With long term careers spanning decades in the industry, producing heavyweights, Ruth Caleb, John Lloyd and Tony Garnett joined TV legend Barbara Machin at this year’s London Screenwriters Festival to discuss how prolific producers select their ongoing work. These producer’s ‘Big Vision’ has broken the mould of established drama time and again, moving drama evolution forward through the decades. How we might attract such heavyweights to our own work often begins with understanding mindset of people who produce outstanding content and what they look for as they add to their body of work.
Few Productions Stand Out
Tony Garnett who’s been producing since 1968 and worked in the industry as an actor for a decade before that, quite rightly points out that there was never really this ‘Golden Age’ of production that people always reminisce about. Then as now, only a few shows stand out as being truly great. Work that resonates has always been rare compared to the bulk of production.
Producers Follow Their Vision
Tony wanted to use the screen for a socialist revolution, ploughing his furrow with work that reflects his ideals and making stories that are important to tell. Doing this he’s built a lengthy career that spans almost half a century. For Ruth, after rising to being the BBC’s first female Head of Drama at BBC Wales returned to producing still felt she had more of her own furrow to plough and wanted the freedom to invest more heavily in the work she wanted to see created, she stepped down from Head of Drama to create her own work again.
Producers Hone Work Through Development
Ruth chose to undertake a unique style of project with a documentary director who wanted to create a drama around relationships using real people as actors. The BBC, horrified that they were planning to improvise wanted a writer on standby in case it all went wrong. The team Ruth brought together found real people with a great story but ultimately filmed it with professional actors who could serve the story best. The resulting, redemptive docudrama ‘Nice Girl’, crafted by Ruth and director Dominic Savage from the story discovered through their atypical development was nominated for several awards and won Dominic the BAFTA TV Award for Best New Director.
Work Evolves Over Time
When approached to do ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ John Lloyd thought the setting unfunny for this comical franchise that had broken the sitcom mould. The idea though had just two sets which meant it was cheap to produce so he rolled with the idea gaining himself the moniker ‘Mad Jack’ from his team as his notes exceeded the length of the scripts! His diligence and that of the other creators won out though and the comedy reached new levels of relevance. Ben Elton receives many letters from old ladies who lost husbands and sons in the war thanking him for understanding and the series is still shown in schools as a talking point around study of the war. Good producers, John tells us, make ideas work the best way they can and hopefully make shows that have depth and longevity. The momentous ending of that drama came from a disaster on set that was solved in the edit room and became something greater than intended. Sometimes, John says, you get lucky so you never give up. ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ won BAFTA awards for Best Comedy Series and Best Light Entertainment Performance and the RTS Television Award for Best Situation Comedy.
Great Work Is Only Great if it’s Made
When Tony got bored of producing TV’s cult hit ‘This Life’ he declined the BBC’s offer to renew and surprised, but respectful of his experience they asked him what did he want to do if not that? He told them he wanted to show a run down council estate as a social commentary. In an ideal world, a set of social workers would have been the perfect story device to take characters into those settings but Tony knew that social workers would be viewed as dull and be a tough sell to get commissioned so he did social worker stories but with cops instead of social workers. TV loves cop shows. He perpetuated what he calls ‘Trojan Horse Drama’, the show you want to make in the clothing of a show commissioners want to do. ‘The Cops’ was commissioned and won the BAFTA Best Drama Series award three years running.
Craft is Key
The producers final words of advice to us are about investing in what you create. To achieve one of the shows that really does stand out, Tony is a great believer of research, knowing about what you are writing so you don’t write rubbish. Films are about people living in circumstances and audiences should be engaged with the people. How you open a show is very important, if you don’t get them by the balls, then, he says, then you don’t get them. Technology makes shows look better these days but the quality of writing and quality of what you’re writing about doesn’t change. It’s harder now because TV is so commodified you have to find your audience, even with a Trojan Horse Drama if you need to. John believes in being current, people don’t think long term anymore, for projects like ‘Spitting Image’ it was too hard to get ‘Spitting Image’ done and has proved too costly to get it back despite the fact that people miss it. Ruth knows that if creatively you want to do something you may have to knock on a lot of doors but it’s worth exploring. Find innovative ways to tell the story you want to tell and push forward with your vision.
It’s clear from this talk session that prolific producers bring their own vision and talent into being through projects every bit as much as writers and directors do. Their careers are long and they look always to find the work that is resonant and viable to produce for the current times, rather than merely perpetuating work they’ve produced before. These extraordinary contributors to the industry have a lot to show us about enabling work that matters, for it is perhaps drama that resonates most loudly for the current time that alsoresonates forward into the future making those shows and films that become the ones that we laud and remember.