Roger Hudson and interviews with Tony Garnett and John Gould
Television in Britain: Description and Dissent
The trouble with any attempt to criticise British television is that it really does justify the claim to be ‘the best TV service in the world’: but the best is not necessarily the best possible, and it’s time some thinking was done on the changes needed. The following collage intersperses a brief history of television drama – what has been tried, what has succeeded and what has failed – with interviews by the editors with producer Tony Garnett and writer John Gould, who describe their personal experiences of television drama.
Tony Garnett was one of the key figures in the early series of Wednesday Plays. As a producer working under Sydney Newman (who as head of drama decided he wanted to focus on contemporary work), with James McTaggart (a director who had been with the BBC for a long time and was responsible for the ‘nursery slopes’ Telly Tales and Studio Four) and with Roger Smith, a writer who became their story editor, he created the now-famous documentary dramas Cathy Come Home, The Portsmouth Defence, Up the Junction, The Big Flame and The Lump. Many of the team went on to form Kestrel Films Ltd., and Kestrel Productions, which, as well as making feature films like Kes, The Body and most recently Family Life, provided drama series for London Weekend Television. Tony Garnett (now working again at the BBC) has strong attitudes about the important place of TV in society, and in the following interview makes some revolutionary suggestions about how to change the system.
John Gould is a television dramatist – not so much one of the big names that everyone knows but a craftsman-dramatist, a scriptwriter, one of those who provide episodes for series and anthologies, chosen by script editors from their lists of known writers able to turn in a workmanlike script that will make good television and satisfy the viewers. John Gould is, in fact, a writer who has to turn work down – someone in a good position to know the pressures and compromises, as well as the potential, of television drama. As chairman of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain he is also well placed to know what worries older writers – and he has strong views on the changes needed in television today.
When it started television recruited from many other media – from straight theatre, from variety theatre, from cinema, from journalism, from radio (drama, news, documentary, light entertainment). Its new practitioners had all the models of these media to choose from and adapt, as well as exploring what original things the medium was capable of. In retrospect the conservatism of what was attempted is distressing, but perhaps that was part of the non-experimental nature of society in the years immediately after the war. The important developments were left to a younger generation of writers and directors who were gradually drawn in, to the technical innovations which increased the flexibility and to new examples from other media.
Early Days of Drama
Plays were basically filmed stage plays, whether created in a theatre of a studio. The dialogue was all-important, the pictures secondary. Most of the writers had learned their trade in theatre, most of the directors (and producers) were ex-theatre directors, not from the cinema, and technical equipment was cumbersome. Programmes could not be recorded so plays had to be broadcast live: thus, a small number of simple sets, a limited number of actors and actresses (for cost as well). Three or four TV cameras would shoot simultaneously, moving closer or further from the action as directed, changing lenses and focusing and framing. All these pictures would be relayed to the control box where the director would select the point at which the vision-mixer should cut from one picture, one camera, to the next. All this would be pre-arranged – the actors’ movements, the camera movements, the moving from one set to the next, the time built in for costume changes. Filming was too expensive for anything but absolutely essential location shots, involving 35mm cameras and full film crews.
Still, this period produced the ‘golden age’ of US television drama (Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling) and of Armchair Theatre at ABC under Sydney Newman, probably the most important figure in British TV drama. Coming form Canada, he set out without preconceptions to commission from interesting established dramatists and writers, and to find new writers wherever they might be. It produced the relatively naturalistic, post-Angry Young Man, new-wave plays of Alun Owen, Clive Exton, and others. Newman moved on to the BBC and was responsible, among other things, for the innovations and experiments of the Wednesday Play team and their documentary dramas The Lump, Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, and the stylized, social comment of Nemone Lethbridge.
