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Interview: The BBC's drama head Ben Stephenson

15 February 2012

BBC drama boss Ben Stephenson is enjoying a strong run thanks to hits like Great Expectations, Birdsong, Call the Midwife and Sherlock. Tim Dams listens in to his plans for the future

Drama is shaping up to become the defining TV battleground of 2012, with signs of a concerted dramatic push by each of the big broadcasters.

The focus on fiction has been spurred by the incredible success at home and internationally of ITV's Downton Abbey and BBC1's Sherlock. Broadcasters, which cut back on the genre as the downturn first hit, appear to be investing once again as they seek channel defining dramas in the face of wilting entertainment and factual formats.

The genre has certainly repaid handsome dividends to BBC1 in recent weeks. The channel has enjoyed a blistering dramatic run, with critical and audience acclaim for Birdsong, Call the Midwife, Great Expectations and Sherlock.

The BBC's controller of drama commissioning Ben Stephenson, speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch, says his spotlight is rightly on BBC1 this year, after a huge amount of focus and a doubling of investment in drama on BBC2 last year.

Stephenson says BBC1 is launching 24 new titles in 2012 including historical adaptation War of the Roses, Ripper Street, Prisoners' Wives, William Boyd's Restless, spy series Nemesis, Wilkie Collins' adaptation The Moonstone and ghost story The Secret of Crickley Hall. Each of them, he reckons, are characterised by "bigness" - big characters, big stories and big emotions - in a bid to attract a broad BBC1 audience ("Our average audience is a woman in her fifties - that is who we appeal to," he adds).

Big emotion, he says, was on display in Birdsong, which took a difficult subject matter and "through a wealth of emotion delivers real feeling for a BBC1 audience." Sherlock and Luther, meanwhile, are good examples of big characters, proof that audiences like leading actors who are "complex, rich, surprising, different, edgy but probably more good than bad. People are really drawn to conflicted characters and you can’t get more conflicted than Luther. Most of his wives have been murdered and he is in love with a serial killer. And you can't get more fucked up than Sherlock. Yet arguably they are two of our most iconic characters." It's also about big stories. "There's something about BBC1 drama stories that should have a primal, mythic quality to them - they should grab you and not let go."

Stephenson stresses that writers and directors are key to delivering on this vision. Writers, he says, "remain absolutely at the heart of what we do", citing Prisoners' Wives writer Julie Geary, William Boyd as well as Victoria Wood, who is working on a new 90-min film for BBC1.

But, he adds: “I would like to turn the attention on to directors as much as the writers. Great success comes with directors on top form. You’ve only got to look at what Brian Kirk has done with Great Expectations, Philip Martin for Birdsong or Paul McGuigan for Sherlock to see what alchemy a director brings to a show.”

Stephenson is unstuffy, sharp and a confident communicator. Three years into his job at the BBC, he concludes that there is no magic formula for creating a hit show. Instead, it's all about making "risky shows." "The shows that are hits are the ones that are unexpected, that you have high hopes for but are hugely original. What you cannot do is go, 'I will commission a hit.'"

It may be for this reason that he plays down any suggestion that he might like to emulate the success of Danish drama and commission a British version of The Killing or Borgen. What does he make of their success? "That they are brilliant - and that they are watched by half a million."

The BBC, however, prefers to commission a wider range of short run shows rather than focus on a few that stretch to 20 episodes each. That would mean axing numerous existing series and ignoring certain audience groups, says Stephenson. "If in two years we had three 20-part series and that was it, I suspect that we could be sitting here having some quite difficult conversations about the reach of the channel and the type of audiences that we are catering for and undercatering for." The creative community, he suspects, would also be up in arms if he chose to work on just a few dramas rather than spreading the net wider.

For now, meanwhile, Stephenson is focusing his resources on BBC1 and BBC2 while moving away from drama on BBC4 and downplaying it on BBC3 in the light of the BBC's cutbacks. He's also, he insists, very much enjoying his job. "I've had two years of my stuff being on the telly and feel I've got loads more to do."

