Doyen attacks “poison” in TV industry

Kamal Ahmed
Media Correspondent

IT WAS almost possible to hear the bottoms shuffling uncomfortably in their seats. Tony Garnett, the television producer who brought the world ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘This Life’, yesterday launched one of the most cutting demolition jobs on television drama since Dennis Potter described John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey as “a pair of croak-faced DaleksÕ.

In a speech to the Drama Forum in London, Mr Garnett cut down establishment figures in both broadcasting and the Government. He complained that a culture of censorship had grown up in the industry and that regulators and broadcasting executives had pandered to a new government which was “seething in sanctimony”.

His wide-ranging address was heard by some of the most senior television executives in the country. Michael Wearing, head of drama serials at the BBC, said that it was one of the most important speeches on the subject for 20 years. “It was inspirational,” he said. “And if it does something to tackle the hubristic noise of self-importance which has grown up in broadcasting then that is an important step.”

Mr Garnett, who rarely speaks publicly, said that it was time for writers, producers and managers to fight back against a growing culture ÔThey wonÕt rest until TV drama is sanitised in a Barbie doll worldÕ of moralism which insists that people are not seen smoking on screen, that swearing is banned and that “real life” dramas are toned down.

“These are oppressive times,” he said. “We have a Government seething with sanctimony. Moves to extend the threshold of 10pm. Moves to stop characters smoking, doing or saying many of the things we all do or say in life.
“They wonÕt rest until television drama is sanitised in a Barbie doll world where real human life is unrecogniasable. Think 1950s. Think Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
“Your kids will have to show Jack Straw their completed homework before they can watch EastEnders.”

He aimed many of his barbs at the chief executives of the large television companies and at Mr Birt, the director general of the BBC. Lord Holllick, chairman of United News & Media, Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, and Gerry Robinson, chairman of Granada, were all attacked.

“We now, with very few exceptions, have an industry run by managers with the mentality of 18th and 19th century mill owners,” he said. “Where workers are costs, not assets, where slashing overheads is more important than nurturing talent, where fear and loathing are poisoning creativity.”

He said that television lacked inspirational characters and that many of the managers, who first rose to power in the 1980s, were now “hopelessly out of date”. He said that although there were some glimmers of light at the BBC, It was still struggling against macho-management techniques, which grew up in the 1980s. “They too often behave like arrogant bullies,” he said.

“As individuals, people at the BBC are charming. Collectively they too often give the impression of treachery. “They have made, a disaster area of their in-house London operation, yet good work continues to escape. “ItÕs the Italian effect. Italy can have a different government every week yet somehow Ôa few Ferraris and some good olive oil get made.”

Mr GarnettÕs wide-ranging criticisms have caused a stir in media circles. He is often one of the producers most feted by executives because of his Midas touch with new programmes. As well as Cathy Come Home and Kes, he produced Ballykissangel and Between the Lines, before turning to his mostÕ recent success, This Life.

He hit the headlines after deciding along with BBC2 executives, not to continue with a third series.

Between the lines

Age: 62
Position: Head of World Productions
Successes: Cathy Come Home, Kes, Up the Junction, Between the Lines, Ballykissangel, This Life
Not quite successes: Earth Girls are Easy, a Hollywood film in which Jeff Goldblum plays a fur-covered alien. Handgun, also made for the American market, turned down by Universal for being “uncommercial”
Liked by: commissioning editors, television executives and people looking for ratings hits
Disliked by: the Daily Mail, which blamed him for undermining the social fabric of the nation; Hollywood, for not worrying enough about making lots of money
He says: “Good drama will survive because for thousands of years people have liked to be told stories”
They say: “The finest drama producer British television has produced” 

       Mark Thompson, head of BBC2