Essex: Channel 4 bigwig Helen’s in charge of Deal or No Deal, Coach Trip, Countdown . . . and is friendly with Sharon Osbourne
PUBLISHED: 11:10 26 March 2011
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From a tender age, Helen Warner fired off letters to the BBC with ideas for programmes – plastering her bedroom wall with the replies. Little surprise, then, she’s now Head of Daytime at Channel 4, with shows like Deal or No Deal under her wing. She’s also written her first book. Steven Russell met her
GREEN-EYED and envious? You bet we are. Helen Warner’s CV is sprinkled with showbizzy glitter. (We’ll conveniently gloss over the hard work, long hours, sacrifices and stress that have made it all possible.) Here are some of the high-points: produced This Morning in the heyday of Richard and Judy, was a key player in the launch of Loose Women, worked with Sharon Osbourne (went to Sharon and Ozzy’s Christmas party, and behind the scenes at The X Factor) and landed the Head of Daytime gig at Channel 4. Oh, and the mother of two has also written her first book. On the train. Shuttling between East Anglia and Liverpool Street.
It hasn’t all been peaches and cream, of course. Bumpy moments have included being blamed by some commentators – unfairly, Helen says – for Carol Vorderman’s departure from Countdown. Then there are the daily viewing figures, the ratings, by which a commercial TV executive stands or falls.
All in all, though, it’s been a ball.
We’re claiming Helen as an East Anglian girl. Although born in Northern Ireland in 1969, she moved to Harwich at the age of four when her dad’s job as a Customs officer brought the family to Essex. Today, it’s firmly home to Helen, husband Rob and children Alice, 10, and Paddy, seven.
TV was always a magnet. As a child she adored Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, the Saturday morning show hosted by Noel Edmonds.
“I spent every week trying to get through – 01 811 8055 was the number. The one time I got through, I didn’t know what to say, so I just put the phone down! Now, of course, I work with Noel, because of Deal or No Deal, so things have come full circle!
“He’s a real hero of mine. I go down to Bristol quite a lot and take him out for dinner, and he is the most famous man ever. You walk into a restaurant with him and the place almost stops.”
If she watches the show being recorded, Helen usually sits with The Banker – the unseen character who has phone conversations with Noel and tries to tempt contestants into settling for guaranteed sums rather than chasing the big bucks.
So there is actually a banker, then? “Oh yes!” Is it a producer-type person? “I couldn’t possibly comment. I’d have to kill you! But he definitely exists and is a pretty amazing character.”
As a girl she fired off letters to the Beeb from the age of about seven – ideas for programmes that, funnily enough, she’d present.
“I used to plaster my bedroom walls with all the rejection letters. I was very focused about where I was going and what I wanted to do.”
As she grew up, the job of a war correspondent appealed, “because I loved Kate Adie”.
Helen went from The Harwich School to Goldsmiths in London, to read English. “When I was at university there was the first Gulf War, in 1991, and it dawned on me that she (Adie) had no make-up, had no hairdryers and was in pretty basic accommodation. Maybe I don’t want to be a war correspondent; maybe I want to do something a bit more featurey!”
She was excited at joining the National Magazine Company, whose stable included titles such as Cosmopolitan – “but unfortunately my job was on Containerisation International!
“I did that for six months. It was too depressing: I’d be peeping longingly as the girls from Cosmo and Company were all doing really exciting things and I’d be talking about shipping lines and who delivered what to where!”
Helen left to temp at the embryonic London News Network, formed to produce bulletins and the London Tonight show.
Joining virtually at the start – there were only five people there at the time, with recruitment under way – proved “a real stroke of luck”.
Her temp role was meant to last a week, but Helen stayed three or four years, rising from researcher to producer and on-screen reporter and presenter. She was on her way.
Then came “literally my dream job: producing This Morning from Liverpool, with Richard and Judy”. Helen was a day producer, responsible for each Friday’s show. It meant coming up with (and putting into practice) ideas for phone-ins and interesting guests, and so on.
“We had the best, best time, but it was the hardest time,” she reflects. “It was such a hungry show. The good thing was, I lost loads of weight because it was so stressful!”
