Andrew Billen meets the boss of entertainment powerhouse Avalon, the ‘No 1 true indie’
The lobby of Avalon’s office in west London is dominated by two monsters. One is a huge cast of Lenin in full declamation, the other is a Dalek. A visitor’s first thought is that you would not want to get on the wrong side of this entertainment giant – one-third talent agency, one-third live show promoter, one-third TV production company – or its famously effective Managing Director and co-founder, Jon Thoday. You would want Avalon and its boss fighting for you.
The impression is muddled slightly in the conference room, whose long wall is stencilled with a cigar-touting Groucho Marx ensnared, James Bond titles-sequence-style, inside a gun barrel. Who is targeting whom? Is somebody about to get hurt?
Jon Thoday, when he enters, is dressed casually in a lumberjack shirt and speaks, I am glad to report, neither like a croak-voiced alien nor a demagogue. He can be blunt, but also garrulous. His voice is soft and slightly Antipodean, an accent the Cambridge lad hazards was contracted from his New Zealand-born wife, Leanne.
Yet, he has a reputation for raising his voice, doesn’t he? “I very rarely shout. I think that if you say no to people, which, if you work with good shows or good talent, you often do, they hear what they want to hear, right? If you’re lied to by people, it can be annoying and it can lead me to be angry, just like anyone else would be.”
An example? “That there’s no gender pay gap.”
In contrast, his preference has always been to tell the truth, and that has not always been popular, either. He now rarely informs a broadcaster that an artist is being pursued by another channel, “because they get so upset about it”.
He reflects on 1999, when his client Frank Skinner defected to ITV after the BBC’s Alan Yentob refused to match a reported £20m rival offer. Yentob was furious. “Unreasonably so,” says Thoday.
"There should be more money spent on content, less on technology"
Skinner, the comedian with the crush on Dr Johnson, might be thought a typical Avalon client: a clever-clogs graduate able to hold his (mainly it’s a “his”) own against an agent who boasts a Cambridge science degree. This is not quite accurate. His talent list includes the actors Toby Jones, James Nesbitt, Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton, and, among the comedians, the university dropout Dave Gorman and the former Pontins blue coat Lee Mack. This still leaves plenty of highbrow stand-ups on the list, led by the early clients Skinner and David Baddiel, who became millionaires out of the partnership.
So, does Thoday stand accused of inflating the cost of talent?
“If you look at the total annual cost of content at the BBC, right, it has reduced by £500m over the past 10 years. That’s the most important thing: reducing the spend on content, for me, is very anti-public broadcasting. I believe that there should be more money spent on content, less on technology.”
On the gender pay row, he says that it is impossible for him to negotiate equal salaries for his female clients because, unless they are on BBC staff contracts, he does not know what their male colleagues are being paid.
That does not mean, however, that he wants all salaries to be made public. “It’s a complicated area but, in the end, if you’re a broadcaster or an employer, you decide. You don’t necessarily have to wait to be called to account.”
It is, you see, not about the money, not for him. “We’re still here, when lots of other [agents] have sold their businesses, because we like it. We like doing good TV shows and we really believe in British talent.”
This, he says, is the reason why Avalon frequently makes the programmes its artists star in: broadcasters can no longer be relied upon to nurture talent. He cites John Oliver, whom Avalon represented as soon as he had left university. He had a British radio show and podcast, but only began to make his mark in the US on The Daily Show. He is now an HBO star on the Avalon-produced Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
“With TV, you often have the fight to keep things on air. So, TV Burp was cancelled twice by ITV,” he says. “A lot of things we’ve done that succeeded in the end were cancelled. Not Going Out was cancelled after the second season. It’s the longest-running sitcom in the UK now. And that’s why we started producing, because we were able to be in a position to fight those battles.
“Sometimes, the battle’s just getting it on. So, with [his client Rob Delaney’s] Catastrophe, the BBC commissioned the script and then passed on it. We thought that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Then Phil Clarke picked it up at Channel 4. We took five years to get Taskmaster on air. All the broadcasters turned it down. But we just kept going and it was taken up by Dave.”
At one stage, Thoday campaigned with Hat Trick Productions to buy BBC Three and prevent its disappearance from TV. For Avalon, this could have replicated in miniature the Grade family’s hold over ITV in the 1950s: agent, production company and broadcaster.
Predictably, the BBC cried “no sale” but, he insists, the bid was for real. “It wasn’t motivated by any desire to run a channel. I don’t want to do that. It was motivated by the fact that BBC Three was one of the places that could bring on new talent.”
The channel’s reduction in budget and move online has not helped the chances of biting satire returning to the BBC, but the chances were low anyway. Thoday says that the corporation is more hidebound than ever by its obligations to impartiality – and by a caution beyond that.
“We produced Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was broadcast on BBC Two with more swearwords than any show ever. You couldn’t possibly do that now. The difficulties lie in satirists taking a [political] point of view and also in whether you can push the boundaries. Broadcasters always say, ‘We want to be dangerous’, but they don’t really, because they’re too nervous.”
Of what? “For the BBC, it’s the attacks by successive governments. Whatever it says, it is fearful of that.”
