Wayne Garvie: Sony Pictures Television chief on the future of entertainment, launching Strictly at the BBC and his early days in Sheffield

They said no-one would watch celebrities stepping out on the ballroom floor – but 15 years ago Wayne Garvie proved the sceptics wrong. As head of the BBC entertainment group, and later as a managing director at BBC Worldwide, he oversaw the development of the TV phenomenon Strictly Come Dancing, then took a lead in exporting the format to broadcasters across the globe.

Tuesday, 13th August 2019, 07:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th August 2019, 19:44 pm
Wayne Garvie

He repeated the trick with Dragons' Den, and turned Top Gear into an international brand by recognising the appeal of a show where cars are secondary to the chemistry of the hosts.

Now Garvie is president of international production for Sony Pictures Television, where he supervises around 20 joint ventures worldwide, including the makers of Netflix's The Crown.

But his journey in media began in Yorkshire – and he's just returned to the county to collect an honorary doctorate from Sheffield University, where he studied in the 1980s.

"I'm very fond of Sheffield and any excuse to go back is good," says Garvie, on the phone from his London office. "One of the great things is it's a city that feels like a village. I always found it a very welcoming place and it's not too big – it's easy to get round. And it's a city where you can make opportunities for yourself. It's a great place to be a young person in."

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Garvie headed North to gain a PhD in economic and social history, having been an undergraduate in Kent and a schoolboy in Suffolk. His thesis was in coal mining communities.

"I thought a career in academia might be interesting," he explains. "For me, I learned it wouldn't be. There weren't many jobs, you have to be an expert in a particular field, and the attention to detail... I'm not really a details person."

Garvie sought careers advice, and was told about an access scheme for young people at BBC Radio Sheffield, an opportunity he grabbed enthusiastically.

"We'd produce two or three hours of radio which was a mixture of music, interviews and reviews," he says.

The slot was an excellent training ground for future talent. His colleagues included George Ergatoudis, who ran the playlists at Radio 1 before leaving for top jobs at Spotify and Apple Music.

"It was a very interesting way of learning about the media," says Garvie. "From there I applied to the BBC training schemes, which I didn't get on, and I found myself applying for a job at Granada in Manchester as a sports researcher, which bizarrely I did get."

He already had a love of light entertainment that was nurtured during the golden age of terrestrial TV when shows attracted huge audiences.

"I grew up in a working-class family, and we mostly watched ITV, and the BBC on Saturday nights - that line-up of Parkinson, The Two Ronnies and Match of the Day. It was like a dream. Years later I was very lucky, at the BBC, that we'd still do the Parkinson show and we brought the Two Ronnies back to do things. And, of course, I put Bruce Forsyth into Strictly so I got to work with all these fantastic people."

Garvie spent a decade at Granada, then joined the BBC in 1998, managing part of the corporation's output in Manchester before taking on the whole entertainment department. This was more than a decade before swathes of the BBC decamped from London to Media City UK in Salford, a move Garvie was in on from the start, delivering a presentation to the then director general Greg Dyke.

"I did it with a chap called Peter Salmon, who's a mate," he says. "We decided the best way to present it to the board was a 'pro' and 'anti' case."

Garvie played devil's advocate on the day, but believed Greater Manchester was the best place for the relocation.

"It's far enough away from London and it's got a very independent culture. I think what Channel 4 is doing, moving to Leeds, is really good. I argued it should be in Salford, just because I think you can get a cluster there, but actually Manchester and Leeds are so close – or they should be, if the Government ever sorts out the travel, which is a disgrace. You can live in Manchester and work in Leeds, and vice versa.

“For the first time in about 20 years – since I was there, when Granada was strong, and you had the BBC in Manchester and Yorkshire Television in Leeds – you really get a sense that people could have careers. My two daughters were born in Manchester so I'm very close to the city and the North."

But, he says, 'the important thing is not to get fixated on broadcasters'.

"In some ways they're all challenged. The real thing is about production and creating content. You can be based anywhere. You see that with Shane Meadows' films, and all the stuff he does out of Nottingham. It embodies a different way of looking at the world and we need that in our ecology."

Garvie is relaxed, engaging and gossipy – traits he's used to his advantage. When he was tasked with turning round the BBC's struggling entertainment unit, one of his simple changes was to take producers out for informal drinks to shake off the corporation's 'fusty' image.

But did he ever think Strictly would make such an impact?

"No, not at all," Garvie says. "We had a press launch at Claridge's, with me and Bruce and most of the dancers. The next day, The Times did a piece about how the BBC had got no ideas whatsoever, so they're going back to Come Dancing. No-one thought it would be this juggernaut. The people who produce it now – most of whom I don't know – do a great job every year. It gets bigger and better. That's a fantastic skill. I remember once we finished one show, and I remember Bruce saying to the cast 'Cherish these moments because they don't come along very often in your career', and I think that's true."

Garvie went to Sony in 2012, following a spell with production company All3Media.

"Dragon's Den is a Sony-owned format, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is one we've brought back in the UK with Jeremy Clarkson," he says. "Then on top of that we've got the scripted market, which has exploded in recent years."

This avalanche of material has had consequences, he acknowledges. Studio space is becoming scarce, and good writers are tricky to find.

"Because there's so much being commissioned, getting writers who have a window in the next six months is almost impossible now. There's also a problem of inflation. There's so much drama being made, that people can ask for very good rates. It's a good time but it does make budgets more challenging."

And programmes can sink quickly if they do not find an audience rapidly enough. "There's so much content out there, it's quite difficult to land it and market it. Audiences' tastes have changed quite a bit. Some of the factual entertainment programmes that 10 years ago would have got sizeable audiences people just don't watch any more."

He became friendly with Clarkson at the BBC; the corporation's commercial arm took a stake in the presenter's company to grow Top Gear as a brand.

"We made an Australian version, a US version and even a Russian one," Garvie says. "Jeremy and I used to have this discussion – some would call it a row – when I would say Top Gear had a format, and he would go 'Don't talk nonsense'. There are formattable points within it that you can replicate elsewhere. What I always thought was interesting – and again he and I disagreed about this – is that in my view, Top Gear is not about cars. It's about men and their relationship with each other, and that's why people love it. Even if you're a woman, you often want to watch men together, it's fascinating. I don't particularly care for cars."

Garvie, 55, feels his purpose is to 'spot talent, and create an environment in which they can achieve their potential'.

"I think as a menu for life that's pretty good. As you get to a certain age you realise what your strengths and weaknesses are. I'm pretty good at juggling lots of balls and that suits my personality."

Minimising the chance of failure

International broadcasters are 'risk averse', says Wayne Garvie - which makes selling tried and tested TV formats a highly profitable business.

"The easiest way is to say there are formattable points – if you do these four or five things, you should have success," he says. "That's most obvious in a quiz or game show. But even in a reality show like Bake Off, there are points within that. In Top Gear, you've got elements that are like mini shows in themselves – Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, The Stig, the races with each other. That's what you look for when you're trying to sell a format abroad and that's what buyers look for: 'How can I take this template and minimise the risk of failure?'"

Nevertheless there are 'ones that get away'. Garvie laments the failure of Traitor, a game show that ran for five episodes on BBC Two in 2004 fronted by Tony Livesey, who now hosts 5 Live Drive.

"It was a brilliant show, people sat in a circle and told stories and you had to guess who was the liar. Everyone else I knew who worked on it loved it, and other people in the industry did. But actually no-one watched it."