Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Creative Vision

Just over five years ago I was at the bar outside Channel Four’s screening room prior to a preview of Toby Whithouse’s new comedy drama No Angels. For some reason there was a delay in proceedings so in the meantime, rather than aimlessly picking through the bar snacks, I got talking to the man who appeared beside me, grumbling about being kept waiting.

Not knowing how long it would be before the screening started we whiled away the time discussing the state of British television drama, which had been the topic of The South Bank Show the night before. The man hadn’t been that impressed with the edition, mentioning he had adamantly declined when he was invited to participate in it, or the way things were going in the industry in general.

Eventually we were called in to take our seats and the lights went down. After the show was over and everyone filed out for free wine and nibbles, along with the opportunity to compliment Kaye Wragg and Jo Joyner, I saw the man well ahead of everyone else, hurrying up the stairs toward the main foyer. On the way home, walking back toward Parliament Square I called a pal who asked how the screening had gone. It was great, I told him, oh, and I’d chatting in the bar beforehand with Tony Garnett.

Buses rumbling toward Victoria Station obliterated most of his response but the words “jammy” and “cunt” were definitely audible above the noise of the traffic. A week last Friday, just days before the BBC Trust told the BBC to shape up and produce better drama in their annual report review, Garnett finally wrote down his growing concerns about not just the BBC drama commissioning process but the state of the channel’s drama output and emailed it to his contemporaries. Obviously it was going to go public.

After The Independent reported on the existence of Garnett’s email last Saturday, calling it “a stinging attack on the corporation over what he called its ‘systemic’ failure to commission quality drama,” The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain published his missive on their website at the beginning of the week, two days before it was reproduced on The Guardian’s website and prefaced by an article by Garnett that encapsulates his concerns with the BBC drama department.

The following day the newspaper’s Organ Grinder blog had a rather wishy-washy response from Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s drama commissioning controller, who, rather than reply to the points Garnett raised, simply invites everyone over to his place for coffee. Even more bizarrely it came with testimonials from five on Ben’s mates who have worked their way up to the top table and are more than eager to let everyone know the system works perfectly well for them.

Meanwhile the likes of David Hare and Julian Mitchell were happy to let it be known they supported Garnett’s view of the BBC’s painfully slow development process – with the latter explaining, “It knocks the stuffing out of writers and producers. I know plenty of people who have given up and moved into other things because they had to fight so hard and for so long.” When Broadcast started sniffing around, trying to find out where the battle lines were being drawn, they had trouble getting writers who agreed with his stance to go on the record.

As the great GF Newman explained, “Everyone in the business is hiding behind the sofa afraid to speak out because they want their next commission.” The magazine’s reporter did cross paths with ‘another respected writer’ who blamed an overemphasis of brands rather than writers at the Corporation, saying, “The courage of commissioning at the BBC can be measured by the number of old shows being re-treated. It’s great that they revived Doctor Who, but that shouldn’t be their biggest thing.”

Somebody buy that chap a drink, and not just because he zeroes in on one of BBC drama’s current problems! Garnett’s email covers a lot of ground and while the writers that stand by Stephenson, with their “I’m all right Jack!” attitude, try to refute the odd claim they tend to fall back on the same old generalisations and space-filling blather.

For instance, William Ivory, the writer of Common as Muck who recently inflicted The Invisibles upon an unsuspecting public, declares that the BBC consistently produces the best drama on TV but then shoots himself in the foot by listing All the Small Things amongst the titles that apparently fit the bill. Worse, he dismisses the quality of US drama by coming up with the hoary old chestnut that, “we see but the tiniest fraction of a huge trench of stuff, most of which makes CBeebies look like Tolstoy”.

What the hell can you say to that, other than offer to introduce him to the 21st century? Get yourself a Freeview box, sunshine, or subscribe to Sky, because just about every current American drama is being broadcast across the range of channels on offer. Also, we’re no longer living in the days when the best the US had to offer was The Dukes of Hazzard, Wonder Woman and Knots Landing.

As for the rest of his argument, it’s obvious that the poor chap appears to have a terrible chip on his shoulder. Spewing out inverse snobbery, the impression he gives is of the sort of lost-at-sea Midlander who, not having a grounded northern identity, still thinks the educated classes sees him as the sort of oik who should only show his face when he’s delivering the coal each week.

