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Recipe for a dust-up (Drama Forum)

Sight and Sound

Tony Garnett is one of British television’s most experienced and successful producers. After a short career as an actor, he made his name as a programme-maker with a series of seminal television plays for the BBC, with such directors as Ken Loach, Jack Gold, Roland Joffe and Les Blair, among them Loach’s ‘Cathy Come Home’. With Loach he then made ‘Kes’ and with Blair the ‘Law and Order’ series, before going to the US to direct the movies ‘Prostitute’ and ‘Handgun’. Afterwards he returned to UK television to run World Productions, responsible for such successful series as ‘Between the Lines’, ‘Cardiac Arrest’, ‘Ballykissangel’ and ‘This Life’.


Recipe for a dust-up

Narrow conformity among managers, advertisers and regulators has squeezed the life out of Britain’s television drama, insists Tony Garnett. His keynote address to his peers at the recent Drama Forum (which follows here) challenges the industry to value its most crucial asset, creative talent

I would like to dedicate these remarks to Sydney Newman, who died recently. Sydney created Armchair Theatre in the 50s, and then was Head of Drama at the BBC in the 60s. He was a great populist and an instinctive vulgarian – I mean that as a pro­found compliment Robustly intelligent himself, he would feign philistinism in order to puncture preten­sion in others. One day a director pestered him yet again about producing a script: “It’s so avant-garde, so au courant, so reminiscent of Ionesco”

“Ian who?”

And when Roger Smith, Ken Trodd and I were hav­ing a screaming match with him after the News and Current Affairs people had prevailed in banning Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton on the grounds that it ridiculed a great British institution – the Labour Party – Sydney calmed down for a moment and, as though to a child, he said, “Tony, let me give you a for- instance. In this country you cannot shit on the Queen. But if you do, you gotta do it very carefully!”

His favourite phrase was “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.” So in his memory, that’s what I’ll try to do.

I cannot remember when so many different con­stituencies were face-to-face at a conference. Writers, directors, script editors and producers. Their agents. Commissioning editors and drama heads. Senior management in broadcasting. The advertisers and buyers of time.  People in sales and distribution and brokers of co-production. The regulators.  A recipe for a dust-up-I hope.

No doubt there are many differences between all of us – different agendas, different motivations and dif­ferent ambitions. I hope our conflicts and tensions will be aired, robustly. Our success will be measured by how much better we understand each other; and how we can use this to make better drama. The guid­ing idea I propose is: look for the overlap. Look for where interests can be made to coincide. We might be surprised and liberated by how much common ground there is. It might just be that much of the drama we desperately want to make will be drama that executives are proud to facilitate, that audiences want to be in on, that will please the ad buyers. We might find enough overlap to convince the regulators that the drama we want to create will not lead to moral decline and the end of civilisation.

Resistant to change
I know the changes of the last ten years have left peo­ple scared and apprehensive. But the last thing we should be scared of is new technology. I am constantly surprised at how resistant to change so many of us are The new technology is exciting, it opens up wonder­ful opportunities. Let’s embrace the digital revolution in cameras, sound and editing, improve it and bend it to our purpose. When I took the television play out of the electronic studio in the 60s, the BBC Rim Depart­ment at Ealing was horrified and tried to stop us shooting on 16mm – that was for News and Current Affairs, not Drama. But we wanted to get out and see the world, through a camera on someone’s shoulder. The documentarists are always quick to reinvent their form by using new gear. The posher the drama on tele­vision, the more it seems stuck in a time-warp. The only thing to be afraid of in the new technology is it leaving us behind. Why be afraid of the unknown? Why not be excited and expectant?

As for the proliferation of channels, spreading audiences and advertisers thin and reducing budgets, don’t worry. The secondary market is getting more valuable by the second all over the world, and good drama has a long shelf-life. Look at the success of the Gold channel. Look at The Sweeney on Channel 5.

New delivery systems?  Interactive?  More competi­tion for the leisure dollar?  No one knows what’s round the corner, it’s all moving so fast. But all I can see are opportunities – new ways of making available to others the stories that are playing in my head No, it’s not technological change that worries me. It’s the management.

