Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Writer in Modern TV (BFI panel discussion)

The other night we went to a panel discussion at the BFI with the rather portentious title of Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? The Writer in Modern TV (part of the Second Coming: The Rebirth of TV Drama series.)

It was a stellar panel, including Tony Marchant, Jimmy McGovern (left), Nicola Shinder (Red Prod'n Co), Gub Neal (former head of drama at C4 and Granada) and Ben Stephenson (BBC Controller, Drama Commissioning), chaired by Mark Lawson.

However, I felt no firm conclusions were reached and the discussion never really caught fire - at least not until five minutes from the end, when Jimmy McGovern said provocatively that all playwrights carried a card in their pocket saying 'Licence to Bore' and should stay away from TV drama!

Other than that, I thought the conversation kept slipping too easily back to Ben Stephenson having to justify what the BBC is and isn't broadcasting, as well as denying that political pressures make the corporation reluctant to tackle some contentious issues in its drama.

A bit of an atmosphere also developed when Ben got noticeably irked by Mark Lawson's repetitive references to his youthful appearance, while writer Donna Franceschild clearly felt that the authors on the panel were being sidelined, reflecting a negative trend in the industry.

Anyway, I was going to listen to my recording and draw out the key points, but I don't need to: Michelle Lipton off the wireless has heroically transcribed the event from her notes and popped them up as a PDF on her blog.

While the panel was a slight anticlimax, I was very pleased I went to the screening immediately beforehand of episodes of The Street (Trudy's Story, 2000) and Clocking Off (The Promise, 2007) . It was a real wake-up call to be reminded just how much meaning and emotion writers like Paul Abbott and – especially – Jimmy McGovern can cram into an hour's TV.

Here's what Jimmy McGovern had to say about writing The Street from the programme notes:

Every episode is very, very concentrated. I always bang on about the integrity of the narrative. We say to the viewer, 'this is the problem', and then stick with it for an hour. You never go off on a tangent or introduce a sub-plot. You just focus on the protagonist all the time and an hour flies by! The BBC hour is a wonderful length, but it's a challenge to find stories that can sustain over that period. You need economy and simplicity.  

(Here's my review of the first ep of the most recent - and final - series of The Street, with a couple of links to other bits of McGovernalia.)

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