Sydney Newman used to say our greatest strength was our ignorance. We didn’t understand or know about the BBC machinery, so we didn’t know about the rules. We didn’t know what a television play was, really. What is a television play, for fuck’s sake? Who cares? One thing we were pissed off with was the way television drama almost exclusively used the kind of naturalism that emerged in the 1890’s in the theatre. It was drama seen as a group of people who would occasionally walk in or out of a door, but while they were together they would sit around and have conversation. Occasionally, because you wanted a bit of action, they would pour a drink. It was just people talking to each other, away from their real world. Other people had broken away from this before us, of course. Z Cars did, as originated by John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin, so did some of James McTaggart’s earlier experimental work, and the Langham Group. So I think we were obviously part of a movement.
We wanted to find a new kind of writer. To do that, you read everything. And invited people who’d never written anything before, perhaps, but who seemed to have something to say. Nemone Lethbridge had never written a play – I had to go to bloody Greece to persuade her to write the play, which in the end was The Portsmouth Defence. And I had to sit down and talk it through with her because she had no confidence in being able to write a play. All I knew was that she had a very kind of detached irony, and knew a lot about the law.
Another case: Roger Smith said to Dennis Potter, who was television critic of The Daily Herald at the time, ‘Write us a play’. So he wrote one. So Roger said, ‘Write us another one.’ Dennis said, ‘What about?’ Well, he was standing as Labour candidate against Derek Walker-Smith in the 18964 election. ‘Let’s have one about that,’ said Roger. Because Dennis could therefore write out of his own experience – he also had something sharp to say about English politics and the way both parties sell themselves like the latest brand of dog food. So Dennis did it, in Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
Or Jimmy O’Connor: he was walking down a corridor at Television Centre, was Jimmy O’Connor, and Roger Smith pulled him into his office and persuaded him to write a play, about some villains. Not just the villains who shin up drainpipes, but the villains who do nice frauds and straighten local councillors for planning permission, and the really interesting, lucrative side of the law, which is not known. And the social pretensions of criminals and so on – all these things Jimmy was able to open out for us. We didn’t know – he told us. We worked on the assumption that what mattered was, had a person got something to say about the world and their relationship with it – it didn’t matter a sod whether they could write plays or not.
We always assumed that the writer’s was the primary creative act, and that, however much we might discuss what we were going to do, and whether an idea originally came from me or from the writer, it didn’t matter how it started. The important thing was, we always used to say to a writer, ‘Okay, go off and do it, and please forget you’ve every seen a television play, if you can. That’s the first thing. Don’t take any models or precedents, and just make the force of the idea and what you want to say dictate how it’s going to be done. Don’t try to pour it into some little jug that you think we’ve got here at the Television Centre. In other words, pose problems for us and we’ll try to solve them. Just go off and do it.’ Luckily, some of them actually grasped the nettle and wrote things which meant we had to make them on location, in real places, all over the place. That started to break down this dramatic form of people just standing around chatting each other up.
It got very exciting because you realised that your life doesn’t consist in sitting down and having verbal conversations with others. There are all sorts of conversations you’re having all the time, and they’re not always using words. And it’s not just with other people – you are actually manipulating the material world and the material world is impinging on you. In fact, you’re part of that material world. In a sense, I suppose, from a Marxist point of view, we were trying to create something from the point of view of a materialist philosophy, where the whole tradition of TV drama previously had been based on an idealistic philosophy, whether they knew it or not. It had all existed in their heads, or at least in the TV studio. And if someone pointed out that what they were doing was not remotely like the real world or anybody’s real experience. they would say, ‘We’re doing art.’ We were very firmly not doing art, right? We were just trying to make sense of the world.
Much of this was made possible by the realization that 16mm filmmaking was quite adequate for TV transmission, was flexible, was not much more costly that studio VTR and meant ACTT minimum crewing, rather than feature film crewing with 35mm. Use of 16mm film meant much greater control of editing by directors (it had been used for documentaries before but not for drama), brought the medium much closer to film, of course – and made possible the innovations of the French nouvelle vague in cinema, which included rapid cutting from scene to scene and shot to shot, encapsulation of action, elimination of linking scenes (car travelling from A to B to show how character got there), very close close-ups, and cinema verité filming with a newsreel quality of actuality and lighting for that effect. In Britain this had reached the cinema screen in some of the Woodfall films, but in television only in a few commercials, which probably did more than anything else to accustom viewers to rapid cutting, a large amount of content, large numbers of pictures in a small space of time, and to a voice-over not directly connected with the pictures. This important development of the wild sound track came most directly from the documentaries of Dennis Mitchell and Norman Swallow.
