Still enjoying ITV drama series BROADCHURCH, I’m suddenly finding it tiresome having to wait a week for the next episode. Because over the last few years, like so many other UK viewers, I’ve become part of ‘Box Set’ culture, used to instant gratification of my TV viewing needs. So, for instance, when I’m completely hooked by BREAKING BAD or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, I can watch two or three episodes in an evening. And with the advent of Netflix and Lovefilm etc this has become even more marked. The idea of having to wait a week seems…a bit outdated.
At 8 episodes BROADCHURCH is at pretty much the maximum length for a new UK mainstream TV drama series commission. The TV drama series culture in the US is completely different. Over there they have ‘pilot season’. Every year the network develop a huge number of drama series ideas, give the best ones a full, broadcast pilot episode – and only then choose the most successful pilots – after a lot of audience research – to go to full series – sometimes 12 episodes, sometimes 24.
Once you get to 24 episodes, a drama series pretty much HAS to become writer-led. And this is completely reflected in the US system – drama series over there are run by writers. And there is a clear hierarchy in the teams of writers that run these series, with several writer-producers on every drama series.
In the UK this culture simply doesn’t exist. Most writers I know would run a mile from the idea of producing a TV series with all the production management that involves. But I really think, if there’s going to be a significant improvement in the range and quality of TV drama writing in the UK, this is what needs to happen.
And there are the beginnings of this shift in culture in the UK. So, for instance, Chris Chibnall is co-executive producer as well writer of BROADCHURCH, and he now has considerable experience of this role, having done the same on several other shows (Camelot, Law & Order:UK, Torchwood).
And writers like Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor, Jed Mercurio, etc – the big name writers – now routinely have executive producer credits on their TV work. The big question though is – what does this credit mean? Is it just an acknowledgement of their industry status? Or does it actually translate into real creative decision-making power? Are these writers now the ones making the key creative decisions in terms of other writers, major casting, heads of department etc?
In my experience the bulk of the key decision-making is still more normally in the hands of the in-house (non-writer) executive producer.
And in the last few years, the executive producer seems to have actually strengthened their hand at the expense of the producer. Speaking to a friend of mine who has just produced a very successful new mainstream BBC series, he disabused me of the notion that he had anything to do with choosing writers, and very little to do with creative development of the script – he was there to deliver the show on time and on budget.
This is not to say that shows not run by writers can’t be good. There are some excellent executive producers working in UK TV drama. People like Hilary Salmon at the BBC who consistently identifies, develops and gets made really first-rate shows (Silk, Inside Men, Criminal Justice, House Of Saddam). Having her name as executive producer on a drama show usually means the show is going to be very good. She has a consistently good track record.
And on the other side of the coin, if a show is run with complete autonomy by a writer it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be wonderful – ‘Dancing on The Edge’??
PS Interestingly Channel 4 drama are making their own mini-season of 4 drama series pilot episodes for E4. It will be fascinating to see what shows they do, how many make it to full series, and how many episodes their first series run to. In fact Channel 4 do have a track record of long-run episode commissions with ‘Shameless’. But with the ending of both SHAMELESS and SKINS Channel 4 are keen to find their next big popular drama series.
Last Saturday afternoon I stumbled across a programme on BBC2 about actor Jimmy Stewart, clips from lots of his old interviews. From an interview in 1972, on the actor’s craft – ‘You make things believable without the device of acting…that doesn’t make any sense at all.‘ But it does. Similarly, for writers, it’s about ‘making things believable without the device of writing.’ ie we don’t want to be aware of the acting or the writing – just the story and character. He also said, referring to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, that ‘Creating moments in movies is the most important thing.‘ He also looked back to meeting someone who referred back to an obscure Western he’d made 20 years previously – and how pleasing it was that this person had remembered a single powerful moment from the movie, that it had so clearly meant something to him. Again, this is something we should strive for as writers – creating tiny but memorable, meaningful moments.
I’ve had some really interesting feedback on previous weeks’ blogs – particularly my Oscar Pistorius \ crime drama one of three weeks ago – for which, thank you all very much.
This from Helen Bang – ‘Hi Phil, If you want real-life drama you need look no further than the Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce saga which has it all; dubious behaviour by the ‘great and the good’, raw emotions; betrayal, revenge, hubris, two dramatic court cases, and not only a media circus but the direct involvement of the media in the story. And a story which doesn’t involve a murder. Which makes a nice change. And you only need to look in the comments section on the many articles about this to see that people have very strong opinions about it. I wonder how many of them would have taken points if the household income depended on the breadwinner having a licence?‘
I think this is a great point – the Chris Huhne \ Vicky Price story is so recognisably human. Helen’s question is a really interesting one that gets to the heart of engaging fiction – ‘What would I do in the same situation?’
And from Carol Cooper – ‘I agree in the absence of The Killing or Homeland on telly, following the OP case is certainly filling the crime drama gap, though yes, one also feels guilty at approaching this real tragedy as a ‘yarn’.. but hey, history and true tragedies have been processed into ‘entertainment’ since language began, it’s human nature, we can’t help it! It’s frustrating though that we will never be sure that we’re getting the answers to our questions, or to the truth of the matter. Whereas we always get to the ‘truth’ in the denouements of fictional crime dramas. Another good reason for preferring fantasy to reality.
re OP, did you see this fantastic analysis of a photo of the trial in G2 last week?’
And this from Channel 4 screenwriting course 2011 graduate Sophie Woolley who is now living in South Africa – ‘Re the cop being accused of murder himself. It’s common here. The paper headlines for a cape town local paper this week say “Cop accused of rape”. It’s a common one as is cop corruption and murder. The stories are more heightened here.
In order to understand SA I’ve been reading a fair bit about South Africa’s history and then about Zuma corruption. And novels. Every so often I have to take a break from it, it gets heavy. I get to a point in a book about SA and think, well that is just a real life plot point too far, I need a break from the spiralling cycle of national self destruction and national psychosis and trauma.‘
…and on that cheery note,
Have a great weekend!
All the best
March 15th 2013