Happy birthday!

12th May 2015

Today is my 60th birthday. I was born 60 years ago today. No-one, of course, believes that they will ever be 60. I do not believe I am 60 years old. But perhaps writing this short blog post will help reconcile me to the fact.

Indeed, one of my oldest and dearest friends, albeit one I see now more rarely than even I post here, has more or less challenged me on Facebook to write a blog post today. I am sitting in the garden of a house near the French village of Castelnau, halfway through a week’s walking with Clare. It’s very hot and there’s a small swimming pool which is very cold. I’m content – and I’m even content with being 60. Although I don’t know how to write that without sounding complacent.

I am of reasonably sound mind and body, albeit unfit and overweight (and there’s nothing like a walking holiday to prove that to yourself). I have a wonderful wife, with whom I am very much in love after being together for 35 years. We have three tremendous children, Kate, Ben and Nick, of whom I could not be more proud. But perhaps those are not the subjects for a post on the Illuminations blog.

The interests that have sustained me across those years have meant that I saw Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I have seen the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and Ken Russell; I have read Dickens and Tolstoy and the Eliots, George and T.S.; I went back and back to the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls and to the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby; on the small screen I watched United win the Treble and England win the Ashes in 2005 and I saw Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and I cheered as Jonny Wilkinson made that drop-kick; I have thrilled to Mozart and Wagner and Benjamin Britten; I have travelled to India and China and Cambodia and Egypt and Canada and Australia and pretty much everywhere I’ve wanted to go – except Chicago; and I have worked consistently with people who are smarter and more imaginative and more talented than I will ever be – and I am intensely grateful for that and for everything else.

With a colleague I set up Illuminations 33 years ago, so it has been the focus of my professional life for more than half my number of years. I am intensely pleased that it continues to function as a small independent producer and distributor dedicated to the arts and culture. I own the company with my professional partner and friend with whom I have run it for nearly 30 years. Those with whom we work are committed and delightful and smart and challenging and an enormous pleasure to be with.

The company was set up to make programmes for the new Channel 4, which went on air in November 1982. We said that we would produce “distinctive programmes about contemporary culture”, which is what we have done – and what we continue to do.

What I haven’t done in my 33 years with Illuminations is direct a feature film. I haven’t written a novel or a play. I haven’t created a ground-breaking work of philosophy or of history or of cultural criticism. All of which I might once have believed that I could, and would. But I have been involved in, and at times responsible for, a number of television programmes and media productions that have been, and remain, worthwhile in some fundamental sense. And perhaps that’s more than one can expect.

Mainstream television is very different now from what it was in 1982. In some ways it offers fewer opportunities and is less rich. Which I regret, although I hope that in some senses I understand. It certainly seems harder to be a producer now than back then, but perhaps all producers have always felt that at all moments of retrospection. At the same time there are so many new media opportunities – Sky as well as the BBC, event cinema and other large-screen possibilities, and the myriad of online forms. I have tasted of the joys of the web in its earliest days, of 3D social spaces, and of innovative combinations of networks and broadcast, and I hope that there will be other such experiments to be part of in the years to come.

Bliss was it to be alive as Channel 4 came together, but to be involved in media today still is, as Wordsworth sort of had it, very heaven. Even on a day when both a major pitch with which I was involved has fallen short and a key project has been cancelled, it feels as if there are a thousand and more opportunities, had I but world enough and time (and energy). Working closely with the Royal Shakespeare Company remains more of a privilege than I can express, and it is immensely exciting to be developing a major new project with Sky Arts. I even enjoy, after three decades of change and turmoil and occasional heartache and rare triumph, being still on the distant boundary of the BBC.

To be fortunate enough to combine this work as a producer with work as an academic and historian of television and media is also constantly stimulating, and I am grateful through the University of Westminster and with other organisations to have had the chance to do research in depth and to write articles and to create resources with colleagues that make tiny but perhaps productive contributions to what we know about the past.

I haven’t changed the world in my 60 years, but I hope I’ve done more good things than bad. Long, long ago, I came to London as a schoolboy to see a new film directed by Lindsay Anderson. It made an enormous impression on me then, even if subsequent viewings have revealed that it hasn’t quite stood the test of time. But if I can express this without seeming selfish or, again, complacent, its title seems right for the way I feel about myself as I scribble these inconsequential notes: O Lucky Man!


  1. Nick says:

    This served both as a read to make me smile and a timely reminder to get you a birthday present!

  2. Anna says:

    You may not have changed the world, but you’ve brought the world of arts to within reach of many many people, which has to be something to be proud of.

    Happy Birthday!

  3. Seb says:

    …And you’ve changed many of us too Guv – we hope for the better. Thanks for all so far, and have a great Birthday!

  4. Keith Griffiths says:

    Bravo – easy when you find the time!

  5. Luke McKernan says:

    Many congratulations John. Now go to Chicago – and think up a ground-breaking work of cultural criticism while you’re there.

  6. Nick Scullard says:

    I’m proud to have been associated with the most conscientious arts production company in the UK. Happy birthday John, long may you continue to Illuminate!

  7. Casta Jones says:

    This post just reminded me that I’m very lucky to have known you since before I can remember! What a very interesting and heart-warming blog John, I hope that you had a lovely day and hope to catch up with you soon.

  8. Alison says:

    Have a wonderful Birthday Holiday John!

  9. Matthew Killip says:

    Happy Birthday! And a lovely read, John. I feel very proud to have been a small part of such an amazing and committed company and look at my years at Illuminations as deeply formative. Thank you for all!

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