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Is television a director's medium?

Earlier this month, broadcaster and columnist Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian on why he thinks television will never be a director's medium.

Here a group of directors (and members of Directors UK) give their response.

Gillies MacKinnon
The Village, Inspector George Gently, Above Suspicion, Hideous Kinky
If you have worked with actors whose early careers overlapped with Alan Clarke you will find the most passionate loyalty towards the director. To these actors he represents the best of original and inspiring British directors, one who defined and changed television drama. Mark Lawson would be correct in saying that the role of director is almost institutionally watered down in contemporary television, but he would be wrong to maintain it has to be like that.

When I started making films, television was a great place to begin. There was BBC Screen 2, where many actors, writers, producers and directors working today began, making distinctive and often unlikely single dramas. For my own part, a story like The Grass Arena from John Healy's novel, featuring the first film role for Mark Rylance, who was a complete unknown at the time, playing opposite the wonderful now deceased Pete Posthelwaite, was a perfect opportunity to make a director led film- sadly a single drama which would have a bat's chance in hell of being made today. A single drama based upon an obscure story with no TV stars in it? And yet this film won awards wherever it was shown. These Screen 2 TV single dramas were made because they seemed a good idea, out of passion, not as a commodity, and not as a deal done between the network and the production company, considered a product designed to attract an audience.

The attitude towards the TV director was very different then. My first outing was on Jimmy McGovern's first single drama, Needle, produced by an up and coming young producer, George Faber. The exec was Michael Wearing. He met us and invited us to contact him if we had problems. As executive producer it was his job to decide upon the subject of the film, the producer, writer and director. After that he left us to get on with it. There were no other voices at large beyond George, Jimmy and myself. The point is that this older and simpler television culture gave every opportunity to young directors to dig deep, really test themselves and create something unexpected, not be assigned as illustrator of the grand plan.

We hear the claim that this is a golden age of British film, but check back 20 years to the UK Sunday reviews and you will find most films were British. This is certainly not true now, despite the legions of young people who are encouraged to choose film making as their career. I have spoken to young filmmakers who have been refused on the basis that they have not done enough workshops and I wonder if film in the UK has become institutionalised. I do wonder how many filmmakers of the originality of David Lynch, Lyndsey Anderson, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky or our own Shane Meadows would have emerged from this recent preoccupation with workshops.

After years of making feature films, I have been working in television again in recent years, largely because of the collapse of the middle budget film in the UK. As a director, you can either spend your life going to meetings about films, which are not happening, or continue to work in TV. Television single drama hardly exists now and a very different culture has taken over. There is now an obsession with viewing figures, which results in a far more commercial mentality. From what I hear, directors are often regarded as someone to do the awkward bit- working on set, looking after the visuals, getting the film in on time, working with actors - but these are only the most basic skills and what is missing now is the expectation that the director is more than a competent facilitator. The idea that the director is there to bring a special and perhaps unpredictable mind to the story seems to have been elbowed aside.

For my own part I would not complain, as I have been fortunate enough to work mainly with people who still respect and understand the director's role in the process. But I do recognise that drama as a commodity is the thing now, a culture that is not likely to produce many surprises. Some years ago a TV executive was constantly blocking our decisions and vital work on set had ground to a halt for want of his approval. Time was running out. When I explained to the executive the dire need for his co-operation, (he was back in London in his office) he said- "If I listened to you that would be the tail wagging the dog." I was astonished to hear that he, a person who had no awareness of the state of the production, considered himself the dog and the rest of us the tail. That was my first insight into a change in the mentality of some TV executives- thankfully not all of them I may add, and it needs to be stated that a good, responsible, communicating producer is a gift to a director.

British television was once considered a leading spirit but has more recently been relegated to imitator of America and even Scandinavia. I do wish television would create space for something completely innovative, free of so many conditions, free of knitting patterns, formulas, tried and tested theories and safe ideas spiced up to titillate and excite. An American producer once said that the American public doesn’t want to see something new. They want to see the same great drama they saw last week, but with different actors in it. I hope that hasn't happened here too.


Kay Patrick
Coronation Street, Holby City, In Suspicious Circumstances
Mark Lawson’s article makes two points.  It contrasts the significance of the role of the TV director as opposed to that of the director in film, and comments on the advent of the American style “show runner” in British TV, particularly the emergence of the writer/director/producer, which he implies diminishes the central role of the director.

It’s a mistake to believe that the methods used by the publicity machine to sell a TV drama in this now crowded market place truly reflects the reality of the director’s role in television.  Danny Boyle’s name was used to promote Babylon in order to immediately grab attention. It’s a selling point, in the same way that a Hollywood actor appearing as a lead in the West End is used to gain publicity and sell seats. If that actor were to be replaced by a less well-known artist, the role would still be the lead role, the success of the play would still depend on the effectiveness of his/her performance, it just wouldn’t be acknowledged in the promotion.  Danny Boyle is a great director and after the Olympics a name the general public recognise, but ‘his replacement’ Jon S Baird played the same pivotal role. The fact that his episode was less about spot the shot (which I doubt the general public are concerned about anyway) and more about the episode itself doesn’t diminish his role. It’s just the publicity machine’s exploitation of a name and the critic’s response to it.  As mentioned in the article, Danny Boyle had earlier directed Morse using the same skills, carrying the same responsibilities, expressing the same creative drive; it’s just that the publicity machine sold it on the success of John Thaw.

