Steve Clarke profiles Pact CEO John McVay and discovers how he helped secure Treasury backing for last summer’s Production Restart.
When, 20 years ago, John McVay became CEO of the producers’ lobby group Pact, his first outing to the world of London TV types did not go according to plan. Flying down from his native Edinburgh and travelling to Soho via the Heathrow Express, the train caught fire and he was stuck on the line outside Paddington for two hours. By the time he arrived at the farewell party for his predecessor, he was conspicuously sober while his new colleagues were too merry to give him their proper attention.
Two decades later, McVay is widely regarded as one of the most influential media people in the capital. He was made an OBE in 2019 for his services to the creative industries, and famously wore a kilt to his presentation at Buckingham Palace.
This year, he has been recognised for his work in persuading the Treasury to set up a £500m insurance fund for productions and for helping to create Covid-secure studios and sets. At a stroke, this enabled the UK television sector to restart filming after the pandemic had shuttered much of the industry.
In March, Pact received a Special Award at the RTS Programme Awards while the Broadcasting Press Guild presented him with the Harvey Lee Award, a prize for outstanding contribution to broadcasting.
McVay’s achievements over two decades, the Production Restart initiative aside, have helped pave the way for what is unquestionably the most dynamic independent TV production sector in the world, worth around £3.3bn annually to the British economy.
That McVay has accomplished all this without many of the privileges that most of his peers grew up with is all the more remarkable. What, then, is the knack to successful lobbying?
“Evidence and argument and understanding the situation the politicians are in,” he says matter-of-factly during a Zoom call from his north London home before taking another pull on his e-cigarette. “People assume I’ve done a law degree. I have no training. I’ve picked up everything. I have a magpie mind. I assimilate things very quickly and retain a lot of information and detail. This is very helpful when you are talking to politicians about detail.”
What he doesn’t say is that he clearly has that rare ability of being able to get on with people from all kinds of backgrounds and to adapt to the ever-evolving media agenda.
‘We’ll always be there to kick your shins and we’ll never go away’
Typically, he doesn’t miss a beat when I suggest that he has a chip on his shoulder. “Of course, I have. If I didn’t have an attitude.… You can cut my head off and I’ll grow another one, right? Years ago, someone said to me: ‘Aren’t you worried that you’ll never get a job at the BBC?’ I said, ‘No. It is never going to hire someone like me.’”
In the days when TV industry conferences took place physically, McVay’s pushy presence would be an inevitable part of the proceedings, as this imposing figure, fond of acronyms, stood up to speak.
To the outsider, what he said might have sounded arcane. Yet, behind the raw, Scots swagger lies a deeply effective operator, who is a fearless advocate for the 750 or so indies that are on Pact’s books. He is proud of the fact that, during last spring’s lockdown, he refunded members half their subscription fees and gave free membership to new companies for six months.
“We’re not always the most popular people with broadcasters,” he admits. “As I recently said to [BBC Director-General] Tim Davie, ‘Just remember, we’ll always be there to kick your shins and we’ll never go away.’”
Unambiguous communication was one of the skills McVay learnt growing up on a sink estate in Edinburgh. His father was a painter and decorator too fond of a drink, who left the family home when McVay, the oldest of identical twin boys, was 14.
His mother had several jobs, including as a hospital carer on the night shift. McVay’s grandfather, a postman who worked on the London-to-Edinburgh night train, was influential in the future Pact CEO’s upbringing. “My grandad used to say to me: ‘If you ever see an opportunity, stick your hand up whether you know how to do it or not.’”
He left school – a local comprehensive – at 16 with barely any qualifications and began gigging with his brother, who grew up to be a successful tour manager. “For me, like many others, university wasn’t an option,” says McVay.
The pair performed together in the post-punk band Visitors, even appearing three times on Radio 1’s influential John Peel Show and releasing several singles. A few years ago, an album was released that compiled these various recordings; McVay played keyboards, rudimentary saxophone and sang. He still keeps a keyboard in his home office.
The band, which played support on the same bill as such luminaries as The Clash and Cocteau Twins, led to McVay developing contacts on the local music scene, where he also worked as a sound engineer and producer and put on gigs.
Making music videos inevitably led to working on TV shows under the umbrella of the Edinburgh Film and Television Workshop, an early Channel 4 initiative backed by the then-powerful ACTT union.
His freelance work came to an end in 1986, when he took a position running a TV production training scheme for underprivileged youngsters backed by Edinburgh council. “We were taking kids who normally wouldn’t get in the door at BBC Scotland and preparing them for a career in TV, be they wanting to work as a camera operator, in make-up or as a writer.
