Dept. F&D, Uni of Reading, 24 November, 1998.
I’ll begin with the usual disclaimer. The Cops is like any other show, collaborative and social, so if I use the first-person this afternoon, you should regard it as just ‘shorthand’.
Increasingly now, I get young people around me who are long on talent and long on enthusiasm but very short on experience. Whatever criticisms you have, I hope you’ll voice them, though I should make it clear that any faults are probably down to me. But I’m very proud of The Cops: the courage of the generation I’ve been working with on the show has been remarkable. They’ve been asked to do things that have broken all the rules. In an insecure world where people aren’t sure where their next job is coming from, or even if there will be a next job, they’ve shown a great deal of boldness in following the unknown.
It might be a good idea to start by talking about how and why The Cops came about. It’s a show I’ve had playing in my head for three or four years, and it would have been made earlier if I hadn’t had a phone call from Michael Jackson who was Controller of BBC 2 at the time. Jackson said he wanted a low-budget, late-night, post-watershed drama for and about young people. He was worried about the demographics of BBC 2 as compared with the reputation of Channel Four; at that time, people thought that BBC 2 was rather like an old-fashioned department store with Channel-Four as ‘The Gap’, as it were. Jackson wanted to change the demographics of BBC 2, change his audience, and he asked whether I’d be interested in doing a show that would appeal to young people and, by the way, could the show be about lawyers? That turned into This Life which took up over two years of my life and which delayed the making of The Cops.
When BBC 2 told me that I could go ahead with The Cops, I was lucky because Mark Thompson, the new Controller, needed the show to be different: with every other channel having cop shows, questions would be asked about why BBC 2 was doing one unless it was different in some way. This was an invitation to me to do more or less what I wanted. You don’t often get these chances in television; there are not many times in your working life when you get that kind of support. So, again, if there’s anything wrong with the show, I can’t blame the BBC because they have actually been quite supportive over the last twelve months.
I wanted to try to do, or begin to do, some of the following things.
First of all, as a cop show, I thought it would be interesting to deal with uniforms rather than CID. If you deal with CID in television or in the cinema you enter into a number of cliches from the outset. You usually have to start with a dead body, or with a serious crime, before going into police procedures and finally solve the crime. That’s usually the structure if you deal in CID. If you’re not very careful, that draws you towards a highly conventional, traditional way of telling the story. I wasn’t interested in that structure or in those conventions, so I decided that we’d concentrate almost exclusively on uniform: also, we would try, first of all, to reach the human beings behind the uniform.
Secondly, we wanted to try to do a show which seemed on the surface to be following a shift, or eight hours work of a number of people, and later on this afternoon, I’ll talk about narratives: how we tried to ‘bury’ them, how we failed, and also how we succeeded. It was an opportunity to experiment with form and, specifically, with narrative form.
The other thing I was interested in sprang from the fact that I didn’t really, in a way, want to do a cop show at all; I didn’t want to do just another police procedural. What I really wanted to do was a show that allowed us to go into parts of our society that are not shown on television, and which are not the experience of the middle class who are watching. Now if I’d gone to the BBC or Channel Four and said ‘I’d like to do a series about social workers’, or whatever, they’d have thrown me out of the room. But if I go in and say, T want to do a show about cops’, or docs (the two major genres), then their reaction is enthusiastic. They’re very interested then because the audience seems to like cops and docs; however many of them there are on television, there always seems to be an audience for them. So I thought, if we do this show in uniforms, I can get the show up and I can get an audience to watch it – but the uniforms will take us into parts of society that we don’t usually enter.
It’s ‘Trojan Horse’ drama in a way.
The next thing that I wanted was to further some experiments in the way we shoot and edit and to experiment in our whole approach to form and style. These are some of the things that have interested me since the 1960s, and although I’ve had one or two adventures and experiments in other forms (such as a Hollywood movie I produced called Earth Girls are Easy, and another big, more traditional Hollywood movie, plus one or two other things), most of my life I’ve been trying to work and struggle and make sense of the broad tradition in this country of social realism. It’s not a fashionable thing in which to still be interested, but it still interests me. Together with Ken Loach and other directors, right from the early days, through Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home, and so on, all the way through Law and Order and other shows, most of the time I’ve been interested in the willing suspension of disbelief: how to create a show where you enter into this conspiracy with an audience where they will gladly suspend their disbelief because it feels real.
