By his own admission, Remy Blumenfeld found the years before Bedales to be tough and far from fulfilling. The son of American parents, he was born in Paris and also spent some of his early years in New York and Vienna before he and his family arrived in the UK. Cambridge was the chosen destination and for the young Remy, dispatched to St. John’s College Choir School, a place with which he was entirely out of sympathy, it was not a happy introduction to his new home.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” he admits. “Cambridge in the 1970s was less diverse than it is even today and I felt different and looked different from the other boys at school. I looked ‘foreign’, didn’t like team sports, was not C of E and my parents were artists” (Remy’s mother is the sculptor, Helaine Blumenfeld, his father, Yorick is a writer and his grandfather, Erwin, was a renowned photographer). “I also knew, from the age of eight, that I was gay. At a time when I desperately wanted to fit in, I didn’t.”
It was clear that Remy would need to move on. The question was, where? None of the schools around Cambridge appeared to provide a satisfactory alternative. “Originally, my parents hadn’t thought of sending me to boarding school but they happened to have a strong friendship with Jean and Richard Gooder,” Remy explains. “Jean had been to Bedales herself, was one of the school’s governors and all three of their children (Ben, Stephen and Kate) would go to Bedales. It was enough to persuade my parents that I should sit for the Bedales entrance tests, which at that time meant two nights away at the school. I loved it. I was not the only ‘different’ kid; I was not the only atheist; I was not the only child of artists. There was something of the Bohemian chaos at Bedales that I was used to at home and that was the point about the school for me – it felt like an extension of home. The entrance test felt like a test of who I was as a person, not just of what I knew. By the time the letter arrived at home to say that I’d got in, I already knew that I’d be devastated if I hadn’t been successful.”
For Remy, the opportunity had arrived to make a completely fresh start and he was determined to make maximum use of it: “At the age of twelve, I knew who my parents thought I was and I knew who I’d been as a child but, like many people that age, I wanted the chance to leave that behind and become the person that I wanted to be as an adult. I was incredibly grateful that Bedales enabled me to shed my childhood self and project a more adult persona and even more so, to have my peers and teachers reflect their belief in it back at me. Suddenly, not being good at rugby or cricket did not make me a failure.”
Not unnaturally for someone with Remy’s heritage, the arts were to take centre stage during his life at Bedales. “Playing the violin very badly in the orchestra under Jonathan Wilcox, writing for the Chronicle and acting in school plays directed by John Batstone, Alastair Langlands and Kate Slack were particular badges of honour,” he recalls. “I suppose one of my closest bonds was with George Smith, the housemaster and French teacher, who sadly died when I was in Block 5, weeks after taking me to see the musical Oklahoma! Tim Williams, the other housemaster, was also someone who seemed to accept me, which meant so much. Someone like Alastair Langlands, who speaks and dresses in such a distinctive way, was (and is) a living statement that you don’t need to blend in and be the same as everyone else. When I was at Bedales, there were three main groups at the school – I didn’t particularly belong to any of them but that was fine; I could be myself.”
Remy spent his summer holidays acting with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and as he neared the end of his school days, decided to aim for a place at Cambridge University. When he failed to get in, Remy headed to New York to take up a paid internship with a local TV station, WPIX-TV. He had found his true professional milieu. Quickly promoted to reporter, where he covered celebrity and lifestyle features in Remy's People and The Remy Report, Remy was awarded the New York Daily News prize for the outstanding foreign-born journalist and the Pan Arts award for coverage of the arts.
“It was something like the Eureka moment that I’d experienced at the Bedales entrance exams,” Remy reflects. “I just felt as though that news-room in New York was the perfect place for me. I loved the challenge of writing in an immediate, “gettable” way and I enjoyed being on-camera. I would have loved to have been an actor if I’d thought I was good enough but somehow, being a TV reporter suited me perfectly.”
Despite his enthusiasm, six years of life at the cutting edge of New York culture were enough for Remy: “In a nutshell, I got tired of the repetitive, formulaic nature of the one minute thirty news package,” he says. “New York was and is dizzyingly exciting, but it’s not the most nurturing of cities so I went back to the UK, initially in a London-based producing role for a US network. Living in London was fantastic – I picked up with my old friends from Bedales and the NYT and it wasn’t long before I was working as a presenter for BSB. When BSB merged with SKY, we were all without a job and it was then that I decided to start a production company at the age of 26 with my then life (and business) partner, Gavin Hay. This was Brighter Pictures. By the time I was 36, we’d sold it!”
Remy had created nothing less than a television revolution. At Brighter Pictures, he was responsible for more than thirty original formats, many of which have been sold around the world. These included Flava (Channel 4), Bombay Blush (BBC2), Dynasty or Disaster (FOX), Get A New Life (BBC2), Tabloid Tales with Piers Morgan (BBC1), My Worst Week (BBC1), Wudja? Cudja? (ITV1), Love Match (ITV1), Undercover Lovers (TROUBLE), Cruel Summer (TROUBLE) and Gay, Straight or Taken? (Lifetime). From 2004, Brighter Pictures was also the division of Endemol UK that produced Big Brother. Meanwhile, Remy was also doing his bit for potential new talent within his industry by helping to launch TVYP at work, a scheme which sponsored 15 youngsters each year to find paid placements with some of the UK’s most prestigious TV companies.
