A Man Walks Into A Bar… Phil Edgar-Jones

Hello Philip Edgar-Jones. We remember you off of Games World Live. Jeremy Daldry now produces Jim’ll Fix It, Andy Collins the guy who followed you went on to host Family Fortunes and Wright Here Right Now (with Ian Wright).
You’re now a top creative director for Endemol. Who got the best deal here?

I never met Andy Collins, though I have seen him in action doing warm up for Dancing on Ice. A thouroughly enjoyable, if slippy, evening. We’ve all ended up having interesting careers it looks to me. Jim’ll Fix It is a national institution and I can’t imagine a better person than Jeremy to produce it. And, of course, I reckon I am one of the luckiest people in TV – I love my job.

Were the Games World years fun years?

I didn’t have a whole lot of fun during “The Games World Years”, being probably one of the worst presenters you could possibly imagine. Shite, in fact.

You’re not in front of the cameras very much now, was it always your wish to be on the telly?

It’s probably a good thing I’m not in front of the cameras very much. Quite happy working in the murky shadows behind the scenes thanks very much.

Let’s build our way slowly up to Big Brother, I’ve almost forgotten some of the other shows you’ve worked on, like Shattered, Kings of Comedy and Space Cadets. And Princess Nikki. How many ideas for reality TV formats do you get to look at on an average week and how is it decided which ones are worth bothering with?

Actually it’s a bit more involved than that. We spend lots of time thinking up ideas with the development teams here, then we go an pitch them to a broadcaster. Sometimes we get an outright “no”. Sometimes we get mild interest but are asked to do more work. Sometimes we are met with enthusiasm. We tend to look at areas and subject that catch our eye and stimulate our interest.

Was there a rather smug feeling in the Endemol offices when you got John Humphries, who doesn’t very vocally doesn’t do reality television, to do Art School? What about Germaine Greer on Big Brother?

We were, of course, delighted when Mr Humphreys agreed to do Art School because he wanted to learn art. I gave out a small “whoop”.

Our mouths were agape when Germaine Greer agreed to do Big Brother. I whooped a louder whoop.
I have to say I admire both these people enormously. They deserve respect. There’s a weird snobbery about reality TV, though – basically all these shows (from Art School to The Apprentice) share a common link with Big Brother in that they are about people being with other people and either getting along or not getting along. It’s only the setting and the wrapping that’s different. Discuss.

How regularly do you feel guilt? I’m intrigued to find out how the production team felt after Space Cadets‘ eventual pay off. “We’re so good at telly?” Tangible relief? Inward cringing? I’m not speaking as someone who disliked the show, in fact I was the one who found it fascinating.

I felt a mixture of these and other emotions, probably the same as people watching the show. We did go to great lengths to get families of the participants involved during pre-production and when we were on air, and thoroughly checked out the participants psychological make-up – they all needed to be robust enough to take the joke. A few months after the show had ended I took all the participants to Moscow for a a trip on the “vomit comet” zero gravity flight and they all told me they enjoyed the experience of being on the show. They thought it was funny. And they liked being on TV. I am a Scottish Presbyterian so I feel guilt practically all the time.

What’s happened to Boothby Graffoe’s career since winning Kings of Comedy?

No idea.

Would you say you’re the sort of person who bitches about people behind their back, or if you don’t like something about someone do you TELL it to their FACE, YEAH?

Have you been to the Big Brother auditions? I would say I was non confrontational if that helps.

This leads us nicely on to Big Brother, which has been on the end of a rather controversial few years. I’ve always been interested in the show, ever since hearing about the original Dutch show on the internet all the way back in 1999. But last year something strange happened. For the first time, I gave up watching about three weeks from the end. I wasn’t the only one, your ratings for the final week actually went down as it progressed which is rather unusual. You were rather, it has to be said, rather self-congratulatory in a MediaGuardian interview because the night Nikki came back got you a mini-peak in viewers. But even then it was what a Big Brother 5 eviction would have got on a BAD night…

The fact is we thought the programme would benefit from a dramatic event near the end to shake up the action. Some people liked the idea and lots watched it, some people didn’t like the idea and either let us know or switched off – like you did. Personally I thought it worked well. I wrote an article for Media Guardian going through the various conspiracy theories that Big Brother seems to attract. It was supposed to be tongue in cheek rather than self-congratulatory, but hey-ho.

