Ben Frow believes in the power of the universe, and if you think that sounds like bunkum, then let him tell you the All Creatures Great and Small story.
One day at Channel 5, where he is director of programmes, his drama commissioner floated the idea of remaking the show. Frow was interested but unsure – would it be too risky to remake such a well-loved title, and were the rights even available? Two days later, he was contacted out of the blue by a production company with a proposition. “I got an email saying, ‘Dear Ben, the BBC wants to do a 90-minute pilot for All Creatures Great and Small but we think we should go straight to series. Would you go straight to series?’ And I said, the universe has decided! The universe says we are supposed to do this show!”
Cut to a year later. The series has been pulling in five million viewers an episode – a stonking number for Channel 5. “Who would have thought that when we launched the show it would be after six months of lockdown, where people are suddenly fleeing the city to find more space in the country, and old-fashioned values are being looked at with nostalgia?” Frow wonders.
BBC executives, who turned down the series because they didn’t think it would appeal to the all-important youth audience, must be sobbing into their pillows. “I quite like it sometimes when we score against the competition, I have to say,” Frow grins.
In a world of boring channel controllers, Frow is an anomaly. He says what he thinks, which makes him excellent fun and brilliantly indiscreet, as when I ask if he became friends with Nigella Lawson after working with her in his old job at Channel 4: “Oh no, I was never invited to dinner. I got given a nutmeg grater once by her. It was from her own brand. I’d have quite liked the full set, it was in Debenhams and it wasn’t that expensive.” Or when he explains how he looks so youthful at 59: “Cleanse and moisturise. Religiously. And then the odd jab here and there…”
Frow considers himself an industry outsider after an unorthodox journey from rinsing Judy Finnigan’s tights backstage at This Morning to one of the top jobs in broadcasting, which he has held since 2013. We meet in Soho House, ground zero of TV-land, which the Channel 5 press person has helpfully booked for us. “Oh my God, we’re surrounded by TV people and this is my idea of absolute HELL,” he shudders.
Those TV people, though, will regard Frow with envy. He has transformed Channel 5’s fortunes and, crucially for him, its image. The broadcaster once characterised by its first director of programmes as a diet of “films, football and f---ing” now counts Jeremy Paxman, Michael Portillo and Bettany Hughes among its presenters. Michael Palin came to Channel 5 with his travel series on North Korea. Jeremy Vine hosts the daily daytime show. “They would never have been seen on the channel five or six years ago,” Frow says.
The channel’s share of the available audience is up by three per cent year-on-year and since lockdown began its “upmarket” audience is up by 16 per cent. “The posher end of Britain,” explains Frow. He has done this by commissioning more history, documentaries and drama, funded in part by scrapping Big Brother and cutting the number of US imports. “I wanted to shift the dial in terms of how people felt about Channel 5. You can look down your nose at us if you want to, but you watch us and you will find great content and it’s as good as anybody else’s out there.”
There are still shows such as Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away, a misery-fest of people being visited by bailiffs, but as Frow points out: “There’s a version of that on BBC One called The Sheriffs Are Coming and it’s essentially the same show with a different title, so I don’t know why everyone’s so snooty about ours.” He takes this snobbery personally. “It hurts sometimes, but it also motivates me.”
Frow has a very clear idea of what his audience wants when it comes to history shows. “They like Rome, they like Egypt, they like Pompeii. Victorians, Tudors, Elizabethans. Georgian viewers and Hanoverian viewers watch BBC Two, they’re a bit more intellectual.” And they like Britishness. You’re never far from a Channel 5 documentary about Brunel, Nelson, Churchill or the royals.
Unlike his opposite numbers at the BBC, he doesn’t obsess about 16-34-year-olds: “When everybody is doing young-skewing, who’s going to provide television for the older generation?” Research shows older women like the afternoon TV movies, so during lockdown they did double bills. The figures also reveal the channel is most popular in Yorkshire, hence The Yorkshire Vet and Our Yorkshire Farm.
