Friday, 10 October 2008


For more than a decade, the BBC's drama output has been increasingly under the control of one person.

Beginning her career as a secretary working in radio drama, Jane Tranter switched from the BBC to Carlton, where she worked as a script editor, in 1992. In 1998, the BBC's highly respected Head of Drama Serials, Michael Wearing, was obliged to walk the plank. He was replaced by Jane Tranter, who became Controller of Drama in 2000 and, in 2006, achieved a whole new post - that of Head of Fiction. In this capacity, she oversaw an annual budget in the regions of £440 million.

In September it was announced that Jane Tranter will be stepping down from these lofty heights. As of the beginning of 2009 she will be heading up BBC Worldwide's American arm.

The end of 2008 will therefore witness the end of an era in BBC Drama. It has not been a good one.

Tranter had not long been back at the BBC, in a position of immense commissioning power, when the corporation announced the first of its new schemes to attract writers in off the street. Screenwriting students of mine were very excited at the time. The BBC was at last opening its doors to fresh talent.

I had to point out that it was not necessarily so. In a short space of time the BBC had succeeded in alienating much of its creative talent. The call-out for beginners, enthusiastic amateurs, to fill the breach could barely hide the fact that trust has completely broken down between the already existing talent pool and the TV executives.

The BBC needed new writers, not because we had suddenly discovered that there was a shortage of good drama writers but because a shortage had been created. Experienced scriptwriters knew a thing or two - which made them 'awkward', or 'precious', in the eyes of the new regime. The BBC's Drama Department therefore had to recruit and train up a new bunch. One which didn't know the score. Which didn't baulk at doing yet another rewrite on a producer's whim.

In April of this year, Guardian journalist Gareth McLean wrote an article which asked, 'Is Drama Safe at the BBC?' His investigations had revealed 'a regime in which only one person's opinion matters, a system in which the micro-management of projects by inexperienced executives and producers is ... leading to "an anti-creative, stifling atmosphere that's killing new ideas".'

McLean's article prompted an astonishing response from people in the TV industry. With all the flair of a New Labour government the BBC had proudly trumpeted its achievements, but McLean had exposed something rotten in the state of Denmark. "Such is the lack of courage of commissioners and the climate of fear in which they operate," one BAFTA-winning writer had said, "the commissioning process is ossifying."

Gareth McLean did not get to speak to Ms Tranter about the fear and loathing he had detected amongst her underlings. Jane Tranter has a minion whose task is to keep intruders at bay. He is Ben Stephenson, Head of Drama Commissioning, a young man who came more or less from nowhere, with a marked paucity of experience, to become Tranter's loyal Number 2.

Stephenson was happy to announce that, "At the end of the day, we're all working with the same quite small pool of talent". Why that talent pool should be so small was not explained - or, at least, not by Ms Tranter's lieutenant.

McLean, perhaps, went some way towards explaining the dearth of talent when he dropped his bombshell. 'So there's no truth in the rumour that there's a list of talent banned from working on BBC dramas?'

It would be interesting to know where the Guardian journalist picked up that rumour. The sentence certainly struck this reader with some force because, dear friend, your humble Script Doc might well have been the first name to have made it onto that blacklist.

So - the BBC dips into a small pool of talent, there are dark rumours of an official or unofficial blacklist and new writers have been brought into the BBC and trained in the arts of writing soap-based drama. And doing what they're told.

Tranter's departure from White City will present the BBC with an opportunity. The most foolish move of all would be to appoint young Stephenson as her successor. This would simply mean that Tranter continues to control BBC Drama from her new post in the States. The real question is: do the higher echelons of BBC management have the nerve to appoint a real Head of Drama, possibly breaking up the colossal empire Jane Tranter consolidated for herself in order to free up the system a little?

Ten years is a long time in TV. The processes by which the BBC commissioned and produced drama have been wrenched into new, Byzantine shapes under the Tranter regime. Where writers are concerned, all but a privileged few have suffered considerably. The anger extends far beyond the world of the scriptwriter. Imperious and at times, apparently, paranoid, the supreme leader has swatted and quashed any creative who dared to question her decisions. The industry has been divided into two camps: those trusties who would never contradict La Tranter and the remainder, who have been sent out into the cold.

The tragedy is that drama has been eviscerated at the BBC, and this at a time when ITV was abandoning its regional remit to please City shareholders and high-salaried executives. The past decade could have been a Golden Age for BBC Drama. Instead, it has seen the creative element emasculated and, in many instances, cast into outer darkness. We are all the poorer as a result.

So where next for the corporation? It's unlikely that matters could get much worse. But could the new 'Head of Fiction' repair ten years of damage and return BBC Drama to its former glory?

Would whoever gets the job be prepared to relinquish some of the power that Ms Tranter amassed?

We can only wait and see.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

that's kind of tragic, but I still hold a torch high for BBC Drama and BBC Writersroom. They give so much opportunities to young aspiring screenwriters (cough ME cough) unlike many other production companies here in the United States.

we'll see what the future brings.

script doc said...

It's the BBC's job to be a centre of excellence and a doorway into the industry for talent. It could be argued that the BBC has done pretty well at the latter. Schemes do exist aimed at writers eager to break into the industry. My fear is that the authentic voice of the writer is something that the BBC has studiously avoided of late. Those who felt that the writer might have something to say have been kind of penalised. Which means that, yes, the opportunities for new writers exist - but to do what, exactly?