Everyone knew that with the franchise auction, the independent quota and the digital challenge, big, disruptive change was demanded. Unfortunately all this coincided with a political shift which created a culture of macho management. So, after ‘re-engineering’, ‘total quality management’, flat management”, ‘downsizing’ and all the other fads sold by snake-oil salesmen to gullible management, what have we got? An industry more than ever living in the past.

With very few exceptions today’s managers have the mentality of nineteenth-century mill-owners: workers are costs not assets, slashing overheads is more important than nurturing talent – and fear and loathing poisons creativity. Even if you ignore the argument against all this on grounds of human decency, it is suicidal bad practice. I’ve got news for television company chairmen Lord Hollick, Michael Green and Gerry Robinson. This is an industry where the most valuable assets leave the building every evening – or hardly ever even visit the place. So when one of you said your job was “to squeeze the assets in order to enhance shareholder value,” you sent a mes­sage to the creative community.  I can assure you it was received. All my private soundings tell the same story. Every broadcaster of drama creates unhappy people – employees inside and suppliers outside. This is not a ‘rights’ complaint like that of writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s Edinburgh McTaggart lecture,  nor is it about the disappointments of sup­ply and demand, where sellers outnumber buyers,  his is about the treatment of people at every level, ad as a consequence, everyone is working below potentiaL The human waste of it breaks me up.

A fish, they say, rots from the head. I hope management  will rethink. Allow me to throw a few neglected ideas into the debate. Think of recreating your business as a magnet for creative talent- everything you spend on – audience share, library assets, foreign and secondary markets, building of brands, the ultimate value of your total business itself – depends on the strength of this magnet.  And remember, a magnet not only attracts, what it attracts also sticks.

Many of you emerged or were created in the 80s. You already look hopelessly out-of-date. Stop hiding behind management systems and tinkering with structures. This is not a game of chess. We need less management and more leadership. Tommy Lasorda, the LA Dodgers coach, said “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand.  Squeeze too tight, you kill it. Open your hand too much, you let it go.” That’s good management But I’m asking for more. I’m asking you to open your hand and let the dove go. Only if you allow creative talent to soar will it want to come back. And if you believe in it and you are a good place to launch from, it will. That’s leadership. Your job is to create corporate cultures where imaginations thrive.  Because that’s  your R&D. The rest is detail.

I recommend a view of our business which has sus­tained me for over 40 years: invert the pyramid. Put the Birts, Hollicks, Greens and Robinsons in their proper place, at the bottom, and the writers in theirs, at the top. Without the writers we would all be out of work. It would all close down.

You don’t have to love writers -I don’t.  Well, I hap­pen to love some, but that’s incidental. It’s their talent  I’m after.  Any writers who don’t take their talent seri­ously get a rough ride from me. I can’t bear waste. Our duty is to raise each other’s game.

The most stifling development this decade has been a tendency to concentrate decision-making in too few hands. It’s the football-chairman fallacy: no matter that you have never played football and know no more about it than the average bigot in the stand, now you are the chairman you are instantly trans­formed into an expert on the transfer market, on tac­tics, on team selection and on training.

Of course, there are some in management who have actually made drama – one or two with distinc­tion. They should realise that they have elected to leave the job to others – although their insights are always welcome. No, as they say in football, pick your manager and either back the bugger or sack the bug­ger.  And as for the rest of you, stand aside.  Don’t try to be Diaghilev. Your ideas on writers, directors and cast­ing – especially casting – are usually cliches.

For any category of drama I want to produce there are only two people I can go to. It is unhealthy for so few sensibilities to be at work.  And when they also dictate the major elements, they compound the prob­lem.  The range of our drama is impoverishingly nar­row, its convictions depressingly conformist, the results all too often lifeless and predictable. Those secure in their power look for ways to give it away – because they are also secure in their ability to choose wisely those they entrust with that power.

What we face
The industry is eating the seed corn.  It wants to take but put nothing back.  Channel 4 is committing 0.5 percent of its revenue to new training initiatives. This is a start.  Proper training – not low-wage exploitation, not the equivalent of sending kids up chimneys – should be industry-wide and financed by a levy on the end users, the broadcasters. The independent compa­nies must play a full part in this process – I hear hor­ror stories of exploitation.  As a matter of urgency the government should bang heads together and force the industry into this vital investment in the future. If the construction industry can get its act together, we can.