The whole logic of the scripts we were getting was forcing us to use film and to shoot outside the studios on location. We were interested in social forces and the fabric of people’s lives and the kind of conflicts that go on particularly at places of work, where people spend quite a lot of their lives. It seemed to be driving us towards actually going out there ourselves. Because there’s no argument for doing something at the Television Centre in a studio when you could actually do it where it would be taking place. So we started to push for more film. Also, in being as economical as possible, moving on to a fresh scene whenever the content dictated it, and not feeling we had to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘I’ for the audience: this meant that you needed to cut, your cutting tempo was quicker – which threw the studios into a bit of turmoil, because at that time I think they only allowed us six VTR recording breaks in the hour. We used to act deaf and carry on shooting.
Basically TV drama was continuous performance – the idea being that it’s better for the actors. Of course the real reason was money. It’s much cheaper to rehearse people in church halls with little bits of tape on the floor and then bring them into the studio at the last minute. Of course the management don’t actually say that, because it seems a very philistine thing to say. The only alternative really was to make films. And except on very rare occasions, our team hasn’t been in a studio since the first year of The Wednesday Play. The odd eyebrow was raised because we were filming on 16mm equipment and it wasn’t really the done thing. It was a sort of hangover from the film industry, that proper films were made with 35mm cameras – 16mm was all right for news, but it wasn’t Art.
In the meantime VTR and much lighter more flexible TV cameras and dollies had improved things in the studios, as had the development of stronger lamps and zoom lenses. The main improvement was that, with VTR, plays did not have to go out live, more than one take was possible of each scene or sequence of scenes, and some degree of editing was possible, though this was much cruder than was possible with film. Later developments of improved editing machines for playing back video-tape helped with editing, as did the ability to transfer VTR tape images to film.
All this contributed to several possibilities that have seemed singularly at home on the TV screen rather than on the stage or in the cinema. The interior monologue, the pictures of the imagination, the fantasy life, have come into their own. Starting, probably, with David Mercer’s A Suitable Case for Treatment, in which the mental images of the central character Morgan, his fantasies of Tarzan and Karl Marx and betrayed revolutions, alternate on the screen with pictures of his real life. Mercer’s TV plays especially, with long soliloquies by their central characters, have benefited enormously from this possibility, and from the fact that it communicates readily with the viewer. Another aspect of this is the flashback and flashforward between periods of time in the life of the characters, which, though developed in the cinema, have been exploited much more fully by TV plays. Without this the plays of John Hopkins, especially Talking to a Stranger, could never have been performed.
This period also saw a new generation of directors (and producers) and the search, usually in co-operation with the author, for the right expressive visual image, one which reinforced the dialogue or said something additional, or even, in some cases, replaced a line of dialogue as no longer necessary. One of the best examples of this is (surprisingly) Ken Russell’s Isadora, an arts documentary about the dancer Isadora Duncan, in which, though he followed the events of her life, he made no attempt at a documentary, naturalistic reconstruction, but found images which were often stylized and even surrealist, but which expressed emotional reality succinctly.
