Bears, thieves and cops make Nick's dream come true

ALEX ZATMAN chats to a producer who has become one of Britain's shining lights on the telly scene

DRESSING UP as a bear is not in the job description of a television producer, but for Nick Parnes it was just one more step up the ladder.

He is now the chief executive of Kalel Productions, the company he started in 2005, and co-production partner at Objective Productions - and he has cornered a niche format of factual entertainment.

But Nick has paid his dues. Starting as a runner after he left university, he is now collaborating with some of TV's stellar talents.

The Londoner had ambitions to make his way in the TV industry from a young age - despite threats from his father to stymie his embryonic career altogether.

Nick said: "I have always been interested and watched loads of TV. So much so that my dad used to say that he would chuck my TV out of the window when he came home from work and wanted to chat about our days.

"I'm pleased he didn't throw it out though - it ended up as a career for me."

Capturing images was a bewitching hobby for Nick in his youth. He excelled in photography at school due to an "eye for the framing of subjects in photographs".

And in his childhood, a proclivity for filming was apparent.

"I was fascinated with film being 24 photographs," he recalled.

"I had a few Super Eight cameras and I was always interested in creating images.

"I shot a few different short videos of the family, but nothing especially creative until I got a job."

Nick tried to deploy his practical passion for film into the study of the moving image - but fate had other plans for him.

He said: "It's funny - I tried to get onto different courses in TV production at the time, but I couldn't manage it.

"They were quite hard to get into. I didn't have the right grades and they were so oversubscribed.

"Only after leaving university did I end up being able to work in the industry.

"Philosophy helped though. You need to have an analytical brain - and I have an analytical brain when it comes to making things."

Nick, who grew up in Highgate, London, also had another passion - music - and it led him to work for MTV, where he spent the next decade after leaving university.

He explained: "My first job was as a runner at a music promotions company.

"Then I got a job at MTV where I was runner, but I did loads of things from floor managing, where I was watching bands and telling them what to do.

"I remember I was sitting watching rapper Nas and singer Lauryn Hill performing in the studio and thought to myself, 'This is the life for me'.

"I floor-managed Travis when they were big, and they were asking me to give them requests of what to play when they were sound checking.

"They were playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs and tracks from the film Easy Rider."

While he may have enjoyed the decadence of life at the pinnacle of the music industry, there was also a good deal of learning to be done.

Even in the early days he was gaining experience of the more esoteric and technical aspects of the industry.

"Sometimes I would do multicamera directing," Nick, 38, recalled.

"I had loads of experience in learning the ropes. It was a brilliant way to discover all the different jobs and roles that are necessary to make a programme."

Nick worked his way up from runner to format development executive at MTV and VH1 but left for a fresh challenge when he went freelance.

One of his earliest success stories was the music show aimed at youngsters Popworld on Channel 4, which launched the career of Jewish comedian Simon Amstell in 2001.

He said: "Popworld was huge, edgy and interesting. We asked popular interview questions and did funny things that people were interested in.

"The stuff I do is factual entertainment. Nothing is purely comedic with no reason for it. I like to think everything I do has a reason for it."

But Swag is the show that typifies his sense of mirth. It was a prank show that involved tricking members of the public into committing a minor crime, but the schadenfreude of the show's makers would soon set in and the culprits would face their comeuppance.

"That was really good fun - the most fun I've ever had in anything I've done, actually," he declared.

"You just think of really funny things to do with opportunists and make sure it checks out health and safety wise, which I don't know if it always did.

"Even though I was a director, I ended up dressing up as a bear in a house.

"We left the window open hoping that someone would break in and as soon as they did the three bears would come out and say 'you've been eating our porridge' and accusing the person who breaks in of being Goldilocks.

"It was dangerous. You're dealing with a person who has broken into a house.

"But afterwards it was really, really funny."

In 2005 he established Kalel Productions after he won 50,000 from BBC 3's Pitch Idol for an idea for a new show.

The programme he presented, called Worst Case Scenario, placed real-life human crash test dummies in "treacherous situations" to see how they would resolve the problem.

He said: "We used to do things like, which wire do you cut when you see a bomb? And how do you escape from a sinking car?

"That allowed me to set up Kalel. It has given me more freedom, but there's also more pressure.

"I've found that I'm not only dealing with the creative side of things but also with the financial side and having to worry about budgets overrunning and whether someone will drop out of the project because they're not happy with someone else.

"It was really hard initially to marry the production management and editorial aspects.

"Either way it is stressful - you can tear your hair out."

In 2008, he signed a co-production deal with Objective Productions, which has enabled Nick to develop and produce new factual entertainment formats.

And the plaudits have been rolling in ever since.

Nick has spawned the Rose D'Or-nominated The Undercover Princes, its successor The Undercover Princesses and Police Academy UK.

The latter brought police officers from countries as far afield as Zambia and Colombia - where policing is a more fearsome prospect than in relatively serene Britain.

"It was interesting to see how different police forces perceive us and quite entertaining to see how they got on," Nick said.

"And it was similar to the way we did The Undercover Princes.

"We brought three different princes from different countries to the UK and had them looking for love.

"There was jeopardy in that they had a certain amount of time but I think the British viewer got to see how bizarre or normal its own dating customs are."

Nick is a member of Alyth Gardens Reform Synagogue in Golders Green and while he is by no means "massively religious", he enjoys the family aspect of the High Holy Days.

And he has a long-held desire to make a programme focusing on Britain's Jews, following the runaway success of last year's show Strictly Kosher.

He explained: "There are only 250,000 Jews living in Britain and you have to hope that the programme you make isn't only appealing to those people.

"Strictly Kosher managed to be appealing to many more and I've always tried to crack how to do that."

Tantalisingly, he added: "I've actually got a format that does do that, specifically related to Jewish life.

"It is more a format than Strictly Kosher, which was an observational comedy. It is based around Jewish life and celebration."

The father-of-two has settled down from the madcap early days of his career, though.

He is married to Hannah, and they have two children - Marley and Mily.

"Nowadays, it's different," Nick said. "I used to be on a shoot on locations. I'd put all the cameras down and as soon as the shoot was finished we'd go out drinking and have a laugh.

"The aim now is to put the cameras down and get to bed."

The work never stops, even if the lifestyle has slowed. A new show is currently in production which sees the producers search assiduously through the country's Intellectual Property Office vaults to find the forgotten product and business ideas that could yet make a success.

"We'll go to the person involved and tell them that we're going to make the idea happen for them," Nick explained.

"We'll create a prototype and pitch it to experts. We're changing people's lives and they don't know we're coming."

The show, with the working title Mother of Invention, should be on our screens by the end of the year. Nick has enjoyed success in the industry he aspired to join as a youngster.

He maintains that his finest hour is "hopefully still to come" but is proud to have turned ideas that fill just one or two lines into fully-fledged TV shows.

"Some have no luck, some have a little luck and some have lots of luck," he said.

"The more luck you have the more luck that brings.

"What I'm pleased to have done is to have worked my way up in the industry and to have learned every role that's necessary to have a programme made.

"The key to what I've done is to create one or two sentence ideas where you think 'wow, that's a brilliant idea'."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph