Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Drama Kings, Drama Queens And Old Comrades

Stephen Fry has admitted that he illegally downloaded an episoe of House, the hit US show which stars his former comedy partner Hugh Laurie. First rule of Fight Club, Stephen - never admit to nothing. You learn that on day one. The Qi host told an audience in London that he had used the bittorrent system to acquire a copy of Laurie's show. Speaking at the iTunes Festival at London's Roundhouse, Fry said: 'The last thing I illegally downloaded. Was it a gay sex romp? It was actually the season finale of House.' The website said Fry had quickly pointed out he had legally downloaded the entire series but was in Indonesia when the final episode went out and was unable to obtain a legitimate copy. Asked how he felt about his own work being pirated, Fry, who has written about technology for the Gruniad, said: 'I'm against cynical bootlegging but I work in a very mollycoddled, overpaid business.' Welcome to the Twenty First Century, Stephen!

The BBC's drama controller, Ben Stephenson, has announced five new dramas set for BBC1 in 2010. Stephenson said that the new commissions would 'demonstrate the BBC's renewed commitment to drama series and serials and give us a reason to be proud of all the talent coming out of Britain at the moment.' The first of his five commissions, Silence, is a four-part coming of age drama from Company Pictures, written by Fiona Seres. The plot focuses on an eighteen-year-old deaf girl who is an unwitting key-witnesses a murder. There is a new six-part detective series from Neil Cross - a writer on both Spooks and The Fixer. Luther (working title), will showcase detective John Luther struggling with his personal demons while attempting to track down a killer each week. In a twist on the traditional format, the killer's identity will, Columbo-style, be known to the audience from the opening scene. A new take on the old Sherlock Holmes concept appears in a new, and much-anticipated, three-part series, Sherlock, created by Doctor Who scripters Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis and made by Hartswood Films. In contrast, Stephenson has also ordered a two-episode adaptation of Kay Mellor's stageplay A Passionate Woman. The first episode tells the story of a mother's affair in the 1950s while the second, set in the 1980s, shows the consequences of that liaison. Finally, Tiger Aspect will produce a five-part series entitled The Deep, set in the Arctic. Written by Beautiful Creatures author Simon Donald, it focusses on the crew in an oceanographers submarine who become trapped beneath the ice with no power, limited oxygen and no communication after catastrophe strikes. But it soon becomes apparent they are not alone. The dramas will all be broadcast on BBC1 in the first half of next year. Stephenson said: 'It is a credit to the writers and producers of this country that so much astonishing work is coming through. All of these pieces start and end with a writers startling vision. Following on from the success of Peter Bowker's Occupation and Russell T Davies's Torchwood, I hope these new commissions demonstrate the BBC's renewed commitment to drama series and serials and give us a reason to be proud of all the talent coming out of Britain at the moment.'

A prop used in a forthcoming episode of Spooks sparked a security alert near a London station which disrupted train services for more than an hour. An over-zealous passer-by spotted the item - described as 'an oil drum with wires protruding from it' - in a locked yard close to Deptford train station on 1 July. Southeastern train company said services were suspended until midnight. The drama, which revolves around MI5, is shot at a studio in Bermondsey. A spokeswoman for the production firm, Kudos said: 'A prop used on Spooks was stored securely in the production's private courtyard. A member of the public looked into the yard and, on seeing the prop, decided to alert the emergency services. As soon as the Spooks production team were contacted, they confirmed the package was just a prop and not dangerous.' A spokesman for the train company said the alert delayed about a dozen trains travelling between Charing Cross and Dartford, Dover and Hastings. Some trains were stopped on the tracks while others were delayed for up to forty minutes at the station.

