It’s been in my mind to write a long post along the lines of “what I learned in 2009”, but until I can set some time aside to think-through and process the whole experience of relocating from one country’s industry to work in another, it’ll have to wait.
It would be simplistic to say that I went from being a paid-off supplier, outside the process of production, to a position of empowered showmaker in a team of hands-on showmakers. The functioning of the American broadcaster/studio/prodco/writing-team system is way more complex and dynamic than that. And just because the American industry is robust and writer-centred, that doesn’t mean that we in the UK don’t have things they envy. The individual voice, the authored piece, the single play… all the things, I realise as I write them down, that are steadily vanishing from British screens.
A sobering moment for me in the course of the year came from a point made within this article by Peter Jukes – a simple observation, but a blindingly obvious one when you stop and think about it. He writes:
It’s a paradox of our public service broadcasting that soaps are primetime viewing here, while on US television they are a daytime interest.
And he’s absolutely right. Where once we could legitimately claim to make the best TV in the world, we’ve regressed. Suddenly I was embarrassed for my country and my culture, and for our TV channels haunted by the faces of those same tired old clock-punching actors arguing endlessly about their relationships.
My embarrassment was tempered by the discovery that wherever I turned in Los Angeles, I found fellow-Brits in key positions throughout the Hollywood system. It’s not just the accent (though I got plenty of mileage out of mine); over there, they like what we can do for them. We bring something to the table. Lead actors, line producers, executives and directors – all, without exception, happy with the thought of never working in the UK again (unless, in the case of the actors, you’re talking about a feature or a West End run).
So it’s not a talent thing. Our people can do the work at the highest levels, whether it’s meeting the commercial needs of network primetime or crafting bespoke product for HBO. They just can’t do it here. Not with the likes of Eastenders and Holby sucking up the lion’s share of the drama hours, and the remaining time being programmed to reflect the tastes of a tiny handful of admin people. When the BBC Controller of Drama speaks of a ‘limited pool of talent’, he’s describing his own horizons, not the world as it is.
If there is such a pool, I’m not in it; and nor is anyone I know. I thought maybe Tim Firth, whose excellent Flint Street Nativity got a Christmas repeat this year, but a check on his IMDB page and website suggests no new TV work in almost a decade. Dominic Minghella? Chris Chibnall? I’m sure they probably have their own stories of unprofessional treatment. I’ll have to tell you the tale of my BBC Dracula sometime. I certainly can’t imagine anyone from the Corporation flying across the Atlantic to engage with me in the way that Bruckheimer’s people did.
Well, I said this post would have to wait, and then I went ahead and wrote it anyway. The main thing I learned in 2009 is a reinforcement of something I said at the beginning of the year. It’s as much a rule of life as of work. Go where you’re wanted. Don’t hang around where you aren’t.
I’ve no idea what 2010 will hold. All I know is that I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I do. It doesn’t seem much to ask. But I won’t kid myself – I’m lucky to be where I am.