Darren Smith: ‘The ratings will decide if you’re coming back’
The TV producer on doing ‘covers’, lessons from ‘Anglo’ and everybody loving ‘Goggler’
Darren Smith, television producer and managing director of Kite Entertainment. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Darren Smith apologises for checking his phone. He is waiting for last night’s television ratings to come through: when we meet, Ireland’s Fittest Family, coproduced by his company, Kite Entertainment, is mid-way through its latest frenetic run on RTÉ One.
So you pay close attention to the ratings then? “Ah yeah. The ratings will decide if you’re coming back.”
Later, the message arrives. “Lovely,” he says, happy. What is lovely for Ireland’s Fittest Family? “Lovely is a 28.4 per cent share. That is very lovely.”
It’s only one of the television balls he is juggling mid-November. A fortnight of audition shows for a second series of the “absolute beast” that is Ireland’s Got Talent, made by Kite and Green Ink, is about to be recorded for Virgin Media Television, and there are two specials in the works for Gogglebox Ireland, which has just finished its fourth run, also on Virgin. He would be surprised if they aren’t making a fifth.
Everybody loves “Goggler”, he says. He loved it himself from the first time he saw Studio Lambert’s Channel 4 original. Did RTÉ pass on it? “Passed on it, no. Didn’t get it, yeah. They wanted it, but others wanted it more.”
The whole thing was “a weird chapter” that played out over several years. Gogglebox was coveted by five different channel controllers, starting with “that guy who was the Timothy Dalton of Irish television” (brief-tenured RTÉ executive George Dixon).
TV3 declared it had the rights – “they were like, ‘let’s do it, let’s have something to announce’, and they announced it” – but took so long figuring out how it could make it that RTÉ sniffed again. TV3 was soon offering “terms you can only dream for as a humble indie” in a two-series, 24-episode deal. “What are you going to do?”
My Gogglebox favourites change with every episode, but I have a soft spot for the Cabra girls. “Love the Cabra girls! They’re getting better all the time. I go in on Sunday night to watch the rough cuts, and it’s good, it’s fine, and then someone says the Cabras are watching today and you go ‘grand, we’ll get something’. ”
We dissect the “fab” Gogglebox cast for a while until I remember I have serious business questions. “I’m not sure if I have serious business answers,” Smith replies.
He came to television through the music industry and some people still remember him, “to my endless cringing”, as a judge on the first series of You’re A Star, then the national contest for Eurovision.
“They like to remind me about it in the office. A lot. More than you would imagine. I can walk into the office and have Mickey Joe Harte songs sung quite loudly,” he says. “It’s nice to have the loyalty of your team.”
He went straight from school – where he would “get very twitchy” in the classroom – to a job in EMI, where he gravitated to the novelty side and was involved in several Dustin the Turkey albums and the Joe Dolan Britpop covers record Joe’s 90s (“a proud moment”). Aged 26, he had the urge to travel.
“I was kind of getting bored and I realised that if you work in music and you’re getting bored, the next stage is bitter, and then you’re no use at the job.”
He remembers telling Australian employers he worked for a record label, “and them going, ‘so f***ing what, we don’t care, I’m sure you had a laugh, but you’re ultimately qualified for nothing’. And you think, ‘oh yeah, that’s a fair point’. So I ended up at EMI in Australia laminating things for five months.”
It was second time lucky on his return. He joined Windmill Lane and worked on RTÉ’s 2001-2002 version of the Popstars franchise, then after making things like stand-up show Just for Laughs, he left to set up Kite in 2004, backed by concert promoters Denis Desmond and Caroline Downey, who hold a “very hands-off” 45 per cent stake. It was Anonymous, a hidden-camera prank series, that led to their six-figure support. Specifically, it was a photo of Brian McFadden in a prosthetic mask.
“Just before we set up Kite, we did a pilot with Brian for MTV UK. I was having coffee one day and Denis walked in and asked what I was up to and I showed him Brian in the mask and said ‘guess who that is’. He was like ‘that’s going to be brilliant, get me a slice of that’. ”
He nods vigorously when I ask if Kite, which employs five people full-time, makes a profit. “Imagine! Yeah, like a modest, modest profit, and there were years when we didn’t.”
‘Grim’ drives home
Smith didn’t know it in 2004, but there was much misery ahead for independent producers, with TV3 unable to commission much and RTÉ cutting budgets and slots. The recession was “horrible”, he says in a stage whisper.
“Now we always had enough to get through but there were occasional drives home that were a bit grim, where you were thinking what’s next week looking like, what’s next month looking like.”
Rather than playing in Kite’s favour, it was “unsettling” when long-term collaborator Adrian Lynch sold his company Animo (to Parallel Films) to take up a senior job at RTÉ. “I used to joke that he was my responsible adult going into pitches.”
Today, Kite, with its two biggest shows on what is now Virgin, a few irons in the RTÉ fire and a development deal for a comedy show on Sky, is “three or four hard decisions across a bunch of customers away from the end of the world”. Once, it was “only one hard decision in RTÉ away” from such a fate.
He ruefully admits it was “possibly not the best bit of timing in terms of the business plan” to do the stage show Anglo: The Musical, which made headlines in 2012 when last-minute changes were advised by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
If you can imagine The Inbetweeners with a bit of Arrested Development . . . they are a Celtic Tiger period piece, and RTÉ love the scripts
Did it lose money? “Yeah, it did lose money. But it was also, like, incredibly stressful. You’re putting on a puppet show and suddenly the DPP are in the mix. That wasn’t really part of the plan. It was really, really stressful.”
