Words by John Morrell
At this year’s Television Craft Awards, an outstanding British production company – World Productions, co-founded by current Chairman, Tony Garnett – was singled out for the British Academy’s Special Award.
It was a cold, wet Wednesday in the Strand but there were warm smiles on the second floor at 105 as they read David Chater’s preview of The Cops in The Times: “Every time I watch The Cops, I worry that the last time round I was exaggerating – that perhaps it isn’t as good as I thought it was. And each time, the exact same thing happens -1 end up totally transfixed. This is not just the best cop show on television at the moment, it is consistently the best drama.”
Those who know him can imagine Tony Garnett’s response. Deep down delighted, but on the surface grouchy – Mr Garnett doesn’t have much time to spend on fripperies.
What, I suspect, pleased him most – deep down, of course – was the line about the best drama on television. Running along the spine of World Productions is an ethos of the very highest quality, original drama. You can sense it throughout the company’s impressive range of programmes: Ballykissangel, This Life. Between the Lines, Cardiac Arrest, Attachments, Black Cab, Rough Treatment, Cops.
World Productions is not in the copying game. Imitation is not their hallmark. Origination is. Underpinning their success, the company seeks out good, cutting edge stories and invests in the people who can tell them.
It was this investment in talent and an unremitting drive for the very, very best that led BAFTA’s discerning Television Committee to honour World Productions with its Special Award. The Committee was particularly impressed with World’s emphasis on training. Specifically, producer training in a difficult climate for independents.
For Garnett, the process of training is fundamental. It happens day in, day out in a no-nonsense intellectual hive above the Strand. Producers learn from producers; directors from directors; the new kids learn from the atmosphere, from the creative process. Writers get a chance to direct; directors to write.
It’s a compelling mix and you can see why it works. A daily melting pot of ideas for feature films, long-running TV series like The Cops, Between the Lines, Heart Surgeon, This Life, Ballykissangel; potent two-parters like Rough Treatment and Sharman: ten minute shorts – Black Cab, Table 12;
as well as animation (Caribou Kitchen) and cyber-soaps (Ghosts in the Machine).
Kenith Trodd, a member of the British Academy’s Television Committee, has the utmost respect for Garnett: ‘Tony is the most tenacious, shrewd, fashion-weathering person in the industry, as much in demand now as he was in the 1960s. He remains resolutely his own person with extraordinary integrity.”
For the best part of four decades, Garnett has won both public and professional approval. Although profits are always welcome, you sense that turnout, training and top quality work are uppermost. For Garnett and his Executive Producer Sophie Balhetchet, transferring skills and developing talent is built into the fabric of World Productions.
Liza Mellody, for example, began as a PA with World Productions and is now producing Interactive Drama. Carol-Ann Docherty began as a receptionist, moved on to become a story editor on Ballykissangel and is currently developing a new Scottish show which she will produce.
Producers by the score have emerged from the power house: Simon Heath, Jake Lushington, Chris Clough, Bill Shapter, David Shanks, and more. Not just producers, either – the company has also earned from its peers a reputation for targeting the writer’s voice.
It seeks out talented people with as attitude about their world and something to say. When the company finds such talent, it works very closely with them. This is no place for luvvies – this is a place where every word and nuance is worked over and over again if necessary.
Experimentation with new forms and time-slots is another trademark. A new series of eight minute dramas for BBC2, Table 12 has brought new challenges. Like Black Cab, it is a wraparound concept providing a vehicle for new writers. It is based on relationships on a cab journey or at a restaurant table. The discipline is exacting. Time is precious, every beat counts.
This almost fanatical search for script perfection has many spin-offs but essentially, it is the key to attracting stars. Good scripts attract talent, including Neil Pearson, Paul Nichols, Daniela Nardini, John Henshaw, Stephen Tomkinson, Nigel Havers and Clive Owen – all have been drawn to this collection of obsessive producers and exciting, talented wordsmiths.
One wonders if Tony Garnett’s daily infusion of tips when he worked in the same building as the great Lew Grade left a mark?
Garnett recalls: “Lew was always there, however early in the morning I arrived. He would have his first cigar on. He would stop me on the way and give me advice about the business. Things like, Tony – what you’ve got to remember, son, is: you’ve got to have stars. You have. To have. Stars.'”
You can imagine Garnett saying, “Sure Lew” then getting on with the business of making excellent programmes – without stars.
At World Productions, whether he likes it or not, the stars keep emerging and they keep coming back. Daniela Nardini made a huge impression as Anna in This Life and was memorable as army officer Eve Turner in Rough Treatment. She’s back in the fold, attracted by a script for Table 12.
Garnett’s peers acknowledge that he has a unnerving way of distinguishing excellence from the merely OK. Says one:” He knew instinctively that Daniela was very,very good.”
The big picture
Central to the World Productions Philosophy driving this sure-footed team of consummate professionals is an overt respect for everyone on the creative team and an understanding ot all the different disciplines involved. The key test is the quality of the relationships. It fosters a keenness to work together again. Neil Pearson, for instance, jumped at the chance to work with Garnett and Balhetchet on Trance, World’s new feature film – a vehicle for another WP nurtured talent, Joe Ahearne, as writer/director.
It’s a Hitchcockian film about art theft, hypnosis, seduction and lies. It’s a brainteaser; Mamet meets Hitchcock. It’s the vision of a remarkably talented man who has been given freedom to play out his passion. Ahearne is an unusual film-maker in a UK climate which tends not to deal in non-naturalism. For Ahearne, it is an opening to play out a passionate vision.
Private visions and private passions crop up quite often when discussing with insiders what drives the creative process. A haven where producers/writers/directors can – if they’re good enough – indulge and take risks. Garnett and Balhetchet’s job is to get the end product to screen.
In the rough old trade of producing quality drama, Sophie Balhatchet has form. A died- in-the-wool independent – indeed, one of the architects of the UK independent sector – she headed the lobby to wrestle 25 per cent of production from the major players, still has a significant role in PACT policy.Despite offers to be Head of this or that, she has always been on the outside – “selling in.”
As for Garnett, tenacious and shrewd as ever, a couple of front burner problems will test his mettle over the coming months. Lorraine Heggessey at BBC1 has drawn the curtain down on Ballykissangel and Jane Root at BBC2 has played the last Cops – to the dismay of the many fans of these programes, both in the general public and in the industry.
The industry will be watching for smoke signals from above the Strand to see how World Productions responds to the challenges of the next decade. Can the tenacious, fashion-weathering Garnett live up to Ken Trodd’s perception that World Productions is as much in demand now as it was in the 1960s?
Don’t bet against it.