Southbank Centre’s Elaine Bedell on her career path

by Admin
Southbank Centre’s Elaine Bedell on her career path

Elaine Bedell distinctly remembers an early-career break at the BBC, as a junior researcher on Radio 4’s flagship consumer affairs programme, You and Yours. She was in her early twenties and, on the day of the live broadcast, both the producer and assistant producer called in sick. Bedell was “thrown in at the deep end” and asked to take charge.

She pays tribute to the “incredibly supportive technical team” who helped her that day, but also recalls: “The thrill of coming off air and knowing that I had pulled it off was like a high that I had never had before. And I just realised that I wanted more and more of that adrenaline”. Live broadcast and live entertainment would supply that rush, she realised.

Since then, Bedell, now 63, has set up, run and sold her own production company and held senior roles at both the BBC and ITV, working on the commissioning and production of some of their best known shows, from Britain’s Got Talent to Strictly Come Dancing.

Now, as chief executive of London’s Southbank Centre, she still likes to sit “in Row T of the Royal Festival Hall hearing Beethoven’s Ninth” or to relish a live performance of something new to her in one of the three venues in the cele­brated arts complex by the Thames.

In media and the arts, a hard line is often drawn between “creatives” and “executives”. Bedell says: “I am absolutely both.”

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Live radio and television are “all about teamwork . . . and I thrived in that environment. But equally, increasingly, I was leader of those teams, and that requires fast decision-making, a sort of resilience and robustness, which I think has also stood me in good stead for this [role].”

As an undergraduate studying English at Leeds university, she won a BBC prize for best student-produced documentary, which included a crash course in production. “That just opened my eyes,” she says. “I met so many extraordinary people, and lots of them [were] women who were already at the BBC.”

A campaign of approaching people in broadcasting and making applications eventually won her a full-time role at the BBC, where, again, she was inspired by “extraordinary women, doing extra­ordinary things” in the documentary features department, which included Woman’s Hour.

© Craig Gibson, for the FT

Career plan or go with the flow?

Is she a career opportunist or a planner? Definitely the former, Bedell says.

In fact, she is “slightly suspicious” of young people who have rigid career goals. “It’s really quite important that you’re flexible in your outlook when you’re starting out,” she believes.

Career milestones

  • 1990: Executive producer, BBC

  • 1995: Managing director, Watchmaker Productions

  • 2001: Managing director, Chrysalis Entertainment

  • 2007: Controller, BBC Entertainment Commissioning

  • 2009: Director of entertainment and comedy at ITV and executive chair, Edinburgh International Television Festival

  • 2017: Chief executive, Southbank Centre

There was, however, one other clear aim: “I knew I wanted to be a mum, and I had my children quite young, so I also needed to juggle and I needed to work out how I was going to juggle.”

That meant ruling out jobs that involved a lot of travel, for instance, and looking for ways to be home for bath time some evenings every week.

After founding production company Watchmaker, she sometimes brought her second child into the office and put her in a Moses basket under the desk.

However, as a mentor now of younger female colleagues, she accepts that there are dangers in inadvertently setting examples. Colleagues should set “their own ground rules”, she says. “Many young women look at the choices that I make and think the choices are mad.” As a leader, she says it is important “to help them figure out their own way of making it work”.

One strong piece of advice to all women is “not to be too hard on yourself and not to overthink things.”

Prepared to pivot, and pivot again

Sometimes, she points out, you may have to pivot. In 2002, having sold Watchmaker to Chrysalis Group, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, as managing director of the theatre company’s new commercial arm, with a goal of generating revenue from publishing and retail, to invest in its productions. She quickly realised that she missed broadcast media and returned to the BBC, eventually becoming commissioning editor for factual entertainment, such as The One Show, and overall controller of entertainment.

Bedell’s second big career pivot was in 2017, when she was lured to the Southbank Centre after seven years at ITV as head of entertainment and comedy. The role involved leading the arts centre through the challenges of Covid and cuts in government funding.

The vibrant yellow staircase of the Southbank Centre in London stands out against a clear blue sky. People are seen walking and talking on the steps. A large sign in the foreground reads “SOUTHBANK CENTRE”
‘Whatever new [UK] government we get, [it will] recognise the absolute value and importance of funding an organisation like Southbank Centre,’ says Bedell © Alamy

In broadcasting, she was used to working with relatively lavish budgets for the most watched live shows on television. The Southbank Centre is in a different corner of the creative sector. After examining its relatively limited finances, she concluded “there must be the most extraordinarily talen­ted staff base here to be producing what they produce on this . . . quite constrained budget. I just thought it must be the most dynamic and creative place”.

The constraints mean she has also had to turn her commercial and persuasive talents to negotiating with public funders, such as Arts Council England, and to raising money from private philanthropists. She is confident, though, that “whatever new [UK] government we get, [it will] recognise the absolute value and importance of funding an organisation like Southbank Centre”.

As an “always on” executive, Bedell felt ready to lead an always-on arts centre when the opportunity came along in 2017, but did she have to emphasise or play down parts of her media career to secure the job? True to her own advice, she did not overthink it. “In all honesty,” she replies, “I was pretty confident that I was the right candidate.”

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