'Losing my job when I was pregnant made me determined to create my own company'
Londonderry-born television producer Catherine Ross worked with presenters including Holly Willougby and Fearne Cotton before they were famous... and even met Steven Spielberg. Now, she tells Lee Henry why she is bringing her skills back to the Maiden City
Television producer Catherine Ross has pulled the strings behind the scenes on some of the UK's most iconic and best-loved programmes, from Blue Peter to Top of the Pops.
She's been to LA, worked with Spielberg, bought the broadcasting T-shirt. But these days you won't find her living it up in London.
Having amassed a wealth of skills and experience in bringing factual shows to fruition, working with star name presenters and organising crews to get the job done, Ross has now retreated to her native Derry to work on a personal project that has the potential to change the lives of millions.
Launched in 2015 and co-founded with former CultureTECH Festival director Mark Nagurski, Makematic is an educational platform that gives kids and teachers access to free instructive videos focusing on creative and digital skills.
Ross felt an urge to do her own thing, become her own boss, after giving birth to her two children, Evan (3) and Florence (almost 2), with husband Paul after they married in 2010. Having produced traditional television programmes as a BBC staffer or freelancer for other, independent companies, moving online felt like the next logical step.
"I feel a personal responsibility to create the kind of world I want my children to grow up in," says the 40-year-old. "Learning to be creative, and developing the technical skills to go with that, is something that we sometimes struggle to do inside formal education, but it is something that I'm passionate about as a parent. Digital technologies can help and they're accessible to anyone with an internet connection. That's the driving force behind Makematic."
Ross's team has already delivered a range of exciting and informative videos on everything from illustrating characters and folding origami doves to building virtual worlds using Minecraft and writing and recording songs. The ambition is to pass on these skills to kids who may not have access to hands-on education or the means to pay for it in countries around the world.
"Young people are learning that they don't just have to be consumers of content, they can be creators, too," says Ross. "They can make videos, share photos, tell stories and build fantastic worlds inside video games.
"These kinds of activities help children express themselves, learn new skills and flex their creative muscles. We want to help foster the next generation of artists, creative entrepreneurs, filmmakers, teachers."
Just recently, Ross and Nagurski bagged an impressive contract with the BBC to produce 80 videos for its Bitesize revision series, and there are plans afoot to work with educators and creatives plying their trade in LA and Hong Kong. It's been a remarkable rise for the start-up given that Ross and Nagurski have had to compete with other, more established production companies for contracts.
"We both bring our own skills to the table," says Ross. "Mark's really focused on the big picture stuff, winning new business, speaking to investors and planning for the future. My job is production, making sure that the work we're producing is truly world-class and that we're attracting the right kind of talent to help us do that.
"We both try to play to our strengths, but at the same time we're still a start-up, so when we need to get something done, it's all hands to the pump."
Makematic is currently based in Londonderry's 8081 Workspace in the newly rejuvenated Ebrington complex. There, Ross and her team brainstorm ideas for content, and film some classes in the building's huge gallery spaces, which formerly played host to the Turner Prize in 2013.
It all started, however, in more humble surroundings "with two laptops and a table" in a back room at the Playhouse Theatre. And the building on the city's Artillery Street is particularly close to Ross's heart. In fact, she spent much of her childhood there, painting walls, shifting chairs, enjoying shows and learning skills, after her mother, Pauline Ross, took over the management of the space and transformed it into the flourishing creative centre it is today.
"Initially, my brother John and I didn't have much affection for the Playhouse," Ross reveals. "It took up all mum's time, was constantly demanding attention round the clock. For years, mum opened and closed the building herself and was always the last person walking out of that wee red door. But my resentment turned to curiosity and we reluctantly helped, and that sparked in me a connection with mum. The Playhouse really became a member of the family.
"Mum and dad (John) brought me up to believe in myself, to believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, don't let failure put you off and stay positive, and, most importantly, believe in the power of prayer. I really do.
"I could not be prouder of the job she did with the Playhouse, taking it from two derelict buildings to emerge from a £4.2m restoration."
With creativity part of family life, Catherine grew up with a particular fondness for television. Looking back, her favourite shows were a roll-call of 80s classics: The A-Team, Quantum Leap, Dynasty, Dallas. "And I remember rushing home on Sunday from a Donegal drive to catch The Muppets."
