Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? A panel discussion at the BFI on UK TV drama

[EDIT September 2010: video from this event is now available on the BFI website.]

Throughout May and June, the BFI has been running an extremely worthwhile season on UK TV drama, with screenings of a selection of the most compelling pieces made over the last decade and a bit, including some not available on DVD. Many were rather awkwardly scheduled for me to get to, but the war-based duo of The Mark Of Cain and Warriors that opened the season were a particular treat to see on the big screen.

The season climaxed last Monday with a sold-out panel discussion of writers, producers and commentators, chaired by Mark Lawson. That panel in full:

Tony Marchant
Jimmy McGovern
Donna Franceschild
Gub Neal
Nicola Shindler
Ben Stephenson (BBC Controller, Drama Commissioning)
David Butcher (Radio Times)

The panel picked up on some of the themes in Mark Duguid‘s  thoughtful talk opening the season on election night. The season has presented TV as a writer-driven medium (though there’s an argument to be had about the respective roles of writers and producers in TV, whereas film can be said to be director-driven and theatre more clearly writer-driven… though more on that later), and Duguid slightly apologetically described it as focusing on “authored” drama – no apology needed in my view, and the issue of “authored” versus “Holby” type drama raised its head in the discussion.

To summarise the premise of the season rather crudely: if the period from c.1960 up to the mid-80s represented a “golden age” of TV, as a certain atavistic strain of thought commonly holds, it is possible at least to identify a second generation of writers who emerged from that time onwards, arguably really making their mark on the small screen from the mid-90s. Whether you can call that a second “golden age” is at least as moot as the debate about whether there really was a first “golden age”.

A few key distinctions between the first and second generations of writers, and the television industry in which they worked, can be drawn. The first generation – including Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy Martin and my particular favourite, Jack Rosenthal – were drawn from a range of backgrounds, sometimes theatre, sometimes journalism, sometimes other fields totally, not least because television drama as such did not exist in their youth; the second, by contrast, grew up with television. And while TV drama was viewed initially in terms of theatre, from the studio-bound nature of its production to the titles of the various anthology series of one-off plays (Armchair Theatre, Play for Today etc.), by the 1990s the language and techniques took their cues from film (Screen One, Film On Four etc.).

I do wonder how the transition between production techniques in television at around the same time interacted with this arguable generational shift. At the start of the 1980s, TV drama was still commonly made as it had been in the 1950s, that is in the studio on videotape tape using a multi-camera setup, with film inserts for location sequences; by 1990, a shift was well underway to single-camera shooting on film, and the remaining videotape-based dramas (such as Rumpole of the Bailey, the original run of Doctor Who, and finally The House of Elliot) now look distinctly odd to the modern eye. Did this shift in technologies encourage the change to more filmic idioms, or was it accelerated by them? Or is it an evidential phenomenon, that makes the “generations” look more different than they actually were, and disguises a picture of greater continuity – or at least more gradual transition – than the “generations” idea suggests? After all, Rosenthal remained active until his death in 2004, and we would undoubtedly have had more from Potter had he lived longer (whether we wanted it or not). Unfortunately I only thought of this after Duguid’s talk ended and it was too late to ask the question!

My own digressions aside, these were some of the themes framing the discussion among the panellists, which drew out some of the challenges facing UK TV drama. Most depressingly, a lack of funding, even relative to ten years ago, was always lurking not far from the surface. There is simply less drama being made and, as Nicola Shindler and Gub Neal reflected, funding it is getting ever-harder: budgets do not cover the costs of production in the way they once did, and it’s now necessary to find multiple partners to fund a project, much more like in film.

Historical drama served as an illustration for this: internationally the bottom has fallen out of the market completely, and only the BBC is making it. BBC4’s low budget historical dramas, Ben Stephenson suggested, show there are other ways of doing it than the traditional expensive approach, though they are, “mostly about dead celebrities,” sniped Mark Lawson. Stephenson’s reply wasn’t wholly unreasonable: when something is a success unfortunately it becomes a fashion, and he is now looking to ring the changes in BBC4’s drama output. Even so, Tony Marchant argued there should be more guerilla TV, including cheaper period stuff; he did one in 2009 (was he talking about Garrow’s Law?) for half the normal budget.

