The transformer

4. Mark Shivas The BBC is emerging as a significant player in the film business, led by a man without proven ability as an uncouth heavy. By Kevin Jackson
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The Independent Culture
The Eighties was the decade in which a noisy, puling infant managed to outshine its distinguished old Auntie at her own game. Consider the track record: between 2 November 1982 (its date of birth) and the end of the decade, Channel 4 provided British cinema-goers with films written and/ or directed by the likes of Alan Bennett, John Boorman, Terence Davies, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway, David Hare, Derek Jarman, Neil Jordan, Hanif Kureishi, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Mike Newell. Over the same period, the BBC's total output of theatrical feature films was, well, zero.

Such comparisons are grossly unfair: they don't take into account the fact that the BBC was producing hundreds of hours of filmed dramas over the same period, many of which were just as suitable for theatrical release as the Channel 4 product. But if one keeps to the same biased criteria, just for a moment, and turns to comparative records for the Nineties, the BBC's performance starts to appear rather less minimalist.

In the past couple of years, BBC productions and co-productions have included a number of features that might formerly have been regarded as classic Channel 4 work: Stephen Frears's The Snapper, Ken Loach's Land and Freedom, Antonia Bird's Priest, Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure, Stephen Poliakoff's Century, Derek Jarman's Edward II. There have also been surprise cult hits at the US box-office, such as Beeban Kidron's Antonia and Jane, Mike Newell's Enchanted April (which showed well over $15m in profits) and, most recently, Roger Michell's fine version of Persuasion, which has already taken more than $3m in the US and is still going strong. And there was the literate crowd-pleaser which kicked off this vivid if belated flowering in 1991, Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply. The BBC still can't compete on an equal basis with Channel 4 in terms of budgets and scale of production, but it's starting to look like a strong contender rather than a hopeless also-ran.

The origins of this leap to the fore can be dated to 1988, when the post of head of BBC Drama was given to a successful freelance producer: Mark Shivas. One of Shivas's first initiatives was, he says, "to change something that was called the 'Plays' department into the 'Films' department, mainly because it made more films than plays,seemed a terrible misnomer". But there was no such job as head of BBC Films for Shivas's first few years - that was a post created in 1993 when he stopped being head of Drama. "Charles [Denton] came in for that job and I shifted, mercifully, to one side," he says. As a result of this internal manoeuvre, Shivas, now head of BBC Films, has become the only person in the British film industry with powers comparable to those of David Aukin, commissioning editor of Film on Four. Shivas has the power to green-light or to reject each one of the thousand-odd projects that land on his desk each year.

"Channel 4 will continue to have more money than we do," Shivas concedes. "It has about pounds 15m a year to spend on films and we have something like pounds 5m to pounds 7m, depending on whether you count projects like Priest that are originally developed as television films but then switched over into theatrical features." Even so, with a projected slate of around 10 films a year (compared with Channel 4's 12 to 14), BBC Films is proving to be a healthy competitor for the younger channel not only in terms of cinema audiences around the world, but as a first port of call for British film- makers. Shivas intends to make BBC Films into a "ring-fenced", financially autonomous unit some time this spring, which means that its future profits will be channelled back into feature production rather than distributed across Drama as a whole.

"When I took the job of head of Drama in 1988, I encountered the general feeling that the BBC shouldn't be involved in films - you know, 'Films aren't mentioned in the Charter', 'the film industry is full of thieves and sharks and louts', and 'why should we have anything to do with them, we're in television'. But it seemed that this policy was losing us a lot of very good writers and directors to the other place, because it's obviously frustrating to put a lot of time and effort into something that will only be shown once or twice. And the fact that there's nothing about film in the Charter can be used in another way - it means there's nothing preventing us from taking the BBC into the film industry, which is something British film-makers have been trying to do for 20 years."

Shivas brings to his BBC job not just wide experience of film and television production but a scholar's love of cinema developed in his earlier career as a film critic: he was one of the founders of Movie, an influential journal that helped spread the Parisian gospel of auteurism in Britain during the early Sixties. From Movie he made his way to Granada television and began moonlighting as a show-business reporter for the New York Times.

An unexpected job offer from the BBC threw him into the deep end of production: with no prior drama experience, he was suddenly responsible for producing The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The series was a hit, and Shivas went on to produce many of the BBC's best-known series and one-offs of the Seventies, from The Glittering Prizes and Dennis Potter's Casanova to Tom Stoppard's Professional Foul. In 1979 he left the BBC for his first movie job running Southern Films. For the next 10 years he divided his freelance activities between series and features. Shivas's credits for this period include one of the very first Films on Four, Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting, Handmade's A Private Function and, with Jim Henson's company and Warner Brothers, Nic Roeg's The Witches.

The professional relationships he has established over the past few decades have carried over into his work on BBC films. Among the projects he hopes to put into production in 1996, for example, is Dennis Potter's last film script, White Clouds: "I read the script last spring and liked it but told his agent that there were a few changes I wanted. I got a phone call back from Dennis saying, 'I hear you want changes. You're completely wrong, of course, and by the way, I have six weeks to live.' It's impossible to come back at that and say, 'Oh dear, how sad, now, about these rewrites...' "

Other films to which Shivas has recently given the green-light are Stephen Frears's The Van, Michael Winterbottom's Jude and Gillies MacKinnon's Small Faces. Some 25 additional projects are in various stages of development, including a film by Steven Soderbergh, who directed sex, lies and videotape. It's a promising line-up, and should play a big part in giving BBC Films the boost that Shivas thinks it needs.

Quietly spoken, unpretentious to the point of self-deprecation, and labouring under the burden of being regarded as an exceptionally nice guy, Shivas might seem an unlikely candidate for the role of movie mogul, a part traditionally associated with vile-mannered heavies. But his admirers in the business are clear about his virtues: "He has a grasp of film and the film industry that's extremely rare in television circles," says the drama producer Kevin Loader. "He's also shown great tenacity in sticking with domestic film even at times when the fashion here has been for a kind of ersatz Hollywood product. He's been a small voice of calm over the years, and that's a tremendous achievement."

Whether the BBC's cinema offerings will ever definitively eclipse that of Channel 4 depends on the quality of the talent Shivas can attract; but few people seem to doubt that he is the right man to recruit and nurture such talent.

n In tomorrow's The Fixers, Paul Du Noyer on the men behind the pop compilation boom and Malcolm Hayes on the new face of classical music marketing