08 November, 2010

"Why write drama that doesn't matter?"

Jimmy McGovern gave an interview for the Observer on Sunday which includes this section:

"Why write drama that doesn't matter?" he asked this weekend. Commenting on the high viewing figures for costume dramas such as ITV's Downton Abbey and the popularity of arch adventure shows such as Dr Who, McGovern said he believed the best writing took itself seriously, as well as taking its audience seriously.

"The only way to tell stories on TV is to convince people that what they are seeing is actually happening now and is real. I just can't handle the tongue-in-cheek approach, the kind of thing you see on Dr Who. Though there are millions who can, I know."

The writer said that while he had enjoyed the original series of Upstairs Downstairs that ran in the early 1970s, he felt the BBC's decision to bring it back this year could only be justified if the story is played straight, avoiding the clichés of costume sagas. "I am not watching Downton Abbey, but it is true you can tell any story and make it relevant. You just have to avoid pastiche. If I were in charge of Upstairs Downstairs I would do it for real," he said."

Matthew Graham, via his prodco's twitter account , responded:

"Jimmy McGovern in The Observer. Says there is no point writing drama that isn't deadly serious, contemporary and relevant.

He goes on to attack Dr Who and Downton Abbey - it would seem on the basis that neither show reflects real life in any actual sense.

Once again a grumpy writer uses a publicity platform for his own show to piss on his brothers and sisters in the business.

Jimmy accusing Dr Who of irrelevance. Perhaps the Doctor should rape all his companions and turn the TARDIS into a crack den.

Jimmy - some dramas are about northern people raping their sisters because of the legacy of Thatcher's government.

Some dramas are about eccentric time travellers whisking their accomplices off on magical adventures.

Some dramas gently and delightfully explore the social morés of the classes in early 20th century England.

Some dramas brilliantly and compellingly examine the inter-connecting lives of residents in a single street.

Jimmy - you are a compelling, humane, acerbic and brilliantly relevant writer. One of our very very best.

But when you grumble about good shows that entertain millions and appear to ask for the spectrum to be reduced you sound like the enemy of creativity. Worry about your own work and keep your nose out of other people's.

Escapism sits beside social commentary on my bookshelf. George Orwell happily rests next to Stephen King.

Jimmy is a genius but that article was like George Orwell telling Roald Dahl to grow up and write something meaningful.

I just keep wondering why Jimmy always needs to manufacture a crusade when his work speaks so well for him?

I have met him several times - he's a sweet, funny, quite humble chap. But he can't promote his work it seems without getting angry."


Dan said...

I totally agree. Very disappointing to hear him deride decent shows like that, simply because he doesn't perceive them as being meaningful or worthwhile.

I'd hate to have a TV landscape with nothing but hard-hitting drama. You need light and shade.

However, I do think that UK drama feels less interested in finding a British answer to The Sopranos and Mad Men than it is trying to replicate Doctor Who's success.

Lucy V said...

Agreed, Dan. I would love to see some BRAVE commissioning that shakes things up a bit or redefines a genre, esp in crime. I'd love to feel the exhuberance of something *like* another CSI and its "versions" again, only *different* and over here - and NOT supernatural in any way. What a shame Ashes to Ashes ended like it did; I felt cheated in the extreme. Alex's story, snatched away and replaced with Hunt's - a real crowd pleaser I'm sure, but was it *really* best for the actual story? She spent so long trying to get back to her daughter, only to be told by Hunt, "It happens, you have to go now, Molly will be alright." Oh that's OK then! Grrrrr.

But anyway my AtA RAGE is taking me off the point I wanted to make: the big McG is a clever businessman. He does the "angry writer" thing cos no one else does atm and he knows he will get a reaction - how many column inches, not to mention blog spaces and FB statuses and twitter streams have been dedicated to this already? Writers who disagree would stump him however if they DIDN'T comment, seems to me. McG must be well pleased.

Robin Kelly said...

Dan, yes the genre snobbery was disappointing. Difficult to pin down exactly why there is no UK answer to those US shows. Less money and less writers are a factor. But US and UK industries are different in other ways too.

Lucy, Yes, more bravery is needed but I understand the risk averse nature of commissioning. Or is it the risk averse nature of writers second-guessing commissioners?

McG has sparked an interesting debate although I suspect (or hope?) if he had written that interview, instead of spoken it, he would have given it a rewrite as there is a good point in there somewhere. Drama should matter but the best writers can make genre shows matter.

Lucy V said...

You know what Robster, I think you might have something there... I think writers can be as risk averse as the commissioners that are so often slammed, for sure. I often hear from my Bang2writers that they want to write "the next Misfits" or "the next Dr Who" - but when was the last time I heard someone say, "I want to write the next CSI/Mad Men/The Wire/Lost/whatever"... Those are all GIGANTIC shows with so much going on, why doesn't anyone (seem) to want to think as "big" as our American counterparts? I'm not talking 22 episodes because that would be unrealistic probably, but concept-wise. Consistently I hear writers saying they want to *think small* because (apparently) that means a better chance of being commissioned. Yet the irony is when Dr Who was commissioned back in the day, that must have been HUGE risk - they had Z Cars and Corrie and whatnot and then someone comes along and says "Hey! What about an alien timelord in a police phonebox??"

So anyway, I'm just thinking aloud here. But yeah. More creativity needed in the spec pile, for sure. I'm bored of vampires and Dr. Who-style shows. Let's think outside the box, do some blue sky thinking, reinvent the wheel, whatever. JUST DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Anything! The bigger the better!!!

Ashley said...

