the greatest day of their lives, whether it was fulfilling a long-held dream or meeting a celebrity hero.
“The show is a really good reflection… of the sort of television we like to make,” said Granger. “It’s a mischievous format, it plays in real life and it does a lot with talent. We were told it was impossible [to make].”
‘Posh people were always lambasted on TV… but the people we were seeing were cool and interesting’
Another early series, Channel 5 prank show Swag, tempted the public to commit a crime and then gave them their comeuppance; the action was again filmed on hidden cameras. The idea came from work associate – and movie director – Guy Ritchie, who had witnessed thieves making off with a bike belonging to his then wife, Madonna.
Made in Chelsea, which made its debut on E4 in 2011, gave Monkey its first big hit. “We had this idea for a show called ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’,” recalled Macdonald, based on a young woman who did her supermarket shop in a speedboat.
“Posh people were always lambasted on television – no one liked them, they were always portrayed as idiots, but the people we were seeing were cool and interesting,” said Granger. “We made the decision to [film their] love lives, relationships and friendships – and not have them just waving [their] money… in the face of the viewer…. People did warm to them massively and, 10 years later, it’s still going, and stronger than ever.”
Since their time at Ginger, Macdonald and Granger had sold formats and made shows in the US. But, a decade into Monkey’s life, frustration with interference from US partners was growing. “Every time we sold a show out there, we had to co-produce it with another company. That’s not always ideal,” said Macdonald.
The experience on one show in particular, Man vs Cartoon (in which scientists tried to recreate Wile E Coyote’s ridiculous contraptions from Looney Tunes), was particularly irritating. “We handed it over to this American producer and it didn’t really work. We started to realise that we needed to be as creative and involved as we are here.” In 2010, Monkey was acquired by NBCUniversal International Studios, which, Macdonald says, gave the indie creative control over its shows in the US.
Over the past decade, Monkey has continued to thrive, producing the RTS award-winning The Real Housewives of Cheshire and Don’t Hate the Playaz.
Its newest series is Sky One’s Dating No Filter, based on a show that first aired on E! in the US. The result is something like the love child of Gogglebox and First Dates, and features pairs of comics commentating on blind dates.
The comedians include Josh Widdicombe, Tom Allen, Joel Dommett and Judi Love, with the latter two appearing at the RTS event. “You’re sat down with your friend, taking the mick. I literally do that when I watch First Dates anyway. That’s what’s beautiful about the format – it’s simple,” said Dommett.
“The dynamic of the pairings is really important.… We wanted people who had established relationships and, frankly, could take the piss out of each other as well. The self-deprecation and honesty around disastrous dates is really important because we’ve all had them,” added Granger.
Dating No Filter and Monkey’s other shows have continued to be made during the Covid-19 lockdowns. “We’ve learned that we’re incredibly resilient,” said Samantha Lawrence, who joined the indie as Managing Director in 2017. “The three of us are not very good at not working and making shows. For our own sanity, we had to keep going.”
As Monkey enters its third decade, Macdonald is hoping to make “big series on big networks” for a media world that, he says, is consolidating into “fewer, bigger, better” outfits.
The large US streamers, he added, are creating global markets for shows: “Some shows we’re making in the UK for the UK and some shows in the US for the US, but we’re also thinking how we can [bring them together].
“There are also some shows that we’re still determined to make that sit on scraps of paper from 20 years ago because, in the end, a good idea needs to find the right time.”
Report by Matthew Bell. The RTS event ‘Monkey: 21 in 2021’ was held on 18 March and chaired by journalist Caroline Frost.