“Celebrity Bar & Grill”

Chris Diamond interviews Conor McAnally

First published April 2002

Executive Producer (and sometime Director) of the excellent SM:TV Live, and son of the late great Ray McAnally, Conor McAnally spoke to OTT at the end of February 2002 about his career and working with Ant and Dec.

OTT: Could you tell us something of your early background working both as a presenter and producer for RTE – in particular for its children’s department?

CONOR McANALLY: I started work at RTE initially as a TV onscreen journalist in the newsroom but was interested in programming for young people and proposed some ideas to the Children’s Department for shows. They didn’t commission any of the ideas but they did invite me to join a kids’ show called Youngline. Six months later there was a new head of Children’s and I moved to the show full time as a presenter but also as an associate producer with responsibility for developing children’s television in the department. I spent three great years on the show basically getting to do all the things I was prevented from doing as a kid and getting paid for it. I became more and more interested in the production process and finally applied for and got a job as a producer director. My work was mainly for the entertainment department where I did youth magazine shows, music shows, pop programming, concerts etc.

OTT: To what extent did you look for inspiration and ideas outside of Ireland – how much of an influence on you was British television of this time?

CONOR McANALLY: I was always conscious of the television environment in Britain because we could receive all the UK channels in Dublin and along the east coast. RTE in fact was competing with the UK channels in its home market. I was inspired by shows like Magpie and Tiswas in the kids and youth area.

OTT: You went freelance in 1982, and then formed Ireland’s first independent TV production company, Green Apple Productions. What kind of output did the company specialize in?

CONOR McANALLY: We were the first high volume programme production company in Ireland. Our first contract was for 51 hours of music TV programming called MT USA which was Europe’s first terrestrial music video show. It was shot on the streets of New York and aired on Sunday afternoons in Ireland. The show was very successful and ran for four years. We also produced a gameshow called Rapid Roulette which ran for five years. We produced other music video programming Finding Fax Future. For ITV we produced a popular book programme called The Write Stuff which ran for two seasons. The main output was entertainment and music although we did also do some documentary projects including a Channel 4 trilogy on AIDS.

OTT: You moved to England at the end of the ’80s – which shows were you first involved with?

CONOR McANALLY: When I arrived first I worked with The Children’s Channel and then moved on to produce The Disney Club for Buena Vista. I followed with a BBC series called Over the Wall and then started work with Ant and Dec – The Ant and Dec Show, Ant and Dec Unzipped, Ant and Dec’s Geordie Christmas, SM:TV Live, CD:UK, The Zig and Zag Show.

OTT: Did you have any preconceptions of working within the British television industry – and were they borne out?

CONOR McANALLY: I figured it would be bigger and more structured – and it was. It was a lot more hierarchical than I thought it would be. I was and still am more used to working in an organic team structure rather than strict lines of command. The stakes are much bigger and there’s no room for error. There was a looseness in working with RTE. A half hour show could run anywhere from 24 minutes to 32 but here the leeway is no more than 5″ either way.

OTT: How did you first form a working relationship with Ant and Dec?

CONOR McANALLY: They guested on a few shows I was producing and we got on well. I was invited to come and produce The Ant and Dec Show and we got on really well and just continued on working. I think we got each others’ attitudes and sense of humour and there was a great deal of mutual respect.

OTT: The Ant and Dec Show came in for very public criticism for some of its supposedly “cruel” or “tasteless” features, especially Beat the Barber. Can you sketch in the background behind the show, and your feelings at the time towards some of these responses?

CONOR McANALLY: The BBC asked us to double the audience and having analysed the figures we realized that the missing element were boys aged 9 and over. We knew that we could hold the boys if they sampled the show but no amount of advertising or promotion would make them tune in. So we created a few stunt television items which would result in big playground gossip. In the first show there was a fight between Ant and Dec, there was an unseen rude photo of Katy Hill and the show was “taken off the air” by BBC bosses – and there was Beat the Barber. The gossip happened, the audience tuned in and the show became the number one children’s show at the time.

