Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

BBC Attachments

Off-Cut: Attachments

As the internet gained momentum I made plans to work on it, thinking everyone would be as excited as I was. The only way to learn to do it, is to do it.

To my amazement no one from the traditional worlds of drama was interested. Not even the BBC, who under Birt had got in early and made big technical strides. All they could think of was news, and websites which supported broadcast shows. I couldn’t understand their lack of excitement. Many seemed actually afraid, as though if they ignored it the damn thing would go away. True, there was no audience yet. But it looked as though it was taking over the world.

My mind went back to the Sixties and David Halliwell’s stage play, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. David devoted his life to what he called multi viewpoint drama.Then to Talking to a Stranger, four television plays by John Hopkins, directed by Chris Morahan, in which one family’s weekend together was seen from four perspectives. Both attempts were creative and interesting, even though they were imprisoned in an unfriendly form. But now we had a perfect fit between form and content.

We had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t. Our hope was that by failing we would find out.

Channel 4’s Peter Grimsdale asked us to submit some ideas for drama spanning TV and the internet. With Paul Dodwell, our IT man, we put together ideas for two series, each multi viewpoint narratives from multi sites.  I was interested in seeing the same world from different perspectives, from the private to the public. The ancient distinction between what is so and what is seeming so.

Peter Grimsdale gave us some money to develop one of the ideas, a ‘cross-platform’ detective story.

It needed Channel4 Drama green light. Revealingly, one Drama Commissioner said the internet scared her and she wished it would go away. So it died without any drama at 4.

No problem. None of us has a right to be commissioned. The real disappointment is that to this day the industry lags behind, sticking resolutely to its old ways even as it watches every show migrating to the internet and digital opportunities being taken up by others. Kids from their bedrooms on tiny budgets are doing really creative work on YouTube and elsewhere. Just think what they could accomplish with some help from the industry. But apart from occasionally, and delicately, putting their toes in the water, the industry is content to stay on dry land, seeing the internet as just another means of distribution. I wanted to plunge in. There are now, at last, signs that the BBC is waking up. They’ve left it late.

But I had a company to run and wages to pay. We needed to produce what the industry wanted to commission. In the end the pressure of work made me abandon these ideas.

Except one. It occurred to me that a television drama could live symbiotically with a web site and this might be more attractive to a broadcaster.

Attachments was a workplace series about young people in their twenties. Their work was to create and sustain a web business. So far, so conventional, ploughing the same furrow as This Life. But this web business would be created in reality, changing each week in a direct link with the television show. Each would have a separate existence but each would respond to the other, be a part of the other.

It didn’t really work. That was my fault. I made some basic mistakes. Never blame the audience; nor the cast. The buck BBC Attachmentsstops with the producer. The cast included Romola Garai and David Walliams, unknown then, but none of the characters quite caught the audience’s imagination. There was no one to identify with or root for. The timing was just before the dot com bust, when paper fortunes were being made out of thin air and there was a lot of mystifying resentment about enterprises like last, which made Attachments also a target. Our writers researched, spending time in internet businesses, but some in that industry, possibly sensitive about their public image, were disdainful of their characterisations. Maybe they were right and we had failed to represent them accurately, but it reminded me of the initial reactions to This Life. All this was speculation. You spend much more time and effort raking over a show which doesn’t work than you do over one that does. I’m still not sure I nailed all my mistakes.

One big one is clear. I should never have offered it to the BBC. It was tailor made for Channel 4. But Jane Root had been loyal through The Cops and was now Controller of BBC2. I owed her and offered the new show, which she jumped at. She remained solid, but nameless editorial policy apparatchiks in hiding in Broadcasting House interfered to the point of sabotage. They were afraid of the internet because they couldn’t control it, scared witless about one of its defining characteristics, the ease of making connections. Afraid of a scandal, they wanted to control something which couldn’t be controlled. I spent too much time and energy fighting them. They wanted to tame us and they succeeded. They defeated me.

Channel 4 would have understood it and not been so afraid of it. They would also have allowed me to make the web business a relationship and dating site, where people could  seek partners. That would provide an obvious dramatic opportunity for our characters.

Their own personal relationships in tatters, we would see them give confident advice to others. It would have been one of the first internet dating sites, with the added advantage of a television show attached, giving it publicity. I often wistfully wonder about how big this whole show could have been and what we could have done with it. But of course, the best shows are the ones you don’t make. They’re perfect.

The fact was, I messed up a big opportunity.

Related link – Archived BBC website for Attachments