“They were talented but they didn’t know the right people.”
His skills as an organiser led to him being appointed the founding director of the Research Centre for Television and Interactivity in Glasgow, then director of training and education at Scottish Screen and CEO of Scottish Broadcast and Film Training. When he was headhunted to apply for the job of running Pact, he claims he was considered “a rank outsider”.
McVay was interviewed by nine people from Pact’s council, then chaired by the legendary Beryl Vertue, one of Britain’s pioneering independent producers. “I think I was there to offer a bit of contrast to the other candidates.” But the outsider was now heading for the inside track.
He and his young family upped sticks and moved from Edinburgh to London. “Scotland is a lovely place but, essentially, it’s a village and I wanted to play on a bigger stage.”
His first big win at Pact came in 2002 and became law in the 2003 Communications Act. The combined firepower of McVay and another Scot, Pact’s then-Chair and CEO of Shed Productions, Eileen Gallagher, had persuaded politicians and policy makers that indie producers should finally be able to retain the rights to the shows they made.
For years, broadcasters had resisted the move. Until then, Pact had been divided over whether to campaign for a larger production quota at broadcasters or to go all out for owning the IP. Research commissioned at the time by McVay suggested that the sector, then worth £700m annually, with average margins of around 3% to 4%, was facing financial meltdown. This helped persuade Pact to campaign for rights ownership.
The triumph led to Campaign describing Pact as “the most successful lobbying organisation in the UK”.
'Don’t ever think you can out-think… several hundred of the brightest people in the industry’
How did he pull off this watershed change? “It was a combination of the right people in government and having the right Chair and right CEO at Pact, plus the ITC. They deserve credit and paid attention to these white, whingeing producers. [Culture secretary] Tessa Jowell was a champion, so was David Puttnam and [Labour peer] Alf Dubs.”
But how much credit should he take? “Some.… The great thing about Pact, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed so long, is that independent producers are some of the most determined, disruptive and entrepreneurial people you’ll ever meet.”
He adds: “I remember saying to someone at the BBC, ‘Don’t ever think you can out-think us.’ I have access to several hundred of the brightest people in the industry. All you’ve got is the same three strategy people who turn up tomorrow morning.”
If winning the ability for indies to keep their own rights was arguably the single biggest achievement of McVay’s 20 years at Pact, the achievements of last spring and summer represented another milestone in the CEO’s journey. With TV production held hostage by Covid-19, McVay and his colleagues needed to think fast about how it could restart safely.
In early April, he circulated a paper written by Hakan Kousetta (who subsequently became Chair of Pact last December), to stakeholders, including the BFI and broadcasters, pointing out that insurance was the major problem preventing production from restarting. After meetings with insurance brokers and insurers, it became clear that no one would insure producers against an outbreak of coronavirus.
By clever lobbying, Pact ensured that this was brought to the attention of Rishi Sunak. At first, the Chancellor’s team at the Treasury was unsympathetic. “I remember a conversation with a senior Treasury advisor, who said: ‘You bunch of luvvies, you never vote for us anyway. Is this really a problem or are you just whingeing?’”
Pact stressed that, without a state-backed insurance scheme, the TV marketplace could grind to a halt and precipitate an acute shortage of content. “This is fundamental to the entire broadcasting ecology, not just my members’ businesses,” McVay told Sunak’s aides. “In May last year, the world was in meltdown – politicians were firefighting,” he recalls. “The fact that we even got a chance to speak to them was a bloody miracle.”
The talks dragged on as it emerged that the Treasury would pay for a high-level task force to examine the problem. At the end of July, culture secretary Oliver Dowden announced the Production Restart insurance initiative for film and TV production. The scheme went live in October.
McVay pays tribute to Sara Geater, the All3Media COO and former Pact Chair, and the other senior producers who helped him lead the charge.
“We made it clear to the Treasury that this would be good for the public,” he emphasises. “We weren’t asking for a bailout. We were asking for an indemnity fund that we might need to use.… There was a return on investment because people would stop being furloughed.”
McVay is 61 this year but there is no sign of him slowing down. He concedes that a succession plan at Pact will need to be put in place. “There’ll come a point when young blood and new thinking will be needed. I hope that’s not tomorrow but…”
Broadcasters might not always be pleased to see him, but they both share a common aim: the continued health of the UK’s world-class audio-visual sector, vital to our cultural and economic well-being.
“I think we’ve played our part,” he reflects. “We’ve shown that, if British creative entrepreneurs are given the opportunity and the right underpinning, they can take on the world.”
A bit like John McVay.