2008 Stephenson was promoted to BBC controller of drama commissioning. He was previously head of drama commissioning, working on shows such as No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Lark Rise To Candleford, Oliver Twist, Criminal Justice and Survivors.
2004 Stephenson joined the BBC as head of development for independent drama. Before the BBC he worked as a development producer at Shed Productions and Tiger Aspect.  He also worked at Channel 4 where he was editor, series, for over two years on dramas such as No Angels, Teachers and Buried. His first job in TV was a script editor at Granada Television.
Education Stephenson studied drama at Manchester University

This interview first ran in Televisual's February issue

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Meredith  | February 19, 2012
Agreed about Garrow's Law. Here was a programme that truly felt original and fresh, and with a small four week footprint in the schedule, I can't fathom why it was jettisoned in favor of safe retreads like Great Expectations and The Moonstone. I like classic literature as much as the next person, but ANOTHER version of that Wilkie Collins chestnut is an answer to a question nobody was asking.

Even though I'm younger than either Mr. Stephensen or Danny Cohen, every time they open their mouths and talk about "edgy" programming (what is this, 1996?) or "fucked up" and "conflicted" characters, I want to roll my eyes and yell at them to get off my damn lawn.

If BBC drama makes this woman in her 20s feel old and ignored, I think there's little hope for them appealing "women in their fifties"
Mrs_Silvester  | February 18, 2012
I definitely think the decision to cancel Garrow's Law is criminal - an injustice! The programme just keeps getting better and better and series 3 was the best yet! There is a dedicated fanbase in the UK as well as in America, and viewing figures have been consistently around the 5 million mark. BBC Scotland is producing some excellent quality drama and Garrow's Law increased the reputation of the BBC. The cancellation decision seems irrational given the BBC wish to produce more drama at BBC Scotland.

There is so much more potential for development with Series 4 of Garrow's Law - the new character of George Pinnock is excellent, and Garrow's relationship with Sarah could be further explored now that they are starting a family. Moreover, interesting possible storylines include Garrow's route to the Bench and a possible alliance between Garrow and Fox. The archives of the Old Bailey still provide a rich source of case material that has plenty stories to yet to be explored.

I speak on behalf of many fans when I urge the BBC to reconsider their decision!
Richard  | February 17, 2012
Big budget gift wrapped chocolate box, safe classic adaptation, detectives or "fucked up" - where's the risk being taken with original writers of new drama? If you cancel/diminish drama commissioning for BBC 3 and 4 where producers can be creative for lower budgets (light on tired old special effects) - the seed bed for emergent new drama and writers to develop - and we're left with same old, same old. We want the BBC to be the best - not the broadcaster driven by American sales and worldwide distribution of cliche British stereo types. US drama imports give us original - the BBC gives us tired. Give the intelligent (license fee paying)audience a break on the BBC Ben - or breathe some fresh air into the commissioning process with some new blood!
Oh, and does 'unstuffy' refer to the use of the vernacular? A bit more listening and feeling challenged might reflect better than the complacent self satisfied enjoyment of "my stuff being on the telly".
Robin  | February 16, 2012
Quite agree about Garrow's Law. The Beeb had just moved it to the prime Sunday 9pm slot – and then dumped it. It was a fascinating and intelligent drama. I enjoy some BBC and ITV dramas, but I'm dazzled by the brilliance of many American series – Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire to name a couple. Could the BBC really only afford to make three 20-parters, or even one without sacrificing many other series? Is it really so much poorer than the likes of HBO? While I know the government is always pressuring the Beeb over money, I suspect it lacks something other than cash – more like a little ambition and daring.
Andrea  | February 16, 2012
I have enjoyed(via box-sets)several of the BBC-dramas. But why axing Garrow's law?? Innovative concept(despite the period), unusual setting, top-notch actors and new talent and an appeal to 5 million viewers. Better shows? Yet to be proved!(and a new Moonstone and a Tudor-rip-off are hardly original).
Viv  | February 16, 2012
"Our average audience is a woman in her fifties" Well that's me - and I'm furious that you've abandoned Garrow's Law when there's more story about this iconic, complex, different character. He may not be "fucked up" but the system he was reforming certainly was! The writing,setting and language of this series has been exceptional - the acting has been sublime - I daresay you've never watched - but 5 million of us have & stuck with it because we can see it's of the highest quality.

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