Now, you have to keep changing what you do in order to convince the audience. As you know, when the cinema first started and got its grammar together, and Hollywood invented seamless editing, you were drawn into and accepted the conventions, and you were drawn into the action. But now, when you watch that kind of shooting and editing, you know you’re watching a movie. People are so cine-literate now. It’s even more complicated on television where a piece of dramatic fiction is watched in the whole context of a number of other kinds of shows. In addition, nearly all of them are, for want of a better word (and a word we might question), ‘factual’: news; newsreel footage from Angola; football; chatshows – somebody’s actually sitting there talking; documentaries (even though there’s so much guile in the making of them, nevertheless people are shooting several real people rather than actors). Also, because the gear has become more flexible, the techniques of documentary and factual programming have moved further and further away from the way that fiction is traditionally shot and edited. So that when you watch a piece of dramatic fiction on television now, as opposed to thirty years ago, it sticks out. Almost every drama stands out from every other kind of television, and you know from the way it’s structured that you’re watching ‘a drama’. If you’re working in a tradition of social realism, this makes things much more difficult.
So one of the things that I’ve been struggling with in the last few years, which again is something that we were struggling with way back in the 1960s, is the question of how to create a style which is not only appropriate to the content, but which draws the audience in so it actually feels that it can play the game with you. They know it’s fiction, there’s a cast-list and a line of credits at the end, but how do you make it easy for an audience to be drawn into it for a while so that they enjoy the feeling that during the 50 minutes that the show is running, they are watching events that happened anyway? It just so happened that there was a camera there at the time.
So with The Cops we tried something new. In traditional filmmaking, to oversimplify, you shoot on two axes and different focal lengths, and you don’t cross the line, so that you can intercut and play with the scene in any way you want to. The camera is always in at least two places in each scene, or continuous piece of action. One of the rules that I imposed upon The Cops was that this traditional set-up wasn’t allowed. So the show is almost wholly shot on one axis as though what was being enacted was an unrepeatable event.
That creates enormous problems, but it also taught us a great deal. There are occasional exceptions to the one-axis rule in the 8 hours of The Cops, for example, in the scene where the sergeant sings Karaoke, we shot with two angles because, actually, if you were going out to shoot that for a documentary and you were following a whole lot of cops on a night out, you’d take two cameras with you. But very rarely have we done that. Sometimes, you’ll see a cut, but it’s actually a jump- cut, a time cut; so, for instance, if there was somebody going around here now shooting what we were doing in this room this afternoon, and I was talking at length and they actually only wanted about two minutes of it, then they would just cut in- between. You’d have a jump, and we’ve done plenty of that on The Cops.
All 8 hours of the show is shot with a hand-held camera but not in order to do wobbly-scope! The instruction to the operators was that we wanted it to be as rocksteady hand-held as possible. At the same time, though, we told them that we were going to put them into very difficult situations and that they were going to have to pull focus and move around and react quickly to events. We told them that the result would be a bit rough around the edges occasionally, but that this wasn’t to be turned into a mannerism; we wanted them to shoot as well as possible. You will tell me whether it’s been worth it or not. I’ve got some mixed feelings and I’m learning as we go. A lot of people can’t stand all the backs of heads, but it would break the rule if we used the two cameras necessary to avoid that. Obviously, though, the camera can move around.
From the writer’s point of view, The Cops is difficult because there is not one scene that we’re taken to other than by the police. We are always with the police; we always follow the police. As you probably realise, it’s very difficult to tell stories that way; usually, you would want to cut away to somewhere else, then cut back to the police, then cut somewhere else, and then you can push the narrative along. We can’t do that because it would break the rule.
So there’s a political and social agenda in the sense that we’re trying to show things that really are the other side of ‘Blair’s Paradise’, and this is even more true of the next series. Also, from a filmmaker’s point of view, there is an agenda where we’re trying to learn what it’s like to do a film where these rules are imposed, and to see whether the result is experienced by the audience as being more ‘real’.
I’m going to stop now, because I want to be led by you.
What kind of research was the show based on; did you work closely with the police to learn about procedure and the way that they operate in general?