She subsequently developed a love for English language and literature, instilled by her "inspirational" teacher at Thornhill College, Mary Murphy, and was accepted into Manchester University to study the subject after an ill-fated dalliance with law.
"I began a degree in Leicester but left after two months," Ross admits. "Awful subject, law, but that's what the psychometric tests in school do to people, they pigeonhole potential. Doctor, lawyer, nurse, vet, you get what you're given. But when I said I wanted to work in the media, they didn't take me seriously."
Ross had the last laugh, of course, beating off stiff competition from 10,000 hungry hopefuls to bag one of only 10 spots on the coveted BBC trainee programme after graduating in 2000. However, she may never have filled in the application form if it weren't for her mother's kind words of support."
"She told me, 'You're as good, if not better, than anyone else applying for this job', and that gave me great confidence. The application got through, so I set off for two days of interviews in Shepherds Bush, and when I was offered a place, it was genuinely better than winning the lottery. My life took off in all sorts of amazing ways after that."
Ross followed the traditional route to the top, starting off as a runner printing scripts, greeting guests, making coffee for the talent, before graduating to broadcast assistant and eventually to producer.
Her drive and love for the job saw her granted opportunities to produce the big guns, and she went on to become series producer on Tomorrow's World and other flagship programmes.
"I have worked on some of the greatest shows with the greatest teams over the course of my career, and it's something I'm very proud of. One of the things I enjoy most is the fact that presenters I worked with 16 years ago, in particular Holly Willoughby, Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates, have gone on to bigger things. They are everything that they appear to be on screen and more, but back then they were just starting out, like me. Seeing how they've become these massive stars is quite an experience.
"I remember drunk dialling Fearne one New Year's Eve not so long ago because no one would believe I had her number in my phone, but as a producer I'm lucky enough to know and have worked with all sorts of people."
Ross decamped to Washington for a time to work on BBC America after filming for CBBC at the iconic DreamWorks Animation Studios in California, where she met Academy Award-winning director and DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg.
"It was a competition winner film for CBBC, which I got to direct, following a kid who had drawn a new character for Shark Tale. The hotel, the car, the excitement, it was fantastic. It sparked a love of America and the following year I moved to Washington, living the dream."
Despite the thrill of the US capital, memories of the city by the Foyle proved too emotive to ignore and Ross moved back home to Derry in 2009.
She met her future husband, Paul, the following year and laid down roots that have kept her there ever since.
It wasn't all plain sailing, though, as she was made redundant from a producer's job with an independent company in early 2015.
"Six years in and bang, see you later, alligator," Ross jokes. "It's a cliched, cheese ball thing to say, but redundancy really was the best thing for me. It happened just before I was about to go on maternity leave. I had a huge baby bump, I was exhausted, feeling vulnerable and so at the time it felt like the harshest, most brutal thing that could have happened. But it wasn't. Sometimes you need a push to set you off to do your own thing. I needed to be thrown under a bus. It worked."
With Makematic now taking up a lot of her time, Ross has little opportunity to indulge in her lifelong passion - watching TV - but she fits in the odd box set when she can. "We have just finished the entire series of Parks & Recreation, which is wonderful," she says. "And Westworld gives me the chills, in a good way. I haven't watched Black Mirror yet. An old friend of mine, the presenter Konnie Huq, is married to Charlie Brooker, the guy who wrote it, so I'll hopefully get around to it at some point."
It is apt that Ross should mention the Netflix series, a collection of stand-alone stories written in response to a growing techno-paranoia gripping the Western world. Though her own children are not yet old enough to surf the net, or wield swords and AK47s in computer games like Grand Theft Auto, Ross is quick to downplay fears that so many parents have with regards to the digital future.
"It is important that parents are aware of how their kids are spending their time online, but the best way to guard against anything unsuitable is to take a proactive and engaged approach," Ross argues.
"Parents should spend time with their kids online, find suitable content that you're happy for them to engage with and, like anything else, make sure it's all in moderation.
"There are lots of great websites, apps and tools online to help with this. The BBC Bitesize revision guides we will be producing with Makematic are a great example of the kind of resource we think will work for both students, young people and parents hoping to introduce their children to online content.
"It's all part of the ethos that gets me up in the morning and keeps me working."