George Fenwick talks to the New Zealand-born force behind one of Britain's most successful television shows
I've met Carla-Maria Lawson over Zoom to chat about her illustrious and successful career in UK television, but the first thing she wants to show me is her new basket of feijoas. Like all Kiwis in London, she's had to grapple with the realisation that the fruit, abundant in Aotearoa, is almost nowhere to be found in the UK, and she has resorted to extreme lengths to find a taste of home.
"I got five for 10 quid on Amazon. It's embarrassing," she laughs. "But I just thought, 'I need to have a feijoa.'" She once planted feijoa trees in her back garden but they've yet to bear fruit. "Every year my mum keeps asking, 'Have they fruited yet?' And when she was over one year, she was going around with the paintbrush, trying to pollinate them."
Even after 25 years in the UK, her accent softening into an English-Kiwi hybrid along the way, Lawson speaks about and remembers Aotearoa with exuberance. In fact, she attributes her success in British television, in part, to her Kiwiness. Now the head of Daytime and Early Peak at the BBC, a role in which she has commissioned thousands of hours of successful and award-winning television, Lawson has overseen MasterChef, The Graham Norton Show and The One Show, but her most recent hit, and the one she is most proud of, is The Repair Shop.
The show invites Brits to bring old, prized possessions and family heirlooms to be restored by the show's experts. Presented by Jay Blades, a furniture restorer from Wolverhampton, the show has overtaken the likes of Coronation Street and Eastenders to become one of the BBC's most-watched programmes, garnering audiences of 5-6 million viewers each episode. The show was nominated this year for a factual Bafta in the Best Features category and won the Rose d'Or Reality and Factual Entertainment Award in 2019. Early seasons have also found success on Netflix in the US and on TVNZ On Demand here in Aotearoa.
When Lawson was first pitched the show by the production company Ricochet, she knew it had something special but faced an arm wrestle to convince her BBC bosses to give it the green light. Their hesitancy was due to a detail that Lawson herself thought was the show's greatest strength: there was no monetary reveal at the end.
"It's precisely what made it unique," she says. "My boss at the time wasn't convinced that simply being reunited with a restored item could pack enough of a punch to sustain interest."
In the end, it was Lawson's "plain persistence and determination" that won them over. "It was always a bit of a punt betting that the emotional currency could carry the series, but of course now, it's the essence of the series," she says. "That's what has made it a hit around the world. In the end, I think I just wore him down. He trusted me and eventually said 'If you really think it'll work, just go for it.'"
Lawson found her way into commissioning through journalism, which she dived into straight out of Northcote College through the journalism course at ATI (now AUT University). From there, she cut her teeth as a general reporter in the Radio New Zealand newsroom, which she says was great training for her to go on and "deal with the rough-and-tough of a London newsroom".
At a young age, Lawson says she was a "heat-seeking missile," which is how she found herself jumping on a plane and moving to the other side of the world in the 1990s.
"I wanted to go to Camden Town, the Dublin Castle, and see bands that I couldn't see in Auckland," she says. "It was a brilliant time to be in London. [Moving over] was very much about the fizz, if you like, of lots of different opinions. The political conversations were really noisy, quite provocative, but at the same time, really stimulating. And that was inextricably linked with music as well."
Lawson found work as a radio reporter for the BBC, where she was thrown in the deep end. "I was really lucky to be given lots of breaks to do a lot of reporting both within the UK and externally, going and doing things like the Israeli elections, the Oscars, the US primaries," she says.
"Not having gone to university was an interesting thing for me at that time, because in those days, that was not something you would ever say, particularly at the BBC," she continues.
"It was very much in Oxbridge culture. But because people knew I was from New Zealand, I felt very much exempt from that. And what's been really fascinating over the years; it's become fashionable that I didn't go to university. There's much more of an appreciation of the fact that people who've taken a different path have other different life experiences that they bring to their work."
Through her BBC work, Lawson began doing outside broadcasts, which is how she caught the attention of the controller on BBC One and eventually moved into commissioning. Lawson has brushed shoulders with countless celebrities throughout her career ("It's easier to think of people I haven't met in some ways," she jokes) but it was in her early career where some of her most memorable encounters took place.
"George Harrison was great and, being a Beatles fan, a highlight," she says. "Stevie Wonder and I got to spend an evening in the White Heron hotel bar alone with Joni Mitchell, who was enchanting and fantastically indiscreet."
She once met Prince Charles, with Robert Redford, and she can confirm the royal "loves" New Zealand. "They'd come together for Robert Redford's Sundance festival in London and Prince Charles had done a film on the environment. I'd done a series on hospital food, which was one of his big passions, so I was one of the people he wanted to say hi to. My husband came with me and at the time he had been working for Al Jazeera in Doha, so it was slightly surreal having Prince Charles ask you about your long-distance relationship."
Being a Kiwi has become somewhat of a "calling card" in the UK and has helped her brush shoulders with the rich and famous with ease; so many celebrities have been to New Zealand, Lawson says, that often they're thrilled to chat about it with her. But beyond charming the stars, it's thinking of home that often leads to her greatest successes at work.
It was her Kiwi upbringing, for example, that helped her recognise The Repair Shop as a hit from day one.
"The thing to me that felt really of the moment, if you like, in the show, was the atmosphere, the sense of sawdust, the sense of industry; I could smell it and hear it. Those things reminded me of a Kiwi weekend when I was growing up, when everybody's so busy working away on cars, or fixing things, you know. I think there's an innate sense of sustainability in the Kiwi culture that runs through The Repair Shop ethos as well.
"The super power in the show is its modesty," she continues. "It's humbling seeing those experts really, really skilled in their crafts coming together, repairing items that have little or no value. The genuine excitement that I think leaps out of the screen is lovely. They pick up tips and they're genuinely appreciative of each other's skills.
"I think all these things are attributes that you like to see in people, and it reminds you of the goodness of people."
The Repair Shop can be seen on TVNZ OnDemand.