While there’s a fashion in British TV drama right now for the dark and sinister – see Broadchurch, Happy Valley, The Fall, The Missing – the narrative of the television drama business itself is much more of a feelgood story – less Ken Loach grit and more Richard Curtis sunshine.
A golden age
It is, without doubt, a genre enjoying its place in the sun. “When I look back to the dark days at the turn of the century when drama seemed to be falling out of favour, it’s a complete sea change now,” says Carnival Films’ md Gareth Neame. “A decade and half later it seems to be healthier than it has ever been before.” Fifty Fathoms’ creative director (and winner of the Women in Film and TV producer award) Katie Swinden concurs. “It’s a really exciting time for drama. The ambition’s gone up, the money’s gone up and there are an awful lot more broadcasters looking for content across the board.”
And it’s the number of potential buyers that’s making for such a healthy sector. “There are more avenues to explore now,” says Murray Ferguson, chief exec of Clerkenwell Films. “There are more players – Starz weren’t around several years ago, Netflix are coming in.” In the UK, Sky has not reined in its ambitions in scripted, Channel 5 and UKTV are even commissioning small amounts and the traditional buyers like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 see drama as more and more important in their genre mix. “There’s a wealth of diversity and so many possibilities for pitching things into the market, probably more so than at any time I’ve been writing,” says Primeval and Musketeers writer and creator Adrian Hodges. “There’s an appetite for both adapted and original drama both in the UK and the States and in worldwide markets generally.”
And there are more possibilities to fund projects at a variety of budget levels. “When E4 first began that opened up a type of drama one could make at a slightly lower budget than you might have got traditionally from ITV1 or BBC1 and we made Misfits,” says Clerkenwell’s Ferguson. “Then you hit the mainstream through BBC1 and ITV1, and you can also think in a more ambitious scale where you might have funding from the UK the US and Europe as well.” And with so many funding levels open “it is creatively quite liberating.”
Broadcasters are also liberating their channels from the narrower confines of the past, says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler. “It feels like people aren’t pigeonholing their own channels. Stuff that might be on BBC1 might not have been on BBC1 five or six years ago. It does feel like there’s more risk taking across every channel.” Broadcasters have grown in confidence when it comes to their drama output and are far more willing to try new genres and formats. ITV stretched itself with Broadchurch as did Channel 4 with pieces like Utopia. After saying it ‘didn’t do costume drama,’ Sky then went on to make Penny Dreadful. BBC1 has recently been the home to often uncomfortably dark pieces like Happy Valley and The Missing that it perhaps wouldn’t have housed in years gone by. BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson said last month that “when I started in this job the constant criticism of the BBC was that it was focused only on traditional period drama. I’m so pleased that these are not the conversations we are having now. We have shifted the dial and modernised BBC drama. The overall feel of our output is modern, provocative, unafraid and bold in its confidence and swagger.”
Any time at all
All bets now seem to be off when it comes to scheduling drama too. “It’s a very exploratory time,” says Katie Swinden. “There are places like Netflix playing around with being able to download a series in one go and they’re also playing with weekly, more traditional scheduling. The BBC and Channel 4 have played with ideas of stripping stories across five days. What all the broadcasters are looking for is a powerful story that will engage the viewer and then they’re much more flexible about how they can best attract people to that story.” Donna Wiffen, ex-head of international drama at Fremantlemedia and now md of start up indie Duchess Street Productions, says that while there’s a big market for “event drama like Downton that you have to watch on a Sunday night because otherwise you read about it in the papers, or everybody’s tweeting about it, or your friends are telling you what’s happening.” Conversely there’s also the “Netflix box set binging.”
The variety of ways that audiences reach shows means there is less stress on the overnights than in the past. With less need to hit a mainstream audience in one go, there is not so much pressure to head straight for the mainstream with your output. “Shows are finding their audience or audiences are finding their shows,” says Swinden. So it’s more possible to have complicated storytelling or more complex, sometimes morally ambiguous anti heroes when you’re not trying to please all of the people all of the time. The target is no longer “couch potatoes,” says Wiffen. “Audiences are much more sophisticated nowadays. They target what they want to watch and they go out and find it. The way we watch has helped change that.” The days when viewers would sit and watch whatever was served up to them have gone. “Viewers are really smart,” says Sky’s acting head of drama , Cameron Roach.
“They just want the best content and they will sniff it out and track it down so it’s pointless us delivering anything other than exceptional content.”
And that openness to finding content means “there is a willingness to try new things,” says Hodges. “Audiences are more diverse. You can get a substantial audience for a mainstream show as you always could, then you can also get a very satisfying audience for The Fall or Peaky Blinders and those shows have an enormous reach. We don’t have to make everything for a massive audience. We’ve got to get the right audience for the show.”
