As I enter Bafta’s members’ lounge, I do a quick scan but can’t seem to find Jane Lush. She’s been engulfed by a deep purple velvet chair, but the moment she sees me, she struggles to extricate herself from the seat’s designer curves and gives me a warm hug. We worked in the same BBC department for years, and once shared a cab home from an event. So I can’t claim to know her all that well, yet she treats me like an old friend, which is both gratifying and a little bit overwhelming. Let’s not forget, this is the woman who commissioned Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, The Weakest Link, Doctors, Bargain Hunt and Escape to the Country, and some of these programmes are still propping up the BBC’s schedules many years after she left. In other words, she is TV legend and I, by contrast, am a humble production foot soldier. If I wasn’t a teeny bit in awe, I wouldn’t be human.
Added to which, for nearly two years now Lush, 65, has had the “unbelievable honour” of being Chair of Bafta, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the industry organisation and charity best known for the glitzy awards night that is Britain’s answer to the Oscars, which takes place this year on Sunday. There are actually a host of separate events around the calendar to celebrate amongst other things television programmes, children’s output and games, as well as Scottish and Welsh achievements. But let’s face it, the annual film bash in central London with its plethora of Hollywood stars on the red carpet is The Big One and on the day we meet, it is just over two weeks away. Lush admits that stepping out onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to give a speech to an assembled throng of international movie A-list celebrities, which she did for the first time last year is ‘the scariest moment I have had in my whole professional life.”
Overshadowing this year’s event and the whole of our industry, is of course the can of worms opened up by the allegations facing Harvey Weinstein and the consequent #MeToo campaign. As I get home from our meeting, I switch on the radio to hear that Bafta has formally terminated Weinstein’s membership. Though she says she encountered some “pretty seedy” behaviour from “unattractive men much older than me” early in her career, Lush sees television as somewhere women have been able to thrive, and certainly it’s an industry which opened its highest ranks to women decades ago. Though we are still waiting for a female Director General, from her position at the head of Bafta, Lush observes that women don’t face anywhere like the same obstacles in television as they still do in film. But maybe that’s because women like Lush were the game-changers who opened doors.
She is determined to use what’s left of her two-year term to push through an agenda of reform on the back of the current mood, “It’s the biggest sea change in attitudes towards women since the 1960s and 70s, and I want Bafta to be at the forefront of that. Behaviour will change now, because people have been brave enough to speak out.” For years the Academy has been promoting diversity in the broadest sense - by working with young talent through a programme of masterclasses and scholarships — but now one feels the gloves are really off.
Lush’s first senior producer role was at the helm of the long-running film review programme fronted by Barry Norman, where she also produced the documentary A Film is Born: The Making of Yentl. In the 1980s she took over the BBC’s Holiday strand and grew it from 13 programmes a year to over 50. Looking back over her promotion to Head of Daytime and eventually Head of Entertainment, she talks about the “sliding doors” of fate — making it sound as though all those things just fell into her lap, which from my own experience of the television world seems highly unlikely. She also did those things at a time when large swathes of the BBC were run by Oxbridge-educated public schoolboys, while by contrast she arrived at the corporation as an 18-year-old, straight from the state run Camden School for Girls.
Back in the day, the standard advice for girls only was to join the BBC as a secretary and “work your way up” and that was exactly the route the young Lush took, squeezing into the last place as a trainee because somebody else had dropped out. It all sounds laughably dated now, with someone from Boots coming in to give them advice about appropriate make-up, and a member of the Dorchester Hotel’s staff tutoring the recruits in the art of arranging flowers in a paper cup to adorn your boss’s office. It was a crusty, hierarchical organisation where the colour of someone’s blotting paper and the type of curtains he was allowed in his office signified his rank.
Lush flouted her mother’s advice on wardrobe appropriate to the office, and later discovered an entry in her personnel file, describing her as “a bit way out – wears trousers”. Despite that black mark, after nine years as a secretary her potential was spotted and she moved up to researcher, after which she never looked back, “I think I was quite lucky in that I found myself working for women bosses at crucial times and they took me more seriously and encouraged me much more than my previously male bosses had done, to believe in myself.”
Despite her protestations, I remember Lush as a force to be reckoned with, and someone whose trenchant views were directly expressed. Sitting here over smoked trout and poached eggs, I come to see another persona — call it the schmoozer if you like — but it’s that uncanny ability to connect quickly and strike up rapport with anyone. That charm has no doubt been deployed on many a celeb, but not exclusively. Old colleagues tell me that she was fiercely loyal to her team and went out of her way to promote women, including her assistant SJ Clarkson who has gone on to be a drama director of some note on both sides of the Atlantic. They say she ran happy teams —by no means a given in television—was approachable, and not afraid to show her own vulnerability.
She’s still the snappy dresser I remember her being at the BBC, perhaps not “way out” but stylish with a Boho twist in a paisley print dress and green leather boots. Round her neck is an extremely classy looking faux fur scarf. I ask her to clip the microphone of my voice recorder to it and immediately start worrying that I’ll mangle its fluffy gorgeousness. If she shares my concerns, she’s far too polite to mention it.
She says she loved all her jobs including her nine years as a secretary, but especially enjoyed being Head of Entertainment, positively lighting up when she’s talking about the emergence of the idea that became Strictly from a development session in her office. The original concept was that celebrities learnt to do ballroom dancing. Lush came up with the idea that it should be a pro-celebrity mix, while BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey refused to countenance any programme on her watch using the word “celebrity” in the title, hence the eventual homage to Baz Luhrman’s Australian indie film Strictly Ballroom that probably passes most of its audience by. Bruce Forsyth loved the idea from the start, but thought they’d play it for laughs. He never imagined, says Lush, that the competitors would take it so seriously.
It hasn’t all been triumph and accolades. Lush was Jill Dando’s talent manager when the star was gunned down on her own doorstep, and while still shocked and grieving rolled up her sleeves and worked with a group of others to put together a tribute programme at breakneck pace to be broadcast the very same evening.
She also had the unenviable task of sacking Angus Deayton as presenter of Have I Got News For You after a second round of tabloid allegations regarding sex and drugs.
A member of Highgate Synagogue, she says she’s never encountered antisemitism professionally, and thinks we tend to see it on screen because “I think we are hyper, hyper sensitive”. But she admits that when she hears about any forthcoming programme on a Jewish theme, she braces herself for the cringe factor, adding “I hate it when some scandal breaks and it’s Jews”. Having to deal so publicly with the fallout from Weinstein must be particularly squirm inducing.
The role at Bafta, however much of an honour, is unpaid and alongside it Lush continues to run her own production company Kalooki Pictures. A grandmother and an industry veteran, she’s still in the forefront of change today, showing by example that older women can still be players. But when I ask her about advice for young people joining the industry now she looks pained. She doesn’t think she could have embarked on her career without the offer of a steady job, and wouldn’t have been cut out for the life of unpaid internships and insecurity that new recruits face nowadays. But though her initial response is to say “Go somewhere else!”, she quickly relents,“Go with your instincts,” she says,“follow your passions”. And she smiles.
Gaby Koppel is a freelance television producer and writer