Tony Garnett: This connects with what I was saying about working in the tradition of social realism. What I’ve said all my life is that we go out there and we research and research and research: then we come back and make it up, because we work in fiction. But if we don’t go out and research and research and research, what’s going to happen if the writer’s imagination isn’t feeding on a direct observation of the subject matter is that he or she is going to be feeding off episodes of The Bill or American cop movies. After all, the imagination has got to feed off something. So I insist that the writers have to go and draw from the well; no-one is allowed to write for this show who hasn’t spent at least two weeks out with the cops – night-shift, day shift, out drinking with them, the lot. I make the directors and all the actors do the same.
The actors’ rehearsal, apart from working on the biographies of their characters, was out there with the real cops. I didn’t want actors who had no idea about even how to put on the uniform. It’s the practical things that matter: how do you get in and out of a car with all that equipment around you? What are the techniques? How do you arrest somebody? How do you talk to somebody? I wanted them actually out there doing it, and not just rehearsing their lines.
I don’t do much of this hands-on observation work myself because one of us has to be able to see the wood for the trees. One of us has got to be able to say, ‘I don’t care if it actually happened; I don’t care if this happened at 4 a.m. and it was pissing with rain and you had a terrible night. That’s no excuse because it doesn’t actually work in the narrative’.
Are the characters loosely based on real policemen?
Tony Garnett: Not so loosely! There are some cops in Preston who recognise themselves in the characters.
Such is the hostility to the show in the Lancashire police force that we’ve now lost all co-operation; we’ve got to make the next series without them. The cops on the ground are generally quite happy with the show, but the brass hate it.
Something else has emerged, something that I could never have predicted: it’s a type of prissiness, in a way. Some of the cops up there are saying that one of the reasons why they won’t co-operate anymore is that they can’t watch the show with their wives because they find the ‘language’ embarrassing! The double-standard here is astonishing; at work, they eff-and-blind, but when they go home they don’t want their wives to think that they use language like that.
Tony Garnett: You’ve always got to take that into account. They don’t perform as much as if you were actually shooting them, which is the great problem for documentaries. Even with us, yes, they did perform a little, and they suggested stories and scenes: ‘Let’s do a drug-bust’! There’s nothing that you can really do about this except try to take it into account. Also, being with them for a long enough time reduces the problem; they may perform for you for one night, but over a couple of weeks they can’t ‘perform’ for you in the same way.
Why did you select Lancashire as the location for the show? And given the problems you’ve been having with the Lancashire Police’s reaction to the show, couldn’t you just relocate for the next series.
Tony Garnett: We wanted to set The Cops in a small town rather than in a big city. We decided to shoot in Bolton simply because it was convenient, though it’s not about Bolton.
The problem with relocating for the next series is that the police world is a small world.
Preston co-operated in the beginning because they have a policy of positively working with television police shows; firstly, most cop-shows are very good for the police force’s image since they show it in a creditable light; secondly, the shows are going to be made with or without Police input, so they think that they may as well help the crews get the details right.
Stephen Lacey: One of the things that strikes me in particular about the show is that the characterization is becoming quite complex. For example, Roy is particularly interesting because in another type of cop-show, you’d be able to label him easily as ‘bad egg’. Yet we see him here at certain points behaving in a very humane way
Student: This is true of all the characters. At first, I thought that not one of them was redeemable, but now that we’re getting to know them better, we can see that all of them have good and bad points; they’re just human, and you grow with them. But when I first starting watching it, it was one of my criticisms because I thought how dare they all be so hateful!
Tony Garnett: Of course, some people would say that we’ve actually been far too kind to them. And I’m very worried about us going soft.
Picking up on Stephen’s point, it’s an old Hollywood rule that audiences need to root for the leading character. You’ll occasionally get a JR, but most of the time the audience will want to be behind the leading character. There’s a limit to the size of the audience for a show that doesn’t allow them to do that.
Student: What happens in most cop shows, though, is that you have one bad character and he’s eventually rooted out: but in The Cops, they’re ALL bad!
Tony Garnett: In a sense, what you’re talking about is the ‘bad apple in the barrel’ theory that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and other Chief Constables would like us to believe. They say, ‘Well, there’s always one bad apple in the barrel’. Well, we’re not buying into that. We’re saying that these people are human with faults and qualities that are not immediately revealed when you meet them. There is a human being behind the uniform. Also, people don’t realise that there’s an extraordinary range of people who join the Police. Several graduates join the Police now, a lot of people who have gone through tertiary education of one kind or another, and not only is there a great deal of variety in the type of people who join the Police, people with weaknesses and strengths, but it’s a peculiar job. It bestows arbitrary power because of the uniform.