Co-productions. I’ve never been any good at co- productions – so all I can contribute are questions. Isn’t it true that the only consistently successful co- production model is the low-budget art film? And aren’t these films really co-investment deals and pre- sales arrangements, with the films themselves firmly in the hands of an auteur director? I’m certainly in favour of co-investment – I’ll take anybody’s money – but there should be only one producer.

And if audience tastes change and true co-productions become acceptable,  will there be fewer dramas specifically reflecting and exploring our mosaic of a culture? Hollywood managed to conquer the world on its own, by exploring universal themes. It had an advantage more important than the size of its domes­tic market – America was so culturally heterogeneous that Hollywood was forced to learn the tricks of global domination at home.  Could we begin to do that?

And it’s odd, is it not that just as financial pressure for co-productions emerges, so audiences have become more ethnocentric. The Germans want a German cop, the French want a French cop and the British want a British cop. Some of us remember the days when Starsky and Hutch and Kojak had an arresting presence all over the world, and when the whole country came to a standstill for Dallas. Now even the best US imports are only cult hits, and are largely confined to minority channels.

Why co-produce when you can wait a year and buy it in cheap? And wouldn’t we be better off saying what we have to say in our own way but finding ways to say it cheaper? I suspect in the end co-production makes sense for some shows and not others.

Advertisers. The advertisers and their buyers are such a modest bunch. They like to claim that pro­grammes are beyond their competence, that they have no wish to interfere. Don’t be fooled. A good rule in life is: look to see who is paying. The ad buyers are the biggest power in television and indirectly control the content of most of it. Ask yourselves, who do the broadcasters most want – indeed, need – to please?

Fifteen years ago ITV had the monopoly – but the advertisers can go elsewhere now. Thus the power of the ads increases. Let’s hope that in the hunt for affluent audiences to buy all those new cars, those with nothing to spend will not be forgotten.  I didn’t come into television to sell product. But again, let’s look for the overlap. Advertisers are worth listening to. They’re smart.  Ask them about ITV,  about prime- time and News at Ten.. Ask them whether they are comfortable with Channel 4’s remit – or whether it has to be schizophrenic, and constantly rob Peter to pay Paul. What do they think of its privatisation? What will be the impact of cable and satellite increas­ing their market share?  Of digital? What will these ecological changes force on drama? Shall we produc­ers make deals with ad agencies and sell broadcast licenses? Is barter going to be big?

The regulators have taken too much from us.
 They should be fought every time
The regulators. Regulation: what a neutral word. It implies some detached application of the agreed rules of the game. As sly as that decision over 40 years ago to call commercial television “Independent”. In an age when everyone with a camera wants to be called a Director of Photography, let’s call the regulators what they are – censors.

There are many kinds of censorship in television, but their dirty hands are linked. There’s the censor­ship by the regulator, which is government censor­ship. The creative community does not fight this oppression systematically.  Should not the producers’ association PACT and the writers’ and other unions be collectively and permanently ready with a squadron of fighters in the air when the alarm sounds? The reg­ulators have taken too much from us. They should be fought each time they move, and beaten back.

Then there’s censorship by the broadcaster – antic­ipating trouble, not wishing to attract opprobrium. Would  Green, Hollick, Robinson or the Board of Gov­ernors of the BBC like to tell us of their daily fight for creative freedom and their untiring efforts to encour­age those talents which might invigorate our culture with their unorthodoxy? The truth is that the regula­tors and the broadcasters are in bed with each other – but it’s the creative community that gets screwed.

And there’s self-censorship – the creative commu­nity wishing to be good little children. The worst of all.  It’s what all oppressive regimes strive for. Very tempting in times of job insecurity. This is where we need to give each other courage.

There’s also tactical self-censorship:  because it is possible to trade, to test limits and gradually to alter boundaries.  Some senior television management have courage. They have not allowed their careerism to subdue entirely their hopes for the medium. So advocacy combined with a little terrorism are some­times worthwhile. Perhaps in a more enlightened future our business will be treated like other kinds of publishing, subject only to the law of the land. Certainly with hundreds of channels,  the Internet and cross-border satellite foot­prints, regulation will get more difficult. In the meantime, would programme categories help?  The television equivalent of ’12’, ’15’ and ’18’? Would this offer more creative freedom or be used for more restriction? These are oppressive times. We have a government seething with sanctimony. Moves to extend the threshold to 10pm. Moves to stop charac­ters smoking, to stop them doing or saying many of the things we all do or say in life. They won’t rest until television drama is a sanitised Barbie-doll world where real human life is unrecognisable.  Think 50s. Think Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Your kids will have to show Jack Straw their completed homework before they can watch Eastenders.

