Friday, July 17, 2009

The Same Old War Stories From The Same Old Labour

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain has said that it is intending to 'call a public meeting' with the BBC after the battle-lines were drawn over the state of its drama commissioning. This particular author really hopes that the BBC will tell the Writers' Guild of Great Britain exactly what to do to itself (and the horse it rode in on). As mentioned in this blog two days ago, that pouting drama queen Tony Garnett (Old Labour) circulated a thoroughly objectionable whinging, self-centred, politically-agenderised article by e-mail (which, to be fair is a lot more Twenty First Century than I'd've given the old Commie credit for) in which he accused the BBC of churning out high-volume dramas and stifling creativity with too many layers of management yadda, yadda, yadda. Some writers such as Julian Mitchell (Inspector Morse) have publicly supported Garnett, whose analysis 'chimes exactly' with its members' complaints, the Guild continued. It said there had been a 'very noted' rise in the volume of gripes since the start of the year, which were now at a 'worrying level.' However, the BBC has strongly defended itself against the criticism, pointing to more than twenty hours of new orders as evidence that it is backing authored drama. Controller of drama commissioning Ben Stephenson told Broadcast magazine that the industry should be pulling together to save drama, not attacking the BBC. 'My worry is people are losing sight of the real battle, and that something catastrophic is happening to drama in this country. It's good to have debate, but it should be in the spirit of moving forward together.' He also branded the public attacks as 'cowardly' and 'insulting.'

A key complaint was the volume and inconsistency of script notes issued by BBC executives. The Writers' Guild said responding to them was 'like painting the Forth Bridge.' That, of course, is a colloquial term for a never-ending task, coined on the wholly erroneous belief that, at one time in the history of painting the bridge was constantly required and commenced immediately upon completion of the previous repaint. According to a 2004 New Civil Engineer report on contemporary maintenance, such a practice never even existed. So, like much else that the Guild has to say on the subject, this seems to be based on an apparent fallacy. Stephenson defended the practice. 'Did Patrick Spence give notes on Occupation? Yes. Did he piss people off sometimes? Of course he did. The nature of making something good is tension. It's got to be respectful, but you've got to have a robust conversation. If we ask questions, that is good.' Some writers including Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat and Cranford's Heidi Thomas spoke up for the BBC. Thomas claimed she has 'fruitful' relationships with BBC executives and Moffat called for an end to 'a load of old war stories.' You took the words right out of my mouth, Mr Moffat, sir. Indeed, Tony Jordan did an even better job of calling this nonsense what it actually is, a right load of old self-aggrandising bollocks, in this piece in the Gruniad in which he compares Garnett, amusingly, to Harry Enfield's sulky Kevin the Teenager. Other writers have sided with Garnett. Mitchell said: '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. It's bleeding the thing white.' What, you mean somebody at managerial level felt that what a writer had done wasn't to their liking and told them to do it differently before they'd give the writer their money to make it? Well, how dare they? Stop being so precious, you're getting paid to do a job of work, what more do you want? Maybe you should try working in a call centre for a spell see if that's more to your liking. Another 'respected' writer (at least, according to Broadcast), currently developing 'a number of BBC projects,' blamed an overemphasis on brands rather than writers. '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.' Why not, exactly? What should be 'their biggest thing' then? Whatever you're writing? See what I mean? Pure, unadulterated selfishness. It's important to note, however, that this individual - like many other writers - was said to be unwilling to go 'on the record' with the magazine for fear of losing business with the BBC. Nice bit of cowardly chicken-shit hypocrisy there, pal. Copper's narking up yer boss up to the press without even having the basic courage to put your name to the criticism. What a fine example to all of us you are. One person who did go on the record was GF Newman, creator of the 1970s BBC series Law & Order and writer/producer of Judge John Deed - another dready old leftie, albeit one that I've always had a lot of respect for. He said that he sympathised with both sides in the argument but was emphatic on one point: 'Everyone in the business is hiding behind the sofa afraid to speak out because they want their next commission.' However, Stephenson stressed that he would 'never not commission' a writer because they had complained about the process. Well, he's a far better man than me in that case. Because I'll tell you what, if I was ever to be in charge of a network's drama output (highly unlikely, in case you were wondering!) and somebody gave me a mouthful of impertinent lip, publicly, over how I was doing my job, I'd make damn certain they never ate lunch in this town again. I'm sorry but this argument really does bring out the very worst in me - working in TV is a privilege, not a right. I think, sometimes, some of those involved in the industry forget just how lucky they are to have the job they do.