Student: But these are just normal people.
Tony Garnett: That’s one possibility, but I still don’t know whether people who join up change a little because of the arbitrary power they’re given, or whether the arbitrary power attracts a certain kind of person. And people join for all sorts of reasons; the power, the job security, or, like one of our young cops, because he likes the idea of being able to tear his identification number off his shoulders and get stuck in hammering a few football supporters.
TAPE ENDS; ABOUT 15 MINUTES LOST INCLUDING SECTION DISCUSSING THE SHOW’S LINKS WITH DOCU-SOAP AND THE SELECTION OF THE ACTORS. RECORDING RESUMES AFTER THE BREAK.
Student: I find Sergent Giffen one of the most interesting characters, but I’m surprised that his past hasn’t been explored more yet: is it going to be in later episodes?
Tony Garnett: Yes, but I don’t want to give it away. Shall I? [A resounding ‘Yes’ from the group]. He used to be in the Met; you’ll immediately know a little about what’s coming if I tell you that he used to be a detective at Stoke Newington where the most efficient drugs business in the area was run out of the nick. There was also an unexplained death at Stoke Newington; a black guy died and there was a trial and a big scandal in the wake of it. For legal reasons, we’ll probably have Giffen’s past connected with Tottenham, but what’s going to be revealed is that Giffen was involved in the whole scandal and subsequently resigned before he was himself nicked. His wife, some sort of high-powered executive with Marks & Spencer, then left him so he goes to live near Blackpool to look after his mother who’s been unwell. He then re-joins the Police and keeps his head down because he obviously doesn’t want the past to catch up with him. He’s a disappointed man and he just wants to get his time in, do the job, and not get into any trouble.
Giffen was in the Met at a time of fairly widespread institutional corruption. It’s not so bad now, but this is what would happen then: if you were in uniform and you wanted to get into the Detective Branch, you would go in on probation in plainclothes. You were put in the charge of a Detective-Sergeant who, after a few months, would have to say whether you were detective material or not. One of the first things they would do is send the probationer to talk to someone who would then hand him a bribe. If the probationer was unhappy about this and said that he didn’t wanted to get involved in bribe-taking and was going to report it, his superior would tell him that he was already involved because he’d witnessed him taking the bribe. If the probationer then accepted this situation, his superiors would gradually corrupt him more and more, and at the end of the probationary period, they’d report that he was detective material. If, on the other hand, the probationer had resisted corruption, they’d reject him for the Detective Branch. So there was really no alternative, and instead of ‘one bad apple in the barrel’, corruption in the Met used to be systemic. It wasn’t just the Met, of course; look at the West Midlands Crime Squad which had to be completely disbanded.
Giffen grew up in this climate, and now he just wants to keep his head down and get through until he can collect his pension.
Student: But despite keeping his head down, he does become involved in •political* issues, such as defending Mei in the latest episode .
Tony Garnett: He’s looking after his own people.
MMK: We saw a little last night about the potential difficulties of being female in the Police: is this something that you’re going to develop in any way?
Tony Garnett: A little in the next series, but we’re wary of it because it would be so easy just to give a knee-jerk liberal reaction to the issue of sexual harrassment. And this just wouldn’t be true because the Police have been bending over backwards to address this problem. What we are going to see in the next series is something more subtle, a character using her gender to get what she wants so that we can show that the whole question is something of a double-edged sword. Also, I don’t really want to go too far into this area because we addressed it on Between the Lines.
MMK: How about the problem women police officers experience in attempting to gain promotion into the higher ranks: will you be looking at that?
Tony Garnett: That problem won’t be featuring in our show because we’re only dealing with police constables and sergeants. Anyone higher-ranked than that is only a peripheral character. But we are opening the new series next year with the highly- ambitious Natalie who’s taking her Sergeant’s Exam.
Stephen Lacey: One of the characteristics of the series is its resistance to traditional gender stereotypes: Natalie is the hardest, harshest character in the series in many ways.
Tony Garnett: She’s also the object in a highly abusive relationship. In the next series, she’s going to try and leave Alan (a Detective-Sergeant), and she’s going to find that leaving him is a great deal more difficult than she anticipates because if you’re in that type of abusive emotional relationship, you have to deal with something very deep inside you which has caused you to get into the relationship in the first place. To extricate yourself from such an unhealthy relationship, you have to deal with that. We’ll be covering this in the next series, and we’re not intending to redeem Alan in any way!
