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29 October 2014
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Jane Tranter

Speeches

Jane Tranter

Controller, BBC Fiction


Speech to the Royal Television Society at The Cavendish Centre, London W1

 

Monday 30 June 2008
Printable version

Dramatic Licence - Bringing Great Drama To The BBC

 

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Good evening.

 

The last time I spoke on this kind of occasion was also funnily enough to the RTS. It was eight years ago, I had just been made Drama Commissioner at the BBC, and the RTS were kindly making me a Fellow.

 

In those days I was carefree and careless (ah how times have changed) and instead of arriving at the RTS venue on time and prepared, I arrived late and unprepared.

 

In my defence I'd volunteered to drive my friends and then colleagues Pippa Harris, Gareth Neame, and Barbara Erskine and the traffic was terrible and the parking worse.

 

But what made it really difficult was arriving just in time to hear Lorraine Heggessey, who had just been made Controller of BBC One and who was also being made a Fellow that night, make a pitch perfect acceptance speech, which also outlined a little mini mission for BBC One.

 

Now during the drive there we had talked a bit about what I might say if it looked as if a speech was in order, and Pippa had made some notes as I drove.

 

As Lorraine continued speaking, and realising I was in deep s***, Pippa smiled reassuringly and passed her notes to me. I unfolded her scruffy piece of paper to find it covered in faint pencil scribbles written on a sort of random diagonal across the page – all totally illegible. I longed for the sound of ancient engines and the Tardis to materialise.

 

But unbelievably the Doctor failed to tip up to save me… and before I knew it Lorraine had finished her terrific speech and I was behind the podium with no notes and a room full of expectant eyes. It was an anxiety dream come true.

 

I stuttered my way through something about there being two kinds of speeches that drama people give. There's the one where you weep a little and thank everyone in your current list of contacts; and there's the one where you make a Paxo-like searing speech about the state of the industry. But because it's a drama speech it goes on for so long that everyone eventually believes you must have said something really important.

 

That night I had no choice but to go for the weepy option; but now eight long years later it's at last my chance to make that big lengthy speech. So I hope you've all been for a wee.…

 

In truth I would always much rather let the work speak for itself; you only need to make speeches if the work doesn't make the speeches for you.

 

But one of the things that I've begun to learn is that if you do just leave the work to speak for itself, there's a danger that other people will take the opportunity to leap in and speak on its behalf. Which can sometimes be encouraging and edifying. And sometimes a little bewildering…

 

There are some days when what I read suggests that BBC drama is in deep crisis because nobody's watching it. And other days when what I read suggests that BBC drama's in deep crisis because millions are watching it.

 

The truth is out there, but it is in neither of these characterisations. The truth about BBC drama is indeed within the work. Can anyone remember what BBC drama felt like in 2000? How bare and depressing the overall BBC drama cupboard was? How ITV was the only home in the UK of good strong popular drama, and how long it already felt since Our Friends In The North…?

 

Compare the situation with now where the BBC drama cupboard is stuffed with good things from Ashes To Ashes to The Curse Of Comedy Season via Criminal Justice, White Girl and Being Human.

 

I could give you that list over and over again with different and equally potent examples for each channel. And I would like nothing more than to sob my way through a huge number of deserving thank yous. But that would take a fabulously long time. And it could sound suspiciously like a leaving speech. Which believe me this categorically is not.

 

But you know who you are. You are the reason why the nation puts BBC One so far ahead of any other broadcaster as "the channel best for drama". The reason why BBC drama now has such a strong global reputation. And the reason why over recent years there's been so much good stuff to watch on the telly.

 

Now that didn't happen entirely by accident. Although there's an odd tendency in our business to pretend finding successful drama is all a complete mystery. David Picker, the legendary Hollywood executive who headed up both United Artists and MGM, once said to me that if he'd commissioned everything he'd turned down, and turned down everything he'd commissioned, his success rate would have been about the same.

 

And as everybody knows, William Goldman once famously said "in our business nobody knows anything", by which he meant that in our business nobody knows what will work.

 

Over the years I have learnt not just to live with but to occasionally enjoy the process of not knowing anything, of being surrounded by the unexpected and surprising. And if I took David Picker or William Goldman at their word it would cosily abdicate me of a great deal of responsibility.

 

But I think they are both being pretty disingenuous. David Picker didn't greenlight the first James Bond movies by accident and William Goldman didn't write Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid because he didn't understand great storytelling and its visceral grip on audiences.

 

And to be honest it would be a bit tricky, wouldn't it, if I stood here and told you that after eight years in the job I still hadn't the faintest idea how to do my job.

 

So here are some of the things I've worked out along the way. Some of them will be familiar to some of you. None of them are rocket science. But they are some of the things that I know about commissioning drama. That I've learnt. And that I've grown to trust.

