Andrew Billen asks Jane Featherstone, one of British TV’s most successful drama producers, why she is concerned for the genre’s future
Jane Featherstone is not just one of British television’s most accomplished drama producers, she is an oxymoron: a mainstream maverick.
If you hadn’t thought of the Life on Mars and Broadchurch producer that way, the giveaway should have been the “goddam” she inserted before namechecking that critical untouchable The Wire, in her Bafta Television Lecture last October. Her point, I take it, was that niche writing had become too goddam fashionable in television.
“Absolutely,” she tells me in the office of her still-new production company, Sister Pictures, where she is battling on despite a skiing injury to one wrist and a consequent hot-pan injury to her other.
“But there’s nothing like getting a quality, mainstream hit on BBC One or ITV. For me, it’s the best thing you can possibly do. Sally Wainwright does it. Chris Chibnall does it. Peter Bowker does it, Kay Mellor does it. There aren’t that many, there really aren’t.”
Mainstream became a swear word? “It became a swear word,” she confirms.
Middle-class, middle-brow, middle-ground, mainstream? “That’s right: average. And, actually, if you think about some of the classic shows of our time, they’ve been amazing, quality, mainstream hits.”
In her quarter of a century in TV, she has been behind so many of them – Touching Evil, Spooks, Law and Order: UK, River. Now, as Chief Executive of Sister, she is likely to make plenty more. Sister’s first dramas (unless you count last year’s third season of Broadchurch, co-made with her old employer, Kudos) are hitting the screen around now, led by Abi Morgan’s The Split on BBC One. It will be followed by Cleaning Up for ITV, Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) for BBC One and Netflix and, next year, Chernobyl for HBO.
She has made edgier stuff, too, such as the dystopian Utopia, whose cancellation still hurts, but, generally, she is anti-“cynical” and pro-“relatable”. The Split is about a family of solicitors in the divorce business. Its subtext is love. Mark Marlow’s Cleaning Up is about a City office cleaner who becomes a trader. She loves non-genre pieces and, despite their settings, neither is a slick legal drama nor a brutal cop show.
“And I think that’s the thing. I don’t like cool things,” she explains. “I like things that have a heart to them, make you feel something. I think you can do that in a really classy way. Look at Three Girls and The Moorside and Little Boy Blue – incredible pieces of work. Although, interestingly, that popular, mainstream quality seems to have migrated a bit to factual dramas.”
She founded Sister in November 2015. She modestly supposes its quick success in winning commissions is in part down to the high demand for drama right now. Yet, she still worries for the drama industry.
One concern is that international co-production has encouraged generalised, rootless stories. Game of Thrones trades on the universality of dramas set in non-existent kingdoms. The Night Manager and McMafia suggest the future is pan-European flash.
She disagrees, and believes the trend is diminishing: “I think the money is cleverer now. I think that those buyers, wherever they come from, are also now looking for specificity.”
In her Bafta lecture, however, she warned that the power of the online giants could lead to less nuanced drama on TV if they stop working with broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel. 4
“I think they’ve got 1.4 billion potential subscribers. I mean, that’s a global channel like you’ve never seen before. But they will understand implicitly that Happy Valley and Broadchurch, which are very specific, incredibly located pieces, are, internationally, the most successful shows Britain has made in many years.”
The rise of the Faangs, she clarifies, is good for writers, who will be in demand, but could be dangerous for the old broadcasters if writers are tied into exclusive deals with the disrupters. Writers in Britain, traditionally, work all over the industry because their scripts take so long to green-light, and they need to eat.
For me it’s all about the writers, really. I’m in a position here to make them feel liberated and brave
But what if, she asks, Netflix were to offer Sally Wainwright an office, a fat salary and a guarantee that her shows would be made and shown all over the world? “Not that Sally would necessarily take the money. But, if I were Netflix, I would be going after that sort of A-list talent.”
Her third worry is shared by much of the arts world: that the decline in arts teaching in state secondary schools will result in fewer young Brits being qualified – or even wanting – to enter television.
“We do have to work hard to make sure that the generation of 18-year-olds leaving school believe that this is an industry that they can get a career in – which they can. It’s amazing. I love it. We love our jobs. We’re so lucky.”
There was little in her background to suggest she was going to enter the creative industries, and still less that her older sister, Vicky (artistic director of the Royal Court) and younger brother, Ric (a composer for television), would do so, too.
She was born 49 years ago in Scotland to a BP chemical engineer and his wife, a nurse. John Featherstone’s job took the family to India and Germany before it settled in Croydon, which she refers to as a “dodgy suburb of London”. There she attended the fee-paying Old Palace girls’ school.
Her father wrote revues at university and played the piano… but, even so, it is a stretch: two top professional storytellers from one family?
“I know. I honestly don’t know how that happened,” she says. “All I know is that our parents were very good at saying to us, ‘Do your best at everything’. They had a really strong work ethic. But also: ‘Do whatever you love.’”