Student: One thing; that shocked me so much in this series was seeing the policeman beating up his student girlfriend; this is the type of thing that we just don’t see on television.
Tony Garnett: We also had a black character who we actually saw slapping his wife and knocking her to the ground. He wasn’t written as a black character; his race wasn’t actually identified in the script.
Student: But the fact that he was black wasn’t part of the issue, was it? Tony Garnett: No, it wasn’t the issue at all and it was never mentioned; and this is something else that we’re doing more and more. In fact, just by chance, episodes 4, 5 and 6 were directed by a young black director, Alrick Riley; he found the actor and selected him, and why not? He wasn’t written as a black character. But the fact that the character was black just wasn’t mentioned because it wasn’t an issue. And when it ceases to be an issue with everybody, then we will have come a long way. But there’s a great deal of callow, unthinking, liberal political correctness amongst people in television, and it’s to the detriment of everyone.
Jonathan Bignell: You mentioned something earlier about ‘burying’ narratives: could you expand upon this a little more?
Tony Garnett: This is something that we haven’t got quite right yet, and we have made mistakes, but it’s something that we’re finding very difficult.
Conventionally, an episode in a drama series will set a hare running at the top of the show and catch it at the end. That will be ‘A’ story and you may also have ‘B’ story and ‘C’ story, and they’ll be resolved at the end. If the show is on commercial television than you’ll work something up to the ad-break. With most dramas now, you can almost predict the way the story will go; it’s rather like going to the movies with the classic Hollywood three-act structure where you introduce the leading character or, in a romantic comedy, you have a “cute-meet”. After about thirty minutes you have an act-break, then you have the second-act ‘complication’ followed after twenty minutes or so by the second-act break. Then you start leading towards the climax and begin to wrap it all up. You can follow the structure on your watch!
It’s getting like this on television. To me, that gets in the way of believing what you see. The ambition in The Cops is for the audience to spend 50 minutes with one of our shows having the feeling that they just happen to be following a group of cops through an 8-hour shift. Whatever happens, happens: if nothing happens, then nothing happens.
That’s what we want viewers to feel, but, obviously, if that’s all we did, we’d completely lose the audience. So the idea is to have some narratives, but ‘bury’ them in such a way that they’re not obvious. One of the things we do that goes with the grain of most cop’s daily life is that we show not much happening: we show a situation where there isn’t that much crime, and where what crime there is doesn’t get solved; or the criminals are brought in and then get released, or they’re brought to court and then let off. The Police spend a lot of time on paperwork, or they sit around with not much happening, then there’s a little bit of action, but that’s it really.
Student: One of the things I’ve noticed is that what little action there is is directly or indirectly related to situations that the police have themselves caused. Tony Garnett: Yes – you’re not supposed to notice that quite so much, so that’s a failure! We wanted to make little links, but without them being obvious or ‘on the nose’. We did this on Between the Lines and on This Life. When we started doing This Life, we realised that most of the stuff related to the law firms was boring: unless it was sexual politics at work or in a case, it was yawn time. So we then started to get our writers and legal advisers to come up with suggestions of cases that somehow resonated with the problems that our characters had that week. To give too obvious an example, if Anna was finding it difficult to score some dope, somebody else would be defending someone on a dope charge. The attempt was to make one thing resonate with another. But if you do it too obviously, this can get very pat, so the question is, how do you do that obliquely?
There’s got to be some narrative running through an episode; there’s got to be some narrative tug to pull you through the 50 minutes because otherwise you’re not going to stay with the show. Our audience is always going to be limited anyway because we’re not giving them clear narratives so they’re going to find it difficult to watch if their favourite show is Heartbeat, for example.
Basically, we’re playing with the question of how to set up a narrative without it seeming that we have set up a narrative. We also sometimes set up ‘blocks’ of narrative and then go somewhere else so that it feels more like the daily work of these people rather than they being the servants of some big narrative.
Student: At the same time, though, in a storyline where a constable goes to a house to sort out a ‘domestic’ where an ex-wife hasn’t returned the daughter on time after a visit, and nothing much seems to come out of that situation, you know that something must eventually come out of it because otherwise we wouldn’t have been taken there in the first place. You know that it’s been put there for a reason.