The Degradation of the Writer
The hungry maw of TV for scripts, and the ever-present example before writers and non-writers alike of what was acceptable, stimulated a large number of people to try their hand at playwriting. This produced some real talent and some dross, much absolutely unusable; it also produced imitations and a similarity which may have contributed to the lessening viewing figures for single plays. A schoolteacher or professional man seeing plays about people like him written by people like him about the problems of his work, his emotional troubles with his wife, his failure to communicate with his children, decides he can write a play as well. (Possibly people with working-class experience did the same but until the original Wednesday Play series not many found their way to the screen.) Compared with scripts not based on a writer’s personal experience, his script has a vitality which appeals to script editors and directors. Partly because they come from a similar background and situation, the single play of this sort offers them vicarious opportunities to express themselves. But to viewers they blur into an unending succession about fantasising middle-class professional people who have failed in life and in personal relationships and without enough character to do anything about it but dream, without the intellectual power to trace causes to anything other than character weaknesses. The mood and the point is in the lack of action, the failure to act – there is no ‘story’, the ending is inconclusive. Inevitably management, producers and script editors said ‘back tot he narrative,’ and plays returned to the adventure, the detective story, the exceptional – the strong action, murder, rape, theft. The fictional and escapist fantasy takes precedence over the real: and all this of course can be better done by series than by single plays.
This is not the only reason for the decline of the single play. Reaching arrangements with film companies for the purchase and screening of old films, after initial opposition from the film industry, made a big difference. Filling a big chunk of peak screen time for relatively little cost, and without using production space or staff, this was a boon, especially if the film could be repeated. The old films got big viewing figures, too. Pressure on the broadcasting authorities by governments – both by the tail-end of the Labour administration, but increasingly after the Tories returned to power – the more outspoken programmes were toned down, the more politically committed writers, producers, directors, commentators were laid-off or given less controversial things to do (partly under the very real excuse of money no longer being available for experiment or for such large staffs). One obvious economy is on money spent abortively on paying writers for script outline. For first draft, even for final script when the play is never actually completed or never filmed (or sometimes filmed but never screened). Essential for encouraging new talent, it is no longer essential for filling screen time. A sufficient body of capable. Even ‘hack,’ writers has grown up during the short life of television broadcasting to enable script editors to commission plays, whether for single play anthologies or for series, from writers of known performance and ability to deliver a usable script with a very low failure rate. Costs are kept to a minimum but new writers don’t get a look-in.
With the hunt for the mass-audience, the competition between BBC and ITV, and the need to market the product came the growth of the anthology series. Single play series had tended to go under a programme title – Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play – but this had imposed no restrictions on the writer. Management then reached the conclusion that viewers liked to feel they knew what sort of play they were going to see if they switched on. An emotive and exciting sounding title which implied a similarity between plays in the series was introduced. This increasingly limited the range of subjects the contributing writer could select from. From Detective and Out of the Unknown to Wicked Women or No Exit, basically these were single plays, but with some element of plot laid down by the title. On the other hand the writer had the chance of contributing to series like Z Cars, The Avengers, The Troubleshooters where the characters were laid down but they had some say over the story line. Or there were the serials like Compact, Emergency Ward 10, Coronation Street, Crossroads, where both characters and plot might be predetermined.
Plays are the classic or modern theatre plays which now go out at the BBC under the blanket title Play of the Month, and also new plays written specially for television but which are completely self-contained as plays. Series are things like Z Cars and The Troubleshooters in which the characters may continue from one episode to the next, but the story of each episode is complete (in fact nowadays it is often divided into two on consecutive nights). There is no continuing material, all the problems of that episode are resolved, you don’t come to a soft end, you come to a hard end. Serials are something in which the story continues from episode to episode, so that you have to watch the whole lot to understand the story. The adaptations of classic novels are in this category – like Germinal and Dombey and Son, though Coronation Street is also a serial in this sense.
Sydney Newman set up this arrangement at the BBC and it seemed to work then; but walls have since grown up between the different departments so that strange things happen. It was the Plays Department, not Serials, that recently did Casanova by Dennis Potter – a play in six instalments! Presumably they defined it as a long play in six parts, as you can’t screen a 300-minute play. The probable reason is that it needed more money to present properly and Plays Department has a bigger budget than Serials. John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast is another interesting case. It seems that the story editor who received it realized that it was good, but also that the head of her department would almost certainly turn it down. So she took it along the corridor to a script editor in another department, and that department presented it first. But for the initiative of one story editor that play might have been emasculated or turned down. I wrote a play for Out of the Unknown put out by the Plays Department which they turned down as too morbid and sexual – the Series Department, with one very slight modification of one scene because of the time it will go out, have accepted it, and it’s now scheduled. But I had to re-submit it to the Series Department.
