The Yorkshire man who gave up a glittering TV career for opera

Stuart Murphy.
Stuart Murphy.
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Stuart Murphy was fast becoming king of television, but decided to become head of the English National Opera. Catherine Scott tunes in.

For a man who made television his life, taking on the role of head of an opera company may be an unusual move. But not so says Stuart Murphy.

Murphy became the youngest television controller the age of 26. He was the man responsible for launching BBC 3 before moving to Sky and heading up various channels including Sky Atlantic before becoming Sky’s entrainment director – all by his early 40s.

But then he suddenly quit. “I had got to the stage where the job had become all consuming,” says the 46-year-old from Leeds.

“I still loved it but it had taken over my life, even when I was home I was thinking about work. Then one day I was talking with my other half and it really made me think about what I was doing with my life and whether I was truly happy with my work life balance and so I quit. I realised that I needed to spend more time with my boys (Max is now 18 and Josh 16) and not being consumed by work. One in three of us will get cancer and I was in the fortunate position where I could just quit.”

Murphy is divorced from his boys’ mother Polly but they remain good friends and she fully supported his decision.

Not only did he quit what for many is seen as the top job in the TV entertainment business, he decided to give away a lot of his money. “I had been very well paid over the years and could afford it.” He and partner David Clews (award-winning director of programmes including Educating Yorkshire and the Real Marigold Hotel) got some dogs, he played his clarinet and most importantly spent time with his sons.

“It worried me slightly as I thought it would be hard to talk away from it all and that I would really miss it but I was fine.”

Murphy has talked openly about his sexuality since a national newspaper threatened to ‘out’ him about ten years ago. “A newspaper was doorstepping me and my family and I didn’t want it to be a big deal, particularly for my boys. I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed by their sexuality and that’s what I wanted them to know.”

To take the wind out of the newspaper’s sails he decided to announce it.

“I am very private about my private life, but if I can help other people feel confident about who they are then why not talk about it. When I was growing up in Leeds in the eighties gay role models were few and far between. The only gay people on television were portrayed as being extremely camp – I’m not particularly like that.”

As well as spending more time with his teenage sons, Murphy did some writing and embarked on some voluntary work but after a couple of years realised that he needed more.

And so when the job came up as head of the English National Opera he decided to apply.

“Of course there were people who didn’t think that someone from television should get a job running the English National Opera, but I was determined to prove them wrong.” And if the plaudits surrounding the current production of Porgy and Bess are anything to go by he has more than silenced his critics.

But Murphy actually fell in love with opera as a teenager, and wants to teach others the joy he felt watching the Magic Flute while he played the clarinet in the Leeds Youth Orchestra.

Murphy came from an ‘ordinary’ family. “I was the first member of our family to go to university.” And not just any university he studied Political Geography at Cambridge. “I was a bit of a geek,” he admits.

He attended St Peter’s and St Paul’s School Primary School in Yeadon where he got his first introduction to classical music.

“Leeds City Council ran a programme where classical groups visited primary schools. I went home one day when I was seven and said I really want to play the clarinet.”

Murphy played in the school orchestra when he moved to St Mary’s secondary school in Menston.

“We had a brilliant orchestra did school productions and Christmas concerts. I was really lucky my parents sent me to St Mary’s as the school was really supportive of music compared to a lot of the other comprehensives my mates went to.”

He then joined Leeds Youth Orchestra who played for Leeds Youth Opera which is where a 15-year-old Murphy fell in love with genre.

After university he started his broadcasting career as a tea boy at BBC Manchester. From there he went to work on shows such as Reportage, The Sunday Show and Lifeswaps with Paul O’Grady. He launched and ran UK Play, from 1998.

He joined BBC Choice, the BBC’s forerunner to BBC Three, becoming Head of Programmes in 2000, and then Controller. Murphy subsequently became BBC Choice Channel Controller

He then devised, launched and ran BBC Three in 2003 where he commissioned shows ranging from Gavin and Stacey to Bodies and developed a reputation for developing new talent and innovative, award-winning programming.

Particularly notable was Flashmob The Opera, a live opera from Paddington Station in October 2004. It was followed, in April 2005, with Flashmob The Opera: Meadowhall, a specially adapted version of the Faust legend. BBC Three went on to win both Channel of the Year and Best Entertainment Channel.

After two years as Creative Director at Two Four Productions, Stuart joined Sky in 2009 to run Sky One where he brought to the screen numerous award-winning shows from Stan Lee’s Lucky Man to Mad Dogs, from An Idiot Abroad to Stella and from Modern Family to Flash. After two years, Sky 1 was named Channel of the Year.

In 2011 Stuart devised, launched and ran Sky Atlantic, bringing, among others, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Affair, Big Little Lies and Fortitude to UK screens.

He believes his career in television actually helps him with his role at English National Opera, and he is determined to make opera far more accessible.

“A fifth of our tickets are under £20 but our challenge is to get the message out there, particularly to younger people. We are a charity and we receive a lot of funding (£12.5m from the Arts Council and I take that responsibility super seriously.” He adds quickly that the ENO does break even but wants it to make more.

But it is not only in the 2,300-plus seater auditorium at ENO’s Coliseum home where Murphy wants to attract a new generation to opera.

“We employ 374 people at ENO and around 300 of those are behind the scenes which is a lot of different jobs from props makers to costume designers from marketing to box office. We want to see young people, particularly craftsmen, seeing the ENO as a place they want to work.”

Murphy may dedicate more time to ENO than he should but he still believes he has a better work-life balance than before. “If the boys have a match I will never miss their sport or a parents evening. I will leave work early and then just work later at night. It is important that I am around - not just physically but mentally as well.”

■ Stuart Murphy will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters) on Thursday 22 November by York St John University in York Minster and its Chancellor, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, will make the presentation.

■ The English National Opera will be performing War Requiem from November 16 to December 7 –