SA-born television producer Gary Reich, 44, sums up his life, career and universe in clipped English. “It’s all good,” the producer of runaway success sitcom Vicious, says. In a visit to SA, to see his mother, veteran performer Annabel Linder onstage in Twilight of the Golds, he spoke to the SAJR, about living in the golden age of television. “Having fled” from South Africa 26 years ago, he still believes in his roots. (A version of this interview appeared in the SA Jewish Report. Owing to space constraints in the print issue, it was not possible to publish the full interview, which appears here).
“I’ve been running away for over 20 years from South Africa and the complications that that school set off in me,” he speaks of Hyde Park High School, from which he matriculated in 1986. “Looking at the school gives me mixed emotions; not only because of the gay-bashing terror I experienced while coming out flamboyantly – being Annabel’s son, there was no other way.
“I had also politically been woken up at that stage by my rabbi, Ben Isaacson, who galvanised me to be proactive and change my environment. My contemporaries were entirely asleep. The more I kicked against them, the more alienated I became, the more unhappy I was.
“It repulsed me to a career and a life that is enormously fulfilling on the other side of the world. But I am also constantly torn by the fact that I took so much from this country. I gained so much from being here and being brought up here and then fled and gave nothing back. Ever. Now, I’m getting committed to the idea of coming back and giving something back to the country.
“I matriculated in 1986. A State of Emergency was declared. In January 1987, and grounded in Hyde Park’s all-walks-of-life-schooling; I left for mechinah” – an initiative to integrate diaspora Jews into Israeli universities – “I arrived in Jerusalem and woke up. My burgeoning sexuality and my politics had no outlet in South Africa. In Israel, instantly, instantly, I was 20 times happier.”
At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Reich read English literature, under two Harvard professors who were Zionists. “They reignited my passion for English literature. But the university had a very strict rule: you could only get into your second year if you got exemption in Hebrew.” That was his stumbling block. With the support of his father, he chose to go to Sheffield University.
“I majored in English literature and drama and then did a masters degree in poetry and film, there. Those were my passions. I wanted to be a theatre director. All my childhood, I wanted to be a game ranger. That was the plan. But because of Annabel, I was surrounded from a very early time in my life by the theatrical tradition, the people that were in and out of my life.
“During my MA I took a show to the Edinburgh Festival: it was a stage adaptation of a narrative poem by Ted Hughes. A tv producer was in the audience. So that was it.
“I was 22. I moved to London, and got a job as a trainee scriptwriter for a production company. They had a commission on Channel 4 to do a British version of The Wonder Years (the American version featured Fred Savage). The woman who ran the production company took a big risk and said to Channel 4, if we want to write a show about kids that age, why don’t we give three writers, who’ve never written before, of that age, the commission. That’s what happened.
“We’re living in tv drama’s golden age; not only A-list film actors like Matthew McConaughey are doing tv, but directors are, as well. Drama’s kicking against reality formats and winning.”
Reich’s own production company, Brown Eyed Boy was formed in 2002. “I’d been working inhouse at the BBC as head of new comedy developments. I started to specialise in new comedy formats, because I found that more interesting and I realised I had a good nose for spotting talent that would become stars: Sacha Baron Cohen was my first discovery in 1997.
“At the BBC, my brief was to find multi-cultural talent. And my South African background started to kick in in an interesting way which is probably driven by guilt more than anything: this need to find these people and give them the opportunity and the oxygen to do interesting things.”
It led him to pilot Three Non Blondes, a sitcom involving three black female comics, which gave him momentum to start his own company. “It launched me immediately. A lot of people told me I am insane to start a company by myself, but I was very, very, very lucky. Launching that pilot was my moment that begat everything.”
“I did it on my own, because of Annabel. One reason she’s such an inspiration is her fierce independence. She never relied on the money of anyone, she made all her own opportunities.”
Three years ago, Reich’s company was bought. “I wanted to expand, but needed a cash injection. I put my company out there. Suddenly Shine came into the picture: It’s a production company owned by Elizabeth Murdoch, Sir Rupert’s daughter. On the face of it, I’m known as maverick, left field, left wing, progressive, anarchist producer. The Murdochs are more right wing; Elizabeth is phenomenally libertarian and a very powerful and impressive human being. I fell in love with Shine’s ethos and culture.
Under Shine, Vicious, a sitcom about two old gay men who have been in a relationship for over 50 years, grew. “I wanted to create a very broad mainstream prime time show. Studio sitcoms were the most popular format in the UK so it had to be a studio sitcom, and it needed really big pieces of A-list talent. Then a small channel with lots of money called SkyArts, who had done a show with Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, wanted to do a brave and mischievous sitcom.”
One thing led to another; Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi were cast: two grand knights of the British theatre, who were at Cambridge together, but who’ve never acted together, because they were competitors. The show was initially going to be called Vicious Old Queens.
“Vicious – as it came to be called – was my Shine imperative,” Reich says, commenting on how he managed to hold onto his artistic integrity with the comings and goings of writers and the risk necessary for ITV, British television’s biggest television broadcaster. “My love for the studio sitcom was kindled in the late 1970s or so, when my mum was in Oh George!, South Africa’s first ever sitcom. My mother was the kugel. Eddie Eckstein was in it. And Gordon Mulholland.”
“Ian and Derek were cautious about doing this. They’re both in their 70s. They’ve achieved everything they’ve wanted, but the studio sitcom is a very vulnerable-making environment. I was summoned to meet both of them. They said to me ‘what do you know about old actors and their frailties and crazinesses? Well. I told them about Annabel. And they got it.”
Vicious has aired globally, but not yet in South Africa. It is available for purchase through kalahari.com. Reich describes the collaborative energy as alchemical. “I think we’re in this world now, with financial challenges forcing us to collaborate,” he concludes, intimating fantastic projects with South African theatre talent in the near future, “and the future looks very bright.”