It has been a difficult 12 months for Amanda Ross, joint m.d. of Cactus TV and creator of the "Richard & Judy" Book Club. Earlier this year, the "You Say, We Pay" quiz scandal erupted over misuse of premium phone lines on "Richard & Judy". Cactus was under investigation— it was later exonerated — and Ross was doorstepped by journalists and paparazzi.
Then Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan announced their retirement from their daily chat show, marking the end of a successful era, and sparking speculation over the fate of the couple's Book Club.
But there were highs, too. The Best Read and Summer Reads campaigns were as successful as ever, (The House at Riverton, for example, sold 63,000 through Nielsen BookScan the week it was reviewed, where 2006's The Island sold around 33,000). Ross entered Who's Who—her two dogs, Poppet and Bella, became the first canine entries in the history of the publication. And she also finished the four-year renovation of her Italian villa, complete with an expansive, customised library.
In addition, the first "Richard & Judy's Best Kids' Books Ever", broadcast as part of Channel 4's literacy season, drove the selected books' sales and fanned debate about the age banding of children's books. Ross hopes it will have a lasting legacy and that publishers will continue to adopt the bands.
Still adamant that the "most fulfilling part of my job is the work that I do with books", Ross is in good spirits. She has just finished filming the "Richard & Judy's Christmas Books" special, which is broadcast tomorrow (15th December), and is thrilled with her selection of celebrity authors Ronnie Wood, Helen Mirren, Sharon Osbourne and Russell Brand.
She seems especially taken with Brand. "He was hysterical," she says. "I really think he should write fiction, because his vocabulary and way with words is amazing. Completely brilliant." Hodder, take note: he said he "would think about it".
The programme is broadcast in a tough slot on Saturday afternoon, but Ross believes it is a "much cleaner, more accessible" show than last year's. She says that Channel 4 executive producers were so pleased with it they are planning another airing over Christmas.
But it's not just about the broadcast, Ross stresses. "TV is an excuse for retailers to market books. The most important thing, especially in the run-up to Christmas, is [having] stickered books in the shops. People who have never watched the show— and would never watch the show— know there's a group of people who have taken the hard work out of choosing books for them."
Beyond Christmas, 2008 promises to be just as momentous as 2007. Cactus TV has two new non-"Richard &Judy", "big book-related" formats in the pipeline, about to be signed off by broadcasters. Ross is tight-lipped, for fear of her ideas being ripped off by other producers, but she says the first is "a really exciting project that is going to involve most publishers". Both formats will fill a gap in the market and "will help booksellers sell books", she adds.
Despite her success in convincing broadcasters to plump for book programmes, Ross believes they are still nervous about putting books on television. "I don't expect there to be a rash of book programmes," she says. "It's still very hard to achieve, and there are enough [examples of] failed series to make broadcasters reticent."
As for the "Richard & Judy" Book Club, fears about the viability of a standalone show are unfounded, Ross says. "It's a valuable [brand] to hold onto, because it has worked—for retailers, publishers, writers and viewers. It's five years old now, with 10 campaigns, and it has got its own momentum, so we definitely will continue with that."
She has "very clear ideas" about how the Best Read and Summer Reads spin-offs will work and, even though she is again reluctant to share details, she says: "I don't think anyone has anything to worry about."
Before any such plans materialise on screen, next year will see another run of "Richard & Judy" Best Read and Summer Reads as part of the daily chat show, with the former launching in January. Ross has again sifted through around 700 submissions and come up with a selection of 10 titles.
"It was a very strong year," she says. "I don't choose things that are my own personal taste. I choose things that I think are going to have popular appeal and are broad-ranging. But this year, I love more [of the selection] than ever."
Another matter close to Ross' heart is the National Year of Reading, which she plans to support next year. She has met with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and wants to feature the campaign as much as possible. "It has potential to be a really fantastic national campaign, but it needs focus," she says. "We're going to try to put on television some of the elements, within 'Richard & Judy', to highlight it so it can actually make a difference."
First things first, however. Following the Christmas Special, Ross is looking forward to a quiet festive period. Even though she will struggle to get decent sleep— "I won't sleep easy until the first [Best Read book] catches light" —she wants to treat herself to some non-Book Club reading.
Joseph O'Connor's Redemption Falls and Kate Mosse's Sepulchre are already lined up. Neither can be picked for future Book Club selections, as previously selected authors are ineligible, but Ross adds pensively: "Maybe we will be able to do that in the future, if we carry on the Book Club indefinitely."
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