I want to be absolutely clear about this; my own - very minor - dealings with TV script-writing have been a co-written drama pilot (that I got bloody well paid for, I should add) which has spent most of the last decade in various stages of 'development hell' and will probably never be made now. And a co-written sitcom that hasn't even got to the 'we're considering it' stage yet. I've sat in my fair share of meetings with middle-ranking TV execs - getting nowhere fast - and, thus, I have no axe to grind in this matter whatsoever. Other than as a licence fee payer and as somebody who really dislikes those who do a job that I'd pay good money to have moaning about the manifest unfairness of life.

Right. Onto far more worthwhile topics. The BBC is planning to transfer its BBC4 comedy biopic formula to BBC1 with a ninety-minute drama on the early years of Morecambe and Wise. Acclaimed scriptwriter Peter Bowker (Occupation, Blackpool, Desperate Romantics) is penning the piece and said it was likely to be produced by the BBC's in-house team in Wales if commissioned. The drama will tell the story of young comedians Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman's first meeting while appearing in Jack Hylton's review Youth Takes a Bow in 1941. The partnership broke up when Ernie was conscripted into the Merchant Navy, but they were reunited by chance in 1946 and went on to become one of Britain's most loved and successful comedic duos and TV icons for an entire generation or two. The drama has been earmarked for BBC1 and, if ordered, will follow the Curse of Comedy season, which won critical acclaim and brought impressive audiences for BBC4. It included The Curse of Steptoe and Most Sincerely and helped to establish BBC4's strong reputation for biopic drama. Bowker said Morecambe and Wise were 'true British legends. The comedy style at the time was very much about making gags to the audience, but Morecambe and Wise realised quite early on that they could be funny by talking to each other as well. I've written quite a lot of extremely dark scripts lately so it was incredibly refreshing to be writing some comedy for a change.' I'm genuinely excited by the prospects of that one.

The size of the challenge facing the next BBC comedy chief was spelled out this week as the BBC Trust highlighted failings in the genre. In particular, it called for more firepower behind pre-watershed shows on BBC1, after research found that the channel is losing its reputation as the home of the best comedy. In a statement in its 'review and assessment' of the BBC's 2008-09 annual results, it said: 'Meeting audience expectations for high-quality pre-watershed comedy remains a challenge for the channel and audience perceptions that BBC1 is the best channel for comedy have dropped.' It conceded there were 'some successes' on BBC1, singling out Outnumbered and My Family - but noted that both of these originated prior to the financial year in question. Considerably prior in the case of the latter. Commenting more generally, the Trust also recognised the difficulty in launching new comedy, noting that risks are not always well received. 'Scores vary widely for comedy programmes and we recognise that taking creative risks does not always result in programmes considered by audiences to be of high quality,' it said. The BBC currently has no controller of comedy commissioning, following Lucy Lumsden's move to Sky as its first head of comedy. The corporation will interview candidates for the vacancy over the next two weeks. CBBC controller Anne Gilchrist is also moving to in-house comedy production on a one-year attachment, with a specific brief to address the pre-watershed comedy problem. The Trust highlighted comedy and drama as crucial in bridging the continuing gap between audience perceptions of quality and originality on the BBC and their expectations. In drama, it highlighted Criminal Justice and God on Trial as two of the BBC's most original shows, but called for more 'range and ambition' across all types of drama, including soaps. 'A number of long-running dramas, despite being perceived as high quality, are not seen as particularly original,' it said. 'We believe there remain opportunities for BBC Television to show greater range and creative ambition.'