 

Just so you know how to pace yourselves, I've picked out eight of them. I would have liked to go for 10 but life's too short, we've all got dinners to go to.

 

So: The Thing I Know Number One. You don't move forwards by constantly looking back.

 

Now nothing pleases me more than a good debate about television drama, but I am beginning to lose the will to live over the continual conversation about how wonderful television drama used to be, with particular reference to Play For Today.

 

Yes, it was a fantastic strand of work and it gave voice to some wonderful writers, and we can all remember many examples of the stand-out plays from its run? Can't we?

 

And of course the single play remains an important part of televison drama, which is, by the way, why we commission on average a minimum of 26 singles a year, plus around eight theatric films, and invest in the work of many more via the acquisition of new British film. The single play on television is alive and well.

 

But let's not get pompous about it. It's not the only form great television drama can take. And it may not even be the best form for the medium. The single works wonderfully for both the theatre and cinema. But people go to the theatre and cinema infrequently, whereas they watch television night after night. It's a different kind of experience.

 

Episodic drama locks on to that recurring heartbeat. Series and serials respond to the way people actually use television – not as a poor substitute for the theatre or cinema, but as a medium with unique strengths and creative potential.

 

And I have little patience with anyone who believes that high quality is the unique property of single drama. What's genuinely the difference in terms of artistic and authorial endeavour between say Criminal Justice and whatever great single television piece you care to pick out?

 

Quality is not a genre. It's the necessary ingredient of each and every piece of drama we make.

 

I am as keen as anyone to recognise, remember and celebrate our great drama legacy. The golden age of television drama isn't today. But neither was it yesterday. The golden age is tomorrow. It's in front of us – still to come – still to be won. The great things achieved in the past are our stepping stones to greater things of the future.

 

So The Thing I Know Number Two is this: stop underestimating the creative potency of the returning drama series.

 

The returning series is far riskier, more exposing and more complex to crack than any other form of television drama. The collaborative and long-term creative experience that series television offers writers and actors, producers and directors should be embraced rather than dodged. It should be applauded rather than seen as a second class genre useful only for making money or securing ratings.

 

And if you'll excuse me for a moment whilst I do look back… in the 1960s making an episode of Z Cars was considered at least as important and significant as making a Wednesday Play, so what's changed?

 

It's not to do with quality. Russell T Davies has proved that with an early Saturday evening piece of big sci-fi entertainment that has landed some of the most original, profound, talked-about and touched-by-genius television drama that I've seen.

 

Part of his brilliance lies in his skills as a show-runner. And he isn't alone in this. Series such as Lark Rise To Candleford, Waterloo Road, Bonekickers, The Street, Ashes To Ashes, Survivors and Torchwood all demonstrate how a production can be lifted on to another level if the writer remains across the whole process.

 

Finding the right ways to support this has been one of BBC drama's great achievements – it ensures that the creative flame lit at a drama's conception stays burning throughout the production process.

 

That said, let's not forget The Thing I've Learnt Number Three. Always remember that there's more to great television drama than a great script.

 

It's true that, yes, the script is at the heart of everything, but we can be strangely slow to recognise that directors and the execution of the script are utterly vital to the entire process.

 

It's easy – and common – to belittle this role in television (maybe a reaction to the film industry doing the exact opposite?), but those who do so belittle the quality and ambition of the work we make. You certainly can't make a bad script good. But you sure as dammit can make a good script bad.

 

The script-writing process continues beyond the page, into the casting room, on to the location, through the camera, into the edit suite and the dub and doesn't stop until the drama is transmitted.

 

We are quite rightly hugely proud of our literary tradition in the UK, and our writers are some of the greatest in the world. But let's not forget that people don't read television, they watch it. A strong and empowered director and producer are not optional. They are an absolute requirement for success.

 

And there's someone else too. People in our business sometimes say they long just to be "left alone to get on with it" – as if making television drama is somehow a solitary occupation, when anyone who's ever been involved in producing a drama knows that a necessary key skill is crowd control.

 

Or sometimes they seem to think that making a drama is a secret to be kept hidden from everyone, preferably even the audience.

 

For me the presence of some kind of objective eye on a drama is essential. Someone to ask "are you sure?" or "I wonder whether...?" Someone to act as a safety net both editorially and financially. Someone to soak up any piece of flak that's flying. And someone who, frankly, rarely gets to share in any of the credit.

 

And yes, the person I'm referring to is an "executive". It's a word that's often used in a derogatory way by those who either don't know what it means and assume it's someone who comes with a briefcase; or by those who've never worked with one.

 

One person's good executive can be another person's Orwellian nightmare, so finding the right people to work together is key.