Taste and decency – two of the most chilling words in the English language. When you hear them, look to your freedoms – they are about to be fingered.

So that there shall be no misunderstanding, allow me to tell the regulators what the producer’s job is and what it is not.  My job is not to set an example.  My job is not to be an agent of government propaganda.  My job is not to contribute to your quaint ideas of moral­ity.  My job is not to support the anti-smoking,  the anti­drugs or the anti-cholesterol campaigners.  My job is not to follow the latest line in correctness, whether it’s from the left or the right.  My job is not to avoid giving offence:  we live in such a culturally diffuse,  heteroge­neous society that giving offence is the price of free­dom.  I am daily offended as a viewer, but I don’t want the offenders suppressed.

My job is to tell the truth.  Nothing more and noth­ing less.  Not the Truth – only God,  should he or she exist,  knows the Truth.  But to tell my truth.  And my truth is partial, in both senses of the word. It is the only truth I know.  Which is why the broadcaster’s job is to encourage to be made and then shown the widest range of these truths. Over time, as viewers, we will see the world lit up from many points of view and be able to form a rounded, three-dimensional picture.  But my job is simpler.  It is to say to the audience,  “This is the provisional sense we have made of this comer of expe­rience. What we are showing you is genuinely how it felt to us at the time. What do you think?”

The regulators want to impoverish our culture by constraining us. These people have existed through­out history in many guises. They are the enemies of the imagination. Are we going to go on letting them get away with it?

Television drama has been in perpetual decline for the last 40 years, to my first-hand knowledge.  As Adam Smith said when told the country will be ruined, “There’s an awful lot of ruin in a nation.”  So don’t despair. We just have to be cannier.  I’m even quite hopeful.

Channel by channel
The ITV Network Centre’s drama has delivered very successfully over the years. The schedule now feels in need of renewal, but that is a delicate task. It’s a big decision, always, to scrap a show or to invest in a new one.  But necessary – so there will be some fun there.  I hope risks will be taken. A movie of the week on ITV could spearhead the repositioning of the channel in the perception of the audience.  It would need a real commitment. Same slot each week for half the year. Nine pm till 11 (in the hope anyway that the News will be moved).  Not US Network disease-of-the-week movies. Not inaccessible European art films getting a free ride on television money.  Not directors audition­ing for Harvey Weinstein or Miramax.  Strong stories about a recognisable contemporary experience; about our own lives, and dreams and nightmares. At say £1.2 million a pop from the Network Centre (the supplier putting up the deficit) – for £30 million ITV could have a flagship show which would change its image in a year, and release our writers from an exclusive confinement inside the corset of the drama series.  It would be liberating.  I have a hunch that the audience is getting restless as we strain to deliver yet another formulaic one-hour series.  Would it attract both in numbers and kind to make it viable?  I’d also like to see some low-budget late-night innovative drama.  Not stuff with insulting budgets like Granada’s Revelations but genuine nursery slopes for writers and direc­tors, who can show the way for us all. Think of it as R&D. You might be surprised. You might get a hit.

Channel 4 has more money and promises to spend more of it on drama. I hope it won’t be so narrowly focused on a few expensive mini-series.  If it chose, it could contribute to all genres, at all price ranges.

Channel 5.  I’m surprised it has done so little. Some high-concept event pieces would have raised the channel’s profile and got attention.  Is it the money? Or is the drama commu­nity not up to it? I hope that as it gets more prosperous and sure of itself, more drama will be made.

We know that Sky is putting money into original programmes.  They could become heavy hitters.  A push into home-produced dramatic fiction on satel­lite and cable would put a rocket up the main terres­trial broadcasters – a delicious prospect for the people who make the stuff.