While Steven Moffat makes some good points he ultimately blows it by rounding off with, “can all of us telly people make a pact, here, this day, never, ever to talk about the old days and how great they were ever, ever again, because it's really getting boring.” Well, no, I don’t think “telly people” or anybody should undergo some kind of cultural amnesia and saying so is unbelievably boneheaded.

Obviously there is a tradition in believing British drama was better back in the day, and in the first instance the reason for that may down to comparing UK and US drama then and now. For instance, in the 1970s we had the likes of I, Claudius and Pennies from Heaven, while over from America came the delights of The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie’s Angels. Whereas, in recent years, homegrown material has had to try and stand its ground against The West Wing, The Sopranos and The Wire. So there’s that.

But also, looking back to that earlier decade there was also a far greater diversity of drama. We had Colditz and Secret Army, All Creatures Great and Small, Shoestring, Survivors, Fall of Eagles, which dramatized the fall of the Romanov, Habsburg and the Hohenzollern dynasties, along with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Simon Raven’s 26-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers. Nowadays there doesn’t seem to be as much variety.

To settle the argument once and for all of whether television drama was better then or now, because obviously there was a lot more material than just those titles mentioned, maybe it would be an idea for the BBC to allocate some space in their big internet preserve and upload the schedules from previous years so people could see what was on BBC1 for the third week of July, 1973 or September of 1978. After all, there is always the chance that everyone who yearns for those olden days may get a rude awakening.

But back in the here and now, apart from the extended commissioning process, Garnett takes aim at the BBC funnelling “money and airtime decisively towards high volume junk food which runs across the year,” rather than directing those precious resources to more single dramas and miniseries, “the kind of original writers’ work where a voice can communicate directly with an audience.” It’s easy to see his frustrations in the weeks that EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City, now joined by Casualty 1909, keep rolling on and the rest of the schedule looks decidedly threadbare.

Creating a franchise like the bloody Holby shows isn’t exactly a new thing. Four years after Z-Cars was first broadcast in 1962 the spin-off Softly, Softly appeared, starring Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor as Detective Chief Inspector Charles Barlow and Detective Inspector John Watt, which led on to Softly, Softly Task Force and Barlow at Large. But those shows still ran for only the same number of episodes as every other drama rather than steamrollering over everything in their path.

There are obvious reasons for the Holby brand to keep rolling along. The continued use of standing sets no doubt make the shows relatively cheap, compared to coming up with something new and starting from scratch again and again. Occasionally they get thrown a bone for a couple of blowout extravaganza episodes come the holiday season but that’s little more than a pat on the head for clocking up another year. Another reason is that they’re safe. After all, along with Doctors these are the shows the BBC’s Writers Academy initiative annually trains new writers to work on.

Of course in the past there was The Wednesday Play and Play for Today to act as a platform for new and well–established writers and directors. Instead of the same old, same old, week in and week out the series produced material that encompassed a wide range of styles and genres, reflecting concerns of contemporary life whether through social realism or flights of fancy. Almost always provocative, the dramas were certainly not afraid of courting controversy, and therefore ‘unsafe’.

Toward the end of last year, when the Traitor stepped down as BBC Head of Fiction, she made sure she took a pop at the “fetishisation” of single drama on television before being bundled away, no doubt to fulfil her potential as a lollypop lady. Could this aversion to the single drama simply be fear of the reaction such contentious material would elicit in this day and age, especially with factions of the press eager to take a big wet bite out of the BBC?

Back in the 1970s Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and Scum, written by and Roy Minton, were seen as being so inflammatory by Alistair Milne, the then Director of Television Programmes, that he banned them outright. Yet years earlier Potter’s Son of Man, a secular retelling of the story of Christ that was shown just after Easter, 1969, certainly generated a storm of press headlines prior to transmission but once shown the audience reaction was generally muted because viewers were fully aware that The Wednesday Play presented such provocative material and excepted it.

So, budgetary concerns aside, is the BBC playing it safe and deciding that offering utterly dull, less than challenging material, covering their backs and saving the aggravation of having scum-sucking hacks at The Daily Mail poke at them with a pointy stick? Because if so, that is what’s really fucking offensive! In his article for The Guardian, Garnett explains, “I am not looking for a macho row – I am merely expressing what the whole industry is feeling. I am hoping for a productive discussion. We all deserve that.”

According to Broadcast, The Writers’ Guild is in the process of collecting complaints from its members over the state of the BBC’s drama commissioning. Hopefully once that’s sorted all of Tony Garnett’s points can be addressed and we can get back to watching challenging drama on a more regular basis.


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