Kudos TV’s Jane Featherstone: “Fearlessness is needed to break the mould”.
Lucy Holden gets thirty minutes with Jane Featherstone, to talk Spooks, life at Leeds in the 70s and how to drink Paul Gascoigne under the table.
When a rickety green careers machine spat the suggestion of a future at a younger, shyer Jane Featherstone, she was fairly stunned. ‘Prison guard’ were the two tiny words staring back at her. Two tiny words loaded with a hell of a lot of meaning. How did she get round the ridiculousness of their pitch? “Well I went immediately to Her Majesty the Queen and applied to be a guard at…” Featherstone starts, trailing off sarcastically. “No – obviously I didn’t follow that one up.”
In some ways it is surprising that Featherstone didn’t get on the next train to Windsor. Surprising, that is, for a woman who lives entirely for the moment; one who once knew Paul Gascoigne’s hangovers and PIN numbers like the back of her hand, when she took rather random employment as his PA after graduating from Leeds University. But Featherstone says she never saw her life wandering a particular path. “I never had a plan. I’ve always just thought: do it, do what you love, do it well. All I knew was what I loved, and that was television”.
This rather understated “love” of television is what has transformed Featherstone into the chief executive of one of the most dynamic production teams out there, Kudos Film and Television, parent to Spooks, Ashes to Ashes, Hustle and, most recently, the BBC’s explosive new series, Hunted. You don’t really want to mess with Jane Featherstone.
But Leeds is where a less-formed Featherstone patrolled the city clubs with many of the directors and screenwriters she now works with. Back then they were the clique of student theatre group TG, now, they help Featherstone run one of the most successful television companies in Britain. She says Leeds feels like a lifetime ago, but that something always does when so much has happened in between. Back then she didn’t have a single contact, not in a prison, let alone in television, but her get-up-and-go powered through. Featherstone had as much trouble cutting off Leeds as she had cutting off the lead roles in Spooks. She doesn’t dislike the city; she just doesn’t have a reason to come back, and this is the kind of professional, almost cut-throat, attitude Featherstone is quite famous for.
I question the surrealism of these younger days and her time with Gascoigne, something Featherstone also describes as a lifetime ago. “I think of it as an amusing anecdote. There were some great, entertaining memories. But I’m not going to tell you about them”, she cuts off. Why? Integrity, she states. Like it or not, this steely professionalism strangles anything Featherstone doesn’t want to answer. Nothing to hear of Gascoigne’s stolen double-deckers and alcoholic gambling here then.
Lack of contacts is partly the reason for this strange first-job, but Featherstone isn’t bitter about a perhaps slightly-harder start. “You make your own career. You have to put yourself out there and say yes to everything, not worry about a career path” she says matter-of-factly. Although it was easier then, she thinks; the idea of having to decide what you want to do with your life at such a young age now is ridiculous. “You don’t have a clue at 21. You shouldn’t be burdened by it.” For too many, money has become the prime concern, but how can it not have? “Glib” is the word she says she doesn’t want to sound like.
She credits most of her own success, her risk-taking, interestingly, to her parents’ fearless decision-making, and worries that static modernity has lost the same acceptance of the unknown. “I worry that as a generation we like certainty; definition, order, plans. In the 70s there was a more open feeling to change, expansion, growth. My parents thought it would be cool to move us to India and Germany when we were growing-up and so they did – it’s part of what helped us adapt to new situations. Fearlessness is a quality I greatly admire, and one I try to live by myself. Even if you can’t always manage it.”
Vital, too, seems courage in the mind of a director wanting to keep a series fresh, innovative. “Fearlessness is needed to break the mould. I try to think, if something goes wrong, what’s the worst that could happen?” So it’s not life and death, at least for Featherstone. It is for many lives on screen. I wonder whether it’s a hard decision; cutting lead roles that have in a way become the series that made them, but Featherstone doesn’t even dabble in affection with her cast. “The shows are stories, fiction, and I like change. Killing characters off is all part of a love of change, an opportunity to reinvent. But it isn’t an easy decision to make. There was so much debate in the office about whether one of the lead characters should die at the end of the entire series of Spooks, but I was adamant she should. She stood for what was best for her country – she had to die”, says Featherstone bluntly.
It all comes back to one thing – a desire for the series not to get tired and old. It’s what spurred the decision to brutally kill off another pretty female lead in the second episode of the first series; viewers were shocked by the barbarity of the scene. “It was very early on in the series. Nothing else on TV had ever been so fatal so early on. It terrified people, but it worked because they came back and they knew we weren’t going to be predictable.”
MI5 of course made their reaction quite clear: agents do not dart through London in Armani suits, they said. But, vanity is a powerful thing; they had soon warmed to Spooks’ glorified interpretation of British spies. Until they were swamped by recruits wanting the Armani more than they wanted the MI5 intelligence that was. Would Featherstone agree topicality is the key to success? The shooting of Spooks started four weeks before 9/11 brought terrorism a little too close to home. “Sometimes we get a bit close to the wire”, Featherstone concedes. “Occasionally the germ of a storyline will make the news two years later. At first the drama seemed so fanciful, so 007. Yet we invent things and then, spookily, they happen further down the road. It’s all about timing and luck.”
When I ask Featherstone if this means we can finally be compared to the powerhouse that is American drama, I’ve hit a nerve. “I hate that comparison – we’re already there” she retorts. Next. So Hunted has nothing to worry about, not even its natural comparison to the enormously successful Spooks? Well, no. “I am worried about that actually – because Hunted is so different and I don’t really want them to be compared. I’m not anywhere near as involved with Hunted as I was with Spooks though. Spooks was my first born child – I put so much into it over the 10 years, I was there on every episode. It was much more of a character piece than Hunted, which is much more action thriller; it’s incredibly impressive in its execution, there are a lot more explosions.” And despite there being some amazing shows out there; Homeland, Sherlock, Fresh Meat, Featherstone believes there aren’t yet any natural competitors for the spy drama they’ve become famous for.
Under a surface of professional distance though, is the insecurity that is inevitable in the arts. Featherstone describes the feeling of having her work judged by audiences of near ten million a week as “terrifying”. “That’s the only scary bit – hoping audiences will like it. But I never read reviews – they’re too distracting.” What it comes back to, it seems, is an invested care in what she does. “Creative industries aren’t just jobs. My job is what I love doing too, and I don’t like the feeling of knowing something could have been better. I’m driven by that though – being able to approach a new project, being thrown in at the deep end creatively, the process of coming through that is what excites me.”
Learning to cope with the deep-end is something Featherstone perhaps has Gascoigne to thank for. Well, that and her ability to drink you under the table. Could she really keep up with football’s most famous alcoholic? “I was surprisingly good actually”, Featherstone says, with what sounds like a smile. “Ask my friends.”