One thing you must never ever do when you have the privilege of running a channel like Sky Arts is talk nonsense. This is the number one rule of running an arts channel, with the addendum that you must be able to stroke your beardy chin and say something frighteningly clever and well informed about everything you see, no matter how bad it might be.
That’s kind of what I thought when I took on the job of director of Sky Arts a couple of years ago (I even grew a beard, for approximately three months until my wife ‘encouraged’ me to shave it off – ie, winced every time she looked at me. Actually, she wouldn’t come near me). But, luckily, it turns out not to be true. I have been talking nonsense for a good two years now and I’ve been having gloriously outlandish, often hilarious and incredibly refreshing and inspiring creative conversations with some very talented people across the world of the arts.
And it’s because of these talented people that Sky is committed to the arts. Earlier this year we re-launched the channel, merging Sky Arts 1 and Sky Arts 2 to create a single super-channel and made more fantastic arts content available on demand. It’s also exciting to be working more closely with our Italian and German colleagues at the Sky Arts Production Hub – a commissioning and production centre of excellence based in Milan dedicated to creating arts programming for our 21million customers across Europe. As the channel grows and we provide more ways to watch than ever before, we’re extremely proud that we’re able to provide something for everyone, no matter what their passion.
Before diving feet first into the world of arts, I ran Big Brother through its Channel 4 years – a brilliantly creative show. But at the kinds of North London gatherings I’d go to people used to sneer when I mentioned this, like I was involved in some crap cultural takeover (though they were always grimly fascinated and seemed to know way more about it than they let on).
Now I can proclaim what I do from the rooftops of Ally Pally and everyone thinks it’s wonderful and marvellous. And it is, and what’s more, it’s actually a lot of fun – and what has struck me in the arts over these past two years (when you leave North London) is the utter lack of pretension you see in practitioners: people who love what they do and want to introduce it to a wider audience; people who are willing to take risks and experiment, who will think thoughts no one else would think and who regard what they do – whether it’s dance, opera, classical music, painting, sculpture or whatever – as joyful entertainment.
I have talked stage-diving with great violinists, discussed dad rock with great writers and embarrassed myself at an André Rieu concert when I discovered I had my pants on the wrong way around (a long story involving a Portaloo and a queue of fidgety pensioners). I have been glad to engage with projects as diverse as how to get Shane MacGowan some new teeth, the history of The Jam, the diddly dos and don’ts of folk music, how to stage a ballet in a shop window and a brass band concert in a cave. Not to mention finding out how to write a musical with computer-generated algorithms and experiencing the joys of portraiture and landscape painting in our two hit painting shows, Portrait Artist of the Year and Landscape Artist of the Year. Plus I’ve enjoyed long discussions with the brilliant Melvyn Bragg, who is a warm, witty, inquisitive man driven by a passion shared in the arts.
Just last weekend we were filming Kylie Minogue’s Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall, while I was lucky enough to pop over to Sicily for the unveiling of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence that we reproduced using 3D printing technology courtesy of Factum Arte – the world’s leading experts on re-creating art using this method. The original painting was commissioned for the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo where it hung until 1969 when it was stolen from its frame. No one knows who took it (though the Mafia are prime suspects) or where it is now, but after nearly 50 years with an empty frame we were able to gift a version of the painting back to the town with the president of Italy attending along with the mayor of Palermo and the newly appointed Archbishop – so almost as starry as Kylie.
And in a job where every day is different from the last, the thing I’m thinking about most today is a road trip with Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson. Not that these kinds of weird daydreams don’t pop into my head on a regular basis, but this one is actually based on a true story. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this unlikely trio decided to launch their own escape from New York and embark on a cross-country excursion in a hire car. No, really. So next year we’re telling our version of that story in Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, a dramatisation starring Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes and Stockard Channing. And this is where you get to if you talk nonsense with smart and interesting people.
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