This Life, Between the Lines, The Cops and Cathy Come Home producer Tony Garnett has launched an attack on the BBC that Broadcast magazine describes as 'blistering' but, which to this blogger, reads like nothing more than the bitter moanings of a jaded old has-been. Garnett accused the corporation of smothering creativity and 'packing in junk' in a cynical bid for ratings. In a lengthy article penned by the awful - and now, seemingly unemployable - aged Communist and circulated by e-mail, Garnett argued that the corporation has introduced so many layers of management it has ended up 'like McDonalds' and is churning out high-volume dramas 'as though they were soap flakes.' That's a mixed metaphor you're using there Tone, I'm afraid - McDonalds don't make soap products, that's Proctor and Gamble you're thinking of. Rather, they make burgers. And nuggets. Which is possibly appropriate. Anyway, the corporation has lost its ability to deliver its raison d'être (which seems, in this particular case, to be French for 'shows that I produce') because of too many 'well-meaning' executives whose job is to 'put spanners in the works,' he added. In what he claimed was a sketch of the BBC's drama commissioning process, Garnett stated that development is typically strung out over two years and is riven by discussions between internal and external producers about how they can side-step other staff. He also suggested there is a general unwillingness to take risks on new talent, and that notes are handed out by channel controllers who have little experience of drama. 'Detailed supervision by more and more layers, reporting to more and more senior executives, does not result in higher standards,' said Garnett. 'Working in art, film or commercial cinema is like dancing through a minefield, and every broadcaster is now racing down-market in a desperate attempt to survive. But what is happening at the BBC is the real scandal: it is bigger than all the rest combined, it is free from direct commercial pressure and its public service obligations carry cultural responsibilities. There are no excuses.' I'm sorry, I've just got absolutely no time at all for any of this crap bleating which amounts to nothing more than an example of cosy nostalgia for an era that's now long gone. But, still he went on. And on. And on. 'Over the last decade or so the BBC, in perhaps its worst public service dereliction, has skewed its money and airtime decisively towards high-volume junk which runs across the year. In addition to EastEnders and Casualty it now has Holby City and numerous other lengthy series. There are very few single pieces or mini-series, the kind of original writers' work where a voice can communicate directly with an audience.' I must say, I particularly enjoyed the criticism of 'high-volume drama' though. That's a corker. Sorry, remind me what you spent most of the early-to-mid nineties producing for the BBC, Tony? This Life wasn't it? Between the Lines? Ballykissangel? Are you disowning them? 'The BBC has the duty and the resources to make a full range of programmes,' he continued. 'But in this shift in balance they expose their opportunistic cynicism. Ratings are their default argument, as though this were the only criterion.' So, your argument - if I understand it correctly - is, essentially, the same as that of Ofcom and some extreme right-wing Tory MPs then, Tony? That the BBC should only be making programmes that nobody wants to watch. Interesting. Or could these comments, possibly, have anything to do with this report in the Gruniad a few months ago which suggests that Garnett's World Productions is in big trouble and close to going bust, possibly because it appears no TV network wants anything that they're pitching? 'By opting to get an audience the easy way they short change both the audience and the programme makers,' Garnett concluded. 'Better to pack them in with junk. Cost per thousand viewers cannot lie. But a high volume show is a branch of manufacturing.' Oh, sod off back to the glorious sixties you utterly depressing little man. A BBC spokeswoman said: 'We welcome open and honest debate about the state of drama and the creative process but we believe the quality and range of drama on the BBC speaks for itself.' For which, read 'don't expect to be seeing something Tony Garnett has any involvement in turning up anytime soon on the BBC. Which is, we suspect, the real reason behind this crass tirade.' The BBC is the biggest supplier of drama in the country, she went on, 'making hundreds of hours of original drama each year across four channels. BBC drama works with hundreds of new and established writers every year.' She cited the recent examples of Occupation, Guy Hibbert's Five Minutes of Heaven on BBC2, and Torchwood. She also noted a string of forthcoming dramas, including the sixth series of New Tricks and the third series of The Street, adding: 'Each are full of creativity and individual voices.' And, thankfully, free also of bitter old Reds. Well, except The Street, I guess!

Just to continue this train of thought a bit further, Matthew McIntyre made a very good point over on Fortress of Solitude when he noted that 'telling people how to do their job seems to be arrogant, pointless and counter-productive. If you make a valid point about the state of BBC drama then it's up to them to work out how to try and address it. I think that some of the criticism in this Guardian article by Gareth McLean [from 2008] crossed the same line.' Quite. I criticise the BBC as much as anybody - I'm a licence-fee payer and I, therefore, have that right - but I am not blind to the realities of the modern world. Whenever I hear somebody saying 'the BBC should be making this type of show because of its Public Service commitments' my response is, usually, 'you mean a type of programme that you like (or, in this particular case, you make) but bugger all other people want to see?' It's very interesting how often the 'Public Service Broadcasting' argument is used in the TV industry to, essentially, push a nice bit of self-interest. I think Gareth's article touches on some interesting points and he's nowhere near as blinkered and myopic as Garnett quite clearly is, but - again - it seems to be the case that he talked to a bunch of people who were bitter because they've been told to go away and rewrite a script that they've worked for eighteen months on by Ben Stephenson. Who's only in his early thirties and, therefore, clearly 'knows nowt about owt!' I mean, why mention his age in the article otherwise? That, like Garnett's rant, has the toxic stink of 'bitter angry hack writers' smeared all over it!