Lucy said..."I often hear from my Bang2writers that they want to write "the next Misfits" or "the next Dr Who" - but when was the last time I heard someone say, "I want to write the next CSI/Mad Men/The Wire/Lost/whatever"..."

Lucy, I must then be the only Bang2Writer whose ever said that they aspire to write something on par conceptually with Mad Men/The Wire?

I'm on board with Dan. McG is a clever guy rousing publicity but yeah, variety is the spice of life!

Anonymous said...

McGovern isn't attacking genre. This is the man who wrote Cracker, one of the finest genre pieces ever. What he's attacking is tongue-in-cheek writing, which is a totally different point altogether. And I agree with him.
You could count the episodes of Dr.Who where they make any real attempt at dramatic storytelling on the fingers of K9. There's nothing wrong with sci-fi or period drama. But if you're more concerned with trailer moments and stunt casting (Russell T. Davies I'm looking at you) than telling a decent story, then it's not drama, it's Strictly Come Daleks and I'll get my genre fix somewhere else thanks.

And Lucy V, really? You've never met a UK writer who wants to write the next Mad Men or The Sopranos? Good grief.

Jared said...

Dramatists exist to feed our need for drama in ALL forms, and not the other way round, and McG knows that more than most, hence he’s surely just on the plug. It’s just a shame he feels he has to do it by insulting other writers rather than being more creative with his argument.

I’m not a fan of a lot of TV - Doctor Who and soaps pass me by very easily, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t got a huge amount of respect for those that write those formats. A huge amount of respect.

But getting away from McG’s obvious self promo agenda, I honestly believe we’re all being lazy in our thinking and complaining when we constantly bemoan and despair at the lack of home-grown US-quality TV drama on our screens.

If UK writers want to replicate Mad Men et al, then what's stopping them from giving it a go if they feel they can produce work of similar quality? It's unlikely UK commissioners would turn down a script of such brilliance, so why not just write one and help change the direction of UK TV?

Or is it that the odds of us being able to produce drama anywhere near that level is extremely slim on account of any number of factors, mainly the huge amounts of money and resources pumped into US drama that simply ain’t available in the UK.

The BBC would rapidly sink under the financial weight of trying to replicate the investment that goes into script development at HBO, where they fund teams of brilliant well-paid writers, script editors, script doctors, joke writers, action experts, dialogue wizards, gay specialists, women writers, relationship writers, specialists in you-name-it-they-do-it, because that’s exactly what goes on.

A really important point worth highlighting, and one that very few seem to mention over here, is that along with the phenomenal amounts of investment in development that produces such stunning results over there, US TV also suffers jaw-dropping, staggering losses in its quest to achieve those results.

1/2 to be continued...

Jared said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jared said...


I worked for years at Channel 4 TV, a broadcaster with a reputation for being a leader in a field of identifying quality US imports (and didn't they do well) and I heard horror story after horror story about the shocking cost of US TV and the appalling waste of money that is an ongoing and accepted part of their industry.

Yes, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, etc, are all brilliant shows, but we are seeing them over here because they are the crème de la crème of what the US has to offer, and those few successes do not take into account the mass casualties of all the other failures. Hundreds and hundreds of commissions per year, filtered down to those that get development, (with all that development investment) then those that filter down to getting pilots made (at staggering cost in most cases) and then finally the fraction of all those pilots that eventually succeed in getting a series commissioned.

When a UK broadcaster televises a US winner, it’s either because they’ve paid through the nose to reflect the show’s US market success, or, as was often the case with C4, taken a brilliant gamble on bidding relatively cheaply for a pilot that hasn’t yet run. When the gamble works and the newly acquired show takes off in the US, the UK broadcaster has secured a bargain and reaps the associated rewards, but when it doesn’t work they’re left with egg on their face.

And who out there really knows what will of won’t work? The perfect example being C4 paying a hefty whack to secure UK broadcast rights for Studio 60 before the pilot had even aired. When you look at the talent involved in that show, who wouldn’t have thought it was a no-brainer for success? The show tanked in the US, got terrible press before it even aired over here and was subsequently cancelled after the first series. That cost NBC a bomb.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for every Mad Men or Sopranos that grace our screens, their success has been filtered through an unforgiving net costing the US TV industry **hundreds of millions**. Those figures are inconceivable to us over here. It’s not that we don’t try and do a Sopranos-style drama because it would be too expensive to make, it’s actually because the accompanying failures would be prohibitive to the point of bankrupting all concerned, possibly before a success was even produced or discovered.

Lucy V said...

Anon - it's not that I've NEVER met one, as Ashley reminds me, he wants to apparently - but it happens very very infrequently (so infrequently I don't even rmbr, soz Ash). Dr Who-style, supernatural shows are ten a penny in my pile now in a way bleak Ken Loach style dramas were ten years ago. Writing follows fashion like anything, it seems.

Jared - agreed, there must be acres of BS on American TV we never have to sit through. In the same way, American audiences see only the best BBC shows, they probably never had to sit through pants like Bonekickers, haha. Always thought it was a "grass is greener" style argument, myself.

Robin Kelly said...

Ano, good point, RTD and Moffatt do have different visions and differ on what is acceptable. No-one can really generalise by genre or programme - in the UK - only by writer.

Jared, yes to the extent that US studios have been trying to wean themselves off that expensive way of doing things and talked about being more like the British. I think one network commissioned off script all its new shows this season.

But I think the investment in the UK doesn't have to be writers rooms or pilots but in development. That's considerably cheaper than filmed pilots or even completed series that flop for reasons that could have easily been fixed early on the process.

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