Monday, 24 May 2010

Is it worth writing for TV now?

Tony Garnett’s email bomb, made public last Summer, about the BBC’s apparent creativity stiflement programme, caused more than a few ripples in Lake Beeb. Ben Stephenson, Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning, and a selection of top BBC writers, felt the need to respond against the award-winning Producer, leaving the impression that he had accidentally put on his rose-tinted spectacles, and was just having a grumpy old man moment.


Tony Garnett

Last Friday evening, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain offered Tony the opportunity to defend his position in a discussion with BBC Executive Producer Hilary Salmon, chaired by WGGB president David Edgar. The event, held at Birmingham City University School of Art (home field advantage for Tony), was titled ‘Is it Worth Writing for TV Now?’ As a budding scriptwriter, I thought this discussion would be quite apposite.


Hilary Salmon

Following David’s introductions of the two guests, Tony was allowed a lengthy opening gambit to summarise the contents of his email, and put them into context. He started tentatively, first making it clear that there was nothing personal meant in the email, and he himself had no complaints. He simply wanted a new challenge and was worried about certain things within the programme-making process at the BBC. Tony also mentioned that he had sent the original email to three ‘friends’ only, from which we can conclude that the subsequent publication in a national newspaper was unplanned.

Tony went on to say that, rightly or wrongly, the email had hit a nerve, and he wanted a grown up discussion within the creative community to iron out the problems he claims to have witnessed. Instead of that discussion, Tony said he received the typical senior management response: first, management ignores; second, it denies; finally, it puts out whispers (‘he’s a bit past it’). The problem here, as Tony sees it, is that PR gurus habitually drift between No. 10 and the BBC, spinning like jennies as they go. He also claimed that management do in fact listen, and that years later changes may arrive but are dressed up as ‘plans were already in place’.

There are two things that Tony is asking for: 1. the BBC to review the balance of drama across television. He feels that during the last twenty years, that balance has shifted over to far too long-running volume dramas, and that more individual dramas are needed to counter that shift; 2. BBC management to discuss drama more directly with creatives, as there seemed to be some unhappiness within that community – and not the ‘turned down my idea’ type of unhappiness. His email detailed a ‘typical’ experience.

Now fully into his stride, Tony felt that the BBC has become more like a Hollywood studio, and it’s not in the interest of the BBC to treat creatives like this (mainly because in the US, they’re paid off with swimming pools, and we’re not), although he admitted that there is an enclave of creatives who have a good relationship with the BBC.

Tony suggested that the decision-makers need two talents: one is near impossible – to choose between projects with little evidence; the other is more difficult – giving good notes. Tony attributed the failure in decision-making to the ‘kids’ who are commissioning work. He said that very few people do the job well, and yet the role has been made into a starter job; they don’t know what they’re doing. Too many creatives are suffering too much pain, he claimed. ‘Dare to fail’ is the motto Tony would like to see; devolve power from the top of the pyramid down to producers who are smart enough to delegate even further to the creatives.

David asked Hilary if the BBC was making the process more difficult, and was it taking drama downmarket?

Hilary, who had remained stoically silent during Tony’s barrage of accusations, simply stated that this experience hadn’t happened to her, citing the interference on 'Criminal Justice' as minimal: the occasional ‘don’t forget X’ or ‘think about Y’, and not the micro-management described by Tony. However, she did concede that there are too many layers of execs giving notes.

As an aside, David suggested that there may some big-name authors (one named) who needed script editing, to which Tony agreed, concluding that he wouldn’t work the writer in question whose drafts are particularly sloppy.

Getting back to the main event, Tony said he would take notes from anywhere, but not bad or contradictory or ‘three years in the making’ notes. He then gave execs the benefit of the doubt, admitting that they do not wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to fuck up a writer today’. Rather, Tony said, the problem is systematic, and that he would rather switch on the TV and wonder why they produced this authored work that’s poor, rather than ask how did this second rate, rewritten rubbish get the green light. ‘I want to hear writer’s voices’, he declared.

