Making a crisis out of the drama

BBC drama is too elitist. No, it's too populist ... Mark Lawson savours t he latest round of a good old political row

Mark Lawson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:41

The BBC - a liberal institution with which the political right still has a great deal of unfinished business - is rarely more than one newspaper story away from controversy, and the articles of the past few days were in the classic "Beeb Row" tra dition."TOP WRITER ATTACKS BBC BOSSES," yelled the headlines, reporting remarks by the playwright Andrew Davies, the writer (or adapter from novels) of most of the corporation's recent hits, from House of Cards for BBC1 to Middlemarch for BBC2.

Davies had reportedly accused the corporation of seeking to "narcotise the population" with "worn-out formulas". He also questioned the credentials of the current channel controllers - BBC1's Alan Yentob and BBC2's Michael Jackson, both alumni of the Music & Arts department at Television Centre - to commission drama programmes.

As often with BBC controversies, the actual script did not quite match the advance synopsis. Davies's "outburst" turned out to have been commissioned and broadcast by the corporation itself. The playwright was delivering 1995's "Huw Weldon Lecture", an annual address on a cultural subject, which was screened on BBC2 last night.

As viewers will have seen, most of the speech was a jokey and anecdotal account of Davies's career as a television writer. In the final pages, he did make the quoted comments, but they were in the context of an attack on ITV which, the dramatist claimed,had abandoned intelligent drama - and a plea to the BBC not to make the same mistakes.

Even so, Davies's remarks do touch on a number of current and serious debates about television drama and the function of the BBC. The problem - illustrated by the way in which the thesis of the lecture has been claimed as vindication by quite different factions within the media - is that a series of issues have become confused.

The first is the ratings performance of BBC1 under Alan Yentob, particularly in the area of popular peak-time fiction. ITV currently has at least six drama series capable of commanding more than 10 to 13 weeks and 13-15 million viewers - which constitutea clear majority of the available evening audience. These series include Heartbeat, Cracker, Peak Practice and London's Burning. The BBC has only one - the hospital series, Casualty - and two other would-be hits - Harry and Seaforth - managed an averageof only around 7 million viewers.

But this is to assume that BBC1 should chase ratings. In fact - the second issue - there is considerable debate over what kind of programmes BBC1 should screen. The historical wisdom at the BBC was that the justification for the licence fee lay in the extent to which the main public service channel, BBC1, was different from the main commercial channel, ITV. Why, the argument ran, should people pay for the identical fare provided free by the other side?

Thatcherites, however, argued that only by being universally viewed could the BBC justify a universally levied licence fee. Why should people pay for material less attractive to them than what ITV gave them for nothing?

The Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, suggested in a recent speech that the corporation must achieve high ratings to justify the fee. The complexity of this question is shown by the fact that, although Yentob is regularly criticised for failing to deliver ratings, he suffers abuse from many of the same quarters for screening the National Lottery draw, a show which has nothing to be said for it except large audiences.

The third issue concerns the recent restructuring of the BBC drama department. Commissioning has become less collegiate, and power to advance or kill scripts is now concentrated around a smaller group of executives - principally George Faber, supreme forsingle dramas, and Nick Elliott, imported from LWT to oversee popular serials. In addition to this, Yentob and Jackson, stung by a series of drama failures before this year, have increasingly relied on their own instincts, killing some pet projects of the drama department. It may be significant, with regard to Andrew Davies's speech, that the playwright's champion and collaborator, Michael Wearing, is one of those reportedly left uncomfortable by the recent reforms.

It was against the background of these dramas-within-drama that Andrew Davies's address last night was written and received. And it is important to understand what he was, and was not, saying.

The first point is that, while eagerly seen by Yentob's critics as an attack on BBC1's poor ratings performance, Davies's lecture was actually saying the opposite. It was a defence of elitism in TV drama. What he said was: "Drama should be all about trying to make masterpieces, not chasing tired old shows downmarket after ratings."

The problem for Yentob and the BBC is the extent to which the medium has changed since Dennis Potter first wrote for television in the Fifties or Andrew Davies turned in his first scripts in the Seventies. At that time, serious drama (as distinct from sitcom or soap opera) was largely exempted from the ratings struggle, even in ITV. In 1976, Thames screened in peak-time Bill Brand, a densely dialectical series about a Labour MP, written by Trevor Griffiths. ITV even competed with the BBC in the area of "classic serials" - principally, Granada's Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel In The Crown and Hard Times.

These days a producer who approaches ITV holding a book by Dickens, Waugh or Paul Scott or 13 Trevor Griffiths scripts could expect to be taken away in a van. The previous consensus - in which even the commercially funded ITV was, in effect, a public service broadcaster - was broken by market reforms imposed on the media by the post-1979 Conservative governments: multiplication of channels and introduction of satellite TV, development of the home video market, auctioning of ITV franchises to the highest bidder.

And so the BBC was left as the sole British producer of single plays and adaptations of serious novels. (Channel 4 has concentrated on cinema co-productions and one major drama serial a year from an established writer such as Potter or Alan Bleasdale.) This isolation might have had benefits - no competition for actors, playwrights or rights to novels - if it had not coincided with another cultural shift. In the first half of this decade, politicians and critics have come to accept ratings as the only real arbiter of a drama's success.

For the first time in its history, the BBC has been judged by its success on enemy territory - in the field of mass-audience drama, where series are measured rather than treasured - and it has suffered heavy losses. Some of its difficulties result from mistakes. Certain of ITV's recent successes - the sentimental Heartbeat and the formulaic Peak Practice - might seem no great loss to the more cerebral executives at Television Centre, but questions must be asked about how they managed to miss such quality products as Cracker, Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect.

There have also been structural failures. For all their qualities, neither Yentob nor George Faber is celebrated for organisation or quick decision-making and the Controller and the drama baron have sometimes paid for their delays. Star writers complain of growing old while waiting for decisions. The second series of BBC1's one popular drama hit of last year, Chandler & Co, will be lacking two of the three original stars because of prevarication over contracts. Lengthy agonising over whether the BBC1 saga Seaforth would be given a second series (eventually, it wasn't) further encouraged the view that the BBC's management floor is full of desks where the buck does not so much stop as hang around for a few months.

The difficulty is that Andrew Davies's suggestions for reform are seriously flawed. He asked for the drama department's hunches to be supported by the channel bosses. But Yentob and Jackson started calling the shots themselves precisely because the specialist section heads had heavily backed so many lame horses. Davies mocks the present Controller's background in the arts, but when a former drama head, Jonathan Powell, ran BBC1, he scheduled more losers than Yentob.

Also, if you widen the definition of drama to include comedy, the BBC leaves ITV with one, or even two, feet in the grave. Indeed, under Yentob and Jackson, a specific and distinctive genre of BBC fiction has developed. It ranges from sitcoms like Absolutely Fabulous and The Brittas Empire, to the police series Between The Lines, the black medical comedy Cardiac Arrest and the classic adaptations Middlemarch and Martin Chuzzlewit. It is an intelligent semi-populism, verbally and visually slick, often subversive in intention. This genre has a natural audience of around 6 or 7 million, although individual episodes may attract as many as 10 million. It is the sole preserve of the BBC. ITV would regard each of the shows as a ratings failure.

Andrew Davies, in his lecture last night, was calling for the corporation to make more shows of that nature; urging them not to follow ITV in shuffling the same performers (John Thaw, David Jason) through the same professions - vet, policeman, private detective. The fact that many newspapers - and, it is almost certain, politicians - chose to believe that he was encouraging the BBC to do exactly that is a measure of how difficult Alan Yentob's position is.

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