Sam Hodges (English Language, 1999, Pendle) tells how his job publicising the pro-celebrity Come Dancing series accelerated his career with the BBC.
The moment young BBC publicist Sam Hodges overheard an idea being discussed by his bosses for a pro-celebrity Come Dancing series hosted by Bruce Forsyth, he attempted to merge with the office furniture and prayed the job of publicising it would not come his way. Of course it did - and it accelerated his career.
He was ‘landed with’ what became Strictly Come Dancing and, over two series, made it into an entertainment sensation which he loved - including working with Forsyth too, despite his awareness of the age gap. It is an irony that Hodges greatly enjoys from his current position as Head of Communication for BBC Television.
“It was all so unknown,” he recalls. “The main aspect of it all was to play with people’s preconceptions. People were expecting Bournemouth conference centre, so we launched with Latin, energy and celebrities.”
As he remembers the seven-day working it took to launch the series - working until midnight and starting again at 7am to feed the media ‘beast’ - he acknowledges that much of the confidence he needed to make it happen came from his three years as a student at Lancaster.
Says Hodges: “I went to Lancaster a bit shy, but it was the right environment for me to grow. What really struck me was the nature of the relationships that existed between students and teachers, which made it OK to discuss, challenge and debate with a person who was in authority. In a big company like the BBC, that is vital.”
He had not planned to go to Lancaster. His twin sister, Liz, was set on it and he accompanied her to the open day from their home in Birmingham. He decided this was the place for him, and was offered a place after retaking an A level. His sister went elsewhere.
At Lancaster he found a small-scale world where he felt he belonged. Here on campus he had everything he needed, in a pleasant, green environment. Friendships were swiftly made and many remain in his circle to this day because of the strength of relationships built on a small campus, with Alexandra Square as a natural passing place.
Suddenly he found himself mixing with a number of international students - particularly from Greece and China - which gave him a new cosmopolitan perspective and an insight into fellow students who might never go home during their three undergraduate years. Words excited him. He says: “I would read absolutely everything - even down to a can of Tango - to see the kind of language used on it.”
Academically, new vistas opened up - with courses in sociolinguistics, global media, language and marketing, which stick in Hodges’ memory. Semantics was not up his street however. He remembers struggling to explain the difference between the Countess of Ayr and the County Surveyor, even though he knew it had its importance. His interest was in social language.
He admits not having worked hard enough and having spent too much time in the Sugar House and The Carlton. But he is not too hard on himself, as it was at the Sugar House at the start of the third year, that he met his wife Vicki, who was studying Social Studies at St Martin’s College.
By the time of his graduation, Hodges remembers he was champing at the bit, wondering how to use what he had learned about the power of language. He rejected journalism as he was not convinced he was sufficiently hard-nosed, but decided television was for him.
Undaunted by his lack of experience, he told a recruitment agency back in Birmingham he wanted to work in TV, and (with beginner’s luck on his side) was offered a job at BBC Pebble Mill, helping people to operate their computers. A press assistant's job soon came up internally for which Hodges applied and found himself on the ladder.
Just like Lancaster, Pebble Mill allowed him to learn his new craft in a smaller environment, out of the glare of publicity and celebrity. He sees this as a vital rehearsal for recent years as a senior BBC manager, in which executive pay, redundancies, scandals like that of Jimmy Savile and licence fees have required him to take a confident lead.
After Pebble Mill, Hodges took a year off travelling, before returning to a short-lived job in PR, promoting Toby Carvery and Brighton Homes, which he says ‘made me want to shoot myself’.
His first London publicist job for BBC Entertainment (where Strictly was born) led to a series of promotions in the BBC and ITV entertainment. He went on to be Head of ITV Digital Channels, Group Publicity Manager at Channel 4, and Head of Communications for BBC ONE, Fiction, HD and Film, with a leading role on BBC branding issues.
In his current role as Head of Communications for BBC Television, Hodges now has a much broader role, overseeing the press and publicity for all BBC programming and any of its related issues. Working with the BBC’s TV Board members he also helps shape the strategy for the division. He admits that recent years have been tough, but as a passionate TV lover (and member of the Executive Committee for the Edinburgh International Television Festival since 2012) he wants to push top-quality programming. He says: “Some people tell me that the only good things they read about the BBC are about the programmes - so our campaigns have to be first class!”
He says: “I am massively aware that Lancaster University gave me the confidence to do the things that I have done.”