New ways of watching TV have opened audiences to drama, often international drama, that they may not have seen in the past and broadcasters are realising there’s a hunger for that. S4C’s drama commissioner Gwawr Lloyd says that for shows like her own Welsh set Hinterland, “the fact that it’s located in Wales is a huge part of the appeal. If you watch something from Scandinavia you get a glimpse into another world through a drama narrative, for me that’s a huge part of the appeal. It’s part of what makes something attractive whereas in the past that’s been a turn off.”
The world of TV drama has simply become much more international now. “We were much more parochial in what we were commissioning and producing here [in the past], so was the US,” says Carnival’s Gareth Neame. But the big international co production is becoming more and more common. “There are a lot more early conversations between UK and US producers about the coupling of talent and putting money into projects,” says Katie Swinden. The BBC’s Ben Stephenson reckons that “the UK / US television community is one community now. It feels like we can accept each other for each other’s strengths and how complementary we are.” US audiences are exposed to international, notably British, drama far more now and are therefore far more accepting of non US content. “New viewing platforms in the US that have given audiences over there exposure to British drama in a way they wouldn’t have seen before,” says Neame. “You still won’t see British drama on a US network but if you’ve got Hulu or Netflix you can.” And it’s the influence of those new platforms that are making the US environment far kinder to UK drama producers. “The old formula of a network 13 or 22-part series with standalone episodes so it could work in syndication has fallen away,” he continues. And now there are shorter runs with more authored pieces. “We’ve never been quite as strong on the mechanical side of things but a lot of this change plays to our strengths.”
The openness of audiences to international content means having an international focus doesn’t have to mean a cross border “pudding” any more. International drama, just means drama with scale. “I don’t have to say to a writer ‘you have to set it in China’ because that isn’t how it works anyway. You’re just pushing them for the biggest way of telling that story,” says Red’s Shindler. “International drama isn’t set internationally. Look at Happy Valley. It’s one of our best sellers and it couldn’t be more local to West Yorkshire. Not even Yorkshire, West Yorkshire. But it sold because the ideas behind it are so universal.”
BBC Key Shows
Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Our Girl, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, The Missing, Top of the lake, The Honourable Woman Recent Commissions
London Spy (Working Title TV); SSGB (Sid Gentle Films); The Last Kingdom (Carnival Films); Undercover (BBC Drama Production); Tatau (Touchpaper TV); The A Word (Fifty Fathoms); The Casual Vacancy (Bronte Film and TV); Taboo (Scott Free, Hardy Son & Baker); The Living and the Dead (Monastic) Commissioners
Controller, Ben Stephenson; head of independent drama, Polly Hill; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Lucy Richer; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Matthew Read; head of BBC Films, Christine Langan
ITV Key Shows
Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Mr Selfridge, Endeavour, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, Scott and Bailey, The Widower, Cilla, Whitechapel Recent Commissions
Jekyll & Hyde (ITV Studios); The Frankenstein Chronicles (Rainmark Films); Midwinter of the Spirit (ITV Studios); The Forgotten (Mainstreet Pictures); Arthur and George (Buffalo Pictures); Jambusters (ITV Studios); Black Work (Mammoth Screen) Commissioners
Director of drama, Steve November; controller of drama, Victoria Fea; commissioning editor, Charlie Hampton; head of drama series, Jane Hudson
Channel 4 Key Shows
Southcliffe, Utopia, My Mad Fat Diary, Black Mirror, Run, Glue, Babylon, Top Boy, Skins, Misfits, This is England Recent commissions
The ABC (The Forge); Peter Kosminsky ISIS series (Archery); Coalition (Cuba); Humans (Kudos ); Cucumber, Banana, Tofu (Red); No Offence (Abbottvision) Commissioners
Head of drama, Piers Wenger; deputy head, Beth Willis; head of development, Surian Fletcher-Jones; commissioning editor, Sophie Gardiner; commissioning editor, Roberto Troni
SKY Key Shows
The Smoke, The Tunnel, Fleming, Fortitude, Penny Dreadful, Strikeback, The Enfield Haunting, Yonderland Recent commissions
Critical (Hat Trick); The Five (Red Production); The Last Panthers (Warp Films) Commissioners
Head of drama, Anne Mensah; commissioning editor, Cameron Roach; head of development, Beverley Booker
Under Milk Wood (fFatti fFilms), Hinterland (Fiction Factory); 35 Days (Apollo TV)
Commissioner: Gwawr Lloyd
Suspects (Newman Street)
Commissioner: Ben Frow
Legion (Red Planet)
Commissioner: Darren Childs
The Crown (Left Bank)
Commissioners: chief content officer, Ted Sarandos; original content vp, Cindy Holland; original series director, Peter Friedlander
Ripper Street (Tiger Aspect)
Commissioners: vp Amazon Prime Instant Video, UK, Tim Leslie; head of international content acquisition, Jason Ropell
With his new Sky 3D show about to launch, David Attenborough tells Jon Creamer why his passion for the development of natural history TV hasn’t dimmed
It’s pretty hard to overstate Sir David Attenborough’s contribution to British television. He’s regularly named in every ‘Greatest Living Briton,’ ‘Living Icon,’ ‘National Treasure’ and ‘Heroes of Our Time’ list that rears its head and, although he might baulk at such epithets, he has, arguably, defined the role of the television presenter and created the template for natural history broadcasting.
