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“This is an arts programme not a celebrity talk show,” John Kelly Talks about RTÉ Series ‘The Work Presents’
28 Feb 2017 : Laura Brennan
John Kelly with Grace Coddington in New York 'The Works Presents: Grace Coddington' on Tuesday, February 28th at 11.10pm RTÉ One
Grace Coddington, former creative director at Vogue in the US and ex-top model discusses her wide and varied career of outstanding creativity and understanding the art of fashion with John Kelly on ‘The Works Presents’ series, which continues on RTÉ One this week.

IFTN spoke with John about his experiences filming for the current series, his guests, interview techniques and his own feelings on the importance of art within our society.

“Grace Coddington is probably the person I knew least about in the series. I’d never met her before and don’t really know much about the world she operates in although I’d seen a documentary [The September Issue] and I did my homework before I got there.  Grace is actually from Wales, which a lot of people don’t realise. She used to get copies of Vogue cycling to the shop in Holyhead.

“We got on well despite the fact that she operates in this bizarre fashion world. There was no particular culture shock with me meeting Grace. We got on great. Her PA was from Dublin which added to things.

“She was a really interesting woman, obviously she’s very, very talented. Time Magazine once wrote ‘If Anna Wintour is the Pope, Coddington is Michelangelo trying to paint a fresh version of the Sistine Chapel 12 times a year’. There’s a lot of truth to that.  She denies she’s an artist but she most certainly is. She doesn’t consider what she does as being art, but I think it is.

“We filmed it in an office in New York in the low thirties somewhere and she was getting phone calls from Anna Wintour and fending them off while we were doing the interview. She was very easy going, relaxed and very straightforward and very matter of fact with what she does. Clearly, she knows her business better than anybody,” John said.

New York

“We talked to Laurie Anderson in New York as well. That was interesting for me because I kind of knew her a little bit, but I had known her husband [Lou Reed] a bit better. It was nice to be in their home and to see that scene and spend a bit of time with her. Although funnily her place had really noisy radiators, like really noisy, we almost thought we might have to stop filming.

“We filmed it in the days just before the elections, so it was a bit tricky because we couldn’t talk about the election because we didn’t know the outcome. So that was, to use that awful expression ‘the elephant in the room’.

“We filmed three interviews in a row in New York. One after the other, it was fairly tight. But if you’re going to go to a city like New York you are better doing them while there. There is a certain logistical operation to it. For example Seamus {Seamus McGarvey] lives in Italy but he happened to be in New York, so it started to make sense to do them all while I was there.”

Guests on the show

“I think we have a responsibility to go a little bit behind and out of the mainstream to talk to people. Obviously interviewing somebody from U2 is a big deal, but nobody ever really talks to Adam so we talked to him and he’s a very interesting guy.

“We’ve managed to alternate it where we get a big name like an Adam Clayton or a Grace Coddington with somebody else from the art world who might be considered more niche or at least aren’t as well known.

“So we’ve done pieces with people like Jessie Jones and Alice Maher who are absolutely top of their game in the Art world but you imagine people thinking ‘well they’re not celebrities in that sense of the word’.

“Personally I’ve zero interest in celebrities, but the fact is that if you do somebody like Liam Cunningham who is in ‘Game of Thrones’ or Adam Clayton who is in U2. You get enormous attention because that links into a global thing on twitter. It goes around the world and they’ve got fans in every continent.

“That enables you then to make programmes about people who aren’t as well known but are just as interesting and just as significant. Then people will trust you to sit down and watch those programmes too.

“You don’t have to be a movie star or a rock star on ‘The Work Presents’, in fact, it may well work against you. This is an arts programme, not a celebrity talk show. It’s not showbusiness, and it’s not light entertainment, because of that we don’t have to go chasing Kanye West.”

Interview Style

“I’m not really aware that I have one. I’m not aggressive, that’s for sure. I’m quite happy to accept the fact that this person that I’m talking too is smarter than me. Some interviewers make the mistake of constantly trying to get one up on the person they are interviewing.

“So, if I’m interviewing Seamus Heaney. What’s the point of me trying to pretend that I’m smarter than him, I’m not. So just enjoy that, enjoy him. Listen to what he’s saying, don’t be trying to top it or something.

“I’m pretty relaxed with people, I’m easy going. I push at certain points and sometimes people might not even notice I’m pushing because, at that stage the guest is relaxed enough to answer.”

Interview Structure

“I do have a structure. I have a fair idea of where I’m going to go and usually at the final question I ask no matter what their discipline is, some question to do with the importance of art and creativity. Why we need it? And why we do it?

“I’m conscious that a lot of art and art funds are under attack by people that don’t value it. Whether that be governments or broadcasters, individuals, public figures, journalists or just people who are always sniping at creative stuff which to my mind is really significant and really important.

“So I think it’s good to get some of these people like actors and writers to say things that outline so clearly why it’s important; why we should support it and why we need it.”

The Arts

“You get people that say ‘oh well I don’t know anything about poetry’ but you can’t go to a wedding or a funeral without somebody getting up and quoting Seamus Heaney. And that’s the way it should be.

“I don’t like this apologetic thing about the arts, this starting off on this footing that ‘reading doesn’t mean much to most people, but…’ That isn’t true. Most people do watch movies and the television and I get plenty of people saying to me ‘oh I’m not interested in the arts’ and I ask them what they do in their spare time? Then they tell me they watch the telly, ‘The West Wing’ read a bit, watch a movie and that’ all the arts. 

“Just because you don’t go to the project every weekend doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the arts. There’s an awful lot of that going on and I don’t really know where it’s coming from or what the agenda is, but there’s a lot of people out there trying to diminish the importance of things like the arts.

“The arts as far as I can see is just what most people do. It’s what you do during the day and what you do to make your life a pleasure. As I say people read comics, people read newspapers and in a strange city people walk around looking at buildings or go into a museum. It’s not as rarefied as people make out.

“I’m not making programmes for the arts community I’m making programmes for people. You don’t have people walking around saying ‘I’m in the Arts community’.  It’s just people sitting at home watching the telly. Sometimes I think it can be a disservice, making the arts community sound like a little group of eccentric people who are the only people interested, they aren’t.

“When I was a kid and I remember seeing a documentary about Billie Holiday. I didn’t really know who she was until I saw this. I was just a person at home. I wasn’t born full of weird information about jazz musicians.  I learnt this stuff from watching the television and I wasn’t part of any kind of community. I was just a person like anybody else.

“When I make a programme I’m not thinking ‘oh this is going to go down really well with the arts community’. No,  I’m thinking that there might be some kid at school watching this tonight who might go on to be an artist or might write or might go on to join a band. Or he might’ve just picked up some really useful information from Adam Clayton who really knows what he’s talking about.”

‘The Works Presents: Grace Coddington’, episode 5 of 8, RTÉ One, Tuesday, February 28th at 11.10pm.

‘The Works Presents’ – Production Credits:

Presenter: John Kelly

Researchers: Stephen Mc Elroy, Elaine Buckley

Programme Dept. Assistants: Roisin Mc Keon & Karina Ryan

Producers: A.P. Heffernan & Aifric Ní Chianáin

Series Producer: Deborah Spillane

Lighting Camerapersons:  Matt Naughton, Kieran O’Connell, Dave Perry, Ronan Lee & Úna Farrelly

Graphic Design: Gareth Teggin

Video Editor: John Paul Shortt

Electrician: Laurence Brierty

Sound: Steve Farrell, Sean Conaboy & Peter O’Connor

Post Production Sound: Owen Tighe, Seán Higgins & Alvin Sweeney

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