Screenwriter Abbott Again Demands More TV Films
UK TV Drama Under Heavy Attack
Award-winning writer Paul Abbott has continued his pressure on broadcasters, with a demand they commission more single films on television. Ironically, his call comes as both Channel 4 and BBC1 are cutting back on drama.
According to The Stage newspaper, Abbott, the outspoken creator of Channel 4's hit series Shameless, which follows the lives of the dysfunctional Gallagher family on a sink estate in Manchester and has won popular and critical acclaim, said that the reluctance to make screenplays was a problem for the UK.
Abbott warned: "If someone has a brilliant idea for a 90-minute film, they go to the UK Film Council, get funding and release it as a cinema-release film, instead of as TV film. The BBC rarely pays for TV films anymore."
Abbott added that when he was creating Corporation drama Clocking Off, he originally planned to make six single films but ended up setting them all in a factory in the style of a series, in order to ensure the programmes got to screen and a mass audience.
The Corporation's head of fiction, Jane Tranter, dismissed Abbott's concerns, saying that the BBC offered a range of one-off dramas across its four channels and pointed to hits such as Shoot the Messenger, Soundproof, Fantabulosa! and Gideon's Daughter, as well as forthcoming films including Stuart: A Life Backwards, Einstein and Edison, and BBC2's season of 30 films covering the past three decades.
Full story here in The Stage
Lost Setting A Drama Benchmark for Boring Brits
Abbott's attack is a follow up to his criticism of British TV drama which he launched into when delivering the Huw Wheldon memorial lecture last autumn.
The award-winning writer commended the programme for setting a new industry standard. Delivering the annual Huw Wheldon memorial lecture, he said: "Whether the premise grabs you or not, the ambition and diligence of this series sets a new benchmark for all of us. I'm not talking about the money it cost but the sheer commitment of its creators to reinvent the concept of precinct drama."
However, he lambasted much of British television drama as "predictable and needlessly boring" and accused executives of patronising viewers.
The Stage reported Abbott as saying:"The commonest excuse for drama being bland or inoffensive or just crap is that the audience just can't assimilate complex storytelling. That is just patronising. Audiences today can handle as much as you throw at them.
"Audiences deserve, and I believe crave, much more protein in their diet" - Abbott
"Audiences deserve, and I believe crave, much more protein in their diet. Only by giving the viewer a workout, making them join the dots, use their own imagination can we reclaim television drama as the challenging, exciting and life-changing medium that I and many others have known it to be. We need more drama that unpeels society, that roots through the cubbyholes to fetch us nuggets of human behaviour that opens our eyes a bit."
"Footballers' Wives would be funny if it were designed as froth and only cost as much" - Paul Abbott
While he lauded Russell T Davies' drama Second Coming as a "a television masterpiece", Abbott dismissed ITV1's Footballers' Wives. He said: "It would be funny if it were designed as froth and only cost as much... you could write its mission statement on the back of a fag packet with room to spare."
He added that the programme, which is made by independent production house Shed Productions, now costs as much to make as the last series of Cracker.
Abbott's broadside on the genre follows criticism by acclaimed director and writer Stephen Poliakoff over the lack of authored drama on screens and the recent scathing attack by former BBC director-general John Birt, who branded British television drama stereotypical and formulaic.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 Announces Drama Cutback
Abbott's comments come after Channel 4 revealed it would not be making 12 single dramas a year as originally pledged. The figure has been cut down to eight because of a budget reduction.
The Stage newspaper reports that the broadcaster had originally vowed to air one new television play a month and had announced an extra £13.5 million investment as part of a commitment to screen more "event" drama in the vein of hits such as The Deal and Sex Traffic.
Director of television and content Kevin Lygo admitted: "That figure is probably now around eight. When we talked about "one a month," whenever it was, the advertising market was in boom time."
He added that the channel was still spending more money on drama than before but that the figure was less than had been projected.
"Channel 4 is still hugely committed to drama and across our channels we are spending more" - Tessa Ross Ch4
Tessa Ross, head of film and drama, told The Stage: "Channel 4 is still hugely committed to drama and across our channels we are spending more. Shameless is now going to 16 episodes a series and E4 is doing homegrown drama. Skins, which has been a massive success, has been recommissioned and there are plans for another series in the pipeline.
"It is sad that there isn't the budget to stretch to 12 films a year but what we have done is talk to writers and created a variety of productions, so instead of just sticking blindly to the idea of a single play, we might instead have made a four-part mini series. It's better not to be prescriptive about the shape of our drama. Whether it is 90 minutes, a two-parter or a series, we still offer a great mix."
The Stage reports that the news will come as a blow to those who had hoped that the broadcaster would champion the return of television film. Paul Abbott and Stephen Poliakoff are among those who had called for TV companies to invest more in authored pieces.
A spokesperson for Equity commented: "It has long been Equity's wish to see more single TV dramas on screen and we welcomed Channel 4's pledge to increase their output. This is one of the most exciting TV formats with a remarkable history involving some of our most distinguished writers and actors. It is therefore a great disappointment to hear that C4 may cut back its planned output."
