Peter Kosminsky: Making mischief? It's an essential part of the job

Once fired by the BBC, the revered director tells Ian Burrell why he tackles awkward issues he feels his old bosses now avoid
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The Independent Online

Outside on the churchyard lawn, several dozen elderly Chinese residents of London's Soho are in the process of fusing their Yin and Yang: they are practising the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan beside the gravestone of William Hazlitt, the masterful chronicler of social conditions in early 19th-century Britain. From an overlooking window, the television and film director Peter Kosminsky takes in the scene.

Like Hazlitt before him, Kosminsky is a radical voice, fearless in the face of authority and with an ability to communicate with eloquence and imagination the shortcomings of people in power. The director currently finds himself the beneficiary of a rare honour: a week-long retrospective of his work is being aired on More 4. "I was astonished," he says. "I didn't think British television really did this, or if they did, it was for people who were about to peg it. I hope I'm not, and that I've got a few more films in me."

The More 4 season takes in some of his landmark pieces: No Child of Mine, his ground-breaking and Bafta-winning treatment of sexual abuse in care homes; Warriors, the culmination of his seven-year exploration of the impact on British soldiers of serving as peace-keepers in Bosnia; The Government Inspector, analysing the events that led to the death of Dr David Kelly; and last year's Britz, an attempt to explain how some young British Muslims might be drawn to terrorism. Announcing the retrospective, Peter Dale, the head of More 4, described Kosminsky as "one of Britain's most gifted directors... a passionate, articulate film-maker who has the power to disturb and move audiences in equal measure".

Yet as Kosminsky, 51, huddles over a low wooden table and speaks softly into the dictaphone against the hubbub of a private members club, it is clear that such accolades are not going to assuage his sense of agitation that there is something seriously wrong with the television industry.

"As television has become more competitive and the financial margins on which television companies are working have become tighter and tighter, executives and channel controllers have become more frightened, more scared of letting go power, more certain that they have the prescriptive solutions to the problems and the way to keep their audiences," he says.

"Look around at what's happening. Audiences are steadily declining and most people accept that although programmes have become more slick, they're less challenging, more predictable, more formulaic."

This deterioration in quality he traces directly to the marginalisation of the director in the television production process. "If you are trying to control the product, you will bring those nasty, disruptive directors in as late as you can, by which time you've got it sewn up with the writers. I don't think it's a coincidence – and this will make me unpopular with a lot of people – that a time when most people feel that the biting power of film-making and television in this country has suffered, programmes have become more anodyne and predictable and much less ready to rock the boat than they used to, has corresponded with a period of almost terminal decline in the artistic contribution of directors to programmes."

That Kosminsky should view the mechanics of the television industry with a certain scepticism is hardly surprising, as his talents have not always been recognised. Sure, he landed a prestigious BBC general traineeship after graduating in chemistry from Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general. But not long afterwards came a fall, the details of which remain etched into his psyche.

With hindsight, Peter Kosminsky's sacking from the BBC seems an act of extreme pettiness, though at the time it took him to the point of despair. The events are three decades old, yet he recalls every name, every detail. Three months out of that traineeship, he had begun his first job, as a drama script editor, when he was called upon to work with an untried writer from the East End of London called Tunde Ikoli. Having been instructed to see himself as "the writer's friend", Kosminsky agreed to punctuate Ikoli's dictated words as he filled out a standard commissioning form, only to find himself accused of a felony so grand that his position was considered no longer tenable. "That was why they fired me, because they said I was trying to get the commission for Tunde under false pretences. I explained that I was told to be the writer's friend and he'd not had much formal education. All my education, two years of being trained by the BBC, and I was out on my ear without a job. I came quite close to a nervous breakdown."

As he prepared to take a job as a satellite salesman, Kosminsky was rescued by being put in contact with the respected documentary-maker Roger Bolton. The break ensured that he remained in television, though in BBC current affairs rather than his beloved drama.

He does not bear a grudge against the corporation, pointing out that some of his friends now occupy the most senior posts in the organisation. "In terms of their calibre and intellect they are some of the cleverest people I have ever encountered," he says.

But Kosminsky is not one to shy away from speaking out when he feels something is wrong. "I believe there isn't an appetite for mischief-making programming at the moment at the BBC. Obviously I really regret that, because I was trained there. And my view quite strongly is that they are the captains of the team, and when the captain is missing from the field, the team is incredibly handicapped. We all look to the BBC, but it seems to have slightly lost its way."

The causes go beyond the "unfair and unreasonable judgement" of Lord Hutton in 2003, he believes. "I genuinely believe that the BBC has forgotten what it's for. When you have a unique form of funding which is protected from commercial pressures, it has to be clear that you are providing something that nobody else can do," he says. "The BBC has become an organisation which thinks it has to compete on every front, that thinks it has to out-commercial commercial companies and is full of confused and demoralised though very talented people. I'm sorry, but that has to be a failure of leadership. It's a leader's job to tell an organisation like the BBC what it's for. To me, it's blatantly obvious: it's to be the standard-bearer for public-service broadcasting in this country, to make programmes that no one else can make, to ask awkward questions, to rock the boat and make mischief."

ITV, for whom Kosminsky made some of his early films, such as Afghantsi, shot in Kabul at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, and Murder in Ostankino District, a First Tuesday documentary on the Soviet-era Moscow police, does not escape his censure. Once "eclectic, unpredictable and exciting", ITV has the "worst of all worlds" as a centrally scheduled broadcaster, he says. "It's unfashionable, its demographic is getting older, and nobody wishes to go and work there because of the way it's set up financially. I wish Michael Grade well, I'm a huge fan of his and I thought ITV could be rescued. But I'm afraid that it's too late now: it has sold its soul so completely and irrevocably. It's like a sort of tragic television Faust."

Growing up in Stanmore, north London, Kosminsky's hero was Ken Loach. He still remembers the "life-changing experience" of watching Loach's Days of Hope, in particular a scene where rowdy British soldiers are becalmed by the singing of a young Irish woman. "I can remember, as if it was yesterday, sitting in that room, tears falling down my cheeks, thinking 'What power!'"

It was a later moment of contemplation beside an Irish lough that led to his realisation that his own style should combine elements of the documentary-making of his early career with the drama that he felt compelled to make. The result was No Child of Mine, which was "quite a surprisingly shocking film in its day" and "a turning point for me".

He has fallen out with Downing Street over The Government Inspector, which starred Mark Rylance as the ill-fated civil servant and won three Baftas, and The Project, which dramatised the rise of New Labour. "I was shut out in the most comprehensive way by New Labour – to the extent that a letter was written to all party activists instructing them not to talk to us. The problem with that approach is that you are forced into the arms of the disillusioned. That's what I was trying to say to (then Government spin doctor) Lance Price when I met him in the basement of the Tate Gallery to try to persuade him to lift this embargo. I said, 'It's going to be very difficult for me to balance this piece, because the only people that will talk to me are the people who are pissed off with you.'"

His motivation for making the two-part Britz for Channel 4 was "because I'm a second-generation immigrant and I wanted to write about the competing forces I felt: partly to blend in and partly to overturn the apple cart," he says.

Though Kosminsky, who lives with his family in Wiltshire, continues to leave apples strewn in his path, he describes himself as "quite a conservative human being", not politically but in the sense that he laments an era when compassion was "the most important attribute" taught to children.

That's a lesson that television needs to learn if it is to continue to attract the best graduates, he warns. "Look at reality TV, the rampant commercialism, the identikit programmes and sale of formats all around the world. Do the young high-achievers think, 'I want to be part of that'? Do they look at programmes and think, 'I want to make something like that'? I actually rather doubt it."