And, speaking of Gareth McLean, I've always rather rated him, personally; he was just about the first British TV journalist to understand and to articulate - in what we might call the 'quality' press anyway - that the cult of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was something beyond mere teenage-fluff-and-nonsense. Frankly, that cuts him a lot of slack as far as I'm concerned. However, I'm told a little story which may well change that opinion: Apparently he was on the BAFTA panel for selecting TV comedies this year and he wouldn't countenance Gavin and Stacey being nominated because - get this - he considered it 'so bourgeois.' Now, if he'd said that he didn't think it was especially funny, or that there were better nominees or even that just he didn't get and/or like it, then fine. I wouldn't have argued with any of those - there's a lot of truth in all three statements. But 'so bourgeois.' What the hell does that actually mean? (I know what the word 'bourgeois' means, obviously, before you all start writing in with the dictionary definition. I did take that O Level.) So, if that's true - and I'm assured that it is - then, as far as I'm concerned, Gareth's used up all of his Buffy-bonus-points in one go and, from now on, he's batting on the same level as everyone else! Thanks to Sideshow Bob for bringing that gem to my attention.

On a similar theme Chris Moyles has also attacked the BBC - what is this, 'piss off your employer' week? I must've missed that memo - but this time for making 'dull programmes on purpose so as not to offend anyone.' Ah, everyone's a critic, these days! Speaking in the Radio Times, the obnoxious breakfast host said radio shows were 'so formulaic' that the likes of he and Jonathan Ross stand out for being different. Moyles is, of course, no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, he was censured by Ofcom for making apparent homophobic remarks about Will Young. He was also previously been forced to grovelling apologise for swearing at a caller live on air. Moyles said: 'The BBC is in a very weird state where they just don't want to upset anybody.' Unlike you, Christopher, who seemingly take great delight in upsetting everyone. How's that lifestyle choice working out for you, anyway?

Former EastEnders star Michelle Collins has revealed that she has auditioned for a role on ABC's Desperate Housewives. The actress, who played scheming Cindy Beale in the Walford soap, told BBC1's Breakfast that she may soon be heading to Los Angeles. 'I've got an American visa now so I've spent quite a bit of time there,' she admitted. 'I went to a casting for Desperate Housewives, but I haven't got it yet. As I've told people about it, they're amazed and have been telling me that someone like Cindy from EastEnders would be great for that show. I have to remind them I’m not Cindy, I'm Michelle.' If I were you, love, I'd've kept my mouth shut until I'd actually been given a job. The forty six-year-old also said that she had tried out for other US shows, including Bones and CSI. As a big fan of both, is it so very wrong of me to hope that they also turned her down flat? 'I'm just doing what a lot of British actors are doing there at the moment - "the LA thing." I'd like to think there's been interest in me. But I'm a single parent so obviously that would be my biggest consideration before going for anything in America.'

Amanda Redman has revealed that she fears losing out on lucrative TV roles because of her age. The forty nine-year-old actress admitted that she may struggle to find work again once her BBC1 crime drama New Tricks comes to an end. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, she explained: 'I don't stop worrying about it. Outside the roles are not there. In our industry there is never going to be anything other than young and beautiful. That is great, but there is room for the rest of us. People do get interesting as they get older!' Well, with Liz Smith having just announced her retirement there's at least one gap in the market for those 'dotty old lady' roles. I think Amanda would be quite good at those. Redman added that she tries to boost her future career prospects by making daily visits to the gym. 'I do three hours every day. I do get addicted and I hate it but I go because I have to,' she said. 'As you get older, TV becomes more difficult. The shots of your arms, tops and lines are magnified. It is not how you see yourself in the street.'