After studying history and German at Leeds University, her early career started off at a mighty tangent, as PA to the troubled footballer Paul Gascoigne, a job she heard about from a friend who was working in the press office of Spurs. She was way out of her depth but swam rather than sank. She told her Bafta audience that it taught her to “engage with complicated people”.
I wonder why no one has made a drama out of Gazza’s dramatic and tragic life. “Maybe, it’s just too sad,” she suggests. “I think the story hasn’t found its redemption yet. We need to see where it ends.”
Did she like him? “Yes. He was a sweet, generous, kind man, under an enormous amount of pressure at a very young age, hugely talented.”
Gascoigne’s manager eventually put her in touch with someone he knew in television and she got a post as a runner, which led to a job at Hat Trick. There, she was line manager on the comedy company’s first drama, Eleven Men Against Eleven. Appropriately, given her old job, it was set in the Premier League. From there, she went on to spent a short time at World Productions, where she was inspired by the legendary Tony Garnett.
It was her first few years at Kudos, however, when she was head of drama and then Managing Director, that proved her real breakthrough. Specifically, she credits the spy show Spooks, on which she was executive producer.
Lorraine Heggessey, the BBC One controller, wanted a serial with a cinematic feel; 9/11 made it almost dangerously topical. The left-wing playwright Howard Brenton joined the writing team. “It made everyone think a bit more deeply about what we were doing,” she says.
Hustle, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes followed, leading to the key drama of this decade, Broadchurch. It became so much a partnership between the writer, Chris Chibnall, and Featherstone that, when series 3 was made, Sister became its co-producer.
Why, though, did she leave Kudos in 2015, so soon after its parent company, Shine, merged with Endemol?
“The real story is the story that’s out there, completely, which is that I’d been there for 16 years and I just wanted a change and a break. It’s honestly that simple.”
I don’t like cool things, I like things that have a heart to them
It wasn’t that the old firm was getting bigger and bigger? “Really, I had been thinking about going for a while. I was really tired. Honestly, I had been doing it for so long and the company had grown so much and I just thought that it was time for a break and I took six months off. But I loved it and it was heartbreaking, leaving. It was really, really hard. I was so fond of all the people and all the things that we did together.”
She “pottered” around Islington, where she lives with a documentary-maker she asks me not to name. She picked their son and daughter up from school, thought a bit. “I didn’t go travelling, I didn’t do anything particularly expansive. It was so nice.”
That November, she founded Sister with a private investor who must be pretty pleased with the way things are going. She recruited from Kudos its former CEO, Dan Isaacs, and its former head of development, Naomi de Pear.
Although she is proud that The Split boasts a female producer, writer and director, Sister employs plenty of men. Why the name, then? “I just wanted it to be a name that sounded different.…”
From Mammoth or Renegade or Optimum? “Well, they’re all quite kind of thrusting. I didn’t want it to sound like that. But the timing, again – given what’s been happening in the last year [#metoo] – has been good. I liked the name and I like to be close to my sister as well.”
Could she and Vicky work together on something? “One day, we might do. Who knows? I’d love to work with her one day. We get on very well but she’s quite busy.”
Which is better: working for a big or small company? “I love both. I really loved working with Shine, truly. I stayed for nine years after my contract. It was wonderful and I loved the collaboration with all these people from around the world. I got to learn so much about international production.
“But working for yourself, the obvious things are: you don’t need to waste time asking anyone’s permission to do anything; you can be very quick and decisive; you can be very nimble. I think you feel liberated.
“For me, it’s all about the writers, really. I’m in a position here to make them feel liberated and brave. That’s really what I try to do here: give them a place where writers feel they can be brave and we can support them. My favourite part of any day is getting in with a writer and a script.”
Really? Difficult, needy, fragile writers? “Writers are vulnerable like everyone else. And it’s their insecurities and vulnerabilities that they’re brave enough to express for the world. I think it’s a very exposed place, and it’s my job to try and support them as they expose their hearts to the nation. You have to be very brave to do it.”
Maybe that is the point of Jane Featherstone. She understands that, in any turbulent river, the mainstream is, actually, the bravest place to stand.
Jane Featherstone, Chief Executive and founder of Sister Pictures
Born 24 March 1969, Scotland. Latterly, brought up in Croydon
Parents Father, John Featherstone, chemical engineer; mother, Elizabeth, nurse; one sister, one brother
Lives In Islington; a son and a daughter with a TV documentary-maker
Education Old Palace School, Croydon; Leeds University, BA Hons history and German
1991 PA to footballer Paul Gascoigne
1992 Producer, Hat Trick
1998 Producer, Wall to Wall
2000 Head of drama, Kudos Film and Television
2002 Joint Managing Director, Kudos
2008 Creative director, Kudos
2011 CEO, Kudos
2015, January Resigns from Kudos
2015, November Founds Sister Pictures
Hits Spooks, Life on Mars, Humans, Broadchurch