DG: Theatres key to great tv drama

Tony Hall at the Theatre-Broadcast conference Tony Hall launches an award to recognise 'daring and innovation in the theatre'.

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Tony Hall believes Britain's theatres play a vital part in creating the best tv drama.

'Without our theatre companies, great television drama simply couldn't happen,' said the DG this week at a BBC Writersroom event for UK theatre managers.

'It's the work you do - finding, nurturing and producing talent - that has helped create this extraordinary moment for television drama across the world,' he told the audience.

Hall used the occasion to launch a new award that will recognise 'daring and innovation in the theatre'.

Start Quote

We'll be looking for authentic, diverse voices from all over Britain and new ways to explore original digital theatre for The Space.”

End Quote Tony Hall Director General

The Space Prize will go to the theatre that produces the most original idea, with the winning work to be showcased on The Space. The BBC and Arts Council England digital arts service will be relaunched next summer - subject to BBC Trust approval - after a successful pilot phase that ends this month.

'We'll be looking for authentic, diverse voices from all over Britain,' said Hall, 'and new ways to explore original digital theatre for The Space.'

We're all storytellers

Alongside this, Hall announced the next BBC Writersroom 10 scheme through which the BBC will invest in ten new writers over the next year.

Nominated by theatres, the writers will receive a £1000 seed commission and will work with a BBC mentor on a new full-length theatre script.

'Storytelling matters to all of us,' he said. 'It's what links everyone here today, whether we're making documentaries, comedy, drama or amazing pieces of theatre.'

He also revealed plans for the BBC's Performing Arts Fund to award £200,000 to the 'brightest' theatre talents and £250,000 to the best community theatres.

It was a step in the right direction, according to Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, who praised the 'brilliant new regime change' at the BBC.

Vicky Featherstone and Abi Morgan Vicky Featherstone and Abi Morgan debate the relationship between theatre and broadcast drama

During a panel discussion on the relationship between theatre and broadcast, she said that tv had a 'huge responsibility' to the theatre which took all the risks on writers and actors who were able to move on to tv, radio or film 'with confidence'.

She worried, though, that the 'dumbing down' of tv could lead to theatre audiences who were 'intimidated by difficult questions'.

Theatre first

Writer Abi Morgan, who won an Emmy for BBC Two's The Hour, concurred, adding that working for tv was 'always about trying to tone down'.

She felt there was a danger in the growing tendency for writers to pen screenplays without having written for the theatre.

'They don't necessarily find their voice,' judged the woman who is currently writing a BBC One police drama and has a new play at the Royal Court opening in the new year.

'Theatre is still the place of the artist,' believed Morgan, who also wrote the screenplays for films The Iron Lady and Brick Lane. 'Tv and radio is not the place of the artist any more… it's not about a single vision.'

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Theatre is still the place of the artist. Tv and radio is not the place of the artist any more… it's not about a single vision”

End Quote Abi Morgan Writer

She said it was 'very exciting' to work for television, where her work reached large audiences, but welcomed the return to the stage. 'I need to replenish, I need to recharge, I need to find my artist again.'

Many present lamented the lack of on-screen opportunities for writers to develop.

Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, reckoned writing for tv was currently 'too constrained', demanding work that fitted a 'given accepted form'.

'A space of innovation is required,' he believed.

While playwright Mark Ravenhill wondered if there was scope to make cheaper tv drama. 'If it could make 30 hours a week rather than three hours a week it could become a national theatre of the airwaves,' he said.

BBC Four regret

Kate Harwood, head of BBC drama, admitted that 'staggeringly expensive' tv drama, which had to reach 'quite big audiences', made it difficult to develop writers.

'The development process is all about beating out risk,' she said. 'Theatre is about taking risks.'

She said she regretted losing drama on BBC Four and would love 'more places' on the BBC for drama.

She spoke of one new project where writers would create tv drama for the iPlayer, while Peter Maniura, curator of The Space, said that new writing and new work was at the heart of the digital forum.

'We'd like to create an ecology where development can take place,' he added.

Harwood acknowledged the 'tremendous power' of the writer in tv drama and the need to nurture their voices and talent.

'We ignore the future at our peril,' she insisted.

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