David, taking other aspects of Tony’s email, asked Hilary whether writers would be advised that their drama could not be filmed in Birmingham, for example, or might suffer from bad casting. He also asked why she thought her experiences on 'Criminal Justice' were so good, and had the shift of balance to long-running series improved those particular dramas at the expense of the writers’ voices.

Refering to Tony’s previous response, Hilary agreed that there was no longer a ‘right to fail’ for writers. In 'Screenplay' of yore, only three out of ten might have been standout, but at least there was a playground for writers to become authored, or to learn from failure. However, she pointed out that the stakes are now so high, and management has become so fearful of audience figures, that micro-management steps in.

Tony mentioned that the argument against one-off authored dramas is not a new one, and that in the early sixties there was an attempt to cancel the 'Wednesday Play' because the cost per one thousand viewers advantage of renewable one-hour series made it a no-brainer. He suggested that the Proctor and Gamble-style consultants employed at the BBC over the last fifteen to twenty years have been telling controllers that they don’t want authors, they want brands, or that the target age group is this, not that. Energy, Tony concluded is going in the wrong direction. Controllers, he said, should be listening to the producers, who listen to the writers.

One-hour returning series, suggested Hilary, make a bigger impact than single plays. Tony recalled how, upon his return to UK television in the eighties, that was all the BBC was buying, and it was a new skill he had to learn – fast. Tony did this by still considering each episode to be standalone; it was just that certain batons had to be passed from episode to episode. In this scenario, a writer might be asked to write a couple of episodes of a one-hour drama serial, a single film, and two or three ideas for a new series. This suggestion caused the phrase ‘scarce resources’ to spring to Hilary’s mind and lips. She claimed that resources for drama have been reduced. She couldn’t resist reminding Tony that it was his outstanding one-hour returning series ‘Between the Lines’ that helped popularise the format.

Side-stepping this, Tony mentioned another impact of encouraging a higher proportion of long-running series. No matter how talented the writer, the pressure of this kind of work turns it into a branch of manufacturing (the dreaded sausage-making machine). Scripts end up clich├ęd and reliant on second hand tricks. An obvious bugbear of Tony’s is the city of Holby, a place about which he feels too many factory scripts have been written, and would benefit, in his mind maybe, from a thermonuclear detonation. Something perhaps a gross intelligence failure in an episode of 'Spooks' could provide. Script anyone?

Is Tony living in a time warp? David mused. Is US television now being inspired by HBO drama, rather than the high quality UK stuff to which it once aspired? Hilary’s instant response was that she has collaborated with HBO on three occasions, and each one turned out to be a micro-management nightmare. Tony purported that some HBO drama is good because: 1. there’s a $3M per hour budget; 2. there is a certain creative freedom. He claimed that HBO simply don’t care whether anyone watches because it’s not advertiser led; HBO is an aspirational cable channel money churn. However, Tony later contradicted the link he made between money and HBO’s success by voicing that we should get rid of the belief that big budget equals good drama.

Following this convergence of opinion, the floor was opened to questions. The first asked what the guests’ opinions were on the BBC Writers’ Room. This hit the nail on the head of the panellists’ differences. Hilary regarded the related Writers’ Academy as an opportunity from which both the BBC and new writers can benefit. For Tony, it represents the training of bad habits and the ruination of the writer’s voice. He built on that by saying that should a budding writer send work off to the BBC, then the use of their unique voice is paramount. Hilary concurred, and added that the Academy chooses writers that get under the skin of their characters. She also reminded us that many of the UK’s top TV writers have graduated from long-running series. Tony suggested finding producers whose work ‘speaks to you’, then send work to them – ‘it’s all about finding like-minds’.

Perhaps this is really what has bugged Tony recently; it may be that the new generation of BBC management simply are on a different wavelength to him. They organise themselves in operational ziggurats, speak a different language (business, not creative), have a desire to target specific markets rather than foist authored work on the audience, they want to keep a close eye on projects and not just green light everything on reputation alone. It doesn’t make them right, but that’s how things are right now. Tony finished with a mention of internet fiction, a media for which we don’t yet know how to write, and which lacks a revenue model.

The world of broadcasting has never been braver or newer.