The worst aspect is the difference in money allocated. My play now won’t have three days in the studio; it’ll have two. It’ll have about 15% lower budget. I’ve had to cut out about five minutes of filming because they have less filming facilities, and I’ve had to rewrite some of the scenes for interior so they can be done in the studio. And these are all interfering, rubbishy, boring bureaucratic restrictions on me as a playwright.
The system is set up to force you to be a hack writer. Though you don’t have to accept commissions unless they’re interesting. To some extent there’s still a feeling in television left over from Probation Officer and Z Cars that writers can say controversial things within a series, not a single play. So nowadays if I want to say something about men in prison and the pressures and strains they’re under, I would be better off saying it in a series than writing a single play about it. If I were Tony Parker and well known as a penologist it would be different. I could say it in a single play. But I’m John Gould and he’s a series writer. Put it in a little cardboard box, and as long as it’s not more than ten inches wide, it’ll go through the letterbox and it’ll go on the air. This keeps a lot of new writers out of television because the only place for them is the new play slot. And to add to their problems there are plenty of established writer s already filling that. David Mercer, John Hopkins, Ronald Eyre, Jeremy Sandford, Dennis Potter, William Trevor. How many new writers are there among that lot? Play for Today becomes almost an anthology series in its own right with an equally pre-determined set of writers doing something to fill slots. The Writers’ Guild feel there should be more experimental programmes where new writers could be tried out.
I think that the television companies, and particularly the BBC, have gradually taught people to stop matching the single play. Eight years ago Armchair Theatre was commanding a massive audience. The BBC couldn’t put anything on the air that could match it. Yet writers then were no better and no worse than writers today – many of them are the same. The Wednesday Play later on also won massive audiences.
There has been a tendency to forget that plays are meant to be entertaining and a hell of a lot of TV drama isn’t entertaining enough. I think frequently the reason is that the playwright’s original intentions haven’t been carried out, that the production has been so circumscribed by limitations of budget, limitations of imagination, limitations on space for set construction, limitations of casting, that it all gets ground down to a kind of sameness. There’s a strong tendency to economize unnecessarily. You get a play that might cost £20,000 to do properly; the BBC decides, in its wisdom, that they’ve only got £18,000 to spend on it, so they make it for £18,000. You have slightly less good actors, or no filming when it needs filming. They economize rather than spend a bit more money to make people watch. They’ve decided already that it will only get five million viewers so, therefore, it is only worth, say, £15,000. They spend only that much and get their five million viewers. Maybe, if they’d spent the £20,000 that the play needed, they’d have got twelve million viewers. If they’d been spending more money on it, they’d have got a name actor in it, they’d have been more lavish in sets and costumes and production, they’d have spread it from a fifty-minute piece to seventy-five minutes, which is what the playwright intended.
The development of the position of script editor is another phenomenon of the sheer bulk of script material needed to fill the programme time. Development of a script takes a long time, and there is a lot of basic administrative work involved. The producers and directors are too busy on current projects to handle future ones. That’s where the script editor fits in. But he or she comes almost automatically to prevent a direct creative relationship between director and writer at the most important period – a script becomes more a product than something to be given life in a creative relationship between writer, director, actors, cameraman, editor, designer. Pressure of work, reductions of staff and the growth of BBC departments and ITV companies to a great size has increased the factory system for producing programmes of all types, and decreased the time for creative discussion and pre-production experiment inside or outside of rehearsals – even the possibility of a creative team working together regularly on a succession of programmes or plays. This is less serious for documentary and. especially, current affairs programmes, where, by the nature of the programme, scripts tend not to be created by a writer working on his own, but by the producer, directors, editors, commentators sitting round and discussing. But its pressures are doubtless felt.