Tony Garnett: Yes, we have to pay off that situation because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing ‘drama’ at all. An audience wouldn’t forgive us for not paying it off. So the question is, how do we pay it off? In fact, that was probably the most conventional narrative of the whole series, and the most popular because it was so conventional: can he get her to the hospital on time, will he save her? It was more like an episode of any other drama, and, for that reason, maybe wasn’t right for this show.
Jonathan Bignell: It must be easier to have a looser structure when you have a cast of several characters.
Tony Garnett: In some ways, but it’s also more difficult because you have to keep so many balls in the air. You can cut easily between them which is useful, but then you’re in danger of having a very bitty show. Again, only the most sophisticated audiences will live with that. Audiences tend to like linear narratives; they like to see what Robson Greene is doing this week! Well, so do I; I’m not putting it down because sometimes I like that too.
Quite often, it’s a struggle to watch The Cops-, it’s hard work and it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, after a hard day’s work, I just want to be entertained. We’ve all had this experience where we’ve come home tired and there’s an extremely serious documentary about child abuse on television but we just can’t face it. We’re too tired. I’m sure that there’s a big audience who feels that way about The Cops.
MMK: Another thing that characterises the narrative in this show is that storylines dominant in one week are dropped the next as life just moves on. Two recent examples are the young constable who was unsure whether to get married or not (the next time we see him, he is, and nothing more is said about it), and the constable who beat up his girlfriend: I expected that to have repercussions this week and they don’t seem to have happened.
Tony Garnett: Yes, he was on sick-leave this week because of what happened with the child, but he’ll be back in episode 8.
This is us just playing with the conventions, really, and seeing what we can get away with because I’m sick of doing the expected, conventional things. Instead of the drama being at the service of the world you’re bearing witness to, you can end up picking out bits of the world you’re supposedly bearing witness to and putting it to the service of conventional dramatic rules. That’s not what I want to do. Also, I’m at the stage now where I think that if I know how to do it, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning? It’s only if I don’t know how to do it, and I’m a bit scared of that, that I want to do it.
Most television drama looks as though it’s been ‘phoned in.
Student: Do you think it’s possible to make radical changes in television drama now, given the way that the institutions work?
Tony Garnett: As long as there’s a minority channel that allows people to try and that allows people to fail, then things can change. Because what then happens is that, though sometimes a new show like The Cops will go too far, its successful elements will be seen in some mainstream shows on mainstream channels next year. When people are allowed to try new things, the medium move on. So in that sense, I think things can change creatively. But as television gets more and more commercially – rooted, these places where you can experiment will become more scarce.
Other forces are at work too; for example, pay-TV and niche-channels are going to create other commercial opportunities that might occasionally also be artistic opportunities.
Most of the films that are made now for the cinema on less than about 5 or 6 million dollars, what used to be called ‘art’ films, are still largely financed by television. So if you think of Ken Loach’s last film, My Name is Joe, which was made for the cinema and was funded using television money, it will end up on television but it will have a theatrical life before that. Up until the early 1980s, that film would have been made for television in the first place. So the whole scene is changing very rapidly, so rapidly that it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen. But I think that the most significant things will result from the fact that television is becoming more homogoneously commercial. In amongst all that, though, subscription may create some artistic opportunity.
Student: Does this mean that we’re likely to see even more terrible American imports?
Tony Garnett: Mostly, this country imports the very best of American television which, I think, is better than most British television. In my opinion, there’s nothing on British television that can come near Frasier, for instance, which is an absolutely brilliant show, as was Cheers, and E.R. (an extremely clever one-hour drama serial), or Homicide, which is also very clever indeed. American daytime television, of course, is a different matter altogether, but I don’t think that most American television is rubbish and I think that some of it is abosultely brilliant: I think that some of our television is rubbish, though.
Student: When you’re planning a new show, are you concerned with what the audience is going to think of it?
Tony Garnett: I’m very, very concerned about the audience which is the reason why I came back to my first love – television. If I didn’t care about the audience, why would I work in television?
Student: But aren’t there dangers in television becoming more and more ratings- led?
Tony Garnett: Yes. Television is much more competitive now. Broadcasters and production companies now wait for the overnights with almost religious anticipation. In our company, every monday morning I‘m sweating on the Ballykissangel overnights, every Tuesday morning I’m sweating on The Cops overnights, and a few weeks ago, I was sweating on the Ultraviolet overnights. That’s just this Autumn. But as long as they’ll let me play with the train-set, I’ll carry on.
