Indie spotlight: Andrew Robertson from Very Nice

The first in an occasional series looking at Scotland's independent production sector.

The last few years have seen a number of small independent production companies spring up in Scotland, producing content for both local and national audiences.

One such indie is Very Nice, established in Glasgow in 2018 by MD Andrew Robertson and Creative Director Henry Imbert. Robertson previously served as Head of Entertainment for Mentorn Media, where he oversaw the company’s entertainment commissions, and also worked at STV, Tigress, Zeppetron and Endemol.

He took some time out of his schedule to discuss the ethos behind Very Nice, their BBC Scotland series Mirror Mirror, and what’s next for the company.

Jonathan Melville: First of all, how did you and Henry meet and what made you say “Let’s do this in Scotland”?

Andrew Robertson: Technically I come from Scotland; I went to school in Scotland and all my family are from Glasgow, my family background is basically from Glasgow, and I’m the only one that sounds like this. Even when I was at school I sounded like this and I went to school in Glasgow. I always call myself geographically agnostic, because wherever I am, I’m not from there.

I was in London for a long time, I was at university there, I started in telly there. I worked there for a long time, then had kids and my wife wanted to come back up, even though she’s not from Glasgow, because all my family were here. We came back eight years ago and it was definitely a different landscape then than it is now. With Henry, I had worked at Endemol for a long time in London.

There was a digital media department back in 2005/2006 and it was almost like a secret department that was set up to go “What can we do with this internet thing, it might be quite big.” There was a department there and it had people who weren’t TV based working in there, and then they got a commission for Bebo and they needed someone who actually knew how to make a show to go and help them make it. So I went to help out in this new internet department and got bitten by the bug.

Very early doors I remember going to Facebook developers garage when Facebook was in his infancy and suddenly seing the value of content rather than the way we used to look at it. In that department, Henry was a sort of work experience type, fresh out of university. They’d got him and his friends as a sort of, “Let's see what these young people can do, they seem to know the internet.” We worked well for so long on whatever shows I dragged him onto. Then I dragged him onto Robot Wars up here and when I left there I was like “We should just do this on our own.” And that was in Glasgow.

Looking at the launch announcement for Very Nice in 2018, it talked about “innovative, exciting shows and formats across a plethora of platforms” and somewhere else it mentioned “exciting and subversive cross platform formats” - why are you specialising in entertainment formats?

I think it's because that’s the way our brains work. Every morning, even during lockdown, we will walk for miles, up and down the Great Western Road, all we do is talk about ideas. Often I’ll say “I don’t think we should even bother pitching for that” - I know there are things that we can do better than anyone, so I avoid pitching for those sort of middle of the road, generic fact-ent ideas, they don’t go anywhere. You’ll never work again if you’ve got a Come Dine with Me, but that’s not a reality, it’s also not what really excites us.

We spend our life on Reddit, that’s where the exciting content is, that’s what makes us laugh. We’ll go, “Oh my god, we’ve got to do something around this.” We both get really bored. If something comes up and it feels straight down the line... we often just pitch ideas to each other and halfway through I get bored of my own idea and go “Oh, just forget it.” I could have stayed in a cushy job if I just wanted to do TV for the sake of it, but I don’t want to do it safe, I want to do it because it’s those things that excite you, that you’re like “God, that’s brilliant, let’s do that” and so we’re much happier in this kind of place.

That’s why Glasgow is perfect, because we can still pitch network, it’s a beautiful city, we hang out and do all the things we want to do, and it’s exciting. It’s trying to make the things that you think should be made rather than just pitching the same stuff all the time. People do that and are very good at property or antiques, but I don’t find it inspiring to think about and talk about.

That’s the thing about Mirror Mirror because that’s real people having real conversations. Did that come from you having a wander or going to the barbers?

That was literally my hairdresser, the place I get my hair cut, Safe Hands on Miller Street. The penny dropped when one guy cut my hair, then sometimes another guy cut my hair, and it made me realise that I don’t go there for the haircut at all. What I love is that I’d sit there and the chat... there are stories I couldn’t repeat because someone would definitely get arrested.

Daryl, who runs it, said you’ll get someone who’s just come out of jail on one side, and a solicitor who put him in jail two seats up. So it was a proper melting pot and the stories were fascinating. Also, real people telling real stories are brilliant, and part of what we loved about it was putting people on TV who don’t want to be on TV.

I wrote an article for Broadcast saying that TV’s become an infinity mirror of itself. The point I was trying to make was that you see people casting for TV shows and they all use casting companies. So all you’re going to get is people that want to be on TV. TV just becomes a repeating pattern of people who want to be on TV. I did Big Brother years ago and there was a guy called Marco, and he was in Big Brother 5 and for years afterwards he told me that people contacted him and he would train people how to get on Big Brother. All these people were getting on Big Brother because they knew what to say and how to react. What you end up with is that TV doesn’t reflect anyone.

Mirror Mirror is a very Scottish programme and I’m guessing you can't sell it to other broadcasters. Do you have to sell the format?

