Channel 4 boss Jay Hunt: Why Nigel Farage is a perfect fit for Channel 4

C4's chief creative officer tells Ben Dowell why she is bringing UKIP leader Nigel Farage onto the Gogglebox sofa - and gives an insight into where the channel is heading

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If there is a show that epitomises Channel 4 then it’s probably Gogglebox. The hugely popular Bafta Award-winning series shows groups of people from every conceivable walk of British life sitting in their living rooms, commenting – often hilariously – on what they’re watching, and seems to represent the tone, aims and cheerful confidence of C4 these days. Or at least that’s what 4.1 million-plus of Gogglebox viewers, and the channel’s chief creative officer, Jay Hunt, believe.

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“It’s a uniquely Channel 4 story,” says Hunt from her glass “goldfish bowl” office in the middle of the commissioning floor at the channel’s HQ in central London. “Gogglebox started as a little show that didn’t deserve to be recommissioned, quite frankly, but we moved it in the schedule, it grew and is now a huge hit.”

Hunt, who has the final say on what goes out across C4, E4 and More4, is still basking in C4’s recent Channel of the Year award at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August. And she’s keen to talk about a host of critical and ratings successes, ranging from 24 Hours in Police Custody, Benefits Street, Royal Marines Commando School, Educating Yorkshire, Babylon, Toast of London and of course Gogglebox.

She has been in the job for more than three years, joining just as C4 was feeling the effects of ditching its summer banker series Big Brother, and needing to find new and fresh hits to fill its schedules. Now things are looking good with share of viewing up around two per cent across all the channels so far this year, with C4 now getting more than six per cent of UK viewers during peak time (7pm to 11pm).

If you were in any doubts about Gogglebox’s place in the national conversation, Radio Times can reveal that a new spin-off show will feature the man of the political moment – Ukip leader Nigel Farage – who will be sitting on the sofas with the “posh couple” Steph and Dom.

At Home with Steph and Dom is a documentary special scheduled for next year and will be a “rip-roaring alcohol-fuelled watch,” says Hunt. “He gets p****d with them, but they also give him a grilling,” she adds.

“We have found in Gogglebox an array of characters that people have taken into their hearts – they just love them. Gogglebox is my take on the week. We have a show that feels unmissable.”

Unmissable, yes, but is it really the kind of thing C4 should be offering? After all, the broadcaster was set up in 1982 with the mandate to offer an alternative to the mainstream. It has been the home of classics such as the groundbreaking soap Brookside, anarchic comedies Father Ted, Spaced and Ali G, the parody current affairs series Brass Eye, and the lively entertainment show The Word, to name but a few.

But with hundreds of channels currently available to British TV viewers, what is C4 now an alternative to? Surely with its nigh-on £600m a year programming budget (and £429m spent on original commissions), plethora of lifestyle shows and a swanky HQ, C4 is firmly part of the mainstream these days?

The quickfire 47-year-old has the answer at her fingertips: C4, she says, is now the “alternative mainstream”.

“When Channel 4 launched there were clearly very few other options and it was an outsider channel that represented voices that weren’t heard elsewhere. In my view we have migrated to a different place, which is sort of the alternative mainstream. We are still trying to talk to lots of people in the country and reflect Britain back to itself, and we do it with a slightly different perspective.

“I want to make great shows that matter. That are more substantial than a piece of frippery. When we get that right we can talk to people in a way and a tone of voice that nobody else can.”

The most obvious example of this, she says, is the recent series Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, which was launched to much acclaim at a champagne-fuelled party at the National Portrait Gallery. Standing among the stiff heroes of Britain’s colonial past was Perry himself, in a dress and full make-up, next to his art works from the series: portraits of a transsexual black teenager, a Muslim convert and disgraced former cabinet minister Chris Huhne.  

“There was this lovely conceit that we had smuggled in the art works to the gallery. In microcosm that is what we do,” says Hunt.