 

But let's face it, you don't need to get on well enough to go on holiday together. There's no reason why making exceptional drama would or should be a cosy experience, it can be stressful. And it can make even the loveliest amongst us unlovely. But understanding what each other means is an imperative.

 

Yes, the BBC drama department can sometimes appear big, but its structure is founded on plurality and choice, and as long as they genuinely want to, every writer, director or producer will be able to find someone to work with in the BBC who will understand what they mean, and who – as long as the work is strong enough, original enough, interesting enough – will champion and fight for their project.

 

The drama executives at the BBC have to some extent become a victim of their own success. There are fewer new drama slots than there used to be due to the number of drama series that they've overseen that have returned – because they're terrific and audiences are loving them.

 

The result is that the bar of excellence over which any new dramas have to leap has inevitably been raised. In this climate good isn't good enough any more – we are looking for the exceptional.

 

You can't ever have a guarantee of popularity and innovation (and nor, frankly, should you seek one), but you can seek a guarantee of quality. And we do. Which is why the drama editorial heads at the BBC work so hard across such a broad slate of development.

 

Between them they read over two thousand scripts a year… fortunately for me I only get to consider a tiny percentage of those, but if we are sometimes slow to respond the volume of work should explain why. Audiences expect the best from us, and it's our job to try and provide them with that. Sometimes you need to kiss a few frogs before you find your prince. Sometimes originality and art have to be partnered with sheer hard work.

 

The Thing I Know Number Four. Only make what someone is passionate about.

 

Contrary to popular belief BBC drama isn't about my passions or even my personal tastes (it might look different if that was the case).

 

But good drama has to spring from the passion of somebody. It can be the best idea in the world but if it in some way doesn't come from the heart – as opposed to intellectual curiosity, interest or financial gain – then the drama will fail.

 

Passion doesn't guarantee success (god knows we've all made lots of passion projects that for whatever reason haven't worked). But lack of passion guarantees mediocrity.

 

Thing Number Five. Don't forget the audience. Francis Ford Coppola gave a wonderful quote about the making of Apocalypse Now. He said that in making the film he wanted to be like Proust – but he also wanted to be like Irwin Allen (for those of you too young to remember, Irwin Allen was a great popular fim producer in the 70s, the man behind those huge and crowd pleasing disaster movies, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure etc).

 

I like the fact that Coppola is comfortable with the association of high art and the popular, that he wants to make drama that is challenging, but doesn't want to found a club that only a few can join.

 

Unpopular doesn't equal art any more than popular equals art. In BBC terms this translates into: "We want to make drama that fulfils a public service remit – but it's of no service to the public if nobody wants to watch it."

 

In the modern world of endless media possibilities we can help a drama to succeed by encouraging it to be succinct, to declare its intent, to make its premise clear.

 

This is absolutely not, repeat not, about making dramas that are high concept (hard to think of an aim more liable in TV terms to feel hollow and manufactured and fail). It's about ensuring that the heart of the drama is not only true, but is not opaquely or perversely hidden.

 

Dennis Potter once said if you can "grab an audience by the hand, you can take them wherever you want". Absolutely. But if you can't grab hold of their hand in the first place because they haven't got a clue whose hand they're holding and why, then the drama will be making its interesting journey of revelation and insight all on its own. In which case it might have been easier, let alone cheaper, to write a novel.

 

The Thing I Know Number Six. When budgets are going down and audience expectations are going up, you need to be very smart to square the circle (so no pressure there, then).

 

We all know that budgets in television drama – like budgets everywhere – are going down. Somehow we've got to find a way of coming to terms with this. Get used to it. Treat it as a creative challenge – not easy, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

 

So what do we do? We're exploring two strategies. Make your dramas feel small; and make your dramas feel big (you see, I told you this wasn't rocket science).

 

Making drama feel small means taking advantage of the intimacy of the medium. Transmitting drama directly into audiences' homes is a great privilege. And one which is brilliantly suited to holding a mirror up to our lives.

 

The best drama is often made up out of the little moments, the small notes of pain or kindness. Ambition and breadth can just as easily be found within the dramatisation of the incidents of life, or the series of events that go to make up a life; as they can within the epic moments of kings and queens or super-heroes and special effects.

 

In our desire to make drama that is startling and extraordinary we shouldn't forget that the most startling and extraordinary thing of all is the very nature of our human condition.

 

Text and performance is what matters here, not big sets, huge casts and locations or the creation of complex other worlds.

 

In fact what we're talking about is probably no more than a couple of sets, a handful of actors and the merest sniff at a location. Deep, intense, brilliantly authored and executed, nowhere-to-hide drama for nine o'clock.

 

Making drama feel big means giving ourselves permission to leave our small island, to take into account that the world has got smaller and seize the opportunity this allows us to make our dramas on a bigger canvas.

