Toxic masculinity and a loyalty-free zone: what being a TV executive is really like


Toxic masculinity and a loyalty-free zone: what being a TV executive is really like

Jane Lythell worked as a television producer and commissioning editor before becoming Deputy Director of the BFI and Chief Executive of BAFTA. Her latest novel, Behind Her Back, lifts the lid on the glamorous world of television.

For six years I worked for TV-am, the company that broadcast Good Morning Britain. We launched in 1983 with our ‘Famous Five’ presenters which included Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and David Frost.

It was the birth of breakfast TV in the UK and absolute chaos at the start. We had tiny ratings and managers were in a blind panic and turned vicious. A blame culture prevailed with editors shrieking at journalists. During this phase loyalty counted for nothing. It was a case of each person fighting to survive and some people battled their way to the top while others couldn’t take it and left the station.
Seven weeks after launch the Aitken cousins (Jonathan and Tim) staged a boardroom coup and Jonathan was installed as CEO of TV-am. They sacked the 'Famous Five' presenters, except for David Frost, and Anne Diamond was brought in as our anchor. So TV-am was a soap opera from day one.
Our Programme Directors changed frequently and they were always male. In April Greg Dyke arrived and things looked up. Greg was funny, swore all the time and took the programme downmarket. He would also listen to ideas. I was a junior journalist but somehow managed to keep my head in all that chaos and conflict. Within two years I was Editor of the Henry Kelly Saturday Show.
It was female friendships at the station which kept me going. Once I became Editor I created an all-female team around me. The News guys derided us as 'The Peace Camp'. So we made a sign which said Here is the Peace Camp and displayed this prominently on our desks. There was always intense rivalry between the News and Features teams at TV-am. The News guys scorned features as soft and fluffy even though we dealt with difficult stuff all the time: cancer; eating disorders and the death of children. This row boiled over one morning when I felt we should have led with a spike in cervical cancer deaths and the news editor put it right down the running order. After this row I launched the TV-am Cervical Cancer Awareness Campaign.
I saw Lorraine Kelly and Kay Burley begin their TV careers. They were both junior reporters and had survived the early cull. Lorraine has the kind of warmth that works well on camera and Kay’s ambition to get on in News was evident from early on. There was a ferry disaster and Kay came in with her suitcase packed and her passport in hand and said to the News Editor: 'Send me.' He was impressed by her drive and she got to report on a major story and her career took off. 
Celebrities were a mainstay of our shows and there was much competition with BBC Breakfast Time to get the hottest people onto our sofa. Live TV is more dangerous than pre-recorded because some guests will misbehave. There was the ageing rock star who turned up after a night of carousing and you could have set fire to his breath! And the actor who refused to come out of Make-Up saying her hair looked ‘a frigging fright’.  
Sometimes I saw a celebrity being horrible to a junior member of staff such as a runner. Minutes later that celebrity would be sitting on the sofa switching on megawatt charm for the cameras. My model for how to behave was David Frost who was equally courteous to everyone from the runner to the Prime Minister. Now if I saw a celebrity snarl at a runner I added them to my private blacklist. Next time my boss asked me to book them I would say they weren’t available. I did not have much power at that time but I could keep these mega-egos off our show. Would any of these nasty celebrities recognise themselves in my novel? Probably not. It is rare for anyone to think that the toxic character on the page is modelled on them.  
I enjoyed working with Anne Diamond. She had an instinct for the stories that would appeal to our mainly female audience. The key fact about Good Morning Britain was that it was a TV show watched by women and yet the station was always headed by men.
Women really need to stick up for themselves. The current BBC pay gap debacle shows this. It’s a wake-up call for all women working in TV.

Behind Her Back is out now in hardback, paperback and ebook.




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