I reckon the only function a producer or story editor in TV has is to take two, or maybe three decisions. The first is to commission the writer to write a play. Now he must do that with knowledge of that man’s work, or he must take a shot in the dark and say, ‘Alright, I’m prepared to write off half the fee if it’s a failure.’ Having taken that decision he has only two options left. The first is to decide the play is too violent, or too overtly sexual, or the language is too ‘foul’ for TV (I don’t reckon that is a function that he ought to exercise, but it’s one that the ITA and the BBC force upon him.) The second thing he has to decide is – is it entertaining. Now, after he’s taken those two decisions – and he may be wrong about both of them – then the play would go on. There should be no other question of whether it’s good or not. That’s a subjective judgement of one man, it has no relationship to the judgements of a mass audience.
A good story editor can often make very helpful suggestions, and it’s always good to talk over problems with someone whose judgement you respect. There are a few good story editors but a lot of them seem only to look out for what’s wrong with a script, what they can cut, reasons for rejection, rather than trying to find what’s right with it.
Nowadays story editors come from practically anywhere. It’s very alarming. The BBC is now recruiting story editors from its secretaries, its floor assistants. Recently they appointed the secretary of a producer as a trainee story editor – charming girl, terribly pretty and no doubt highly intelligent, but I don’t know what she is doing as the story editor of a work of mine – or, even worse, of Simon Gray. I mean what can she do except write a letter saying, ‘Dear Mr. Gray, thank you for your play. Yours ever.’ And if that is all they want they ought to be appointing story clerks not story editors. A story editor ought to have the experience of scriptwriting as well as of scriptwriters.
The situation today is very bad for new writers and the story editors don’t make it any better. The two slots that are available are Thirty Minute Play and the single-slot play. You can bet the anthology series of plays will come from people like me and Hugh Whitemore, people who are known. The Writers’ Guild stands very much for the principle that new writers must come into the business, because if they don’t we’re all going to be over-writing. If I accepted all the commissions I’m offered, often from people without the imagination to go to someone else, I would write twenty-four plays a year, which is one a fortnight!
The relationship of the mass media of television with the masses it serves is an interesting one. Despite the fact that it must have been clear very early that working class viewers would come to constitute the vast majority of the audience (at first they couldn’t afford the sets, of course), using it as a cheap and ever-available form of entertainment, relaxation and escape, no conscious attempt seems to have been made to find a form of entertainment for them. Of course such an attempt had never really been made by radio (had perhaps been resisted). Television people were not usually from a working-class background, and apart from the variety show they had no popular entertainment models to refer to. It was in the serials and the series where working class life and reality first started to encroach. Early serials like Compact and Emergency Ward 10 were solidly middle class – the equivalent of Mrs. Dale’s Diary (strangely, though, they were set in work situations, the work tending to take a second place to the character conflicts and romances). Then came Coronation Street, originally envisaged as a strictly local programme for the Manchester area, and not expected to have a national audience. But the viewers adopted it and have ensured its survival. What it represented was something recognisable as ‘us’ to the mass of viewers, having a nostalgia for lost community relationships in the years of redevelopment – maybe a substitute for next-door neighbours and street gossip, maybe something of a new dignity at seeing people like oneself presented on TV as worthy of attention – an easing of the problems of life by seeing them presented at this slight remove towards fiction, where they are resolvable.
I told Jim Allen he’d got to choose between being a serious writer and writing on Coronation Street because he couldn’t do both. And he chose to give up a handsome income on Coronation Street in order to try and be a serious writer. I mean that. I don’t think you can write a lot of episodes for a serial like that, doing things absolutely mechanically and technically. I don’t think you get anything for nothing. I don’t think you get paid that kind of money for doing that kind of thing without having to give up something of yourself. A man is a whole man. Trotsky wrote a great piece on this, talking about the difference between doing some jobs like, say, being a plumber or a electrician where you can do your job, and your relationship with the bourgeoisie is detached, in the sense that you can keep yourself. But if you are in one of the bourgeoisie professions, like a lawyer or a doctor, or an artist, they really want you lock, stock and barrel. They want your soul.
