Sioned Wiliam is a true Renaissance woman, and the new commissioning editor for comedy for BBC Radio 4. But what in the FM does that actually mean and how did she get there? Cariad Lloyd talks to her about her Odd Job.
She speaks two languages (Welsh and English), writes novels, performed in a double act with Rebecca Front and has produced some of the great comedies of the past 20 years. Now Sioned Wiliam is the new commissioning editor for comedy for BBC Radio 4.
What did you want to be as a child?
I think I wanted to be an actress, I did a lot of acting at school and then I did a drama degree at Aberystwyth. I was really lucky actually, we had the most wonderful people there from Europe – people from Jerzy Grotowski’s studio, Odin Teatret from Denmark. The two women who ran the department said to us, “You’re a European nation next door to one of the greatest theatrical nations in the world so it doesn’t matter if you speak Welsh, Polish whatever – be proud of it.”
How would you describe what you do as a job?
I’ve been a producer for the last 25 years; I did do a stint as a commissioning editor at ITV, but mainly I’ve been a producer. Now I’m a commissioning editor buying programmes for the network.
Independent companies and BBC in-house come to me with a range of programmes and I will look at the make up of what we have on the network and try to create a strategy for comedy on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. It’s buying shows and also managing those shows editorially.
That means looking to see what kind of voices I’ve already got on the network: making sure we’ve got different voices from around Britain, that we have men and women telling their stories, making sure there’s different kinds of comedy, something that’s a bit cutting-edge, something that’s more appealing to a larger audience. Seeing if there’s something innovative we haven’t done – asking those sorts of questions.
How did this become your job?
After Aberystwyth, I went to Oxford to do some research, I knew I wanted to work in comedy and I could just see that the Oxford Revue was a good way to get into it. I met Rebecca Front there and she and I worked together for about 10 years. We did a couple of series on Radio 4 and then I got a job as a producer because I realised I was actually on the wrong side of the microphone – although I still do a lot of broadcasting things now, I wasn’t an actress really. And Rebecca was fantastic!
I did lots of radio production then I left to go and work in television. I just did producing (Game On, Paris, The Wilsons, Unfinished Business, Big Train) and then I was offered the job of commissioning editor for ITV comedy. During that time I finally had my baby after a long time and a lot of help – I’m more than happy to be open about that because I think a lot of women find it quite tough to combine motherhood with careers. But I was very lucky and managed to have a child and took quite a lot of time off to be a full-time mum.
“Being a producer is like being a mum: you multitask; you have to deal with a load of recalcitrant toddlers, whether they’re directors or writers.”
I went back part-time at first and worked on Laura, Ben & Him for Avalon and executive produced a series of films for Boomerang/S4C. Then after a period of development for Working Title I produced the first series of Yonderland for Sky. But to be honest, being full-time was hard; it was an absolutely fantastic show, I’m very proud of it, but I didn’t really see my son for that year and that’s tough as a mum. I think the biggest problem for women in the industry is juggling family, but this job suits me extremely well because it’s part-time.
The BBC is brilliant as an employer who cares about juggling family and I have found them to be immensely sympathetic and helpful. But I think that’s one of the toughest juggling acts a mum can do. If you’re being mum in a production, you still have to make time to be mum to your kids. I think it’s really hard.
I also write. I’ve got my second book coming out in Welsh in the autumn and I’m adapting the first one for S4C.
Has being a woman affected your work?
I can honestly say it hasn’t. I think I’ve been really, really lucky. I went into the BBC Light Entertainment Radio Department in 1988. There had already been women there – Jan Ravens, Jenny Campbell, Lissa Evans – so I wasn’t the first. There were more women performers around in comedy suddenly; I worked with Jenny Eclair and Sally Grace and Julie Balloo, for example and I think I was lucky that those doors had already been opened.
Also, I think being a producer is like being a mum: you multitask; you have to deal with a load of recalcitrant toddlers, whether they’re directors or writers etc. You have to be a diplomat, you have to mother people, you have to be firm. You have to encourage good behaviour, discourage bad behaviour; you have to be organised; you have to anticipate things. These are all things mums do all the time.
What’s the best thing about your work?
I think it’s dealing with all the extraordinary talent that Radio 4 attracts. The best of comedy is on Radio 4 and it’s such a privilege to be part of that world and to meet people of the calibre that I meet here. I love the institution, I love Radio 4, and I really love my colleagues. It’s such an intelligent place to work, the level of discourse is so sophisticated, and it’s a place where people think. You feel like you can really try anything here because the doors are open in a way that perhaps they’re not on a commercial network or in television.
“Don’t forget to live your life. I think there was pressure 20, 30 years ago, to do everything. I don’t think we can do everything and I don’t see why we should have to do everything.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Do something because you love it. Otherwise you will not be satisfied. I think you have to do something that genuinely absorbs you because that’s what living is about. Now there are some horrible harsh realities that go with that and sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, but unless the thing you want to do is the thing that you love, I don’t see how you can be happy. Because being a performer in order to become wealthy may not happen!
And don’t forget to live your life. I think there was pressure 20, 30 years ago, to do everything. I don’t think we can do everything and I don’t see why we should have to do everything. People ought to acknowledge that nobody is a superhero. But I would say, particularly to young women, having experienced infertility myself, it did take me a hell of a long time to have a baby. One of the good things about it was it made me realise that I did have a life to live outside television, and it made me take that step back and work out what absorbed me as a person, which creatively was a good thing.
I think women are so hard on themselves: I’ve got to be the best producer, the best mother and I’ve got to look great – it’s ludicrous. Draw breath and think about what matters to you.
Cariad is part of improvised comedy troupe Austentatious!, who you can (and should) catch at the Udderbelly festival on 15 July. Click here for details or visit austentatiousimpro.com.
Austentatious! also appear at Underbelly Edinburgh from 6–31 August and Cariad & Paul: A Two Player Adventure takes place at the Pleasance Courtyard from 25–29 August.
Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad