Comic writers demand a better deal from BBC's `Hitler Youth'

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The BBC licence fee should be replaced with a voluntary subscription of pounds 10 a month so that the creative talent in television can be paid what they are worth, the television industry was told last night.

The comedy writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran made a wide-ranging attack on broadcasting bosses in the annual MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. They argued that the only solution to an industry where writers are undervalued and have no creative control was to pump more money into the system by charging a realistic price for the BBC.

"In 1995/96 the average person spent nearly 24 hours a week watching television, nearly half his or her free time," said Laurence Marks. "This average person spends about 10 hours of his 24 watching the BBC. For those 10 hours of entertainment, information, news, sport, drama and Noel Edmonds he pays, according to the BBC's own figures, about 50p per week.

"Less than the price of a couple of tabloids, a quarter of a video rental ... even the Radio Times costs 75p," he said.

Marks and Gran, writers of Birds Of A Feather and Shine On Harvey Moon, claimed the that undercharging for programmes meant the money and power in television is not distributed to the people responsible for making it: the writing talent.

"The broadcasters take us all for granted. The creative talent, writers and producers who actually make television. They prefer to concentrate their cash, care and chauffeur-driven cars for the front-of-camera talent - soap stars, celebrity chefs and Hale and Pace," said Mr Marks.

"At ITV they want more of the same in drama, and dumber, cheaper people shows in place of scripted light entertainment and intelligent documentaries."

But the BBC was the main focus of their attack: "The creative leaders within the BBC have been marginalised. The power that the creative staff once had has been usurped by legions of lawyers, accountants, business affairs executives and policy unit apparatchiks."

These lawyers and accountants, Gran said, apply the same discipline to television as they would to the production of biscuits: "Most of them have taken up their posts in the last decade. Like the Hitler Youth they know of no other system. One day they may have to be de-Birtified."

"The BBC believes it must maintain market share to justify the licence fee," said Mr Marks. "This forces the BBC to shadow ITV's programming as it moves remorselessly towards the safe, the repetitive and the cloned. This is particularly noticeable in drama. If ITV has a vet," added Mr Marks, "the BBC wants a vet. If ITV has a moody cop, the BBC wants a moodier one."

Bob Phillis, deputy director-general of the BBC, dismissed the call for a voluntary subscription. He said: "That was a great comedy show by two great comedy writers although the mathematics were not quite so hot. If you look at the economics of it all, although successful writers might benefit from this proposal, just think of the millions who can't afford a licence fee of pounds 120 a year."