Stuart Murphy, Director of Sky1 HD and Director of Programming for Sky Entertainment and Sky Atlantic was in Ireland this week to deliver the IFTA Television Lecture and launch the Winter showcase of Sky for the festive season and New Year.
Before moving to Sky Stuart was the youngest controller of BBC3 where he commissioned programmes like ‘Little Britain’, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Torchwood’ and ‘Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps’. He joined BSkyB in May 2009 and also runs Sky2 and Pick TV. In February of this year he launched Sky Atlantic, a channel which screens US television programmes, including Martin Scorsese’ ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and HBO's ‘Game of Thrones’. Before the launch of the Winter showcase IFTN sat down with the man himself to discuss his life’s work, his successes and what makes him laugh.
IFTN - As a student you studied Political Geography, how do you go from that to Director of Sky1 HD and Director of Commissioning for Sky Entertainment and Sky Atlantic?
Stuart Murphy - I was the first one in my family to go to University. I did Geography in Cambridge, I specialised in the restructuring of the USSR, and in fact now I’m learning Russian, just for fun. Then I was a tea boy in BBC Manchester for about six or nine months and just worked my way up. I was a researcher on the Shankill Road for Reportage and then did ‘Great Railway Journeys’ in Africa for six months, ‘The Sunday Show’, ‘Big Breakfast’ and then I suppose there were two moments where I was like, in at the deep end.
One, was I was hired by MTV as an assistant producer, which is like third tier from the bottom and then the week I turned up the producer got fired and I was made producer and then the week after the series producer got fired and I was made series producer. So it was kind of one of those in at the deep end things. Then the other moment was a bit like that where I was working for Jane Root at the BBC and literally I was walking down the street and bumped into a friend of a friend called Paul Lee and he said, “You should be running channels, call this person.” I thought what do you mean running channels, I was only 26. I called this bloke, who was setting up the UKtv a set of channels that were the BBC’s commercial arm and developed what was Radio One TV that became UKplay and, again, it was another in at the deep end kind of thing. I think one of the things that geography has helped with is in geography you had to spin lots of plates all the time and cover lots of different subjects and see the interconnectedness of things and certainly running channels, everything affects everything else.
IFTN - You were quite successful from a very young age. What do you think that is down to?
Stuart Murphy - I think it is partly that I work really, really hard. So when my mates were working 9-5 I’d work harder than them or people in the office with me I’d always make sure I worked harder than them. I think partly in creative jobs there is a reluctance for people to put their neck on the line because it is not a science and there can be a lot of woolly thinking. Early on someone said to me, “whatever you do make a decision.” So I would quite often be forthright on stuff that I need not be forthright about, and so you quite quickly get a reputation for making decisions. I think I am quite nice and I think there a lot of people in creative jobs who are nervous because they have written something that is either really personal, or they are an actor who is putting themselves on the line, or they are a presenter in front of a big studio audience feeling insecure about their looks or something - and I hope I’m quite a nice person and make people comfortable, which is ironic because I hate being in the public eye.
In telly the key is making a call on whether something is going to be good, for instance ‘Mad Dogs’, it was pitched to us and within about an hour we said we’ll go for it, where as the BBC and ITV didn’t make a decision or ‘Pineapple Dance Studios’, we got the first tape in and instead of just having six episodes after we got the first episode in we said quickly, lets do thirteen. So it is about being really bold. When they brought in the first script of ‘Gavin and Stacey’, it was originally a one hour episode, it was a wedding based in Billericay and we said, well we like the script but why don’t we do a series instead of a one off. It is trying to be imaginative and make quick firm bold decisions. I think that is what I am quite good at.
IFTN - How does someone go about pitching an idea to you and what advice would you give someone who wanted to pitch an idea to you?
Stuart Murphy - I think the best ideas are ones that are really personal, when people hear that they think it needs to be about a trauma in some way because most people associate personal stuff with sad stuff. It doesn’t need to be, it might be that someone is so passionate about telling a particular documentary story.
I think the best ideas come from a conversation, where you will get someone to really open up and will talk about how they felt as a kid, or what their relationship with their brothers and sisters was like or if they got bullied at school or just things that mean a lot to people, that shape us all as people. So usually the best pitches come from a conversation.
The most frustrating pitches are where someone writes up one page or a summary of a show or a script and they say this is complete and it’s the finished article because as a commissioner it gives you no space to get involved and shape it into something that you jointly form. With Sarah Hooper, who wrote ‘Mount Pleasant’ for us, she had written a particular script, we liked how she wrote, she came in and said, we quite like the script but let’s chat about your life. She chatted about her mum and dad, about her husband and kids, where she travelled, what type of sex she has, what makes her laugh and she described an idea that was completely different to the script she had written, so we said, forget the script you have written, write about what we just talked about. Probably the best way to pitch is probably an email saying I like this area as opposed to here is the final script. If it is a factual idea like a documentary just a couple of lines and send it directly to me and I can send it to the relevant commissioner.
IFTN - What can you tell me about Chris O’Dowd’s ‘Moone Boy’?
