Tuesday 16 July 2019

Irish TV boss thinks global, acts local

A child of the Troubles, producer Jannine Waddell won over LA and London - but Jill Dando's death was one of her toughest times, she tells Samantha McCaughren

‘It was just a very, very hard time,’ Jannine Waddell says of the death of Jill Dando’
‘It was just a very, very hard time,’ Jannine Waddell says of the death of Jill Dando’
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

When Jannine Waddell was first sent to LA to work on a series with titles such as Hollywood Lovers and Hollywood Pets, she learnt a mental technique for dealing with uncomfortable situations. On the sidelines of the red carpet at the post-Oscar Vanity Fair party, she came up against a lot of 'sharp elbows' from competitive TV presenters as she tried to a few quotable lines for her series.

"You just have to take a deep breath and think, 'I'm just going to have to get through this'. The way those line-ups worked, you were down at the front and your cameraman would have been miles away behind you and you're just out there by yourself thinking, 'This is horrific'.

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At the time Braveheart was the toast of Hollywood and Waddell, who is from Helen's Bay, Co Down, managed to catch the attention of actor Mel Gibson who was enamoured with all things Celtic at the time and spent some time chatting with her, much to the chagrin of rival press.

"I got told off, Mel Gibson spent too much time talking to me," she says.

"I didn't like that pushy side of it, that's really not my thing. You just have to think, 'This will go, this will pass'."

Waddell now heads Waddell Media, which makes TV series and documentaries for RTÉ, BBC and the Discovery Channel among others. She still uses the tricks she used in LA to get her through awkward networking events where she is often one of the few women executives in the room.

"Networking can be horrendous, sometimes you know you've got to got to do it. Again it's one of those ones where you just take a deep breath and think, 'This is two hours of my life I can do this," says Waddell.

Her ability to push through in difficult situations, has brought with it success, which was recognised last year when she received an MBE for services to independent television production in Northern Ireland.

Waddell Media, which was founded by her father Brian, is behind several well known programmes in Ireland and the UK such as Francis Brennan's At Your Service and Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip. It also works with BBC, Channel 4, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

She and her team are currently working on a Channel 4 new series, which has a working title Work on the Wild Side. The 20-part series follows vets, veterinary nurses and long-term volunteers who have given up their day jobs and moved to South Africa to rescue, care for and help save the lives of animals.

Waddell came up with the idea while she was on an RTÉ shoot for Francis Brennan's Grand Tour and has been back and forth several times to South Africa in recent weeks for filming.

Another live production is Francis Brennan - All Hands on Deck, a three-part series which shows Brennan taking on various roles on a cruise liner.

Given that there is a limited pot of money for independent production and that RTÉ, for example, has significantly reduced its expenditure on commissions, companies likes Waddell Media need to be agile. Around 50pc of its business comes from RTÉ but Waddell pitches to several channels.

"We try and think globally really but if we're pitching to BBC Northern Ireland their whole remit has to have a local reason for doing it here so and especially if we're pitching to RTÉ it has to be Irish, it has to have that Irish DNA in it. So we have to be a chameleon," she says.

The television business is in Waddell's own DNA. Her father was a controller of Ulster Television who saw an opportunity to produce independent programming with the establishment of Channel 4 and set up his own company in 1988.

Waddell, however, made her own way in the industry. "I'm of that generation that grew up in Northern Ireland that your parents sort of kicked you out and said there is nothing for you here, so you need to go away. I was 19 and moved to London and started working in the industry."

She had grown up during the Troubles which she now believes gave her an inner strength. "You had to be careful where you went, you know you didn't socialise in Belfast," she says. Her father worked in the news media business so the family was alert to risk, checking under the car each day for any explosives.

"I think it makes you quite strong and I think it makes you very streetwise. You question everyone that you see, you're just always evaluating people. I would say it makes me very alert in situations, big crowds," she says.

An early job in London was with a company making a programme about personal finance for Channel 4. "It travelled around the countryside and we had to encourage people to talk about their personal finances - people never want to talk about their personal finances."

"So from an early age you know I was learning quickly that you have to try and win people over."

She then went on to work with Mentorn Films as a researcher in Challenge Anneka, which was hugely popular in the late '80s and early '90s.

"I don't actually think you could make it any more because of the health and safety regulations. I was a bit naive... we did crazy stuff," she recalls.

She was then head-hunted to join the BBC in Bristol where she stayed for four years before heading to LA.

At this stage, Waddell had met her husband David Cumming and decided that in order to have children she would need a more predictable job, so she returned to BBC as an editor for its travel show.

She had to deal with an unexpected crisis in the murder of BBC presenter Jill Dando in 1999.

"That was absolutely horrendous. It was probably one of the worst things I've ever had to manage because I hadn't been there that long and although I knew Jill I didn't know her as well as a lot of the team knew her," she says.

"So whenever that call came through it was just horrific. I mean I was supposed to be having lunch with her the next day and it was just having to ring the team together and tell them and I took some of the girls down to her house, they wanted to leave flowers and it was just a very, very hard time."

After Waddell had her second child, she decided to move back to Northern Ireland in 2003 and she went on to have third child there.

Her Scottish husband, now Waddell Media's managing editor, had already tested the water by spending a year working for the family company before committing to the move.

Waddell was very aware that she would bring a new approach to her father's company.

"I think a lot of the staff probably hated me," she says of bringing her 'London ways' to the company in Holywood, Co Down.

"But then you kind of win them around because there were different and better ways of doing things and you had to challenge people. The company was doing lots of lovely local shows but our ambition was always to do much more than that.

"We were doing UTV, RTÉ and BBC and then we had stated to win some kind of National Geographic business and then we won some Discovery business."

But she was surprised how quickly the London TV scene forgot her past successes once she moved.

"The bizarre thing about moving back here after having quite a big track record in network productions in the UK was that London just thought we were insane.

"It was easier to get commissions in the States than it was in London. They couldn't get why on earth you would leave London and go to Northern Ireland.

"They only saw Northern Ireland as being able to make current affairs shows at that time. There was a real mindset that has been really hard and you know it's still really hard with London. There's still this perception thing, it's a battle, that stretch of water is a difficult one." In the US, however, the company is just perceived as being based in Europe, which makes pitching there easier in many ways. In addition to some well-known Irish shows, Waddell does occasionally go back to the her Hollywood routes with popular culture TV such as Celebrity Meltdowns: Britney Spears.

Known as 'factual entertainment', some of Waddell's output it is the type of programming that TV critics love to look down on.

"I could sit down and do a critique for any those shows and write any of those articles but in the end of the day the shows deliver the viewers, people want to watch that," she says.

Game of Thrones has given drama production in the Northern Ireland a boost and for some independent producers, having a successful drama series is their long-term ambition. Waddell is pragmatic. "I would love to do a drama series but you need very deep pockets to fund that development and I'm sure Northern Ireland Screen would also love us to do a drama series," she says, "We've dabbled a little bit but it takes a long, long time."

Waddell Media has an animation business, Flickerpix Animation Studio, which has some projects in development. "What I really want is a big returning series that sells internationally, that is the Holy Grail," she says.

Waddell also says that she open to change at the company, be it an investor, partner or even buyer in time.

"I'm forever talking to consultants about ways we can grow the business and then maybe one day would sell it but it has to be the right partner, you know it's all about finding the right partnership."

But she admits that if that day ever comes, she will find it difficult to leave television production behind.

"I would struggle I think. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I am really boring, all I ever do is think about this, it's all-consuming, 24/7."

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