The thinking behind Beat the Barber was this – the BBC is too nice to kids in kid shows. Television, especially BBC kids television was treating kids in a very patronizing manner and one of the manifestations of that was the whole concept of the consolation prize. You don’t get consolation prizes in the playground or in life. So we wanted to create something that had real jeopardy but was safe and that had real consequence if you gambled. The original thought was to shave off an eyebrow but we discovered that in some cases they don’t grow back so we went for the hair instead. I don’t accept that the item was cruel. Each kid knew the full story before taking part. It was about consequence, not cruelty. Interestingly we never had any complaints from kids – they loved it – the complaints were all from adults. It was the BBC show which drew the most complaints in the children’s department up to that moment but it was also number one. So we were doing something right!

OTT: You then made the fantastic Ant and Dec Unzipped for Channel 4. How did this experience compare with working for the BBC? Why only the one series?

CONOR McANALLY: Unzipped was a lot of fun and in some ways was a bit before its time. It only ran one series because it confused audiences and did not get the numbers it needed to guarantee another series. The other problem was that everyone at Channel 4 we were dealing with moved on during the period of production so we had no in-house champion for our cause. We are all still very proud of the shows but they kind of missed the mark at the time.

OTT: What was the background to your involvement in SM:TV?

CONOR McANALLY: I was involved from the earliest time with Ant and Dec as we developed and pitched the idea and I have been the executive producer from show one. I have also produced and directed the show on occasions.

OTT: After its launch the show very quickly underwent some radical changes; indeed, its former hosts have now conceded it was pretty ropey to begin with. How did you perceive of the show’s initial format?

CONOR McANALLY: The initial concept was that SM:TV would be about the lead in to CD:UK. It was the prelude to the big pop party that would happen at 11.30am. So it was full of ideas about seeing bands arrive, talking with them when they rehearsed, sneaking looks in their dressing rooms etc. The problem was that the big pop acts of the time would not come and play with us because we were new. No matter how wonderful Faithless are, they mean nothing to a nine year old kid. So we very quickly found these ideas were dying on their butts and had to invent new stuff.

OTT: The point when SM:TV began to consistently beat the BBC in the ratings was pretty historic. How much pressure was there on you and everyone who worked on the show to deliver and maintain that ratings lead?

CONOR McANALLY: The pressure was huge both internally and externally. There was a commercial imperative from ITV but there was also a major issue of pride for everyone involved in the team from stage hands to producers. We just had to make it work and we worked all the hours God sent until we managed to turn it round.

OTT: How do you see SM:TV developing in the future?

CONOR McANALLY: We have proved that entertainment, humour and music are a compelling Saturday morning mix. We will continue to shake up that blend with the added ingredients of new presenters and create new games and comedy strands which play to their strengths. Obviously we will be keeping our eye out for new talent, as we constantly do. We are always in the market for new stars.

OTT: What were the origins of Slap Bang?

CONOR McANALLY: I had created a show called Celebrity Bar & Grill as an Ant and Dec sitcom vehicle which I pitched to the Network. They were interested but the whole thing went through a huge process of evolution which finally resulted in Slap Bang.

OTT: The finished product again came in for a bit of flak in the press; and was rather unceremoniously shunted back to a teatime slot by ITV’s schedulers. In your view what were the strengths and weaknesses of Slap Bang?

CONOR McANALLY: I think its strengths were that it was funny and very slick for a live entertainment show and Ant and Dec were both excellent in it. Its main weaknesses were that it was playing to an audience who were not yet familiar with Ant and Dec’s relationship and therefore did not get some of the gags. The show was probably pitched too young. The Saturday evening audience has a huge proportion of people over 50 and there wasn’t much in the show for them. The constant schedule shuffling didn’t help it much either.

OTT: What are you working on now?

CONOR McANALLY: I’m executive producer on SM:TV and CD:UK, we are launching a new music series for BBC called RE:covered starring Dermot O’Leary and we are also in production on a new travel series hosted by Cat Deeley and Edith Bowman, also for the BBC called Roadtrippin. We have a lot of programming in development and I’m also overseeing the launch of SM:TV in Australia where their version will be called SN:TV.

OTT: And finally – we’ve always considered your dad’s finest hour to be A Very British Coup; did you always take a critical interest in your father’s career – and he in yours?

CONOR McANALLY: He also considered that show to be one of his finest hours. Obviously I was massively interested in everything he did and he had a good deal of interest in what I was doing although he didn’t always understand it. I did manage to work with him once as a producer director on a documentary in Ireland. I’m really glad I got that chance because it was great fun and a fond memory to look back on now that he has gone.