Smith “learned about three or four big lessons from Anglo”, which not everyone can say. One was that it was a mistake to open in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre: “That’s like doing your first gig in Wembley.” Another came courtesy of that theatre’s manager, Stephen Faloon.
“He told us after the end of the first run that there’s a rule in musical theatre that people should leave the building in a better mood than when they came in. Our show was leaving them sucker-punched. So we fixed it when we did a run in the Olympia.”
Both Anglo and this year’s Copper Face Jacks: The Musical were written by Ross O’Carroll Kelly creator Paul Howard and Kite, alongside Parallel, holds the rights to Howard’s scripts for a Ross sitcom. “If you can imagine The Inbetweeners with a bit of Arrested Development . . . they are a Celtic Tiger period piece, and RTÉ love the scripts.”
Alas, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland assessors have turned it down for funding. “I think, to be fair, their view is that this is commercial enough.”
Now the plan is to entice a UK financier.
“I cannot deal with the argument that something is too Irish in comedy,” he says. “Ross is a rich, thick, privileged sports jock, and that has been a staple of comedy for the last 20 or 30 years, so I’m determined it will happen and I’m sort of pissed off it hasn’t happened yet.”
New shows in Kite’s pipeline include “social experiment” OAP B&B, an original format for Virgin, and The Big Life Fix, an RTÉ version of a “gorgeous” format from the All3Media-owned Studio Lambert, with which Kite has a first-look deal. He’s “not sure” though if RTÉ will recommission Who Do You Think You Are?
The great thing about an original format like Kite/Animo’s Ireland’s Fittest Family, which he hopes will be back, is that it produces “two-way traffic”. A German version and a Chilean version were announced in October at the Cannes industry shindig MIP, “and you just get a bit of a lift off that”.
But doing Irish “covers” of hit international formats (which it does on a fraction of the international budgets) has its upsides, too.
“When you set up a company, you kind of think you’re going to be U2 and you’re going to write all your own songs, and it’s all going to be brilliant, and you’re going to control and own everything, and then you look over at the lads doing cover versions and you think ‘ooh, they seem to be doing okay, maybe it’s time to be a bit more like Westlife’. Before you end up like the Saw Doctors.”
I don’t feel there’s too many cheeky young independent TV companies biting at our heels
How does he rate the future for shiny-floor shows? Are they going to hang around?
“Not all of them. Got Talent is the one that defies the logic. I mean, clearly The X Factor, the dogs on the street know if that one was a horse, it would have been shot five years ago.”
His theory is that in the cyclical TV business, everything finds a way back, somehow. “In 10 years’ time, ITV will be showing some Nordic drama at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night and Netflix will be launching The X Factor and having Julian from UTV pop up to do the continuity on it.”
He thinks there will always be a market for “good family shows” that people can gather round and watch live. “I sound a bit like [Virgin director of programming] Bill Malone now, don’t I?”
The big winners in the more competitive domestic market are viewers. “I remember when Irish television was generally embarrassing. There are probably people on comment boards who would suggest that hasn’t changed but I think it has. The best of Irish TV is as good as any international TV. We just need more of it.”
There is “a whiff of hope” at RTÉ now that it finally has a new commissioning structure in place, he believes. “You kind of have a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with RTÉ. We spend our days slightly exasperated, as are many of the people within RTÉ, but if someone else says something negative about it, you jump in front of the bullet.”
Big brands increasingly fancy paying for content, he has noticed, and without demanding they have “a man holding a can of soup in shot” in exchange. “We will all be working for the supermarkets soon enough.”
There are a few more questions I need to get in, I say.
“Is this the weird one about what people would be surprised to know about me?”
Um, yeah. Everyone who knows him already knows he co-wrote Dustin the Turkey’s 2008 Eurovision entry Irelande Douze Pointe and he’s “kind of low on hobbies”, describing his best night as a night in with a good box-set drama, a Thai takeaway and his child safe in bed. “I’m 46, you know.”
Despite this advanced age, Kite is still seen as an upstart. “I don’t feel there’s too many cheeky young independent TV companies biting at our heels. I just think that type, of which I was one, aren’t attracted to this world. They’re more into apps and techie start-ups and social media.”
Hastily, he clarifies: “It’s not a problem! I wouldn’t be encouraging them. Maybe they will find joy and happiness elsewhere. But we can still walk into briefings and get the look, ‘oh here’s the newbies,’ which is kind of telling in itself, because Kite is about 15 years old, making big mainstream telly.”
Smith, who is married to a teacher, cites Bono’s recent on-stage shout-out to “real heroes” like teachers and nurses and firefighters.
“The stuff I’m dealing with, it is ultimately fairly vacuous. We’re not saving lives, you know.”
But then people need entertainment, too.
“Lots of teachers watch Gogglebox.”
Name: Darren Smith
Role: Managing director of television (and sometimes theatre) production company Kite Entertainment.
Family and background: Married to Rachel, they have a daughter Juliet (5) and live in Killiney, Dublin, where he’s from.
Something you might expect: He loves watching television with Juliet, though maybe not Veggie Tales on Netflix. “There’s a talking cucumber that quotes chunks of the Bible.”
Something that might surprise: He once made Cliff Richard laugh at a joke about Mother Teresa.