I had known Susanna Capon for decades and had been the main speaker at her wedding to Barry Hanson, called upon at the last minute because the appointed speaker, David Mercer, was dead drunk on the floor. After a lifetime in television she had become an academic in the Media Arts Department at Royal Holloway College, London University. All her life she had been a highly organised, competent doer, full of energy and optimism with an admirable capacity to cut to the core of a problem.
As our conversations developed during the late nineties it was clear that we shared a concern: there were various courses for screenwriters, directors and technical people, but nowhere to learn the basics of production.
She asked me if I was interested in doing something about this. It was a challenge: you’ve agreed there is a lack, but are you prepared to fill it? I protested that I already had more than a full time job producing and running a production company. I was stretched.
I wasn’t interested in just putting my name on it. In the end we made it work. Just. Mainly because Susanna did most of the heavy lifting.
I agreed to give twelve two hour lectures each Autumn, to set and mark the three thousand word essay at the end of the calendar year and to supervise the ten thousand word dissertation. I insisted on a maximum of twelve students. It was to be an intensive one year MA for those already with a first degree; they could come from anywhere in the world but must have good English. These strictures went against the grain. Universities were becoming commercial enterprises and needed to maximise income. That meant more overseas students, even if the consequences were lecture halls crowded with students with poor English. Fortunately my wishes were accommodated.
It had to be academically rigorous. This was a deal breaker. Fortunately everyone at Royal Holloway agreed. Anything to do with Media Studies was called Mickey Mouse. I was indifferent to the sniffy attitude of the academic snobs from traditional courses, which I thought was partly caused by fear; a hundred years or so ago a degree in English was thought to be below the salt. The clear point was that I took what I did seriously and that’s how it would be taught.
I didn’t need reminding that becoming a professor and accepting honorary doctorates was amusing, considering my absenteeism and indifference to academic study when I was a student.
I invited various BBC TV controllers and others in the industry with a range of experiences and they all gave generously of their time. I tried to offer an overview which would help the students stand back and see how and why the more specialised parts of the course fitted into the overall picture; to clarify but not simplify; above all take the fear from complex jargon. I saw puzzled faces, when for instance, I claimed to be from the Brian Clough school of producers: he said, “Football is a simple game. Why make it complicated?” Their confidence grew. I pointed out that all the rat catchers wanted to be called rodent operatives, that jargon was often a way of keeping others out; that ordinary processes are cloaked in arcane mystiques to inflate egos and prices. I wanted to teach them to cut through this bullshit.
But above all, I wanted them to raise their game, ethically, to see the importance storytelling has, its power, its capacity to shape our view of the world. I wanted them to discover and nurture their own unique sensibilities.
It was tough fitting everything in. I couldn’t have done it without Susanna and the whole department at Royal Holloway. We picked some very bright students and they made the effort worthwhile.
The old saying is true. I probably learned more than they did. I’m grateful to them. The challenge of putting into communicable language processes you have been practising for decades really challenges your powers of analysis. Making explicit what is implicit is a tough and useful discipline. Being forced to explain exactly what I did and why I did it was in itself a rigorous producing course.
After five years, with the MA well established, I left, just returning once a year as one of the guests. Susanna handed it to Jonathan Powell. The students continue to find their way in the industry. There are still many more excellent applicants than places.
It was well worth doing.