“We say this is how the world actually looks – and on C4 you see the world reflected back in all its crazy diversity. That’s something I think we can do better than anyone else.”

Channel 4 also seems the only place that could have found a home for Cucumber (C4), Banana (E4) and Tofu (online), three dramas for 2015 that have been written by Russell T Davies, the former Doctor Who showrunner. Davies is returning to the territory of his seminal late 1990s take on life in the Manchester gay scene, Queer as Folk.

Cucumber looks at life for older gay men in Manchester, 15 years on from Queer As Folk. With gay marriage now a reality, Cucumber has two companion pieces about much younger people on the scene (Banana and Tofu), which are connected by one character played by Vincent Franklin (Stewart Pearson from the BBC’s The Thick of It), whose sexually dissatisfied partner Lance (Cyril Nri) leaves him. It’s all very grown up. Very now.

For Hunt, another big story for viewers next year will be the return of midweek drama at 8pm for the first time in 12 years. It takes the form of a new long-running schools drama series, which she calls “the real educating”, a reference to the factual hits Educating Essex, Educating Yorkshire and Educating the East End.

Next year will also see Caitlin Moran’s autobiographical comedy Raised by Wolves, a modern-day reimagining of the Times columnist’s unusual childhood in 1980s Wolverhampton (following last year’s pilot).

Other 2015 projects which she cannot discuss will herald a heavy accent on female voices, which might give Hunt particular satisfaction given the kind of personal criticisms she has been subjected to over the years.

Nearly ten years ago one newspaper called her a “lean-lipped… kitten-killer… steering Auntie on the rocks” when she was running BBC1. And industry gossips point to the tribunal that found against Hunt’s BBC1 for sacking Miriam O’Reilly, a presenter of Countryfile, in an age discrimination hearing.

She says she has nothing more to say about that case, or about other much gossiped-about alleged clashes with former colleagues. However, it is also true that Hunt loyalists are equally fervent in their praise for her.

“You have to be quite sanguine,” she says looking around her office, a place where she can’t escape scrutiny from her team. “I am a conspicuous woman in an industry that is still dominated by men… I have been lucky to have run BBC1. You will get incoming fire when you do those jobs and you have to get pretty strong about dealing with it.”

But men aren’t scrutinised in the same way, are they? People don’t talk of men’s appearances, for instance?

“They don’t,” she assents carefully. “I think men are treated differently in those circumstances.

“You have to take it on the chin, but of course it hurts. You become inhuman if you’re not affected by people being critical and it should give you pause for thought. It always gives me pause for thought.”

Hunt says she is very pleased that BBC1 and BBC2 are being run by women (Charlotte Moore and Kim Shillinglaw, respectively). “I like and rate them and they are role models,” she says. Hunt doesn’t do badly as an exemplar of strong successful womanhood, either. According to Channel 4’s accounts, she earned £497,000 in 2013, compared with BBC1 controller Moore (£244,800) and BBC2’s Shillinglaw (£217,800). Hunt even earns more than BBC director-general Tony Hall, whose salary as of September 2014 was a mere £450,000.

We are commercially funded,” she says in response. “We don’t take public money. In the nicest possible way, my salary is set by the board. And I think you need to talk to them about that.”

Clearly her bosses (the board and chief executive David Abraham) think she is worth it, buying into her particular vision of what C4 is and should be about.

“I genuinely believe television has the power to change the world,” she signs off. “Every day we are trying to do something difficult.

“We are walking a line between delivering great public service content and paying the bills. It is a particular DNA of this organisation that is creatively and commercially challenging. But it is also why it is an invigorating place to work because we have to crack it,” she asserts.

“We have to find shows that speak to people about the way the world works and get sufficient volume to keep the lights on. But when we get this right I don’t think anybody does it better.

“When you come through the door [at C4] you genuinely feel quite religious about it. Getting to where it is now has been a journey.”

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And one she is obviously intent on continuing.