16 MAY 1992, Page 19


Sue Lawley reveals the

real reasons for the termination of a television series

I'VE BEEN axed. I know I've been axed because it said so in the Daily Star. 'Sue Lawley's big-name ITV interview shows have been axed,' it said, 'after proving a ratings flop.' I'm one of television's high- est paid women presenters. I know I'm one of the highest paid because it said so in the Daily Mail. It said it in the People too. Indeed, the People told its readers how much I earned — 'a staggering 050,000 a year'. Even I don't think I'm worth that much.

My programmes 'failed to attract the huge audiences expected' (Dad)) Mail). I must be 'deeply disappointed' (Daily Mail again). Altogether, the press had it that I've been through the worst professional sand-bagging of my career, my pro- grammes were unloved and unwatched and I'm hiding from the world ('unavail- able for comment'). Of course, it could be I'd gone for a weekend game of tennis.

Now before anyone thinks that I'm about to make a whingeing attack on the unfairness of the press, let me explain. I understand that newspapers need stories and I can quite see that in some respects mine seemed to make a good page lead. I can also see that a story which ran: 'After a convivial meeting in Manchester, Sue Lawley and executives from Granada Television agreed that the interview pro- grammes they had planned to make 'I'm interested in the missionary position.' together were not developing as they'd hoped and decided from now on to concen- trate their efforts on other ideas' does not exactly set the world alight. Much better to get out the axe and hack away cheerfully at the high-paid 'leggy' star who's 'putting on a brave face' as she 'rethinks her career'.

But better copy doesn't make for better journalism. My complaint is not that I've been misrepresented but that the truth of the situation was much more interesting than the clichés which appeared in last weekend's newspapers.

There is a delusion, common among some media folk, that famous people like being interviewed on television. On the whole they don't: they prefer to use televi- sion to promote their other activities such as writing books, making films or winning votes. Very few are prepared to sit in front of the cameras and tell all about them- selves. Thoughtful people with intelligent views about our society and its culture are sometimes prepared to share their opinions with a television interviewer — but they have to be confined to the darker recesses of the television schedule since they're hardly likely to attract big audiences.

There's nothing wrong or unusual about this. Why should a famous person tell me, or anybody else, about his or her private problems? And why should a television company which needs to attract money through advertising offer its viewers emi- nent thinkers in prime time?

Occasionally, of course, there are people who, for very good reasons, are prepared to talk about their personal history: and sometimes the thoughtful person is so interesting that he or she can command a • popular audience. Such interviews are few and far between, They do not fit the neat pattern ofa television schedule which, more often than not, requires at.least half a dozen of thern,to line up in a row.

This is the problem we have faxed for the past eighteenurtionths at Granada Televi- sion. The idea was that well-known people would talk tol me in their homes about themselves. Each of them had to have a tale to .tell .and be able to guarantee a prime-time audience. There was a third condition: there had to be enough of them to make a series. The first two conditions proved incompatible. We could easily find six people with interesting stories — but were they those whom the audience would watch after a sitcom and before the news? But even had we been lucky enough to find a list that fulfilled the first two requirements, condition three proved a further stumbling block. Many people are interesting only because they are topical. They have something to say which suits the moment. Miss that and their appeal evapo- rates. There were lots of them. They would have been excellent interviewees had I been able to rush out of the front door to start recording there and then, but they would have been as unappetising as old rice pudding by the time the ITV schedule had opened to let them in.

In the end, the best interviewees tend to appear on programmes which have regular slots such as Frost on Sunday, Wogan or Aspel. In those cases the sheer amount of airtime means that you're bound to come up trumps from time to time. Small-scale, highly concentrated series with the exact- ing conditions I've described are virtually impossible to achieve.

Faced with this problem, we decided to transmit some interviews as we found them with the intention of preparing a full series later. We struck lucky twice. We found one guest within the first couple of months — his name was John Major and he'd recent- ly become Prime Minister. We found a second suitable subject nine months after that — Eric Clapton, the rock star who'd

suffered a personal tragedy and was look- ing for a public platform from which to give the definitive interview about what had happened to him.

The third interview we did demonstrates the nature of the problem. It was with Queen Noor of Jordan. She allowed us to visit her in the royal palace in Amman but for understandable reasons was circum- spect about giving us much access to her home and family surroundings. In conver- sation she was dignified, statesmanlike and restrained. As a programme within a series it might well have succeeded in holding its own, contrasted with the other interviews either side of it. All alone, however, it came over a bit flat.

With hindsight, of course, it's easy to say we should have predicted all of this. I don't believe that's true. What happened in the preparation of these programmes was the slow realisation that television is now a dramatically different medium from the one it was even a few years ago. It is no longer glamorous, no longer the place to be seen. The audience is tired of the singer with a new record to plug, the author with a new book to flash before the camera or the actor with clips from his lat- est movie. Added to that, everyone knows the tricks of the trade. There is nothing mysterious about it any more. It is less intriguing and people from all walks of life are less compelled to appear on it. I won- der if a series like Face to Face with John Freeman — often referred to as the classic television interviews — could ever be

made today? Its format has been tried recently, but the impact was minimal in comparison with the original. And the idea that well-known people such as Evelyn Waugh, Gilbert Harding and John Osborne would subject themselves to a relentless public grilling today is inconceivable. Fur- thermore, names like those wouldn't be thought much cop on prime-time telly.

The fact is, I suppose, that talk on televi- sion has almost become a marginal activity. Of the three programmes I mentioned ear- lier Frost appears out of prime time, on a Sunday morning, and the BBC has decided not to continue with Wogan, who, despite the endless criticism he's had to suffer, has been the mainstay of popular conversation on British television for the last few years. Only Aspel remains. Otherwise, the space for these kinds of programmes is found only on the edge of the schedules. I'm not sure how much that matters — but that wasn't my brief on this occasion.

And so, dear Editor of the Popular Daily Newspaper, let me tell you that I am not 'deeply' disappointed, and I don't consider that the programmes I made were 'a flop'. (They actually got very decent audiences.) I've certainly learnt something. The recog- nition that, if I want to do serious, enjoy- able interviews on television, I'll have to do them out of prime time doesn't bother me at all. Oh — and by the way — I don't think I can be 'one of the highest paid women presenters' on British television. I asked Granada to stop my money some time ago.