Love Lee catches up with the man behind ’24 Hours in A&E’ and ‘One Born Every Minute, Nick Curwin
Name: Nick Curwin
Job: Chief Executive of ‘The Garden’
’24 Hours in A&E’. ‘One Born Every Minute’. Ring a bell? To the majority of the British population, these ‘behind the scenes documentaries’ give viewers an indisputable insight of what REALLY happens on hospital wards. The Chief Executive, Nick Curwin candidly tells us what NOT to do, how to get to the top and why a letter of rejection became his fuel to succeed.
Nick Curwin speaking on the panel of The Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival 2013
After kick starting his career in journalism, Nick then proceeded onto working for London Weekend Television (‘LWT’), part of ITV. He stayed there for 9 years. He then worked as head programmer of the ‘Folio’ division for ‘Mentorn’.
Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple
In 2004, Curwin, alongside his still now business partner Magnus Temple launched TV Production Company ‘Firefly’, which was soon after renamed ‘Dragonfly’ (best known for Extreme A&E, One Born Every Minute, The Family’)
In 2007, Curwin sold ‘Dragonfly’ to well-known TV production house, ‘Shine’, (The island with Bear Grylls, Masterchef, Idris Elba: King of Speed, Britain’s best Bakery) and left in 2009.
Nick invited me down to ‘The Garden’ for a chat, to my absolute delight. (OK, fine, that is an extreme understatement. I was flipping ecstatic)
Love: “Did you always know that you wanted to get into TV production? Was that your dream job?”
Nick: “No. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a doctor all the way through my childhood and teens really. But then I ended up reading English at university. And then I didn’t know what I wanted to do after that. So then I spent YEARS in my 20’s meandering around and not having a clue. And then I suddenly decided I wanted to be a journalist, so I got a job on the local paper. And then, what I REALLY wanted to do was be a news reporter on the Sunday Times. And I BECAME a news reporter on the Sunday Times after a couple of years and hated it. So I didn’t have a clue what to do really.
But I was talking to somebody who told me about how you could be a journalist in TV without being ON TV. That job is called a ‘Researcher in Factual Programme’. So I got a job doing that. And actually, I remember standing in the loo at ‘LWT‘ after about a week or so thinking ‘this is brilliant’. Not ON the toilet…”
Love: “Haha!! I should hope not, Nick!”
Nick: “Just IN the toilet. I thought: ‘yes, I have finally found what I wanted to do’. I loved TV from then. It was a bit circuitous.”
Love: “So you fell into it… not the toilet…. The job! Haha! Oh dear!”
Nick: “Haha!! Yeah, a bit…”
Love: “Sometimes that’s the best way…”
Nick: “Yeah…. But journalism is quite a good route into the kind of TV I do. So it all made sense in a way.”
Love: ”So what was your very first production?”
Nick: “Oh, ummmm, my first show I worked on was a programme called ‘Dosh’, a personal finance programme for Channel 4. And that was in…… God …” (I giggle whilst he casts his mind back) “… That was in 1994. That was 20 years ago. And I was working at LWT. I was a researcher. I loved it. I had a really good time with it.”
Love: “It sounds fun!”
Nick: “Then I worked on a less fun-sounding programme. But I really, I just loved the whole thing! I worked on a live, religious programme presented by Gloria Hunniford (radio and TV presenter for ITV and the BBC) can you believe, called ‘Sunday’.
Love: “Oh wow…”
Nick: “I did that two years in a row. But the good thing about THAT show was that’s how I met my wife. (He smiles warmly at the mention of his wife) I went onto a different programme and she replaced me on ‘Sunday’. So that’s how I got to know her.”
Love: “Awwww, it was meant to be!” (OK, OK I may be a helpless romantic at heart!) So, then you moved onto making your own TV shows?”
Nick: “Not quite. I then went and got a job in the independent sector. So I went and got a job at an independent production company called ‘Mentorn’.