One of the more common themes that crops up with this is the idea that the public don’t really trust you as a company any more, you come across as being out to make a quick buck and don’t seem to care who gets thrown under the bus in order to achieve that. How difficult is it, do you think, to regain the public trust in the current environment where it seems like TV is out to get them?

I truly believe that we take our duty of care for anyone who appears in any of our shows very seriously. That even extends to people in the BB audition process who don’t make it onto the show. Some people are not suitable to appear on the programme and on several occasions we have arranged local care for people who are in trouble and need it. Personally, as the person in charge of the show, the “bucks” don’t have any effect – I am trying to make an entertaining TV show. And, don’t forget, the housemates come to us – we don’t go to them. The participants do have free will. During the interviews we also do what we call “the talk of doom” where we warn interviewees about the various down sides of appearing in a show of this nature. Some housemates have said that Big Brother runied their lives – well they have been warned that it won’t necessarily be a positive experience (I can’t think of another show that does this). And I wonder sometimes if it’s to do with the fact that they have expected too much (like lasting fame and fortune) and when it doesn’t happen you’ve got to blame something haven’t you? It’s human nature.

Does it not say something when, with all the controversy that has surrounded the show of late, a sizable amount of people (many of whom are or were fans of the show!) actively want Endemol to get a good ticking off to take them down a peg or two?

I think it just shows the power of the programme – that the viewers are so passionate about it and involved in it that they want their voices to be heard. And we welcome that.

Do you think that bad press from Big Brother effects how viewers think about other Endemol shows such as shows that rely on trust such as Deal or No Deal? And let’s not kid ourselves you’re different because you’re the Brighter Pictures arm – everyone understands you’re all part of the same corporation.

No I don’t.

Is it alright for producers to effectively bully a contestant if they are deemed unpopular with the public and you felt there was money in it? How much would you sell your grandmother for?

No. No living grandparents.

If someone has to go on hunger strike in order to prove a point, isn’t that a sign that things have got rather out of hand? Aren’t you meant to have a duty of care for your contestants, whether good or bad, or does that end as soon as you’ve made all your money from them?

We offer aftercare to all our housemates. You have to take each individual seprarately. Sometimes they don’t want what we offer and that is their choice.

How do you respond to criticisms of editorial bias? I imagine you’d deny it happens but isn’t it a bit off when, just for example, Ashleyne comes back into the house after a stressful period in floods of tears only for the host of the main shows and discussion shows to find it hysterically funny? Aren’t the conduits of Big Brother meant to be neutral?

First up – remember that Big Brother is an entertainment show. The spin-off shows would always zone in on the most entertaining things and laugh about them where appropriate. Secondly I don’t see what we have to gain by being editorially biased. I genuinely don’t care who wins – it’s up to the viewers and that’s as it should be. My own view is that the real editing takes place in viewers heads – we could both watch the same footage and come away with an entirely different viewpoint (if you look at the web forums that’s exactly what happens). I think people have forgotten that this is part of the joy of Big Brother. Of course the show is edited, but by lots of different people at different times. We have very strict rules about following the chronology of the day and nothing can be edited out of context. You won’t find this rule adhered to by many documentary makers, for example. Of course different people make different selections when it comes to choosing material to put in the show – but there is no policy on how an individual should be portrayed. Also it’s worth pointing out that the housemates talk about fellow housemates in much the same way the viewers talk about them – and they aren’t watching it on TV, they are there! At the end of most series we’ll ask the housemates to dramatically reconstruct the entire series and they generally tell the story just as it’s been told on TV.

It does feel like when the nomination results come through that one person seems to get a “good” edit, or is pushed into the background whilst the other seems to get all their bad points eccentuated on screen. Shock result?
90%+ want someone out. Wouldn’t you get more votes and hence more money in the long term if the editing doesn’t play up to audience expectations all the time and the votes were closer?

It doesn’t happen like that. If people don’t do what they do we can’t show it.

Do you not think twists might have a bigger impact if there weren’t two or three a week? It’s got to the point where perfectly decent tasks (like the milk tank one, for example) are being ruined by the production company being not quite as clever as it wants to think it is. Is the reliance something to do with the fact you have to fill an hour every night and you can’t rely on the housemates to do it for you? Shouldn’t you just pick more interesting housemates?