Following the huge success of the Victorian Farm series, BBC2 is presenting the same intrepid team with a brand new set of challenges as they are forced to get to grips with the trials and tribulations of life on an Edwardian Farm. Janice Hadlow, Controller, BBC Two, said: 'Victorian Farm was an innovative format that really seemed to resonate with the way people feel towards their community and relate to each other in the current economic climate. Faced with tough challenges, it showed just what can be achieved by a team of people when they work together towards a common goal. Edwardian Farm will bring with it a different set of challenges which I am sure will prove every bit as stimulating and inspiring.' Victorian Farm was extremely popular on the channel earlier this year, drawing an average audience of three and a half million, with the final episode attracting over four million viewers – almost twice the timeslot average. Archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn and domestic historian Ruth Goodman will return to front Edwardian Farm, spending a full year delving into Britain's rural heritage. They will make their home in a new location, exploring the challenges posed by the British countryside at a time of great change and tumult; a time when farming was becoming increasingly mechanised at home, and abroad the world was moving gradually towards war. As in the first series, the action will be based primarily on the farm, but the new setting will also allow the team to explore wider aspects of the working countryside, including rivers and coasts, boat-building, mining, fishing and market gardening. The twelve episode series will be produced by Lion Television.

ITV's drama, entertainment, factual and daytime commissioners have five hundred million pounds to spend on original programmes for ITV next year - with half earmarked for the independent sector. The £500m will include money for returning series and long-running soaps such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, but excludes spend on news, night-time programming, acquisitions and sports rights. The figure is part of ITV's broader programming budget, which will fall by at least sixty five million this year. Speaking to approximately two hundred attendees at ITV's Producers Forum, director of television Peter Fincham said the sum proved ITV was open for business. But he warned producers that ITV would look to do flexible deals with its suppliers, despite signing the terms of trade with Pact. Factual presents the most opportunities for suppliers for midweek and Sunday 8pm and 9pm slots. Celebrity-led pieces on popular subjects and behind-the-scenes access shows are wanted, as are documentaries or programmes with a natural history slant. The Coronation Street and Emmerdale schedule switch has created a thirty-minute slot on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7.30pm. Director of factual and daytime Alison Sharman said the slot would pay £25,000-£30,000 and was ideal for 'simple propositions' such as the recently successful series Countrywise. Director of comedy Elaine Bedell said she was looking to turn ITV's low summer ratings on their head in 2011, with a glossy stripped entertainment series, or up to three big shows that could run simultaneously. For 2010, she is looking for a live entertainment show in the vein of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush or sophisticated gameshows for Friday at 9pm. Comedies and panel shows for Saturday nights are also on the wishlist, but she warned against producers pitching dating shows or amateur singing contests. Drama director Laura Mackie is looking for gritty female-led dramas and possibly an action adventure or science fiction series. Three-part series such as Whitechapel are key for Mondays at 9pm, and she is also looking for two-hour single dramas to play out on bank holidays.

Actor and comedian David Mitchell has traced his paternal Scottish roots back to the Highland Clearances. For an episode of BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are?, he found his ancestors were sheep farmers in Sutherland who later mysteriously abandoned the farm. The programme, to be shown next month, will reveal their part in The Clearances and also how one member of the family became something of a local hero. The Clearances saw tenant crofting families moved to make way for sheep. Mitchell found his relatives had farmed at Tongue in the far north of Scotland. He is best known for appearing with Robert Webb in comedy series Peep Show and That Mitchell & Webb Look. The pair met at Cambridge University, where Mitchell was president of the Footlights Club. They wrote for programmes including Armstrong and Miller, Big Train and Dead Ringers.