Then there’s the Beeb.  Oh dear, what can one say? The changes of the last decade have been hardest on the Beeb.  Its sheer size was against it.  Financial chal­lenges, rapid technical change, a hostile political envi­ronment – taken together, they must have been daunting.  Channel 4 was set up as a publisher, the Beeb had a 25 per cent quota of programmes to be bought in from outside producers imposed.

Yes, they were slow to respond to new circum­stances.  Yes, they too often behave like arrogant bul­lies – at one point I said it would be more fun to stick needles in your eyes than do business with them.  As individuals people at the BBC are charming. Collec­tively they too often give the impression of treachery. They have made a disaster area out of their in-house London programme-making operation – yet good work continues to escape.

Among the arguments for John Birt’s radical 1996 split between BBC Broadcast (responsible for schedul­ing and commissioning) and BBC Productions,  which has to bid for commissions alongside independent production companies,  were ‘greater focus’ and ‘clar­ity’. But the job is only half done. The BBC should recognise that with politically forced quotas obliging them to create 30 per cent of all network-generated programmes in the regions,  London is just another region.  Metropolitan bias obscures this fact.  Each region should be thought of as a stand-alone produc­tion company wholly owned by the BBC,  with the right but not the obligation to compete for orders across all genres. Each should have a first-look deal,  involving overhead and development funding,  with BBC Broadcast, but be encouraged to thrive by making drama and supplying it to whoever wants to buy it.

The Network Centre and BBC Broadcast should also formalise a similar relationship with their own production people:  they have, de facto,  gone much of the way already. The broadcasters would then have to prove themselves as buyers and presenters of drama;  the production companies as makers and sellers. No excuses.

The whole atmosphere would change. Drama pro­duction would spark with new energy – and the per­ilous experiments embarked upon over the last few years would be complete. The status quo had merit. So does this radical restructuring. What has no merit is to half do a job and then be too intellectually lazy or not have the bottle to follow it through.

When I first knew the Beeb I was the disaffected,  angry teenager and it was the exasperated but indul­gent parent. Now they behave like teenagers – by the look of some of them they are teenagers – and I’m the parent I try to be an understanding one.

There are signs of improvement.  It’s dawning on them at last that they’re not the only game in town.  My first negotiation with the BBC was nearly 40 years ago. It went like this.  Plummy female voice: “Mr Gilchrist-Calder would like you to play the part of Driver Brown.  We are able to offer you a sum of 11 guineas.”

“Thank you very much”

I don’t think my negotiating technique has  improved much since.  Neither has theirs. But there’s a glimmer of realisation now that they’re not just doing us a favour.  That we will no longer be bullied or patronised. That talent, both in front of and behind the camera, makes their wheels  go round. Some people in  there have got the message. They’d better convince  the others before it’s too late.

The pity of it is that all the wrenching changes in there have been made with such crude insensitivity that a loyalty, built up in some of us over decades, has  been strained, and in many cases destroyed.  Loyalty  and a sense of worthwhile common purpose are  things so intangible,  so impossible to quantify – but  they are matters of life and death to a creative enterprise.  It’s time for the healing to start at the Beeb.

More than just stories
As we strive to do well in the face of disappointment and frustration,  it’s worth reminding ourselves why what we do is so necessary. There seems to b a human need to make sense of our experiences; and  the connective tissue between events takes the form of a narrative. We need to tell each other stories – and some of us do it for a living.

The great myths and religions are grand narrative which encompass and account for life itself.  Even psychoanalysis is an exercise in assisted autobiography where a crippling narrative transmutes into one more true to oneself.  We live by stories, our own unique one, and the ones we share with others. They need to be told and re-told,  for without them we are nothing.

The drama we put on the screen is also something  else. It assuages our terrible loneliness. Through the  empathy and imagination of our writers – and ever one involved in this collaborative act – we catch a glimpse of what it is like to be another. Not just “If you cut me, do I not bleed”,  but deeper, in our souls.  It’s  a relief to know that we are not alone and that even our isolated uniqueness we have feelings in common.

None of us is important individually, but what we do sometimes is important.  In the Middle Ages was the Church which put into people’s heads an imaginary world, a world of myth,  a world of meaning  and purpose.  Now it’s television.  We must resist  all attempts to impose doctrine and the straitjacket of the great and the good knowing  what’s best  for us. Our only hope, in this pluralist world,  is to speak the truth to each other   because out of all the truth  will come understanding.