Helen produced the last show in Liverpool before it moved to London. She did various jobs after that, including four months as a producer on Watchdog. After the live-by-your-wits frenzy of This Morning in Liverpool, BBC bureaucracy grated.
There was a call back to Granada in London to launch and edit Loose Women, the topical discussion programme mixed with celebrity chat. “The best time of my life; just brilliant.”
Helen was pregnant with Alice, so it was like having two babies. “My daughter was due on the 16th of April and I was still in the (control) gallery on the 20th, when the series finished. Luckily, she was two weeks late!”
After some time off she got a call to strengthen the production muscle on This Morning, by now in its post-Richard and Judy era. Helen’s proud of being part of the team that revitalised it – partly by ditching a lot of pre-recorded material in favour of live output.
Loose Women had been moved to Manchester and rebranded as Live Talk. When the decision-makers decided it should revert back to its original name, she was asked to get involved.
For two or three years it was transmitted from Norwich. It was often a challenge enticing guests to East Anglia, but the show was re-energised.
Son Paddy was welcomed into the family; and, later, a friend told Sharon Osbourne that Helen was just the person to tap if she wanted advice about her show, approaching its final weeks.
They had a long phone chat, got on well, and Helen later got a call from ITV to edit the remaining programmes. She and Sharon became good friends and, as a consequence, mother and daughter were able to watch The X Factor in the flesh.
They also went to Sharon’s dressing room and met judges Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh. What are they like in person?
“Absolutely lovely. Exactly the same as they are on TV. The only thing I’d say is that Sharon is warmer and lovelier than perhaps people think. She’s incredibly good with kids.”
The next milestone was landing the Channel 4 daytime job, which began early in 2007. What does it involve?
“My daughter says ‘You go to work and you watch telly all day.’ There’s a bit more to it!”
Basically, Helen’s territory stretches from lunchtime to The Simpsons at 6pm, taking in programmes such as Coach Trip and Come Dine with Me.
It’s a plate-spinning job – making sure existing shows are healthy while developing new ones.
She commissions programmes, decides what’s on, is instrumental in choosing the participants in shows such as Come Dine with Me, and can sometimes be found in the editing suite when “rough cuts” are being examined.
Helen’s not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. The fate of Coach Trip, a reality-style show taking tourists across Europe, looked rocky until she took a hand.
Helen had loved watching it at home, when the children were younger. In post, “I really fought for it. Finally, I think I wore my boss down and he said ‘Oh, all right, but on your head be it,’ and it’s been a huge success.”
But what about criticism that TV execs often pick a volatile mix of participants for shows like these – encouraging controversy so they attract publicity and get big ratings?
“No, it’s not true, really. It’s perception, because the memorable ones are the combustible ones. But there are loads where they get along well and are really nice people.
“Despite what people might think, we don’t cast it for a combustible mix. I watch people on the tape and ask ‘Have they got something I would like to see more of? Would I set my Sky Planner on series link to watch that person five nights?’
“It isn’t really with a view to getting a combustible mix. If we did that, I think it would all go horribly wrong. Always, without exception, the ones that have been most combustible were the ones we really didn’t expect – where on paper they really should have got on, and just didn’t.”
Executives do live or die by the ratings, however. “It’s just a horrible feeling, especially if you launch something new. You’re incredibly exposed, especially around that five o’clock time. If it doesn’t work you come in, look at the ratings and think ‘Oh god’ – that feeling in your stomach.”
One experience that tested the thickness of her executive skin was the departure from Countdown of Carol Vorderman. Helen says she suffered “loads of bad publicity” as sections of the media presented it as a woman-versus-woman stand-off in TV-land – which it wasn’t.
It was simply an issue of pay as the industry tightened its belt, she explains – and that itself wasn’t directly of her doing.
“Those astronomical salaries could not continue. It was right in the middle of the credit crunch. ITV Studios, who make the show, we cut the budget and so they had to cut. But it had to happen. Nobody could afford those monumental salaries.”
Nevertheless, it was scary to lose the face of Countdown, who was “so amazing” and would be virtually impossible to replace. Helen admits she didn’t sleep properly for months, and had a permanent knot in her stomach. “But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we all got through it. But, god, it was terrifying.”