Full story here in The Stage
Fewer But More Expensive Dramas, says BBC1 Controller
Peter Fincham, controller of BBC1, has admitted there will be less drama on the channel, following recommendations to create fewer titles with longer runs, as outlined in the Corporation's policy blueprint Creative Future.
He told The Stage newspaper that BBC1 would be the home of fewer but more expensive, quality dramas that make an impact and pointed to the success of the recent television adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, which starred Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance.
Fincham added that the intention was to raise the bar by ploughing cash into fewer titles with longer runs but insisted that BBC1 would still offer "an enormous range" in its drama output.
The Creative Future recommendations in the genre also suggested there should be more investment in big-hitting audience favourites such as EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City. It also claimed that the space needed to be found across the Corporation for outstanding writers and at least four landmark dramas should be commissioned for Radio 4 each year.
Full story here in The Stage
Rivals Agree Drama is Key to TV's Future
Last summer's Edinburgh International Television Festival saw the prominent British channels in unlikely accord as they all pledged greater commitment to dramatic programming in the wake of viewers' declining interest in reality shows, writer Liz Thomas reported in The Stage.
All the main broadcasters promised more investment and commitment to drama signalling a period of renewed growth for the genre, as the reality and lifestyle programming bubble begins to burst and channels look at new ways to win audiences in an increasingly competitive industry.
BBC1 controller Peter Fincham unveiled his vision for the channel for the first time since taking over the post from Lorraine Heggessey. He vowed to be more ambitious and take more risks with the channel's programming. Although BBC1 collected the accolade for festival channel of the year at the event, Fincham admitted there was room for improvement. He said there would be more drama with "scale of ambition" and promised a playhouse season for the genre, featuring a mix of new and established talent. The former chief executive of Talkback Thames added he was keen to boost comedy by introducing a US-style system of piloting multiple sitcom ideas to audiences.
BBC2 aiming to win back viewers with "strongly authored, contemporary dramas" - Keating
Also speaking at the Edinburgh event, BBC2 controller Roly Keating underlined his plans to increase its drama output with big single event productions. The channel, which was criticised by the board of governors' annual report for its low audience figures, is aiming to win back viewers with "strongly authored, contemporary dramas". Keating revealed John Fortune has written a script for one-off production. Entitled Coup!, it charts the efforts of Simon Mann, Mark Thatcher and their co-conspirators attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Even ITV's director of programmes Nigel Pickard, who has come under fire in recent months for the quality of the network's programming with high profile failures such as Celebrity Wrestling, confirmed a greater commitment to drama.
He pointed to the autumn season, which is dominated by genre and big name stars, as something of a change in the network's scheduling. However, reality juggernauts I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and The X Factor are likely to continue to be recommissioned.
Channel 4 announced some months ago that, following the loss of the rights to broadcast cricket test matches, it would be investing much of the savings in drama. From 2006 it said it aims to air an event drama, such as Sex Traffic or Omagh, every month.
At the television festival it launched digital channel More4 with the much publicised drama charting the affair between David Blunkett and Spectator publisher Kimberley Quinn. Entitled A Very Social Secretary and starring Bernard Hill, Victoria Hamilton and Robert Lindsay as Tony Blair, the production has already angered the former Home Secretary, who is now considering legal action. However, the broadcaster is promising contentious feature-length drama every month on its second digital offering. There are already plans for a production tackling animal experimentation and activism.
Following the controversial axeing of its flagship soap Family Affairs, Five is also investing in drama. The channel is best known for its US acquisitions, adult viewing and late-night sport but now director of programmes Dan Chambers has said the UK's youngest terrestrial station will have a slate of its own.
"FIVE: the right time to look to other things such as scripted comedy and big drama series" - Dan Chambers
He said: "Family Affairs had a steady audience but showed no sign of growth at all. We were spending £13.5 million a year on it and we were losing £9 million annually in that slot against Hollyoaks." He added that it was the right time to look to other things such as scripted comedy and big drama series.
In the past it has only broadcast a handful of original drama, such as Murder Investigation Team, but now a number of indies are working on projects. Ecosse Films, the indie that produces Monarch of the Glen for BBC1, is making a two-hour, two-part drama written by EastEnders scriptwriter Simon Ashdown. Entitled Kitchen, it is based on the rise to fame of a celebrity chef. World Productions, run by This Life creator Tony Garnett, is working on a comedy drama based around a wedding called Perfect Day, while Carnival Films, which makes ITV crime series Rosemary and Thyme, is developing a drama about a recently departed soul not ready to move on.
Chambers revealed there are more productions in the pipeline. He said: "If you look at our US acquisitions - CSI, House - they are all about solving mysteries. I want to do that with our homegrown drama but in a different way to those shows that we already have [from America]."
Again highlighting what many are arguing is the start of a new cycle in the broadcasting industry, even Sky One has said it intends to invest more in distinctive UK programming. The channel is currently populated with lifestyle shows and drama imported from America but its controller James Baker said that bidding wars were pricing acquisitions up to as much as £500,000 an episode. He added: "It is getting close to the point where you can invest in UK drama for that kind of money and have more control and not be so much under the cosh of US studios."
Full story here in The Stage