Ben Stephenson, Controller of Drama

Date: 29.09.2010     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.50

Speech given at the BBC Drama Autumn/Winter 2010/11 launch
Wednesday 29 September 2010

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Thanks for coming. I wanted to take the opportunity of nearly two years in the job to have my first ever drama launch for the autumn/winter season and to use the opportunity to talk a little about BBC drama. What it is, why it matters, and its future.

Most importantly, I want to recognise the extraordinary talent in this country, many of whom are in this room. And to say thank you. Since starting this job I have been bowled over by the passion and ambition of those writers, directors and actors working for the BBC.

These are people who have grown up with the glowing box in the corner of their room and regard it as a friend and as an art form, something to be embraced and challenged. Who regard television drama – be it singles, series or serials – as the highest thing to aspire to.

It's this talent – who I know to be the best in the world – that has inspired me to try and make BBC Drama the best show in town.

Two years in this job has put the fire in my belly to stand up for British drama. I love the passion for drama in this country – opinionated writers and audiences who demand quality drama. The BBC should embrace all of these – we should be contradictory and a broad church in our ability to mix high art with the best of popular culture. The Song Of Lunch should rub shoulders with EastEnders, Sherlock with Shakespeare, Sir David Hare with Steven Moffat, Emma Thompson with Idris Elba.

But I'm not afraid of saying we shouldn't compete with America when it comes to 24-part series – our business models are completely different.

What I do believe is that the BBC should embrace everything that is uniquely British. And this comes down to one thing. We should be the single greatest home of authored drama that entertains and stimulates.

Single writers crafting great work whether that is 10-part series, singles plays or serials. Of soap opera's capable of winning Baftas. Of popular drama that takes huge risks in its modernity. Of challenging drama that asks difficult questions.

We are the only place where the drama strategy isn't dictated by putting demographics, ROI, the advertisers first. That does not mean commercial channels don't make great drama – look at recent Channel 4 and ITV successes – but the BBC is the home of risky, authored drama for everyone no matter what your taste, age or class.

Perhaps, rather than talk about it, I can show you what we are all about with a sneak peak of some of the work coming up.

I hope this tape shows the great ambition we have for drama at the BBC and the extraordinary talent we are lucky enough to be working with.

This stands in stark contrast to the cynicism that emanates from some of the media elite when it comes to British drama.

I particularly enjoyed a recent headline that said Sky's investment in drama was quote: "Another nail in the coffin for free-to-air drama". A statement that surprised me, and I am sure my friends at ITV and Channel 4, considering that – whilst their investment is to be welcomed – it is only a 30 million – a figure dwarfed by the hundreds of millions we spend on original British drama and the hundreds of millions they have chosen to spend on buying foreign shows instead of investing in British writers and original drama.

There is of course no doubt that the US makes great shows. But we need to stop punishing ourselves for not being American.

There is a terribly fashionable, but naive mythology about US television. Of course they make great television. But they basically make two types of television. 13-part series and 24-part series.

Get out of the room if you want to write anything else. No Five Daughters, no Sherlock, no Dive, no The Silence, no Song Of Lunch, no Wallander. All of those writers would be told – make it 13 or 24 or get out. Steven Moffat would not be able to write Sherlock how he wants to. He would be biffed off and replaced with a showrunner who could give create a financially acceptable model of 24 eps.

That financial model of 13- or 24-part series where one series can cost upwards of 60 million means we can't compete with them. So let's not. Let's value the UK and the US's drama models differently for what they do, not what they can't do.

We don't want the only thing that matters to be the 18-49 demographic – anyone over that and you're irrelevant. And for a cable network you need to be 18-49 and middle class.

Would we really to see our drama suffer the same fate as new critically acclaimed FOX 24-part series Lonestar? Premiered last Monday, axed yesterday.

Where are the singles, the 2-parters, the 3-part mini-series, the great 6- or 8-part series. Where are the pieces for writers who don't want to write one idea for 5 years – who don’t feel they can spin their idea into syndication with 100 eps? Believe me they simply aren’t there.

Whether HBO or FOX – these are terrific commercial broadcasters who make world-class shows – but they are driven by the need to make money. We have a unique opportunity to be different.

We should love American TV but adore and cherish our own.

So what of the future?

BBC Drama is going to remain defiantly British and commission the best quality drama for our audiences to watch. Crucially, we are going to give writers and directors their head and not censor them from writing their best ideas whatever their shape – be it popular drama or pieces for a more self-selecting audience.

We are not going to commission 24-part series or classic drama because critics tell us to – but we may well if a creative has a bold idea.

We are not going to have an eye on an American market, we are not going to become obsessed by co-production – we are going serve our audiences by telling the best stories our writers have to tell.

We aren't however going to be Little Englanders. We want to embrace the whole of Britain, indeed the whole of the world more. We want to be the home of the best story-telling.

Most crucially, we are going to be the most ambitious we have ever been, taking more risks than we have in the past. We are going to continue to challenge what popular mainstream drama is on BBC One. We're going to support an unprecedented culture of drama on BBC Two – we have tripled the budget and want drama that is unique in its ambition. We're going to keep pushing the boldness and range of what BBC Three and BBC Four can offer.

And most importantly we are going to provide the best home for writers, actors producers and directors.

We can't promise the most money, we can't promise we will make every beloved piece of work, and we can't promise we won't have passionate disagreements.

But we can promise that our investment will remain bigger than anywhere else. And that drama matters, cherished and loved at the BBC more than anywhere else.

This is at the heart of what I believe that BBC stands for.

On this note, I have some pretty incredible announcements.

A year ago I was introduced to one of the world's greatest films directors and writers by Christine Langan and I am thrilled that that breakfast has turned into one of the most exciting commissions I have been involved in. Oscar-winner Jane Campion has written and will direct a multi-part series for BBC Two. It is an extraordinary and ambitious piece of work that I could not be more thrilled to be a part of.

Sir David Hare is coming back to the BBC with a new single play which he will also direct. Moving and important, it's great to have him back.

And last but not least, Shakespeare! Janice and I always knew that we wanted our Shakespeare drama offering in 2012 to be unique and singularly ambitious. Teaming up with Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris and Simon Russell Beale we are thrilled that 2012 will see epic productions of four classic History plays that brings them to life as films for television. We'll be making Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V on a scale never seen before on TV. We thrilled that Rufus Norris and Sir Richard Eyre will be directing three of the four plays.

These pieces go to the heart of what BBC Drama stands for and I hope paves the way for a unique and ambitious future.