He was, after all, right there at the birth of the medium in this country having joined the BBC’s nascent television service after failing to get a position with BBC Radio. “I got a job having seen one television programme - a play. I didn’t even have a television set,” he says.
But over the past 60 years his passion for television, and its ability to show the public the natural world in all its glory, hasn’t dimmed. This month sees the launch of his latest Sky 3D spectacular with Atlantic Productions, Conquest of the Skies.
And despite 3D not taking off in quite the way it was once predicted to, he’s still a great champion of the format. “It gives you a more complete picture of the world,” he says, and it’s another step forward in television’s ability to do that. “When it started the vision of the world television gave you was a very limited one. It was black and white with 405 lines.” The emergence of colour TV was a big leap from that “not because it’s more colourful but because it gives a more high definition picture of the world. That’s the same with 3D. Like colour, the world does have three dimensions after all.”
And the ability to capture more of the world in three dimensions has advanced rapidly. “We’ve been doing it for five years and when we started the apparatus was huge. It took 12 to 14 people to keep it on the road. Now it’s much more versatile.” But while 3D advances, television, in terms of picture excellence, has almost reached the end of history, he says. “The move from 405 lines to 5k is huge. If you projected the programmes I made in the 50s and put them on a screen the size of a house it would be intolerable but with 5k you can.” Because as far as the pictures are concerned “we’ve jolly nearly got everything we require,” he says. “We can do almost anything you can think of. You can film at night, you can film at the bottom of the sea, you can slow things down, speed things up and with cgi you can create anything you want. It’s a dangerous thing to say but as far as television is concerned, we are very close to the end of technical developments.”
But he says, technology is nothing if the story isn’t there. “A dud programme is not made into a good programme by making it in 3D,” he says. “Narrative structure is a very valuable thing to have. There have been good programmes that just go to a wonderful place and just dream about,” but you can’t do that in every programme. “Chronology is very important” in natural history, he says. “Viewers want to know where they are in a programme and keeping things chronologically in order is a very useful way of maintaining a narrative thread.” As is keeping that narrative and the script fresh. “There’s nothing wrong with a cliché in itself because the reason it has become a cliché because it is appropriate and it works.”
But, he says, cliché is simply taking “the easy way out. That’s the difference between good writing and bad writing.” And although “’I’m here in this exciting place and I’m going to find out’ is a very good way of starting a programme, if you’re the 15th person who’s said that in a week it doesn’t hold the viewer.”
As a central figure in the TV firmament for the past 60 years, he’s not sure he could have the same career now. “The television world is changing. What it’s going to be like in 20 years time is anybody’s guess but my suspicion is the way we view television and what we view is going to change quite profoundly.” And the type of series he is best known for might get tougher to realise. “It needs an organisation that has the capital, the ambition and the courage to put money into something for three and a half years. You require somebody who’s well financed and has got the will and the inspiration to make that sort of programme. If you were starting in television as a little independent it wouldn’t automatically be something you would start with.”
And even if it was, he doesn’t rate his chances if he was a young man beginning his career today. “I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a job. The reason I did was that nobody else wanted to make natural history programmes in 1954. But if you put up a notice now saying ‘Wanted: young man to make programme about lions in the Serengeti,’ I guarantee you’d get 5000 applications all of whom might just as well be as qualified as I was.”
David Attenborough was born in Isleworth in 1926. After Cambridge, he joined the BBC in 1952 as a trainee and became a producer. He first appeared as a presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954 when the original presenter was taken ill. He was made controller of BBC2 in 1965 but continued to produce and present. His landmark series include Life on Earth (1975), The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants(1994), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005) and Life in Cold Blood (2007) His 3D work includes Flying Monsters 3D, The Bachelor King 3D and Kingdom of Plants 3D for Atlantic Productions and Sky 3D and Galapagos 3D, Micro Monsters 3D, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D and Conquest of the Skies 3D for Colossus Productions
Watch Channel 4 head of factual and deputy chief creative officer Ralph Lee talking about what he would like to see on his channel. Lee was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta.
Watch BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw talking about what she would like to see on her channels. Shillinglaw was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta, her first interview since taking over the BBC2 and BBC4 role.