Frow’s favourite show is Cruising with Jane McDonald, in which the former cruise ship queen travels the world and throws in some tunes, which won Channel 5 its first Bafta in 2018. “It’s a very Ben Frow programme. I came up with the idea when walking the dogs: ‘Oh my God, Jane’s from Yorkshire! It’s the target market!’ I love, love, love that show. I love the spirit of it, the ambition, the campness.”
McDonald announced in February that she was stepping back to pursue other projects, but the pandemic has put a spanner in those works and she is returning to the channel. “I just signed off on the first of her new cruises. Where there’s an opportunity to cruise, we’ll cruise,” sighs Frow happily.
He took McDonald out to dinner to thank her for winning the Bafta, and neglected to look at the bill until the next day. “There were four of us. The bill came to £6,000. I went, ‘Excuse me, what the hell?’ The champagne was £1,450 a bottle and I’d been sticking ice in it. Jane only drank two glasses.” That was a rare showbiz encounter for Frow, who hates schmoozing and says his flamboyance masks insecurity and shyness, although he does make an exception for Bettany Hughes: “Anyone who likes a martini at lunchtime is my kind of date.”
He says the worst social night of his life was a celebrity-studded dinner party. “David Furnish was there, Karren Brady was there, Bruno Tonioli was there. I walked in and there were all these groups of people chatting and everyone knew each other and they didn’t know me and I wasn’t brave enough to go up. And I stood there in an absolute cold, clammy sweat, walking round the flat going, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting bookcase,’ thinking, ‘Please somebody come and talk to me’. And I vowed: never again.”
Instead, he stays in watching Channel 5, and texting his staff to offer constructive criticism. “They can’t bear it,” he laughs. Stories abound of Frow being a volatile boss, and he doesn’t disagree, putting it down to being passionate about his job and expecting the same from others. He recalls a meeting in which a team member forgot the title of their show. “I was like, ‘How can you not remember the title of your show that you’ve commissioned and I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on? And I was so angry I had to leave the room and I didn’t go back to the office that day.”
Frow has his own experience of working for a big personality: before it was taken over by Viacom, Channel 5 was run by the colourful media mogul Richard Desmond, who referred to him as “the poofter”.
But for every person who shivers at Frow’s name, there are a dozen who adore him. “He’s a straight-shooter. It’s so refreshing to be speaking to a network executive who tells it like it is,” says Colin Callender of Playground, the production company behind All Creatures Great and Small. The BBC would not commit because “they had concerns about whether it would speak to a younger audience and whether or not the show could emerge from the shadow of the first series,” but Frow backed it to the hilt.
“He has a total understanding of his audience,” says Jeremy Vine. “Lots of us felt we discovered the Red Wall seats at the last election, but that is classic Channel 5 territory and he was there first.”
Frow’s sense of being apart from the rest was forged in childhood. He spent his early years as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral School but failed his entrance exam to City of London School for boys and ended up at a local comprehensive that was the alma mater of Buster Bloodvessel. He was mercilessly bullied, but rode it out.
“I joined at 13 and when I left at 17 I was wearing pink from head to toe and smoking a Sobranie Cocktail.” After school he worked in the costume department of the National Theatre and didn’t plan on a career in television, until in the early Nineties a friend at This Morning said Richard and Judy were looking for a stylist. Frow still regards them as his mentors.
From there it was on to producing at GMTV (which he sums up as “chief cushion plumper” on the set of ITV’s Lorraine), a brief stint at the BBC in Manchester and then head of features and factual entertainment at Channel 4, where he helped launch the TV careers of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. He spotted Nigella as a guest on a Nigel Slater programme and gave her a show of her own, Nigella Bites. Don’t be surprised if a big name chef or two join the Channel 5 roster soon.
At This Morning he had a spell in front of the camera as a fashion presenter. “I’d do Elvis Presley’s diet or how you can take a holiday beach towel and turn it into a dress for evening wear – just make it up, you’ve got to fill four minutes of television, keep the audience engaged.” And it was a valuable lesson, he says. “You know, on a much bigger scale it’s like being a channel controller: what are we going to offer them, how are we going to fill the hours, and what will get them to come back for more?”