 

There are many ways to achieve this: global casts and settings are the most obvious choice; but burrowing far back into our deep past, or inventing brave new worlds to explore, are others.

 

The ambitious spec of Heroes is a clear role-model – as, in a different way, is the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. If NBC, an inevitably relatively conservative US network, is prepared not only to set a popular mainstream returning drama series all over the world, but to cast a character who speaks throughout in Japanese, then I'm sure, with your help, that we can think bigger.

 

The audience advantages here are obvious – the audience always responds to creative ambition well executed. And the financial advantages are equally obvious. Dramas with a global reach can attract global funding. This is economic strategy turned into commercial challenge; a budget cut-back turned into an imaginative leap.

 

Shakespeare provides useful inspiration here. A writer who explored the present, the historical and the invented world. Who found stories, themes, characters and ideas that resonate with audiences all around the world, but who remained at heart an English writer for English audiences. The ultimate show-running writer whose theatre – aptly named The Globe – would have attracted great piles of co-production funding, if only such a thing had existed.

 

My ultimate ambition for this strategy would be to make a series that launches in dozens of countries at the same time, but has something to say to the ordinary man or woman on the street in every one. That works on a personal as well as universal level, that manages to feel both local and global.

 

Making dramas feel small, making dramas feel big, these aren't the only way to deal with this contemporary, zeitgeisty inbalance of budget and expectation. But they're a couple of ways that we're exploring, both of them providing nicely and provocatively challenging risks.

 

And talking of risks – The Thing I Know Number Seven is: nothing is a bigger killer of risk than the fear of not succeeding.

 

Over the years I've tried if not to learn to love failure (think that would be going too far) but at least to learn to live with failure.

 

Nothing breeds success like failure. If we can learn to understand – as opposed to judge – what worked and what didn't about a drama, then we will have wasted neither the audience's time nor money. And nor will we have wasted all that creative blood, guts and energy.

 

We try within BBC drama to come to terms with our own failures – it's a risky failure-filled industry and we will destroy ourselves if we can't do this.

 

Likewise we need to learn to live with the failure of others. We should neither take pleasure from it nor be discomforted by it: it's their turn today, it will be ours tomorrow.

 

And nobody but nobody is "only as good as their last job". Or any channel only as good as the drama that transmitted last week. We are all only as good as the overall canon or body of our work.

 

In a creative industry there must surely be room for reinvention and redemption, and who knows what any of us might be capable of achieving next.

 

And finally, The Thing I Know Number Eight. Never forget why television matters.

 

Russell T Davies said something the other month in an interview he gave that really struck a chord with me. He said "I think it's really hard to say you love television. It's easy to stand up and say I love opera, I love film, I love theatre. And people say 'Oh marvellous, it's quite right.' But it's hard to say you love television. If you do, you sound trivial, superficial, and I'm not. I'm clever. And I know what I'm talking about, and I think it's monstrously unsung as an art form..."

 

And not for the first time (and unquestionably not for the last) I totally agree with him. Television drama is an art form and it is frequently undervalued, not by audiences, but by how we write, comment and talk about it.

 

Unlike theatre or film, television drama doesn't have its own specialist critics, commentators, consciences and guardians, who commit their thoughts and observations about it in a singularly dedicated and therefore expert way.

 

Which is disappointing because television drama is worth talking about and obsessing over. Certainly it obsesses me. It's an art form unique in its power to fuel the national conversation.

 

Like any conversation, the national conversation is a thing of light and shade, or trivia and seriousness. But like all proper conversation it is one of the most important ways through which we explore and celebrate and validate our existence.

 

In the 19th Century people looked to the novel to play this role – not just to capture passing moods and fashions, but also to identify and vividly explore the great personal, political and social issues of the time, turning them into compelling narratives that made it impossible not to notice, not to care.

 

For me, in the late 20th and now the 21st century that role has passed to television drama. It's become the place where we find out what's going on, explore the way we live now and the way we lived then, and construct the narratives of our time that give our lives meaning and shape.

 

More than the novel, more than live theatre, arguably more even than journalism, I believe television drama plugs us directly into the central narratives of our time.

 

It's a medium of singular and potent fluency and immediacy, which, because of the primacy it places on story and character – those timeless highways to the human heart – gives it a grip on its audiences that is the envy of other narrative forms.

 

I profoundly believe that the best television drama shown today will stand the test of time and will increasingly be seen for what it is: the magic key unlocking the innermost heart of Britain, probing its complexities and celebrating its richness in narratives of enduring worth.

 

That's why I do what I do and why the team at BBC drama do what they do. Because television drama matters. It matters to us and it matters to our audiences.

 

And as a visual illustration of why it matters, the following is a reminder of a tiny part of the journey BBC drama has been on over the past few years. [FOOTAGE]

 

 



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