I got a job as an Executive Producer, which was a step up from where I was.I was starting to pitch and try and win commissions to make programmes and sort of manage productions and stuff. And so, I did that and it was a bit of a leap for me because I went from, you know, a place that I worked at for nine years out into the big bad world a little bit. But I needed to move. I needed to do something else.
I sort of got given a part of the company to run. There was a division of that company called ‘Folio’ and I became head of that. So, I had a bit of a something to look after. That was good. I did that for two years and then I got a bit fed up with that and I had been working with Magnus Temple and he had long wanted to set up his own production company. He wanted to do that with me and I thought it was a really stupid idea (giggles because, in hind sight, it was a great idea!)
I didn’t want to do that at all. I thought setting up your own production company was… Basically, people did that because they wanted to, like, pick out furniture or something (laughs) and I thought TV was enough hassle without having the whole hassle of running a company as well. But anyway, I decided to give it a go.”
Love: “What changed your mind?”
Nick: “I remember there was one day where I was REALLY, really, really stressed and ill. I wasn’t getting along well with my boss, I had a lot of work on I wanted to promote a couple of people who would help me do it, and he wouldn’t let me. I was fed up and I was cross with him.
I knew, that day that I was going to decide to do something else. It was either I was going to sort the job out I was in, accept another job offer that somebody had approached me for, or I was going to set up this production company with Magnus.”
Love: “Ok, so you had options…”
Nick: “Yeah, it was one of those things and I would decide THAT day. And I rang up Magnus ands said: ‘I’m gunna make a decision about what I wanna do TODAY. If I decide I wanna do the production company, (because we were talking about doing it in the future), would you wanna do it? What do you think?’ And he said yes. So then I literally just spent the day thinking about it.”
Love: “Mmm, brainstorming…”
Nick: ”I didn’t fancy the other job that I had been offered that much. I knew I couldn’t sort out the job that I was in. So I thought I would give it a whirl with Magnus.”
Love: “And it paid off!”
Nick: “Yeah and it worked!” (laughs) “Really, really good fun.”
Love: “So that started in 2004….”
Nick: “Yep and we called it ‘Firefly’.
Love: “And then you renamed it ‘Dragonfly’….
Nick: “That was a few years later because basically there was another ‘Firefly’ so we had to rename it.”
Love: “I prefer ‘Dragonfly’, it works… So tell me about the programmes within ‘Dragonfly’…”
Nick: “We were there for about six years. But, the two that were probably the most significant ones, that were sort of towards the end of our time there, we became bigger and started making more important programmes.”
“We did a series called ‘The Family’, which was the first sort of series that was filmed in that way, like the way ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ’24 hours in A&E’ (2011) were filmed with a rig.”
(Numerous cameras fixed to walls. It’s almost like using the ‘Big Brother’ method of filming. – ’24 Hours in A&E’ used around 70 cameras!)
‘The Family’,Series 3: Channel 4: 2008 | ‘24 Hours in A&E’, Channel 4: 2011
And then we did ‘One Born Every Minute’ and that sort of a bit of a breakthrough for us because it became a well-known programme and it won a BAFTA. So we made the first series of that and then we left after that. We had sold ‘Dragonfly’ in 2007 after about 3 years of starting it up. But we had to stay for three years after we sold. We then left at the end of 2009.”
‘One Born Every Minute’: Channel 4: 2010
Love: “And now you’re here at ‘The Garden’!”
Nick: “So we left and then in 2010 we started ‘The Garden’, yeah, which we have also sold. We sold this place to ITV about a year ago, in 2013. I think we have to stay here for at least five years, from 2013.”
Love: “Any future plans?”
Nick: “No, no future plans. I’m enjoying it. Five years is a long, long time.”
Love: “You can just brainstorm and if something comes up then it comes up, no pressure.”
Nick: “Well, we pitch ideas all the time. But, in terms of what I do with myself in the future, I dunnoooooo!”
Love: “You’ve got options! You’re good!”
Nick: “Not for a long time. I think I just need to concentrate on what I’m doing for a few years.”
Love: “What were your main hurdles up until this point in your career? If any?”
