For five decades, he has been one of the most influential figures in British television, working with Ken Loach and producing a string of incendiary dramas. Now producer Tony Garnett has attacked the BBC for stifling creativity.
Best known for gritty work such as Cathy Come Home (1966), Days of Hope (1975) and the screenplay for Kes (1969), Garnett accuses the BBC and other broadcasters of failing to promote writers and overseeing a dearth of originality in recent British television.
"The top brass – not only in the BBC – are hooked on the junk food of soaps and renewable one-hour series, which become formulaic and institutionalised, going on year after year," he said. "The writers work in a straitjacket. It's an efficient way for a programme controller to guarantee an audience, but the BBC should be more ambitious."
His intervention comes only days after The Fall, the BBC's much-hyped drama about a serial killer, returned for its second series to a mixed critical response and one million fewer viewers than in its first season.
Garnett, whose work was celebrated with a British Film Institute retrospective this summer, said his comments were not an attack on Ben Stephenson, the current controller of BBC drama commissioning. This is also not the first time the producer, who was recently described as one of British television's "most influential figures", has attacked the BBC.
In an open letter in 2009, Garnett challenged the BBC's habit of churning out programmes "as though they were soap flakes". The letter, which was widely circulated in the creative industries, stated that: "Broadcasting is over … even on its own depressing criteria, the BBC is failing to embrace the new and the young and the technology."
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Garnett admitted that "some stuff has improved since then", but said there was still a long way to go. The problem, he maintained, was not a lack of storylines or willing on the part of writers, but senior management's fear of straying from tried-and-tested period dramas: "They tend to be suspicious of creativity, the outcome of which is uncertain and original. They prefer a repeat of what has succeeded in the past, thus stultifying creativity," he said.
The influx of Scandinavian dramas The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge over the past three years has given the BBC a string of unexpected imported hits, leading critics such as Garnett to question why British screenwriters have been slow to follow the "Nordic noir" style, which forces executives to give writers more freedom.
It is a balance that is increasingly sought in the UK. Sky Arts announced earlier this month that it planned to spend £3m on pairing its production companies with arts organisations and smaller indie-style writers.
For Garnett, this is the route the BBC ought to be following. "I'm asking for the controllers to shift the emphasis a little in favour of the original voice of the writer.
"Give writers more space. Protect a territory where they're off the deadening treadmill of most staple drama. The oxygen released will pay off," he insisted.Reuse content