BBC drama: 'It's all about taking risks'

With a Golden Globe nomination under her belt for 'Blackpool' and a clutch of exciting projects in the pipeline, Laura Mackie, BBC head of drama series and serials, tells Ian Burrell that her job is about breaking the mould
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The Independent Online

Laura Mackie will be in Beverly Hills tonight, trotting up the red carpet alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman as Hollywood dishes out the annual Golden Globe awards.

Mackie, the BBC's head of drama series and serials, will be taking her seat at the Globes in recognition of the bold all-singing, all-dancing series Blackpool (or Viva Blackpool as it was called on BBC America).

But when we meet at Centre House, the dourest of all the office blocks in the BBC's Wood Lane sprawl, she has yet to choose her Hollywood outfit. Doubtless she will rise to the occasion, for on a wet Monday morning in White City, west London, she looks glamorous enough in a purple dress and pink boots, though apparently unaware that she would face a photographer.

For more than a year, Mackie has headed up the BBC's drama output, since Mal Young quit the corporation to join 19 TV. Her watchwords are to "be different" and to "surprise". Certainly Blackpool would fit that category. "We took a bit of a risk with it. Not everybody liked it, but it stood out," she says of the drama, which starred David Morrissey and is shortlisted tonight in the best mini-series category.

Mackie's more recent commission, Bleak House, was criticised for being a safe project designed to shore up the BBC's case for charter renewal.

But she is not the kind of BBC executive to play it safe. "My job is to take risks and if some work, that's fine," she says. "Our remit in in-house drama is to be putting out programmes that push the envelope a little bit."

Bleak House, which featured as diverse a cast as Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Johnny Vegas and Alistair McGowan, caused her to fret a little, given that it was broken down into soap opera-sized chunks in recognition of Dickens's original submissions to periodicals.

"What we didn't want to do was make it in a traditional way. We didn't know if it was going to work or not, but it did," she says of the series, written by Andrew Davies. "I was nervous about Bleak House but if I wasn't nervous I would worry."

Mackie will take another risk later this year when the BBC airs State Within, a political thriller around the contentious issue of the role played by the British ambassador in Washington.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador who is now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, faced calls for his resignation after he published his controversial memoir, DC Confidential, earlier this year and serialised it in several newspapers. Sir Christopher aided the research team on the BBC project, says Mackie.

Writers Lizzie Mickery and Dan Percival (who worked together on the BBC docu-drama about a terror attack on London Dirty War) also spoke with Sir Christopher's successor in Washington, David Manning.

The Foreign Office was very helpful and the writers were given a tour of the embassy, and visited the West Wing, White House, and Pentagon.

Mackie says: "We took as our starting point, 'What would happen if the special relationship between Britain and the US was challenged?' and we decided it would be quite interesting to focus on the role of the British ambassador in Washington."

The programme is not based on either Meyer or Manning but features a fictitious ambassador. "It's an incredibly complex plot," says Mackie. "It's a bit like a cat's cradle in that you've got a story to do with the embassy and the potential rift between Britain and America, you've got a prisoner on death row and you've got a group of private military contractors in Virginia. The joy of it is 'How do all these stories impact on one another?'"

Mackie claims that politics can "sometimes be a bit dry and dusty" and she hopes State Within will reference hit shows such as State of Play and 24 and films such as The Insider and The Bourne Supremacy.

"The other thing that appealed to us about a piece like this is that it will be set in America, but because our core characters are British it should be a very good mix of British and American actors and will be a piece that works for both audiences," she says.

In fact, State Within will be shot largely in Toronto and the BBC is finalising details on its co-production partner.

Percival will direct the last three episodes and the relatively unknown but highly regarded Australian Michael Offer will oversee the first three. Mackie is looking for someone "with international cachet" to play the lead role and has asked Kate Rhodes-James, who cast Bleak House, to do the casting.

Another groundbreaking project, which will air in spring, is Soundproof, a thriller in which most leading members of the cast are deaf. The drama, made by Joe Fisher and Ed Coulthard of Blast Films, begins with the mystery of a body falling from a tower block, but because the mystery revolves around deaf characters it is a film that Mackie doubts "anyone else would do".

She says: "The audience will get the satisfaction they would get from a normal whodunnit but it gives them a real insight into the world of the deaf community. I think it's a phenomenal film."

Her next historical drama, the shortly-to-be-screened The Virgin Queen, is not as unadventurous as the retelling of the story of Elizabeth I (famously played by Glenda Jackson in a previous BBC production) might sound.

"The film version was fantastic and there's no point in us spending the licence fee on remaking something that has been done very well before - we wanted to bring a different take to it," says Mackie. So she approached the scriptwriter Paula Milne, who in spite of her fine track record as a story-teller knew almost nothing about Queen Bess.

"That was an advantage," says Mackie. "She didn't come to it with preconceptions. She just did a massive amount of reading. It's a very personal and emotional portrait of Elizabeth and she does get under her skin."

Mackie also gambled on using director, Coky Giedroyc (who is new to period drama) and asking one actor, Anne-Marie Duff, to play Elizabeth throughout the monarch's adult life. "We always knew we would stand or fall by whom we cast as Elizabeth. Getting somebody to age from 18 or 19 through to their fifties is a really tall order and I don't think there are many actresses who could have done it," she says. "Anne-Marie was just amazing and, in the final episode when she is playing the very old Elizabeth, very moving. The prosthetics are really effective and you believe she is an old lady."

One more BBC drama project to look out for this year will be a new piece by Tony Marchant (The Canterbury Tales, It's Different For Girls) called The Family Man, which stars Trevor Eve as a fertility consultant. "It's about how far will he go, how science and technology allows you to go further and further and where you are given a chance to play God."

"In the end it doesn't matter whether it's an international story or a domestic story, a single drama or an ongoing series I just want it to be really good because drama is expensive and we have to keep earning the right to make these programmes."