Nick: “I think getting your foot in the door has to be the biggest or at least one of them. I was a journalist trying to get into telly – far from automatic. And it is scary trying to break into something you know nothing about. I tried to make as much of my strengths when I was interviewed though, and luckily I was offered the job. Although a couple of days after being offered it and accepting, I got a formal rejection letter in the post that was a bit discombobulating!”
Love: “Ah no! Well, you know what they say; when one door closes another one opens!”
Nick: “In terms of other hurdles, there was a point 9 yrs later when I wanted to move up a rung into executive producing but couldn’t get my employer at the time to let me…”
Love: “Yeah, I remember you mentioning that…”
Nick: “… So I had to leave to make that happen, which was hard because I’d been there for 9 yrs and didn’t know much about the outside world. It was the right thing to do though and I progressed and got the experience I wanted and needed elsewhere.”
Love: “So, going back slightly. You studied English and Education at university. if you were advising a young person who knew 100% that they wanted to build a career in TV production, what would you advise them? Would you suggest that university is the right path? What is your personal take?”
Nick: “I think that the reason you go to university is because you really want to go to University, and because you really like a certain subject and you want to have a nice time. But there are all different ways you can get into Television. I mean, one is to go to university. Media studies are good as a potential route into TV. But, even if you do, that doesn’t necessarily get you into television.
So the route I went through was journalism. And that is a route into TV, it’s not the only one. Some people become an assistant or a runner at a production company or something like that, like Magnus.”
“And then because the company likes them and sort of gets used to them and can’t do without them, then they get a job.”
We always have schemes where people start, its maybe their first job, they might be good at IT or they might be an assistant or a runner. And, you know, you get to like them and see that they’ve got potential. You try and give them a leg up and then when a little opportunity comes along you get them into a production in a junior role and place them with somebody else or something. We do that a lot.
We tend to have about five or six entry level jobs at any one time. But there are lots of people who used to be like, mine or Magnus’s assistant who are now producing and directing. And we’ve got people working on our current productions, so people who used to be our assistant a few years ago.”
Love: “That’s great. It’s about making yourself indispensable to the company and also for people to just get on well too.”
Nick: “It’s something. But also to be useful.”
Love: “To be hard working….”
Nick: “Yeah. We have people who have quite a junior position within the company, but they have something they can do that’s really good. They are good at editing, for example. So we end up using them on a taster tape, and end up using them on the next one and then we end up saying: “Oh well you’re quite good at all this sort of stuff, what else can you do?” There is another Nick here who used to sit and answer the phones, but he was also good at IT, good at cutting little bits of tape and things like that. Now he’s working on ’24 hours in A&E’, so trying to shine and make yourself indispensable. But, not necessarily in a loud way; He was a really shy character but he was just good and really into it and he tried hard.
I think that old gits at production companies, like me (We chuckle) what we really don’t like is, there’s a little bit too much of an assumption that you’ll just get on and everything will be OK out there.
So, it’s really good when you see people who don’t assume and know that they need to try. If you see that, then you really want to help them….”
Love: “Mmmm, nurture their craft….”
Nick: “You really do. If people sort of just expect then you don’t so much.”
Love: “I guess it’s about being enthusiastic to get stuck in…”
Nick: “Or spotting something, using your initiative and sort of trying to get in there and help a bit.”
Love: “From the looks of things and from what you say, it sounds like people must really enjoy working here at ‘The Garden’.”
Nick: “I think so. We try to be a good company. We try and remember that it’s all about the people. So, try to have a good atmosphere here appreciate people trying hard.”
Love: “Yeah, it’s important. Some companies are all about the profit and don’t really concentrate on their staff.”
Nick: “If you don’t concentrate on the staff, you wont make any profit.”
Love: “Exactly. But it sounds like ‘The Garden’ is a very nurturing, positive environment.”
Nick: “Yeah, also its not just about the money anyway. You also want to put something back a bit. You know, I’ve been helped along the way and people have been nice to me so, I believe in this whole ‘what goes around comes around’.
Love: “Karma! So do I.”