I think we do pick interesting housemates. Some twists and tasks work better than others. We’d be some kind of weird freaks if we always got it right.

Why can’t you leave nominations alone? It’s the one time of the week we get to find out what they really think of each other, but you seem rather preoccupied with ruining one of the main focal points of the show with yet more twists the fans don’t seem to enjoy very much. How desperate is the meddling when Davina can build something up like “do you remember Cleo and Carole were talking about nominations the other week?” and my honest answer, having been an avid viewer thus far, is “er, no?”

But a lot of people like these kinds of twist. Can’t please everyone I guess.

How come we never find out what people are like anymore with the only allowable broadcast conversations being on house politics and nothing else?

We will do our very best to make sure we show what people are like.

One thing that’s always intrigued me, these days you like your thrilling flashpoint setpieces where people might shout at each other and, if we’re lucky!, come to blows. Do producers actively enjoy being on Big Brother duty during these periods? Do you draw straws? Is there any truth in the idea that someone sets them up and then buggers off home and lets someone else deal with it?

We don’t know what’s going to happen off the back of any task or twist – that’s the joy of it. One thing I have learned over the years is that people usually do the thing you least expect in the BB house.
I like being on BB duty whenever I am there.
We work on a shift system.

Do Big Brothers enjoy talking to housemates in the Diary room? Our favourite Big Brother bits in the last few years have been when Big Brother has been rather chatty and funny.

Yes. Very much. Best job in the world.

How difficult is it to work out how to reward/punish housemates for passing/failing tasks when the housemates perceptively point out even if they fail you’ll throw loads of patries in order to get them drunk anyway?

They probably had too many parties last year. We change stuff every year though – so watch this space.

Do you think Jade Goody is a racist?

No I don’t.

We read an article in quality tabloid The Daily Star a while ago mentioning the new house you’re building away from Elstree and that it will be unveiled for Celebrity Big Brother. A spokesperson apparently said that they reckon celebrities will thrill to be trying out the new house. Do you seriously believe that with the possibility of destroying their career it will be worth it?

But you read it in the Daily Star!

Have you read Dean O’ Loughlin off of Big Brother 2’s book? Are you looking forward to Narinder Kaur’s?

I did read Dean’s book – but ages ago so can’t really remember it. Very much looking forward to Narinder’s book.

And finally… is there another series of Princess Nikki in the pipeline?

Er… no. Sadly.

Thanks Phil!

This interview was conducted in 2007. The following comments were left in the original comment box:

Brig Bother:
This is, I will be honest, not a terribly good interview and I do think it’s largely my fault.  

But for sake of completeness, here is the follow-up e-mail I sent with some extra questions on (because I wouldn’t want to be seen as a soft-touch, obviously). For whatever reason it didn’t get a reply. 

——————————— 

Thanks Phil, I have a couple of follow-up questions and points and then I will leave you alone. I will tidy this all up to look like a “proper” interview but I won’t change any of the wording. 

* Following tangentally from the hunger strike question, Dawn was apparently thrown out for communicating with the outside world. During the next week’s Meal or No Meal Challenge, you asked kids to describe various housemates and for one of them (I forget which) to guess who they were with hilarious consequences, which seems to me pretty much the same thing. Surely without fundamental rules Big Brother just becomes A N Other reality TV show? 

* And do you think it was a wise idea to use kids? Would you class Big Brother as family friendly entertainment these days? I don’t doubt that the kids watch it but do you think it sets a good example to them? 

* Isn’t the crowd booing getting a bit much now? Is it still “only pantomime” when things now get thrown at leaving housemates? Isn’t it getting a bit silly that now even the winner gets booed? How much of a losing battle is it when Dermot’s first question to the crowd on BBLB is “who are you going to boo tonight?”  

> 2. Not sure what the question is.  

Don’t worry, that was just a bit of build up expressing my position as interviewer, if you like. 

> Fact is we thought the
> programme would benefit from a dramatic event near the end to shake up
> the action. Some people liked the idea and lots watched it, some
> people didn’t like the idea and either let us know or switched off –
> like you did. 

