The secret to James Corden’s US success

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·10 min read
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James Corden and Ben Winston at the 2019 Emmy Awards - WireImage
James Corden and Ben Winston at the 2019 Emmy Awards - WireImage

Some people have been waiting for a Friends reunion with the same urgent fervour of a Take That fan or a One Direction devotee desperate to see their idols recreate the magic that helped them navigate the mess of growing up. So, when HBO released the first full-length trailer for the upcoming reunion special, fans taking to social media to express frustration was unexpected – until you heard James Corden’s voice over and realised he was hosting the show.

Twitter, a site that rarely expresses anger, was especially irked. “James Corden adding the ‘Friends’ reunion to the list of things he’s ruined with his mere presence,” said one. "Don’t get me wrong I’ve been wanting a Friends reunion since 2004 but if someone told me James Corden would be in it I’d have told them not to bother," said another.

Corden’s briefly heard incisive question did give pause for thought. “I know you know how big the show is,” he’s heard saying. “What you have given people is an experience of huge comfort. We felt like we had these friends.” Which begs the question, what on earth is James Corden doing on the Friends reunion? The answer? The incredibly well-connected and increasingly powerful British producer Ben Winston put him there.

“There’s this guy I’ve got to know… called Mike Darnell,” Winston told British GQ last year (Darnell is president of unscripted and alternative television at Warner Bros, the company that owns Friends) – “I said to him, ‘Mike, how come no one’s ever done a Friends reunion?’ He sort of looked at me with a glint and said, ‘Well, we thought about it for the 25th anniversary, but no one up till now has come up with an idea that makes the original creators… and the cast want to get back together. Well, not yet anyway, Ben...’ It felt like he was laying down the gauntlet a little, you know? The door was suddenly open – just...”

Winston knew it needed to be an ambitious, moonshot-sized idea to get a meeting with Friends creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, he explained. Eventually, he came up with something and presented them with… James Corden chatting to the cast about the show on the set. It makes you wonder what the previous ideas were that everyone rejected. And it makes almost no sense unless you know who Ben Winston is.

Unless you’ve been keenly devouring the Hollywood trade press or are an avid reader of Who’s Who, you’re unlikely to have encountered the lad. The son of Lord Robert and Lady Helen, Winston studied broadcasting at the University of Leeds – an atypical education for a Hollywood power player. Before Leeds, however, he took a gap year in 2003 to work as a runner on the Channel 4 comedy Teachers – a barely remembered Andrew Lincoln vehicle with a young James Corden playing swotty student Jeremy.

They bonded over football and, according to Winston, "we recognised great ambition in each other." Ben directed a behind the scenes video for the show’s third series – getting casts together off set was literally the first thing he ever did – and the two stayed in touch after Ben went to college and James filmed his breakthrough show Fat Friends in Leeds.

Here’s where it all gets complicated – there was a baby in Fat Friends played, as is typical, by twins Phoebe and Daisy Tomlinson. Their mum Jay chaperoned, and her teenage son Louis worked as an extra. Later, when Louis and Harry Styles were thrust into One Direction by Simon Cowell, Jay asked James to look out for the lads, James called Ben and Ben let Harry stay in his attic. For two years.

Ben Winston at the 2021 Grammy Awards, which he produced - Getty
Ben Winston at the 2021 Grammy Awards, which he produced - Getty

“The important thing Winston was also doing was his production company Fulwell 73, which he set up with three schoolmates, brothers Gabe and Ben Turner and their cousin Leo Pearlman who all grew up together in North London,” explains Ed Waller, editorial director of TV industry bible C21 Media. “They were all huge football fans, and they were making shows about street footballers."

Their first hit followed street football artists busking around America to earn money to visit Maradona. The friends also started the trend, says Waller, for "ultra niche" football fan documentaries with Sunderland 'Til I Die (the other three are Sunderland fans, while Winston supports Arsenal). "The way they’re cracking America is very different," says Waller. "Usually, UK producers make a show in the UK, then try and adapt it for the US. They went straight into the US and now they’re selling formats around the world.”

Corden, meanwhile, was facing a career catastrophe after the failure of his sketch show Horne and Corden with Gavin and Stacey co-star Matthew Horne. It’s testament to Winston and Corden’s relationship that Corden survived while Horne… not so much. Winston, with Fulwell 73, was directing One Direction videos as well as their tour movie, working on X Factor with judge Gary Barlow and then, in 2014, scored the goal that propelled him from pop promo maker to the LA premier league – the documentary When Corden Met Barlow.