Nick: “I really do.”
Love: “What would be a typical scenario of what you do in a day?”
Nick: “It can vary. Things I’ve been doing just recently: ’24 hours in A&E” just started being filmed. I’m not MAKING the show myself, but I need to make sure its OK. So, I’ll be having conversations with the Executive Producer, going along to the location, having a look at how its going as we start filming. Yesterday I was pitching a show to a broadcaster, so I spent a lot of time preparing for the pitch. That was the result of several months development work. So we got ready for pitching and I was leading. We had a good team. I had to make sure I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to get it across. This morning I was at another broadcaster for a meeting where we are just about to start production. It’s what they call a ‘start up meeting’ to make sure everyone is on the same page about what we are doing.
We have lots of internal meetings about new ideas or any problems that come up, or making sure staff members are OK or trying to improve something. I spend a lot of time talking to Magnus, who’s my business partner about the company and what we’re trying to do and everything and bringing a strategy. Just basically loads of meetings. I talk. I don’t even write that much. I deal with about 300 emails a day.”
Love: “Going back to what you were saying about ‘getting your foot in the door and work experience; would you say that it’s WHAT you know, or WHO you know?”
Nick: “I didn’t know anybody in TV production until I started. I think sometimes people get on by WHO they know. To be honest, if you’ve got a connection with somebody, even the slightest, it’s really good to try and use it, obviously. I would hate to think that everyone gets by that way. You kind of think, it certainly ought to be a meritocracy. We ought to get by on being good and trying and everything like that. But I think that if you DO know somebody, and you DO get a job and you’re rubbish and you’re lazy, then I shouldn’t think you’d last very long.”
“TV is very competitive; lots of people want to do it. So, if you can find a connection, use it. But I wouldn’t expect that’s all you need to do.”
Love: “What would make you want to hire someone, for work experience, say?”
Everybody in TV in senior positions get a lot of letters from people asking for jobs the whole time. I suppose one thing I would say is write a really, really good letter. Put a lot of time and trouble into it. Because, this is going to sound really fuddy-duddy, but, if I get a letter that’s got a mistake in it …”
Love: “Like a grammatical error?”
Nick: “Yeah or a typo, there is less chance I will consider you. But a letter that is full of mistakes might be a slight barrier – and you won’t necessarily have an opportunity to explain the reason, such as learning difficulties. However, this does not mean that learning difficulties are a barrier to working in TV. When you’re also trying to create a good impression and compete with all the other letters of application. I’ve worked with lots of brilliant dyslexic people who were – and remain – invaluable. Knowing that they were dyslexic in the first place wouldn’t have put me off. But NOT knowing they were dyslexic and receiving what appeared to be a poorly-written letter, might have done.”
Love: “Yeah, some of the most successful people have severe learning difficulties. They haven’t let that hinder them in any way.”
What would you suggest in that case?”
Nick: “My suggestion would be get someone to proof-read your letter for you, get your foot in the door and then set about making yourself indispensable.
Television is a team sport. It’s made by groups of people who work together to produce a programme, so whatever stage you’re at you always rely on colleagues.
I know that sounds quite hardcore. But, if somebody writes a really good letter, and they sound fantastic, have a lot to offer, are really serious about it, and have also done lots of things, then I tend to send it to someone in the company and say: “Oh, this person looks interesting, maybe worth seeing them” or something like that. That is encouraging actually, most of the letters and applications we get are rubbish, scrappy and people haven’t gone to enough trouble.
So, the other thing I want to say is it’s really good to see whose consistently being into something and trying at something. So, if they’ve got a bit of work experience here, and done something else there or, in their holiday breaks have done this and that, if you can see that they are constantly trying, then that shows a lot of dedication. When you do get a job in TV, its hard work. You have to keep trying at it and wanting things to be good. So you kind of need to see that before you get into it.”
“A ‘get up and go’ attitude is always really good to see. Then I think to myself: ‘You really mean this, you really mean business.’ ”
Find Nick here:
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by: Love Lee | July 19, 2014 | News