‘Television’s almost finished, isn’t it?’: the arts commissioner who beat the BBC

‘Telly is only a small part of the content ecosystem now’: Phil Edgar-Jones - Matt Frost
‘Telly is only a small part of the content ecosystem now’: Phil Edgar-Jones - Matt Frost

“Telly’s almost over now. It’s almost finished, isn’t it?” says Phil Edgar-Jones. Which is not what you expect to hear from the boss of a television channel. But Edgar-Jones, whose career has taken him from The Big Breakfast and Big Brother to his current job as director of Sky Arts, is perfectly sanguine. He means television as we have always known it: tuning in to particular channels at particular times of day, on a TV set in the corner of the room. These days, young people are watching 15-second videos on TikTok, while older people have discovered the joys of streaming and the convenience of sitting down to a show at a time of their choosing. “Telly is only a small part of the content ecosystem now,” says Edgar-Jones. “Think of all the other things that are available.”

Edgar-Jones took charge of Sky Arts in 2014, along with the broadcaster’s entertainment shows. At the time, its arts channel was barely on anyone’s radar, and the BBC was considered the home of serious cultural programming. How times change. BBC Four is now effectively a repeats channel, and Sky Arts has built its audience to an average of 13 million viewers a month. It added an extra two million per week on being added to Freeview in 2020. Up to that point, it had appeared to be wall-to-wall André Rieu, his concerts played on an eternal loop. These days, Rieu is still a protected part of the line-up – Edgar-Jones says he loves the conductor and would never drop him: “We’d get letters” – but he appears only once a week.

In his place are new commissions, still aimed at music lovers of a certain vintage. They include Brian Johnson and Mark Knopfler’s Good Times, in which the AC/DC and Dire Straits stars romp through the history of popular music, plus a series on the greatest guitar riffs in history. “We do rock ’n’ roll weekends, for people my age who are up at night, who’ve maybe had a couple of beers and think, ‘Oh, Fleetwood Mac. I’m going to watch this,’” explains Edgar-Jones, who has a reputation in the industry as one of its most affable and unpretentious executives. It’s not all “dad rock”: forthcoming shows include a documentary about WB Yeats’s “unsung” sisters, Lily and Lolly, and a film about Katherine Hepburn featuring previously unheard audio interviews.

The average age of a Sky Arts viewer is “late 50s, early to mid-60s”, and there is none of the BBC’s frantic chasing of youth. At the heart of the channel is Melvyn Bragg, still hosting The South Bank Show brilliantly at the age of 83. His future, like Rieu’s, is safe. “When I took over the channel,” says Edgar-Jones, “one of the things that I pledged was that as long as I was clinging onto my job, Melvyn would be there too.” The channel’s most popular shows, Portrait Artist of the Year and Landscape Artist of the Year, are co-hosted by Joan Bakewell, who turns 90 in April.

But Sky Arts is not merely a golden oldie channel. Life & Rhymes, a celebration of the spoken word that features young performance poets, beat Ant and Dec to the Best Entertainment Programme Bafta in 2021. Book programmes on television, meanwhile, are notoriously difficult to get right, but the Sky Arts Book Club has cracked it, featuring intelligent conversation from hosts Elizabeth Day, Simon Savidge and Andi Oliver.

Conductor André Rieu is a protected part of the Sky Arts line-up - Marcel van Hoorn
Conductor André Rieu is a protected part of the Sky Arts line-up - Marcel van Hoorn

The channel has even dipped a toe in the cancel culture debate, inviting artists to “creatively reimagine” Liverpool landmarks in Statues Redressed, while commissioning Irvine Welsh to defend the right to offend. When he took charge, Edgar-Jones resolved to get rid of “beardy men standing in front of paintings, scratching their faces and pontificating”. But he says there has been no need for a woke reckoning at Sky. Television, he jokes, “has always been full of crushingly liberal people”.

Once viewers get to Sky Arts, Edgar-Jones says, they find much to love, but getting them there is the challenge. “The word ‘arts’ can put people off.” When he joined, he even thought of changing the channel name. What were the alternatives? “Sky Culture – same problem. Sky Spotlight – s--- name.” In the end he stuck with Sky Arts because it does what it says on the tin. “People say, ‘Oh, the arts is not for me, it’s elitist.’ Then you show them what you do, and they go, ‘Oh, I quite like that. There’s something there for me.’”

The UK’s most recent attempt to engage the masses in culture was a flop. Unboxed, which struggled to shed its “Festival of Brexit” tag, cost £120 million; most people didn’t know it existed. Sky partnered with one of the projects, Galwad, which did something or other in Wales – after looking at its website, I’m still none the wiser – and Edgar-Jones thinks the projects did good things by giving opportunities to new artists. But as for the cost, he says with a raised eyebrow: “I wonder if that money might have been better spent on, say, saving English National Opera.”

Edgar-Jones is on the board at ENO, recently blindsided by Arts Council England’s decision to cut off its funding and order a relocation outside London. “It felt unfair and completely random, a dogmatic political decision rather than a rational one,” he says. “Nobody in the arts thinks it’s a bad idea to spread money around the country, but you don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. You still need a good, solid base in the capital. It just feels that the rug was pulled without any warning whatsoever.”

It’s not as if Edgar-Jones is a traditionalist resistant to change. This is a man who forged his career in the mad world of 1990s television: as an assistant producer on The Big Breakfast and then on riotous late-night show The Word. He became executive producer of Big Brother, guiding the show through its most high-profile years, and he remains proud of it. “It has a great legacy in many ways. If you look at documentary-making, shows like One Born Every Minute use that technology. They owe a lot to that format.” ITV is reviving the show this year – does Edgar-Jones think it will be a success? “I think the people who are making it are amazing, so there might be a massive appetite for it.” But reality TV contestants are now a different breed. “They have an agent before they get on the show. And everyone’s documenting their lives all over the place these days. It’s just the way the world has evolved.”

His one regret is putting Jade Goody back in the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007, which led to an unpleasant racist incident involving the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty. “Jade was really well-equipped for fame. She embraced it and she did really interesting things with it. Then she had a bad moment and I felt guilty about putting her back in the house. I think we probably persuaded her against her better judgment.” Despite the criticism that Goody received, he still thinks it was a gentler time. “I tell you what we didn’t have: social media. That’s what has really changed – people being able to spit vitriol at them from afar.”

No ‘nepo baby’: Edgar-Jones’s daughter Daisy with Paul Mescal in Normal People - Enda Bowe/BBC
No ‘nepo baby’: Edgar-Jones’s daughter Daisy with Paul Mescal in Normal People - Enda Bowe/BBC

At the age of 56, Edgar-Jones says he is now content in the “gentler pastures” of arts programming. These days it is his actress daughter, Daisy, who occupies the spotlight after her star-making turn in the BBC’s Normal People. Recently the Financial Times classed her as a “nepo baby”, whose “vertiginous rise makes more sense when you know that her father is Phil Edgar-Jones”. Yet lumping her in with the likes of Brooklyn Beckham hardly seems fair. “That’s just silly,” snorts Edgar-Jones. “As if Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-winning director [of Normal People], would even know who I was.”

His enthusiasm for the Sky Arts job remains undimmed, although he’s about to take three weeks off for a long-planned trip to Antarctica. Then it will be back to planning programmes. The BBC’s decision to throw in the towel when it comes to new shows on BBC Four has removed his biggest competition, but it hasn’t gladdened his heart. Because, he says, “if you’re passionate about helping arts and culture to thrive, you want everyone to do more. There’s space for it. There’s a lot of arts around.”