Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mark Speight

[Television Presenter Mark Speight's body was found this morning on Paddington Station]

Mark Speight was a real television talent. I first came across him in the mid-nineties when I was looking for a host for our new children’s series Scratchy and Co. Although we’d won the Saturday morning children’s slot against fierce opposition from other production companies, we knew it was something of a poisoned chalice. At that time ITV was being hammered in the ratings by the BBC’s juggernaut Live and Kicking. The opposition had huge resources, a big live studio full of children and celebrities and an apparently unlimited budget. We had just enough money to pay for some cartoons, one presenter and a child.

We had this idea of creating a show around an impossibly jolly, manic host called Scratchy and gave the child, whom we called Reg, a deep, grown-up voice. The idea was that Reg, played by a seven-year-old boy called Elliot, would represent sanity in Scratchy’s mad world of mayhem. They both wore enormous suits and crazy rubber wigs. Scratchy’s suit was blue with white clouds whilst Reg was dressed in sober black. They “lived” together in a lop-sided house. Later we added a penguin called Sedgely and a football called Fathead. Don’t ask me why. You can do almost anything you want in Children’s TV.

Mark was a perfect choice for Scratchy. He had a wonderfully dangerous quality about him, and he could switch his mind into child mode as soon as the red light came on. The children’s audience warmed to him from the first episode. By the second season, we were matching the BBC, and the show lasted for three gloriously insane years. We even won an RTS award, though it was scarcely high culture. Mark went on to even greater success with his later programmes encouraging kids to explore their imagination through art. On the screen Mark never grew up. Which makes the circumstances of his own personal tragedy and death all the more upsetting.

I don’t begrudge our television presenters one penny of their salaries: their career life expectancy is surprisingly short, and I can’t imagine the stress of being forever in the public eye. The moment you’re hired, you are always looking over your shoulder at the next young thing coming up on the inside track. And, thanks to the insatiable tabloids, your private life ceases to be your own. Television presenters remain public property for the rest of their lives. Once you’ve been marked out as “onscreen talent”, it’s almost impossible to be taken seriously again in the world of production or journalism. Look at how few news reporters who try their hand at newsreading make the return journey to serious journalism. The moment they’ve kicked their legs about for Children In Need they get put in the box marked “Talent”.

The day we hired Mark, we also took on a presenter for a second ITV’s children’s offering called Massive. She was a very young and green Essex girl called Denise van Outen. Later she was poached by The Big Breakfast and she probably begins her CV there. But it’s one thing to make your mark on television for a few years and quite another to make a lifetime’s career out of it. I’m delighted that Denise has carved herself a proper vocation on the stage, though to me she remains one of Britain’s most relaxed and natural television hosts.

That’s why whenever some young thing asks me for advice on how to get on the telly (and my intray is full of them) my first suggestion is, “Don’t”. As a producer I know the casting of the presenter is the most important choice I have to make, for that person’s image defines my show. But once fashions change, and the series reaches its inevitable end, I’m already off looking for the next big thing, leaving the “star” to file away the newspaper cuttings and ring his agent.

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