It is not only satirical and edgy comedy that is in decline. “There’s a massive hunger in the audience for comedy. When you get one that works, people really like it, but there isn’t enough on TV and that, in my view, is a failure of commissioning.”
The thought takes us both back to the golden age of television comedy that shone over both our 1970s childhoods – his in Cambridge, where his father, John, was a professor of genetics. At 11, Jon began helping to put on school plays. He hated performing as much as he loved encouraging performers and so, despite taking a degree in natural sciences, was soon dreaming as much of LE as of DNA.
At university (in his home town), he began producing musicals, with gownies and townies in their casts. When he left with a 2:2 (too many plays, not enough study), he took a further degree in genetics but realised that he would never be good enough to become a research scientist. He contemplated a career in science management with dismay and jumped head first into show business instead.
He was not even dissuaded when, just before he began managing comedians, he put on a London musical, Nite Club Confidential, that lost £402,000.50, happily not of his own money. Next came the signings of Rob Newman and David Baddiel. The novice agent had a strange hunch: that the stars of The Mary Whitehouse Experience could fill a stadium as well as any band. Comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and Avalon, having seen the future, signed much of it up.
Yet, things do not always work out. Jerry Springer: The Opera has just returned to New York but Thoday no longer represents its co-creator, Stewart Lee. “Definitely not,” he says, and will not discuss the matter.
Presenter Christine Bleakley found herself a new agent after her move to ITV, guided by him, ended in disaster. “Sometimes, people say that changing agents is a bit like changing deckchairs on the Titanic,” he says pointedly. And Avalon’s relationship with Harry Hill ended in a High Court fight, after which the comedian said he felt “liberated, like a huge weight has been lifted”.
Thoday is not sympathetic: in show business, “some people react well to success and others don’t”.
Hill, I counter, just found the long series of TV Burp a huge strain. Thoday says he beat ITV down on the length of the runs, but adds: “TV Burp was a really successful show and really successful for him. If he found it hard to do, he should talk to people who work in factories, because I think that being successful in show business is a benefit, right? We all should be that lucky.
“It’s not supposed to be easy. It isn’t easy to succeed.
“And if a broadcaster requires a certain thing, wait until you don’t matter to them any more.”
The sad thing to me is that Harry Hill, now mostly seen on Sky, is a performer ideally suited to a genre Thoday wishes to see return to PSB, the pre-watershed, weekday entertainment show.
The broadcasters, he says, play safe with ever-longer runs of ageing soaps, turning a blind eye to their declining ratings, and concentrate on post-9:00pm drama. Yet, there is a big family audience to be seized: “If a BBC controller was to say, ‘I’m cancelling an episode of EastEnders, and I’m only going to do new shows there until I get one that succeeds’, that will be the one that gets 10 million viewers – because it’s on at the time when you can get 10 million viewers.
“I don’t know what the show is but, in the end, I just know that if you invest all your money in international co-productions at 9:00pm, you’re not going to be getting the next show that 10 million people are going to watch at 8:00pm. And no one in the industry is even thinking about shows for that time.”
We agree it would be nice to have something to watch with our children, apart from soap opera murders and long summers of soggy cake bottoms.
Perhaps that is what Avalon’s front-of-house memorabilia represent. The Dalek harks back to the great days of family entertainment. Lenin is Thoday advocating for the people’s thwarted desires. And poor old Groucho looking down the barrel of a gun? That’s just Avalon targeting the talent it will next take to fame and fortune.
Jon Thoday, co-founder and MD of Avalon Promotions, Avalon Motion Pictures and Avalon Television, subsidiaries of Tiverton 2 Ltd
Born 7 May 1961; one sister
Father John Thoday, professor of genetics (died 2008)
Mother Doris Rich
Married To Leanne Newman, whom he met at a Royal Court benefit in 1992; a teenage son and daughter.
Education King’s College School, Cambridge; The Leys School, Cambridge; Corpus Christie, Cambridge (degree in natural sciences); MSc in biotechnology and genetic engineering
1986 Stages Robin Glendinning’s Mumbo Jumbo at Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Nicholas Hytner
1988 Produces Nite Club Confidential with Ruth Madoc. It flops
1989 Forms Avalon Promotions
1993 Clients Rob Newman and David Baddiel play the 12,000-seat Wembley Arena
1999 Negotiates the transfer of The Frank Skinner Show from BBC One to ITV for around £20m
2010 Negotiates reported £4m deal for Adrian Chiles to leave the BBC’s The One Show for ITV’s Daybreak and to be its chief football presenter.
2017 Avalon named ‘No 1 true indie’ by Broadcast and Televisual
Clients Chris Addison, David Baddiel, Greg Davies, Russell Howard, Al Murray, et al
Hits Not Going Out, TV Burp, Russell Howard’s Good News, Catastrophe
Misses The transfer of Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley to ITV
Coming next Gameshow The Button
Watching The Crown, Narcos, Rick and Morty
Reading ‘Not much’
Holidays Christmas and summer. ‘If you’re in show business it’s one long holiday’