BBC1's award-winning drama The Street will not return for a fourth series, show creator Jimmy McGovern has announced. The story broke in the Gruniad who were, of course, weeping into their muesli over it and keen to draw some links between it and Tony Garnett's whinging on the shocking state of, you know, everything (see above). The scriptwriter told Radio4 that the decision was due to cutbacks at ITV Studios in Manchester, where the anthology drama was filmed. 'It's finished now because ITV have closed down that unit,' McGovern explained. 'I am sure that's why Michael Grade left - because it was a content-led revival, he said, and they have closed down the producers of the best content.' On the possibility of recruiting another producer for the drama, McGovern insisted: 'I wouldn't want to. All the people have gone. You live and breathe with people, you walk into busy rooms and see people working hard - the casting, the make up, the wardrobe, even the receptionists - and the next minute they are all gone. It's so sad - one of the best dramas ITV has ever made.' A BBC spokeswoman told the Gruniad: 'This is a decision Jimmy McGovern has taken as a result of recent changes at Granada. We respect that decision and we are currently in talks with him about future developments.'

ABC is reportedly being sued by a TV writer who claims that the network has 'ripped off' his ideas and storyline for Lost. Anthony Spinner, who has been writing and producing television episodes since the 1960s, but who last wrote anything that was actually made over a decade ago, said that he offered ABC a pilot based on an aeroplane crash-landing in the jungle. According to Spinner, he presented the network with the format on three different occasions - in 1977, 1991 and 1994 - only to be knocked back each time. You've thought he would have taken the hint the first time, wouldn't you? In the suit filed in Los Angeles on 10 July, the producer insisted that his idea was plagiarised and is seeking damages and a cut of the royalties from the series. And yet, he waited until the show had been on air for almost six years before saying anything? How very mysterious. Still, this is Lost we're talking about, mystery and it go hand in hand.

League of Gentlemen producer Jemma Rodgers has returned to the BBC to become executive editor of comedy for BBC Scotland. Rodgers spent eight years in BBC production before going freelance in 1998 as associate producer on the first series of the black comedy, which she continued to produce for its second and third years. She later spent twelve months at Tiger Aspect, where she co-wrote and produced Double Take with Alison Jackson, before running her own company, Junction Films, the independent behind Irvine Welsh's spectacularly bad Channel 4 comedy drama Wedding Belles. Her other credits include Murphy's Law, Hat Trick's Holocaust drama God on Trial, the thoroughly wretched Victoria Wood With All The Trimmings, Little Miss Jocelyn and a one-off episode of Pulling.

The BBC Worldwide chief executive, John Smith, is confident a deal to form a joint venture with Channel 4 will be signed within weeks following the tabling of a new streamlined proposal that he claims has gained traction with both parties. Both broadcasters have been locked in at times fraught discussions to thrash out a commercial partnership deal to secure the future of Channel, 4 which claims it faces a funding gap of as much as £150m from 2012. Smith, who would not elaborate on specific stumbling blocks, said the new proposition would pull in parts of Channel 4's operation, including ad sales as well as using its strong heritage in genres such as gardening, property and food. '[I feel we are] weeks away from being able to agree – longer for a legally binding contract – a term sheet [document outlining main points of the deal]. I'd like to think we will do it irrespective of politics. If it makes commercial sense I always believe we should do it.'

ITV has scrapped this year’s National Television Awards, pushing back the ceremony until January 2010. But the commercial broadcaster has promised that the 'new deal' will see the ceremony refreshed, by moving it to the larger O2 arena in London and handing presenting duties from veteran Trevor MacDonald to The X Factor's Dermot O'Leary for the next two years. MacDonald has hosted the event for the last thirteen years but said: 'I think it is the right time to relinquish my role as presenter.'


Anonymous said...

Tony Garnett may have rambled on a bit but he raises a lot of valid points, as did the Gareth Mclean article.

It really isn't as simple as just criticising the drama output of the BBC - it's about a vast number of writers and producers being utterly demoralised by the commissioning process - by the length of time it takes, the timidity of the many layers of execs and note-givers and ultimately, the fact that any drama commissioned by the BBC is down to the say so of one person.

No matter how talented Ben Stephenson or Jane Tranter before him, this surely can't be a healthy thing?

It's worthwhile checking the comments posted on both Tony Garnett and Ben Stephenson's articles at the guardian website. Whilst some posters get bogged down in the relative quality of specific shows, there are a lot of valid points raised. Check out those by cynicalproducer who always talks sense.