The comparison with the US was also inevitably made, which Duguid’s opening talk and several of the panel discussions after various individual screenings pre-empted admirably. Pure economics make it impossible for the UK to compete in terms of quantity, and it’s abundantly clear from this season that the best of British can easily compete with the best of American for quality. Moreover, while the US is great at producing 13 and 26-part series, single dramas, two-parters or short serials are pretty much unheard of in the States, save for pilots that don’t get picked up.

A more interesting comparison emerged, however: while commissioners in the UK have had an obsession with “high concept” pieces in recent years (which Nicola Shindler claimed was ebbing… though one or two others on the panel seemed less sure), US drama has been “low concept, high character” – in other words, all about stories and characters, not concept. Shindler should probably be heeded, however – she is, after all, highly successful at getting things commissioned. An interesting illustration was provided regarding Life on Mars as well: although commissioned as a high concept piece (“a 70s cop show like The Sweeney”), it was successful because viewers fell in love with the characters. Perhaps it was because of a perceived need to respond to this that its resolution  failed to do justice to either the concept or the characters, instead falling messily between the two stools.

Another accusation levelled at commissioners has been the perceived tendency to push scripts into genre, particularly thrillers, in order to make them more saleable. Handily, the man who commissions all the BBC’s drama was present, and refuted it – perhaps predictably, but also quite fiercely. Ben Stephenson flatly denied that he had ever, or would ever, push a writer to change a script into a thriller to get it commissioned. Donna Franceschild later suggested it’s a more subtle process than that: writers and producers compromise their work and their vision in order to second guess the market. This prompted a speech from Stephenson that – to his credit, I felt – can only be described as impassioned, arguing that a passionate writer is at the heart of all successful drama, and compromising the central vision will ultimately undermine the quality of the script (my heavy paraphrase but, I believe, a fair one).

The role of the writer, and the writer’s route into television, also came under scrutiny. Tony Marchant picked up, unprompted, on the BBC’s use of continuing drama, such as Casualty and Holby City, as an entry-point for young writers: the phrase “sausage machine” was used and the accusation that “your voice is lost” was levelled. Stephenson made a semi-effective defence of it, arguing it’s right for some writers, but other ways are needed for others – though curiously he cited Eastenders as a success story, not Casualty/Holby as raised by Marchant. One suggestion – from Marchant and picked up by ABW in the audience – was for a revival of studio drama, which could be cheap and provide a route in. Nicola Shindler was very dismissive of the idea – saying it would be going backwards, was not television, and people wouldn’t like it – though a better solution did not emerge.

Another question from the floor raised the issue of writers coming into TV from theatre. Jimmy McGovern offered a rather fascinating response: “This is going to sound awful, but theatre is the worst experience possible for writing television.” He offered the justification that theatre does not teach writers about structure and storytelling – even though McGovern (alongside Russell T Davies, Tony Marchant and other “second generation”-ers) started out in theatre. But McGovern does say fairly consistently that he learnt all he knows about writing TV on Brookside; theatre writers, he maintained, carry a card in their pocket that says “Licence to Bore.” So there you go.

McGovern’s contributions were characteristically dry and thoughtful, despite their absence in this account up to now. It emerged during the discussion that all three writers on the panel (McGovern, Marchant, Francheschild) are lapsed Catholics. McGovern advised parents, if they want their children to grow up to be writers, to raise them as Catholics: “you learn from an early age about the examination of conscience,” and therefore about motivation, which is crucial for successful drama. I was also struck by his observation that an hour is the perfect length for TV drama. Then again, “a BBC hour is 33% more than an ITV hour…” so you have to make more programme, for less money!

Overall, it was hard to know what to take from the discussion and the season more broadly. While the programmes presented demonstrated beyond doubt the strength of UK TV drama, its future looks inescapably bleak. Innovative forms of audio-visual storytelling, whether through a return to studio methods or through online productions like Girl Number Nine (and it was curious that the internet was not mentioned at all in the discussion beyond passing iPlayer references), may provide some respite, but it is hard not to feel that UK TV drama is shrinking back to a largely BBC-oriented core of a modest amount of authored drama, plus the landfill of Holby, Doctors etc. and that there will soon be precious little TV work for new writers to break into.

Disclaimer: any errors or inaccuracies in describing the discussion are entirely mine, and hopefully some video from the session will be made available by the BFI soon.

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