It’s true that there are attempts in the UK to adopt the American style show runner, with varying degrees of success. We’ve also attempted the American style of team-writing for series and are in the process of trying to do without scripts entirely and simply improvise. For me, coming as I do from acting, through to directing on radio, theatre and television, the most creative relationship is the one between writer and director followed closely by that between director and actor. This is a tradition that has evolved in this country through theatre and radio.  The writer’s role is crucial but a director is an objective eye, an added discipline. Discussions between writer and director can bring out subtexts the writer hadn’t even envisaged.  The director is the person who is going to make sure that subtext comes through visually and in performance.  Directors are the eyes through which the audience will experience the work whether or not that role is recognised by the publicity department or the audience or the critics. Sometimes a writer may feel their work has been misrepresented by a particular director and want to have a go themselves just as some directors have worked on weak scripts and taken to writing their own, both with varying degrees of success. But the director has spent their professional life honing their creative skills, analysing scripts, learning to convey them through the work of crews and actors. Even film uses this collaborative process.

Television may not be acknowledged as a director’s medium - in recent years I have become keenly aware of just how undervalued the significance of their role is becoming - but the high standard of television in one-off dramas, series and soaps, will be the poorer if the importance of their contribution is denigrated and ultimately ignored.


Toby Haynes
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Musketeers, Wallander, Sherlock, Doctor Who, Five Days, Being Human

Dear Mark,
I was fascinated to read your blog on "Why television will never be a director's medium'. It is something that I have wrestled with in my career for some time, but I do feel times are changing.

My name is Toby Haynes and I have been directing television drama for the last ten years. I started out on Hollyoaks, before progressing through MI:High (a successful CBBC show running for 9 series), Being Human (directing the first two episodes), Doctor Who (5 consecutive episodes including a Christmas Special), Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall) and an episode of Wallander. More recently, I've had the pleasure of developing and directing all seven episodes of an adaptation of Susannah Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC. I am also serving as Executive Producer on the series.

When JS&MN was first commissioned I think I was the first director in a long time to be trusted with directing a whole series. I remember my executives at the BBC talking about David Yates being the last to do so with State of Play. Producing such an ambitious period fantasy drama has taken several years and in the meantime I believe a positive trend has developed towards single directors taking on whole series - directors such as Hugo Blick, Yann Demange and Tom Shankland. I think the BBC in particular is beginning to trust shows to a singular vision, which is hugely exciting after years of slogging away at 'blocks' of drama.

It is gratifying to read your blog as the British media in general have been slow to pick up on this. The director is rarely mentioned in articles, reviews or blogs. As you point out, a show is usually publicised on its star or writer. I feel directors in TV are seen in the eyes of the media - and thus a large proportion of our audience - as technicians as opposed to artistic contributors.

However, with advances in technology there is very little to differentiate what we do in television with our counterparts working in film - quite often we have comparable budgets, bigger audiences and these days more complex storylines and character arcs. Thanks to the influence of American drama and other foreign imports, our TV shows have bigger and bigger ambitions and the audience's expectation of what quality drama looks and feels like is much higher than it used to be.

Indeed, I find myself more excited about television offers than I do about film.  It feels from my perspective that sadly, cinema is in a creative recession right now, whilst TV is enjoying a renaissance - the place you go if you want to tell ambitious, intelligent stories, develop rich three-dimensional characters and still have your work seen by a large audience. Artistically, television has caught up with cinema and in some cases surpassed it. It is interesting how many film directors are turning to television, as well as film actors.

Right now, television is an extremely exciting medium for directors, as it is for writers and actors alike. The industry is beginning to recognise the artistic contribution directors can make from a project's very inception. We are working hard to achieve equality with our better known and better paid collaborators, both individually and collectively (through Directors UK). What we need is greater awareness of our role. This is somewhere the media can help us perhaps: speaking of us in the same breath as writers will help audiences understand our artistic contribution and ultimately help us shake off our artistic anonymity.


Robin Sheppard

The Last Witch, The Café, New Tricks, Kingdom, Lucky Jim
To follow on from Alan Parker there is another French word for a director - a 'realisateur' and this term more accurately encapsulates the unique contribution TV directors make - the ability to realise the script from page to screen. With flair and vision. To elicit the best performances with their knowledge and experience of working with actors. To communicate the look and feel of the show to the crew, shot by shot, and bring all the talent on set together to create and rich and authentic world.

Directors have a unique set of skills to make the transition from script to screen ideally collaborating with the writer and the producer to render the story in precise and compelling detail, making it compelling viewing for the audience.

The director's credit is up front, along with the writer and producer. It is this creative triangle that is the heart of brilliant TV drama. Ask any actor and they will tell you they are in the director's hands during the shoot - the director calls the shots on set.

So why are directors not given acknowledgement for their creative contribution off the set? Why is it the exception rather than the rule? What can we do to rectify this imbalance? We should be celebrating the unique vision the director brings, not ignoring it.



Simon Phillips (of Tools of Directing)

I agree with Robin Sheppard's comment [on the Guardian's website], as this is not just about celebration of individual directors, or if a director's name is used in either; pitching a proposed project or marketing the finished product. One of the reasons we are starting to see the true creative role of the director being eroded is because few people understand the nature of the work we do. That is evident in the article comments - but also of the whole industry. Partly that is because it is shrouded in terms such as “ flair and vision”. The intuitive talent basis of the director's contribution are part of why the real professional requirements to doing a good job, such as; scheduled time for planning, rehearsal etc. are being cut more and more.  



Posted 26 November 2014 by Jon Creamer
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