You can find this on YouTube and it’s worth watching – given that it’s the founding principle of the show Prince Harry chose to do right after moving to the US. Gary Barlow picks Corden up in his black range rover and they tour the sites of Barlow’s career, singing along with Barlow’s mixtape in the car as they hurtle from the working men’s club he first performed at to the venue for Take That’s debut audition.

When CBS were looking for a new host for The Late Late Show that year, as incumbent frontman Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson was heading back to the UK, CBS president Nina Tassler saw Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway and called him in. James insisted Ben produce the show and the Fulwell Four went into action.

Pearlman did the deal that saw Fulwell confirmed as CBS's official producing partner. Winston pulled out his X Factor pop contacts books and managed to secure Mariah Carey for the first show – the only problem being, she wasn’t in LA on the night of recording. “At first we were thinking we could pretape an interview with her in the car, but then we remembered, the best bits of When Corden Met Barlow were when they sang… it sort of just came,” Winston recalled in a New York magazine interview.

Gabe recorded the first Carpool Karaoke, Ben Turner filmed the first few skits and Winston ran everything – taking inspiration from the mayhem of the Saturday morning kids TV shows he grew up with. “They’re fans and enthusiasts first,” Waller explains. “Their shows don’t feature tough questions, they’re basically hagiographies. That’s why they’ve got the best contacts books in sport and why they headed out to the US with the best contacts books in UK pop. Then the Late Late Show gave them the phone numbers of everyone important in Hollywood. It gave them the access and the kudos.”

Winston has worked those phone numbers hard ever since – it’s Winston rather than Corden who persuades the likes of Adele or Tom Hanks or the Obamas to do the show. He’s not out every night in Hollywood, he insists, but when he is having a quiet after work dinner it’s with the likes of Simon Cowell – who he once faked throwing out of a helicopter over the Shard for an X Factor intro and whose career he’s now genuinely chucking out of the window.

Adele joins James Corden for Carpool Karaoke
Adele joins James Corden for Carpool Karaoke

While Cowell may have ruled music television a decade ago, this year Winston produced the Grammys, sold a sitcom based on Harry Styles living in his flat – it only lasted one season – and has formatted Late Late Show segments including Carpool Karaoke as a show for Apple TV and Drop the Mic, a celebrity hip hop freestyle rap battle, around the world. “He just understands the way TV works these days,” Waller says.

Winston, for instance, sees the YouTube views the Adele Car Pool Karaoke received (240 million) as more important than the ratings – “It has to have an impact,” he believes. “And in this day and age, you’re not necessarily making that impact in the time slot you’re on. You’re making it when people are watching it on their tablets, or their phones, or their mobile devices.” Of course it helps that the Late, Late Show has 25.5 million subscribers on YouTube, but rarely hauls in viewing figures over one million.

And while he’s settled in LA with his wife and two kids, he’s still connected enough with the UK to produce Gary Barlow’s Jubilee Song documentary On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and get a seat at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Which is why the Friends Reunion generally worked, although Winston seems to have uncharacteristically misread the crowd a little in producing and directing the show.

Friends has long been criticised for its lack of diversity in one of the most diverse cities on the planet. And when the reunion guest stars were announced fan comments like “Friends reunion! So many new friends! None of 'em Black!' and "It's been 17 years & y'all still haven't made any black friends?” highlighted the whiteness of the list.

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While Malala Yousafzai and the Korean pop band BTS graced the stage, everyone else – including David Beckham, Justin Bieber, Cara Delevingne and Lady Gaga - was white. It's also been pointed out that while guest stars like Reese Witherspoon and Tom Selleck were invited to return, the show’s only black character - Ross's girlfriend Dr Charlie Wheeler, played by Aisha Tyler - was nowhere.

Winston also faces the challenge of moving into scripted TV – something Fulwell 73 has had little success with despite hiring a dedicated team back in 2018. Fulwell’s first drama The Republic of Sarah debuts in June on the CW network in the US and the company is running a short comedy film competition for female writers and directors.

But much vaunted sci-fi projects and the short-lived Happy Together sitcom have disappeared. It seems likely, says Waller, that entrepreneurial mining of IP will remain Winston’s strength, despite attempts with feature film scripts. “None of the other late shows have spun out formats that become shows in themselves that sell around the world,” he points out. “He understands how to get what he makes into every corner of the planet and every device in the world.”

Winston is suitably humble about it all. “I know this will probably come across as clichéd and hackneyed, but James and I both remember to check ourselves,” he told GQ. “Whether it’s shooting a skit with David Beckham, or driving down Penny Lane with Sir Paul McCartney for the Carpool special we did with him, or producing the Grammys, as we did this year, or the new shows we have in development... Sometimes I feel like I should be writing this all down.”

Although it’s sometimes hard to know where humble stops and humblebrag begins.