You have to sell the format, you never sell tape on that. [We film] up in Shetland, the Hebrides, we’re in all these places trying to find the real characters in life. We did the hard miles. I would get a train, or fly, or a boat somewhere and I would just walk the streets up and down looking in hairdressers and barbers, looking for ones where people were naturally chatting. I would just walk in and be like a lunatic and go “Hi, I’m making this TV show...” I got used to people staring at me vacantly.

Mirror Mirror was an original format that is ours, and we’ve worked really hard to make. We’re just coming to the end of series two at the moment and now ITV has commissioned Warner Bros-owned Wall to Wall to make exactly the same show.

For a small company like ours that’s a real problem, because we can only try and monetise it through format sales, but if suddenly Warner Bros decide they want to make our show, we’ve no legal leg to stand on because you can’t copyright a format essentially. That’s a real problem if broadcasters or big companies just go “Well, tough”, because we’re a small company, that’s where we get our money from to come up with new ideas.

We’re finishing series two, it’s on iPlayer. I did a show years ago for Hat Trick that cost six million quid and the BBC were simultaneously making a similar type show at the same time. They rushed theirs out and the six million quid show is sat on a shelf at ITV.

You also did some Sparks shorts for Channel 4.

Yes, you’ll see them across Facebook, that seems to be where they put them out, so that’s done and we’re talking to them about other stuff. Then we’ve got a thing I’m writing now, a true crime story which I’m totally obsessed with, it’s amazing. It’s things like that where we go, “That’s a brilliant story”. We do entertainment because that’s really our mindset, but if we find something else that we think is amazing, we’ll focus on that as well.

You mentioned short form, cross platform formats, is that something that’s of interest to you?

It definitely is, I mean that’s kind of Henry’s bread and butter, because I came from the TV world and he’s the sort of internet native. We’ve got a couple of things in with Channel 4 at the moment, which are again things that we make us laugh every time we talk about them.

So that makes us think “This is what we want to make, this is going to be brilliant” and sometimes commissioners will want something that’s more middle of the road. But we’re certainly in conversation about that sort of short form content, they’re funny character-based things, real people that we think have all the right credentials and that should be on TV. They’re as funny as anything I’ve seen on TV.

That idea of Facebook, and maybe Instagram and Snapchat, where you could do one or two minute content, is that something you’d consider?

Where’s the money in it? I’ve been in too many briefings where you hear people saying, “Yeah, you just shoot it on your iPhone”, but the reality is if you delivered something you’d just shot on your iPhone, it would come straight back at you, and they actually want a lot more for their money than it sounds like at the beginning.

How can you run a business if they’re like “It’s £500 for 10 minutes”, £500 goes nowhere. You’ve got a MacBook Pro for five grand to cut it, and you’ve got Adobe Premiere to cut it on, and that all adds up. Unless they create an environment where it’s profitable to make one minute videos, then it won’t work. I think they just see one minute content as great for them, but I don’t think they monetise it back the other way that you make enough money off that one minute to make worth doing.

I wanted to just briefly ask about Screen Scotland’s Broadcast Content Fund, you were awarded £100,000 in 2019. How important are things like that?

That was absolutely transformative for us. Would we still be running if it wasn’t for that? I doubt it. It helped us get through all those periods when you’re waiting for something to come in. It enables you to have the courage to keep trying to pitch the shows that you want to make, that you believe you should be making, and not slightly selling out just turning out more of the same. So yeah, it was brilliant.

Do you think you’ll be working more with BBC Scotland on any other projects?

We’re definitely chatting to them a lot about other stuff. We’re certainly talking about series three of Mirror Mirror. We’re talking about other ideas we’ve got, we always want to build something new. We loved doing Robot Wars, but it always felt like it was a missed opportunity. What’s the next iteration of that STEM-based entertainment show? We know that community of people who make those amazing things. BBC Scotland is brilliant and I think there are some really good shows on the channel as well.

So you’re based in Scotland, you’re pitching things to Scottish broadcasters, but you’re also looking internationally as well?

Yeah. We’re always aiming for network. The short form stuff we’re looking at is all Scottish contributors, because those are the ones that we’ve met and there’s a small community that we’re linked in to and where we meet new editors or new directors. So that’s the kind of thing that we’re really into working with. So it’s definitely a Scottish focus.

Is there anything else you’d like to see happen in Scotland?

One of the things with all those funding opportunities I find is that generally people who make telly are of the creative persuasion, so when creatives come in contact with what feels like the civil service, it’s very hard to navigate your way through all those funding forms.

The hardest bit is translating what you need to do and who you need to approach to apply for these funds. The funds are brilliant, but it’s a job in itself  understanding what they want, understanding the language that they’re using, because they are essentially civil servants.

Also, they still look at things as if they’re from a film-based timeline, or like a big drama. So when you talk about something, they’ll say, “Yeah, but you can’t do anything on that idea for a year” and you go, “Yeah, this idea will be dead by tomorrow”, we'll pitch things quickly and they’ll die and we’ll move on. It’s brilliant, but it can be hard to get to that point.

The other thing is the brass plating thing [whereby companies from outside Scotland set up an office here and hire local studio facilities, sending money out of the country] that gets talked about a lot that hasn’t gone away. And now there are more opportunities in Scotland, there are more angles of brass plating going on, which is always frustrating.

Thanks to Andrew Robertson for taking the time to talk.

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