Frankly it's too simplistic to dismiss criticism of the BBC as sour grapes, and thankfully on this occasion Ben Stephenson does appear to be trying to engage with his critics and improve a flawed system.

Neither is this "BBC bashing" a la the Daily Mail. The vast majority of creatives in the industry want to see the BBC survive but recognise that sometimes in its present form, it is in fact its own worst enemy.

Keith Telly Topping said...

I don't agree with a single word of that - it's crass apologist nonsense.

One of my heroes is James Mitchell - creator of Callen and When the Boat Comes In - who once described being a writer in the same terms as his father's trade, being a rivetter. "You do the job to the best of your ability, to the specifications of a contract, for money." In any other occupation if you do something and your boss tells you he'd like it done a different way you don't argue the toss, you do as you're told or, if you don't like it, you find yourself another employer. Garnett, and his cronies, seem to want it all - the money AND the right to do it their way without any interference from those who are paying it for. As I say, maybe they'd prefer working in a call-centre.

As Tony Jordan and Steven Moffat note in that piece in the Gruniad, the person that's writing the cheques has the absolute right to call the tune.

Matthew McIntyre said...


A lot of commenters on the Guardian blog (cynical producer included) come across to me as somewhat bitter and cynical. This insistence on gossiping about BBC structures and trying to micromanage things from the outside reminds me of all those football fans who think they could do the England manager's job better. As even more of an outsider than most of the commentators seem to be, I can see the potential problems of splitting Ben Stephenson's role between different regions - it increases the possibility of duplicate projects and of a lack of focus to the drama offering. However, I'm not especially interested in debating it (and haven't engaged them over there) because running the BBC isn't my job and I don't presume to know more about it than the people who do it.

As far as I can see, as a viewer of BBC Drama, the BBC produces a lot of shows, all which seem to get commissioned in such a way that there is a variety of stuff and there are plenty of programmes on all year round. In other words there don't seem to be any slack periods when the inefficiency of the commissioning process means that there are fewer dramas available to broadcast. Some writers may be frustrated by a long development process, but the viewers aren't.

The BBC is committed to producing a certain amount of drama all year round and manages to do so. The vast bulk of this drama involves a lot of work for writers (usually coming up with an original story, but sometimes adapting). In other words there seems to be guaranteed yearly amount of work for talented writers. Compared to film (where a project will take much longer and there is no commitment to produce anything at all in any given year) or theatre (where "new writing" is often seen a special case and there's a whole canon of great plays that can be produced without involving a writer at all) this seems to me to be nothing short of miraculous.

I don't see how just changing the commissioning process can possibly make things better for those writers who are currently missing out. It isn't going to increase the number of hours that are currently available for drama on the BBC and which are currently being filled in time for broadcast.

So it just comes down to the idea that things are being ultimately rejected not because they aren't good enough but because Ben Stephenson's taste is what dominates things. I don't see how you could possibly know if this is true or not. There are just too many imponderables here. And its back to telling the BBC how to run their organisation when you don't have the first clue about how they do it.

Starting from what ends up on the screen and working backwards would make some sense. But, really, you can't attack something as a failure if it attracts a reasonably sized audience that loves it - that's just snobbishness and goes against the BBC's mission to try and provide TV for everybody. And I've yet to see a compelling overview of the drama that the BBC does make and a suggestion of areas and ways it could be improved.

If someone can make a persuasive case for things that are missing from current BBC drama then that's great. But it's still up to the BBC to try and work out how to make them happen.

Matthew McIntyre said...


Personally, I'd like to see some single dramas in anthology format, an attempt to find some new dramatists that could do something like a Stephen Poliakoff piece (I'm glad that the BBC give him lots of money to do his thing, but I wish there a few other authors working in similar areas) and a low-budget experimental strand on BBC4.

If the BBC reckoned that enough people shared my taste to do these things then I'd be very happy, but I'm still going to bow to their judgement over this. There's no point in making TV that nobody wants to watch.

To single out something like EastEnders or Holby City for criticism when both are well loved seems to suggest that the people who love them should be excluded from the BBC. That the BBC should only make drama that the commentator likes.

There is a debate to be had about the nature, quality and range of the BBC's drama output. However, I don't see much by the way of informed opinion on the Guardian's site, just a lot of whinging.