Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

Freelancers Fair BECTU 2016

BECTU Freelancers’ Fair 2016: Political Drama

Asked at BECTU how to get political drama made. With painful difficulty was my reply.

In the grand and unlikely Mayfair setting of the Royal Institution I took part in a discussion at the BECTU freelance fair. Packed meetings and activities. On first was a panel discussing Ch4 privatisation. David Elstein wasn’t against but wanted regulation with teeth. Peter Kosminsky offered a well researched case against. Ken Loach spoke passionately against, arguing that private profit had no place.

What struck me was that the touchstone of their argument was the system they worked in years ago. Then ITV made some wonderful stuff because the owners knew that if they didn’t, they would lose the franchise and therefore their license to print money. That concentrated their minds. An early Ch4 under Jeremy Isaacs created a schedule which would put the present Ch4 to shame. The present Ch4 boss countered by reminding us that the world was different now: the digital revolution has created a more competitive world. But he was there, understandably, to do a PR job for his channel, not to engage in a principled debate.

Articulate speakers, all really making the same point. If your sole aim is profit, your decisions will be narrower than if you think the full range of creativity in a society should be available to everyone in that society.
I teased Ken as he went in. Told him I was there to barrack him, but as he was in effect my warm up act, I decided to refrain. I certainly later reinforced his plea that everyone should be an active member of the Union and that conditions will only improve through collective action. I also elaborated his on complaint about micro management.
So, then I was on with Gordon Main and Katherine Round, two filmmakers you might keep an eye on. Both their films, of which we saw a tantalising clip, look riveting.

A packed house of mainly young filmmakers – although now they all seem young to me! I said that this time was even more difficult than when I started in the 60s, and that was difficult enough. I still have the scars and the pain of those films never made is still there.

I reminded everyone that the prevailing ideology now was more hostile, the crippling disease of managementitis had spread everywhere and the crude chase after ratings was making every commissioner afraid. I offered a few tactical hints, ones that I’d been forced to use. I implored them to go on fighting and not give in, that the political climate was shifting, that there will be more oxygen and the range of dramatic fiction and docs will expand. That they should never blame themselves – that would just demoralise them. That we were only at the beginning of a technical revolution which was unstoppable, and they should embrace and use it. It was their task, collectively in the Union, to fight against the changes being used to increase exploitation, but they should not be Luddites. The new equipment and the internet offer exciting opportunities.

I could have bored them like this for hours. The time soon ran out.
But what do I know? This is their world now. They have no need to take any notice of me. I was moved to see and chat with so many people, all with creative energy pouring out of them, excited by the possibilities of film. People who only wanted to explore their imaginations and say things they thought important. We are lucky to have this generation.
I hope it will not be wasted and disillusioned by our money grubbing society.
I have faith in them.

An inspiring afternoon.
Thanks to comrades at BECTU for making it happen.