On my way in to meet Vivienne Clore and Geoff Atkinson at the tucked away offices of theatrical agents the Richard Stone Partnership, I am greeted by a giant picture of Zoe Ball and she looks like a teenager.
Clore, an agent for more than 20 years with the likes of Ball, Rory Bremner and Richard Bacon on her books, looks at me and sighs, “I’ve been in this industry a long, long time” before striding around and sitting behind her desk. Atkinson, who made his name as a comedy writer, meanwhile sits next to me on the rather comfortable sofa. It feels a little bit like they are taking a good cop, bad cop approach to things.
The pair are the managing directors of Vera Productions, the indie they set up with Bremner some 12 years ago. Producer Elaine Morris made up the final member of the quarter – although she has since left. Atkinson interjects at this point to explain that they had to use the first letter of his surname to complete the twisted acronym that gives the its firm its name. He adds: “Verg just didn’t sound as catchy.”
At a time when the independent production sector is increasingly consolidating and creating super-indies that are better equipped to deal with the broadcasters – both in terms of rights and commissions – Vera remains unashamedly small time.
Atkinson’s view is that creative flair should take precedent over cynical commercialism. He says: “For us it is far more important to make good programmes, than to become obsessed with getting bigger and buying into other areas.
“We want to make the programmes we want to make, the way we want to make them without worrying too much about anything else.”
Clore punctuates this, adding that they have no interest in chasing formats for international sales as the sector becomes increasingly hooked on generating homogenised productions to work well all over the world.
Of course there are a lot of small to medium-sized indies out there that might follow a similar philosophy. The thing that might make this seemingly haphazard one different is that they have the form, the talent and the contacts to be able to bag those crucial meetings with commissioners.
Clore, who started out as a secretary at the Richard Stone Partnership in 1978 and along the way has worked with Comic Strip director Bob Spiers, Harry Enfield and John Fortune, admits: “We do have good relationships with all of the broadcasters and commissioners. But they know what they are getting with us and they know it will be quality productions.”
High up on their list is developing that Holy Grail for terrestrial broadcasters – a workable sitcom for mass audiences. ITV, with comedy and entertainment director Paul Jackson at the helm, is desperate for new primetime hit. The executive, whose form includes The Young Ones and The Two Ronnies, has vowed to get something on in the schedules between 8pm and 10pm by next year.
Atkinson admits: “We are working on ideas with Paul and I think actually what is good about him is he understands that with comedy you have to give it time to breathe and grow. Ever since the early days he’s been a real champion of talent so I think more people are coming round to the idea they could do something for ITV.”
Atkinson has a nice line in comic patter – well, what would you expect from a man who started out writing for the prodigious Punch before going on to work for legendary producer John Lloyd and Douglas Adams? What he also has is an almost childlike enthusiasm and passion for programme making and this has served the company well, allowing them to push more subversive shows such as Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Trust Me, I’m the Prime Minister and cult hit Don’t Watch That, Watch This, which has just been commissioned for a third series.
He explains: “You have got to love and really care about what you do and be interested in it. The business side is almost a separate thing – something that follows from having good programmes.”
At this stage Clore dons her faux bad cop hat and says in half exasperation, half amusement: “Now it sounds as though we don’t have any kind of plan or strategy,” before adding, “Of course we do but I think our approach is true to how we started out and true to how we feel things should be done.”
They seem at first a little like weary parents overwhelmed by the pace of the modern industry but this I think is an injustice. To maintain a successful, profitable, independent production house is no mean feat and requires – aside from good ideas – a shrewd business acumen and a forward-thinking approach.
Testament to this is the fact that Vera, if rather slowly, is moving into different areas. Having joined forces with the Stratford-based Hanrahan Media, best known for its factual programming, it is keen to exploit new but suitable areas.
While there will be four more Rory Bremner series over the next two years, a move into documentaries with the production of a Dispatches episode for Channel 4 and two more shows for BBC2′s Timewatch are also planned.
I ask them why they would take a step into the factual genre over anything else? Clore says: “Why not? The important thing is that we are innovative and interesting and interested.”
Vera also recently drafted in the services of film-maker Will Knott as head of development and establishing a new regional offshoot in Bristol.
Clore explains: “A lot of television programming is London or at least metropolitan specific and actually most people don’t live in London and don’t come down very often – so yes I feel very strongly that there should be more regional programming and TV should be a bit more reflective of the people watching it.”
They are working on a computer project to tie in with the World Cup – which will be written and filmed as the team progresses. Originally planned for a terrestrial broadcaster, things haven’t gone to plan but Atkinson still thinks the show will be a big hit through the internet and viral facilities such as Youtube – a cult site among the iPod generation.
He adds, somewhat unexpectedly: “Getting things out there through virals is going to be more and more pertinent.”
At this Clore laughs: “You see, perhaps we do have a strategy for the next 12 years after all.”