John Willis unfolds his arms and leans over his desk. He has been considering his previous answers, about BAFTA, where he is Chairman, and Tinopolis, where he is Group Creative Director. But I’ve just asked him what it was like to be working in TV when he was a father to young children.
John Willis, BAFTA Chairman, Mentorn CEO and Creative Director of the Tinopolis Group in conversation with Media Parents at www.mediaparents.co.uk
“We had our children young – people settle down later now – we had our first when I was twenty nine. It put a lot of pressure on my wife because I worked on location overseas. I had to go off for three to four months at a time. In those days you would go off for much longer, so I went off to Australia for four months on a travel series with Alan Whicker.” Before the days of email. “You were allowed one phone call home a week.”
“Having children in TV can be one of the most difficult things – that agonizing moment when you miss the school play because your demanding job doesn’t finish at 5. Looking back on it now you miss big parts of your children growing up. I do remember when my kids could say ‘Mummy’ and not ‘Daddy’”.
As Chief Executive of Mentorn Media, John Willis knows only too well that working in TV still impacts on families, and he says Mentorn tries hard to support family life. “In TV most individuals are sympathetic, but collectively it doesn’t always work out. It can be hard for both parents to sort out childcare”. One of the Mentorn Execs works a bit flexibly to help with childcare, another works a four day week, others take time as and when. Although it’s a large company, it feels smaller, and today Willis will be judging Mentorn’s annual Christmas tree decorating competition in his avuncular way. “It’s about the culture and attitude, so if someone says [flexible working] will probably work I always say yes. People work from home when they need to, or if they take the afternoon off for Sports Day it’s fine if it enables talented people to keep working.”
“I think people undervalue the BBC – it’s criticized, but its maternity leave policies are best in class. When it comes to job sharing or working from home it can be more difficult for an indie, but it’s not just practicality – it’s about thinking ‘we won’t have that meeting at 5:30, we’ll have it earlier so that person can pick up their kids from nursery’”.
Willis’s illustrious career, moving from early days at Yorkshire Television to become Director of Programmes at Channel 4, MD of LWT, then Director of Factual and Learning at the BBC, has “been driven by curiosity. Perhaps I’m just nosey. I’ve always wanted to know about people and worlds I didn’t know about, and in TV you open out that world to millions watching”.
He supports diversity on both sides of the camera, not just regarding parents. As BAFTA’s Chairman he encourages new entrants to the industry from all backgrounds. “Personally I think we work in a privileged industry. I’m keen that it reaches out to people who don’t have the opportunity – to talented people who don’t have the connections.” BAFTA has a mentoring scheme, a great online learning portal called Guru, and is also funding six postgraduates for the first time this year – “Diverse, talented people who are struggling financially. One of those is a parent”, he tells me with a smile.
I ask whether he thinks earlier commissioning would help parents to keep working. “We’d all like earlier commissioning, but for lots of different reasons programmes get commissioned later than they should. There are lots of commissioners who are working parents caught in institutional problems but I don’t know if that will ever change, it seems ingrained”.
“The industry needs working parents, not just because you’ve spent a long time training them, but also because when you become a parent it changes your perception of the world. We must reflect our audiences in our programme makers too. To lose people doesn’t speak well of the industry if people feel that balancing work and parenting is so hard it doesn’t fit. Good people must feel that there is enough support.”
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