Stuart Murphy - His script is a bit like ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ meets ‘Father Ted’. It is about that thing we all have, I suppose when you are a young kid you have an imaginary friend. It is just that this boy’s imaginary friend is a 35 year old man. So it’s like an eleven year old with a clumsy 35 year old man called Sean. Instead of this imaginary friend being a superhero, the imaginary friend wants to build dry stone walls. Not only does he have an imaginary friend but this kid’s best friend Padraig, they both have imaginary friends and they are both are 35 year old clumsy oafs. So it is just a really funny starting point and then the script is adorable. I love it, and he is such a sweet guy as well. He is brilliant in ‘Bridesmaids’ as well, blokes want to hang out with him and girls fancy him. What is quite nice is that he is not the only major talent we have got now so the reason I think he felt comfortable about coming to Sky was he saw that we had Ashley Banjo, Stephen Fry, Dawn French, we have all the guys from ‘Mad Dogs’, Davina McCall and James Cordon. We have a raft of quite cool nice people on the channel.
IFTN - In 2004 The Observer named you as one of the 80 young people who would shape peoples’ lives in the 21st centaury. Is that a lot pressure and how important do you think TV is in people’s lives?
Stuart Murphy - I don’t even think about it. I think that is just a random survey. One of the things that I really do take seriously is that life is so short. I have had proper ups and downs in my life where, professionally, generally it has gone well you know I have been fired from a job after eleven weeks and everyone has ups and downs in their personal life.
It is real key that you have your priorities in order and one of the things we were talking about with Sky1 was when I turned up to Sky1, it didn’t feel much love there, and not to get hippyish about it but I think if you are paying, particularly if you are paying for a channel, then you want it to make you feel good. If people are paying like €30 a month, then you want it to share your values as a person. We did a really big thing to make sure that lots of the things we commissioned in Sky1 had love at the centre, like ‘The Café’, which we have on at the moment, which is about normal people who just care for one another or ‘Stella’ with Ruth Jones that runs in January. It is about a woman falling in love and her family being close to her. I think in difficult economic times when everybody is really skint, when the environment is screwed up, having people caring for one another and a channel which reflects that value is a really important. It sounds a bit wet but one of the privileged things about being in this position is you can effect how people feel on a Tuesday night. I love that and it is really important that we modernise how people view one another; trying to reflect the world to be a colourful, more wonderful place.
IFTN - What kind of sense of humour would you say you have?
Stuart Murphy - Well I grew up in a family that is just mental. I am the youngest of three, I have an older sister, a middle brother and you know at the tea table when we were growing up Dad used to pretend to have a heart attack as a joke, so we would be talking and he would put his face in his food and then my sister would burst out crying saying “Dad’s dying Mum” and she would say, “Oh just ignore him” and we would literally carry on having our tea and then after a couple of minutes Dad would get up and carry on chatting with mashed potatoes on his face and it would happen so often, like once every two weeks, that it stopped being funny after about two months.
So I think my family have always been funny and I think because we all have that view that there is nothing in life you can’t laugh about, even like the saddest moments were you are at, like a funeral, you’ve been fired from a job or a relationship has just gone tits up, the thing that gets you through it, I think, is either love or a sense of humour. The only sense of humour I don’t find funny is; that kind of sneering, sarcastic sense of humour, the media elite tend to have, just the kind of smartarse sense of humour. I love silly stuff like ‘Airplane’, ‘Topgun’, ‘Man With Two Brains’, ‘Three Amigos’, ‘American Pie’. I love ‘The Inbetweeners’ type humour that is revolting and appalling and ‘Little Britain’ is a bit like that. I love dark humour like ‘Nighty Night’ or ‘High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman’ or ‘Monkey Dust’.
IFTN - Have you had a chance to look at Irish TV while over here? What are your favourite shows to watch?
Stuart Murphy- You know, I haven’t actually. I have heard really good reports about ‘Love/Hate’. I know they are not on but I love Podge and Rodge. We commissioned that at UKplay as well. I commissioned ‘Bachelors Walk’ with RTÉ when I was here. I love shows that everyone can watch together, I quite like ‘The X Factor’ at the moment. I love ‘Got To Dance’. I think what I really love about ‘Got To Dance’ is our judges know what they are on about, they don’t just look good. I really like news stuff although I don’t really talk about it that much because most of what I commission is comedy stuff but Ross Kemp, his hardcore stuff I really like. I love sweet stuff, like innocent things. ‘Terra Nova’ I’ve been watching a lot with my kids.
IFTN - If you could have commissioned one show that you didn’t, what would it be and why?
Stuart Murphy - ‘The Inbetweeners’. I love it when shows really accurately get a significant moment in all our lives and I think that has that. If you have seen ‘Bridesmaids’, you know the part where they put food on their teeth in the café, right at the start and she goes, ‘Do I have a problem with my teeth?’, and she says ‘No, do I need dentistry?’ and they joke about that. I think most films would only spend twenty seconds on that joke but they have that joke in there for about two minutes and they are just being silly with one another. It’s a real representation of girls mucking about and so I love stuff that is really, really honest. I think ‘The Inbetweeners’ is just what my life was like from fifteen - failed, rubbish, thinking you are cool, feeling totally out of place in the world. It is just such an honest show. I would love to commission something like that for Living. I think Sky Living next year will change quite a lot and I would love to be able to commission a really good naughty honest show for modern women.