Interview with TwoFour's CEO Melanie Leach
PUBLISHED: 10:00 18 March 2015
Matt Austin Images 2013
Plymouth is home to a television production company called TwoFour that is making a big name for itself worldwide. Twofours CEO Melanie Leach tells ALEXIS BOWATER, that it’s being based in Devon which is the key to the company’s success
Twofour facts and figures
• Founded in Plymouth more than 20 years ago it boasts 100 full-time staff, an annual turnover of £57 million, more than 70 awards in the last ten years alone and an Emmy for Educating Yorkshire.
• Twofour Group has around 350 staff. The group includes Twofour, Boomerang, Boom Cymru, Indus Films, Oxford Scientific Films, Delightful Industries and Mainstreet Pictures.
• Twofour Group’s 2014 turnover was £91 million. Twofour’s 2014 turnover was £57 million.
• In the last ten years, Twofour has won around 70 awards, including being named “Best Independent Production Company”, a prestigious title awarded by Broadcast Magazine, in both 2010 and 2014. Educating Yorkshire has won 14 awards, including an International Emmy Award and a National Television Award.
One of the most powerful women in television on the planet fizzes with energy, enthusiasm crackling off her as she speaks of her business and our county. Forget Los Angeles and London: Devon is where Twofour’s heart is.
This is the company that brought you The Hotel Inspector, Jump, Splash, a positive plethora of documentaries and entertainment programmes and, most memorably, Educating Yorkshire.
Moreover, lifting an Emmy for doing so (and dropping it…more on that later) is an astonishing achievement by any standard in a long list of broadcasting achievements.
But drill down into the reasons for the company’s success and CEO Melanie Leach admits that it’s their ‘family’ of staff that is its backbone.
“I think that every Twofour show has a flavour and part of that is being outside of London and I think we have got some of the best staff in the business,” she tells me.
“There are some really brilliantly dedicated people in the South West who make - who approach - things in a slightly different way and I think that shows: it is reflected in some of our output.
“You also get a sense of loyalty from staff here because there is no freelance community here. The staff are fiercely loyal to the company, they work amazingly hard, and are the sort of people you can call at two o’clock in the morning and go: ‘We are in the ****, the edits have gone down’ and they will come in - they will come in. It’s a big, big family Twofour.”
Melanie Leach was only a teenager 20 years ago when she first began working for the then nascent Plymouth production company Twofour under the tutelage of founder Charles Wace.
But her spirit, dynamism, enthusiasm and commitment - and no doubt her sense of humour and contagious laugh - drove her, very swiftly, onwards and upwards to being series producer of a Channel Four series by the age of 23. A driving passion and the ability to team-play are the twin tricks to a magical television career according to Leach, who clearly has both in spades. Not only that but the tenacity and energy to infect those around you with your clear delight in your own subject.
“It’s like the best job - I can’t imagine any other job that could be as much fun as this,” she says, beaming. “Obviously there are days when you don’t feel like that but in reality we are so privileged in telly: we get to meet the broadest spectrum of people, we get to dip our toe in a million different ponds so we get a little bit of knowledge about absolutely everything and I have got a butterfly brain so it really suits me to have 100 conversations going on simultaneously.
“Across the course of a day we will discuss everything from a blue chip documentary to a celebrity diving programme: it is amazing, and ridiculous, and incredibly exhilarating to work for a company where you can go from working with Prince Harry and a bunch of wounded soldiers trying to get them to the South Pole to throwing sequinned celebrities off a ski jump in the same day: where else in the world would you get to do that?”
Where else, indeed? But this self-depreciation is discombobulating. The ‘butterfly brain’ analogy is far better suited to the Chaos Theory than to this CEO. For in reality the ‘butterfly’ thought that crosses her mind may well change things on the other side of the Atlantic such is her professional reach.
Inspirational and influential she has acted as Advisory Chair for the Guardian Edinburgh International Festival and in 2014 was awarded “First Woman of Media” in the Real Business Awards.
Unlike many women in business, she says gender has never been an issue for her, working in the largely egalitarian world of the media - until, ironically as it turns out, you face the press:
“I think you make harder choices as a woman in terms of being a CEO because you are judged differently and so normally when I am interviewed - usually by men - the first question I am asked is: ‘So, you leave your children every week to run this company, how do you feel about that?’ and I’m like: ‘Would you ask that question to a man?’
“But I get it asked all the time, all the time. I think it’s a ridiculous question. Yes, I leave my children to run a company. A lot of people leave their children to go and fight in Afghanistan. I’ve just gone to work.”
Part of Leach’s irrepressible energy focuses on the constant flux and change that is essential in keeping up with the zeitgeist. Big changes in our programming are afoot she believes, with a seismic shift imminent:
“For the past decade we have embraced the television expert but the reality is that social media has completely democratised opinion,” she says.
“Now what is happening in telly is that peer review is much more important than expert opinion, hence why millions of people are watching Gogglebox every week. I think you will see more of that.
These days we care as much about what our friends think on Facebook as a judge thinks on X Factor so it will be really interesting to see how that permeates all genres of television.” It’s because of this they have a big new television format in the pipeline she tells me, which takes the judges away and puts it in the hands of peer to peer review.
Telly is such a dark art of alchemy that it’s hard to see sometimes which ideas will transmute from the production meeting to the awards table.
Educating Yorkshire was one of those for Leach and the Twofour team, voted recently as one of the best 20 programmes ever made. No-one who saw teenage student Musharaff overcome his stammer can deny its impact.
“Telly is not a science and you just can’t tell where the hits are coming from. They come out of nowhere,” says Leach. “I saw it in the edit. I saw it and Oh my God, you don’t get that very often; that is amazing.”
If Twofour continues on this trajectory with Melanie Leach at the helm then is global domination far off? “When we have two of the top ten bestselling formats in the world then I think we will have done it. I think we are a way off yet,” she says.
And for those here in Devon wondering what skills you need to be part of that team? The key is passion: “All you can do is follow your heart and go for it and you will probably be all right,” says Leach.
“You have to believe in what you go for, be committed. TV involves tenacity. Above all if you are incredibly tenacious and hard working and determined and you love people and love chatting to people then you will have a great career in telly.”