As indeed did many people. To be honest I switched off before then (albeit whilst following it through the website) – what most annoyed me was that it felt like a massive kick in the teeth to those who had been watching since the beginning – sod fundamental rules, sod programme loyalty, Nikki’s coming back after weeks of being tedious in the real world and you’ll like it or else. 

This being said, I note there’s been a change to the terms and conditions to allow you to do this sort of thing in future. I’ve never found terms and conditions amusing before. And I grant you it was the best final night in years, despite having the most boring winner. 

> 1. I think we do pick interesting housemates.  

Do you? I, and many people I reckon, think Big Brother 5 would have worked whether Big Brother was “evil” or not because you genuinely did have a great set of housemates. Ever since then we’ve had an array of fairly bland, pretty young boys and girls without much to say but insisting on saying it very loudly indeed. And Shahbaz. It makes it quite difficult to really care, which makes it easier to switch off. How interesting are this year’s housemates? 

> Will I be able to watch Big Brother 8 feeling less dirty?
>
> What makes you feel dirty? 

I think it’s coming from a perspective of getting older. I was up until three in the morning on infamous Fight Night, being frightened to death of rolling pictures of the terrifying Diandra trying to get the latest news on what the bloody hell has happened (whilst simultaneously being amused by the “text us and give yer money” bar still rolling across the bottom of the screen, as something which should be comforting should). The time when George Galloway and Preston had their nominations broadcast was similarly properly tension filled and exciting. But this sort of thing suffers from the law of diminishing returns and there’s a feeling you’re trying to catch lightning in a jar again and there comes a point where it feels you’re trying too hard to artificially start a fight and doing it too often. No-one seems to be allowed to be seen smiling on the TV show in case it offends the edgy teen demographic. I want to be interested in these people and I want to be entertained. It’s a bit of a sad state when the highlight is when Big Brother cracks a joke. 

Are the Big Brother 8 housemates interesting and will it be entertaining? 

Sorry, it’s gone a bit internet fanboy and a become more intense than I was expecting/hoping. But thanks for your time at any rate and good luck with the series. 

Bye!
Nick 

———————— 

I can’t think as to why it didn’t get a reply 🙁

Gizensha
“There’s a weird snobbery about reality TV, though – basically all these shows (from Art School to The Apprentice) share a common link with Big Brother in that they are about people being with other people and either getting along or not getting along. It’s only the setting and the wrapping that’s different. Discuss.” 

Well, since he did ask… 

It’s interesting that the Reality Shows that I can think of which I have enjoyed watching (or, rather, bothered to watch) don’t use that as the central premise, or at least don’t present themselves as being about that. Admittedly, some of these are debatable weather they’re reality shows or not, but… 

Without Prejudice? I watched and enjoyed because decission making process and debates is something that’s interesting to me. 

Wanted, which was pretty much the granddaddy of Reality Television, was watched by me because, goddamnit, the very concept of watching adults play hide and seek on a national scale is addictive, no matter how artificial some of the rules were (No reentering a 10km (or was it 1km?) square once you leave it being the canonical example), and I want a remake even if the live game would have to be completely rethought due to the sheer lack of phoneboxes nowadays. 

My being about the only person alive who enjoyed Unanonemous was because democracy in action is a concept that intreagues me, rather than watching the interactions involved. 

The Mole, while billed as reality tv, wasn’t, and so is inappropriate for this ‘discuss’. 

The Murder Game’s focus was always more on the investigationy bits, rather than the interactiony bits, except for the video diary bits. Quite gratifying that the guy who went on 5 or 6 Killer’s Games won. This is probably due to the ‘vote for who you want to go on the killers game’ came with immunities (anyone who passed their task and that days Chief Investigator), and most of the camera time being dedicated to the slog of police work and people sharing their theories with each other. Plus the Blair-Witchy camerawork on The Killer’s Game. Unfortunately, the focus was such that the people watching for the Detective Drama aspect were annoyed by the Gameshow aspect interfearing in it, and the people watching for the Gameshow aspect were annoyed by the Detective Drama aspect. A bit like why The Crime Traveller failed but without the time travel, or the episode dedicated to playing the lottory. 

The exception (weather it helps to prove a rule or not) being Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands. Which lacks audience participation for the main event, and I think presents a more ‘realistic’ situation compared to Big Brother’s mostly artificially constructed one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.