I don’t think you can do ‘eee, by gum’ writing for a long time and leave yourself intact. Because you get into a lot of easy short cuts, a lot of mannerisms. You end up devaluing and impoverishing your own imagination. You end up doing it by numbers. This happens to directors and actors as well. Which is not to say you don’t, sometimes, sees some really good acting on Coronation Street – you do. And when I say Coronation St, I mean every serial like that, which runs on and on forever. And occasionally you’ll get a scene that’s been really well written. That makes me sadder than seeing stuff that isn’t well written, because I see there’s a good writer there, trying to get out. But you can’t do it. You get lost in it. Because the only way really to develop as a writer is constantly pitch whatever talent you’ve got against the world and let the two fight it out.
If Coronation St, at least at first, stuck to the low key and everyday disputes of life, Z Cars represented the first hard and clear look at real people – policemen doing a job with feelings about their work and other people that were not governed by some ideal concept of the father-figure, law-preserver in Dixon of Dock Green, criminals motivated by the real suffering of being poor, needing money for real social reasons, not from a psychological kink that makes them fictional or romantic – and a hardness and speed of dialogue sounding like a real people talking (though of course compressed and simplified in actuality).
Changes were gradually made, pressures were applied. Writers couldn’t keep it up, events became romanticized, characters and relationships softened. But the impact of these two series has effected single shot drama and documentary ever since.
If you could change the system …..
I would like to see all the artificial categories abolished. Writers are typecast according to the categories into which plays are divided now: single plays, series and serial. At the BBC this is even institutionalized, in that a different department within the Drama Department deals with each. Once you’ve written a number of series episodes you get pigeonholed in the minds of story editors and producers as a series writer, which you’re not – you’re a writer.
Another major change I’d like to see – more equity in terms of money. I don’t mean money I get paid, but in terms of the type of programme. I see no reason why your untried, new directors should work for minimum budgets for serials while your middle-range, sometimes very good, directors work for middle-range budgets in series, and that you should then push the boat out with an immense splash because the thing is called a play, especially when it is clearly not a play. The amount of money spent on The Six Wives of Henry V111 (Six ‘plays’ put out by Plays Department) was very considerably greater than the total amount of money spent on the series anthology of plays about Henry V11 (The Shadow of the Tower) put out by the Series Department in thirteen episodes. There is some form of ghetto thinking in the BBC that says if you’re that kind of writer you can have that kind of money for your play, and if you’re that kind of writer you can have that kind of actor for your play. There are typecast actors as well as typecast writers. I think it’s appalling. I think the anthology series is one of the most powerful weapons created for the destruction of original playwriting. It’s like putting a nozzle on a fountain in order to point it in a particular direction – and it might produce a pretty stream of water but I don’t think it’s doing much good to anybody.
I would like to see no story editor employed who did not have the actual power to take executive decisions like ‘I will commission you’ or ‘I will accept your play’. A lot of story editors nowadays are merely front men for a producer who is in turn a front man for his Head of Department. And, in fact, the line of people who can say ‘no’ to the broadcasting of a play runs right up though Controllers of Programmes to the top. If writers are going to work with story editors, the degree of co-operation and trust must be so great that you can get the right kind of results that I got with one play that I delivered last year. The editor finished reading it in his bath in the evening, reached out for the phone, rang me and said, ‘I’ve just finished reading it. I will accept it.’ The following morning, he put through the necessary chit. If I ring up and say, ‘I’ve suddenly decided – you know we had that conversation about XYZ – I’ve decided to cut X and Y and it’s going to be a play about one man Z, is that O.K.?’ I wan that editor to be able to say, ‘Yes, of course, if that’s what you want.’ At least then I know that when I deliver the thing I won’t have a lot of people standing around in a shocked circle, raising their hands up in horror and saying, ‘That’s not what we asked for.’ So I’d like to see story editors with executive powers.
The BBC could also spend more on publicity. I mean, God knows the theatre and the cinema spend millions on publicity. The BBC put one little piece in the Radio Times. And they still rarely use trailers for their own programmes to tell viewer’s what’s coming on later in the evening or the following day.
