'Sorry, some women ARE too ugly for TV': So says that self-proclaimed beauty, and former TV executive, Samantha Brick
07:05 GMT, 2 May 2012
Anyone who seeks out an on-screen career is setting themselves up for a fall. They are laying themselves open to endless — and, in my opinion, entirely justified — appraisal of their looks.
For nearly 20 years I have worked behind the camera in the world’s most visual medium, so I know better than most that a TV presenter’s looks dictate how many viewers watch them.
TV critics, viewers and broadcasting executives are all perfectly within their rights to have a say in how the on-screen talent looks, not least because physical appearance translates into all-important viewing figures — and these figures translate into whether the channel can justify its place in an increasingly crowded market.
When the acid-tongued TV critic A.A.
Gill wrote a highly uncomplimentary review recently suggesting TV
presenter Mary Beard should be kept away from the cameras because of the
way she looks, I can’t say I was entirely surprised.
TV exec Samantha Brick, left, argues that people are within their rights to judge how television personalities look on-screen after presenter of BBC2's Meet The Romans Mary Beard, right, was dubbed 'too ugly for TV'
Acid-tongued: A.A. Gill, pictured at the Hay Festival, wrote that Mary Beard should be kept away from cameras because of her looks
nd when Ms Beard, presenter of BBC2’s Meet The Romans, wrote a retaliation in this newspaper last week — ‘Too Ugly for TV No, I’m too brainy for men who fear clever women’ — I have to admit I had mixed feelings about the whole furore.
While there is no denying that Ms Beard is a supremely intelligent and fiercely ambitious woman, there is absolutely no chance of her becoming a successful broadcaster in prime-time slots on flagship TV channels. The plain truth is that Ms Beard is too ugly for TV.
If I were Ms Beard’s executive producer, I would congratulate her on the publicity this rumpus has created.
Controversial: Samantha caused controversy after writing in the Daily Mail that women don't like her because she is beautiful
Then I would do what her bosses should have done when she signed her BBC contract: sit her down and discuss a make-over.
Ms Beard will have had on-camera training at great expense to the BBC in preparation for her series, so why was this advice not extended to her wardrobe, make-up and grooming, as it is with most other presenters
The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s
wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that
the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.
This incident reminded me of a meeting about a potential daytime TV series eight years ago.
team and I had spent months developing a talk show with an intelligent
and engaging female presenter. Working-class and in her late 40s, she
was blonde, a size 18 and someone to whom a day-time TV audience could
relate. She was already being talked about as the British Oprah.
The only potential snag was that a new controller had taken over while the pilot was in production. He cut to the chase.
‘I’m sorry, Sam. This is a strong format with lots of potential, but the presenter is a problem.’
stinging justification remains with me. ‘I have enough blonde,
overweight women of a certain age on my channel right now. I can’t risk
Cruel I thought so, but on
reflection I realised this man was actually one of very few TV
executives with the moral fibre to tell the truth.
Mary Beard – pictured in Herculaneum presenting Pompeii: Life And Death In A Roman Town – hit back at the article by TV critic A.A. Gill, stating she was too brainy for men who fear clever women
Samantha Brick believes 'saavy' presenters, who realise their looks are a visual impediment to their careers, go and fix it with makeovers or even cosmetic surgery
for the other ‘blonde, overweight’ presenters he referred to, they went
on to lose weight, have subtle cosmetic surgery and tackle exhausting
work-outs in an attempt to retain their figures — and their place in TV.
fairness, most of the presenters I have worked with — on serious
documentaries and specialist factual programmes such as the one Ms Beard
presents — have been savvy enough to realise that if there is a visual
impediment to their career, they fix it.
are university-educated individuals who have discreetly undergone nose
jobs and eyelifts — recognising that to invest in their face is to
invest in their future.
a given that these ‘experts’, which is how TV executives view the likes
of Ms Beard, also maintain their weight, visit the gym and undergo
regular tanning and beauty maintenance.
Predictably, the broadcaster Miriam O’Reilly, who won an industrial tribunal in January 2011 against the BBC for age discrimination, has sprung to the defence of Ms Beard, insisting that women on TV should be free to look exactly as they want to.
She also claims Meet The Romans opened with ‘a very healthy 1.9 million viewers in its Tuesday night slot’.
Presenter Clare Balding – who was infamously described a 'a dyke on a bike' by A.A. Gill – has come to Mary Beard's defence
But according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, BBC2 programmes such as The Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation and The 70s won audiences of 3.22 million viewers and 2.93 million viewers respectively that same week in similar prime-time slots. Not such ‘healthy’ viewing figures for Meet
The Romans when you put them in context. In fact, I’d suggest executives may be looking at ways to refresh the format if the series is to continue.
Support: Broadcaster Miriam O'Reilly, who won an industrial tribunal against the BBC for age discrimination, has also defended Mary Beard
Ms O’Reilly has clearly failed to grasp how viewers watch TV and why. She has also claimed: ‘A recent poll by the Cultural Diversity Network revealed TV viewers want to watch older women not as figures of fun, as some have been portrayed on Strictly Come Dancing, but as role models to whom they can aspire.’
The problem with this research is that an increasingly savvy audience is happy to tell pollsters what they think they ought to want to see on TV — but it’s not what they end up watching.
I know Ms O’Reilly is laughably wide of the mark, because I was head of entertainment and factual programmes at Sky One for two years and had an eye-opening education into viewer research.
All channels have access to data that charts, second by second, audience viewing habits. To my astonishment, how people watch TV can be reduced to this: attractive woman on screen equals viewers stay viewing; woman exits screen, viewers switch channel.
Access to such information allowed my colleagues and I to see which presenters resonated with an audience and which didn’t. The TV careers of beauties such as Tess Daly and Kirsty Gallacher were shaped accordingly.
I do have some sympathy with Ms Beard. I was recently the subject of worldwide condemnation for daring to express the view that I regard myself as an attractive woman. The hate mail and public ridicule I experienced is something I will never forget.
Yet, in my early 20s, I was urged by one of my bosses in TV to consider a career in front of the camera.
Even though I was as confident in my looks then as I am now, I declined, convinced that I would struggle to deal with the criticism of my figure and the constant assessment of my looks by beady-eyed TV executives.
Television is a medium where you must be prepared to do anything to get on, and it is a given that you pay meticulous attention to your physical appearance first and foremost.
I think that’s something Mary Beard should have thought about rather longer and harder than she did. After all, she is a very clever woman.