Ben Stephenson: BBC Drama Launch 2013

Date: 11.02.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.02
Category: Drama
Thank you for coming this evening. 2012 was the most successful year for BBC drama this century. A bold statement maybe, but thanks to all the people in this room and many who couldn’t make it, one I believe. So I wanted say thank you to everyone, as well as taking this opportunity to look forward to new horizons, new ambitions, and a BBC with an exciting new Director-General.

The passing of some wonderful series in 2011 and 2012 marked the end of an era. Danny Cohen and I needed to find the next generation of returning series, and whilst this hunt continues I am thrilled that 2012 saw the arrival of six new series all of which will be returning in 2013 and I hope for many years to come.

From Call The Midwife to Last Tango In Halifax, these series proved that if you create a show with intelligence, love and authorship and the audience will follow. It’s also good to note that four of those six series were created by female writers, with only one of them a crime show.

I’m determined that the next few years follow suit – but we are also introducing a rich line of pieces with filmic scale on BBC One with epic drama’s like The White Queen, Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrel and The Village that take our ambition up a notch.

2011 saw the beginning of BBC Two’s drama coming back to life but 2012 proved why it really mattered. Janice Hadlow and I were thrilled that Line Of Duty, Parade’s End and The Hollow Crown and others proved how much audiences had missed BBC Two drama. And with Jane Campion, Wolf Hall, and many other shows still to come I hope this will be just the beginning.

Last week it was nice to see a first – every single drama nomination in the BPG and the South Bank Show awards were won by a BBC drama. I’d always rather have audiences over awards but nevertheless this was a gratifying moment.

Drama and the BBC are inseparable – it is written through the BBC like a stick of rock. No other broadcaster in the world has drama so firmly in its DNA. Knock down any BBC building and I firmly believe that what will be left in the ruins of a building is a writer writing a script.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be taken on a tour of the Royal Opera House by Lord Hall our new DG. I found both the space and my time in his company inspiring. We talked about the BBC as a cultural organisation with an international reputation, one to make us proud and that strengthens our creative muscles.

When you go to the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre there is a buzz in the theatre before the curtain goes up. That buzz comes not just from what you are about to see but because the space, the history, the values of the place add up to something extraordinary. It’s that electric crackle of excitement that I want to create. I want to make BBC drama a cultural institution – a touchstone for quality and modernity with all the excitement and glamour of a curtain going up.

Part of the reason I introduced the Original British Drama tagline was because I wanted BBC drama to add up to something – it shouldn’t be just about individual shows. I want audiences to feel that anticipation when they see our logo – when they hear there is a new BBC drama I want their expectations to be enormous and I want them to be tough if our ambition isn’t as huge as they demand.

But crucially I want you – some of the best talent in the world - to feel genuinely excited about working for BBC drama. I hope the changes I have made to BBC drama in my 4 years in the job have helped – I think it feels more welcoming, broader, more driven by creative talent and crucially more fun.

Of course we are a weighty institution with weighty – sometimes labyrinthine - processes, but as much as possible I want to bypass that and create a place that feels inspiringly creative – where there is a buzz of creativity and anything goes optimism.

And that means setting our values out more clearly than ever, about articulating that we are the adventurous, gung ho market leader that the competition can only follow. It means continuing to foster the best possible culture we can inside and having the best team of staff in the country.

I want to build a BBC drama department that has an enormous international reputation. When Sundance premiere Top Of The Lake and it’s called ‘a masterpiece’ or Ripper Street is the highest new show to premiere on BBC America or actors like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Elisabeth Moss come back from Hollywood to join our repertoire, it’s good for us – it makes us bolder and bigger. It adds a bit of spice and glamour to the mix – it takes us out of ourselves.

As any of you who have heard me speak will know I tend to view the word international as a bit of a dirty word – it makes me think of euro puddings and pitches that have the budgets attached but no writers, it will probably also have a picture of a crown and sword on its laminated cover.

At all costs we must protect our own British values - without that we having nothing to export - we are a cheaper imitation of Hollywood or a less Scandi version of Scandi. Why copy other countries when we can be the best at what only we can export? I want us to be international on our terms.

That means making us more British than ever – rather than chasing naïve ambition to be a British HBO and chasing famous names, it is about applying the Danny Boyle vision to our work – a bold, adventurous, authorial approach that exports because of its Britishness not despite it. In Boyle’s vision of Britain, Mary Poppins sits alongside Brunel, Shakespeare alongside Bond. And so it should be at the BBC.

And Britishness doesn’t mean we don't work with the best international talent. We should have open creative borders.

But let me be clear, none of this talk of excellence is about being niche. I want packed houses to watch our shows. The ambition to be popular and brilliant runs through the BBC.

I am being deliberately idealistic – because without a vision what do we have to aim for? Some of you will be thinking this all very well but you turned down my script last week, or you’re so slow. Of course we're never going to agree on everything and we’re all going to have our ups and downs. But whilst we are far from perfect I want to move with integrity at all times. We’re not there, but we want to be. I know other broadcasters talk about themselves as being paragons of virtue, but we’re not. We’ll keep getting better though.

Ultimately I can boil this down to one thing – I want to make the BBC the hall mark of quality drama and the automatic home for the best talent in the world.

That leads me to some new commissions and upcoming dramas...

Details of the new BBC Drama commissions can be found here