Articles

Setting sites on the Net

NAME: Tony Garnett

DESCRIPTION: Firebrand content provider

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: He’s taking the Internet to new places

 
By ADAM DAWFREY

 

If you think only the young get ob­sessed by the Web, you haven’t met Tony Gar­nett. At 64, after 40 years at the cutting edge of British TV drama, Garnett is flinging himself headlong into the Internet. “If I were 30 years younger. I would proba­bly only be working on the Web now,” he says. “It has the excitement to me that going to the BBC had in 1963-the feeling that we don’t know what’s possible, but any­thing might be.”

His latest BBC2 series. “At­tachments,” is set in the office of a dot-com startup. It has the usual Garnett trademarks – messy people with messy lives, having sex and taking drugs, trying to make sense of it all. What’s new is that the online magazine the show’s characters are producing –  www.seethru.co.uk — is really on the Web, its content evolving as the onscreen drama unfolds.

When the site crashes in the show, it crashes online as well. When a new sales manager is hired, ads started appearing. When the site is hacked into by pornographers – well, you can imagine.  “The game we’re playing with the audience is that the fictional characters they see onscreen are creating the Web site,” Garnett explains. “That means that the production team can’t just create the best Web site they can — they have to create a Web site that’s in character”

In reality, of course, See-Thru is the work of World Prods, the company Garnett runs in partnership with globetrotting financier John Heyman. The site, a 50-50 joint venture with BBC Worldwide, is intended to be a business in its own right, although any profits will go to charity to avoid breaching the pubcaster’s charter.

Heyman is selling the format all around the world, and expects the show (and its local-lingo Web site) to be up and running in seven coun­tries by next summer; including Japan, Spain, France and Germany.

 

In the U.S., where Heyrnan is in the midst of negotiations with three networks, the show will be called “Dotcom,” and the Web site will be DotComDot.com. BBC America will start running the British original in January.

But that’s just the start of World’s Internet ambitions. Gar­nett is retooling the company to become a pioneer in online drama.

Already, a third of its employees are devoted to creating Web con­tent, whether for SeeThru or the its site World-Productions.com. “We’re not in the television busi­ness or the cinema business; we’re in the story­telling business,” Garnett says.

He’s starting with some two-or three-minute segments, with standup comedians playing characters in a pub. He says he’d love to make a five-minute soap, with a fresh episode every day, each one ending on a cliffhanger.

As for the suggestion that Web drama, with its fuzzy pictures. low-rent production values and short attention spans,  might be beneath the man re­sponsible for some of the most challenging TV drama of the past 40 years — well, Garnett utterly rejects it. “I don’t think a Chekhov short story is less valuable for being short. What matters is how truthful the characters are,” he says. “The streaming video over the Web is better quality than what we were transmitting at the BBC when I started.”

It’s a telling comparison. Garnett repeatedly compares what’s happening with the Internet now to the explosion of talent that took place at the BBC in the 1960s, when the pubcaster suddenly doubled its hours and sucked in a huge in­flux of youngsters to fill them. Garnett who started out as an actor was one of these angry young men who revolutionized almost literally, given his left-wing convictions — the staid conventions of screen drama, with such grittily realis­tic work as “Cathy Come Home” (which caused a national outcry about homelessness) and Ken Loach’s working-class master­piece “Kes.”

Later, Garnett took an un­happy detour to Hollywood, where he produced “Earth Girls Are Easy,” gave Amy Pascal (now Columbia Pictures prexy) her first break as his assistant, and learned to value entertain­ment over agitprop. He put these lessons into effect when he returned to Blighty in the 1990s, blending his political consciousness with a new grasp of populist genres to create such series as “Be­tween the Lines” (about police corruption), “Cardiac Arrest” (health care), “This Life” (yup­pie angst) and “The Cops.”

‘Between fact and fiction’

“All my life, I’ve been inter­ested in the relationship be­tween fact and fiction,” he says. At the BBC in the 1960s, the head of current affairs tried to have him fired because “the problems with the dramas I did was that the audience might believe them.”

In “Attachments,” not only do fictional characters produce a real Web site packed with fictional opinions about real events, but the site continues to develop when they are off the air. The show has already been recommissioned, despite disappointing weekly ratings of about 1.5 million (4% share). “Attachments,” although typically well-crafted, may not be the best thing Garnett has ever done – and it remains to be seen whether seethru.com can really take on a life of its own when its development is restricted by close proximity to the show – but the whole package, with its restless spirit of formal experi­ment, is pure Garnett.

He talks with Trotskyite rel­ish about how he recently decid­ed to get rid of management at World: “I believe in leadership and efficient administration. But I don’t believe in manage­ment. It’s a snake-oil salesman rip-off. So I abolished it.”

Garnett has redesigned World as “a home for producers” including talents like Sophie Balhatchet, Ted Childs and Chris Clough. “Companies don’t make shows, individual producers make shows,” Garnett argues. “You shouldn’t try to manage creative people, you should just try to love great work out of them.”

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