Television Drama: Great show - now direct it
That's the challenge facing a new generation of talent signed up by the BBC to be members of its pioneering Directors' Academy. John Yorke, the man charged with the task of knocking it into shape, talks to Ian Burrell
Monday 27 March 2006
The roads to Hollywood success are steep and strewn with fallen egos, but John Yorke is building a new one that could enable British talent to sit in the director's chair without first having to wait on tables on Sunset Strip.
The new BBC Directors' Academy is about to launch, and later this year its first graduates will already be working on top-rated shows such as Holby City and EastEnders. Ultimately, they could be making feature films, says Yorke, the BBC's controller of continuing drama series.
"You can go all the way to Hollywood if the wind is blowing in the right direction," he says, noting that Antonia Bird, a former EastEnders director, has already made it to Tinseltown, as well as making the acclaimed Channel 4 film The Hamburg Cell.
By working on the BBC's stable of long-running, multiple-camera dramas, the new batch of directors will learn "the basic principles of story-telling and visual vocabulary", Yorke believes.
Yorke has overseen some of the most successful British television of recent years, including Channel 4 programmes Shameless, Omagh and Sex Traffic and the recent BBC hit Life on Mars. He believes the BBC has a responsibility to the rest of the broadcasting industry to nurture the talent of the future. "That is the one thing that the BBC can do that is much harder for the independent companies to offer. The indies are led by the bottom line whereas in public service one of the things we should be doing is training the industry of the future."
He has followed this credo closely since the BBC snatched him back from Channel 4 just over a year ago. Almost immediately upon his return, he set up a BBC Writers' Academy, which in the space of a few months has already produced a clutch of scripts for the daytime series Doctors.
The first eight products of the 12-week writers' scheme are all now on attachment with other BBC shows. The new writers include a recent Cambridge University graduate and a product of fringe theatre in Leeds. "There's plenty of diversity, which is very refreshing," says Yorke. "You need that multiplicity of voices."
He is so convinced of the value of the writing project that he devotes every Friday to holding tutorials with his protégés. "I've always been fascinated by the process of writing and I wanted to ask myself 'Can you teach it?'. The answer is no: you can't teach someone to have a voice. That comes naturally and over time with experience. You can teach structure. It's the big hurdle for most new writers but the fact they are working on these shows successfully seems to suggest you can do that."
Yorke has been obsessed with the art of scriptwriting since he was an English student at the University of Newcastle at the start of the 1980s. "It was a regular ritual, the Saturday omnibus edition of Brookside. We used to gather round the gas fire at 5pm and play 'Guess the Writer'. You could tell within five minutes if it was a Jimmy McGovern episode because someone was punching someone," he says.
Yorke has spent the rest of his career trying to recapture the excitement that he first felt watching the early years of that now defunct Liverpool-based soap. "It was a world you had never seen on the telly," he says.
When he became a young radio producer he wrote McGovern a fan letter saying, "I want to work with you one day", and he has since fulfilled that ambition.
McGovern's latest project, The Street, starts on BBC1 next month. Set in a single Manchester street, the series of six plays stars such actors as Jane Horrocks and Timothy Spall and was a project that Yorke and his colleague Lucy Richer were allowed to bring with them from Channel 4. "Jimmy's name alone is enough to guarantee something rather special," says Yorke.
As Yorke returned to the BBC, the corporation reassessed its drama output and realised that in the space of three years it had increased by 400 per cent in such programmes as Holby City, Doctors and EastEnders but failed to make the equivalent investment in behind-the-scenes talent. Hard-pressed producers had seized control of shows and writers had been forced to the sidelines. "If you want an easy life the easiest thing to do is not have writers around to argue with," notes Yorke. "I've come to the conclusion that actually we want people to argue. It makes for a slightly more fraught life but a much more interesting one."
In the past year he has "put writers back at the heart of the process", including making Tony McHale executive producer of Holby City. "That's fantastic," says Yorke. "It means that for the first time you've got a writer running one of our big powerhouse BBC1 shows."
He believes that a potential shortage of directors at the BBC is the next hole that needs filling. Unlike previous BBC training courses, the Directors' Academy is designed to give participants a job at the end. Yorke says it is intended for "anyone with any kind of directing experience on TV, radio or on stage", but he will also consider those who have worked as script editors or in other production jobs but "are desperate to direct". Applicants for the eight places have until the end of this week to apply.
Asked about the qualities he is seeking, Yorke says: "Passion is partly what we are looking for. It is a slightly overused word but you have to love those shows. We are looking for someone who understands the conventions of those shows but is willing to challenge them. Above all, what I want is an absolute belief in the primacy of character and story."
He notes that successful directors - such as Bird, McGovern and Paul Abbott - have worked on and "loved" similar long-running shows. Abbott, whom he worked with on Shameless, is collaborating with Yorke again on new projects from the writer's production company, Tightrope. "He's so eclectic. I said to Paul, 'We'll take whatever you can give us," he says, laughing. "You trust those people."
Yorke was disappointed that one of the shows he oversees, the powerful hospital-based drama Bodies, has not been recommissioned after being dropped by BBC2, despite critical acclaim that included a recent Royal Television Society award. "It was fantastic it got the award. It was long overdue for that team because it was a remarkable achievement on their part. Yes, I would have liked it to have done more. It's one of those things, I fear."
More happily, filming will start next week on the next series of the hit 1970s drama Life on Mars.
Yorke has high hopes for his new schools of writers and directors but his own sights are not set on Hollywood. He is headed in quite the opposite direction. "I'm off to Budapest on Wednesday to film the new series of Robin Hood," he says. "The forest looks more like Sherwood Forest in Budapest than it does in England."
Applicants for the BBC Directors' Academy should contact www.bbc.co.uk/jobs
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