Review: BBC Drama panel at FACT Liverpool

TV Regular readers to this blog will know that I have a couple of running, not so much, themes, but subjects which I keep returning to, one of which is the lack of theatre on television. The epicentre of my argument is this post from the bottom end of last year in which I took the BBC’s controller of Drama Commissioning, Ben Stephenson, to task regarding his attitude to the presentation of theatre on television. My argument was that there’s a certain double standards at play in that classical music and opera and range of other art forms are given space to present their wares on television, but theatre and more specifically classical theatre is ghettoised to radio.

Despite having written this blog for nearly nine years, it’s not often I’ve been able to put any of this rubbish to the person I’m addressing. But that’s exactly what happened this lunch time as Stephenson appeared with members of BBC Drama commissioning at a Northwest Vision & Media panel in The Box at FACT Liverpool. Also turning out were Polly Hill the Head of Independent Drama for BBC England, Hilary Martin the Executive Producer for Drama North and the event was chaired by Kate Rowland, the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing, and yes, for what seemed like an age I was able to ask Stephenson directly about his attitude to theatre on television. But more on that in a moment.

I wanted to attend because these kinds of events usually seem to happen elsewhere in the North and it was quite novel to see something available locally. Pitching up at FACT I was given a label with my name on it and a delegate list. During sign up I was asked to give a job title; I couldn't very well give my real one because it's not particularly relevant so I put 'blogger' and sure enough there it was at the bottom of the list below all the producers, writers, investment co-ordinators, costume assistants and heads of film. Sadly, they neglected to also put 'feeling listless' as my company name. Probably wise.

I’m also very passionate about the BBC and genuinely believe that they do produce some of the best television in the world and I’m excited by the drama which is appearing in the upcoming season that appears in the following showreel, which was shown at the top of Stephenson’s presentation.

It’s very easy to reduce the BBC to its returning dramas, and become annoyed because it seems like they’re not taking risks, but as Stephenson pointed out, none of the other channels are coming close to trying anything on the scale of what BBC Drama accomplishes. ITV1's all about crime drama, Channel 4 is concentrating on returning titles (Shameless) and youth dramas with some success (Skins, Misfits), Sky are doing bits and pieces mostly fantasy (Discworld, Skellig). The BBC does all of that and more, much more.

Stephenson began by offering a few statistics. BBC Drama has a budget of around two hundred million pounds, seventy percent of which is spent on post-watershed content. Last year they produced four hundred and fifty hours of television including thirty nine new titles and twenty-two returning series (twenty eight from independent producers, the rest in house from Manchester, Wales, Scotland and Northern Island) employing over three hundred writers. His pitch is that he aims to offer a creative environment that attracts the best writers, the best work with no commercial pressures and to offer a schedule of range and diversity for a number of different audiences which won’t necessarily like everything which is produced.

He then defined their perception of the kind of drama which should be appearing on each of the channels. BBC One aims to offer "stories for and about the audience" stretching from high concept populist fare (Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who) to social conscience (Small Island, Occupation). He recognises that they had “taken (their) eye of the ball” with BBC Two but cope to make it the “drama connoisseur’s destination” with “intelligent, compulsive serial drama”. BBC Three should have grown-up, singularly imaginative work and BBC Four is reduced to “stories of the past from an acute angle” through single dramas at 9pm. In terms of serials, BBC Drama focuses on hours, with BBC Comedy on half hours though they are considering some half hour shows for the 10pm pre-Newsnight slot.

The overall impression I got, from the presentation and subsequent question and answer session, was that after a few years in which drama commission was fairly wishy-washy about what it was trying to do, Stephenson has attempted to snap the focus back into place. Essentially BBC Drama has found itself in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand it does not have a commercial imperative and so can and should spread out and speak to a range of audiences and create challenging drama. But it has to do that on an ever decreasing budget (apparently they have to reduce the cost of an hour’s programming by ten percent over the next five years) with “content” which attracts as large an audience as possible. Challenging drama and big audiences are not a natural fit.

