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.
9 responses to “What I Learned in 2009”
I'm not knocking soaps, by the way. They have their place. Way back when the Greeks laid the groundwork of Western drama, every major presentation was preceded by an entertainment based around contemporary issues, the personalities of the day and the concerns of the market square. But they were never the centrepiece of the occasion; they existed in the context of more focused programming. Soaps are to drama as gossip is to actual conversation.
A happy new year to you. I'm assuming that your successful TV work means that we won't be seeing any books in the near future?
The Suicide Hour is coming soon from Shaye Areheart Books; don't know when, exactly, as I delivered it at the end of summer and Shaye's reaction was relayed to me a few weeks later. It's a follow-up to The Kingdom of Bones, set in 1912, and follows Sebastian Becker and his family back to England where he takes up a post as Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy.
I've a third book planned for the sequence. I've mapped out the story, and while in the US I've been taking the opportunity to do some of the research for it. I haven't scheduled the actual writing of that one yet – I need to stay flexible right now. But I can't abandon prose fiction. It's my anchor.
Excellent, I'll look forward to that. Out of interest, quite a few years ago I'd read that 'The Red Bride' was scheduled to be your next novel but it didn't get published. My sister tried to buy it for my birthday but no bookshops had it listed and she ended up sending me a book voucher for it (and was convinced I'd made it up). It did eventually get published quite a few years later (so I proved that it wasn't a figment of my imagination) and I'm sure it was after 'The Spirit Box' – was there a reason for the delay? Were you working on TV scripts or was it re-written? I've always wondered.
The loss of “the individual voice, the authored piece, the single play” is what really saddens me the most about British television drama. Growing up watching Play for Today, they didn’t all always work for me but it was something different each week.
What’s missing now is the variety of subject matter in single dramas and serials by the likes of Trevor Griffiths, Trevor Preston, Dennis Potter, Nigel Kneale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Alan Bennett, dramas like Secret Army or The Sandbaggers or Between the Lines or Our Friends in the North or Tim Firth’s All Quiet on the Preston Front.
Obviously they haven’t been totally extinguished. In the last ten years we’ve had Peter Bowker’s Blackpool, State of Play and Shameless from Paul Abbott, and terrific pieces from Stephen Poliakoff, but they’ve been few and far between because for the most part that kind of originality has been trampled – if not steamrollered – out of the way by the likes of EastEnders and Casualty.
So if I prefer US dramas now it’s really because of the variety and originality rather than bigger budgets and a livelier pace to proceedings. Sure there are franchises like Dick Wolf’s Law & Order and JB’s CSI, but then there’s Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars and Chuck. Mental as it is, I really love Chuck, which surprised me. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
If I watch a UK drama now it tends to be something from decades past on DVD. Although apparently there was an excellent drama about Moliere on BBC4 last night, which I missed, so I’ll catch that on iPlayer.
All said, the one thing I find really scary and rather sad that there is a new generation of folk wanting to get into the business and write for EastEnders and Casualty because they don’t know of a time before these shows filled up the schedules. So unless something is done to correct the balance it’s just going to get worse.
The TV Committee of the WGGB did an informal study of a year's Radio Times and came up with the figures that roughly 65% of BBC drama were continuing seres/ soaps; about 37% medical long runners. As you say, there's no "limited pool of talent," just a lack of vision and imagination from higher up. It worries me that some writers have never faced a blank page (without being given storylines/ scene breakdowns and/or a beatsheet) and let their creativity soar.
And have we noticed that we've just lost David Tennant and Russell T. Davies to L.A. too? Tsk. And tsk again.
Word reached me that Russell T and Chris Chibnall were taking meetings around town a few weeks ago, and Tennant's to headline a new NBC show. Mark Thompson talks about having to pay those high salaries to keep his executives from going elsewhere. Ummm…
Stan — it was THE PAINTED BRIDE, and it came out from The Subterranean Press. It was originally contracted to Bantam but when there was a disagreement over the content, my then-agent persuaded me to let him cancel the contract and start afresh. Won't they just drop me? asked I. No, they're committed to you, quoth he. They dropped me.
Good Dog — I'm with you on CHUCK.
Sorry, I think I'd got the title mashed up with your previous book (Red, Red Robin) but I'm glad you knew what I meant. That solves the mystery, anyway!
Looks like you're not the only one to want more original drama on the BBC, Steve.
Good news, but it doesn't go far enough. Even the sacred cow that is E*stEnders should be fed into the mincer.