What I always explain to the people I’m working with, and to the generation coming up, is that we want to get the biggest audience we possibly can, and we want to respect that audience, but we’re going to try to get it the difficult way, not the easy way.
Student: Were the ratings so important when you started out in the business?
Tony Garnett: No, they weren’t so important then, though I was always keen on getting big audiences because I wanted to reach people and touch people. At the same time, though, I know that next year I could put a million or a million-and-a-half viewers on The Cops if I was prepared to do certain things. Just three or four quite
easy changes would increase the audience from around 3.5 million (with the Saturday repeat) to 5 million. First of all, we’d create much more sympathy for the Police; we’d turn one or two of our cops into heroes and involve them in some heroic acts; we’d include a very clear narrative hook in the first couple of minutes and we’d use very clear narratives in each episode; we’d have a regular dose of those stories like the dying baby, except that we’d see her eye just opening and a tear squeezing out before she was saved, but very occasionally somebody would die and it would be very sad. You all know what would need to be changed – it’s easy. But I’m not going to do any of these things and luckily BBC 2 are not going to make me.
Student: What’s pleased you most about The Cops?
Tony Garnett: I’m very pleased with most of the actors we’ve used; I’m very grateful to them and very pleased with the sheer honesty of the performances they’ve given. I think that the way we chose to work with them helped them. Also, I’m fascinated by the limitations but also the successes of the shooting style of the show: when it’s working, it just has the ring of truth to it. I’m very pleased with that indeed, but I’m wondering how we can stay with that and do better.
Student: Do you regret including storylines such as the one where the policeman is picked up by the woman with a fetish for uniforms? I thought it was hilarious, but I didn’t know how believable, or ‘real’, it was.
Tony Garnett: It’s an example of one of those things that happens (because some people do like uniforms), and yet when you put it on television it feels false. Also, you have the old problem that the audience knows the actors aren’t really having sex so the incident detracts from the overall believability of the show.
Student: In This Life, sex-scenes were used very regularly: was this an attempt to boost ratings or were you trying to shock?
Tony Garnett: Well, as far as the ratings are concerned, it didn’t work! But, no, in real life, sex is what people think about most of the time and it’s what they’re interested in. In fact, there weren’t that many sex scenes overall; if you think about how many times the characters sat around having a meal together, or how many times they had a conversation in the bathroom, they’re far more numerous, but people don’t remember those scenes. The sex-scenes, though, stand out, particularly in the first series where they were picked up heavily by the Press. It’s the old idea that prurience and Puritanism are two sides of the same coin: you have newspapers such as the Daily Mail which deal in both at the same time. They indulge their readers’ prurience, and then prudishly say ‘this is disgusting!’.
Student: How do you feel about reviews of your shows?
Tony Garnett: I gave up reading them. About twenty-five years ago I made the decision never to sit on a [prize-giving] jury and never to attend an awards ceremony again, particularly when my shows were involved: and I never have. I also made the decision never to read reviews again: and I never have. These were some of the most liberating decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I read previews, and I’m very keen that all the tapes go out to provincial evening newspapers (such as the Liverpool Echo and the Evening Standard in London, etc.), so I like to see whether we’ve got ‘Pick of the Night’. Reviews, though, are more or less redundant and the critics don’t know what they’re talking about, anyway. If you want to know whether a show is good or not, you discuss it with professional colleagues. Besides, if the critics like a show then you’re in danger of believing what they write and that’s not good for you. In fact, it’s very bad for you. On the other hand, if they don’t like a show, you’re absolutely dispirited for no purpose. So I don’t read reviews, and I don’t talk to newspapers.
Tony Garnett: The ideas are usually a collective effort. It’s very difficult with all the shows to remember who thought of what and when. Sometimes, a writer will come in and suggest an idea, or a colleague will come up with a suggestion, or an idea will just turn up when you were thinking about something else altogether and before you know it you’re planning a new show. If you’re working with people you trust and who aren’t egomaniacs, then nobody cares who thought of the idea first, though it is important for young writers especially to have their name on the credits. I’m at the stage now where this doesn’t really matter. Besides, in practice, the credits that you see on the screen never really reveal the true situation. Much of the time you see someone’s name on the credits and you know that they’ve been nowhere near the show.
Student: How far does your role extend in a production?
Tony Garnett: What happens is, I get all these talented young people around me and I make them do all the work and I take the credit! One of these days I’ll get found out.