Success rarely comes without its share of detractors and the television industry is far from an exception to that depressing rule. Remy remains entirely unfazed, however. “I’ve always been interested in challenging the status quo,” he observes. “A lot of the programmes that I’ve made have been about taking the edges of society and putting them at the centre, from black music to Indian pop culture and sexuality. TV is a great leveller and, as we all know, the customer is always right. My customers vote with their remote controls. If the intended audience engages with a show (and we know almost immediately whether they have) you’ve won. If they don’t, you’ve lost. My parents may be most proud of the later BBC4 or Channel 4 documentaries that I’ve produced, such as The Other Francis Bacon, Dark Matter of Love or The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women but the truth is that these days, the divide between high and low culture is smaller than ever. There are growing numbers of people who watch ITV2’s Love Island one day and BBC2’s The Culture Show the next. When someone tells me they hate one of my terrible trashy shows, I’m still quite delighted because it means that the people for whom the show was intended may well just love it.”
After selling Brighter Pictures to Endemol, Remy remained an integral part of the business as creative director at Endemol UK for Brighter Pictures, while sitting on the Global Creative Board of Endemol BV and on the Editorial Board of Endemol UK. By the time of the global financial crisis of 2008, he had been invited by ITV Studios, the production division of ITV, to launch a global formats division, exporting shows such as Come Dine With Me, I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and Four Weddings to a worldwide audience.
“Running an independent production company is much like being the skipper of your own small boat,” Remy ruminates. “Yes, it can get scary in turbulent waters, and the chance of sinking is constant and real, but there is a real thrill of standing on the prow and feeling the wind in your hair, a real camaraderie amongst the crew and you can berth in any dock. Working for a super-indie production company is more like being aboard a giant ocean-liner. Even in high seas, you won’t get tossed about too much and the chance of capsizing is slim to moderate, but you’ll seldom glimpse the sea, let alone feel the wind in your hair, you won’t even get to meet half of the 6000 crew and you’re the wrong fit for many berths.”
“Sometimes, of course, working for a giant super-tanker can be a welcome relief,” he continues. “You get a regular paycheck, health insurance, a pension, less stress and someone within the company who will deal with every legal or production problem that arises. What’s not to like…? Apart from other people deciding what shows you get to pitch; being restricted on who you pitch to (try selling an ITV Studios show to BBC1) and watching shareholders get rich on the back of your ideas. Apart from feeling anonymous, unrecognised and unrewarded…! Joking apart, there is another problem with working for a giant production company – UK buyers prefer the boutiques. There’s just something about the bespoke service you get from an owner-operator on Burlington Arcade that can never be matched by the “never knowingly undersold” promise of a John Lewis store. I’ve experienced the heaving excitement of skippering an Indie and enjoyed the stately security on board some giant global production businesses. I know which one I love more.”
Remy was accordingly back on the independent trail again in 2013, establishing a new company, Thinking Violets, winning acclaim for a variety of documentaries and producing challenging new plays at Edinburgh, including Eunuchs In My Wardrobe and Julie Burchill Is Away. His most recent project promises to be his most ambitious yet. Together with fellow producer, Justin Bodle, Remy is launching The Hot House, a new creative incubator specifically aimed at enabling the UK’s most exciting content creators to start their own production companies.
“The UK is a recognised centre of excellence for content creation but there is little support out there for creative entrepreneurs,” Remy notes. “This new venture is all about literally hot-housing talent for the first years until they are self-sustaining. Sometimes Indies join forces with another company, only to discover that they’ve joined a flotilla through another channel and find themselves constrained again, this time by the demands of their new partners. One of the key differences between The Hot House model and standard backing in the independent sector is that we are creatively based and not aligned to any super-indie, broadcaster, private equity fund or distribution group. The Hot House will provide a genuine creative platform to work from and is set to attract leading content creators wishing to establish their own businesses. The idea is initially to offer up to ten creative teams the opportunity to launch their own labels in a safe and independent environment from our offices in Soho – giving programming originators and creators the infrastructure they need to flourish. We know we’re on to something, because a couple of the brightest lights in the business have already signed up to work with us.”
It’s a long way from the miserable days at St. John’s College Choir School. Remy has been named, among other things, as one of the world’s top 5 TV format creators, one of the UK’s top 20 most influential gay men or women and ‘One of the World’s Greatest Reality Show Villains’! What would the initially hesitant Bedalian that he was in his youth have made of the man that Remy has become?
“The Bedales that I left in 1983 was a place where poets, potters, botanists and carpenters were all encouraged, as I was, to believe that whatever we wanted for ourselves and our lives we could have,” is Remy’s warm reply. “At the same time, none of us were taught how to deal in the real world of budgets and time-frames. So I think my 18 year-old self would be surprised by what a pragmatist I have become. I am more convinced than ever that life is to be savoured and that what really matters is who I love and who loves me. Bedales taught me that. In living the life that I love, however, I have also learned the importance of a well-constructed plan in allowing me and those around me to thrive.”