The final dramatic role of actress Wendy Richard, who died in February, has been screened for the first time. The former EastEnders actresses performance as the cook in a forthcoming episode of Agatha Christie's Marple was shown at an ITV press screening. Richard's widower John Burns told BBCi that Wendy would have been 'delighted' with the finished product. Actress Julia McKenzie, who plays the sleuth, said Richard was 'amazing' during filming last year. 'Wendy obviously knew she was suffering from cancer, but you wouldn't have known that at all. She was thoroughly professional and very pleasant company to be with all the time,' said McKenzie, known for her roles in Cranford and 1980s sitcom Fresh Fields. Richard plays Mrs Crump, head of a stately home's kitchen, in the murder mystery A Pocket Full of Rye. Mr Burns, who that Richard had loved filming the drama, revealed that she cultivated the character's West Country accent after going out to dinner with some friends who come from the area. McKenzie also paid tribute to actor Ken Campbell, who also made his final dramatic performance in A Pocket Full of Rye. Campbell, who died in September aged sixty six, played butler Mr Crump. 'I've never know someone quite so dynamic in my whole life,' said McKenzie. 'You just never knew what was coming out of Ken. In one scene, he started to rather fancy Marple. That was Ken and that wasn't in the script! He always did the unexpected.' McKenzie has taken over the role from Geraldine McEwan, who made more than twelve Marple dramas for ITV over the course of three years. Other actresses to portray the sharp-minded spinster have included Joan Hickson (my mother's particular favourite, I should add at this point!), Angela Landsbury and Margaret Rutherford. A Pocket Full of Rye and three other Marple murder mysteries are due to be shown on ITV later this year.

The Rooneys are to star in a TV documentary branded 'Wayne's World,' press reports say. Manchester United and england striker Wayne has permitted a camera crew to follow him for several months, according to the Sun. The show will focus on the birth of his first baby with wife Coleen and his life playing for The Scum. An insider said: 'It's a big step for Wayne to let the cameras in. It won't be too intrusive. Anything they don't like will hit the cutting room floor.' Sky is reportedly in talks about broadcasting the documentary.

An online comedy about first year students at university is to be made into a TV series. The BBC said Fresh was its first comedy to make the move from the internet to one of its main channels. The show started with a series of five-minute video 'webisodes' on the BBC's teen website Switch last autumn. Seven thirty-minute episodes will be broadcast on BBC Two, in the Saturday afternoon Switch slot, and on BBC3, starting in September. The show focuses on group of students as they embark upon their university life. Inbetweeners star James Buckley will appear, joined by Jonathan Bailey, Danny Morgan and Joanna Cassidy.

Sophie Dahl has signed up to front a new cookery series for BBC2, it has been announced. The model-turned author, who is engaged to jazz singer Jamie Cullum, has teamed up with Jamie Oliver's Fresh One Productions for the new series. So, that'll be worth avoiding then. 'For me, food is more than just fuel; it's a joy and an adventure,' she said. 'Cooking often serves as an emotional barometer, and with this show we will run the gamut - from a solo dinner that suits melancholy to a homecoming feast for twenty, It's cooking with an anecdotal thread: irreverent, unpredictable and not without flaw.' BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow added: 'We are delighted to be bringing Sophie's culinary talents to the channel. Not only are her recipes fantastic, she's honest, funny and warm.' The series is expected to air in 2010.

David Hasselhoff has reportedly claimed that he wants Katie Price to star in a British version of his former show Baywatch. The glamour model is thought to be among the favourites to take on the role of lifeguard CJ Parker, made famous in the original series by Pamela Anderson. 'I've been thinking about basing a new show over here. It would be called UK-Watch. And Jordan is certainly feisty and has curves in all the right places,' he is quoted as telling the Daily Star. Hasselhoff previously branded Price 'stunning' and suggested that they could 'have a lot of fun together' if they were both single. Price is thought to have already held discussions with some of Hollywood's biggest agencies about the possibility of launching a movie career. She recently jetted to Los Angeles for a holiday, but it has been rumoured that she may take acting classes while there.

Family Guy has become the first animated programme to be nominated for the 'outstanding comedy series' Emmy Award in forty eight years. According to E!, The Flintstones was recognised in the category - then known as 'outstanding programme achievement in the field of humour' - in 1961. The Simpsons has never been nominated for the category although it has won a total of thirteen Emmy Awards for various other categories including 'outstanding animated programme.'

No comments: