The Man Behind The Masked Singer
by Iain Ferguson
A telephone call to Korea in the very early hours of the morning from a house in Alloway marked the first step on a path that would lead to the caller winning a treasured BAFTA earlier this year, beating Ant and Dec in the process.
These long distance negotiations more than five years ago led to Derek McLean securing the UK rights to the Korean television show King Of Mask Singer which became The Masked Singer, one of the UK’s most popular Saturday evening shows.
The story of how Derek scaled the heights of television production to win that coveted award and to be Managing Director of one of Britain’s largest and fastest growing independent production companies is also far from the norm, with a stint on Death Row in America playing a part in the tale.
And to add even more to his intriguing background, Derek is part of the famous McLean football dynasty. He’s the son of former Ayr United and Motherwell manager Willie. He’s the nephew of Dundee United’s legendary manager Jim, and also Tommy who starred for Rangers before carving a successful managerial career himself with stints at Motherwell, Dundee United and Hearts.
Derek moved to Ayr as a young boy with his parents Willie and Heath when Willie took the Ayr United job. He attended Belmont Academy and later graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in law.
He recalls: “I was at uni and graduated with a law degree and won a scholarship to work on Death Row through the US Supreme Court. While there, a BBC Scotland crew came out to do a documentary and I ended up helping them out getting access into the prison, just doing bits and bobs. I really enjoyed it.”
Returning from the United States, Derek elected to head for London instead of Scotland and, in doing so, virtually sealed his move into the world of television.
He said: “In London I realised the old Scots law degree was no good there and I didn’t really want to go back to being a student. Because I’d enjoyed helping out the BBC crew I thought I’d give that a go and applied for television jobs that had a legal side to them. I got interviewed and got a job that way.”
At that stage he thought it may still be a short term measure and the lure of law may call in the future, but once again fate stepped in and played a huge part in moulding his career.
Derek explained: “I was enjoying it so much and it all kicked into place when I landed a job with a chat show host on
BBC 1 called Clive Anderson. He used to be a barrister so he liked preparing for interviews the way he would prepare for court. Because I was quite familiar with that, he liked me being the researcher on the show. So I got my big break… and went to the BBC and started working in entertainment. A lot of that was because Clive had been in the legal profession and liked how I approached things.”
That break was the beginning of the climb up what Derek describes as “the greasy pole” and led to work on different chat shows and mixing in the world of celebrities.
After a period with the BBC, Derek relocated to Los Angeles and had been there for around three years working with a large production company as head of non-scripted producing shows, but he always had a yearning for setting up his own company. Explaining his thinking behind the move Derek said: “I’ve always been quite independent so I decided to come back from LA and instead of trying to get another job, I just thought it was time to set up for myself, so that’s what I did. I set up my own production company and obviously it made sense to set up in Glasgow as there’s a big demand now for programming that’s away from London.”
Bandicoot’s first commissioned show was a quiz in Glasgow called Chase The Case for BBC 1 with Dan Walker, the sports presenter, hosting. Then came Test Drive hosted by the comedian Grado for BBC Scotland. Reality shows in London and Peckham followed but the big break came with The Masked Singer.
“I’d heard about the Korean show King Of Mask Singer when I was working in LA. The American network Fox had talked to me about working on the show over there so I’d had that whisper in my ear it was coming to America. I just thought if it does well there, it would be a good one to have in Britain.”
Back living in Ayr at the time, Derek set the wheels in motion to try to secure the rights for the show in the UK and remembers: “I set my alarm for two in the morning so I could call Korea and I was living with my parents at the time. I finally got through to the right person in Korea and got the option for it in the UK and then obviously started talking to ITV about it. They were working out whether they wanted it or not, whether they could afford it, but it did so well in America that it kind of changed the pace of it.”
Giving a real insight into the world of Saturday night television Derek added: “They were desperate for it and jumped at the chance so it wasn’t too difficult a commission. Usually it’s a big risk and you’ve got to persuade people. You start on a wee budget and build up, but actually it started a very different way here. It went very big very quickly which is not usually how things go and it was quite a nice experience.”
