The Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland has led a stinging attack on the quality of modern TV drama – accusing executives of "robbing" young talent of the right to take risks because of their obsession with viewing figures.
The veteran playwright said the demise of one-off plays and the pre-eminence of soaps and formulaic star vehicles were driving away new writers by depriving them of a chance to experiment and a "licence to fail".
Mr Welland's criticisms have been supported by some of the most respected and prolific television writers of recent times. Alan Bleasdale, the writer of GBH and The Monocled Mutineer, said TV was now run by accountants who put their "stopwatches" before their "hearts and courage". And Alan Plater, who wrote The Beiderbecke Affair, said a culture of timidity was depriving TV of "individual voices" such as that of the late Dennis Potter.
Mr Welland, 66, who starred in the 1960s police drama Z Cars before establishing his name as a scriptwriter on Play for Today, said: "There was rubbish written in the 70s, but now there are no slots at all on British television for one-off ideas. They have robbed young writers of the licence to fail.
"When you had a series of plays it didn't matter if one bravely didn't come off. Now they want writers to write at least three episodes of every idea, or six episodes.
"They can't afford to fail because it would be failure on a large scale. They can't afford to take a risk. They always have to have a star, a puller-inner, and they go to the 'experienced' writers. They want audience-builders."
He added: "We should pay our licence to free the BBC from any concern about viewing figures. It should give them the opportunity to pursue excellence regardless – and excellence will bring with it viewing figures."
Mr Welland said recent UK box-office hits would have made great TV plays had their writers not felt their talents would be more appreciated by film producers.
"There is no television slot now for single ideas, so people are turning to the movies to make them. They are able to get small-budget movies made," he said. "Four Weddings turned out to be a wonderful film, like The Full Monty, but The Full Monty was a good theme for Play for Today."
Mr Welland's views were echoed by fellow Northerner Alan Bleasdale, whose classic dramas include Boys from the Blackstuff, which itself stemmed from a BBC Play for Today. "Television is in danger of being in the hands of accountants who have no hearts and no courage, only stopwatches," he said. "I was very lucky when I started out. New writers had a chance. Writers today have to serve their apprenticeship working on soap operas, but these things breed habits you could best do without."
Alan Plater, whose credits include the award-winning political drama A Very British Coup, said today's TV drama lacked the "individual voice" of playwrights such as Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter.
"Whether we're talking about challenging individual plays or series like The Singing Detective, it's a hell of a job to get anything like that on now because you've got to crawl through so many hoops," he said. "What we've lost, or what we're rapidly losing, is the individual voice."
Mr Plater, whose most recent play, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, won Judi Dench a Bafta for best actress last year, blamed the lack of risk-taking on the culture of "short-term contract tyranny". As many producers were now employed on a commission-only basis, they played it safe. The consequence was that thrusting young playwrights who, a generation ago, would have viewed TV as their natural home were bypassing the small screen and heading for the stage or cinema.
Criticising the increasing emphasis on spectacle and star names, rather than character and dialogue, he added: "Movies are normally a major assault on your emotions, but TV can afford to be an invitation to participate with your brain. Most good television is about people in rooms talking – it's not about car chases."
Mike Figgis, the Oscar-nominated British director of Leaving Las Vegas, said he felt TV companies had "lost the habit" of producing cutting-edge drama. "The old tradition of The Wednesday Play, the low-budget drama with a fast-track, high-energy approach, has gone," he said. "The new writers have gone back to the theatre, whereas 20 years ago they would have got exposure through one-off plays on ITV or the BBC."
But Pippa Harris, the BBC's acting controller of drama commissioning, argued there were still plenty of opportunities for new writers to break through in TV.
"We can all cite a Screen Two film we remember, but there was also a huge number of complete failures," she said. "The audience learnt to distrust those strands, so we felt it would be more appropriate to make things when the right script came along, rather than just to fill a series of slots."
Describing recent plays such as the award-winning Care as the "natural heirs" of the gritty kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s, Ms Harris said: "TV drama has moved on. Twenty years ago, audiences were willing to watch people sitting around in a room talking, but they aren't prepared to do that any more."
An ITV spokeswoman said: "We've got more new writers working for us and we show more one-off dramas. Just because there are big names in a drama doesn't mean it's a star vehicle. Sarah Lancashire and Amanda Burton made their names in soaps, but they are also highly regarded actresses."Reuse content