I’d like to see total fluidity of scheduling, so that plays don’t get forced into a thirty-minute spot or a fifty-minute spot. At one time plays used to be ninety minutes on average, then they got chopped back to seventy-five minutes and now they’re more usually fifty minutes. And fifty minutes is just about enough time to tell a story when you’ve got some characters well established and the audience is hooked – but not much more.
One of the things the Writers’ Guild has been pressing for most strongly in the setting up of ITV2 – if it is going to be ITV2 – is that there should be great fluidity of scheduling, so that if you have a play slot, it is just a play slot with no pre-determined length. The Writers’ Guild would also like to see many more opportunities for new writers.
The only way to cope with TV is to realize that the Television Act of 1954 was a disaster, to abolish commercial television altogether and to have a number of autonomous public corporations, which would compete when it’s good to compete and complement and co-operate when it’s sense to do that. And it would be worked out quite pragmatically. Once we’ve got the principles right, let’s be flexible in the way we work.
Then, within that system, you could create the opportunity for the professionals to make shifting creative relationships based on security of work (because I don’t believe in unemployment). It would be indisputable that from Head of Department upwards everybody should be elected. I think there should be some sort of sanction from other professionals, and not just a hierarchy of bosses. For producers like me, it might be arguable whether we should be elected. I would be happy to stand by that. I mean, I don’t want to work with people who want to get rid of me but can’t because I happen to have been appointed.
I don’t know how far the democratic principle could be adhered to. I don’t think a committee should sit to decide which way the next scene of David Mercer’s play should go. But I think it would be good if I had to earn the right to work with other people, and they had the right to work with me. And so people would find their own levels and their own positions. It wouldn’t be taken for granted that a writer or a director or a cameraman or an editor would be on my team. They might day, ‘Well, piss off, I’m going somewhere else, because you’re not doing the kind of thing I want to do, or I don’t like your standards’.
One would have to discuss how many people are allowed in the industry at all, and how you would select them. But assuming anybody who’s allowed to be in the industry is secure in his employment, then you could have these fluid, shifting creative relationships and people could move from one company to another or one part of a company to another absolutely at will, as they find each other, because a lot of creativity is talent finding each other and fitting in and working together. And it should be a natural process if there’s no bureaucratic distortion – if there’s none of this ‘ownership’ by group heads saying, ‘I’m not letting him out off my department – I’ve got him on a two year contract.’ What a lovely way to work that’d be. A programme of work would be terrific, a two or three-year programme of work where you do get group of people who really want to work together. We’d grow out of each other occasionally or want a rest, or somebody’d want to move off and do something else. Maybe that cameraman wants to direct, or that assistant editor can actually edit one for himself.
I’m not talking about what things might be like if we had real Socialism. Obviously the most important thing is the way resources are disposed and that’s a central government decision. A society as a whole has to decide how much of the nation’s wealth should go into nursery schools and how much into TV and how much into capital investment in a new steel plant – and how much to automate Dagenham to relieve those poor comrades who are working the night shift. But once we’ve decided how much we’ve got to spend, then there’d have to be some relationship between with the community. I think there’d be Joint Councils of Management, running each of the television corporations. These councils would consist of one representative of the central government, and elected people working in the industry, and elected members of the community, pretty evenly balanced, fighting it out. And if that means a few Mary Whitehouses for a start, then I’m afraid we’re going to have to have it – I can’t see any alternative to the democratic principle here. But certainly in internal appointments of jobs, I think that the elective principle should hold. And I think people would be surprised: the best men and women would be elected.
Every night would have a much more arbitrary air to it, less predictable: it would try genuinely to respond to what was going on in the world. There would be fixed points. You could sit down and watch a certain programme at a fixed time which is a convenient thing to be able to do, but there would be part of the evening where you just wouldn’t know what to expect. It would be a bit rougher than it is now- cruder, more direct.
Another thing there’d need to be would be ‘nursery slopes,’ programmes where you could try out new things, where new people could try their hand without risking breaking their leg. And of course, the right to fail would be built into the whole structure.