The first series was commissioned and then came the debate about what time of year it should be aired and what slot it should be given. These were nervous times for Derek and the Bandicoot team but it was decided The Masked Singer would not only be screened on a precious Saturday night slot, but it would be screened on January 4, 2020. That proved to be a shrewd move.
Derek said: “There were big debates over whether it should be screened nightly the way Britain’s Got Talent does or whether it should be a Saturday night show. We wanted it to be a Saturday night show but these are really valuable slots, they are few and far between. We got the Saturday night position and they decided to put it out in January which was a good time as it was a fun family show after Christmas and had a feel good vibe. It’s not criticising people singing, its guessing about who they are. The audience really responded to that.”
So successful is The Masked Singer that Derek and his team are preparing to work on series five, and there have been two series of spin off, The Masked Dancer. And of course the Best Entertainment Programme BAFTA 2023 was another major milestone in the history of the show and the second time it had won the award following on the 2021 triumph.
This year’s was particularly special as Derek explained: “We didn’t expect to win as we were up against Strictly Come Dancing and Ant and Dec’s Takeway – Ant and Dec always clean up so it makes the win even more satisfying because nobody expected it. So yeah, it was really good and I think you can only admit how much you want to win once you have won it. Afterwards I was like ‘God I really did want to win that.’”
Derek didn’t make the winning speech, however, as BAFTA bosses now prefer on screen talent to do that to make it more televisual. That honour fell to Joel Dommett although there were a few prompts on stage from Mr McLean.
Bandicoot Productions retains its headquarters in Kinning Park in Govan and Derek joked: “I can see Ibrox Park from my window so there could be a reality TV series about Rangers coming up! It’s also close to the M77 and easy to get to Ayr and see my parents. I just love Ayr and its surrounding area.”
Bandicoot is the fastest growing indie television production company outside of London and is now in the top 40 in the UK with a core team including lawyers and accountants in Glasgow. Derek said: “We can employ up to 300 people at any time including freelance contractors. It’s a big old enterprise.”
It also has offices in Islington and Los Angeles. Derek and his business partner, Dan Nettleton, are proud of how it has evolved.
“We’ve built up a team we can trust and give them more and more to do as the years go. We want to grow the company in different directions but you want to be there for all the big decisions and I’m very hands on for all the studio recordings.”
An integral part of The Masked Singer is the judges, and Derek was behind attracting the big names who fill these seats to the programme.
He said: “That was a big, big challenge. Jonathan (Ross) was probably the first to sign up. I’d worked with him before and we’d made a show in Japan so I knew him and he loves Asian formats and knew the show so that helped start the ball rolling. Ken Jeong, who’s Korean, did the first series but also does the US one so Mo Gilligan took over from him in series two. I’d worked with Davina McCall on Big Brother so I knew her well. The last one was Rita Ora… a big singing career, a pop star right at the top of her game who knows so many people. A big part of what I do on the show is produce and manage the judges and make sure they are happy because a big part of the show comes from their guesses.”
Keeping the guests behind the masks a secret is always challenging and Derek admits to being very nervous about that side of things. But he was really proud with the comments of one of the singers on the first series, the former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson.
“Alan had been in charge of MI5 as Home Secretary and he said our security was better than theirs in terms of keeping everything under wraps! We are really strict. They’ve got to wear hats, hoodies and visors to keep them disguised. We have a good relationship with the press and they know it would ruin it for the viewers if they spoiled it, so we reached an understanding with them. We still take precautions on the show and hide them from each other. They don’t know who they are performing against.”
The series is filmed at Bovingdon Studios the site of a former RAF base in Hertfordshire where Steven Spielberg made Band Of Brothers.
Derek’s links with sport, football in particular, means that singers behind the mask have included Teddy Sheringham, Michael Owen, Chris Kamara and Stephen Hendry. There will be more to come and who knows, some of the biggest names in Scottish sport could feature in a future series. As ever, their identity will remain a secret until the mask is removed.