A key responsibility of her job brings its own pressures: evaluating ideas for new show and deciding whether to say “No” – which is what happens to about 98% of pitches – or order a pilot episode. Probably less than half of 1% of those become a fully-fledged series. The trick is spotting the nuggets.
“You have to be sure you’re not turning down something good, but on the other hand you have to be decisive. You can’t keep producers hanging on. A lot of people say a ‘Yes’ is the best answer, but a quick ‘No’ is the second-best.”
Luckily, Helen’s decisive. “Where I think I’m lucky is that when I make a decision I don’t go back over it and think ‘Was that the right decision?’ I move on.”
She says the “quite chunky periods” she’s had at home with the children were immensely valuable. She watched TV with the eye of a regular viewer and got a good feel for daytime schedules.
Has her touch ever failed her?
Well, there was Iron Chef UK last year, which ended early. Based on a format used in Japan and America, it was part high-intensity cookery competition, part circus.
“I really loved it – thought it was the work of genius – but others didn’t seem to like it.
“I think the mistake we made was assuming too much knowledge of the original format on the part of the viewers. They would ask ‘Why is that Japanese man doing back-flips through the studio?’ They couldn’t really understand it.”
Helen pays tribute to her husband, without whom “there’s no way I could do what I do”. Rob is currently a home-based Dad – combining caring for the children with freelance TV work as a graphics artist (for programmes such as Panorama and Dispatches), editor and voiceover specialist.
“Everyone assumes we met in an edit suite, but we didn’t!” Helen laughs.
Rob’s also got Harwich roots and their mothers knew each other. Helen’s got a holiday snap of herself aged eight and Rob at 11. They started going out together when she was 18.
The couple lived in London for a dozen years, on and off, before making Harwich their permanent home in about 2000.
Helen generally has a run by the sea in the mornings before catching the train at Manningtree and reaching Channel 4 by 10am. She leaves the office around 6pm and is home at about 8.30.
She hasn’t let that commuting time go to waste, though, writing her first book while travelling. “I must be the only person who’s quite pleased when National Express East Anglia are delayed!”
Between the lines
TAPPING away at her MacBook Air, writing her first novel while the train took the strain, proved an antidote to the weariness of commuting for Helen Warner – and a profitable use of “dead” time.
The only downside has been the odd fellow traveller casting curious sideways glances at the story being woven on the screen. “You really can’t write if someone’s trying to read every word you’re typing,” she grins.
Must be hard if you’re plotting a fruity encounter . . . “I get the lid of my laptop and pull it down a bit . . . then down a bit further . . . !”
RSVP is the first in a two-book deal. It’s about four women. There’s Anna: jolted by an invitation to the wedding of her “ex”, the big love of her life. There’s Clare: Anna’s best friend and there for her during the split from Toby. She doesn’t realise the wedding day will change her own life for ever.
Woman number three is femme fatale Ella, who has ensnared every man she’s set her sights on, apart from the aforementioned Toby. Finally, there’s Rachel, the bride-to-be with a surprising feeling of foreboding at what should be the happiest time of her life.
Helen admits with a grin that it’s chick-lit, but she sees that as a badge of honour. She loves the genre and doesn’t see why it should be used as a derogatory term.
She’s enjoyed the writing process no end. “Somebody gave me a great tip: if you ever get writer’s block, just keep writing – anything – and it will clear. Now, I write and think ‘God, I didn’t know that was going to happen in the story!’”
Helen’s forging ahead with her second book and has just passed the 75,000-word mark. IOU, likely to be out next spring, asks if relationships can survive major debt.
The use of acronyms for titles – and inspiration – has quickly become her trademark, she confesses. “As soon as I realised that, I had endless ideas for future novels.”
Like her first tale, IOU is being written to the accompaniment of the clicketty-clack of the Norwich to Liverpool Street railway line. Perhaps the books could be sponsored by the train company . . .
“Don’t think I haven’t thought of it. Maybe they could upgrade me to first-class . . .”
RSVP is published by Simon & Schuster at £10