The pen is mightier than the board

Alan Plater, author of the BBC's Oliver's Travels, is sick of writers being messed around by TV men in suits. James Rampton reports
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The Independent Culture
there is nothing like a production tiff to stoke up the pre-publicity for a television programme. All the same, the row over the casting of the lead in Oliver's Travels, BBC1's new Sunday drama, has left its writer, Alan Plater, feeling as bruised as a Japanese rugby player after an encounter with the All Blacks.

He had written the title role - a university lecturer who does not fit in with the new vice chancellor's "market strategy'' and so goes in search of a celebrated crossword-setter called Aristotle - for his childhood friend Tom Courtenay. Plater had even dedicated the novel on which the serial is based to Courtenay. A head honcho at the BBC, however, decreed that Alan Bates would be "sexier'' in the part. Plater, the steam coming out of his ears, takes up the story: "Alan Bates is a wonderful actor, and we've got a new friend now. But it was the ultimatum, the BBC telling me, 'we do it with Alan or not at all', that I found deeply offensive as a negotiating stance. In fact, it's not a negotiating stance at all. It's like being consulted by Vlad on how you'd like to be impaled.''

Ruth Caleb, executive producer on Oliver's Travels, tiptoes through the minefield of unexploded egos. "These things are never pleasant, but what is unfortunate about Alan sounding off is that it's potentially hurtful for actors giving very fine performances, and they don't have the means to fight back.''

Over the years, Plater has cultivated a reputation as a ruffler of Establishment feathers. In April, he wrote an open letter excoriating the BBC for its moratorium on new commissions. "Will Wyatt [Managing Director of BBC TV] winces when I walk into the room,'' Plater laughs. "He thinks, 'what's this bastard on about now?'."

An author with more than 200 credits to his name in television, radio, theatre and novels, Plater has just retired as President of the Writers Guild of Great Britain. A small, balding, avuncular 60-year-old from the North-East, he has long been waving the banner for writers' rights. "We've all taken our cue from Dennis Potter," says Plater. "He focused the debate very passionately and very beautifully at the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival and in his final interview with Melvyn Bragg. I think it's our job to be a nuisance in the cause of diverse, rich drama.

"Whatever people think of Oliver's Travels, it's not like anything else - any more than [Alan Bleasdale's] GBH or [Jimmy McGovern's] Hearts and Minds are like anything else. The battle has got to be against blandness. The author's fingerprints have gone from American TV, which is sad because people like Paddy Chayevsky invented what we do now. Ask people to name some American TV writers and they'll say, 'Steven Bochco and, er, Steven Bochco'.''

Now he's really got the bit between his teeth. "The problem with TV nowadays," he continues, "is that there are far more people telling you what to do. I've been writing a screenplay of the latest Ruth Rendell. Even in a good situation like that, when I was doing the tweaking, I realised that at least six people had contributed to it - the head of drama, the producer, the director, the script editor, the two principal actors and Ruth Rendell herself. That can't help but be contradictory. In the grand old days, you were responsible to one person, the producer, and other opinions were kept from you. Andrew Davies tells the story of working with the famous producer Rosemary Hill. She'd never say 'the script is bad'. She'd say, 'the script is wonderful, but I think you could make page 37 even more wonderful'.''

Caleb admits that Plater's bloody-mindedness caused a few awkward moments with her superiors at the BBC. "I didn't get flak, but there was concern. Alan recalls the days when a producer had autonomy. It hasn't been like that in the BBC for a good 10 years. Between writer and transmission there are quite a few intervening voices now, and it's those voices that concern Alan.''

Bizarrely, the more Plater bashes the executives, the more they seem to take him to their bosom. "There's this perverse side to the British psyche,'' he reflects, "which means that if you do kick up a fuss, they treat you well. I like to think I have a licence to be a court jester and say boo to the witch doctor. I have the right to be rude about Alan Yentob [BBC1 Controller], Michael Jackson [BBC2 Controller] and Marcus Plantin [head of the ITV Network Centre]. In a Writers' Guild lecture, I referred to Marcus Plantin's Temple of Doom, and ITV were ever so sweet to me afterwards. They even took me out to lunch. It's in the executives' interests that we keep arguing about these things. The two most important things are the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the audience. If you can make the connection between the two, then that's all that matters. The rest is all packaging and PR and bullshit.''

Plater's writing has always been refreshingly free of bullshit. "I don't think he's the next Dennis Potter," says Caleb, "I think he's indubitably Alan Plater. It's not sophisticated or literary, but the sort of humour that's elegant and very enjoyable. A critic wrote about Bergman's autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander that he directs with enormous compassion. In Alan's writing there's the same enormous compassion - although maybe that doesn't extend to BBC executives. He gives all his characters interesting idiosyncracies. Even the baddies in Oliver's Travels are quite charming.''

Oliver's Travels roams over Plater's now-familiar passions: jazz, cricket, trivia, word-plays. "Oliver doesn't have an obsession that I don't share,'' he avers. "Like me, he's a train-spotter. When someone asks me, 'do you know this Lester Young number?', I reply, 'do you mean take one or take two?'."

Oliver also shares the writer's abhorrence of new-fangled marketing-speak. "In universities, you now have performance indicators - whatever that means,'' he snorts. "A lot of people are making a good living peddling nonsense. Nowadays we give them knighthoods and share options. The best news this week was that the launch of the American space shuttle had been delayed by woodpeckers. That's my world, the world I understand. Up the woodpeckers, I say.''

'Oliver's Travels' starts on BBC1 at 9.05pm on Sunday