Reasons not to copy BBC drama culture

Tony Garnett is a producer of various BBC dramas, including the seminal This Life. He attracted attention this week for his critique (full version) of the Beeb’s culture and process for creating TV drama. While there are a few British specificities, the warning he issues is highly applicable to the Corpse. (Plus the term screen drama seems like a winner.)

If you want to make dramatic fiction for the screen, you must first strangle your creative impulses. The alternative is even more painful. It is to put your creativity at the service of the formula and take instructions from the executive apparatchiki. They need to feed off your creativity because they have none, and to control it because they are told to. […]

Working in art film or commercial cinema is like dancing through a minefield, and every broadcaster is now racing downmarket 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.

You need flair to ignore real problems, then to identify as problems those processes which are in fact working well enough. But it takes genius to apply solutions to these fictional problems in a way which actually does create real problems. […]

Senior management still does not understand that detailed supervision by more and more layers, reporting to more and more senior executives, does not result in higher standards. A writer will get notes from a story editor and a producer anyway. The real motive must be neurotic control borne out of fear. Let’s make sure everything is safe with no embarrassing surprises. Better to squeeze the life out of it than run the slightest risk of getting into trouble.

Let’s see how that looks, not from the eagle’s perch but from the worm’s eye view, the writer. We assume he or she has an idea for a renewable one hour series. That is what they want to buy these days.

A pitch is worked up and taken to the BBC executive. There will be some discussion. Can the characters be skewed young? Well, considering they are senior hospital consultants, it might be difficult to go very young, but we will try. I don’t mind where it’s set, really. I don’t want to be prescriptive, but somewhere other than Birmingham, perhaps? Manchester would be good. And so on. Eventually a pilot script may be commissioned. The writer has a few weeks of bliss, the only time alone with the characters.

Then the producer gives notes on the first draft and another is written. It goes to the BBC. Long delay. Maybe months. They are very busy. Then notes from the commissioning editor. After a tactical discussion with the producer about how to avoid alienating the editor yet stop these silly notes killing the project, a new draft is written. It is submitted. Long delay. Then more notes, possibly by same editor, or with luck a higher executive. Finally another meeting, possibly with the writer not present – we can speak more frankly, can’t we? More notes, but contradicting the previous ones. First editor now fulsomely backs his boss. The higher you go the more valuable your ideas. Naturally. Yet another draft, or two. More long delays. The senior editor is in America or on away days or waiting to speak to the Controller.

You are now maybe two years in. […]

They put spanners in the works. In their place should be an experienced grown-up whose help would be welcomed, who knows when to do nothing and whose taste is informed. People like this are difficult to find. But we would need very few of them. […]

The problem is that all executives think they know how to read a screenplay. They were taught to read at school, after all, and have even written stuff. E-mails now, mostly…. Few started in Drama, but something magical happens the moment they are appointed. They instantly become authoritative experts not only on scripts but especially on casting. Producers who spend their lives learning about these matters are, of course, grateful for their advice. […]

[Writers] are herded together on an assembly line and given specific functions to perform. They have little choice because high-volume shows provide most of the work now…. But 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. […]

Would [directors like Mike Leigh] get a chance in today’s BBC? A centralized structure where there are many who can say no and only one who can say yes results in a narrowing of taste on the screen.


  1. Anonymous
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 10:48 am | #

    Sorry, but isn’t this just a synopsis of the story arc for “extras”?

  2. Gareth
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 7:46 am | #

    More than highly applicable. I would say the CBC is farther down that slop hole than the BBC is, and don’t go blaming lack of funding for the situation.

    Do you ever hear these words from RS, or anyone on the 7th floor?

    Public service. Responsibility to Canadians. Supporting artists. Creativity.