OA 2024 Issue 05



In 1994 you took up what might be described as your first proper job as a researcher, series director and show runner at Rapido TV, who were responsible for shows like Eurotrash, Badass TV, Fortean TV and Passengers; all of which have since become cult classics. It was very much the time of a youth culture that was slightly edgy. What can you tell us about that time? When I left Manchester, I was still doing music journalism and writing regularly for The European and The Face . Then John Godfrey asked if I wanted to work as a researcher on a new show about Europe (but not boring). I jumped at the chance. Mind you, I think it was because I was the only person he knew who spoke German and French! Eurotrash was a very deliberate attempt by Channel 4 to subvert the idea that European culture had to be high brow. To start with it focused on weird film and art. It had the sensibility of youth culture and music as most of us had that sort of background. The idea was to shake things up a little bit, and see how far we could push the boundaries. If something made us laugh a lot we would usually find a way of including it. I remember doing a piece on David Hasselhoff who was busy making Baywatch . At that time he took himself incredibly seriously, while trying to keep his German- language singing career quiet. His people were very annoyed when we showcased classic Hasselhoff songs like ‘Looking for Freedom’ on top of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989. But I like to think we helped him move on to the next phase of his career. Was there a particular moment while you were working at Rapido TV when you thought that you could make a living from the media? At Rapido I was a freelancer and when my contract kept getting renewed I realised I could get a mortgage and effectively had ‘a job’. Through the latter half of the 1990s I learned the craft of TV. I had a go at all the production roles, from research through editing, all the way to series director for Eurotrash. They proved to be extremely good building blocks for the future. In 2000 I left Rapido to become a Producer/Director running my own productions mainly for Channel 4. I was given a budget and a brief and then pretty much left to my own devices. Ian Russell joined the College in 1979, leaving seven years later in 1986. During his time at Dulwich, he came into his own in the creative spaces of the Art Department at theatre. It was a period of his life that would first shape and then help define his future career as a journalist and in television production. Today, Ian is head of International at ITN and responsible for a company that produces over a thousand hours of unscripted programming a year and that has become a world leader in its field of fast turnaround documentaries.

In 2002 you moved to Channel 5, where you were for seven years, becoming a Commissioning Editor for News and Current Affairs and Documentaries. While there you oversaw the news and current affairs output of the channel and had a remit to greenlight ‘attention grabbing’ unscripted programmes. Titles including The Girl in the Box, Married to the Eiffel Tower and The Man who Stole Sex.com got great audiences and were nominated for multiple awards. Tell us about that time. Yes we won a few awards too! While I was producing/directing I was asked to make a history series for C5. It was a joy to move from making whimsical shows at Channel 4 to being totally in control of a series of historical biographies on Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin and Nero. The budget was tiny and I did pretty much everything myself, although I did get a friend to compose the music score. The series was called The Most Evil Men in History and became the highest- rated unscripted show ever on C5 at the time. Shortly afterwards, I was offered the role of Commissioner of News, Current Affairs and Documentaries. At C5, or ‘Five’ as it was then known, I had great fun commissioning ‘shock docs’ and also learned about international co-production as a way to get round the tiny budgets. I would take an idea with some C5 seed money attached and seek collaborations with broadcasters around the world who would then bump up the budget. Quite a few projects ended up having budgets in the millions, and as I had been involved from the beginning I still got significant editorial input. ‘Diana: Last Days of A Princess’ and ‘Manson’ I remember as being particularly good. After C5 I spent four years (2009–13) at Cineflix, a large Canadian production company, commuting between London and Toronto and learning about the US TV market. I worked as Executive Producer and Director of Co-Productions, creating, selling and overseeing production of major projects for US networks, including the big budget action series Air Aces/Heroes of the Skies . I also adapted Cineflix’s US shows for UK networks, including Salvage Hunters which still runs on Discovery.

In 2014 you moved to ITN as Head of International where you still are today. Can you describe what you do? ITN had started to dip their toes into the American unscripted market and Chris Shaw, my former boss at C5, was there and knew what I had been doing. He hired me to set up and grow an international division. ITN is a very unusual TV producer in that it includes three major news operations – ITV, C4 and C5 – and a massive archive of more than 2 million hours of material covering everything from crime to politics, created by a global network of first class journalists. It was really a case of seeing what we had and asking what people abroad, particularly in the States, would be interested in. Today ITN Productions make about a thousand hours of unscripted programming a year. Part of my job is to manage the roll out of some of the bigger documentaries outside of the UK: things like ‘Harry and Meghan in Africa’, ‘Michael Palin in North Korea’ or the ITV special ‘Harry – the Interview’ from earlier in 2023. Over the past 10 years the ITN Productions team has become the world leader in producing fast turnaround documentaries. We’ve covered everything from the MH370 plane crash and Thai cave rescue to breaking US stories like the Gabby Petito murder for major US networks. Our most recent one was ‘Cocaine Bear: The True Story’ for the NBC streaming service Peacock, which was made to transmit with the premiere of the movie. It was based on a 1985 incident involving a 200-pound American black bear that was found dead from an overdose in a Georgia forest. Elizabeth Banks, the director of the movie, worked with us as an Executive Producer. I was introduced to Netflix early in my days at ITN when they were a small outfit operating out of an office above a bank in West Hollywood. At the time they were more interested in acquiring unscripted series than in commissioning, but I had breakfast in Santa Monica with their first series commissioner and suggested they do a factual companion to the drama series Narcos . The resulting Drug Lords ran for two seasons, and we were told it was the first unscripted Netflix series to be commissioned out of the UK.

You left Dulwich in 1986 and went onto read French and German at Manchester. How did your career develop during that time? I did a six-year Modern Languages degree with four years in Manchester, a year in Vienna and a year in Paris. By the time I got to Paris I was a fledgling journalist, recording interviews with French rock bands like Les Rita Mitsouko and Niagara, and then making German-language radio shows out of them; straight from French to German. I did a big piece on Jim Morrison and his life in Paris, which I flogged to The Face magazine, whose Feature Editor, John Godfrey, figured prominently in the next stage of my career. I remember being very broke and scheduling eating around music PR events that were likely to include canapes. Early on I had got involved with the university newspaper ( The Mancunian ) and via an introduction from a family friend who worked for the ZDF (German TV), I was invited by the UK correspondent of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation to cover ‘youth and rock music’ as he had no time for it. It helped that I had an Austrian passport, which you needed as Austria was not part of the EU then. I used my time in Paris, Vienna, Manchester and London to produce about 60 hours of German- and French-language radio. Apart from The Face, I also had some work published in The European and The Daily Telegraph. At the tender age of 21, I was accredited with all the record labels as the ‘Austria guy’ so got to do any interviews that were going – everyone from Brian Ferry to Richey Manic of the Manic Street Preachers. In the summer I’d be backstage at Glastonbury. I was in the studio with Blur when they recorded Parklife and even survived a ‘lock in’ with Sean Ryder and Bez of the Happy Mondays in a West London pub!

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