Archive • Interviews

THIS LIFE, THIS ART

Published in Wanted Now! – March 2001

IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY PRODUCER OF WORKPLACE DRAMAS, TONY GARNETT, ELIN WILLIAMS ASKS:
WHAT CAN YOU LEARN ABOUT JOBS FROM THE TELLY?

Exclusive? Legendary? Come off it. You shouldn’t take the words that journalists use at face value, any more than you should take careers advice from prime-time drama. Sex on the boss’s desk. Drugs and death in the toilets. Naked skateboarding in the office. Cybersex, straight, gay or any which way. Evil e-mails and naughty newsgroups. These are the stuff of pure fiction, surely. Work isn’t anything like that in real life. Or is it? Good old doctorjob dispatched me to ask Tony Garnett. He should know. After all, he made these programmes. Are they figments of a fevered imagination? Or are they grounded in research and reality? Can graduate careers really be that interesting? So many questions…

WANTED NOW! How do you go about making gripping drama out of the mundane business of work?

Tony Garnett Well, you don’t make drama out of people’s work, unless the work itself is inherently dramatic – or at least unless you can convince the audience that it’s dramatic. That’s why ‘cops and docs’ are the staple genres, because their work can be a matter of life and death. Of course, most medicine isn’t and most cops say that 95 per cent of their work is boring. But through a process of distillation and compression, you can create drama.

WN! Why do you think that work-based drama is increasingly popular?

TG We seem now to be in a world where you’re either overworked or out of work. Those with jobs tend to spend more and more time in the workplace or socialising with colleagues, at the same time as family and community ties are apparently loosening. The statistics show that more and more people are finding romance or their partners at work. So if you’re putting together a drama about the relationships the workplace becomes a potential milieu. I don’t just mean sexual relationships either. It’s a good way of showing the ups and downs of friendship or situations of power and intrigue.

WN! Sounds a cinch. Are there any pitfalls to this workplace drama lark?

TG Of course you have to be careful about how much of the work itself you show! And you have to be careful too about how you define workplace drama. I mean, the characters in Shakespeare’s histories were just doing their job! It’s funny too that there’s been no soap that succeeded in the workplace, unless you count Crossroads.

WN! Are there any jobs that you won’t touch?

TG Yes. Showbiz and journalism, because of the attitude of the press towards ‘luvvy-dom.’

WN! But surely solicitors must have pretty boring and undramatic before you did This Life. How on earth did that all begin?

TG The controller of BBC2 got in touch with me (and probably a few others too). He wanted a low-cost drama about people leaving university and starting their first jobs. It was largely about demographics – he wanted a younger audience. Just as an aside, he asked if they could possibly be lawyers. As far as I was concerned, they could have been anything.

WN! Don’t you think you were guilty of making law appear a sexier, more glamorous career than it really is?

TG No, absolutely not. We didn’t have any courtroom scenes. And the young solicitors’ cases were mind-boggingly boring – so much so that Egg had to leave his job. We showed barristers penniless and in an insecure career. Yes, the characters were glamorous insofar as they were fictional and on television, but that’s where it ended. I didn’t glamorise it.

WN! Amy Jenkins, who wrote This Life, was a trainee solicitor. But did you have any other legal advisers?

TG For This Life we had a lawyer with us all the time. But our problem in show after show is that you hire a relevant expert. They have a clear-cut opinion about what could or could not happen. Then you get someone else in and they have totally different view.

WN! So do you have any other research? Work shadowing for example..

TG Most work that I do research based. I sent the actors and writers of Attachments out to real Internet companies. We did the same thing with Cops. Try getting out of a police car with all that gear on. Unless you practise, you can’t do it convincingly. Mind you, I tell them to go out and research, research, research… then some back and make it up!

WN! Even after all that some critics accused Attachments of being ‘unrealistic’. Does that matter?

TG I think that some people confuse ‘unrealistic’ with ‘unrepresentative’. The truth is that all these strange things probably have happened at work at some time. But maybe not quite so pithily – and not with five rewrites either! When you distil and compress events, they don’t seem quite so ‘realistic’ any more.

WN! How did Attachments begin?

TG That came from my own interest in the relationship between new media and the ‘old’. I was also interested in dramatising people facing the big three-oh. Life gets more serious then. I also like the idea of creating the website for real too. It became a bit of ironic game, with a deliberate mix between fiction and reality.

WN! Doesn’t that get a bit weird for you too?

TG This company is now one-third new media, so yes we do feed our own real-life experiences back into it. But some of our current online projects are just for research purposes, rather than for making money. We’re in the job of telling stories and entertaining people, so we’re interested in the possibilities that the Internet creates. We’re having fun and seeing what it can tell us.

WN! And where is Attachments going next? You certainly left a lot of things unresolved at the end. And what about the much publicised decline of the dotcom?

TG Attachments is back in September – with big changes and all sorts of things happening. We’ll certainly respond to the dotcom fall-out too. But in real life things don’t get resolved anyway. Our audience – probably mainly young, educated people – are sophisticated. We don’t like to make things too easy for them.

WN! Will there be a third series?

TG I only do the first two series of anything. This Life was only 32 hours of a viewer’s life, but it was two years of mine. That’s enough for anyone. They could carry on with someone else as executive producer, but we’ll see.

WN! Finally, a question about your own job. What on earth does ‘executive producer’ mean?

TG In my case it means that I gather talented people all around me and I get the credit, while they do the work. Someone’s going to find me out one day! In fact, mine is a very hands-on role, as I always work with first time producers, training them up as we make the programmes. But in general, ‘executive producer’ could mean absolutely anything or nothing. As they say in Hollywood, the son-in-law also rises.

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