Monday, July 13, 2009

Tony Garnett on the state of BBC Drama

In a major article on the Writers' Guild website, Tony Garnett gives his assessment of the state of BBC Drama.
Working in art film or commercial cinema is like dancing through a minefield, and every broadcaster is now racing down-market in a desperate attempt to survive. But what is happening at the BBC is the real scandal: it is bigger than all the rest combined, it is free from direct commercial pressure and its public service obligations carry cultural responsibilities. There are no excuses...

The trajectory of energy is in the wrong direction. Instead of erupting upwards in ways which surprise, delight and occasionally shock, it travels censoriously and prescriptively down the pyramid. The writer is left to second guess what might please the power at the top in a grotesque game of pass-the-parcel of notes as they travel from hand to hand, changing their meaning on the way....

So the next time you watch a fine piece of TV drama, grateful for the brilliance of the writer, the director, the actors and the crew, remember the aggravation they had to endure and the guile they had to deploy and the energy they had to waste. You will no longer be puzzled at how rare this experience is or be surprised at the formulaic, repetitive, machine made, emotionally dishonest junk food you now get for your licence fee. The people making most of this predictable junk called drama would love to be creating something better and more nourishing. But they are not allowed to.
(Tony Garnett's credits on IMDB)


  1. Anonymous1:31 am

    yes the beeb are entrenched in pleasing the wrong masters. but so is everywhere else; making money versus making people aware/think.while they decide right/wrong everyone seems a prostitute. answer; make co-op films yourselves.??

  2. My hubby worked with Tony Garnett back in the 1990's.
    Those were the days- he won a Writers Guild award working with this brilliant man.
    How things have changed, and Tony has hit the nail on the head.
    There must be a bit of an outpouring on this front at the moment, as there is a fab piece along similar lines on this blog;

    Shakespeare's Housekeeper.

  3. Anonymous12:57 pm

    Agree with everything. One of the laughable things is they are always saying they are looking for ideas that reflect modern society that are relevant. Of course by the time they get made, if at all, time has marched on and what was relevant then is no longer.
    Too many chiefs and far to few indians

  4. Anonymous10:55 pm

    After reading the whole article I want to tell you that you've inspired me after yet more rejection. Understanding the process and the sort of writer the BBC are after, me being one of the 680 writers who didn't make it through to the CBBC scheme with Writersroom, seems like a blessing. But a thanks but no thanks email wouldn't have hurt. Another scheme is the Casualty.. Holby.. Eastenders.. Academy ...fortunately not having a professional credit means I can't apply to this one. So it seems the BBC are after writing machines they can workshop and assimilate. I figure that any writer and this would now include myself with a clear desire to communicate would turn away from regimes and go for dreams not schemes. Or jack it all in and write poetry..

  5. Anonymous9:30 am

    So easy to use an article like this as an excuse for failure isn't it? I'm just to good for the "system" - is that really a helpful attitude?

  6. Yes, using 'the system' as an excuse for failure is always tempting.

    But I don't think you could accuse Tony Garnett of that. Or Guy Hibbert, who made similar criticisms about the BBC executive-led culture in this interview:

  7. Anonymous11:16 am

    The only failure is the 'system' and the writers it attracts.

  8. Lucy Gannon2:56 pm

    No one understands the problems of the BBC's commissioning process better than the writers who have stumbled through it, ricocheting off its absurdities and staggering under the weight of its loops and turns. If any criticism of the BBC is greeted by sour anonymous voices as 'an excuse for failure' then who will ever be allowed to give an honest and thoughtful - and fair- account of the process we all finance? Would that 'anonymous' had the insight and experience of Tony Garnett, who is, as always, spot on.

  9. Anonymous7:02 pm

    well said

  10. Ann Mann4:29 pm

    Having worked with Tony Garnett on The Wednesday Plays in the sixties and again in the nineties with World Productions, I can fully understand and empathise with his frustrations on behalf of writers struggling to create original drama in these dismally uncreative times. Locked in development hell and having to bow to the vagaries of a painfully slow commissioning system peopled by those who seem desperate to make their own mark to justify their salaries, is certainly a numbing experience. One tries not to openly make comparisons between "then and now" for fear of seeming rooted in the past, and I can fully understand the young writers who profess to be fulfilled while writing'"continuing drama' regarding us as dinosaurs who should move on. However, the unique dramas which do occasionally grace our screens, such as the recent wonderful award winning "Freefall" are all too few and far between, the process too tortuous and one thanks heavens for producers like Tony Garnett who continue to speak up for television writers, past, present and future.

  11. Well done Tony Garnett, I completely agree with you. The BBC is now just a faceless corporate mess who are no longer capable of allowing individual writers with a voice to be themselves and express what they think. People like anonymous(should stay that way!)are just a waste of space with their myopic comments. The whole process of development is a farce, long winded and only succeeds in diminishing any work with potential. Some of the dim-witted comments I've received from so- called commissioners are parochial and just plain stupid. Tony Garnett knows what he's talking about and those people should pay attention - and resign!

  12. Anonymous9:28 am

    It used be the case that writers with a strong CV and proven track record or, if they were new writers, some outstanding scripts and an excess of singleminded determination, could hope to find work on one of the BBC's long-running series. While committing themselves to the series it meant they could also buy a little time for their own creative projects. Now the series are saturated with graduates from the Writers' Academy who are guaranteed slots. While it may have seemed an admirable inititiative to someone in the BBC, surely training writers as if they are machines has something Orwellian about it. Certainly, it has encouraged a system of patronage which has squeezed out the rest and ensured an atmosphere where those who act as 'patrons' must rarely hear an honest comment. It was brilliant therefore to read Tony Garnett's entirely candid account.


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