The approach they’re taking, and this is particular demonstrated in the show real, is to take a well established genre (soaps, the detective drama, fantasy, the bio-pic) and then almost smuggle in the “challenging” material – go at it from an unusual angle. The examples Stephenson offered were the gay muslim wedding storyline in Eastenders or the recent dramas about prominent women in BBC Four which looked at a particular aspect of their lives rather than just offering a straight bio-pic structure. Then on top of that take definite risks just to see what happens, the exampled I'd suggest (of course) being Torchwood: Children of Earth, a five part sci-fi drama stripped across a week which turned out to be one of the best dramas of last year (for the six million of us who watched it every night).

As a result, those in the room who in the past had clearly had very negative experiences in attempting to get work commissioned at the BBC gradually sounded more hopeful and agreeable about this new regime. Polly Hill said that all of the work she’d had in development that she subsequently offered to Ben was commissioned. Stephenson admitted that he didn’t care whose name was on the script so long as it was good and that he was less interested in whether someone had a track record, rather that they had the ability to complete and turn in whatever they’d been commissioned to write. A couple of the delegates still registered a bit of cynicism about that (one using an increasing esoteric art gallery metaphor) suggesting that Paul Abbot or Jimmy McGovern (Picasso and that crowd) would automatically be looked at above some just starting out but as the whole panel noted, the reason that happens is because they’re consistently producing high quality material and ideas that people want to watch.

I suppose there are some who look back at the so-called “golden age” when work was commissioned for predertimed timeslots by producers within the BBC and to an extent whatever Dennis Potter or Alan Bennett wrote would be produced and, especially on BBC Two, there seemed to be more latitude for presenting avant-gardist material effectively on a whim. But that was a different market; with less channels people were more likely to try something new because there wasn’t much of an alternative. Now, with multi-channel television and the other entertainment streams, people have a much greater choice and it’s questionable whether even someone who has less mainstream tastes would want to spend half an hour watching someone hurl a cat around a room or whatever else Arena was doing that week. There are too many hours in the day.

With all of that ringing in my ears I half put my hand up then realised I was being called upon. I genuinely hadn’t gone with an agenda, and wasn’t going to ask anything if the conversation wasn’t going that direction. But they’d talked about adaptations and commissioning existing properties so it seemed in keeping with the flow of the session. I essentially asked why with the rich history that television has with theatre and considering that classical music and opera are given a big shop window why more theatre isn’t shown on television. I even paraphrased back to him what he’d said at the NFT [reported here] about theatre not being visually interesting and that he it would have to be abbreviated considerably in order to work on television. After I’d begun, I was surprisingly lacking in nerves and gained in confidence as our conversation continued.

What he said was very surprising. He said that the problem was that theatre wasn't being pitched properly to them. They only received four theatre related pitches last year and he commissioned three of them – Tennant in Hamlet, Patrick Stewart in Macbeth and A Passionate Woman (Kay Mellor’s 90s play). He said that if people want to pitch theatre, it isn’t a closed shop, the idea just has to be good. He said he was just concerned that the kind of theatre he knew I was talking about wouldn’t get a large audience. He mentioned that the NFT is filming productions, which I seized upon and wondered why they couldn’t just buy those in, and he said, and I hadn’t heard this before, “we’ve had a conversation” but that the problem as ever was about money, should they buy in five of the NFT’s productions or make a drama about Enid Blyton?

And you know what I thought, after all my windbagging here when faced with that stark choice? Fair enough. The Blyton drama brought BBC Four its biggest audience in a good long while, it shifted the channel to even greater mainstream attention and I would suspect was one of the reasons that Mark Thompson has had a bit of u-turn in his decision to drop the channel or merge it with BBC Two after digital switch over. But it’s entirely apparent that two hundred million pounds in today’s production market isn’t a lot of money. Much as I think BBC Four would benefit from a weekly or monthly Sunday night slot showing the best of west end or regional theatre, it’s worth asking whether the potential audience in cost terms would justify it.

Plus, I don’t know what kind of money is involved. It’s all very well for Helen Mirren to appear in Phedre at the NT, but her salary is bound to be less than she might receive for some television or film work. The extent to which she and the other actors would be compensated if that production passed to television is something of a grey area; wouldn’t her agent, quite rightly expect her to have an increase and could the BBC justify that if it was for something which may only attract half a million viewers? If sorting this out retrospectively is a mess, adding it to the initial theatre contract makes that whole process even more complex and enters the realm of creating film like contracts for theatre productions which include the secondary rights and residuals which weren’t necessarily considered before.

So really, looking at this from a business rather than artistic point of view the non-appearance of theatre makes perfect sense and in fact it’s not necessarily Ben Stephenson and BBC Drama’s fault; it’s just that they’re caught in the centre of the previously discussed paradox, challenging tv attracting as large an audience as possible. Plus there is room for some hope. Stephenson said that he’ll more often than not commission something even if it isn’t to his taste because a producer is very passionate about it which suggests that although he doesn’t seem to be a fan of classical theatre he will look at a proposal if it's interesting enough. That two Shakespeares have been commissioned in the middle of these circumstances (however populist the choices and casting) demonstrates that quite rightly this isn’t a definite no (we may yet see Dr Faustus).

“I’d like to say yes to everything. I hate saying no.” He said, and I believed him.

None of which excuses or explains the commissioning and production of Paradox. But as he reminded us over and over again, you really can't always please everyone. Or in that case anyone.


Ian Jackson said...

But should it be looked at from a business point of view?, its a public service - value for money should be measured by quality rather than viewing figures.
Jimmy McGovern and Helen Mirren are two of my pet hates but I rarely watch tv these days - I do remember fondly the old weekly theatre productions though, it really was like being at the theatre (very different from cinema!) but in the comfort of your home.
Think there's an error in 5th paragraph - surely the budget is more than 200 pounds?!

Stuart Ian Burns said...

That's true but by some weird measure of accounting it's decided by the government and the BBC Trust if the audience is getting value for money by the ratings - so although the BBC aren't chasing the ratings per se, the dichotomy is that they still have to show a reasonable cost/viewership ratio which means bums on seats.

So they could bung theatre on every Sunday night but if no one is watching they're not fulfilling their remit. It's very confusing, but as I've said Ben and the new regime are trying to offer fairly challenging material which will still be popular with a wide audience.

Also -- so I have. Corrected, thanks.

Poly said...

Commissioning is about choices but I don't buy the argument that original drama should always come before filmed theatre. Public service broadcast is a balance between a big audience and reaching an audience that doesn't usually watch tv. I would think that half a million people who never watch tv sitting down to see a filmed play is as valuable an audience as twelve million people watching Doctor Who.

In some ways, the most alarming thing is the conviction that theatre has a small audience. How did we get here? One problem is that everyone, including regular theatregoers, is comfortable with the notion that theatre is an elitistic art form. (Notice the snobbish media attitudes every time a theatre tries to open up to a bigger audience). BBC's coverage of theatre is also minimal, limited to the occasional interview at BBC Breakfast and reviews in programmes like Front Row. So BBC's problematic attitude to theatre isn't limited to commissioning.
P.S. I love the BBC, I am not british but I have lived here for more than ten years and BBC is something Britain should be proud of. That's why I want it to be better.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly and that was the gist of my originally essay on the subject:

Theatre does get a bit of coverage on The Culture Show as well. I'm just not sure you can blame BBC Drama for a lack of support. With £200 million to play about with per year which is minuscule in comparison to other tv channels at home and abroad it has to make choices and have priorities and get the best value for money in terms of viewers.

Hamlet got 800,000 viewers in Boxing Day which is amazing and Ben said as much which was encouraging because it shows he can see the achievement. That's being repeated on Saturday night on BBC Four - I'd be interested to know what the overnights are on that. Perhaps if Macbeth does equally well they'll look at it again.

The other option would be for another department to step up; based on comments elsewhere in the discussion there would be nothing to stop another department commissioning something -- BBC Education or even BBC Radio -- they produced an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream that went out on the Red Button service mid-last year, simulcast on the radio. Garrow's War was a BBC History project part funded by drama.

And if all else fails, there's always Digital Theatre:

Eni said...

Yes, that BBC biopic on Enid Blyton coincided with the publication of my book on the writer, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage ( Though I have yet to see the biopic,
I hope to do so in due course.
Stephen Isabirye